Switzerland & Midwest Connections: A New Beginning -A Look at the NEW Consulate General in Chicago
Welcome to the History Blog featuring the connections between Switzerland and the Midwest. I am Joerg Oberschmied, Deputy Consul General in Chicago. My interest in history started at an early age and continues to this day. The views expressed are solely mine and I hope you enjoy these journeys through time.
Serving as Honorary Consul of Switzerland in Chicago from 2014 until 2019, I followed in the footsteps of a long line of Honorary Consuls that began with Heinrich Engiser 150 years earlier. Switzerland opened a Consulate in Chicago in 1864, becoming the first country to have an official diplomatic presence in the windy city. At a time when Abraham Lincoln resided in the White House, Chicago was called the “Empire City of the West”. The devastating Fire was still several years away and the city attracted many Swiss immigrants, including William Haas and Andrew Sulzer who established the first Chicago brewery in 1833. A Grütli Verein (predecessor of the Swiss Club) was founded in 1856 and the city grew to a global destination in the subsequent years. Its relationship with Switzerland culminated in a sister city partnership with Lucerne in 1998, which I co-chaired for 13 years. Switzerland had temporary trade representatives in the Midwest between 1842 and 1863, including Detroit, St. Louis, Highland, Missouri as well as Madison, Wisconsin. And trade remained an important element of Swiss interests in the Midwest following the closure of the Consulate General in 2014. It was the guiding light during my tenure as Switzerland’s representative in Chicago, which eventually led to the reopening of a Consulate General in 2019, when Federal Councilor Ignazio Cassis, Switzerland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs personally led the official opening ceremonies to underscore Chicago’s importance.
With the reopening of the new Consulate General in Chicago, connections are now also being expanded on a regional level covering 11 states. In addition to Illinois, these include Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin. This region is home to several hundred Swiss companies supporting tens of thousands of jobs. Demand for services in the Midwest provided by the Swiss Business Hub has risen sharply, particularly among Swiss SMEs. The opening of the Consulate General thus closes an important gap between the East and West Coast. Cooperation is also intensifying in the areas of education, research and innovation.
The new Consulate is located at 875 North Michigan Avenue, in what used to be known as the John Hancock Center. The office is designed as one fluid space and takes its inspiration from Otto Kolb’s Swiss Villa in Wermatswil, near Zurich. Kolb began his career in typical Swiss fashion with an apprenticeship, learning the masonry trade before studying architecture. From 1948 until 1960, Kolb lived and taught in Chicago. During that time he also designed furniture and his love chair caught the attention of Playboy Magazine. The images on the walls are from photographer Marianne Müller and transport the viewer to the villa. The tables, chairs and light fixtures are designed by Otto Kolb’s granddaughter, Ginger Zalaba. The open space and glass walls profit from a maximum of natural light entering the workspace.
The new team with Consul General Bruno Ryff, who assumed his second posting to the Windy City (he previously served from 1998–92), Roberta Neuhäusler, whom most of our readers know through our social media presence, and myself is small, but highly motivated. Together we aim to strengthen our economic, science and cultural ties in the Midwest and establish new relationships for Switzerland.
If you liked this post, be sure to check out some of the other history blog posts by the Consulate General in Chicago.