It’s been said that Los Angeles is to celebrities as Chicago is to architecture. Billed as the birthplace of the skyscraper, the Windy City has a vast array of architectural styles designed by entire platoons of architects.
On a recent visit, I decided to see why the "U.S. News and World Report" ranks the city’s architectural boat tours the number one tourist attraction in Chicago so I hopped on one of the First Lady boats for a tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF).
The tours begin on the main branch of the Chicago River near the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The scene makes a nice first impression with the beautiful bridge set off by two of the city’s loveliest buildings -- the 1921-1924 Wrigley Building, a Renaissance-style structure with a white glazed terra cotta facade, and the 1925 Tribune Tower, whose architectural style is a Neo-Gothic and Art Deco mix.
Last year, 232, 722 passengers took a total of 1,994 architecture boat cruises offered by the CAF. One of the things that makes them so popular is the expertise of the docents who mix their presentations with Chicago history, architectural highlights, anecdotes and a good bit of humor.
"We don’t want to kill them with facts," said my guide, Val Adams,
The 90-minute tours head down the main branch of the Chicago River, under the bridge and past Marina City, home to the 65-story "corncob" towers, the largest residential concrete buildings in the world when built from 1959 to 1967 by architect Bertrand Goldberg.
"On the river, we’ll see different architectural styles including art deco, modern, contemporary, Chicago School of Architecture and others that are a combination of styles," Adams said.
Actually the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which hundreds lost their lives and 3.3 square miles of c Chicago was devastated, played an initial role in making Chicago an architectural treasure trove. When builders decided to reconstruct the booming town, they were hemmed in by the lake to the east, the Chicago River to the west and the massive railroad infrastructure to the south. To maximize the use of the pricey real estate, there was no other way to go than up.
"Up to the time of the Great Fire, the tallest buildings in town were between 5 and 8 stories," Adams said.
The first building dubbed a skyscraper, the Montauk Building, was 10 stories tall when completed in 1883. The ensuing 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of many more tall buildings, giving Chicago the title "vertical city."
The boat tours continue up the north and south branches of the Chicago River, going by such landmarks as the Merchandise Mart, the third largest office building in the nation after the Pentagon and Willis (Sears) Tower, the Lyric Opera House and the new Trump Tower, Chicago’s second tallest building after the 110-story Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
"Everyone on an CAF boat tour gets to see the same 35 to 40 core buildings, but, on average, I cover a total of 70 buildings," Adams said. "I also like to include some history of the Chicago Fire and the river reversal project, an engineering marvel that had the river flow away from instead of into the lake."
According to Adams the river got so polluted with sewage and industrial waste it threatened the lake, which supplied the city with its drinking water. Engineers designed a canal twice as deep as the river, 28 miles long and 40-feet deep that rechanneled river flow into the Illinois River, then into the Mississippi.
"The project removed more bedrock and gravel from the channel than what was removed to build the Panama Canal," Adams said.
The list of architects whose work tour takers get to see is staggering - Mies van der Rohe, Holabird and Root, Harry Weese, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM for short), Helmut Jahn and Jeanne Gang.
Before returning to its dock, the tour boat powers back under the Michigan Street Bridge then past the Navy Pier down to the locks where it turns around and heads back home. It’s a 90-minute long combination of education, entertainment and enlightenment.
If You’re Going
To purchase tickets for the Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tours, phone 800-982-2787. New this year, are Capture Chicago Photography Cruises at 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and Twilight River Cruises at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays.
CAF docents go through a rigorous six-month long training regimen. From January through May, CAF staff train them every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The volunteers also have to read outside of class on Chicago history and architecture and write a weekly report on the architecture of one of the buildings.
During the training period, they practice leading a tour with a coach. When the coaches think the volunteers are ready, they conduct a tour with a certifier, who either accepts or rejects them as a docent.
The CAF offers over 90 different tours of the city on foot, Segway, bicycle, trolley, L train and bus. Of its pool of 450 docents, only 180 are certified to lead the architecture boat tours, which are considered the most difficult and challenging. Finally, each boat tour docent is required to complete 10 boat cruises a year, which run from April through mid-November.