chicago top 10

Lonely Planet just tweeted the top 10 things to do if you’re a traveler in Chicago, and I have to say, I’m underwhelmed.  Deep-dish pizza?  Second City?  Lincoln Park Zoo?  Shopping?  All fine things, and I’ll agree with the Cubs game—though I’d point out that a Sox game would round out the tourist’s impressions well, too.  (OK, I don’t agree with deep-dish pizza.  I’m with my kids on this one.  Even in Chicago, go with thin crust).

Still, meh.  This has me thinking about the top 10 things for an architectural tourist to do in Chicago, and in the hopes of creating a stats-bending, vitriolic, all-in argument, I’ll suggest the following, in no particular order.  Disagree away.

  1. Mourn at the wailing wall(s).  The Art Institute has one of the great architectural reliquaries anywhere in the city—or the world.  Stand next to the entry arch from Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange, walk around its surgically excised trading floor, and browse through the fragments of lost buildings in the main stairwell.
  2. Have a drink.  The three best architectural bars?  The top of the Hancock Building serves overpriced drinks that amortize out well if you count the view.  Atwood’s, in the first floor of the Reliance Building, is the only bar in town named for a compositionally gifted opium addict.  And the roof of the Wit, if you can stand the crowd and the prices, has the best view of the neighborhood skyscrapers—including a loomingly intimate one of Giaver and Dinkelberg’s 1926 Jeweler’s Building.
  3. Loiter.  A handful of great historic interiors are semi-open to the public.  The Rookery tolerates architectural gawkers who want to see the layering of Frank Lloyd Wright’s lobby and John Root’s courtyard.  If you stand in line to send a postcard, do it at Mies’ Post Office in the Federal Center.  Wander through the old Chicago Library on Michigan, which is now the Chicago Cultural Center but still maintains the nicely pretentious 1896 interiors—including the historical curiosity of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall.
  4. Visit some architects.  Graceland Cemetery is full of them.  Burnham, Mies, Fazlur Khan, and Louis Sullivan are easy to find.  William Le Baron Jenney is a bit off the beaten path.  And for bonus points?  Find Peirce Anderson, of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White.  (Hint: you can see him from the El).
  5. Take the train.  Ride the Loop El and get off at each platform.  Every single downtown stop gives you a good angle on at least a couple of historic buildings.  Wabash Ave. is particularly rich, and the Library stop gives you a view up Dearborn that’s unparalleled.
  6. Take a boat.  The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s River Tour is designed for laypersons, but it offers the best possible views of the city.  Aqua is particularly good from the low angle.  Of course, if your brother-in-law has a bass boat, you can make your own River Tour.
  7. Take a walk.  The CAF Walking Tours are led by inspiring docents who know their stuff.  But even a walk down Michigan Avenue and back up Dearborn and State Street will tell you more about 19th and early 20th century commercial architecture than any book out there (yet).
  8. Go South.  The University of Chicago was largely designed by Henry Ives Cobb to replicate the feeling of eastern colleges.  IIT was largely designed by Mies van der Rohe to not replicate anything.  You can see them both on the same bus line, throw in the Robie House and the best used bookstores in town, and end up catching that ballgame at Comiskey after you see IIT.
  9. See Burnham’s best design.  The Reliance?  The Railway Exchange?  The Rookery?  Nope.  Chicago’s lakefront.  OK, it wasn’t all him, but he was the major design force behind the amazing jogging path—with a rather nice string of parks attached—that makes up the Chicago shoreline.  From downtown to Bryn Mawr Ave. and back is 14 miles, and you can go a similar distance south and see almost nothing that isn’t beautiful.  Paris, Rome, New York all have a lot of nice things, but this is the one thing that Chicago has that no other city does.
  10. Go to church.  Or, really, temple.  I think Unity Temple is—hands down—the best thing Frank Lloyd Wright ever did, and it’s easy to tour.  But to really see it in action you can check out the annual series of concerts that take place within the sanctuary.  Tickets support the building fund, which is obviously needed.


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