BUILDING CHICAGO A tour of the Windy City’s rich architectural heritage

Forget the blues. Forget da Bears, or da Bulls.

For all its blue-collar bluster and bratwurst, Chicago emanates a world-class aesthetic that helped define modernism. The city echoes a condensed New York skyline and Boston’s eminent walkability, but its upstart sensibilities embracing modern art, daring architecture and stunning sculptures are entirely homegrown.

America’s third-largest metropolis survived a trial by fire, the 1871 conflagration that seared 73 miles of street, leveled 17,450 buildings and killed 300 people. Just 22 years later, it beat out New York to host the World’s Columbian Exposition (during which Chicago earned its moniker, “the Windy City, ” after a visiting reporter heard one too many local blowhards bragging about the hometown).

In those intervening years, experimentation and outright rebellion flourished. Architects like Henry Hobson Richardson married traditional ornamentalism with geometric simplicity. Others were determined to revolt against perceived excesses of the past and to wring out a uniquely American landscape. William LeBaron Jenney was among those who forever revolutionized urban scale with his steel-frame constructions. His creations flouted the five-story limitations of buildings past with their metal framework; the walls bore none of the building’s weight. The skyscraper embodied the streamlined potency of modern architecture and modern civilization.

No wonder a Chicago School of Architecture emerged, led by forces like Louis Sullivan, who famously declared its philosophy, “Form follows function.” Today, a walk through almost any downtown block encounters the bold multitudes of designs, from the Chicago Tribune Tower’s Gothic and art deco munificence (435 N. Michigan Ave.) to the Federal Center’s geometric minimalism (Dearborn Street).

This living architectural legacy has created a city of contrasts, at once exhilarating and harmonious. Here German migr Ludwig Mies van der Rohe carried his own three-word motto, “less is more, ” with his international style (now the commonplace rectangular-box office building), so-called because its design could be plopped down any place in the urban world and fit in. Frank Lloyd Wright, disciple of the prairie school of thought, patterned the living space after the open natural environment of the Midwest. While most of Wright’s handiwork lies in Chicago’s suburban edges, like the splendid Robie House (5757 S. Woodlawn Ave.), he renovated the atrium in the Rookery (209 La Salle St.) within the financial district.

Perhaps the best thing about Chicago is that a river runs through it. Part of the waterway that links Lake Michigan and the Gulf of Mexico, it moves like liquid grass through the downtown and the Loop’s financial district. The course provided the city with its source of economic power and, in the 1800s, its sewer.

Since the river flowed into the city’s drinking water source Lake Michigan diseases such as typhoid fever, typhus and cholera surged periodically amongst the residents. An 1885 downpour flooded the sewage into the lake and water supplies. That repulsive scenario finally spurred the creation of the Chicago Sanitary District. More momentous was the decision to reverse the course of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan.

The river still remained a dumping ground, so much so that planners backed their buildings well away from its eye-stinging smells. Only recently have groups like Friends of the River begun to revive its purity and have helped to upgrade the river from “toxic” to “polluted.”

A network of 37 drawbridges carries honking traffic and pedestrian throngs. Except during rush hour, all automobiles and people stop for boats, providing one of the best sights in Chicago. Even an art show surfaces when the boats pass under State Street Bridge, which raises to reveal four 150-foot paintings mounted underneath. The bridges contribute to the city’s multilevel dimensions, with its underground streets and pedestrian tunnels.

The waterway offers the ideal route to get one’s bearings, and the exceptional Chicago Architecture Foundation promises 53 buildings in 90 minutes on its May-October river cruises.

Besides the standards like Sears Tower and the aforementioned structures, the passing scenery includes new designs like the cooling plant that pays homage to the river and Chicago’s architectural heritage with its ship’s bow design. Engineering marvels include a 65-story granite, concrete and glass structure at 311 S. Wacker Drive slipped over an existing railroad track (an unsettling sight for visitors raised in earthquake country).

The cruise accounts for just one of more than 60 foundation tours, which range from walks to bicycle rides to bus jaunts headed for destinations, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park residence and studio.

Reservations can be made at the California Architecture Foundation Shop and Tour centers (John Hancock Center, 875 N. Michigan Ave. and Santa Fe Building, 224 S. Michigan Ave.), which also sell books and merchandise that transcend standard keychain-T-shirt fare. The foundation’s exceptional Web site,, gives an advance look or reminder of the buildings and the stories behind them.

Chicago lends itself to many thematic tours besides the architectural: music, comedy, shopping, regional theater, ethnic neighborhoods, food, sports.

Sculpture: Heading south, visitors may find themselves constantly bumping into public sculptures. Although one the size of the five-story, 162-ton steel Chicago Picasso sculpture fronting the Richard J. Daley Center might be hard to miss, maps kindly point out locations of other treasures created by the likes of Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Joan Mir and Louise Nevelson. (The untitled Picasso sculpture, by the way, is intended to be a Cubist representation of a woman, but comparisons to baboons have been made.) For interactive art, the delightful Navy Pier boasts sculptures that people can touch, clamber upon and appreciate.

Lake: A lakeside stroll, jog, bicycle or surrey ride offers another vantage point to Chicago’s magnificent skyline, complemented with a Lake Michigan vista. The paved 10-mile Lakefront Trail path arcs from McCormick Place to Belmont. It conveniently wends by Miegs Field Airport, John G. Shedd Aquarium (dolphin shows highly recommended), Adler Planetarium, Field Museum of Natural History, Buckingham Fountain (familiar to “Married With Children” viewers), Navy Pier, Oak Street Beach and Lincoln Park. Some areas, like the remodeled South Shore Country Club where part of “The Blues Brothers” was filmed, have advisories warning you to go with a companion.

Museums: The choices range from the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue, home to world classics such as Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte-1884, ” the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as smaller finds such as the DuSable Museum of African-American History and the International Museum of Surgical Science. At the foot of Lake Shore Drive, Field Museum of Natural History, John G. Shedd Aquarium-Oceanarium and Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum not only offer exciting exploration, but also splendid vantage points of the river, moored boats and warm-weather green landscape or a wintry carpet.

Kids: The Navy Pier boasts excellent, interactive sculptures, a giant Ferris wheel, IMAX theater, food court and shopping. The items here aren’t of the ticky-tacky Pier 39 variety, but are actually fun. McDonald’s Corporation stomps its presence all over its hometown – you can even buy a little purse shaped like the red french fries holder at its Navy Pier locale. Also at the pier, the Chicago Children’s Museum targets infants through fifth graders. One museum guaranteed to be an all-day outing for young and old is the Museum of Science and Industry.

Shopping: The Magnificent Mile on the elevated Michigan Avenue impresses even nonshoppers with its mix of upscale boutiques and department stores. Downtown, the resplendent Marshall Field’s on State Street can be almost a religious experience; the eye turns up to the mosaic dome, created by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1907. Nearby the Carson Pirie Scott is housed in a National Historic Landmark Louis Sullivan building. Buyers who like their wares vintage need only to consult the telephone book for numerous listings, many of which lie on North Lincoln Avenue and North Clark Street beyond the tourist maps.

If you go


The following resources will help you plan your Chicago itinerary.


  • Chicago Office of Tourism: 800-226-6632. .,,
  • Chicago information: Chicago Convention-Tourist Bureau, 312-567-8500,
  • Carson Pirie Scott, 312-641-7000.
  • Shopping: Marshall Field’s, State Street, 312-781-1000.
  • Museum of Science and Industry, 773-684-1414,
  • Chicago Children’s Museum, 312-527-1000,
  • Kids’ activities: The Navy Pier, 312-595-7437,
  • Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, Oak Park, 708-848-1976,
  • Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, 312-922-7827,
  • John G. Shedd Aquarium/Oceanarium, 312-939-2438,
  • Field Museum of Natural History, Lake Shore Drive, 312-922-9410,
  • International Museum of Surgical Science, 312-642-6502,
  • DuSable Museum of African-American History, 773-947-0600,
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, 312-280-2660,
  • Museums: Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue, 312-443-3600,
  • Cultural activities: Department of Cultural Affairs Information hotline: 312-346-3278.
  • Chicago’s Bicycle Transportation hotline, 312-742-2453.
  • Getting around: Chicago Transit Authority, 888-968-7282,
  • Chicago Architecture Foundation, 312-922-3432,
  • Here’s Chicago-Water Tower Visitor Welcome Center (163 E. Pearson St. at N. Michigan Avenue, 312-744-8783).

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times