Chicago Architectural Tours-2013

We, as discussed in previous Chicago blog posts, love Chicago architecture and the incredibly informative tours that the Chicago Architectural Foundation provides to explain and provide broader sociological context around this architecture. Although we have, so far, taken fewer than 20 of the more than 90 different tours offered by CFA, we notch up one or two every time we visit the city. This trip, we took two CFA tours: one based on the book, Devil in the White City, which examined the creation, experience and legacy of the 1893 Columbian Exposition; and the other on downtown Chicago’s contributions to and legacy of Art Deco buildings.


Devil in the White City Tour

This tour, focused on the Hyde Park neighborhood that was the site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Since most of the buildings and sculptures were constructed of wood frames with a coating of "staff" (plaster, horsehair and hemp), few examples are left standing. The tour, therefore, began with a slide-based lecture that discussed the rough-and-tumble world of the boom town (from 300 in 1830 to 1 million in 1870), discussions of the people who led the efforts and pictures of the fair layout, buildings, exhibits and, of course, the 250-foot Ferris wheel (with 36 cars, holding up to 60 people apiece) that was the highlight.

Bryan Robson, our incredible tour leader, then gave us all the stats–200 buildings, built by 40,000 laborers at cost of $28 million (2X the original budget), 27 million visitors (including 700,000 in a single day) over the exhibition’s six month run, the $0.50 (today’s equivalent of $10) daily admission price and how the entire production managed to eke out a small profit. He discussed and showed slides of many of the theme buildings (fine arts, electricity, mining, agriculture, machinery, women, etc.), some of the country and state buildings and especially the huge (1,800×800-foot) Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building that accommodated 150,000 people for the opening ceremonies.

The Midway, which was initially conceived as an Educational experience, morphed into a center for populist entertainment, with exaggerated representations of villages from countries including Austria, Turkey, Ireland and Egypt; the latter of whose exotic dancer caused quite stir. It also included attractions such as an artificial volcano, ice railway, the Wild Bill Hickok Wild West Show and of course, George Ferris’ wheel.

The road trip portion of the tour began with a brief glance across the street to the Art Institute of Chicago, which was constructed as an Exposition auxiliary facility where symposia and lectures were conducted. The Exposition ground proper consisted of the Midway (which is now a grass strip), a permanent limestone version of the Palace of Fine Arts (now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry), recreations of the Exposition’s street lamps and a one-third-sized replica of the 105-foot (including the base) statue of Columbia, the Golden Lady.

Expo-Art InstExpo- Mus of Sci-Lake (2)Expo-Golden Lady

Then came a lovely walk through the tranquil Wooded Isle, which originally housed the Japanese Pavilion and now a lovely Japanese Garden.



Not content to explain and show us the fair, Bryan also felt compelled to show and explain the context of the south-side neighborhoods near where the fair was conducted. We stopped at and got a brief tour of 1870’s Prairie Avenue Millionaire’s Row, saw and learned about the construction of the elevated tracks that served the fair, the city’s male "entertainment district", the stockyard and the original University of Chicago campus.

And then there were some of the stories of some of the controversies surrounding the exhibition experience, such as those surrounding whether Chicago should host the fair, the role of the midway and the initial exclusion of Negros and the decision to have “Negro Day”. There was also discussion of the dark underside of the exhibition experience, such as the sub-code buildings that were constructed in a rush to capitalize on the huge crowds and most lurid of all, the story of Dr. Henry H. Holmes.  While Holmes was one of the many to build a shoddy hotel to house fair-goers, he was looking for more than money. He was looking for people on whom he could take out insurance policies and then torture, kill and then dissect his victims, sometimes even selling their organs and skeletons to medical schools! He became one of America’s first modern (not counting Western gunslingers and the like) serial killers. Although he ended up confessing to 27 murders, some estimate that the actual number of his victims may have exceeded 200!

Overall, a very educational and entertaining tour. A great way to spend a morning.


Downtown Deco Tour

The tour began with a refresher on the three primary stages of deco: the early, pre-depression Zigzag Moderne (a lot of decoration and zigzag patterns), depression-era Classical Moderne, and poster recession Streamline Moderne. The three styles, which came after the highly decorative, flowery, Art Nouveau era of design and architectures, was an outgrowth of a flood of innovation and technologies that reduce the ornateness to emphasize sleekness and speed. it was encouraged by changes to zoning laws that required setbacks that limited the density

of tall buildings and the move to Terracotta tiles to reduce susceptibility to fire. We saw many examples of each of the styles, from the pre-Deco Pittsfield building, through classical including gems such as the Board of Trade, the Field and Union Carbide and Carbon buildings. And then there is the largest Art Deco building of all (in fact, the largest building in the world until construction of the Pentagon); the Merchandise Mart. The Mart, however, was not on this tour. There is, apparently so much to discuss about this building that it gets its own tour.

Deco-BoT-front-gDeco-horizontal glass (2)Deco-Carbide-top

Deco-BoT front detail-gMerch Mart

The real treat, however, came inside the lobbies of some of these buildings, with their elaborate, brass elevator doors and eagle-graced letterboxes, their recurring waterfall, chevron, sunburst and stylized animal design themes and their wall sconces and torchieres. Among the most memorable of these lobbies are those of the Board of Trade, One North LaSalle Street (now Bank of America) and Carbide and Carbon Buildings.

Deco-BoT Lobby-gDeco-Bronze detail-gDeco-LaSalle pic-g

Deco-LaSalle lobbyDeco-elevator-gDeco-sconse-g

Although not the best CAF tours we have taken, it was well worth the time and the money.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.