By 8:50 a.m., they temporarily had to close the women's restroom at the Chicago ArchiCenter.
"There were so many people here already, they had to restock all the toilet paper," said Elaine Rosen, a retired biology teacher from the Streeterville area of the city. Rosen, who said she's "60-plus," was one of the 1,800 people who came to the ArchiCenter on a rainy Saturday morning in late spring to take advantage of free tours. Once a year, the Chicago Architecture Foundation gives away tickets for all its walking tours on a first-come, first-served basis.
That means you have to get there early. By 5:45 a.m., more than a dozen people were already queued up in the unseasonably cold, clammy weather, waiting for the doors to open. "Architecture has become everybody's hobby," Rosen said. Chicago is the Katharine Hepburn of cities: It has beautiful bones. Nearly everywhere you turn, there's a gorgeous building. People at the foundation call it "the first city of American architecture," and it's easy to see why. Chicago is practically a museum of modern architecture. It was home to the first steel-framed skyscraper (the 10-story Home Insurance Building built in 1884 and demolished in the 1920s) and claims the country's tallest building (the 110-story Sears Tower). It has the skyscraper-studded Magnificent Mile and Lake Shore Drive, perhaps the most sweeping entryway for any American city.
One reason for this beauty is the Great Fire of 1871. While the culprit might be debatable — "the cow has been exonerated," said foundation docent Dennis Costello, who said a drunk may have tipped over Mrs. O'Leary's lantern — its effect is not. It allowed city planners to start with a blank slate. Out of the rubble, the Chicago School of Architecture developed, emphasizing verticality, large windows and the steel framing that gave designers new freedom. Other architectural styles evolved: Art Deco, Art Deco Streamlined, International, Minimalist, Postmodern.
And when all the fire debris was pushed out into Lake Michigan, it helped expand the shoreline. Built on the infill are much of Lake Shore Drive and Grant Park, an enormous strip of public green between the lake and the wall of city high-rises along Michigan Avenue.
To visit Chicago without taking at least one architectural tour would be like visiting Los Angeles and missing Grauman's Chinese Theatre or the Hollywood sign. Besides, the Chicago Architecture Foundation makes it easy. It has lunchtime tours, happy-hour tours, bus tours, tours to see churches, neighborhoods, cemeteries and centers of finance. "The city is our museum," is the foundation's motto.
The tours go on all year, with 106 departures a week in the June-to-September high season. Neither my wife, Jody Jaffe, nor I was especially familiar with the city, so we decided to let architecture be our guide and signed up for three tours.
Seems like Cirque du Soleil Our first tour took us to Millennium Park, a newly refurbished area on the northwest corner of Grant Park. A storm was threatening when we showed up at the ArchiCenter downtown that morning. But we were told tours went on in any weather. "We're like the post office," said foundation marketing chief Bastiaan Bouma.
With rain dancing off the sidewalks, our docent, Priscilla Mims, ducked into the nearby Chicago Cultural Center and gave us our first look at the park through the center's second-story windows.
If Cirque du Soleil made parks, this is what it would build. Millennium Park is a blend of architectural splendor and whimsy, including a huge video installation and a bandstand that looks like giant ribbons of stainless steel taffy. Making it even more amazing is its foundation — steel, plastic foam and 4 feet of dirt. Millennium Park, basically a giant roof garden, was built over a cavern of train and bus lines.
The park's centerpiece is Frank Gehry's fantastical band shell and its metal walkways. Nearby are a 110-ton, 66-foot stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa's work, the Crown Fountain, which combines video technology and glass to create a Jumbotron effect like that in a football stadium. Hundreds of faces of Chicagoans are displayed on 50-foot towers as water splashes down, occasionally spurting from the mouths of those depicted on the screen.
Our second tour began at 3 that afternoon aboard the boat Chicago's Little Lady. Boat tours on the Chicago River are the architecture foundation's most popular. For the entire 90-minute ride, docent Joy Hebert kept a steady stream of information flowing, pointing out dozens of skyscrapers and important historic buildings.
From Hebert, we learned that the Wrigley Building was the city's tallest in 1924 and that the monstrous Merchandise Mart, built in 1931, has seven miles of hallways and 5,000 windows. We also learned that developers began to embrace the river after its 1980s cleanup and now have lined it with $1-million townhouses.
But the best part of the boat trip was the views. The river is Y shaped, and the Little Lady took us briefly up both arms and back. From the boat's top deck, the panorama of the City of the Big Shoulders is unimpeded and needs no commentary to inspire awe.
Boat passenger Roger DuToit was clearly inspired. "Chicago is a city that's proud of its architecture," he said. DuToit is a South African architect living in Toronto. He said his favorite Chicago building is the soaring Sears Tower. "It's very graceful, very elegant."
Our final tour was a 3½-hour bus trip that began the next morning at the ArchiCenter and took us to the southern neighborhood of Hyde Park and back. Once again, the sky was gray and full of threat.
Our first stop was downtown at the 1888 Rookery Building, built on the onetime site of Chicago's City Hall. Docent Costello had a theory about the building's name: "Everybody who went there said, 'Surely, I'm going to get rooked.' "
The Rookery, a transitional structure in the history of modern tall buildings, has both a masonry and an iron skeletal frame. Its beautiful sky-lighted lobby was redesigned in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright to dubious effect. He had its beautifully decorated iron pillars gilded and slabbed over with white marble.
Costello, 62, a retired high school drafting and architecture teacher, has lived in the city since 1964 and has led tours since 1990. "I call Chicago the architecture capital of the world because of the variety here," he said. "There's every style from Roman to Greek to Egyptian to Modern."
He's passionate about buildings. When you ask him if he's a Cubs fan, he says, "No, I'm a Wrigley Field fan."
Wright's Robie House Architects and architecture firms are about as well known here as Confederate generals in Richmond, Va. By the time we headed to Hyde Park, we had already become familiar with the names that Costello tossed around during his tour: Daniel Burnham (his motto was "Make no little plans"), most famous for his monumental 1909 "Plan for Chicago"; Ludwig Mies van der Rohe ("Less is more"), one of the fathers of the modern "glass box" skyscraper; Louis Sullivan ("Form ever follows function"), whose design firm helped rebuild the city after the Great Fire; and of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, the nation's architecture icon, who created the uniquely American "Prairie" style, with its distinctive low profile and horizontal lines.
Hyde Park was the site for Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, famous for the first carnival midway and the first Ferris wheel. Today it's known as the home of the medieval-looking University of Chicago, one of America's most beautiful college campuses. Our main objective, however, was the Robie House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1910.
Before we arrived, Judith Kambstad, who sat in the row across from us on the bus, had already given me a Robie House pep talk. Kambstad, who's retired and lives in Tustin, loves Frank Lloyd Wright. "When I saw that the Robie House was on the tour, I had to come," she said.
With little prompting she could reel off plenty of Wright facts. For example, he worked as a draftsman in Sullivan's firm, was never formally trained, and "he called himself the world's greatest architect."
The Robie House, with its tunnel entrance, hidden front door and low-ceilinged foyer, seemed claustrophobic and uninspiring. But as we walked to the second floor, it opened up. The dining room was airy and light, its details, such as the light fixtures and windows, filigreed with wood detailing. "I could take this whole floor home with me," Kambstad said. Judging by the oohs and aahs, most of the tour-goers agreed. Wright's questionable marble conversion of the Rookery Building was forgiven.
On our way back to the city, we wound through the neighborhoods of Kenwood and Bronzeville, passing the former home of Muhammad Ali and the current compound of Louis Farrakhan as well as a synagogue-turned-church where gospel great Mahalia Jackson used to sing.
Then we passed through the college campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. The IIT, designed by Mies van der Rohe, is as spare and modern as the University of Chicago is ornate.
Mies van der Rohe, onetime director of the Bauhaus school in Germany, fled the Nazi regime in the 1930s and eventually ended up as the head of the IIT's architecture program. He designed about 20 campus buildings and it's easy to see how his "less is more" motto comes into play. The style is pure Bauhaus: sleek, unadorned, simple and made of concrete, steel and big sheets of plate glass. The main building, Crown Hall, is simply a half-acre open room with low, movable walls to create rooms and workspaces.
The most striking IIT building, completed last year, was designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The city's elevated train system, the "El," cuts right through the campus. To muffle the roar of the trains, Koolhaas, who also designed the student center, encircled the tracks with a giant metal tube, making it look like something out of a sci-fi book.
Our final stop was a photo op by Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium, which sits on a point jutting into Lake Michigan and affords a sweeping view of the city. Jody zoomed in and out on the scene with her camera, but it was useless. The city is too expansive, too complex for a long-distance shot to do it justice. It's like trying to photograph a crazy-quilt from a block away.
When the bus let us off back at the ArchiCenter, the sky was still grim and we could feel a few sprinkles. But as we walked into the city, Jody remembered boat-trip docent Hebert's final words: "I hope you'll remember to look up."
We did and even the gray sky couldn't rain on Chicago's grand architectural parade.
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Finding the urban heart
From LAX, nonstop service to Chicago Midway is offered by Southwest and ATA; connecting (change of plane) service is available on Northwest, Airtran and Frontier. Nonstop service to O'Hare is available on American and United, with connecting service on Delta, America West, Continental, US Airways and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $138.
TAKING A TOUR:
The Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S. Michigan Ave. (Santa Fe Building), Chicago, IL 60604-25000; (312) 922-3432, http://www.architecture.org . This is the city's major source for architecture tours. The most popular is the 90-minute architecture river cruise, which costs $23 Mondays through Thursdays and $25 weekends. Other tours range from broad overviews to highly focused — such as a look at buildings with Tiffany glass. In September, for example, the CAF lists 45 nonriver cruise tours: on bike, bus or foot. Prices range from $50 for some bus tours to $5 for some downtown walking tours. Except for the river cruises — which meet at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue at Wacker Drive — most tours meet at the CAF's ArchiCenter Shop in the Santa Fe Building. Reservations needed only for cruises.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe St., Chicago, IL 60603; (312) 726-7500, http://www.hilton.com . The city's oldest hotel, opened in 1875, replaced the original Palmer House destroyed in the great Chicago fire. Opulent lobby complete with ceiling murals. Walk to the Art Institute and everywhere in the Loop. Small, well-appointed rooms. Doubles from $124.
The Wicker Park Inn Bed & Breakfast, 1329 N. Wicker Park Ave., Chicago, IL 60622; (773) 486-2743, http://www.wickerparkinn.com . Small, quiet B&B in a remodeled 1890 brownstone north of downtown. Well-kept rooms. Continental breakfast with fruit, fresh-baked pastries, cereal, coffee, tea. Doubles from $125, with a two-night stay required.
WHERE TO EAT:
Medici on 57th, 1327 E. 57th St.; (773) 667-7394. Popular hangout in Hyde Park just a few blocks from the University of Chicago. Everybody calls it the Med. Wood tables carved with graffiti. Pizzas, burgers, chili, milkshakes. Entrees $6.50-$9.50.
Lou Mitchell's, 565 W. Jackson Blvd.; (312) 939-3111. Great breakfast place downtown. Local institution since 1923. Crowded, lots of bustle (no reservations). Tart-tongued waitresses. Omelets, pancakes, homemade baked goods. Big portions. Omelets around $8.