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In Chicago, the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed 2,100 acres and 18,000 buildings at the core of the growing, industrious city, eventually clearing the way for a grand building experiment in modern design: the skyscraper. Chicago’s role as an incubator of modern and contemporary architecture — it’s home to both the first skyscraper and the architects who designed the tallest current examples — has long been acknowledged. But since 1966, the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) has championed the city as an unparalleled American center of design, sending millions of patrons to fan out across the city on docent-led walking, boating and train tours that revel in Chicago’s building history.
In 2018, the center bolstered its case by opening an expanded, nearly 10,000-square-foot museum fronting the Chicago River in a modernist landmark building fittingly designed by the mid-century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While the center is rooted in Chicago’s architectural contributions, it also examines global design in airy galleries with 26-foot ceilings. You’ll see scale models of such international icons as New York’s Chrysler Building and the world’s tallest buildings, including the roughly 2,700-foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the not-yet-built 3,280-foot Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, both designed by Chicago architect Adrian Smith.
“We tell the story of the race to the top,” says Lynn Osmond, the CAC’s president and CEO, noting that the center traces the genre’s progression starting with the first skyscraper, the now-demolished Home Insurance Building, built in 1885. “You’re almost dwarfed by these models that are incredible works of art.”
That visceral sense of the power of monumental buildings, even those in the past or far away, continues in the center’s Chicago City Model Experience, a 1:50 scale model of the city with more than 4,200 3D-printed buildings (the Willis Tower, Chicago’s tallest, stands 3 feet tall in the diorama). A film-and-light show dramatizes the scope of the blaze that led to this building boom. “We burn down the city every seven minutes,” jokes Osmond.
Need to Know
Location: 111 East Wacker Drive
Tours: Admission to the center doesn’t include any tours, whose prices vary by itinerary. The river cruise starts at $48; many walking tours are $30.
Best time to visit: If you arrive between when the center opens at 10 a.m. and noon, you’ll have ample time to explore the galleries before heading out on a tour.
Best season to visit: The boat tours generally run from April into November. They’re quite popular, especially in summer, so advance tickets are recommended. Other tours run year-round, weather permitting.
Accessibility: The CAC is fully accessible, with elevators connecting its two levels. Wheelchairs, walkers and other assistive devices aren’t available.
Getting there: The closest parking garage is at 233 North Michigan Ave., about a block away. The closest public transit train stations are State and Lake (Brown, Green, Orange & Purple Lines), Lake (Red Line), and Clark and Lake or Washington (Blue Line), all about a 10-minute walk from the CAC.
Interactive exhibits introduce the famous designers associated with Chicago, including Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. The Me to We gallery explores the future of cities everywhere and what that means for buildings, infrastructure and people. “In 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities,” says Osmond. “We will go from being individuals to being a collective.”
An exhibit on vernacular architecture — the bungalows, Victorians and two-flats seen in Chicago neighborhoods — helps orient you to the city’s varied looks before you set out on any of the CAC’s 85 unique guided tours. That includes the center’s signature, guide-led 90-minute ride on the Chicago River. Across the street from the center, board the Chicago’s First Lady tour boat for fantastic views of the skyscraper canyon, walled by such landmarks as the corncob-shaped Marina Towers and the white terra-cotta Wrigley Building.
Most of its other tours require walking a mile or two, but on some you travel by bus or on the city’s signature elevated train, the “L,” which puts you at eye level with office dwellers and reveals building details hard to see from the street. You’ll head into the neighborhoods — from the oldest-money Gold Coast on the North Side to Hyde Park on the South Side, site of the 1893 World’s Fair — to walk the streets with docents.
Osmond suggests going out into the neighborhoods and doing one of the city’s cemetery tours. She recommends Graceland Cemetery on the North Side, resting place of city legends including retailer Marshall Field and railroad magnate George Pullman, with lavish monuments designed by the likes of architect Louis Sullivan and sculptor Lorado Taft. “You not only get to see an entirely different neighborhood but you get to hear the stories of all the amazing icons of Chicago buried there.”
More to see
A visit to the Chicago Architecture Center provides a natural springboard for exploring the area through an architectural lens. If you have multiple days in the city, add these sites to your don’t-miss list.
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. While working in Chicago early in his career, acclaimed architect Wright developed his signature Prairie Style, a school of design that embraced horizontal lines and organic materials. In suburban Oak Park, 12 miles west of downtown, Wright built his home and studio, where he both lived and grew his practice. On a 60-minute tour ($20) of this architectural magnet, you can visit both private spaces, including a vaulted children’s playroom and living areas with decorative art glass windows and skylights, as well as the light-flooded drafting room where Wright’s apprentices worked. The house itself, restored to its appearance in 1909, is transitional in style — away from Victorian yet not fully Prairie — but on the blocks surrounding it lies an encyclopedic collection of Wright-designed buildings. These include multiple examples of Prairie Style homes, with horizontal bands of stone and cantilevered roofs above leaded-glass casement windows, as well as the meditative Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church. On a separate audio walking tour ($15), you can explore the area at your own pace. 951 Chicago Avenue, Oak Park
Frederick C. Robie House. Back in Chicago, in the South Side’s Hyde Park neighborhood, tour ($20) the interior of this Wright-designed home finished in 1910, when he was at the peak of his Prairie powers. Outside are the overhanging eaves and horizontal bands of brick and limestone he became known for. Inside, get a close look at his art glass windows and furnishings designed specifically for the space, including chairs, dining tables and light fixtures (clients were famously admonished to make no changes). 5757 South Woodlawn Ave.
University of Chicago. Near the Robie House, take a self-guided tour of this architecturally significant campus (the university offers a free map online). The main quadrangle, built in the 1890s, was modeled on the Gothic style of Oxford University and does an impressive job of impersonating England on the South Side. Look up to see more Gothic Revivalism in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, with its 72-bell carillon — the world’s second-largest carillon, renowned for summer concerts. Among other interesting landmarks is the Helmut Jahn–designed Mansueto Library, which is largely underground beneath a grand elliptical glass dome. Architect Rafael Viñoly uses cantilevered roofs to pay modern homage to the Robie House at the Booth School of Business building.
Art Institute of Chicago. Back downtown, this stellar museum stands out for its collection of Impressionist paintings, arguably the country’s most extensive. It’s also a distinct design pleasure to discover the museum’s quirky Thorne Miniature Rooms, 68 rooms of dollhouse dimensions crafted to perfectly embody the history of architecture, from a Gothic church to a French salon in the Louis XVI period to a mid-century modernist home in California, circa 1940. 111 South Michigan Ave.; admission $25, seniors $19
Bahai House of Worship. In fair or foul weather, the drive through the North Shore communities lining Lake Michigan via Sheridan Road is exhilarating, blending glimpses of the Great Lake with views of commanding mansions. Your destination: this iconic house of worship. French-Canadian architect Louis Bourgeois designed the filigree-domed temple, gleaming in white cement combined with crushed quartz, in the early 1900s, but it took 50 years to build, opening in 1953. Inside or out, it’s a mash-up wonder of Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque and Islamic styles, befitting the inclusive faith. 100 Linden Ave., Wilmette
Day trips or en route
MiIwaukee. Only 90 minutes north by car via I-94 or Amtrak train, Wisconsin’s largest city is another major Midwestern center with a trove of architectural treasures. Take a day to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum, a stunning building that merges modern and contemporary architecture in the service of a world-class global art collection.
Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen designed the museum’s original 1957 War Memorial Center, a geometric rectangle influenced by French modern architect Le Corbusier. Raised on columns, the main structure features plazas below and an open floor plan within. In a major 2001 expansion, the museum commissioned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design its centerpiece Quadracci Pavilion, a sculptural addition including 217-foot exterior wings known as the Burke Brise Soleil that create a movable sunscreen for the building. Inside, a glass vault with pointed arches creates a cathedral-like grand foyer in Windhover Hall. Ogle the architecture, but be sure to stick around for the strong collections of European paintings, photography and works by self-taught artists. 700 North Art Museum Drive; admission $19, seniors $17
While in Milwaukee, also check out the 20-acre campus that hosts the Harley-Davidson Museum, an homage to the muscular motorcycles synonymous with American wanderlust and the freedom of the open road. The museum traces these vehicles — marvels of American industrial design that fuse form and function — from their origin in 1903 as motorized bicycles to today’s husky “hogs.” You don’t have to be a gearhead or an easy rider to appreciate this museum. 400 West Canal St.; admission $22, seniors $16
Racine, Wisconsin. A 75-mile trip north from Chicago (en route to Milwaukee), Racine’s offerings include the 1939-vintage S.C. Johnson Wax Headquarters, a masterpiece of commercial design by Frank Lloyd Wright. It features an open office floor — the Great Workroom — with towering, treelike columns topped by glowing recessed lighting. 1525 Howe St.; free tours by reservation, offered Wednesdays through Sundays, starting at the Golden Rondelle Theater
Plano, Illinois. Drive 60 miles west of Chicago largely via interstates 290 and 88 to rural Plano to see the modernist masterpiece Farnsworth House, the famous glass-wrapped house designed between 1949 and 1951 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for his client Dr. Edith Farnsworth. Tours of the International Style landmark tell the story of the accomplished doctor and the severe but sunny, cantilevered home, which is furnished as it was in 1955. 14520 River Road, Plano; tours from $25
Where to Stay
Splurge. The Langham Chicago resides in the ultra-smart International Style 1973 office building originally designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the Chicago River. Its elegant bar frames views of other architectural icons, including the neighboring Marina Towers. Rooms from $385; 330 North Wabash Ave.; 312-923-9988; langhamhotels.com
Save. In the downtown Loop district, the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel turned the 1890-vintage men’s club into the city’s most design-centric stay with period fireplaces and leaded glass. Virtually everything here is period except for the buzzy rooftop restaurant and bar with some of the best views over Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. Rooms from $189;12 South Michigan Ave.; 312-940-3552; chicagoathletichotel.com
Where to Dine
Splurge. At RPM Seafood, savor loads of eye candy, both on the plate and beyond. Between bites of elegant and inventive dishes — generous seafood towers and Moroccan black bass — you can scan the Chicago River before you and the big-shouldered high-rises on its downtown banks. 317 North Clark St.; 312-900-9035; rpmrestaurants.com
Save. Founded by acclaimed chef Rick Bayless, the microbrewery Cruz Blanca in the West Loop specializes in Mexican lagers and IPAs. Wash your brew down with the Oaxacan-style tiayudas (think Mexican pizza on a large tostada) or the tacos. 904 West Randolph St.; 312-733-1975; brewpub.cruzblanca.com
Within Chicago, there are many ways to get around via public transportation with the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), including on the subway trains known as the “L” for their above-ground service, especially in the downtown Loop. Rides cost $2.50, except for those into the city from O’Hare International Airport, which are $5. If you plan to get around by train, consider a CTA pass ($10 for one day, $20 for three days and $28 for seven days), good on buses as well as trains.
Parking in Chicago is generally expensive and/or hard to find, particularly downtown, which is one reason many locals use public transportation or ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. It’s possible to get to Oak Park and its Frank Lloyd Wright attractions by train, but you’ll need a car to visit most suburbs and other less central neighborhoods and towns (where parking is also easier). Bikes from the bicycle sharing system Divvy ($3 per 30-minute trip) are popular all over the city. If you’re making a day trip to Milwaukee, you can take Amtrak, which offers frequent and convenient service between the two cities from train stations in their respective downtowns. The ride takes about 90 minutes each way (fares vary).
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Elaine Glusac, a Chicago-based journalist, writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times.