Three Nights In City of “Big Shoulders,” The Windy City

The Aon is the third tallest building in Chicago, within walking distance of Millennium Park

The Aon is the third tallest building in Chicago, within walking distance of Millennium Park

Chicago is the second largest city in the country, if you speak from history and don’t mention that johnny-come-lately western megametropolis that has outgrown the City of Big Shoulders. Travel to the great city of Chicago has prompted me to write. Hubby and I spent three nights there vacationing in late June. For a vacation highlight, after Millennium Park and The Art Institute, we chose the AIA-designed Architectural Boat Tour down the Chicago River, having first, early in the morning of our boat tour, doing our spin mini-workout in the hotel’s fitness center two levels down. Dear readers, come with us now, in present tense, as we are perked, motivated, and ready for the rave-reviewed Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, boarding at noon.

The Chicago “First Lady,” a member of the river’s finest fleet, is our safe, US Coast Guard-inspected vessel. We have a knowledgeable volunteer architect with a good personality and a nice summer fedora as our narrator. I am at the ready with my ballpoint to snag on paper any unfamiliar architectural terms I hear. “Cladding” and “pediment” I know, but I jot down “dark recessed spandrels,” and “chair effect.” I was also off and running to the bar and back. Thus I am very busy, sipping iced raspberry-flavored gin lemonade, listening to the brilliant narrator, and spotting the first buildings depicted on the excellent brochure received with ticket purchase. The narrator, introduced by the ship captain, varied his presentation slightly from the brochure’s pictures of skyscrapers rendered in six major delineations of architectural styles. The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) docents are one of the most respected volunteer groups in the world, receiving hundreds of hours of training about Chicago architecture and history.  Our guide seemed to be interested in Beaux Arts period, not listed, as are these: 1) Early Warehouse of 1910, 2) Historic Revival, taking hold by 1925 with the Chicago Tribune Building as the amazing example, 3) Art Deco of the next two decades, (may overlap with the Beaux Arts category), and 4) Mid 20th Century Modern, under the indelible influence of Mies van der Rohe who believed “less is more.” Noteworthy eye-catching twin towers of this era are Marina City, a multiuse complex.  It has semicircular residential balconies above high-rise parking, and was completed in 1967 by Bertrand Goldberg. Continuing the genres depicted on the brochure: 5) Post-Modern of the 1980s, whose architects believed “less is a bore,” and 6) Contemporary, as evidenced by Chicago architect Jeanne Gang’s Aqua at Lakeshore East Building completed in 2009. That same year, Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill built the Trump Hotel and Tower of over 90 stories.

The Chicago Tribune Building, 1925 is an example of "Historic Revival" architectural style.

The Chicago Tribune Building, 1925 is an example of “Historic Revival” architectural style.

Entrance to Tribune Building

Entrance to Tribune Building

The Tribune Building embellishment at front entrance is unique, as are other embellishments from around the world.

The Tribune Building embellishment at front entrance is unique, as are other embellishments from around the world.

I could not possibly write all of the many anecdotes that amused us as we cruised down the Chicago River for 90 minutes, but I will mention a favorite building of mine that was next door to our Fairmont Millennium Park Hotel: The Aon, third tallest skyscraper in the city, first constructed with Italian Carrera marble cladding for about $120 million. During the first year or so, to the building’s insurers’ regret, it was realized that the marble could not withstand the Chicago winters, and it was removed. The second cladding was done with North Carolina white granite for about $80 million.

I also liked the skyscraper built next to Chicago’s tallest. The tallest is the former Sears Tower, renamed Willis Tower, at a height of 1,451 feet, built by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. The pretty pink building with blue glass, next to the Willis, was described as wearing a tiara. She is affectionately referred to as “Pink Lady.”

Pink Lady Stands Next To, in Contrast To Chicago's Tallest Skyscraper, Willis Tower, 1,451 ft./442 meters.

Pink Lady Stands Next To, in Contrast To, Chicago’s Tallest Skyscraper, Willis Tower, 1,451 ft./442 meters.

Lastly, 333 West Wacker Drive, a 1983 debut in Chicago of Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects, represents “contextualism,” and is a favorite of the area said our narrator. It presents a curved, shimmering, green-tinted façade flowing in harmony with the river’s hue.

A curved building, 333 West Wacker Drive flows in harmony with the river's hue.

A curved building, 333 West Wacker Drive flows in harmony with the river’s hue.

Skyscrapers evoke emotions. As I walked past a favorite, the third tallest, the perfectly pristine minimalist Aon Building on the way to explore the Millennium Park, Art Institute of Chicago, The Gage Restaurant, and Potbellies for lunch, my widening eyes scanned the thousand plus feet of the clean, narrowed rectangle’s creamy surface. The overall effect is one of immaculate grooming and unsurpassed excellence of “punctum,” a word for the artist’s way to penetrate an image.

Chicago, I love you, and yes, I would move to live in you, if I am not too old to change from a smaller Southern city to the “second” greatest American city (Chicagoans do not like becoming third after Los Angeles that outgrew them). Chicago, you grew from an onion- and garlicky-smelling swamp the Native Americans lived close to but apart from to a grand urban place. Chicago, you became the meat-packing and mail-order giant of the New World. You launched the muckraking novels of Upton Sinclair with your industries needing reform. Montgomery Ward, the retailer, started the first catalog in 1872 to benefit farmers needing supplies. He coined the phrase “money back guarantee.” Chicago, your river, Chicago River, had to be reversed to overcome its toxicity spoiling the drinking water from Lake Michigan decades back. Current Mayor Ram Emmanuel, in his fifties, announced that in his lifetime, the river will be free of pollution. Our guide told us that the mayor belongs to the most elite fitness club in the world, the East Bank Club, Barack Obama’s club. He said the club was built, in times past, to turn its back on the river, so toxic the river was. Times have changed, and the structures across the river from East Bank Club now face the river, no longer toxic but somewhat polluted. The culture of Chicago embraces and appreciates the continuing potentiality of the Chicago River. Developers, taking their cues from San Antonio, Texas, have begun their own River Walk for tourists. Each new construction is required by ordinance to include a walk-by design. This is an inspiring city. Chicagoans know how to change, problem-solve, think up good, democratic for-the-people plans and complete them. Chicago, you are a complete, huge, vibrant, attractive urban community.

Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) ( offers education in design of buildings on a 90-minute boat tour.

Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) ( offers education in design of buildings on a 90-minute boat tour.

Aqua Building, hotel and residences, designed  with wave-like balconies

Aqua Building, hotel and residences, designed with wave-like balconies




A Chicago Getaway being a road trip, I decided to pack my computer in hopes of getting the typing done while I was documenting Chicago travel with my husband. Here is how the writing/typing went:  Today is Day 3 of the Getaway, and I am watching hubby sleep. He deserves a long morning sleep, not just because he loves to stay up late, but on this particular day because he rescued me from a seriously inconvenient potentiality. Here is the story; it will renew your faith in public goodness:

I left my beige, lightweight-polyester fanny pack on a resting bench in Tenza Piano Park outside The Art Institute of Chicago. I had the fanny pack to be able to carry only essentials– driver’s license for ID, a credit card and cash, a lipstick, a Kleenex, and a ballpoint. The fanny pack wasn’t perfect, and I had to hold a small camera, so I bought a perfect lightweight tote for over the shoulder and deposited the fanny pack into it. Exhausted from a full day of viewing, three hours before lunch, then another three hours after, we exited the Art Institute. I lay down and used the fanny pack for a pillow. Still tired, needing a cool drink of water and also planning for a gin and tonic for revival before dinner, I got up and walked toward hubby to depart the area. I was a definite Grumpy Cat until we did find a cool bottle of water for sale from a vendor. Then we sat for a while watching young acrobats show off in a groomed public-art area dotted with metal statues. The statues were wonderfully engaging in that, of all the dozen or more, their demeanor was depressed. Most individuals entering the area felt the engagement, went to them, put an arm around them, or sat on their laps. One person rested his hand on the statue’s thigh seated next to him. I also felt drawn to the standing statue close to where we were sitting, and so I stood beside one, mimicking his posture.


A Public Sculpture Needing A Friend To Stand Beside Him

A Public Sculpture Needing A Friend To Stand Beside Him

After that pleasant rest, we walked on our “last” legs toward our dinner destination, agreeing that a drink in an ancient and accepted hotel, Hotel Congress, would be where we would order the gin and tonics, which we did begin to enjoy. Thus, about an hour had passed since departing Tenza Piano Gardens, and I dug into my lightweight carrybag bought at the museum, and immediately realized the silly undersized fanny pack had gone missing! My second realization was that the contents, my life essentials, of the missing fanny pack were now available to whichever “finders-keepers” type had picked it up from the bench! Note: Here is one reason why a girl needs a bloke—he immediately set out to the careless spot, never thinking twice about our fatigue level. In just a short time, he called to say, “I’ve got it! You are a lucky girl!” Lucky indeed I was, and totally surprised. This was a grand shared moment. Good ol’ Chicago people of public life. No needy thief had selected my silly tan headrest left on the bench in the garden! Chicago, I think I love you.

One thought on “Three Nights In City of “Big Shoulders,” The Windy City

  1. Nice review of Chicago architecture. I particularly appreciate your understanding of the difference of Modern and Contemporary. Many people believe these to be synonymous terms, but as you can see from Mies’ work compared to Jeannie Gang, they clearly are not.

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