Taking the Chicago Architecture Tour of the Chicago River

Who would have thought a cow kicking over a lantern would have major long-term effects for a huge metropolis?

I learned this recently on the Chicago Architectural Foundations’ Chicago River Boat tour.

The extremely knowledgeable guide told us that after the fire in 1871 that left a third of the residents in Chicago homeless, architects, builders and craftsmen flocked to the Windy City to rebuild. That kicked off and established the city as a major architectural destination.

I certainly saw this on the hour and a half tour of the River along with history and development of this city.

On the tour one can see many styles of architecture, reflecting the development of city.  For example, there are black steel straight lined modernist buildings,  structures made from glass reflecting their neighbors, post modernist and Art Deco designs.  Chicago even has some Beaux Arts structures, most popular in France.

I also learned that some buildings echo designs of earlier buildings. The new Trump Tower is case in point.  Its three cylinders of different heights repeat the three tall squares of the former Sears Tower, renamed the Willis Tower.

And some buildings are a little weird.  For example, the Chicago Tribune building built in 1925 has an Art Deco shaft and a Gothic top.  The Gothic part is inspired by a cathedral in France.    Go Figure.

I also enjoyed seeing reflections of buildings.  In this case, one can see the massive Merchandise Mart, built in the 1930s, reflected in the wonderful curved glass wall of the 333 West Wacker Drive across the river.

And there’s so much history and change.  For example, the old Montgomery Ward building (Prairie style) has been turned into condos—called adaptive reuse in the architectural world.

Some buildings are a reaction to other styles.  For example, these curved housing structures are clearly a reaction to the straight modern boxes made famous by Mies van der Rohe.

And then there are the brand new ones.  Our guide explained that the Aqua at Lakeshore East is probably the most talked about building in Chicago with many opinions pro and con about the wave-like balconies.

While too far from the River to photograph, you even see the site of the famous O’Leary cow barn that started it all.

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2 Responses to Taking the Chicago Architecture Tour of the Chicago River

  1. Took this tour for the first time two years ago and was so glad we did! It was fascinating and something I wished we would have done sooner (when the kids were with us). Good news – they’re young adults now and our next time in Chicago (good weather) we will put this on our “list” of things to do and will have a “first” to share with them! The photos are great.

  2. Peggy DePersia says:

    What I am reminded of is two things:
    The smashing and very bohemian art history instructor I had for my History of American Architecture class the summer I graduated from college. She was brilliant, a fun teacher and she wowed us all with the vintage black porsche she drove to class. She was a visiting professor from somewhere in Texas and well all thought she was fantastic and learned so much; never dry.
    Secndly, I’m now ‘seasoned’ enough to recall the Marina Towers as the new, new thing on the Chicago skyline and the article that accompanied their opening and appeared in a magazine supplement to the Chicago Tribune; the towers represented from a bird’s eye view on the cover of the magazine.
    By the way, if you ever get a chance to see some of the other design submissions for the ‘new’ Tribune building, it would probably shock you to see the modernist forms that were cast aside in lieu of something more traditional yet a funky mix.
    This is probably where image and what we have come to know as branding have come into play.
    The tour is worth doing more than once.

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