Chicago By Boat

Don’t mind me as I continue my love fest for the Chicago Architecture Foundation for one more blog post. I promise I’ll start talking about things other than Chicago’s buildings soon. (But in the mean time, CAF, if you see this: hire me plz?)

The weekend before the Chicago Marathon (so, yes, forever ago), my aunt came to visit me. Even though we knew she was coming in early October, we decided to risk it and get tickets for one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Chicago River boat tours. Naturally, it was freezing and overcast that day (couldn’t have that weather for the marathon, though! Ohhhhhhh no! Hmph.), but regardless, this ended up being one of the best ways I’ve ever spent part of a Saturday in Chicago.

The tour lasted 90 minutes and started at the river and Michigan, headed west to where the river branches, north to a little bit beyond Chicago, well south of Roosevelt, and east along Navy Pier.

I’ve certainly been around this area before and had a basic handle on some of the buildings, but I learned so much about some of Chicago’s different architectural styles and how they’ve changed over time. For example, let’s check out the London Guarantee Building.

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This building was constructed in the 1920s, and while Chicago’s weather in the 1920s was not all that dramatically different than Chicago’s weather in the 2010s–that is to say, they still had hot and humid summers–technology was quite different. Air conditioning, the only thing that makes summer tolerable in my opinion, didn’t exist in the 1920s, and they needed ways to maximize airflow and light. To that end, this building features courtyards (I think that’s what they call them…), which not only allow for better airflow, but also allow for more windows. That, in turn, increased the value of office space within the building. “Form ever follows function,” as the great architect Louis Sullivan said, and if you want to have a building good for business, you design that building with business in mind.

As architecture evolved, modernism led to the rejection of ornamentation, which is how we go from something like the Jewelers Building, with urns and ornamentation aplenty…

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…to this, directly across the river:

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Ah, Mies. Do we see any ornamentation on the IBM (AMA) Building? Of course not! “Less is more,” was the rallying cry of the modernists, which is how we end up with giant rectangles championed as architectural masterpieces. To be fair, I have come to appreciate modern architecture over time, and while I find the terra cotta clad buildings of the 20s far more beautiful (why terra cotta? Because it’s fireproof! And what did Chicago want after that little incident in 1871 where most of downtown burned to the ground? Fireproof buildings.), I respect the simplicity of modernism and the way it takes form follows function to a whole new level – because when the building is so stark, you can transform it to fit just about any function you need.

Continuing through time (and down the river), we see examples of Postmodernism, in which buildings, in addition to rejecting “less is more” principle of modernism, honor their neighbors. Behold:

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I don’t remember the name of this building, BUT I do remember why the docent on our river tour pointed it out. Look at the very tippy top of the building. Do you see the arch-like structure across the middle, and the matching corners? This building is right next to a bridge across the river, and that arch-like structure is meant to echo the bridge, while the corners echo the bridge houses. So cool, right? I never would’ve noticed this, never mind picked up on that reference, without this boat tour.

The boat tour didn’t just highlight architectural history and development, though. It also taught me a bit about Chicago history.

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This enormous building, which was fairly impossible to capture in one iPhone photo from the boat, today houses a variety of tenants: people, companies (Groupon, for one), restaurants, etc. But when it was built at Chicago and the river, it was one of three buildings–all of which still stand–in the Montgomery Ward complex. Does anyone remember Montgomery Ward? There was one in my hometown when I was a kid, located in a mall that was already dying when I was in elementary school (and has long since died–or rather, been repurposed into a strip mall). Montgomery Ward, like Sears, got its start as a mail-order business, before turning into a department store, before going under. When it existed as a mail-order business, though, it needed somewhere to store its goods. To that end: 1.25 million square feet of storage.

On our tour, we also saw the old Main Post Office, which, unsurprisingly, stirred my history-loving, urban-decay-fasicinated soul.

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Speaking of enormous buildings, this one clocks in at 2.5 million square feet, so it could easily eat the old Montgomery Ward storage building and still have room for dessert. It closed in 1997 when the post office moved to a new facility across the street and has basically been left to fall apart ever since. While various proposals have been put forth to repurpose the building, that’s proven to be easier said than done for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are 1) the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, so you’re pretty limited as to what you can do with it, and 2) a road (Congress Parkway, aka I-290) goes underneath it. Those two elements create a bit of a logistical challenge. I believe the building’s for sale if you’ve got several million bucks burning a hold in your pocket. In the mean time, you can catch a glimpse inside courtesy of the Joker:

Obviously this is just a brief glimpse into everything I saw on the boat tour. While they are a little pricey, I assure you if you have even a passing interest in Chicago’s architecture, history, or just want to see the city from a unique perspective, this tour is 100% worth every single penny. It was the fastest 90 minutes of my life, and I can’t recommend a boat tour enough.

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9 thoughts on “Chicago By Boat

  1. I think taking a CAF boat tour should be mandatory for everyone who moves to Chicago. I was actually in a meeting last week with a girl who moved here from Indiana who had never heard of the Chicago Fire. For shame.

    Anyway, I know one person who works for CAF and another who is a volunteer docent if you would like an intro 😉

  2. Those tours are the best! It’s been so long since I’ve taken one I definitely want to go again next year… may be a little too late now ha

  3. Pingback: What’s Next | accidental intentions

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