A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Chicago. It had been over twenty-five years since my last visit, and I began to wonder if I would still recognize the city. Needless to say, a lot had changed. But the one impression of Chicago that had embedded itself in my memory was still intact. Chicago is a city that excels in amazing skyscraper architecture. In fact, a journey through the downtown area of Chicago is a trip through the history of the development of the modern city.
I have always been fascinated by architecture, particularly architects and builders who push the boundaries of current convention and create everlasting monuments that highlight the creativity and genius of design and engineering. Over the past two years, I have been to Dubai and Shanghai, where the limits of engineering, design, creativity, and construction seem to be surpassed on a monthly basis.
Part of my reason for visiting these cities was to see and marvel at the growth and building that is taking place. I also took multiple architecture classes in college due to my fascination with urban design and history. The study of the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 was a major topic in many of these classes. So, when it was recommended to me to take an architectural tour of Chicago, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity.
There are many architectural tours offered in Chicago, but the ones that I found most fascinating were the boat tours advertised in the area along the Chicago River by Michigan Avenue. Some of these tours are just on the Chicago River and others actually go out to Lake Michigan through a lock that connects the river to the lake.
The company that was recommended to me was the First Lady Boat Cruise because the excursions were narrated by actual docents from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. This prospect piqued my interest, so I booked passage for my daughter and me aboard “Chicago’s Classic Lady.”
The day of our tour was very pleasant. It started out a little overcast, but the sun eventually broke through and became stronger throughout the tour. The combination of sun and clouds made for excellent photographs.
We choose to sit in the middle of the boat on the top deck so we could have a full view of the Chicago skyline. All of this turned out to be a good choice. I was feeling really confident when the tour began because unlike most of the passengers on our boat, I actually did know the difference between a Sullivan; van der Rohe; and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill.
Our docent, Katherine, spoke from the front of the boat, but moved around a lot, and answered many questions. She was a wealth of information and talked continually through the 90-minute tour.
We were encouraged to take as many photographs as we wished and to move around the boat to find the best camera angles. Many people took photographs, but I was the only person who got out of his seat to find the best photograph opportunities.
Our noon tour left with a boat that was about 3/4 full. A good deal of the early program focused on explaining how the flow of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan was reversed by building a canal to connect the river’s South Branch to the Des Plaines River. All of this proved to be interesting along with insights into how the river became a focal point of the city.
Our boat navigated through the Main Branch of the Chicago River and traveled up and down both the North and South Branches of the river. It passed famous structures such as the Wrigley Building and many other structures that I had never heard about. It turned out that I had a lot to learn. We saw examples of architecture from the Historic Revival, Art Deco, Mid 20th Century Modern, Post-Modern, and Contemporary periods. Most of the talk focused on the buildings surrounding the river and the architects who designed these wonders of Chicago.
We began with the Wrigley Building with its famous clock tower that did indeed remind me of the Giralda bell tower of the Seville Cathedral in Spain and eventually ended with the Willis Tower (also known as the Sears Tower depending on your age). Along the way, we viewed the Tribune Tower, Marina City, Merchandise Mart, Montgomery Ward Warehouses, Boeing building, Lake Point Tower, and the Trump International Tower. We learned about a multitude of architects and architectural firms along with the struggles and challenges that came about to create the modern city of Chicago. Eventually, our tour ended where it began near the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
One thing that is unique about the Chicago Architecture Foundation tour is that even though the basic program is the same, the narration can vary significantly based on the interests and strengths of the docents. My daughter, who had taken this tour a few times before, remarked that she always learns something new each time. In fact, she shared with me some interesting pieces of information about the curved design of a building on West Wacker Drive that she had heard on a previous tour.
I really enjoyed the approach to sight-seeing offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and did not feel that I was missing something offered on previous tours. I like the fact that the docents had the freedom to point out different features of the city depending on the interests of the audience, time of day, or changing atmosphere of the city. It made the experience seem fresh, and I appreciated the value our docent brought to our tour by including her personal insights and interests.
This was really an enjoyable and interesting tour, and I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I believe the mix of stories, history, and insights would be memorable even if a person didn’t have a strong interest in architecture. The tour was really about the growth of a city and its determination to establish an identity as a unique urban destination.
Every city seems to have a narrated bus or walking tour through the middle of the city, but I believe the Architectural Boat Tour of Chicago is a unique way to see one of America’s most important cities.
If you go, in addition to the Architectural Boat Tour, the Architecture Foundation also offers many other architecture tours by bus and on foot that focus on specialized topics as well as other areas of the city. There is a lot to see and enjoy in Chicago, and understanding the architectural foundations and design of the city’s skyscrapers will further elevate your appreciation for one of America’s great cities.