Architectural River Cruise

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River cruises focusing on architecture are probably the most popular tours in Chicago.  Many companies offer these tours and the competition is so stiff that operators know they better provide a top notch product.

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Chicago’s First Lady sets out

I’d say that the most highly regarded tour is that provided on Chicago’s First Lady by the Chicago Architecture Foundation‘s (CAF) docents.  This 90 minute excursion is consistently voted as one of the top ten tours in America by various groups such as Trip Advisor.

caf kayakers

Kayaking tours are also wildly popular

I have only ever heard good things about the cruise and have even spoken with Chicagoans who have taken the tour several times with out-of-town guests and found that each docent puts their own spin on the tour so it’s never the same thing twice.  I like that.

But.  But. But.  The tour costs $44 US/$60 Cdn per person.  Personally, I cannot justify spending that kind of money.  I also worried that, with a background in architecture, the tour wouldn’t offer me new insights.

caf worbles

When purchasing our discounted Second City tickets the other day, I noticed 1/2 price CAF cruise tickets.  The counter staff at Hottix told us that they sometimes receive these tickets on Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday in the summer.  Sold.  The tickets work out to a bit more than 1/2 price because Hottix adds a $5 per ticket charge to cover its overhead.

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Bet you didn’t know that Groupon started in Chicago

Our tour was at 1 pm on Monday.  Although the boats have an air-conditioned lower deck, the views aren’t great and it is hard to hear the guide.  So everyone sucks it up and sits outside.  In the stinking hot sun.  Bring sunglasses and a hat with a visor.  We brought neither but were fine.  Also bring water.  It was a hot, sunny day but the only uncomfortable part was sitting on deck for 15 minutes before the cruise started.  That said, Fahbio was wearing shorts and got an impressive sunburn on his knees.

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Marina Towers, 1962  At the time the tallest residential buildings in the world

Our guide, Mitzi, was fantastic.  I certainly came away with new knowledge and a different perspective on the city.  Fahbio, not particularly interested in architecture, also found it well worth it.  He says it was jam-packed with information.

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Montgomery Ward tower, 1972

Today’s Quote of the Day comes from CAF’s docent Mitzi (paraphrased):

Montgomery Ward was a very egalitarian company.  Since there was no way every employee could have a corner office it was decided that no one would have a corner office.

The Second City

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When you say “Second City” to Canadians, like me, who grew up in the late seventies and eighties, the first thing (only thing?) that comes to mind is SCTV.  SCTV stands for Second City Television and it was a hit from the get go.  The show consistently came up with hysterical sketches made even more hysterical by the talented cast.  People like Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Martin Short.  Mention “Bob and Doug McKenzie” to any Canadian of a certain age and be prepared to be hit with a shrill “Ku ruck ku ruck ruck ku ku”.

But it turns out that The Second City has a history predating SCTV.  Who knew?  The show grew out of Toronto’s Second City comedy troupe.  But Toronto’s Second City, itself, was an offshoot of the original Second City comedy club in Chicago.  The Chicago Second City has been going for almost 60 years (!), since 1959.  At first, the sketch comedy was strictly improvisational and improv still plays a central role in Second City shows.

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Photo Credit: secondcity.com

The Second City is one of the leading comedy clubs in the world with shows every day.  Many Second City cast members have gone on to join Saturday Night Live and to enjoy stardom in their own right.  I’m talking Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Amy Sedaris, Dan Akroyd, Steve Carrell, the Belushis, Mike Meyers, Joan Rivers.  No small potatoes, these.

The last time we visited Chicago, Fahbio really wanted to go see a Second City show.  I was more lukewarm.  What if we shelled out a bunch of cash and it wasn’t funny?  I’m pleased to report that there is NEVER any danger of a Second City live show not being funny.  In fact, you are more likely to die when your drink goes down the wrong pipe because you’re laughing so hard than to leave the show muttering, “That was lame…”

Years have gone by and I still remember how hard I laughed that night.  I also remember that we stumbled upon “Hottix”, a non-profit organization that offers half price theatre tickets from the League of Chicago Theatres.

second city tickets

This time around, a Second City show was on my list of absolute must-dos.  We headed right down to Hottix and had a difficult time choosing between the various different Second City shows.  In the end, we went with “Unelectable You” as it seemed timely, what with the presidential race going on and all.  Any slight misgivings we had about not getting the jokes as a result of our Canadian citizenship were unfounded.

OMG – the show was hysterical.  A blend of scripted scenes and improv, it had us rolling.  Audience member Jackie (retired middle school teacher) if you’re reading this, you were an amazing sport when they dragged you on stage and turned you into a presidential candidate.  I’ll remember those shenanigans until the day I die and I swear it will always make me break out in laughter.

If you find yourself in Chicago, be sure to take in a Second City performance. If you can’t get here, get onto YouTube and watch some vintage SCTV.

Art Institute of Chicago

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The first few bites of a dessert have the greatest impact.  As you continue eating, your senses get saturated.  The same thing happens when you visit a museum.  It is possible to spend a whole day in a museum but after 90 minutes or so, your feet start to drag and your mind to wander.  And that, my friend, is why you cannot and should not spend more time in an outstanding museum than in a mediocre one.

And that is also why museums should not be charging people $25 to get in.  Museums conserve artifacts but they also have a role to play in educating the public and allowing access to museum pieces.

The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States.  Its collection is second only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s in New York.  Since its beginnings in 1879, it has been connected to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a leading art training ground.  As a result, it developed close relationships with many of its iconic student artists, such as Georgia O’Keefe.

The Art Institute of Chicago is the permanent home of some of the world’s most famous originals.  People are often surprised to learn that the paintings below live in Chicago.

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And there are many, many, many, many more that you probably thought were to be found in the Louvre or the Met or the Vatican or the Victoria and Albert.  The Art Institute of Chicago also holds staggering collections of objects in various categories: African, Decorative Arts, Medieval Armour, Byzantine, Public Art, and so on and so forth.

Obviously a single visit to such a collection is an absurdity.  Unfortunately, that’s what some of us have to live with.  For those who have a particular interest in art, history or architecture, with a collection this size, it makes sense to have a plan and to stick to it as much as possible.

The following “must see” things in the museum are based entirely on my personal interests.  If you are in Chicago to see its architecture or public art first hand, a visit to the Art Institute will complement and round out what you are seeing in situ.  Without further ado, in no particular order, my list of highlights:

  • European Impressionism
  • European Post-Impressionism
  • European Modernism
  • European Decorative Arts
  • American Paintings 1900-1955
  • American Modernism
  • American Decorative Arts
  • Architectural Fragments (essential for fans of early skyscrapers)
  • Prairie School
  • Architectural Ornament
  • Chagall Window and Public Art

Let me come back to my point that 90 to 120 minutes is the optimal length of visit.  The price to visit the Art Institute of Chicago is:

  • $25 US/$33 Cdn Adults
  • $19 US/$25 Cdn Seniors/Students/Teens 14-19
  • Free for children under 14

These prices mean that only the most affluent art lovers can enjoy and learn from this world-class museum collection.  Many expensive museums offer a free day once a month or a few free hours per week.  The Art Institute of Chicago offers some free entry dates/times for Illinois residents.

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Citizens of the rest of the world, regardless of how passionately they love art, are out of luck.  Or are they?  Everyone needs a ticket to enter the museum.  Illinois residents will be asked their zip code.  Spit out a valid one, quickly and without hesitation, and that free entrance will be yours.  I chose 60613.  But fair is fair and the museum is a gem of the art world so don’t be a cheapskate.  I would encourage you to make a donation in line with your means to help support the work of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Donation boxes are located inside the museum.  Personally, I think $12 is a fair price.

  • Free weekdays in January/February (January 4 – February 11, 2016)
  • Free Thursdays 5-8 pm all year

Today’s Quote of the Day comes from the International Council of Museums (ICOM):

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

The Rookery Building

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The Rookery (209 South La Salle St.), built in 1886, is Chicago’s oldest, still standing, “sky scraper”.  Today, it seems ludicrous to call it a sky scraper, dwarfed as it is by its neighbours, but at the time of its construction, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world, if not the very tallest.

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The Rookery Building, constructed of rough granite and smooth brick with decorative terra cotta elements

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The Rookery was built to impress and cost over $1 Million to construct in 1880s dollars.  A staggering sum to be sure.  When completed, it was considered to be the finest and biggest office building in the United States.  It had 11 stories, 600 offices and 4000 people worked there every day.

It is still a working office building and as such, is open to the public.

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The cantilevered staircase

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This staircase winds up 11 stories

It was designed by Burnham and Root, one of the leading 19th century architecture firms in Chicago.  They were the same team responsible for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition (i.e. first Chicago World’s Fair).

Root, the main architect, designed the building as a sort of tall, rectangular donut.  The entire centre of the building is negative space.  The result: inside offices get as much natural light as exterior ones.  He then added a cast and wrought iron structure across the hole at the upper second level and covered it in glass.  This interior light court is one of the most special parts of the building.

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The light court from inside

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Cast iron ceiling, detail

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A view above the light court from inside the “donut”.  Shockingly, the light court ceiling was originally completely unprotected from the elements.  Rain and snow would fall on this glass roof.  This led to eventual leaking and deterioration.

The Rookery gets a lot of visitors not because of any of the above but because it is listed on the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust website as one of his buildings.  It’s also located in downtown Chicago and free to enter.

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the most famous architects of the 1900s.  Architecture buffs make pilgrimages from all over the world to see his works, many of which are located in and around Chicago.

Wright was commissioned to give the Rookery an interior upgrade and the facelift was completed in 1907.  In a nutshell, he covered everything in white marble decorated in gilt and added distinctive elements such as chandeliers.

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The distinctive chandeliers that Wright added as part of his facelift.  The flower balusters under the railing and the incised gilt marble below were both added by Wright as well.

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Wright based his balusters on one of Root’s many baluster motifs.  Here, the Root original.

However, in 1931, the building was again modernized by a former Wright assistant, Drummond, who gave it an art deco aesthetic.  After several decades of deterioration and shoddy maintenance, a full restoration of the building was completed in the early 1990s.  It was decided to restore the building to its Frank Lloyd Wright period while preserving some elements of Root’s original interior and Drummond’s later work.  A glass roof was also added at across the top of the building to protect the light court roof from the elements.

rookery original column

As part of the restoration project, the single remaining section of original floor was copied.  A section of one of Wright’s marble columns was removed to show Root’s metal columns.

For example, it is Drummond’s Art Deco elevator doors that are seen in the lobby.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s elevators for the Rookery Building have been preserved but you’ll have to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see them.

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Drummond’s elevator adorned with bats and birds

The public is free to enter the building and walk around the lobby admiring the light court.  Informative interpretive panels are found in this area and the security guard on duty when I visited was a fount of knowledge about the building.  However, you can’t visit any parts of the rest of the building without taking a Chicago Architecture Foundation tour for $7 US.  The tours last 30-40 minutes and are well worth it for anyone interested in architecture.

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