Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People

Five Winter Things to Do in The Loop

February 10, 2016 by

We put together a list of five winter things to do in the Loop for you, since Chicago has a cold weather reputation. Winter weather can be a burden in disguise. Watching snow falling is always magical, of course. Gridlocked traffic and frigid temperatures are decidedly less delightful. Every activity we list here is indoors and easily accessible by transit.

Art Institute of Chicago Winter lions winter things to do in the loop

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago makes for a great winter activity. Photo Credit: David WilsonFlickr

1. Museums

The city’s museums lead off our list of winter things to do in the Loop. My favorite is the Art Institute of Chicago. The permanent collection spans millennia and includes art from around the world. The Modern wing is also a beautiful architectural space to visit. For me, it’s always worth going just to see Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” again.

Union Station Headhouse Great Hall

The Great Hall in Union Station’s Headhouse is ripe for exploration on a snow day. Photo Credit: Wikipedia/vincent desjardns – Flickr

Or you can go to the Museum Campus, accessible via an easy bus ride from State Street. All three museums down there are worth the trip, but the Field Museum is my recommendation. The permanent displays are always worth a visit and it gets the biggest special exhibits in the city.

2. The Union Station Headhouse

I’m half-surprised this space still exists. Most commonly known for its Great Hall, the Union Station Headhouse feels like something you’d only find in Lost Chicago. The Headhouse takes up the whole block across Canal Street from Union Station’s main terminal. The Great Hall is historically a giant waiting room. You might remember it from the big shootout scene in The Untouchables. The original architectural plan called for a skyscraper to be built above the headhouse, but that never panned out. The best activity here, beyond taking photos, is to just sit, relax and people watch among the beautiful natural light. The monumental Neoclassical architecture will make you glad it’s on your list of winter things to do in The Loop.

3. 9th Floor of the Harold Washington Library

The top floor of our public library has a few cool things to do in Chicago. A permanent exhibit tells the story of the library’s namesake, a former mayor. Also the current temporary exhibition, “Straight into the Camera,” shows photography of the people of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

The ninth-floor’s “Winter Garden,” like the Headhouse, is a public space illuminated with natural light. The Winter Garden‘s architecture inspires a calm and reflective atmosphere. It’s also a stark contrast to the musty stacks and heavy brick architecture you see in the rest of the building. This quiet public space is a peaceful refuge downtown for me.

And lastly, on the ninth floor you will find the library’s Special Collections, where you can view anything from Civil War artifacts to theater programs from the early 1900s.

Harold Washington Library Winter Garden winter things to do in the loop

Even the name of the Winter Garden atop Harold Washington Library indicates that it’s the right time of year to visit. Photo  Credit: Spiro Bolos – Flickr

4. The Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour with Pedway

Not to brag, but our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour with Pedway belongs on any list of winter things to do in the Loop. The two-hour walking tour weaves through the insides of buildings and some of the Pedway system of underground tunnels. Because we’re mostly indoors, this tour still runs on those cold or snowy days when it feels like nothing in town is functioning. I’ve lead this tour when the air temperature was zero degrees and all the guests had a great time.

architecture walking tour of pedway underground chicago

Head into the Pedway with our map and you won’t need a compass.

5. Wander the Pedway on Your Own

Already been on the Loop Interior Architecture Tour? Didn’t manage to get a reservation before we sold out? Have no fear, because you can still mark this off your list of winter things to do in the Loop. Our Pedway Map lets you explore Chicago’s mysterious underground on your own. Launch a shopping expedition while you meander below Block Thirty Seven and Field’s. Or challenge yourself to explore the Pedway’s mazes underneath the New Eastside, which is the name for the new residential area just north of Maggie Daley Park.

Now get out there and enjoy yourself this winter!

-Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide

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The Wabash Lights and New Trends in Public Art

February 5, 2016 by

The Wabash Lights, a new Kickstarter-funded interactive public art installation, launched its beta test Thursday night. The beta test is an installation of four twelve-foot lengths of LED lights underneath the ‘L’ tracks between Monroe and Adams. Eventually, the Wabash Lights will run the length of seven blocks, from Van Buren Street to Lake Street. Passers-by will use their phones to change the colors and patterns they see up in the ‘L’ tracks above. In both its design and funding, the Wabash Lights presents an intriguing glimpse at the changing face of contemporary public art in Chicago.

Wabash Lights Beta Test

The Wabash Lights as seen from the sidewalk on the night the beta test began. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

The “Public” of Public Art

Last summer the designers of the Wabash Lights, Jack Newell and Seth Unger, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds for the beta test. They explained why the project was looking for crowd-sourced donations to fund the beta test.

“We are Kickstarting this project because it’s important to us that The Wabash Lights be seeded by the public. Public art is often created by one, paid for by few, but meant for everyone. We want to reverse that notion and bring the voice of the public into our project as donors and also designers.”

It’s fascinating to hear this statement of downtown public art coming from the people. Some of downtown’s other public art has been, as Newell and Unger say, commissioned and executed by a select few. As guests on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour know, the Chicago Picasso was carefully overseen by Mayor Richard J. Daley. He arranged for a $100,000 commission for Picasso from the Chicago Public Building Commission. The sculpture’s actual construction was paid for by three large charitable funds. That same method of top-down control is still widely used for public art commissions.

The Wabash Lights designers, on the other hand, will fund the complete installation through donations by corporations and foundations. Nevertheless, asking the general public for funding might speak to changing trends in the art world.

Wabash Lights beta test

The Wabash Lights will be programmable and run the length of the Wabash Street ‘L.’ Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Interactivity of the Wabash Lights

The big hook of the Wabash Lights is the art installation’s interactive quality. Each LED light tube can have its display reprogrammed from the smartphones of passersby. The designers claim that each 1/2 inch section of the lights will be controllable. So if a pedestrian had a great day at work, she can turn a stretch of Wabash Avenue into a neon yellow reflection of their mood. Alternately, a street musician could create some mood lighting of his personal tastes for his street-corner stage. Eventually the Wabash Lights might turn this corner of the Loop into an attraction with its kaleidoscope of colors.

The full experience of the Wabash Lights will not be felt for a while yet. Plans call for the beta test to run for the next 6-12 months. In that time the lights will not be interactive. Instead, the designers will use the time to experiment with a variety of displays. Also they will troubleshoot any technological, logistical and design hurdles that spring up after installation and activation.

You can check out the Wabash Lights for yourself on Wabash between Monroe and Adams. The lights will turn on evening around dusk and stay on until 1 or 2 in the morning.

Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide

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Non-Gothic Buildings on the University of Chicago Campus

January 29, 2016 by

University of Chicago Campus Architecture

The University of Chicago campus has long been known for its Victorian Gothic architecture. The oldest buildings on campus date back to the 1890’s, when the school’s founders set out to imitate Oxford in scholastic rigor and architectural aesthetic. Much of the campus retains that Gothic vibe, but we wanted to explore some of the newer non-Gothic buildings that dot the University of Chicago campus.

Mansueto Library University of Chicago campus reading room

The reading room of the Mansueto Library on the University of Chicago campus. Photo credit: David on Flickr

Mansueto Library

I’ll start off with a building that was under construction when I was a student at UChicago. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library was designed by Helmut Jahn, whose post-modern architecture can be seen all over Chicago, this glass domed space opened in 2011. The library consists of a airy and light-filled reading room at ground level and underground storage facilities for up to 3.5 million volumes. I’ve been in here a few times on visits back to campus. For me, the most striking thing about the building is how it contrasts with the neighboring buildings. The Victorian Gothic Main Quad is across 57th Street and next door is the Regenstein Library, a concrete building from the Brutalist school of architecture. Seeing them from inside the Mansueto makes it feel like you’re looking at the Earth from a spaceship.

University of Chicago campus logan center

The Logan Center for the Arts demonstrates the newer styles on the University of Chicago campus. Photo by Tom Rossiter / The University of Chicago

Logan Center for the Arts

Across the Midway Plaisance from the Main Quads, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts was designed as a home for the university’s visual and performing arts programs. The building abuts the Lorado Taft Midway Studios, which was home to the titular Mr. Taft’s sculpting studios and has been on the National Register of Historic Places for 50 years. The Logan Center itself consists of a tower that soars above the Midway, multiple performance spaces and theaters, studios, set construction shops, rehearsal spaces, and classrooms.

Like the Mansueto Library, the Logan Center is an example of more contemporary architecture. Its saw-toothed roof mimics the Taft Midway Studios and the facade irregularly breaks between glass and brick. The architectural look sort of reminds me of men who repeatedly comb and gel their hair up straight for fifteen minutes. The overall effect, though, has always reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West out in Arizona. That architectural style could hardly contrast more with the Gothic Main Quad a few blocks away.

University of Chicago campus saieh hall

The new Saieh Hall fuses Victorian Gothic and contemporary architecture. Photo by Tom Rossiter / The University of Chicago

Saieh Hall for Economics

I chose to end with this architectural example because it blends the old and new styles from across the rest of the University of Chicago campus. The building now know as Saieh Hall was originally constructed in the 1920’s for the the university-affiliated Chicago Theological Seminary. Its neo-Gothic architecture fit in with the Main Quads of the University of Chicago campus, though the soaring brick tower was always iconoclastic. The Seminary, and the much beloved Seminary Co-Op Bookstore moved into new spaces a few years ago. The university’s Department of Economics & Friedman Institute for Research in Economics became the new tenants.

For this change, the building was given a postmodern renovation. I say “postmodern” because often this architectural style mixes old and new elements. Spaces were updated to modern standards and a new pavilion was added to tie the structure together. The ornamental neo-Gothic architectural style remains the dominant aesthetic with the glass, polished steel, and airy spaces of contemporary architecture making the building feel contemporary and functional. It’s an ingenious blending of old and new that I suspect will spread across campus quickly as it continues to evolve.

–Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide

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What Working for Rick Steves is Really Like

January 27, 2016 by

amanda italy tour guide rick steves

Working for Rick Steves in Italy.

“What’s working for Rick Steves like?” I’ve heard that question many times since I worked as one of his tour guides in Europe. Rick Steves and his partner, Trish, joined me for a tour with Chicago Detours this week. So I thought I’d answer a few of those common questions for our tour guests who use his books for their trip to Europe or religiously watch his PBS show.

I know Rick Steves because I worked for his company for over a decade. Before that, I had traveled in Italy and spoke the language. During college, I also briefly worked as an assistant tour guide in Italy for a different company. Rick’s tour company, which is how his travel empire began, was then called “Europe Through the Back Door.” ETBD hired me as a guide to lead multi-day tours around the country. My background as a freelance journalist led me to work on updating his tour guidebooks about Italy.

The tours are a huge operation managed by an impressive team, but the books are an aspect of the business that Rick personally manages. Rick and I traveled together for four days of training so that I could update his best-selling Italy guidebooks. The tour guides also flew to the Rick Steves headquarters in Edmonds, Washington for an annual week of meetings and social events with Rick and his staff.

So here’s what working for Rick Steves is really like.

Working for Rick Steves is Hard Work

rick steves italy guidebookAs Rick and I walked around Florence, which is swarming with Americans, people seemed to expect Rick to be waiting around any corner. At the end of interactions with him, they would often say, “Have a great vacation!” Rick Steves is not on vacation. While his television show may suggest otherwise, the man is not sipping wine and nibbling on Spanish churros all day long. He is working really, really hard.

When I worked on the book updates with him, we were practically sprinting around town to see every hotel, restaurant, laundromat, museum, church and train station in the city. We worked from dawn until well past dusk. The day was also long when I worked as a tour guide, since it was full of activities. Being a leader for groups of up to 28 different personalities also had its challenges. To explain that in full would require much more than a blog post.

Rick’s tour company employs 80 full-time employees in the office. They manage the books, television and radio shows, tours and store. On top of that, the European tours employ more than 100 guides, who live around the world. You don’t build a company from the ground up by being on vacation. The man works. All the time.

Rick Steves is Efficient as All Hell

rick steves norway tour company

Rick Steves in his element.

I speak fluent Italian. While training with Rick, he asked me to interpret something for him to a restaurant owner. Rick wanted the restaurant owner to offer a special deal for readers of his book. While Rick said about five words, my interpretation took about five times as long to say. To communicate the phrase as an Italian would, I had to explain the idea and say the same thing in a couple different ways. He flatly expressed to me that he was not at all into the length of my communications.

Rick acquires and checks an enormous mass of information for his books. From working with him, I learned how when you have 50 things to do in a day, if each thing can take half as long, you can accomplish twice as much. As a small business owner, I have to be efficient. I am very grateful to have learned this.

He is a Fun Dude

For his PBS show, Rick has a very chill and friendly persona. Like any television personalities, his real character is not as watered down and wholesome. While he is easygoing, he is still pretty intensely hard-working, as mentioned above. Also, the guy can be pretty funny. You can get a better sense of this if you to one of his public speaking events, like his Ted Talk.

Or you can see Rick Steves dance at one of our tour guide parties a few years ago.

Rick has a great sense of humor. I also know because he laughed at my jokes when he came on our tour of architectural interiors and the underground Pedway System :)

Rick Steves is Not a Total Stoner

Yes, Rick speaks out about the legalization of marijuana.working for rick steves marijuana reform His advocacy relates to burdens on our criminal justice system and the lost tax revenue that legalization might bring. It’s a no-brainer that the medical uses of it are vast. Rick’s ideas on drug policy reform are very politically motivated.

But no, Rick is not toking a bong every morning before going to manage his huge business. Rick certainly has some hippie roots, but he is not a total stoner.

He Treats His Employees Well

When I began working for Rick Steves’ tour company, I was really impressed how it seemed like almost everyone had been there at least a decade. After I got hired, it took me at least five years before it didn’t seem like I was a newbie. I initially trained as a tour guide with Dave Horelein, who does the awesome maps in the guidebooks, and he’s been working with Rick for 30 years.

Longevity in a company shows that Rick is doing something right. While any business owner has enormous support from his or her employees, it is the leader that establishes a company culture. I would describe the Rick Steves’ company culture as casual, friendly, open, hard-working, liberal and smart.

rick steves with chicago detours

Rick came on a tour of interior architecture with Chicago Detours.

I may not know him on a really personal basis, but this is what I’ve gathered from working for Rick Steves over the years. It was a great honor to have him take a break from the Chicago Travel and Adventure Show to come explore Chicago with me and ten other guests on our Loop Interior Architecture Tour.

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director 


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The Pittsfield Building’s Architecture, Past to Present

January 20, 2016 by

The Pittsfield Building balances its past with the demands of the present. It’s a great example of how Chicago architecture can elegantly age. Located in the landmark district of the Loop’s Jewelers Row, the Pittsfield Building opened in 1927 as a mixed-use office and retail skyscraper. I popped in to the Pittsfield while leading an architecture tour this week. As I looked at the architectural details in its striking lobby, I thought about how the architecture of the Pittsfield Building is an example of the way structures can change and adapt across time.

To give you some background, the Pittsfield Building was constructed by the Estate of Marshall Field. The prolific architecture firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White designed it. Interestingly, Marshall Field III gave the Pittsfield Building to the Field Museum, which owned it until the 1960’s.

Pittsfield Building Exterior Street Level

The exterior of the Pittsfield Building from Washington Street. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Architectural Design of the Pittsfield Building

The architecture of the Pittsfield Building was designed with two different commercial spaces. The upper floors, from 5 to 37, were professional offices for lawyers, dentists, and doctors. The lower levels, from the basement to the 5th, were for small retailers such as jewelers, restaurants, tobacco stores, and newsstands.

The lower levels were decorated in a “Spanish Gothic Revival” style with some Art Deco touches. The architectural style unmistakably recalls the 1920’s. When you step inside, the gilt elevator lobby ceilings are coffered into a maze-like hexagonal pattern. Continue entering, and the atrium soars five floors above you and is crowned with a gigantic chandelier. Every spare surface in the lobby and atrium seems to be covered in marble.

The effect of all the architectural ornamentation is stunning in its opulence and aesthetic appeal. Of course, that fits right into the flashy architectural approach that Marshall Field pioneered at his store, as any of our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour guests can attest. It’s easy to see why the building was declared a Chicago Historic Landmark in 2002.

Coffered Ceilings Pittsfield Building Lobby

The coffered ceilings in the Pittsfield Building’s lobby exemplify its Spanish Gothic revival style. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Contemporary Hurdles for the Pittsfield

The architectural plan for the Pittsfield Building suited its time, but it faces some contemporary hurdles. Medical professionals and their patients prefer sparkly new facilities, meaning a loss of office rentals. The Pittsfield has made up for that loss by renting several of the floors to nearby universities as dorms. Another plan wants to turn some of the floors into a new hotel, but a legal battle between developers has that currently on hold.

A building this old also prevents a challenge for contemporary retailers. The architects’ original plan put most of the shops in the atrium or basement. Those spaces still look beautiful, but most are vacant and seemingly forgotten. Most companies today prefer sidewalk-accessible storefronts or a presence in a mall with dozens of stores.

Chicago’s past is littered with examples of magnificent architecture that – like the Pittsfield – outlived their original architectural design. Some, like Louis Sullivan’s old Stock Exchange, met the wrecking ball. Others, like the Chicago Athletic Association, have been revitalized and repurposed. I’d prefer the latter for the Pittsfield Building, of course, but it will take a developer with big ambitions and deep pockets to see it all the way through.

– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Tour Guide

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Hidden History of Cabrini Shrine in Lincoln Park

January 14, 2016 by

The Mother Cabrini Shrine in Lincoln Park is a perfect example of the kind of surprises you run into when wandering  Chicago. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was a Roman Catholic saint who worked in Chicago. Many Chicagoans associate the Cabrini name with the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project, but that’s a couple miles south of here.

The shrine, originally built in the 1950s, today sits behind a 39-story luxury condominium high-rise and abuts a massive new mansion built for the billionaire Mansueto family. And to be clear, it’s much more than a shrine – it’s an entire chapel structure. I live a few blocks away and had always been baffled by the incongruous sight of an old church attached to a new high-rise. So I decided to launch an investigation into how this odd situation came to be.

Mother Cabrini Shrine exterior Lincoln Park 2550

The Mother Cabrini Shrine is tucked into the backyard of Lincoln Park 2550. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Frances Xavier Cabrini was an Italian nun who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th Century in order to minister to the gigantic number of poor Italian immigrants crowding into American cities. The order she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, helped found schools, hospitals, and orphanages across the world. In Chicago, they catered to the predominantly Italian neighborhoods of the time, like Chicago’s Near West Side.

The Mother Cabrini Shrine in Lincoln Park evolved on the grounds of Columbus Hospital, which she helped found in 1905 and where she passed away in 1917. She was canonized in 1946, making her the first naturalized citizen of the U.S. to be named a Catholic saint. So many pilgrims were coming to visit the room where she had lived (and died) in the hospital that they impeded the hospital’s operations. So the Archdiocese of Chicago decided to create a distinct shrine on the hospital grounds, which is the building that opened in 1955 and sits behind a high-rise today.

Both the Columbus Hospital and the Shrine closed in 2002. The hospital was torn down, but Cabrini Shrine was saved from the wrecking ball. The developers of Lincoln Park 2550, a new condo high-rise, agreed to preserve the shrine when they bought the property. Today, the Mother Cabrini Shrine’s entrance and exhibit halls are built into the larger Lincoln Park 2550 structure.

Mother Cabrini Shrine Lincoln Park ceiling murals

The ceiling of the Mother Cabrini Shrine is filled with stunning murals. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

I made a call to the Mother Cabrini Shrine, and it ends up that you can easily arrange for a casual tour. So I stopped by and discovered that you can only access the Shrine through an entrance in the gigantic new condo tower’s facade. It looked like there were units right above the shrine’s offices, in fact. Once inside, Sister Renee showed me the new exhibit hall’s photos and artifacts of the institutions the saint founded here. On display was Cabrini’s little black book, which included many bigwig Catholic bishops and politicians. There’s also a recreation of the room Mother Cabrini passed away in. Sister Renee explained that the furniture was original, including the chair Saint Cabrini was sitting in when she died.

The shrine itself is still at the heart of the complex, designed by Chicagoan Leonard Gliatto in 1955. The chapel was to resemble the Romanesque churches that Saint Cabrini would have known in Italy. The ceiling murals, which depict the saint’s life, are beautifully preserved with vibrant colors. Another detail I discovered on my tour is that the femur bone relic of St. Cabrini is encased in glass under the altar.

Mother Cabrini Shrine Lincoln Park relic bone altar

Under the Mother Cabrini Shrine’s altar is a femur bone from the saint’s body. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Most Chicago high-rises don’t have a historic holy space like this in their backyards! It’s pretty special so I recommend a visit. The Mother Cabrini Shrine is open six days a week, holds a mass every Saturday, and you can call for a quick tour.

– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Tour Guide

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A New Year of New Buildings in Chicago

January 4, 2016 by

The dawn of a new year has us thinking about the new architecture that will change Chicago’s skyline. Construction on major buildings slowed to a crawl after the Great Recession, but the tide has turned. Several new high-rises are popping up quickly, and showing us that the way we live and work in the city is changing. Let’s talk about Chicago’s skyscrapers that are slated to open in 2016.

chicago architecture wolf point

Wolf point, at the bend in the Chicago River.

Wolf Point

I frequently ride the Brown Line and always take in the scenery when the train goes across the river. Over the past year or two, that’s meant observing the riverside construction of several new buildings. The first to be finished is Wolf Point West, which is another apartment building. It will be joined by two others on the same spit of land. The tallest, Wolf Point South, won’t open for a few more years and is planned to be one of the tallest in the city.

Block 37 Apartment Tower

Those who have joined us for the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour will know all about the epic saga that is Block 37’s redevelopment. It literally takes a whole book to grasp Block 37, or we share a more concise version on the walking tour. And here’s an even more concise version: the Pedway passage, office tower, and mall at Block 37 have all been open for a few years. The planned apartment towers and transit center were not built on-time because of financial issues. But construction finally began on the apartments a few years ago and it topped out just a few months ago. The new building holds 690 rental units and is expected to open mid-year. All those new renters, a new AMC dine-in theater that just opened in December, and upscale Latinicity food court just might draw some crowds. Little by litte, Block 37 is getting there.


Block 37 isn’t the only spot where new apartment towers are appearing. In fact, the biggest trend for new buildings in Chicago seems to be downtown luxury apartments. Just a few blocks from Block 37, a 41-floor tower dubbed MILA will open in 2016. The developers got that name from the building’s intersection – Michigan and Lake. It’s on a stretch of Michigan Avenue between the river and Millennium Park that is starting to be called the “Millennium Mile.” MILA is just one part of a recent boomlet in new apartment, hotel, and retail buildings in that stretch. I traverse that spot a lot, since I teach at nearby Harold Washington College, so it will be interesting to see if that relatively sleepy corner of downtown comes alive this year.

new buildings in Chicago riverside drive

Two of the new buildings in Chicago are going up on Riverside Drive. Photo Credit: Amanda Scotese


Just west of the river from downtown, two new office towers that climb over 50 stories tall are being constructed above the tracks heading into Union Station. One of them, called 200 North Riverside Plaza, has a design that caught my eye. Personally, I love the soaring arches that will curve into the building’s shape at its top and bottom. They read as an abstracted echo of the bend in the river below.

These new buildings in Chicago will radically alter what we see in the skyline and where people live, work, and move about. Years ago no one would even think of living in downtown Chicago (except maybe the pastor in the Temple Building). With more people living in the Loop, there will be more shopping, restaurants, and things to do. And with plans for even more super-tall buildings beyond 2016, it’s an exciting time to be an architecture nerd in Chicago.

– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Tour Guide

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Three Chicago Holiday Traditions and One New

December 17, 2015 by

Like millions of other Chicagoans, I love the unique festivities and special Chicago holiday traditions. Here are some of our favorite activities to celebrate the holidays in Chicago this season.

Chicago holiday tradition Marshall Field's

A visit to the former Marshall Field’s is a Chicago holiday tradition.

Window Displays at Marshall Field’s

These dioramas have been a Chicago holiday tradition since they first enchanted kids of all ages in the 1890’s. The Field’s brand was retired when the store was bought by Macy’s, but the tradition continued and each window draws a sizable crowd throughout the holidays. In my own experience, it can be just as magical (and maybe a little easier) to go up to the 7th and look in on the glorious Christmas tree in The Walnut Room.

Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza

I was surprised to learn that the annual Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza has been a Chicago holiday tradition for less than 20 years. The open-air market is based on the original in Nuremberg. That festival began in 1545, so it might be a while before we in Chicago catch up.

At Christkindlmarket, you can buy special holiday gifts like ornaments, knit hats, and also genuine German food like currywurst or apple strudel. It’s now become more international, too, with stalls from Poland, France, and South America. We have some tips for finding the right sausage, sweets, and stocking stuffers.

A great joy of the Christkindlmarket is getting the souvenir boot filled up with mulled wine, called gluhwein. Have you ever wondered what ingredients are in it?

As I can attest from my visit this year, the crowds at Christkindlmarket can be immense and dense. Go on the weekend only if  you dare!

The CTA Holiday Train

This Chicago holiday tradition started riding the rails in 1992. An El train is decked out with holiday lights, blasting music, and a flatbed open-air car for a real live Santa, his sleigh and his reindeer.

Bad luck and worse timing means I haven’t gotten to ride the train this year. But we could hear its music and announcements out our office windows in the Loop last week, which was a treat.

Chi-Town Rising

A new Chicago holiday tradition is launching this year. A New Year’s Eve celebration named Chi-Town Rising is being hosted at the Hyatt Regency. The giant party on the riverfront will bring in musical acts and celebrity hosts and will simulcast the celebration on NBC5 and Telemundo. Time will tell if it catches on and becomes another Chicago holiday tradition.

— Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Tour Guide

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Review of our Saturday Big Shoulders Food Tour with Bars

December 7, 2015 by

This past Saturday, Elizabeth and I took two busses full of guests to Bridgeport as a public preview our newest private group food tour of Chicago, the Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour. We originally planned to just offer this special experience to one 40-passenger bus, but added a second tour after selling out in early November.

chicago food tour brunswick bar shinnicks

Brunswick Bar at Shinnick’s Tavern in Bridgeport.

schallers pump chicago bar history food tour

Guests ranged from our Chicago Detours community of past tour guests to those who read about it in the Daily Herald. We also hosted hotel partners from the Peninsula, Hotel Lincoln, Loews Hotel, and the Gwen, among others.

We focused on the area’s history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We talked about the saloon and its role as the living room for the working class. After touring through the old Union Stock Yards area, we drove by the crumbling ruins of the Central Manufacturing District. Many Bridgeport residents did back-breaking labor in one of these two massive industrial areas.

Our second drink stop (yes, we had drinks before getting into the food portion of the food tour), was at Schaller’s Pump, once part of the long-gone Ambrosia Brewery. I was happy to see that the owner, 91-year-old Jack Shaller was there. His family has been in the business for three generations, and Jack can always be spotted wearing his veteran’s cap and a smile.

The way to do it at Schaller’s Pump is pitchers of beer. For private group tours, we have an even more filling option of food for the tour, which has an entire entree of corned beef and cabbage here.

On Lituanica Street, we looked at regular Bridgeport homes that were once Lithuanian taverns that lined this now-residential area. I hopped off the bus to grab a loaf of Lithuanian rye from Bruno’s Bakery, which you can get at the local Whole Foods Markets.

Our third stop, and the highlight of the food tour portion of our evening, is Johnny O’s. I don’t want to ruin the surprise of the secret bar, but I will tell you that this was where we had hot dogs, mother-in-law sandwiches, fried veggies, French fries, local beers, and even got to hear a song from Johnny’s stint as a 60’s lounge singer with the name “Johnny Powers.”

A trip down Morgan Street showed us remnants of even more taverns, as well as the neighborhood’s turn from working class to hipster class, with art galleries and Maria’s Community Bar. Then I hopped off the bus to grab delicious chocolate lace oatmeal cookies from Pleasant House Bakery.

We rode down Archer Ave., once the commercial hub of the neighborhood and now a weird mix of buildings from the late 1800s, the ’50s, and more recent. We also get Polish cookies from Bridgeport Bakery, another Bridgeport institution. Then a drive by the new and old parks along Halsted Street leads us to the conclusion of the tour.

At the end of any Chicago Detours event or tour we ask guests to reflect on the experience and share something with the group – be it a place we went to, something we saw, or an idea or story from history. With full busloads it isn’t so efficient to have everyone verbally share, so instead we asked people to write them down. You can tell they were written on a moving bus!
food tour reflections chicago history bars
It looks like people enjoyed the  the history of the stockyards and the drinking history, as well as the stops we went to. The food is appreciated, from the mother-in-law sandwiches (a South Side specialty) to the cookies. Whoever wrote “history of Bridgewater” indeed shows that the beer was flowing!

In the spirit of the holiday season, we are donating 100% of the guide gratuities to Benton House, which has a food pantry in the Bridgeport neighborhood. We got about $175!

Please keep in touch to hear about our next one-off event to the public. We have another historic bar tour in the works!

–Amanda Scotese, Chicago Detours Executive Director

Posted in Architecture, Chicago Neighborhoods, Detours, Neighborhoods | Comments Off on Review of our Saturday Big Shoulders Food Tour with Bars
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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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