Tales Of Chicago’s Tall Towers

Chicago is a city of over 2.7 million people and home to an amazing array of sports teams, restaurants, museums and theatres.  The city boasts a strip of high-end shopping along the “Magnificent Mile” and the 108 Story Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) which in 1973 was the tallest building in the world.  It may have lost that title long ago, but the number of amazing skyscrapers in the city makes for an impressive sight, and we decided one of the best ways to get a sense of the core of Chicago was to take an architecture tour of the city. But where to begin?

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Trip Pix 125THE 1451 FOOT HIGH WILLIS TOWER (ON THE LEFT) STANDS OUT AMONG THE MANY SKYSCRAPERS IN CHICAGO

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We were told that we should turn our attention to the river that runs through the city. Chicago sits on the shores of Lake Michigan.  Water used to flow from the Mississippi watershed through the Chicago river and out into the lake.  During the early years of development, all waste and sewage flowed out into the river which led into the lake … which was the primary source of drinking water.  This was obviously not good for the residents of Chicago, so they turned to engineers to see what could be done.  The engineers came up with an innovative solution.   The city built a lock at the lake end of the river to raise the water level so that the Chicago river would flow in the opposite direction. Advances in water treatment and sanitation allowed for considerably less waste to enter the river, and for the run-off to flow away from Lake Michigan (back towards the Mississippi watershed). As a result the lake became much cleaner, the drinking water was improved, and the river itself was “cleaned up”.

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THE CHICAGO RIVER IS MUCH CLEANER THAN IT USED TO BE

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To bring new life to the core of the city which surrounded the three forks of the river, legislation was passed to ensure that all new developments had to provide park-land (or at very least a pathway) for public access along the riverbanks that adjoined their property . The result is a clean waterway with a stunning river walk which extends from the lake in towards the core of Chicago for over 1 km providing great views (and lots of fun shopping and eating opportunities as well).  Further legislation banned building any high-rise structures on the shores of Lake Michigan within city limits, which means there is a continuous strip of green space and pathways and beaches for all to enjoy along the waterfront.  This clever development strategy brought life to the downtown core and resulted in a number of boat tour companies opening up to travel the waterways …  a great way of allowingus to get up close to the buildings of Chicago and see them from a completely unique perspective.

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THE CENTENNIAL FOUNTAIN IS PART OF THE RIVER WALK IN CHICAGO

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Our research led us to the Chicago Architecture Foundation which offers a number of incredible options including 90 minute cruises that cover three forks of the river as well as taking you to the edge of Lake Michigan.  The “First Lady” cruise boats offer lots of space, breath-taking views of the city, and best of all, they are guided by docents who are Chicago-based architects.  This means that the information you are getting on the tour is from someone who is passionate about engineering, structure, aesthetic, and they possess an incredible amount of knowledge about what went into building the amazing towers you see around you.

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THE CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE FOUNDATION BOAT TOURS TAKE OFF FROM THE PIER AT THE CORNER OF MICHIGAN AVENUE AND WACKER DRIVE

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During the summer months, these popular tours sell out well in advance.  We booked an early morning cruise online at https://www.architecture.org/experience-caf/tours/detail/chicago-architecture-foundation-river-cruise-aboard-chicagos-first-lady-cruises/  A few things to note about these cruises.  When you book your tickets, it guarantees you a seat on the top of the boat which is an open deck.  Dress for the season … in the summer, it can be hot, so make sure you have sunscreen and a hat and sunglasses, which will allow you to look upward towards the buildings and still see all the sights regardless of the glare of the sun.

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For our tour in October, the sun shone brightly some of the time, but it was cool in the morning and for much of the trip we were in the shade of the buildings, so a warm sweater with a windbreaker over top and a warm hat was helpful to ensure maximum enjoyment.  The tours go rain or shine and if the weather is inclement, there is enough seating inside the boat for everyone who is on the upper deck to move inside (they don’t double-sell the inside and outside seats).  The views from on top of the boat are the most spectacular as you can look straight up the sides of the buildings from the river.  On a cool day, take advantage of the snack bar which sells hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps to keep you warm.

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Trip Pix 063DURING THE FALL, DRESSING WARMLY MAKES FOR A MORE PLEASANT RIVER CRUISE

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One of the treats of taking the trip in the fall was the chance to see the lift bridges going up and down along the river.  Chicago has 18 bridges that can lift using a concrete slab counter-weight system … explained to us as a giant teeter-totter with a small engine to help “tip the balance”. During a 6 week period in the spring and a 6 week period in the fall, these bridges are raised and lowered over the river to allow yacht owners to move their boats from inland marinas to Lake Michigan, or in the fall, to move them to their winter harbour inland. The waters are considered navigable waterway, and federal law requires that all vessels, regardless of height, have access to the river beyond the boundaries of the lake shore.   All of the major downtown roadways cross a bridge at some point, so beware if you are in a car, delays can be frequent at this time of year.  The bridges are a wonder of technology and they go up and down pretty quickly. The deck halves of the bridges can weigh as much as 6420 tonnes.  Surprisingly, the leverage mechanism uses only two 125 horsepower motors to do the lifting.   Here’s a quick shot of a bridge that was lifting just as we were starting our cruise.

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THE BRIDGES OVER THE RIVER IN CHICAGO SLIDE UP AND DOWN SMOOTHLY IN THE SPRING AND FALL

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All of the tour boats are low enough that they don’t need to lift the bridges for them, but on the day of our tour there was a fleet of schooners with tall masts making their way inland.

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PETE LOOKS ON AS WE TRAVEL UNDER SEVERAL TONNES OF STEEL AND MESH LIFTED ABOVE OUR HEADS FOR THE NEARBY YACHTS WITH TALL MASTS WHO WERE GOING THROUGH BESIDE US.

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OUR GUIDE RICHARD IS A FULL TIME ARCHITECT WHO VOLUNTEERS FOR THE CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE FOUNDATION TO DO THE TOURS.  HERE HE IS TELLING US ABOUT ANOTHER LIFT BRIDGE WE ARE GOING UNDER NEAR TRUMP TOWER.  NOTE THE FLAGS LEANING ON THE TOP.  THIS IS A DOUBLE-DECKER BRIDGE WITH ROAD BELOW AND TRAIN TRACK FOR THE SUBWAY ON TOP.

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The bridges were cool enough, but the variety of styles of buildings along the route was staggering. Chicago Illionois is known as the city where the skyscraper was invented. The first “skyscraper” was the Home Insurance Building which was 10 stories high and built in 1885.  Things have come a long ways since then both in engineering and in construction materials.  There were too many styles of buildings in a short space along the river to cover in any detail, but here’s a taste of just a few of the buildings we saw that we liked.

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I was most taken by the imaginative aesthetic of one of the buildings of Bertrand Goldberg who built Marina City between 1959 and 1964.  This complex is made up of five buildings along the river including two 60 story towers with the lower levels made up of ramped parking.  This structure combined apartments on the upper levels, with retail and services on the lower levels (including a daycare) to provide the sense of a complete community within one complex.

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THE TOWERS OF MARINA CITY LOOK LIKE TWO GIANT CORN COBS EXTENDING INTO THE SKY

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THIS STRIKING BUILDING HAS BALCONIES OF DIFFERENT SIZES SCATTERED ACROSS ITS GLASS SURFACE … SEEMINGLY SUSPENDED IN SPACE

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THE WRIGLEY BUILDING WAS CHICAGO’S FIRST AIR-CONDITIONED OFFICE BUILDING… BUILT FOR THE MAN WHOSE COMPANY SOLD WRIGLEY’S GUM

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THIS TOWER WAS BUILT DURING A BOOM IN 1992 AND USES ITS CURVED SURFACE AND REFLECTION OF OTHER BUILDINGS TO EMULATE THE WATER OF THE RIVER IT SITS BESIDE

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THESE  MULTI-STORY CONDOS DESIGNED BY HARRY WEESE SHOW OFF HIS LOVE OF TRIANGULAR SHAPE.  FROM ALL ACCOUNTS … IT IS VERY EXPENSIVE TO LIVE HERE.

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NOT ALL BUILDINGS ARE LARGE ALONG THE RIVER, AS SHOWN BY THIS TINY HOME NEAR THE GRAND AVENUE BRIDGE

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THIS SKYSCRAPER HAS TINTED WINDOWS THAT CREATE A MAP ALONG ITS SIDE, SO AS YOU LOOK UP FROM THE RIVER, THE RED BIT AT THE TOP 1/3RD IS “WHERE YOU ARE” ALONG THE RIVER SYSTEM.

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THE LAKEPOINT TOWER BUILDING IS CLOSE TO THE SHORES OF LAKE MICHIGAN, (THE ONE EXCEPTION TO THE RULES AND BUILT BEFORE THE LEGISLATION BANNING HIGH BUILDINGS NEAR THE LAKE) AND THANKS TO ITS CURVED WALLS, HAS A VIEW OF THE LAKE FROM EVERY UNIT.

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We were entranced by the buildings, the commentary and the fun of being on a boat floating around Chicago.  This isn’t the cheapest thing to do in Chicago (and the ticketing site is administered through Ticket Master, so there are additional service charges), but we felt it was well worth doing and the guide’s commentary was truly captivating.   To save a little money, you could risk buying your tickets from the wicket at the pier (which will save the Ticket Master charges) but in the prime season, the tours sell out so it may be worth spending the extra money and ensuring a spot on the boat.   After a morning on the river discovering some of the architectural secrets of the home of the skyscraper, it was time to seek out another Chicago first … the original home of the deep dish pizza.

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Tomorrow … the Art Institute Of Chicago with

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Fenton & White

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