Adventures in architecture
Written by Kate Silver
Sleek design has played an important role throughout Chicago’s history. Guidebook author Kate Silver takes us on a quick tour through the past and present of the city’s building blocks.
Nose pressed to the glass window, I’m standing on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center in downtown Chicago, on something called TILT at 360 CHICAGO. White-knuckled, my hands grip two metal bars for support.
The third-largest city in the USA rises up before me, punctuated with stunning buildings, bordered by the deep blue of Lake Michigan. That’s when the platform I’m standing on starts moving, and, indeed, tilting at a 30° angle towards the tiny, matchbox-sized cars zipping along Michigan Avenue 300m below. The drastic movement doesn’t do much to improve the view (that’s already impressive enough), but it sure is a heart-pounding way to take it all in.
The experience is a metaphor for the city of Chicago, where admiring the city’s architecture isn’t just a passive interest. This is the city that gave birth to the skyscraper after all, and today, exploring its designs remains an immersive adventure. Visitors can enjoy the architecture in countless ways – white-knuckled or not.
A brief history
Chicago’s location, curled up against the meandering Chicago River and hugging the expansive Lake Michigan, paved the way for the city’s rapid rise in trade and commerce in the 1830s. The city leaped from 4,000 residents in 1837 to 30,000 in 1854, and from there, the population continued to skyrocket.
In 1871, a massive fire broke out (legend has it that it was started by a cow named Daisy who kicked over a lantern), ripping through the wooden buildings of the D owntown business district, leaving a path of destruction over 6km long and 1.5km wide. Nearly 18,000 buildings were destroyed, and almost 100,000 people – one in three residents – left homeless.
After the fire, Chicago was a blank slate for development. Architects from across the country clamoured to make their mark on the boomtown, creating Chicago’s own unique architectural style (steel-frame buildings, often covered in terracotta, with large, plate-glass windows). Structures like the Auditorium Building, designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, became statements. The theatre, known as one of the eight wonders of the world when it was completed in 1889, was a functioning superlative: it was the tallest building in Chicago and the largest structure in the country; it was the first theatre to adopt electricity and one of the first to have both heat and air-conditioning. Its elegance carries through to today, and tours are available each week (auditoriumtheatre.org).
The city proved its knack for sophistication, style, and strength to the world in 1893, during the World’s Columbian Exposition (aka the World’s Fair). The event drew nearly 26 million visitors from across the globe to explore 200 buildings across over 240 hectares, all designed specifically for the extravaganza. Visitors encountered an array of firsts: the first Ferris wheel, the first dishwasher, the first fluorescent bulb, the first brownie. The only major building remaining from the festivities is a place formerly known as the Palace of Fine Arts. Now functioning as the Museum of Science and Industry, it truly does resemble a grand palace. It’s also the largest science museum in the western hemisphere, and home to a real U-505 submarine, a coalmine, a five-storey Omnimax theatre, and more.
From the Great Fire, Chicago had risen from the ashes.
Make shopping history
While Chicago has no shortage of boutiques, malls, and fashion outlets, the most storied destination for shopping is, hands down, the full-block-sized Macy’s on State Street. This nine-floor store is the second-largest department store in the world and is listed as a US National Historic Landmark. The Beaux Arts-style building, designed by renowned architect Daniel Burnham in 1902, is also home to the world’s largest Tiffany glass ceiling.
It wasn’t always a Macy’s. In fact, the sign by the door says ‘Marshall Field and Company’. That was the original name of the elegant department store (and some nostalgic Chicagoans still call it that), aimed at refined urban women. The store’s famous motto was ‘Give the Lady What She Wants’. When it opened, the streets of Chicago were filled with crime and considered an unsafe place for women to be. The store gave them a socially acceptable refuge – and fashion galore.
Sleep in style
A number of hotels have been built inside Chicago’s architectural icons of the past and present. The Reliance Building, built in 1895 by renowned Chicago architects Daniel Burnham, John Root, and Charles Atwood, was a precursor to the modern skyscraper, and now operates as Hotel Burnham. Touches from the past lurk throughout, from the elaborate ironwork and marble in the elevator lobby to the real, old-fashioned keys used to access the rooms. The Langham, Chicago, isn’t just one of Chicago’s most luxurious settings, it’s also an architectural icon, tucked into the first 12 floors of a stately 52-storey building designed in 1968 by famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Adorned with fine art, the hotel feels like a museum, and the floor-to-ceiling windows in every room give way to gorgeous views of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and Downtown. To the east, the modern, wavy façade of the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel Chicago adds a graceful touch to the skyline. Opened in 2011, the 87-floor building, designed by Jeanne Gang, is the tallest edifice to be designed by a woman, and the rooms swaddle visitors in modern style.
Chicago’s own front yard – Grant Park – is one of the best places to take in the view. The 120-plus-hectare park peeks up at Chicago’s dramatic skyline to the west. To the north, at Millennium Park, visitors pose under Cloud Gate, the bean-like sculpture designed by Anish Kapoor, which provides funhouse-style reflections of the people and buildings around it. And families from near and far bring picnics to the Great Lawn to listen to live music at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a twisting metallic band shell designed by Frank Gehry, or just relax with friends in the grass.
Rising up around them, the buildings of the city tell hundreds of stories of the past and future. Even for locals, the views never get old.
Cruising for views
The Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise really is a must for every visitor (architecture.org). As the hour-and-a-half cruise meanders along the Chicago River, cutting through swathes of towering skyscrapers, docents weave intriguing stories about the history of Chicago and its famous architecture. They tell tales of the city’s founders, its tragedies, and its triumphs, peppered with fun anecdotes you won’t find in history books. For a more adventurous cruise, Seadog offers a Lakefront Speedboat Tour and an Extreme Thrill Ride, which rocket you through the lake to the tune of rock-n-roll music, while tour guides narrate stories about Chicago (seadogcruises.com).
Bike the Lakefront Trail
More than 29km of paved paths hug Lake Michigan, and one of my favourite things to do in spring is to bike along the lake, admiring the beachgoers and listening to the crashing waves. Chicago’s bike-share programme, called Divvy, makes this easy for visitors to do, too. For US$9.95, you can buy a 24-hour pass at any Divvy station. That gives you access to a bike from hundreds of bike stations across town (note: every 30 minutes you have to check your bike in at a station or you’ll be charged extra).
Eat Out with Chef Stephanie Izard
Two of my favourite restaurants in town are Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner in the West Loop. Known for her bold, creative flavour combinations, chef Stephanie Izard masterminds the menus of both. At the casual Little Goat, try the Bull’s Eye French Toast, an unexpected but remarkable combination of French toast and fried chicken. At the small-plate-centric Girl & the Goat, prepare to have the best veggies of your life when you order the sautéed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette and cashews (the protein dishes are great, too).
Butler Service from Carlos Carrera at The Langham, Chicago
‘Drawing a bath’ isn’t something you’d expect to find on a résumé, but a butler-drawn bath is something Carlos Carrera, Head of Butler Services at The Langham, Chicago, is known for. Carrera is in his element when he’s shopping for flowers, making dinner reservations, securing tickets to the theatre, and yes, overseeing a ‘butler-drawn bath’ for guests, and more. Butler services are available to The Langham guests staying at Club level and in the Infinity and Regent suites.
Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
Parents love the educational activities that focus on science, mathematics, reading, and more, but kids love the Chicago Children’s Museum because they get to play! Kids dig for dinosaur bones, splash around the huge water exhibit, wander around a kid-sized city, and more. (Aimed at kids 10 and under.)
Families come to the Shedd Aquarium, one of the world’s largest indoor aquariums, to explore oceans, rivers, and reefs, and encounter more than 32,000 different animals. Touch a stingray; watch dolphins, beluga whales and sea lions interact with trainers; gaze at the mesmerising jellyfish; and get a glimpse of life under the sea. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s museum campus, gorgeous lake views complement the visit.
Maggie Daley Park
Chicago’s newest park will bring out the kid in anyone. Perched on the northeast edge of Grant Park, with the lake in the background, the 8-hectare, US$60 million park is packed with families savouring fresh air, sunshine, and unstructured playtime. With a climbing wall, massive new playground, tennis courts, picnic areas, and more, this park brings together visitors and locals.
Distance: 11,473 km
Flight Time: 14 hour, 35 minutes