Chicago 2018 – RiverWalk Tour

I touched down at O’Hare just before 1 PM on May 13 at an airport that was green with strips of manicured grass between the runways. We taxied for about 20 minutes on a runway that seemed to extend to the horizon.

I’m in Chicago to see the architecture, especially the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as some new favorite architects I discovered while preparing for this trip.

Deboarding the plane brought me to a live concierge, who was stymied that I already knew where I was going and had a Ventra card for the city transit system. She was very helpful in pointing me towards the trains. I’m surprised to find that the famous Chicago “L” – the elevated train system built in 1890, actually arrives downtown at an underground station that was built in the 1940’s. The line I ride from the airport was built in 1984.

  • Travel tip: You can buy your Ventra card before you go, and plan your trip while you are in Chicago online at the Chicago Transit Authority.

I had booked a room at the Pittsfield, an apartments/suites situation on floors 20-23 of the Fornelli Tower, an Art Deco building dating to 1927 by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. The lobby ceiling is the most ornate in the entire building, and it was fun to see carved plasterwork after having visited Morocco the previous year.

  • Travel Tip: Pittsfield / Fornelli Tower / Sp Suites Millennium Park is located at 55 E. Washington, zip 60611, ph: 773-276-1099. This is not a conventional ‘hotel’ – there’s no concierge, and you must check in between 4:30 – 10 PM. There is no room service or linen service, but there is WIFI in the rooms and a laundry facility on each floor. I found it perfectly adequate, quiet and well located, across from the Cultural Center and within walking distance of Millennial Park and the L lines.

After dropping off my luggage, I find the designated street corner for a Riverwalk tour by “Free Tours by Foot” which I highly recommend. Although they are advertised as free, most people pay the guide about $10 since this is how many of the guides make their living. It would provide a nice overview and orientation for some of the famous landmarks of the dowtown core.

The Merchandise Mart was the oldest office building before 1970 and the worlds largest building when it opened in 1930. Covering two square blocks and rising 25 stories, it had its own zip code. It is visited by about 30,000 people each day and remains an important business hub for the city.

Merchandise Mart as seen from a river cruise later in the week

Wrigley Tower has a clock tower inspired by the bell tower in the grand cathedral in Seville. Mr. Wrigley sold soap, and included two sticks of his gum with each purchase. The soap bombed but everyone loved the gum, and so his empire was born. This tower was built n 1921 by the architectural firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. It was built from limestone faced with glazed terra cotta, which sheds dirt in the rain; a material that would become the model for modern bathroom tile.

Next door to the Wrigley Tower is the Tribune Tower, marking the head of the Magnificent Mile. Designed by architects Hood and Howelle, it was built in the Gothic Revival style, inspired by the cathedral in Rouen, France. I commented on the flying buttresses being ornamental rather than structural, and the guide informed that Neo-Gothic and Gothic Revival buildings were intended to make Chicago look older than it is. The building was completed in 1925, replacing the original which was built in 1868 but destroyed during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

There are over 100 fragments of buildings from all over the world imbedded in its exterior walls; the early ones were stolen, later on other buildings started to mail fragments to the Tribune for inclusion.

  • I understand that this building is now a condominium, so if you have a hankering for living in a historic landmark and you are independently wealthy, this could be your new home.

Interestingly, the Chicago Tribune published an article about the danger of fire in the city, stating that “All it will take is a spark”. Twelve hours later, on October 8, 1871, the Great Fire would begin, and even the river lit up, the gas and animal fat from the slaughter houses carrying the flames that would ignite the downtown core.

After the Great Fire, the city was redesigned with a heavy Parisian influence, a sort of “Faux Paris”. Many of the buildings were built in the Gothic Revival style, a building trend of the Arts and Crafts Movement that was all the rage in Europe at the time.

An onion dome marks the Medina Club, built by the Shriners in 1928. It houses a Moroccan room and the pool where Johnny Weissmuller trained for his role as Tarzan during the 1930’s. The tower on the roof is a docking tower for a dirigible, but the crash of the Hindenburg shortly after this was built, ended airship travel in the US. (This building at 505 North Michigan now houses a hotel.)

The London Guarantee Building with its triangular temple at the top, where the wives are said to have performed veil dances to entertain their husbands.

The Jeweler’s Building had an elevator (up to the 22nd floor) that would hold an automobile, which prevented diamond heists during the Capone era as well as giving the building the distinction of being the first office tower in Chicago with indoor parking. (The elevators were later discarded and the garages turned into office space). There was a speakeasy in one of the top turrets, the turrets also contained water tanks which would be utilized in the event of a fire. The dome at the top now houses an architectural showroom. The building was granted landmark status in 1994.

The Carbide and Carbon Building, (now the Hard Rock Hotel at 230 North Michigan Ave), was built by the Burnham Brothers (sons of the Burnham who developed the master plan for Chicago after the Great Fire). Finished in 1929, the Prohibition-era green granite building is accented with gold leaf at the top and was built to emulate a champagne bottle.

The Reliance Building, (32 North State Street, across from Marshal Fields) waas the only one I saw with corbelling – an architectural element I learned about in Florence, Italy. Completed in 1895 by architects Burnham & Root, it’s thought to be the first steel and glass skyscraper. The white terra cotta facing was designed to be self-cleaning in the rain, and portray a hygienic image for the medical offices that were housed here. Al Capone’s dentist set up shop here in what’s now Room 809 of what’s now the Hotel Burnham.

Corbelling detail on the Reliance Building

The Aqua Condo – the tallest building in the world built by women architects. Lady Gaga was a former tenant here. The units are priced by the size of the deck, and no two units are identical. The striking wave-like architecture is also the most bird-friendly building in the city. Unfortunately I never did get a decent photo of it.

Our tour ends near the Centennial Fountain, commemorating the successful reversal of the Chicago River towards St. Louis – an engineering feat intended to prevent the river from polluting Lake Michigan, which supplied Chicago’s drinking water. Water-borne illnesses killed some 90,000 Chicagoans prior to the 1893 World Expo, and the city wanted to resolve that before inviting the world to the city. I noted that the water here is green, like Venice.

Dinner tonight is at Lizzie McNeil’s, an Irish pub at the end of the RiverWalk near the Centennial Fountain. Traditional Irish lamb stew, Irish coffee and a not-so trad shot of Fireball. (Lizzie McNeil is located at 400 N. McClurg Ct., 60611, (312) 467-1992.)

After a bit more wandering around downtown, I head back to the Pittsfield to rest up for the Frank Lloyd Wright tours that would take me to Oak Park tomorrow.

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