Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People

Fall Events in Chicago Architecture and History

September 23, 2014 by

Each week we try to bring you three events for your social calendar that are all about Chicago architecture and history. This week we feature fall events in Chicago including an exhibition talk, an exclusive tour of Frank Lloyd Wright, and a day of free museums.

1. Exhibition Overview of “Chicagoisms” – EXPRESS TALK

Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. – Wednesday, September 24th, 12:00-12:30pm

FREE – with museum admission

This brief guided tour gives you a closer look to learn more about the Chicagoisms exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Being known throughout history for its architectural innovations, Chicago is still a place of inspiration for architects, urbanists, and enthusiasts alike. As said best by the museum, “the exhibition surveys Chicago’s rich urban history and explores contemporary approaches to five Chicagoisms–key historical principles that have powered the city’s distinctive evolution.” The tour is free and meets in Griffith Court.

2. Wright Around Oak Park – EXCLUSIVE IN-DEPTH TOUR

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Gift Shop, 951 Chicago Ave., Oak Park – Wednesday, September 24th, 9:30am or 12:00pm

$65 members/$70 public – reservations recommended

For all of you Frank Lloyd Wright fans, this tour is a great opportunity for a comprehensive look at the iconic architect’s work in Oak Park. The tours are limited to only ten people, so guests get a personal experience with the architecture and the history while exploring expanded versions of both the Home and Studio tour and the neighborhood tour, and an interior and exterior look at Unity Temple. The tour offers a look at the development of the architect, the evolution of his architectural ideas, and a comparison look at Wright versus other grand Oak Park homes from the period.

chicago architecture farnsworth house mies

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

3. Museum Day Live – FREE MUSEUM DAY

Locations vary - Saturday, September 27th


Take part in the Smithsonian Magazine’s Museum Day Live with a whole day of free admission to select museums, including one of our favorites, the Farnsworth House. There are over 20 museums across the greater Chicagoland area that are taking part in the event, which means there are over 20 museums to choose from. From the DuSable Museum of African American History to the Smart Museum to the International Museum of Surgical Sciences, there is a museum for just about everything and everyone and its all free this Saturday.


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Day Trip to Chicago Botanic Garden

September 22, 2014 by

When you need to shake the city off your big shoulders, I recommend a day trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden. I had never been until recently, when a girlfriend and I hopped on our bikes and headed north. The Chicago Botanic Garden, located in Glencoe about 25 miles north of downtown, is easily accessed by car and public transportation as well. We chose to ride the North Branch Trail through the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to be fully immersed in the nature of our city in a garden.

Photo Credit: Ash Turner

Photo Credit: Ash Turner

































In order to navigate the 385-acre garden, we got a personalized itinerary from my friend Phil, who works at the visitor’s center. At the top of his must-see list is the Japanese Garden, and I fully agree. The Sansho-En is a garden of three islands, two of which mere mortals may stroll. The islands were designed by Dr. Koichi Kawana, who designed Japanese gardens in St. Louis and Devner as well. In my research of his work, Chicago Botanic Garden executives discuss how Kawana didn’t draw plans for the placement of plants and rocks; instead he studied them individually and placed each stone based on which side or texture he thought should face the point of view of visitors to the garden. These composed views are so masterful, one must be reminded that they are intentional. This is the philosophy of a Japanese garden, to interpret nature in a stylized presentation, as opposed to letting nature run wild. The effect is contemplative and ideal.

Leave the worries of the working world behind as you cross the Arched Bridge to Kaiunto, the Island of the Auspicious Cloud. The same theory goes back to 17th century Sansho-en, intended as a retreat for feudal lords. More specifically, the Shoin House was an escape for samurai to focus on meditation and poetry. This was by far my favorite aspect of the garden, and I hope to have one of my own someday. The 23-tatami-mat house, which is how you talk size in Japanese construction, was first built in Japan, as were all the wooden structures in the Japanese Garden here. Then it was dismantled and sent to Chicago. This was facilitated by the fact that no nails were used to construct the house, true to its Middle Age origins. The house’s walls are open to allow views of the surrounding nature, and the samurai’s desk–my favorite aspect of the house–is built into one of these walls looking directly onto the moss garden for inspiration.

Continue to Seifuto, the Island of Clear, Pure Breezes, across the Zigzag Bridge, reminiscent of our Chicago Detours logo.  The zigzag design is intended to force the flaneur to slow down and consider new views of the garden. On Seifuto, you get a closer look of Horaijima, the Island of Everlasting Happiness. This smallest of the three islands is intended to represent paradise and is reserved for the gods and the nature they have given us. Considering the beauty evident on the first two islands, I can only marvel at what must be reserved on Horaijima.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Tieri

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Tieri

So as not to discuss the garden without mention of the flowers, pictured above is the Victoria Regia waterlily, a flower rarely in bloom.  Its life cycle is just two days; the pink color seen here denotes this flower is in day two, the male stage, of its life. These lilies are found in the Heritage Garden. Other highlights of the Chicago Botanic Garden include the Waterfall Garden from which the above view of the Japanese Garden is taken, and the deck of the Garden View Cafe, where you can sit beneath the willows and enjoy not just the view but also sustainably produced and seasonal items.

– Elizabeth Tieri, Tour Guide

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Architecture and History: Chicago Events In September

September 2, 2014 by

Each week we bring you our favorite events in architecture and history across the windy city. This week’s Chicago events in September include a lunchtime lecture on architectural acoustics, a block party on historic Prairie Ave, and a unique tour of one of Chicago’s most diverse neighborhoods.

1. The Aural Realm of Architecture – LUNCH TALK

224 S. Michigan Ave., CAF Lecture Hall – Wednesday, September 3rd, 12:15pm


As part of Women Building Change: Chicago Women in Architecture Celebrates 40 Years, the Chicago Architecture Foundation hosts Dawn Schuette, FAIA and LEED AP at Threshold Acoustics, for a lunchtime lecture on architectural acoustics. Every aspect of architecture effects our human behavior and this goes beyond the visual built environment. Light, space and sound are factors in how we act and react in a space and Schuette discusses how this other level of architecture–acoustics–can positively impact the aural realm people experience in their everyday lives.

prairie ave chicago architecture glessner hous

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance Website

2. Festival on Prairie Ave – BLOCK PARTY

Prairie Ave. at 18th St. – Saturday, September 6th, 12pm-6pm

$7 suggested donation

School is officially in session and summer is coming to a close, so why not round out the season of street festivals on one of the most magnificent streets of historic mansions in the city, Prairie Avenue. The festival includes all the typical affairs of a Chicago street festival and in addition there are tours of both the Glessner House and the Clarke House. The festival is sponsored by the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance.

3. Albany Park Walking Tour – NEW WALKING TOUR

Southeast corner of Kimball and Lawrence – Sunday September 7th, 12pm-2:30pm

$15 – reservations required

This Sunday enjoy a unique tour of one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the U.S with ForgottenChicago. The different ethnicities, cultures and religions that have called Albany Park home have shaped, and reshaped, the built environment on the Northwest Side of Chicago and the tour takes guests to visit a wide array of the architecture in the neighborhood. Highlights include former synagogues, the ornate terra cotta facade of the elaborate former L. Fish Furniture Store, and some oddities in the building stock.

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Six Corners in Chicago Neighborhoods

August 29, 2014 by

I recently moved to the Portage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s far northwest side and was surprised to find that my zip code change not only gave me a new address, but also somehow gave me a new identity. Chicago neighborhoods each have a unique character that seems to attach itself to you once you become a resident. People in Chicago really have neighborhood pride. Often the affect of your neighborhood on you manifests slowly, perhaps without notice like the adoption of a colloquial accent, yet in my recent case it came on abruptly and without warning.

I heard a friend and colleague use the term “Six Corners” in reference to Wicker Park and even though I hadn’t even heard of Portage Park until my Craigslist apartment search landed me here a few months ago, strangely, I was offended. Six Corners isn’t in Wicker Park, it’s in Portage Park, I thought. There are banners proclaiming so all over the place. And, more so, the history proves it. So why were so many people calling the intersection of North, Damen and Milwaukee, “Six Corners?” I decided to look into the debate and find the history behind the “real” Six Corners.

First of all the “real” Six Corners is in fact the intersection of Irving Park, Cicero and Milwaukee. In the heart of the Portage Park neighborhood, this intersection developed as a business district starting all the way back in 1841 with Dickinson’s Inn. The inn or tavern was owned by Chester Dickinson, who later became the town’s first supervisor, and has some legendary history from rumors of Abraham Lincoln staying there to stories of drunken town planning. Sadly in 1929 the Dickinson Inn, then Chicago’s oldest brick building, was torn down to make way for a commercial block.

portage park dickinson's inn chicago neighborhood

Photo Credit: Courtesy of John. R. Schmidt and WBEZ

After annexation to the city in 1889, the area began its long history of commercializing. Major retail development came along with the Irving Park and Milwaukee Avenue street railway lines and businesses included Brenner’s grocery, Bauer’s bakery, Fabish’s restaurant and D.D. Mee’s general store. By 1914, the increase in transportation to the area had helped to create a booming retail center. The Portage Theater was built in the 1920s and was the first commercial movie palace in Chicago built specifically for movies, and not for vaudeville. The Art Deco Sears, Roebuck & Co. was built in 1938 and quickly became an anchor for the area. Taking a cue from retail giants like Marshall Field, whose history we share on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour, the store claimed the largest store windows in the Midwest, which helped draw more than 99,500 customers on its first day. By the 1980s there were a whopping 150 stores populating Six Corners of both national and local origin.

Recently, however Wicker Park has succeeded Portage Park in claiming the title of most visited commercial district in Chicago outside of downtown and in fact has its own intersection of six corners at North, Damen and Milwaukee. The booming retail industry in the trendy west side neighborhood is certainly reminiscent of the “real” Six Corners past history, while Six Corners itself has met a substantial decline in its own retail economy. Not surprisingly though, the two neighborhoods bear other striking similarities to one another especially in their built environment. Both have dominant bank buildings on one corner of the six, the Noel State Bank Building in Wicker Park and the Bank of America Building in Portage Park. They even each have a historic People’s Gas Light & Coke Co. building.

chicago six corners landmark buildings

Left: Wicker Park; Right: Portage Park. Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

Despite this recent economic shift, its nice to know my gut instinct to defend the Six Corner’s name is backed by some impressive roots. Chicagoans have a strong sense of pride, so it is no wonder that long time Chicago natives in Portage Park are in a tizzy over the recent adoption of “Six Corners” by the young transplant residents of Wicker Park. To me it is clear this is a debate less over a name than it is over identity. And since I now consider myself a Portage Parkian, let us keep Six Corners and the Wicker Parkians can keep its other nickname: “the Crotch.”

–Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide

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Bridgeport Neighborhood Tour Recap

August 20, 2014 by

This past Saturday we had our sold-out “detour” of the summer season. “Bridgeport History of Creative Production” brought together a group of mostly locals to explore the inner workings of art centers, factories and an artisan bakery in Chicago’s oldest neighborhood.

bridgeport art center elevator history

We had a beautiful day for our walking tour, starting at the Bridgeport Art Center, one of many buildings used by Spiegel before it closed up shop in Chicago in the early ’90s (and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2003). Mike of building management took us around, and first we got to ride in this massive freight elevator. A friend of mine had a wedding here last year, and the elevator made for a very interesting entrance.


Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

We checked out their special events space on the top floor, which has the angled skylights you find in lots of older factories in Chicago. Then we toured through the art studios and exhibition space before looking at the very cool marble entrance in front.

Walking down the block we got a mix of the area’s industry. We past Schulze Biscuit Company, most known as makers of Toast ‘Ems, an old-school competitor of Pop Tarts. Then we passed another former Spiegel’s building now owned by Tripp-It. A reflection of a new era in manufacturing in Chicago, Tripp-It manufactures cables and the like for the IT industry.


Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

We stopped into the Zhou B Art Center, another warehouse-turned-art-center founded by contemporary art duo the Zhou Brothers. One brother’s son Michael showed us around. Currently an exhibition of the Zhou Brothers was in their primary gallery space.

Then we walked down an alley as a short cut to our next stop at Decorators Supply Corporation, a 100+ year-old maker of hand-crafted architectural details. Our exclusive visit here was particularly the featured stop for our tour experience in Bridgeport.

tour of bridgeport neighborhood chicago history architectural

Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

Bill is third generation in his family working at Decorators Supply and he graciously came in on his day off to show us around. Here he talks about the technique of using a material called “composite” to craft architectural details like corbels, capitals, and all kinds of ornamentation.


Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

If you look very closely in these images, you will likely find the White Sox in all of them! We were on the South Side of course.

South side chicago history tour

Then we had a great walk down Morgan Street. Johnny O’s is a little slice, or casing, of hot dog history in Bridgeport. They are well-known for their “mother-in-law sandwich,” a South Side specialty of a beef tamale in a hot dog bun that’s covered in chili and peppers.

Though Morgan Street had its streetcars taken out in the 1950s, it still retains a lot of clues to its more retail past. We past an old theater, a former pharmacy with gold lettering still on the glass of its covered up windows, and ended up at Co-Prosperity Sphere.


Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

Ed Marszewski told us the story of getting his space from a Chinese mafia slumlord and cleaning it up into a cultural center for Bridgeport. In addition to having art shows and concerts at Co-Prosperity Sphere, Ed published Lumpen Magazine, one of the few independent arts magazine in the city.

Lastly we wrapped up the tour over drinks at Maria’s Packaged Goods with savory pies from Pleasant House Bakery next door.

Thank you to all the above businesses for partnering with us for this special event of the creative side of history and the present in Bridgeport. Also thanks to Jeremy Parker for the photos, to Stephanie Jokich for having moved down there which initially inspired me to have a special tour in Bridgeport, and to the random trucker who patiently explained to me how flour is sucked through tubes out of giant trucks into the Schulze factory.

– Amanda Scotese, Executive Director


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Chicagoland Architecture and History Events This Week

August 19, 2014 by

Get outta town! This week we bring you our favorite events in Chicagoland architecture and history that get you out of the city, or kind of, before fall is upon us. Our events this week feature hanging out mentally escaping after dark at the Art Institute, an Illinois history road trip, and a tour of a mid-century home in Park Ridge.

1. After Dark at the Art Institute – SPECIAL EVENT

159 E. Monroe St., Modern Wing entrance – Friday, August 22nd, 9:00pm-12:00am

$30 adults; $20 members and students – reservations required

Although this event is still in the city, it will get your mind adventuring to new places. See one of Chicago’s best museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, in a rare setting after dark. The museum is open late night in the Modern Wing this Friday with special tours of the new exhibit Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938. In addition to the special and regular exhibits, guests can get their dance on with DJs and will enjoy performances by acclaimed theatrical ensemble Collaboraction. Nibble on the complimentary appetizers or enjoy an end of the week libation at the cash bar as you meander the museum.

2. Canal Caravan Weekend – ROAD TRIP EVENT

Various Locations – Saturday, August 23rd-Sunday, August 24th

Prices vary – reservations required

Go for a trip and still get some Chicago history along the way with the Canal Caravan Weekend. The Canal Corridor Association is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the nation’s first Heritage Area, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, with a number of inexpensive and free events throughout Illinois. This weekend kicks off a year of celebration chock full of Chicago and Illinois history from a canal boat ride in LaSalle to a tour of the Prairie just next door in Will County. Both enjoy our local heritage as well as take a short vacation from urbanity.

chicago mid-century modern park ridge architecture

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bauhaus and Beyond Website

3. Fabulous 60s Mid Mod Split-Level in Park Ridge – HOUSE TOUR

1832 Prairie Ave., Park Ridge, IL – Sunday, August 24th, 2:00pm-4:00pm

FREE for members – reservations required

Don’t want to take a whole weekend away from our great Windy City? Perhaps a mid-century-inspired day trip? The Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond is taking a limited size group to tour a historic mid-century modern home in Park Ridge, IL, just outside the city. The architect, Louis Huebner was a graduate of the Illinois School of architecture and designed a number of homes and commercial buildings in the North Shore area of Chicagoland. The well preserved 1960s home is currently up for sale and this tour offers a unique opportunity to geek out about mid-century modern architecture with like-minded individuals. And from the photos, viewed here, this home looks wonderfully, immaculately maintained.

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Bridgeport Neighborhood Creative Production “Detour”

August 13, 2014 by

We are getting pretty excited for Bridgeport History of Creative Production,” a one-off “Detour” on Saturday, August 16th that’s currently almost sold out. I’ve been wanting to do a tour of the Bridgeport neighborhood ever since I got the special opportunity to step inside the Decorator’s Supply factory a few years ago. Chicago’s oldest neighborhood has a great mix of historic warehouses, contemporary art galleries, and regular working class Chicago homes. For this special one-time-only tour, we will visit artist studios, a factory, a warehouse, a church, an artisanal bakery, and more. The overall idea of this walking tour is to explore how Chicago reflects the shift in cities as traditional industrial centers to being hubs of cultural production.

architecture chicago factory bridgeport

Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

A highlight of the tour will be exclusive entrance into Decorator’s Supply, which manufactures ornate architectural details out of plaster and resin. They started business with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and stepping into their factory is like a step back in time. When I got the rare chance to tour Decorator’s Supply a few years ago, I went a little crazy with my camera. Afterwards I made a video of the images. I embedded the video in a holiday email to our subscribers, and the subject line was “Getting Plastered for the Holidays?” It had a very high open rate!

bridgeport neighborhood tour

Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

I initially became familiar with Bridgeport years ago through art shows and music performances at Ed Majerski’s Co-Prosperity Sphere gallery, and also his mom’s neighborhood taproom a couple blocks away. Then a good friend of mine moved to the Bridgeport neighborhood, and from our wanderings I got to know this South-Side neighborhood a bit better.

While I’m no expert on the neighborhood, I have dug into some interesting architectural details along our walk. Really the focus of this tour will be our stops, and the various people there who will share their stories. At Bridgeport Art Center the tour guests will explore hidden nooks and crannies of this former department store warehouse. Down the block at Zhou B Art Center, we will hear about how two  brothers catapulted to the top of the contemporary art world and came to call Bridgeport home.

A highlight and significant portion of the tour will be at the factory of Decorator’s Supply, a virtual white wonderland of cornices, pilasters, corbels, capitals and mantles. Then we will take a walk and look closely at details in the industrial and residential architecture of Bridgeport to better understand this shift from a working-class neighborhood with industry to the hipper place of artistic creation that it has become. We’ll pop into a historic church, and at Co-Prosperity Sphere gallery owner Ed Marszewski will share his story as an artist, publisher and entrepreneur with many creative projects in the Bridgeport neighborhood.

bridgeport bakery

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pleasant House Bakery

Lastly we will conclude with a light lunch from Pleasant House Bakery (included) and beverages (on you) at Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar.

 Guests meet at the Bridgeport Art Center at 1200 W. 35th Street at 10:30am this Saturday and it works out great to come early for the farmer’s market that takes place out front. The $30 per person ticket includes tour guide commentary, exclusive entrance into historic buildings, and a savory pie and treat. Currently just six spots are left, and all past Detours one-off events have sold-out. Make your tour reservations here.

– Amanda Scotese, Executive Director 

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Architecture and History Chicago Events For Summer

August 12, 2014 by

Looking for some Chicago events for summer with an architecture and history twist? Here’s our pick for the week featuring a special tour of an all-in-one campus skyscraper, and exclusive tour of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, and a community place-making event.

roosevelt university chicago architecture tour

Photo Credit: Courtesy of VOA

1. Roosevelt University’s Vertical Campus – SPECIAL TOUR

425 S. Wabash Ave. – Thursday, August 14th, 4:30pm-6:30pm

FREE – reservations required

A new look for urban universities, the Student Life, Academic and Recreation Building at Roosevelt University is an all-in-one campus skyscraper. Hosted by AIAChicago, Joe Dietz and Al Migon of VOA will offer a short presentation before leading a tour of their recently completed building, which incorporates a 15-story academic, recreation and student life complex that is capped with a 18-story residence hall. The building houses everything from the college of business, general academic classrooms and science labs to a recreation center and student union; plus, there are over 600 student residences.

bridgeport neighborhood chicago decorator's supply

Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese

2. Bridgeport History of Creative Production – EXCLUSIVE TOUR

Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th – Saturday, August 16th, 10:30am-1:00pm

$30 – reservations required

Only from yours truly, this special one-off “Detour” of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood you’ll explore artist studios, a factory, a warehouse, a church, and an artisanal bakery on a 2.5-hour-long tour that considers the shift in cities as traditional industrial centers to being hubs of cultural production. Tour stops include contemporary art galleries, such as Co-Prosperity Sphere, and an exclusive visit to Decorator’s Supply, a historic manufacturer of architectural details that started business with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and is a virtual white wonderland of intricate plaster and resin ornaments. Tickets include engaging tour guide commentary, exclusive entrance into historic buildings, and a savory pie and treat from Pleasant House Bakery. The tour is limited and capped at 20 guests.

3. Old Place, New Tricks Placemaking Challenge – COMMUNITY EVENT

Dorchester Community Garden, 6956 S. Dorchester Ave. – Saturday, August 16th, 10:0am-5:00pm

FREE – registration recommended

Be a part of Chicago’s history and get together with friends and neighbors this Saturday for the annual Metropolitan Planning Council‘s challenge to activate a public space in the community for one day. Hosted by the Rebuild Foundation, volunteers will be charged with the creation of place that is the vision of neighborhood members, young and old, by constructing a picnic table, garden sculpture and signage for the Dorchester Community Garden.

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Things To Do In Chicago Architecture And History

August 5, 2014 by

We feature our favorite events each week of things to do in Chicago architecture and history. This week we highlight events that will get you enjoying Chicago out of doors including an overlooked historic house tour, a live jazz performance with picnic, and a unique bike tour of historic demonstrations.

1. Tuesday’s on the Terrace: Jason Stein Quartet – JAZZ PERFORMANCE

220 E. Chicago Ave., Museum of Contemporary Art – Tuesday, August 5th, 5:30pm-8:00pm

FREE – $25 for buffet option with table, reservations required at 312.397.4034

Every week during the summer months, the Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates the history of jazz in Chicago with a free jazz concert on their terrace. This week they bring in the Jason Stein Quartet who promise to bring torrid, bop-rooted synchronicity. Make the evening into a picnic with a blanket and munchies to enjoy on the garden. Or for a fun date idea in Chicago, enjoy the Wolfgang Puck catered dinner buffet for $25 that features fresh, locally grown produce from the MCA Farmers’ Market. Cocktails via a cash bar are served on the lower terrace as well.

louis sullivan frank lloyd wright chicago architecture tour

Photo Credit: David Schalliol

2. Charnley-Persky House Museum – FREE TOUR

1365 N. Astor St. – Wednesdays, 12:00pm; Saturdays, 10:00am & 12:00pm

FREE Wednesdays – first come, first served; $10 Saturdays

Chicago has incredible architecture and legacy of architects. So when two of Chicago’s architecture greats combine forces, you get a pivotal piece of architecture known as the Charnley-Persky House. Louis Sullivan designed the house with the collaboration of his draftsman at the time, Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1892 and it is now part of the Astor Street Historic District in the Gold Coast neighborhood. Tours every Wednesday at noon are free as is a self-guided walk around the ornate neighborhood with historic homes dating from the 1880s.

3. Chicago in Revolt – SPECIAL BIKE TOUR

1601 N. Clark St., Chicago History Museum – Sunday, August 10th, 9:30am-12:30pm

$25 non-members/$20 members – reservations required

With so few months of nice weather in Chicago, a bike tour is a unique way to take advantage of above freezing temperatures. The Chicago History Museum is offering some special bike tours this summer and this Sunday will take you to sites of Chicago’s best-known demonstrations, from the Haymarket Affair of 1886 to the 1968 Democratic National Convention to the more recent Occupy Wall Street movement. This is for the more active Chicago enthusiast as it is an exhilarating 10 to 15 miles of biking.


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Swimming in Chicago Part Two: History of Public Pools

July 24, 2014 by

When I want to go swimming in Chicago and I don’t have time for a trek to the lake, I head to the public pool. Chicago has 49 outdoor pools in its park system. These public pools are free and offer a respite from the sand and the sunbathers, as the vast majority of pool patrons are children eager to swim. In part one of this swimming in Chicago post, we explored the history of Chicago’s beaches, of which there are many. So if Chicago has such a vast lakefront, why are there also so many pools?

While Chicago offers 26 miles of beach, the rest of Chicago is 200 square miles that is not so literally on the lake. In the late 1800s, many of the western neighborhoods were densely populated by the working and poor classes in less than desirable conditions. The majority of Chicago homes did not have electricity or even indoor plumbing for many years. Though West Side Chicago neighborhoods lacked lakefront access, they did have parks.

Thanks to the park commissions established in the 1860s, large-scale parks had been carved out of city blocks and were increasingly connected by boulevards and commuter lines. The parks offered much in green spaces for healthy recreation. Free public swimming pools in Chicago would add the benefits of hygiene while combating the high temperatures of summer in industrial Chicago. A park commissioners report furthers this importance of the public pool by stating, “A clean body usually makes for a clean mind.” And goodness knows with our history of corruption and crime, Chicago was in need of cleanliness on both accounts.

Though the reformers make a great case for godliness, the wave of public pools in Chicago really gained momentum with Chicago’s German-American athletic community. Turnvereins, or turner clubs, focused on gymnastics with a twinge of morals and intellect. Their petitions for outdoor facilities resulted in the first of Chicago’s public pools at Douglas Park. The earliest reports of the natatorium–the building built to house the swimming tanks–rave about the crowds, averaging almost 3,000 swimmers a day! A Chicago Tribune article from the pool’s first months of being open discusses a man who drowned, explaining it took almost 20 minutes to find his body in the crowd of swimmers. Now I’ve seen some crowded pools in my day, but I can’t imagine losing a corpse among the live, swimming bodies.

At most swimming pools in Chicago at the time, pool schedules were regimented to segregate the sexes. Often a mere two days a week were reserved for women and girls; sometimes only mornings were set aside for them. These practices would continue for decades. Douglas Park, however, had two separate pools. In addition to having shorter times for swimming, women even had shorter pools as the women’s pool measured half as long.

swimming in chicagoSwimming at Douglas Park was allowed free of charge after a “shower bath” for which soap and towel were provided. Swimmers were admitted on the batch plan of a new group every hour to be kicked out for the entry of the next, which accounts for the high numbers reached each day and the lines pictured below. The original natatorium no longer stands, though there is still a swimming pool at Douglas Park. The current field house dates to 1928, when architects Michaelsen and Rognstad were sweeping across the West Park Commission constructing a dozen buildings.

Entering Natatorium swimming in chicago

My personal favorite of the public pools in Chicago is at Portage Park. This Olympic-sized outdoor pool also has a separate, extra deep part for diving. Few things make me feel as much like a child as standing atop the high dive: too scared to jump into the pool, too embarrassed to climb down the ladder. Then that rush of wind in descent before you crash into the water.

So whether you’re looking for a quick dip in the lake or a dramatic dive into a public pool, Chicago offers respite from the heat so many of us anticipated all winter long. And a great part about either option? Both the beach and the pool are free. Enjoy!

– Elizabeth Tieri, Tour Guide


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