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Chicago Architecture Blog For Curious People: Chicago Detours

Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People

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.

best books on chicago architectureAIA 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 architecture book photography

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

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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.

architecture expert amanda scotese presentation public speakingFirst, 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

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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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Devon: History and Diversity in Neighborhood Architecture

March 25, 2015 by

In honor of our special “Detour” on Devon Ave. this Saturday, let’s talk about Chicago’s South Asian community along this Northside street. One of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods and one of the most culturally rich Chicago neighborhoods is West Ridge, (sometimes referred to as West Rogers Park), and more specifically the bustling commercial district along Devon Ave. What I like most about Devon and West Ridge, outside of the amazing Indian food of course, is how the neighborhood architecture along the street is representative of the community’s changing diversity over its not so long history.

cultural tours devon avenue food tour

Guests trying on clothes on a tour with Spice of Life Tours

Like many other neighborhoods in Chicago, West Ridge began with sparse residential development of early settlers around 1850 and grew with the development of commercial areas during the early 20th century. The first concentration of commercial development in West Ridge began along Devon Avenue near Western Avenue and Devon became the community’s main, thriving thoroughfare. It continues to be the primary commercial district in the neighborhood and is now home to over 72,000 Chicagoans from a large range of ethnicities including Russian, Polish, Indian, Pakistani and Korean.

Although known now for its Indian and Pakastani restaurants and businesses, Devon was first settled by German and Luxembourgian farmers in the 1830s and 40s before being annexed into Chicago in 1893. Then German and Scandanavian laborers from the brickyards began moving into the neighborhood following the expansion of Western Avenue northward in 1899. It was not until the population boom after World War I that major development in the area would come.

In anticipation of this development boom, developer Henry B. Rance started West Ridge’s first real estate firm, the Prudential Realty Company in 1920. He built the Prudential Building still standing today at 2345 W. Devon by 1927. Although its architecture has received a less than sensitive face lift, the original ornate Gothic Revival style is represented in the Devon Building just next door at 2349 W. Devon. Often the case for the buildings on Devon, many of the original structures have been torn down, refaced or given a first-story-facade facelift.

While preservation has not been a consideration with many of the buildings in the commercial areas of West Ridge, it gives us a cool opportunity to see the cultural development of the neighborhood as reflected in the built environment. Surprisingly, development along Devon continued through the Depression years of the 1930s. You can see 1930s-style glass brick in some of the simple facades and upper stories.

The next major building boom along Devon happened after World War II when returning veterans came to the neighborhood along with a growing Orthodox Jewish community. As you drive or stroll down Devon, there are still remnants of this era in its history from the mid-century modern architectural influences on buildings such as Par Birdie Foods grocery store and the Cine Theater turned Viceroy of India banquet hall, to the repurposed Jewish synagogue at 2040 W. Devon. And the neighborhood continues to say that it has the most concentrated Orthodox Jewish community in the city.

devon avenue chicago jewish community

Photo Credit: From Chicago’s Far North Side: an Illustrated History of Rogers Park and West Ridge by Neal Samors, Mary Jo Doyle, Martin Lewin and Michael Williams

More recently beginning in the 1970s, the Assyrian, Russian, Korean and more specifically the Indian and Pakistani communities became a more predominant presence along Devon. This group has completely redefined the commercial street which can be seen in the altered first-story storefront facades of almost every building. Cary’s Lounge is quite possibly the last remaining original storefront on the street and dates back to 1923. From the prism-glass transom to the recessed entry, stepping inside Cary’s is a bit like a step back in time in this Chicago neighborhood. And if you are lucky enough to be a lady, the women’s restroom has a mural of the historic neon signs that used to be found along the street, in the neighborhood, and even a few from elsewhere around the city.

We have a few spots left for this Saturday, March 28 with our Spicy Devon Spring Tour. In addition to looking at the architecture and history of the neighborhood, we team up with Mohammad of Spice of Life tours for a great cultural experience along with lots of food.

So the next time you head up to the north side for the best Indian food in town, take a look around the street. Look at the architectural details. Just as we do on our Historic Chicago Bar Tour, you can see the history of the people and the owners in every feature of the architecture, which ranges in style from Renaissance Revival and Tudor/Elizabethean Revival to Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern. Over 40 different languages are spoken here and those melding cultural influences can be seen everywhere you look. Behind all the signs and the lights, the architecture truly shares the story of the people who have called West Ridge, Devon Avenue, and this nook of Chicago home.

–Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide

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Chicago Architecture, Love and History in Paris

February 12, 2015 by

As romance comes upon us for Valentine’s Day, the world’s most romantic city – Paris – comes to mind. I’ve traveled there several times, and have found that these two cities that I love have had a historic relationship relationship together. We are going to talk about a few architectural and historical ways that Chicago has found its way into Paris.

paris skyscraperFast forward to modern times and the most obvious architectural link that Paris has to Chicago is what many consider to be the thorn in the Parisian skyline: Tour Montparnasse. The postmodern skyscraper you see here is the only in Paris, and of course Chicago is arguably the birthplace of the skyscraper. In 1973, the Tour Montparnasse opened as the tallest office building in Europe at 59 stories. Just to put it in perspective, that same year Chicago gets the Sears Tower–tallest building in the world at 108 floors. While people may think of a kiss under the Eiffel Tower, a kiss on Valentine’s Day from a soaring place can be romantic, too.

The Tour Montparnasse skyscraper was conceived as urban renewal of an otherwise artistic, outdated neighborhood. It is built above a train station to provide offices, shopping, et cetera.  We discuss a similar, perhaps slower renewal project of Block 37 on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour. Years later, the same developers of Montparnasse brought Chicago the Smurfit-Stone building. In keeping with our theme of love for Valentine’s Day, let’s note that this building is also called “Crains Communications” and more colloquially, the”Vagina Building.”

paris chicago neighborhoodAfter the Tour Montparnasse opened, Parisians were outraged at this architectural affront to their otherwise very historic skyline. This resulted in a new ordinance limiting building height to seven stories. This ruling only further sentenced the Tour Montparnasse as sole thorn. The necessity of the ordinance and the tower are both in continual debate. Can you imagine such a reaction and it’s result in Chicago? I don’t think I could even list the skyscrapers that would be missing from our skyline if we had given up on buildings over seven stories for the past forty years.

The neighborhood of Montparnasse is known for its artists, poets, theatre people, and writers of all sorts, many with Chicago ties. In the cafes on its boulevards, you could have discussed “isms” with Simone de Beauvoir. Years later, she met Chicago writer Nelson Algren in Chicago. The two fell in love and he visited her here.

You also may have ran into Ernest Hemingway, who hails from the Chicago area, in the Montparnasse neighborhood or just north in the Latin Quarter. On a late night stroll, I toured a few facades of his former homes, one of which shares the glory of being with poet Verlaine died, as photoed here.

Look out for more on how Paris has a presence in Chicago…

– Elizabeth Tieri, Tour Guide

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Three Things to Know About Chicago’s Wanda Vista Tower

February 4, 2015 by

Wanda Vista Curbed

An artist’s rendering of the planned Wanda Vista Tower in Lake Shore East – architect Jeanne Gang. courtesy Curbed

Chicago is still buzzing about the upcoming Wanda Vista on the river at Lakeshore East, though the news was met by a chorus of praise and doubts. Sure, $900 million is no joke, and 500 new jobs is nice – but if you look at the history of some other famous Chicago landmark buildings, certain patterns of risk and success emerge. Let’s start from the top.

1. It’s Super Tall and Visually Connects with its Surroundings

Rumor has it the Wanda Vista, designed by Jeanne Gang architects, will be the third tallest building in Chicago when complete. How a rumor could be as specific as actual number of feet (1,148 feet, last mentioned by the Tribune’s Blair Kamin) is a function of what happens when architecture nerds meet for cocktails. This dimensional detail places the tallest tower of the Wanda Vista at 12 feet higher than the Aon Center and 20 feet taller than the John Hancock.

Sears – I mean “Willis” – Tower, at 1,451 feet still holds pride of being highest, and no one wants to see it trumped. Speaking of which, number 2 in the lineup is Trump International Tower – 1,389 feet if we include the “spire” on top, a mere 1,170 without it. At one time, it was planned to be the tallest building in the city, but then September 11th happened, and now it’s more humble.

The Wanda Vista project looks to the success of the Trump Tower as it also fronts the river near the proposed Wanda Vista, and serves as both a focal point and an anchor along the Chicago River. The stunning effect of carefully planned setbacks tie the tower into the frame with long-standing icons like the Wrigley building – but the careful match of proportions manage to even get along well with the “corncobs” of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City. It just works, though not by chance.

The Wanda Vista will be right across the river, framing the same entryway to the city center that everyone arriving on boat or walking across the bridges shares. The artist renderings give subtle clues about where visual breaks will occur in Wanda Vista’s immense height as the undulating series of polyhedra appear to match existing sight lines in much the same way. This stretch of the Chicago River is our Grand Canal – our teeny, tiny Thames – and for years it’s been haphazardly populated with a replica of New York’s Rockefeller Center here, the rude elbow of Chicago Booth’s Gleacher Center there.

Lake Shore East has grown quickly, almost reaching the riverside, but as of yet nothing exists to tie the north and south banks together in any meaningful way – all you see beyond the boat slips and RiverWalk are the ramps of Wacker Street. The sheer height of the western tower of Wanda Vista should visually connect the River and Lake Shore East to the sentinels of Willis, Trump, Hancock, and Aon when viewed from afar.

The long-standing fame of the Willis Tower, once the world’s tallest building, also relates to the planned Wanda Vista, as it, too, is made of a bundle of separate towers of differing heights – a method that was revolutionary in 1973 when the former Sears Tower was completed, but has grown and mutated since. Fazlur Rahman Khan’s “bundled tube structure” has been re-interpreted in almost every shape imaginable – before Jeanne Gang got hold of it.

2. Wanda Vista is Designed by Jeanne Gang

Which brings us to the star attraction: architect Jeanne Gang. Aqua was shortlisted for just about every design award a building can win and it did the unthinkable: it legitimized the Lake Shore East development project as architecturally interesting, relevant, and progressive. It broke down resistance to the cost-effectiveness of sustainability in large construction processes. And it gave everyone in Chicago something to point out to visitors and Rave About again.

That Aqua succeeded while markets crashed and other projects failed was surely not lost on the developers of Chicago’s Magellan Group, who are largely responsible for developments in this area. If we learned anything from the final grisly death of the plans for the Spire, for example, it is to be hoped that the lesson is this: any new daring architectural stars are going to have to get along with their surroundings – something Jeanne Gang has mastered with a comfortable margin. Rather than isolated towers buffeted by wind, at odds with their neighbors, and offering nothing in terms of benefits to residents already here, any new project in Chicago must step up and multitask.

3. The Chinese Developer For Wanda Vista has Buko Bucks

Enter the Dalian Wanda Group, led by Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin. He is the richest man in China, he owns AMC Entertainment (the world’s largest chain of movie theaters), and he built a tiny mock-Hollywood in Quingdao. He also runs one of the largest real estate development companies in the world. While other developers have crashed and burned here in Chicago, Dalian Wanda has financed entire new cities in China.

All of this feel-good exchange of goods and services was made possible by newly “unclogged” trade relations between the U.S. and China, and oddly, the City of Chicago and China. Thanks to the efforts of a group known as World Business Chicago, and intial friendly overtures by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, business leaders from eight Chinese cities signed on as partners of Chicago back in 2013, and finally came to look the place over this past December. Wang was the leader of the delegation and the first to sign on that magical dotted line.

In Conclusion

We like to think Chicago thinks big. The legacy of Mayor Daley the Second is writ large on the lakefront: Millenium Park, Maggie Daley Park, Northerly Island, and Lake Shore East just shy of the River. Now this new mixed-use development will connect Aqua, Lake Shore East’s most famous address with the riverfront. Wanda Vista will straddle a tiny side street connecting the new residential areas of the Loop, feature condo space, hotel rooms, and 9,000 square feet of shopping. While no firm plans of the underground space are available yet, it’s a good guess that a Jeanne Gang project will always connect to the Pedway if possible – and now that the Pedway connects the Loop to the Lake Shore through Millenium Park, it would be crazy not to expand it farther.

Retail, restaurants that are planned to take full advantage of the views, residences and a hotel – exactly what Block 37 was supposed to be, if you recall, but this time nothing was torn down until the money was secure. This plan connects a popular, yet respected home-grown architectural talent with what appears to be secure funding. The new Wanda Vista mega-tower not only hearkens back to the heyday of Chicago architectural achievement, it attempts to visually match the space while offering more than just height to the people of the city. All in all, it’s a pretty hopeful plan.

– Vicki Rector, Tour Guide

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Architectural History Tours of Chicago with SAH

January 22, 2015 by

Architecture geeks of Chicago are drooling over the agenda for the Society of Architectural Historians conference in Chicago this April, including a special Chicago seminar and 30 very special architectural history tours of Chicago.

Like any academic conference, the SAH brings together scholars to present their papers of new research. Within 36 paper sessions, around 180 architectural historians will discuss their topics in the grand history of the built environment from antiquity to the current day. Speakers include architecture critic Blair Kamin, as well as “History Detectives” host Gwendolyn Wright.

Unlike a regular academic conference, the SAH opens up possibilities for the public to stir up their curiosities of Chicago topics in architectural history. A half day seminar, “Magnitudes of Change: Local Sites and Global Concerns in Chicago’s Built Environment,” will have two panel discussions with representatives from a variety of local organizations, including architecture firms, educational institutions, and non-profits. It is funded in part with a grant from the Graham Foundation, which is always up to cool and progressive projects in architecture. 

chicago moveable bridges tour

The architectural history tours of Chicago will showcase Chicago neighborhoods and downtown architecture, and these are available to the public with registration beginning on February 16. Architectural historians, authors, and architects will lead these tours. As a tour company ourselves, this is the part of the conference that we are most looking forward to. “Cutting-Edge Adaptive Reuse: The Chicago Athletics Association Hotel” will visit this beautiful building that has been boarded up for years and will reopen as a hotel. “Recent Skyscrapers on North-South Wacker Drive” will showcase the incredible building activity in this part of downtown. And neighborhoods tours will explore the historic and contemporary architecture of Pilsen, Pullman, Uptown, and the new 606 Urban Park. Tours will also addresses features of the built environment that to many would be a gray area for their definition of architecture, such as “Chicago’s Moveable Bridges,” as you see pictured above. Many other options are available. 

This is the 75th anniversary of the conference, so a grand birthday party will be held on April 17 at the Rookery. The Society of Architectural Historians, which is based in Chicago, has their conference in different cities each year, so this is a special opportunity to connect with the study of buildings and how they reflect changes in the forces of politics, culture, social uses, engineering, and technology.

Registration is available now here.

– Amanda Scotese, Executive Director 

Posted in Architecture, Chicago Neighborhoods, Contemporary Chicago, Weekly Architecture and History Events | Leave a comment
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Three Cool Architectural and Historical Holiday Things to Do

December 22, 2014 by

Chicago holiday things to do

Photo credit: Scott Brownell, Museum of Science and Industry

Christmas Around the World and Holiday Lights at MSI - EXHIBIT

5700 South Lake Shore Drive. – through January 4, 2015

FREE with museum admission

This special exhibit is a 73-year-old Chicago tradition in the historic structure of the Museum of Science and Industry is one of the great holiday things to do in Chicago. A visit to this behemoth building with its historic detail is such an experience. Originally the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the building was faced in limestone for its 1920s conversion into the Museum of Science and Industry. The adaptation retained the Beaux Arts look with columns and ornate ornamentation, which gives the feeling of stepping back in time as you enter. Instead, high-tech exhibits abound, and this special holiday exhibit includes a towering 45-foot holiday tree within a contemporary interior space. For the “Christmas Around the World” exhibit, volunteers from Chicago ethnic communities create more than 50 trees and displays. This year a Disney theme unites the displays Disney-inspired ornaments on the tree, and a special exhibit called “Treasures of Walt Disney Archives.” Go there through January 4, 2015.

Christmas Eve at Rockefeller Chapel – EVENT

5850 South Woodlawn Avenue. – Wednesday, December 24 at 4:00pm


On Christmas Eve the breathtaking architectural space of the Rockefeller Chapel becomes the setting for a traditional candlelit Christmas service. Carols will be sung by the adult and children’s choirs for this University of Chicago institution, along with the congregation joining in.  With its stunning gothic facade, beautiful stained-glass  windows and grandly tall nave, this Neo-gothic structure, funded by John D. Rockefeller and designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, will bring an architectural experience into a religious one.

Interior Walking Tours with Chicago Detours – TOUR

Downtown Chicago – Morning, afternoon and evening tours Wednesday through Monday (check availability)

$26-34+ per person, RESERVATIONS REQUIRED

A great holiday activity with family and friends is to join Chicago Detours on one of our walking tours that stay mostly indoors. Available six days a week, our Loop Interior Architecture Tour is a warm walking tour of Chicago that takes you on a creative route that weaves through buildings and secret short-cuts. The Historic Chicago Walking Bar Tour explores Chicago’s entertainment history of prohibition, jazz, theater, vices, and social clubs. This tour also has a very cool architectural element to it, and of course we stop for drinks and appetizers, too. Both walking tours are fun and educational, and make for cool bonding experiences for family and friends looking for holiday things to do in Chicago this winter.

chicago architectural giftsIf you have a group of eight or more, both these walking tours may be available to be scheduled for around your plans as private group tours.

And p.s. if you need any last-minute holiday gifts, we now have an online store with cool architectural gifts such as the architectural wall art pictured here. We offer holiday gift cards for our public tours in various denominations. Gift cards you can easily get via email for quickest delivery, too!

- Chicago Detours Staff

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Carbide and Carbon: Skyscraper Capped In Gold

December 17, 2014 by

As the home of the skyscraper, Chicago has all types of architectural styles from boxy steel and glass high-rises of the modern International Style as well as lavish stone Art Deco towers. One of my favorite art deco skyscrapers of Chicago, and perhaps one of the most unique, is the Carbide and Carbon building, now home to Hard Rock Hotel Chicago among other businesses. In addition to housing one of Chicago’s best hotels on Michigan Avenue, the building is topped in real gold!

chicago union carbide and carbon

Photo Credit: Infrogmation Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

bakelite radio carbide and carbon chicago

Bakelite radio. Photo Credit: Courtesy of www.rgbent.com


The Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation built this skyscraper on Michigan Avenue in 1929. Carbide and Carbon was a chemical company that had found a more economical way to produce ethylene gas. They were most known for their innovation of the dry-cell battery. Over its history, the company has held the brand name for both Everyready and Energizer batteries along with other well-known household products such as Glad bags and wraps and Prestone antifreeze.

The company grew as they acquired related chemical producers, my favorite of which was the Bakelite Corporation. Bakelite made one of the first-ever synthetic plastic products used for toys, jewelry, telephones, radios and even electrical insulators. Many mid-century modern buildings took advantage of the product, such as the Farnsworth House. This iconic Mies van der Rohe building used Bakelite for some of its home’s electrical panels.


When the Carbide and Carbon building was built in the 1920s, the era was known for the luxurious style of Art Deco, and still today it is one of the most unique art deco skyscrapers in Chicago. Sons of the prolific Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, aptly named Daniel and Hubert Burnham, designed the Carbide and Carbon Building for the company’s regional offices. It was the first skyscraper to extensively use color in its exterior facade. Instead of the drab grey limestone finish of its predecessors and contemporaries, the building employs the use of dark granite at the base, deep green terra cotta on the tower, and real 24-karat gold leaf at the top. The addition of real gold expresses the grandeur of the times and the luxury the building was intended to, and still does, exude.


The exuberant style also effectively acted as a marketing tool for attracting clients to purchase their chemicals and products, and also for other companies to rent office space within. A rental brochure from the 1930s for the building read, “The effect of such beauty in a building upon the morale of the people employed in it is unquestionably beneficial and inspiring; and to clients, business associates, and visitors, it is constant assurance that the organizations they are dealing with are of the highest calibre.”

carbide and carbon chicago art deco

Photo Credit: Courtesy of ArchiTech Gallery

The building received city landmark status in May of 1996. When the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago came into the Carbide and Carbon in 2004, they underwent a major renovation and restoration to the building. The renovation cost $106,000,000 and included the replacement of 7,700 blocks of terra cotta from the exterior. And true to 1920s luxury, the polished gold interior is quite the grand entrance to any Chicago stay. In short, the architecture embodies rock n’ roll. It’s a perfect fit with the Hard Rock Hotel.

Thankfully, the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago executed extensive work to keep the 1920s art deco luxury of both the interior and exterior. So whether you have the opportunity to stay at the hotel or you pass by and just step inside for a look, I highly advise you to take notice of this flashy addition to the Chicago skyline. And there’s even a rock n’ roll gift shop!


–Jenn Harrman

Posted in Architecture, Chicago history, Contemporary Chicago, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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