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March 13, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, there’s more to Chicago than Michigan Avenue shopping, deep-dish pizza and the Cubs. Famous architectural creations make the second city a firstrate choice for architecture junkies.
“Some cities have beaches, some have mountains — we have architecture,” says Jason Neises, vice president of tour operations and guest relations at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Just a seven-hour drive away, Chicago is the closest city that offers a variety of architectural delights. Daylong guided tours show the sights and highlight the history of the city. If there’s no time to spend a full day seeing the sights, there’s always the Chicago: You are Here exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, where you can walk through a scale-model-size Chicago to get a complete view of the urban landscape.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, architects were pressed to rebuild quickly and incorporate high-rise buildings into the skyline. Architects competed to create innovative plans and in the process created two different schools of Chicago design. The prairie style, promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright, is exemplified in houses with low, sloping rooftops and clean lines that were seen as a more natural form of building man-made structures.
Such architects as Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham promoted the Commercial, or Chicago, style of architecture. An early example of the Commercial style can be seen in The Rookery building on South LaSalle Street. It has a metal-frame structure and large windows that wrap around the exterior. An added skylight brings an abundance of natural light into the building. Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned the lobby, which makes this building an architectural gem of both design families.
Many of these buildings fit right into the Chicago
skyline, but when they were originally built, the buildings were revolutionary in terms of design. The Chicago
Architecture Foundation, located on Michigan Avenue, has made a point to share the history of these landmarks with the public. It now offers more than 90 tours for all levels of structural expertise.
Relax for 90 minutes on the Architecture River Cruise Tour while the directors highlight more than 50 of the
city’s most famous historic and modern buildings. Explore beyond the river by picking from the bus tours offered. The architectural topics include such hot spots as the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the buildings on the south side of the campus represent his modern idea of an austere, sleek design.
Neises recommends the Highlights By Bus tour: “It’s our most comprehensive tour because it covers the downtown commercial architecture but also goes out into the neighborhoods, along the lakefront, university campuses, etc.”
For quite a bit less cash, try the CAF’s walking tours, recommended by Anders Nereim, director of
Professional Architecture Programs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. These tours discuss the
variety of architecture styles and keep the walking distance to less than a mile. Come between May and
September for the Happy Hour Tour, and end the adventure with a drink at a local restaurant.
For those who prefer a bit more speed and freedom in their tour, there’s always the option of a bike or Segway.
Start the tour in Millennium Park, and take a lakefront ride through the Museum Campus where Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum are located. Don’t like the idea of a guided tour? No problem. See the sights sans tour guide and with no set agenda. Just download one of the free audio tours onto an iPod and learn the stories behind the many pieces in Millennium Park. One spot that’s a must-see is the enormous, metallic, kidney-bean- shaped Cloud Gate. Designed by British artist Anish Kapoor and known to Chicagoans as simply “The Bean,” Cloud Gate’s surface reflects different views of the city depending on where the viewer is standing.
Another recommendation by Neises is to get a three-day Chicago Transit Authority visitor’s pass for $12. “It’s a cheap, easy way to get out into the neighborhoods,” Neises says. “And the perspective from the elevated trains is unique and a lot of fun.”
Enjoy unexpected architectural masterpieces while having dinner at The Gage, located across from Millennium Park. The building was created through the collaboration of Louis Sullivan and Holabird and Roche.
Watch the city of Chicago light up the night at The Signature Room at the 95th in the John Hancock Center. A view that rivals the Sears Tower’s and an art-decoinspired interior show how Chicago’s foundation makes it the architectural Mecca of the Midwest.