Walking and Talking Architecture in Chicago

It was a cold and snowy day in the Windy City but the walking tours offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation take off promptly – rain or shine – from the CAF headqurters on South Michicgan Avenue. A variety of tours are scheduled throughout the day, nearly every day of the year. But I had been worried – what if no one else showed up for “Skyscraper Walk Through Time?”

The Kluczynski Building, one of three that make up the Federal Center in Chicago

The Federal Plaza in Chicago

Not surprisingly, someone always shows up in Chicago, and over 6,000 architecture tours are given by the CAF in a year. There were many milling around the gift shop when I arrived, and 5 of us lined up for the 3 p.m. tour, and received a quick orientation.

This was one of the CAF’s shortest tours (over 90 tours are offered) and we would cover no more than a mile on foot, but would travel through a century and a half of architectural and city history in one hour. It was downright cold, so the quick pace would help warm us as we followed Susan out the door, and stopped briefly to consider the imposing Michigan Avenue entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago directly across the street.

Susan discussed some history and architectural attributes of the massive neoclassical Beaux Arts-style Art Institute. Then she took a moment and set the scene for us of the October 1871 firestorm that has been known ever since as the Great Chicago Fire.

 In Your Bucket Because …

  • The skyscraper is an icon that defines Chicago
  • The CAF’s hundreds of professionally trained volunteer docents, provide a smart and entertaining architectural tour
  • Good for anyone who loves cities and great architecture, skyscrapers in particular

The Rise of the Skyscraper

Four square miles of a bustling commercial hub “to the west and south of where we stand,” were leveled in the fire, Susan said. The tall, masonry clad buildings that we had come to see were Chicago’s answer to the devastation of that day, she said; a reflection of it’s determination to rise again.

Chief Chicagou: one of the bronze portraits in the Marquette Building.

Chief Chicagou: one of the bronze portraits in the Marquette Building.

We hurried west on Adams Street, staying as close as possible to Susan who was talking as fast as we could walk. We passed under Chicago’s “L” at Wabash Ave., and crossed State Street, listening as she explained the evolution of State Street’s retail architecture, and the early development of Chicago’s mass transit. These elevated train tracks were built in 1897, she said, and the way they encircle the city’s commercial district is what defines the area Chicagoans call “the Loop”.

At Dearborn Street we rounded the corner for a moment of appreciation of the Monadnock Building, which has occupied the corner of Dearborn and W. Jackson Blvd., since 1891. At 17 stories this was truly an early skyscraper, the tallest commercial iron frame building with its load-bearing masonry exterior walls doing the work of holding up all those floors.

Chicago's Marquette Buidling

Chicago’s Marquette Buidling

The Marquette Building and the Chicago School of Architecture

Just behind us, at the intersection of Dearborn and W. Adams, we focused on a neighboring structure, the Marquette Building (1895), similar in height and age to the Monadnock. Yet, the Marquette Building, we learned, was completely different in concept and technical design from the Monadnock; an inner steel frame does the heavy work of supporting the building’s height, while the outer walls are merely a thin covering, or skin.

This wasn’t the first steel frame skyscraper, Susan explained, but one of the best surviving examples of that pioneering technology. The building is prized for various other attributes as well, including it’s status as a great example of the Chicago School of architecture.

The building’s outstanding lobbies are encircled by Tiffany mosaics depicting the life of the Jesuit explorer, Jacques Marquette. But what most surprised and delighted me are the bronze portraits of Native Americans which appear over each of the elevators on both the first and second floor lobbies.

Art Deco and Skyscrapers of the Modern Movement

At the Bank of America Building, formerly the Field Building, on LaSalle St., we left the 1890s and leaped ahead to 1934, appreciating the many art deco qualities of this building – the pronounced verticality of the four-story entrance, the brushed nickel elevator doors in the lobby, the zig zag pattern on the ceiling, and pleated fluting on columns in the lobby.

Postmodern details: an owl for wisdom at the corner of the pediment. The Harold Washington Library Center.

Postmodern details: an owl for wisdom at the corner of the pediment.
The Harold Washington Library Center.

We learned about the perseverance of the Marshall Field family in bringing this building to life in spite of the looming Great Depression. We also learned that this was the last skyscraper erected in Chicago until after both the Depression and World War II.

We began to retrace our steps, walking back east now, and entered the modern era, as we stopped to consider the Federal Center designed by Mies van der Rohe,(1886-1969), and learn something of the International movement which dominated architecture the latter half of the 20th century.

Art deco embellishment in the shape of the Field Building functions as a postal box and elevator indicator in the main lobby...

Art deco embellishment in the shape of the Field Building functions as a postal box and elevator indicator in the building’s main lobby.

Before our tour concluded we had been introduced to nine of Chicago’s most recognizable buildings. In addition to the previous, they included the Berghoff restaurant (1860s), Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower, 1974), the Trump Tower, (2009), and the exuberantly post-modern Harold Washington Library (1991). Susan identified architectural styles and talked about technological progress that enabled the construction of particular buildings, and influenced the future for thousands of others.


You will almost surely find a CAF tour to fit your taste, budget and timeframe from the Andersonville Pub Crawl (2.5 hours) to a Skyscraper Walk for Families (1 hour) to a close look at the Trump International Hotel and Tower (45 minutes).

In addition to walking tours, you can choose from boat, bus/trolley, “L”train, bicycle, and Segway tours.

If you travel into Chicago by car, where to park it will be one of your most pressing issues. You can find nearby underground parking beneath Millenium Park (just north of the Chicago Institute of Art) for $29 a day.

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