From Art-Deco to Internationalist: A Tour of Chicago’s Buildings

Even in summer, it seems that I can still find a way to keep myself busy. For example, I am one week into a five-week summer journalism intensive at Northwestern University. I’m trying to write my IB Extended Essay (a mini-thesis of sorts). And I’m getting a head start on college application essays. Needless to say, I’ve become a deadbeat blogger.

But I still care–believe me. And to prove it, here’s an exclusive, descriptive, freshly-typed travel anecdote.

I’ve said it before: Chicago has quickly become one of my favorite cities. It’s easy to see why; just look up.

I and 82 other young journalists took a break from our breakneck reporting to enjoy a boat tour around Chicago’s waterways. The tour showcased some of Chicago’s most famous architectural landmarks, from what was once the largest building in America to what was once the tallest building in America. And though the only records Chicago edifices hold nowadays are obscure ones like “tallest university building”, the city’s skyline is probably the most exciting of all the cities I’ve seen.

IMG_0613 11We started at Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, our boat dock catty-corner from the Chicago Tribune building. Once the boat launched, it sailed west past a black box style building which the guide described as “internationalist”, whose design favored functionality over aesthetics. Then came the famous “corn cob” buildings, containing no interior right angles whatsoever.IMG_0614

The boat continued inland, turning south towards the West Loop neighborhood of downtown. We saw skyscrapers built over railroad tracks on leased cubic feet of air, a section of a building trussed to another so that it’s actually suspended in mid-air, and the smallest park in Chicago. Our guide informed us of its whopping 13 trees, one of which died last year. Unfortunately, for some twisted reason, I found this humorous.

After a glimpse of the massive Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and a massive opera house that uses water from the Chicago River to lift its stage during performances, the boat turned back east towards the lake. We saw our guide’s favorite building, a modern skyscraper with classical motifs (e.g. Greek columns), followed by the thinnest skyscraper in the city, whose twin’s construction was abandoned after the crash of 1929.

As we sailed east, more innovative buildings came into view. Like Aqua, whose undulating balconies look like flowing water, the tallest building in America designed by a woman. Or the Swissotel, whose triangular shape allows two of its sides to always be facing the river.

IMG_0628As Lakeshore East’s residential high-rises, built on land reclaimed from Lake Michigan, passed us on our right, we approached Navy Pier and the Lake Michigan loch. The floodgates opened and closed to allow the boat to rise four feet and onto the surface of Lake Michigan.

Out on the lake, I could see the nearly full sprawl of Chicago’s magnificent skyline. Colorful, sleek, modern buildings rose from ornate, art-deco low-rises from the city’s golden age. And the slanted, twin-spired John Hancock Center and the boxy Willis Tower assured any confused visitor that this is, in fact, an impression of The Windy City.

IMG_0624 13

As the boat meandered along the lake’s muted baby blue surface without apparent destination, our guide explained to us why Chicago is called “The Windy City”. It’s not for the reasons you think it is.

During the late 19th Century, when Chicago was vying to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the city’s politicians kept pestering the nation’s capital to give their city the fair. Newspaper columnists from the East described the politicians as constantly exuding hot air from their mouths, thus unleashing an ill wind upon Washington. And so, because of its airhead politicians, Chicago was nicknamed The Windy City. The moniker was only strengthened by the strong winds coming off Lake Michigan, even though Chicago doesn’t even make the top 10 for America’s windiest cities.

IMG_0625Thoroughly chilled from a 60-degree, overcast day, I stepped off the boat back at Michigan Avenue with my back and neck strained from staring up at the myriad buildings. Variegated as they are, they represent the color and richness of the city’s past and present.

From a small Native American settlement whose original name translated roughly as “wild, stinky onion”, to an original, luxurious ferris wheel at the World’s Fair, to the only known man-made reversal of a flowing river, Chicago is certainly more eccentric than its reputation allows. Even the buildings can tell you that.

If You Go…

  • Wendella Boats offers the original architecture tour of Chicago. Scott, our guide, was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
  • As a Floridian, I obligate myself to warn readers of potentially cold things. This is one of them–bring a jacket and wear jeans if it’s a cloudy day.
  • Sunglasses are actually a good idea in any weather.
  • If you visit later this year or in 2016, Chicago’s newly revitalized Riverwalk is like New York’s Highline on water.
  • For lunch after the tour, the famous Billy Goat Tavern (cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger!!!) is a good option just below Michigan Avenue. Be prepared to order what they want you to order instead of what you want to order. And never ask for fries.

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