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Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People

Architecture in Lincoln Park – Open House Recap

October 27, 2015 by

Open House Chicago is always a fun and very architectural time. On top of the access this annual event gives to sometimes off-limit spaces, Open House just gives a great excuse to explore more of Chicago’s amazing architecture. This year, as I perused the options, my friend and I chose to explore the architecture in Lincoln Park. Lots of photos are in this post by the way!

Choosing a Chicago neighborhood to explore was tough. I’d been to all but one of the Open House Chicago events, and the options were starting to be slim, especially since I don’t have the patience to wait in line anywhere. And in the last two years, the variety of buildings for Open House Chicago has slipped off. Now the majority of the offerings of Open House Chicago seem to fall into the following categories: architecture firm offices, skyscraper lobbies, churches, and artist studios. The architecture firm offices are, well, offices, and I’ve been in most of them already. I’ve been in just about every skyscraper lobby to design and plan our interior architecture tours. And churches and artist studios are often open to the public.

We couldn’t make it down to South Shore, which looked interesting. However, we found a few intriguing listings for the architecture in Lincoln Park!

national elks veteran memorial architecture in lincoln park

architecture in lincoln park chandalier national elks memorial chicagoI’d read about the Elk National Veterans Memorial, but never managed to step inside myself. Wow! It’s like a piece of Europe in Chicago, with its marble columns, massive chandeliers, stained glass windows, frescoed panels, and baroque gold-leaf ornamentation.

The main space is modeled after the ever-influential pantheon with an oculus of stained glass. The shape of the building itself is inspired by the Temple of the Vestal Virgins in the Pantheon of Rome, making the building style as termed “neo-classical.” In the Grand Receptional Hall in the back, it is nothing short of baroque. It was built in the 1920s, of course the period of time in Chicago history we get the most opulent of architecture.

Just north of the Elks National Veterans Memorial the Brewster Apartments in Lincoln Park opened its lobby for Open House Chicago. It’s an early high-rise apartment building, with a heavy, rough-hewn stone exterior.

architecture in lincoln park brewster apartments

From the outside it looks like a historic apartment building for sure, but you would never expect the design and materials of the incredible old-timey interior.cage elevator brewster apartment lincoln park architecture

The original cage elevator is quite a novelty, pictured to the right.

Rumor is that Charlie Chaplin lived here, but he is probably second to Al Capone in being claimed as a resident or patron in just about any historic building in Chicago. It’s most likely just a rumor of history.

It was originally an apartment building, but now it is condos. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find such a gorgeous historic building with the more transient residents of an apartment building.

Originally called Lincoln Park Palace, this historic apartment building was built in 1893, when cast iron was all the rage. Cast iron is also used for the grating of the walkways that function as the hallway.

architecture lincoln park brewster lobby This photo shows the architecture of the hallways. The perspective is looking up from the lobby, and the grating are the walkways. Windows are on one wall at the top of the photo. Then the walkways between the different apartments are the grating that you see lit by the lightbulbs. The design is smart, as it maximizes spaces by making the light shaft not just a hole, but the hallway.

My friend and I preferred to prioritize our time to more exclusive spaces rather than those we can access any time, but we were biking by the Moody Bible Institute and it’s one of those buildings where you know you’ve passed by it a million times (especially with all my visits to the Chicago History Museum archives for research). So we stepped in for this special example of architecture in Lincoln Park.

Their hospitality was impressive! Two gentlemen greeted us, opening the door, and then numerous guides inside were available to explain the architecture of this auditorium-like church. Or maybe it’s more like a theater.

moody bible church architecture lincoln park

This picture is from the altar. It’s like a lecture hall meets theater meets church architecture.

stained glass moody bible architecture lincoln park chicago

I loved the almost art moderne simplicity of the stained glass windows.

The biggest treat of Open House Chicago for me was the Sedgwick Studios. I originally thought, “Okay, sure, another artist studio in a former warehouse,” but this was a surprise. Metal sculptor Michael Young bought the building in the ‘70s, after it had been a decommissioned powerhouse for the train line next door, today the CTA brown line.
architecture in lincoln park sculpture michael youngWith Cabrini Green projects as neighbor, Young converted the building into his home and studio, using metal sheets to cover up the giant holes in the floor where transformers had park architecture sedgwick studios

The architecture of Sedgwick Studios is unlike anything I’d ever seen. I was completely confused when I walked in. It has very tall ceilings, with glass on all sides, and very, very thick walls.

Young explained to us that because transformers can explode, the walls were constructed to be heavy on all sides, including the roof. In the case of an explosion, the building would then fall in on itself, rather than bursting out to neighboring buildings.

Today the studio still has apartments in it, as well as studio space that others rent out. Because we visit the Union Stock Yards Gate on our Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour, I recognized the model for the Chicago Stock Yards Fire sculpture located next to it. The artist, Thomas Scarff, works in Sedgwick Studios as well.

sedgwick studios fun stuffOne of the things I love about going into other people’s spaces is just seeing character of a place through the objects arranged within it.

On our ride back to the neighborhood, we passed by the vast empty land that had once been Finkl and Sons steel plant. Just a short time ago, you could still ride by and see molten metal glowing and sparks flying. That is a kind of building I want to explore. Architecture is said to be the primary theme behind Open House Chicago, and in addition to the architecture, it’s also about the history, the people who use the spaces, and what goes on inside today.

Posted in Architectural Photography, Architecture | Comments Off on Architecture in Lincoln Park – Open House Recap
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An Inside Look at a Tour Company and Guided Tours

October 20, 2015 by

A journalist interviewed me some time ago, and while not all the questions were featured in the article about guided tours, I thought it might give some good background on Chicago Detours and how our tour company came to be.

What kind of services does Chicago Detours offer?
Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. Guided tours include interior architecture, historic bars, and jazz and blues history of Chicago.
We blog about overlooked or forgotten stories of Chicago architecture and history, too.

chicago detours guided tours amanda scotese

This is me! Taken before doing a presentation on Chicago architecture at the Union League Club.

Can you tell us about your educational and professional background?
I focused on studying Chicago’s history, sociology, and architectural history through the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan, where I also extensively followed my passion for art history.

What was your post-school, professional training like?
With Rick Steves group tours around Europe, which I led as a tour guide for a decade, we had several weeks of training via shadowing other guides and then also doing our own talks to the group, either on the bus or on walking tours around Italian cities and town. Really the only way to be a tour guide is to do it because good tour guides make it look so easy, but then when you actually go to talk you realize that being eloquent with your words and clear with your ideas is a lot more challenging than it seems.

Did you initially find it easy or difficult to find a job in the field?
I got lucky and applied at the right place and the right time. It wasn’t difficult at all.

How did you come to be a tour guide?
I had traveled a lot in Italy and randomly heard from a friend about the possibility of a job as a tour guide there for multi-day group tours. I had never even thought of it as an actual profession. I got hired while still in college to be an assistant guide for tours with a company I will leave unnamed. They were programs in Southern Italy, and I had spent a couple summers in Italy. I did it for a summer, and the company was really disorganized, the clientele were high-maintenance, and the pay horrible. It just didn’t seem like a viable career so I pursued working as a freelance journalist.

Five years later, I horribly missed Italy, and thought that the whole tour guiding thing was pretty cool, so why not try with another company? I got hired with Rick Steves, and I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, and from doing the guidebook updates with Rick. They have been an awesome company to work for.

What is your definition of a tour guide?
A tour guide is a teacher who presents cultural insights into art, architecture, and the cityscape.

What is your day-to-day routine like?
I am a small-business owner with a full-time employee and a team of five tour guides, so my day-to-day involves lots of email communication with private tour clients, my team, our webmaster, legal team, accountant, and graphic designer. Beyond managing the business, everything for the most part revolves around the giant task of marketing.

Can you tell us about the places/types of jobs you’ve worked in, how they were different from each other and how they have given you valuable experience?
Having guided around Italy and in Chicago, I have taken people on tours through the tiny streets of Venice, up the slopes of volcanoes, and into magnificent lobbies of 1920s skyscrapers. The actual job as tour guide is not much different. The main difference in navigating groups through cities is that we have a lot more space in Chicago and everything is bigger!

amanda picasso tour guide chicagoHow would you describe the rigors of your profession? 
Challenges can be when high maintenance people interrupt presentation or “know it alls,” but honestly these rarely happen.

How would you describe the rewards of your profession? 
How do I list all the rewards of being a tour guide? There are so many. Rewards come from getting people excited about history, architecture and the world around them. The amazing people you meet and the comments they share. Creating a memorable experience for people is very satisfying. Being able to work actively and not in front of a computer. Constantly learning.

How has technology affected your day to day, if at all, in recent months/years?
It’s always changing and somehow making communications more efficient and more complicated at the same time!

I’ve noticed from traveling abroad that there are many “free tour” companies that only ask for tips at the ends of their tours… has this caught on in America? If it does, how will this affect your industry?
They are trying to get it to catch on, but I think most potential tour guests know that you get what you pay for. There’s a value in paying for a tour with a professional guide.

What is the biggest misconception (if any) about being a tour guide?
That it is a hobby. This is my profession – it takes years to be able to understand what ideas grab people, how to tell a good story, how to choose your words in a poetic way, and how to design and pace an interesting tour. Yes, I have made my passion into a job, but it is definitely much more than a hobby.

Is there a particular moment in your job history that you wish you could relive?
While I’ve had many special moments, I wouldn’t want to relive any. I’m more excited about the future.

Where do you see Chicago Detours going in the future? 
I’m really excited about adding another full-time employee to our team so that we now have 3 full-time employees and two part-time tour guides.

Do you have a favorite tour joke you can share with us? Jokes just don’t work well written down – you have to tell them!

What is the key to giving a good tour? Enthusiasm, clarity, and being concise.

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in Life | Comments Off on An Inside Look at a Tour Company and Guided Tours
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Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review

August 27, 2015 by

For this review of a book on Chicago architecture, we take a look at Out of the Loop, a collection of essays from the Vernacular Architecture Forum that explores Chicago’s architectural landscape from the view of our neighborhoods. Various scholars put together these essays in tandem with the tours that they offered for their 2015 conference, held this past May here in Chicago. So just to let you know, this will be a little bit more of a scholarly post.


Let’s start out with a definition of “vernacular architecture.” People have some different interpretations. Historically a lot of the art history and architectural history of scholarship has been the creations or consumptions of those in power, such as mansions, churches, or castles. More recently scholarship has turned to also include the lives of everyday people, and that’s what studies of vernacular architecture speak to.

Vernacular buildings can be residential, industrial or agricultural (like barns) and usually they are not designed by any famous architect. Some people say that vernacular has to be unique to the materials and conditions of the local environment, like igloos of Canada. Others would say that vernacular architecture is simply more commonplace, like the mass-produced architecture of a Route 66 gas station. Though its design is not necessarily locally sensitive, it reflects culture.

So I got pretty excited about this book as it comes close to our approach to architecture on our interior architectural walking tours or bus tours of Chicago neighborhoods. I like to point out the extraordinary qualities of ordinary buildings, like why houses look sunken below street level in certain areas of town. On our new “Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour” I point out how the multiple diagonal streets of Bridgeport defy the grid because they were built before the layout of the city, and these streets were designed perpendicular to the river, which had been the focal point of the street layout. I was excited to the conference and this book as providing me with rich new fodder for my stories of Chicago history as a tour guide.

The writers for these essays, who range from community figures to urban planners to historians, take very interdisciplinary approaches to their topics. Concepts span sociology, geography, history, art history, and anthropology (like our tours!).

I love how VAF Chicago’s conference chair Virginia Price opens the book: “What binds VAF participants is a methodology grounded in the investigation, analysis, and interpretation of the ways the built environment shapes – and, in turn, is shaped by – human experience.” This is the stuff I live for!

This more cultural approach to understanding everyday architecture is a newer idea, and thus the field of vernacular architecture seems to be trying to solidify its identity. Many of the essays – while informatively written – simply share facts about the buildings, such as their location or materials, rather than directly reflecting upon and processing the ways in which buildings and urban space are actually used by human beings.

Terry Tatum’s breakdown of Chicago residential building types, such as bungalows or courtyard apartment buildings, is helpful for outlining the forms and materials of the homes on regular Chicago neighborhood streets. Insights into the cultural forces that have shaped these buildings would help it better fit within the studies of vernacular architecture.

For example, we can consider how the ways we use a common Chicago house dictates the building’s form. Many Chicago homes have the kitchen in the back of the house so that there is easy access to the back yard (where there may be a garden) and also the alleyway, where the trash is taken out. While it seems mundane to a Chicagoan, this is not always the case in other cities. Or I wondered, did people respond to a workers cottage versus a greystone? Was a standalone cottage the dream of the working class man or still not enough? What messages do these buildings say to both its inhabitants and those looking at them from the outside?

A chapter on Little Italy also focused on churches and mansions, leading me wondering more about the definition of “vernacular architecture.” It does, on the other hand, address the Jane Addams Home, a 1938 housing project.

jane addams little italy museum of public housing

A 1938 housing development in Little Italy.

While the essays could use a more binding approach, the content of the book makes it an excellent addition to both scholars or aficionados of Chicago architecture and neighborhoods. Chapters dig into big ideas in Chicago history and planning, like our grid layout, the Chicago Union Stock Yards infrastructure, or religious buildings. Then other chapters go into specific neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Little Italy to Devon. There’s quite a fascinating story of how Lawndale went from a predominantly Jewish community to what a sociologist called a “hyperghetto.”

The Hull-House essay by Lisa Junkin Lopez and Heather Radke contrasts the dystopia of tenement homes with the utopia of the Jane Addams Hull-House Settlement. They detail who lived in the buildings and the functions of the spaces in order to ultimately make a clear statement of the ties between the architecture and culture: “Hull-House reformers resisted and confronted gender-based oppression through this utopian reimagining of the space and meaning of home.”

When buildings are seen not as mere objects but instead as reflections of our own cultural identities, the study of architectural history becomes deeply human. For me at least, this is the definition of “vernacular architecture.”

–Amanda Scotese

Chicago Detours Executive Director

Posted in Architecture, Chicago history, Chicago Neighborhoods, History | Comments Off on Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review
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Epic Anniversary Party and New Food Tour Recap

August 11, 2015 by

This past Saturday we had our 5-Year Anniversary Bash with the preview of our new Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour. In short, it was epic. We started our new food tour and celebration with check-in at the historic Berghoff restaurant.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

People mingled over drinks before we introduced the evening and shared some of the great beer history of the Berghoff. Above are Kate Joyce (left), photographer who took many of the beautiful tour photos that appear on our website, and Jenn Harrman (middle), our first full-time office manager who came into town from Nashville for the occasion. In the background on the left is Paul Durica of Pocket Guide to Hell.

chicago food tour berghoff

We were completely sold-out with our partners, associates, staff, private and public tour clients, and all our friends and family. For our new food-tour-meets-bar-tour, I was one tour guide and Elizabeth (pictured here) was the other. She is awesome.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Then we loaded up our two 39-passenger busses. We talked about the South Side, Bridgeport, and saloon history on the way down to the neighborhood. The tour portion of the event included a cruise down Lituanica Street, once home to a big community of Lithuanians. We discussed of everyday architecture, like workers cottages and former groceries and taverns, and ran into to Bruno’s Bakery for some Lithuanian bread for everyone to taste.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

One bus had their drink stop at Schaller’s Pump, and the other inside Shinnick’s. These are bars where drinking anything but cheap beer just doesn’t make sense.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Then we had our dinner stop at Johnny O’s. You have to go through the liquor store to get to his secret super-’70s bar that’s attached.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Johnny, who manages his liquor store and hot dog stand with his sons, has had his establishment here since 1970. Back then Bridgeport was bustling with industry, when workers were frequenting the many taverns in the neighborhood. He got his hands on the Ramova Grill sign when it closed a few years ago, and there are some great news clippings from a pretty funny White Sox debacle that involved Mayor J. Daley (you’ll have to come on the tour to find out).

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Blues musician Fruteland Jackson joined us, too. You may recognize him from our Jazz, Blues and Beyond Tour by Bus. He gets on board and teaches tour guests how to play blues harmonica.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

People ate their choice of Chicago hot dog or Mother-in-law sandwich. There was also a ton of french fries and fried veggies.

After touring the area of Bridgeport where people lived, ate and drank, we went a little south of the neighborhood to the industrial area, once home to Spiegel’s and Wrigley’s. We also dug into some meatpacking history on the way to see the Union Stockyards Gate from 1865.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tourThe busses rolled through the Canaryville neighborhood on our way to a Gilded Age mansion in Bronzeville, which is the Welcome Inn Manor B&B. Here we had more food, beer, and a presentation before indulging in cake. Everyone found a party space, whether on the front stoop, in the many grand rooms of the mansion, or in the backyard, where we had a bonfire going.

Everyone was having such a good time that we have just about no photos of the afterparty at the mansion, or the “after-after party” in the Game Room of the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. If you have any photos to share, please send!

We received press from WGN Radio, Chicagoist, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. A thanks to all who hosted us, including the Berghoff Restaurant, Schaller’s Pump, Shinnick’s Pub, Johnny O’s, and Welcome Inn Manor.

And thank you to those who came to our 5-Year Bash and helped make it such a success. And also thanks to those who came in spirit. It was really a blast!

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in Chicago history, Detours, Food, History, Neighborhoods, News | Comments Off on Epic Anniversary Party and New Food Tour Recap
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Celebrating Five Years in the Group Tour Business

July 20, 2015 by

We are pretty excited for our 5-Year Anniversary Bash on August 8. If you’d like to join us for this special celebration, you will get a taste of our new “Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour,” which is the latest addition to our roster of tours for private groups. An abbreviated version of the tour will allow us time for a special bonus stop – a reception at a Gilded Age mansion in Bronzeville.

welcome-inn-manor-minIt’s been quite a journey! We have gone from a solo operation to a team of six. We developed more than 15 private group tours of architectural interiors, jazz and blues, Chicago neighborhoods, and historic bars. We are one of very few Chicago tour companies to maintain five stars on both Yelp and TripAdvisor. Our public and private group tours have hosted thousands of curious guests. We seamlessly executed large group tours for as many as 225 guests at the same time.

We also designed a Pedway map, received press from around the world, had numerous public speaking engagements including a PechaKucha, collaborated with incredible colleagues, supported community initiatives, and explored fascinating nooks and crannies of Chicago.Historic bar crawl pub tour

We couldn’t have done it without the support of our private tour clients, public tour guests, DMCs and event planners, partners, collaborators, friends and family. Thank you!
We look forward to many more years of creating enriching content and experiences of Chicago’s incredible history and architecture with you.

This blog post shows the more outward accomplishments of Chicago Detours over these years. Closer to our 5-year bash date, I will be posting a more personal perspective on the rewards and challenges of running a small group tour business.

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in News, Travel | Comments Off on Celebrating Five Years in the Group Tour Business
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A New Farmers Market and the Old History of South Loop

June 23, 2015 by

Thursday marks the beginning of a new farmers market in the South Loop, an area of the city full of interesting history. Located at the Second Presbyterian Church, the South Loop Farmers Market will feature family farms, artists, food businesses as well as children’s activities and a cultural performance program. The South Loop has gone through tremendous changes over its history, and the new Farmers Market is another sign of such a currently vibrant neighborhood.

south loop farmers market logo

Before Chicago was even a city, the bloody Battle of Fort Dearborn happened on the beach by 18th Street. Chicago’s currently oldest house, the Clarke House, was built in the area in 1836. It’s now a museum.

The now historic district of Prairie Avenue started as an Anglo Saxon Protestant neighborhood in the 1850s, rising to be home to some of the most predominant figures in early Chicago history. Marshall Field resided here, as well as George Pullman, famous for physically raising up the street level of downtown from the swampy land and more so, his high-class train cars. The community had giant mansions with custom-made Tiffany stained glass windows, and the wealth of the residents helped support the building of gorgeous architecture of the churches, including the Second Presbyterian.

tiffany stained glass mansion south loop

Architectural stained glass detail in South Loop mansion

The neighborhood changed with the increase in train traffic nearby, and high society diva Bertha Palmer and her husband Potter Palmer (think Palmer House Hotel) decided to move to the North Side after the Great Fire of 1871. The rest of the Gilded Age wealthy residents followed her lead in the late 1800s. Starting in 1910, many of the mansions were being torn down. The area had become mostly trains, train traffic, rail yards, and factories.

South of downtown Chicago was home to small and mid-size manufacturing for many decades. Then in the 1970s, it became apparent to Mayor M. Daley that in order to keep downtown Chicago as a vibrant destination for business and visitors that people had to actually live close to the Loop. Redevelopment pushed out manufacturing and brought in high rise residential buildings and eventually townhouses. In the ‘90s old factories and warehouses were converted to condos.

bridgeport bakery

Savory pies from Pleasant House Bakery

Today the South Loop is Chicago’s second wealthiest neighborhood after the Gold Coast. The new South Loop Farmer’s Market will be held every Thursday from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM beginning June 25th through October 8th 2015. Located in the parking lot adjacent to  the Second Presbyterian Church of 1936 S. Michigan Avenue, the delicious vendors include Pleasant House Bakery, Yoberri, Spirit Tea, Brockway Farm, Not Just Cookies, Belli’s Juicer, and Chocolat Uzma Sharif. There will also be collaborations with Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which is located in the former Chess Records Studios that we visit on our Jazz, Blues & Beyond Tour for private groups. Performances will also be held monthly among the famous stained glass windows of the Second Presbyterian Church.

Posted in Architecture, Chicago Neighborhoods, Contemporary Chicago, Food, History, Neighborhoods | Comments Off on A New Farmers Market and the Old History of South Loop
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Best Books on Chicago Architecture

May 21, 2015 by

People often come on our Chicago architecture walking tours and then get inspired to learn more and ask, “What are some of the best books on Chicago architecture”? Here is a list of some of the quintessential books for learning about Chicago architecture and how the city developed into a mecca for urban planning.

AIA Guide to Chicago This book is a standard reference for anyone wanting to learn about Chicago buildings. Is there an old brick building on your block that intrigues you? Or a very new development that you are wondering about? You can look it up in this book and the buildings most notable for their architecture and history will have brief write-ups that explain the year built, architect, and striking characteristics about the architecture. This book also gives some great overviews of neighborhood history.

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. This is a book written by an expert in environmental history. Wait, what’s “environmental history”? Basically Cronon chronicles how the growth of the massive metropolis of Chicago consumed the natural resources throughout the midwest. It’s like Chicago gobbled up anything from the Great Plains to Northern Michigan. This book blew my mind. While it isn’t necessary focused on architecture, it explains the roots for how Chicago could become such a mecca for buildings.

Constructing Chicago by Daniel Bluestone. This seminal work proposes that…gasp…Chicago development wasn’t purely fueled by commerce, but also cultural forces that shaped the city. I really like how the chapters divide the landscape of Chicago thematically, as Bluestone explores park designs, civic buildings, and churches, too. This book on Chicago architecture ultimately gives you an entirely new perspective for the social and cultural forces that have shaped how the Chicago landscape looks today. 

Lost Chicago by David Lowe. So often our desire to learn about Chicago architecture comes from the buildings we see, but what about all the buildings long gone? The city changes and grows, and part of that process is demolition. This book of Chicago architecture shows beautiful photographs of the buildings and spaces that we wish were still around. Your heart will drop seeing the gorgeous grand bar that was lost as the side of Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building was torn off for the creation of the Congress Street Expressway in the 1950s.

Start with these necessary books on Chicago architecture, and then we can start talking about books on Chicago architects, such as Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright.

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in Architecture | Comments Off on Best Books on Chicago Architecture
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Woman-Owned Business Receives Phone Call From 1952

May 20, 2015 by

You won’t believe the phone call my employee received this morning. It seems to have come from about the year 1952.

First, let me give you a little background. As a female business owner, I don’t think often about the disparity of female to male business owners and the horrible statistics you hear about women making less money. I’m too busy running my tour company, Chicago Detours, to be burdened by such things. I have better things to do as a small business owner. I need to get curious people to join us on our walking and bus tours of interior architecture, Chicago neighborhoods, jazz and blues, and historic bars. Regular priorities for me as Executive Director include pulling off our marketing campaigns, reconsidering our competitive strategies, managing a team of tour guides and employees, or just taking out the office trash.

Today I remind myself how lucky I am to live in an age in which such a precious opportunity to have a woman-owned business is open to me. Today, I believe we received a phone call that somehow got wires crossed from the year 1952. I don’t want to deal in any kind of slander campaign, so I’ll keep it vague. The following audio clip comes from my full-time employee, Pawel, on the phone with someone trying to sell us advertising. The speaker just cannot believe that a woman-owned business could actually exist…”Does she work with her husband?” You can listen below.

As I come upon celebrating Chicago Detours’ five-year anniversary, and five years as a woman-owned business in Chicago, I consider this ridiculous conversation as a gift to be grateful for what I have achieved. This short audio clip surely made me laugh.



— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in Contemporary Chicago | Comments Off on Woman-Owned Business Receives Phone Call From 1952
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NeoCon Chicago: A Mecca For Interior Design

May 1, 2015 by

Long before I became a Chicago local, my first ever visit to Chicago was for the international interior design convention, NeoCon, which takes place every year in June at the Merchandise Mart. This was when I fell in love with Chicago and found myself in awe of not just the city, but its buildings, especially the massive Art Deco building that is “the Mart.” As a student of interior design, I tried to take in as much of the city and the convention as possible, including collecting countless free product samples that still live in my parents house back in St. Louis. With these fond memories I decided to look into the history of this building, interior design, ad the NeoCon convention.

merchandise mart chicago art deco

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

First of all, lets talk about the building that houses NeoCon. Taking up a full block, the Merchandise Mart was once the largest building by square footage in the world. It is still in the top 50 and has claim to its very own zip code. Architects Graham, Andserson, Probst and White designed the building in the Art Deco style and it clearly represents Chicago architecture as a combination of three building types: a warehouse, a department store, and a skyscraper. These building types were chosen because merchandising giant Marshall Field and Co. built the Merchandise Mart as a wholesaling facility for the growing needs of their retail empire. On the south side of the building along the river, you will see his patina bust proudly displayed as part of the “Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame.” His face is joined by other department store moguls such as Frank Winfield Woolworth and Aaron Montgomery Ward.

merchandise mart hall of fame marshall field chicago

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

Having researched the history of Marshall Field and Co. for our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour, I also knew that Marshall Field’s on State Street had once had an entire model home on the 7th floor with all the latest furnishings of interior design. This made me wonder if there was any connection between the department store and the interior design convention.

The profession of interior design grew out of the sale of furniture. As prosperity increased in the mid to late 19th century, furniture companies expanded their lines to include full lines of home furnishings in a number of different styles. Because of this, furniture manufacturers came to be considered advisors of the latest interior fashions and even began offering amateur design services to customers. In addition, retailers like Marshall Field found that displaying these lines in model home showrooms in their department stores was a valuable advertising tool.

The retail and furniture manufacturing industries eventually separated from the industry of interior design and decoration, but its roots are still there. Showrooms are still one of the most tangible and effective tools in selling design products from furniture to wallpaper. So it’s natural that a building and a city so tied to that early industry has become the home to one of the largest trade show in contract interior furnishings in the world.

The Merchandise Mart was designed for retail and design showrooms. It was once the largest producer of trade shows in the country. Architects Graham, Andserson, Probst and White designed it as “city within in a city,” a concept later used by other architects including Bertrand Goldberg for his Marina City and River City, both right here in Chicago. To satisfy the needs of trade show attendees the building included a number of modern amenities like restaurants and lunch counters, a beautician, optician and a barber. And because the building once had its own zip code, a post office serviced tenants. It is still there today along with many of these amenities.

merchandise mart neocon chicago interior design

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

The first NeoCon was held in Chicago in 1969 and coincided with the American Institute of Architects convention and is now a must-do event for designers across the country on its own. Thousands of exhibitors and many permanent showrooms fill the floors and floors of the Merchandise Mart for three days every June. And now we are gearing up for NeoCon 2015, June 15-17!

— Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide


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Four Chicago Lighthouses

April 1, 2015 by

When one thinks of architecture in Chicago, lighthouses might not come to mind.  But Chicago, long a preeminent American port, has an extended history with these vital, vertical structures.

I recently had the opportunity to hear a fascinating talk by Chicago lighthouses expert, Donald J. Terras.  Terras is the author of Grosse Point Lighthouse: Landmark to Maritime History and Culture (Windy City Press, 1996) and Lighthouses of Chicago Harbor: Their History, Architecture and Lore (Windy City Press, 2006).

The first area lighthouse was constructed at the mouth of the Chicago River, years before the city incorporated. The 1831 structure had some problems, though, and soon collapsed.  Its 1832 replacement was forty-feet high and stood near Fort Dearborn.

Chicago’s first lighthouse was also the first on the Great Lakes.  As of 1848, there were 59 lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Chicago lighthouses were crucial for navigation; they marked dangerous passageways as well as harbor entry points. Hundreds lined the Great Lakes, but lighthouses became obsolete with modern navigational technology.

With the opening of the Illinois and Michigan canal in 1848, Chicago became the connecting point between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi River… and soon, the nation’s busiest port. The first lighthouse quickly proved inadequate for such traffic.

Made of iron and in an octagonal design, the second Chicago lighthouse was built in 1859 out on the end of one of the newly built piers and was intended to be more visible and useful than the old lighthouse, which was by this time relatively hidden behind other structures inland. But the octagonal tower had its challenges, as well: its light was often obscured by the thick smoke from steamers and nearby factories.

After the Great Fire of 1871, the Lighthouse Board decided to build a substantial masonry lighthouse 13 miles north of Chicago at Grosse Point in Evanston. Completed in 1872, this Grosse Point lighthouse superseded Chicago’s. Ships relied heavily on this navigational aid; once spotting it, they would hug the shore down to the Chicago harbor. The Grosse Pointe lighthouse still stands today and they seasonally offer historical tours.

In the 1880s, a breakwater was built to protect Chicago’s harbor. Plans began for a new, powerful lighthouse for the Harbor of Chicago, which, the Lighthouse Board proclaimed, “was the most important on the lakes, with a greater average number of daily arrivals and departures during the season of navigation than any other in the United States…”  The new lighthouse was to stand at the mouth of the river, not far from where the original lighthouse was located.

The city was also preparing to shine before all the world during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The lighthouse was under construction during the World’s Fair, completed just as the Exposition was ending. A state-of-the-art Fresnel lens that had been on display at the Fair was then installed in Chicago’s harbor lighthouse, illuminating for the first time on November 9, 1893. The 1859 iron lighthouse was put out of commission.

And this 1893 structure is the lighthouse we see in Chicago’s harbor today, now designated a Chicago landmark, and still active, though now automated.   The lighthouse was moved and altered in the early 20th century: when the breakwater was extended, it was relocated to its new southern tip in 1918.  Along with its three-story keepers living facilities, a fog signal building and boat house were attached to it.  (An interesting note about the need for a fog signal: according to lighthouse expert, Donald J. Terras, Chicago was once a much foggier place; due to climate change, there is significantly less fog today.)

The Chicago lighthouses may be considered among the defining works of architecture that grace our city, though often overlooked in lists of Chicago sightseeing.

For more information about American lighthouses from enthusiasts who’ve ‘done’ them all: Lighthouse Friends

Lighthouse Facebook groups: Lighthouses and United States Lighthouses

And The American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of American lighthouses.

— Wendy Bright, Professional Tour Guide

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