The best way to experience Chicago’s breathtaking architecture and dramatic skyline is on a Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. A 90-minute tour aboard a boat from the First Lady fleet affords views of design masterpieces and classics-to-be that would be impossible from the sidewalk. Certified docents receive extensive training, and it shows. Their narratives about the history, engineering and people behind the buildings are enlightening and entertaining. As you take it all in from the open-air upper deck of a comfortable craft that also has a climate-controlled indoor salon, bathrooms and a full-service cash bar, you’ll understand why the River Cruise has been deemed one of the “Top 10 Tours in the U.S.” by Tripadvisor users.
The excursion, which navigates all three branches of the Chicago River, begins with some background. Our guide captured our attention immediately, explaining that “Shikaawa,” a Miami-Illinois word that later became “Chicago,” means “Land of the Stinking Onion.” It refers to the garlic and onions that grew wild in the area. (Makes you wonder about another meaning for “The Windy City.”)
We also learned about the massive public works project that reversed the flow of the Chicago River and provided the area with clean water instead of the sewage-tainted brew from Lake Michigan. Canals were dug starting in 1892 to pull the river toward St. Louis. Improved sanitation was the main benefit, but the redirection also fostered economic development by providing navigational channels and reducing the danger from floods.
The other significant historical event that shaped the city was, of course, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which most of downtown was destroyed. Chicago’s movers and shakers started rebuilding almost before the ashes cooled. Design and engineering converged in the city that would become famous for its soaring structures.
Chicago’s architecture is nothing if not diverse. From Beaux Arts, Art Deco and International School to Arts & Crafts, Mid-Century Modern, Neoclassical and more, there’s a style to suit everyone. You may fall in love with the Wrigley Building, inspired by a Spanish cathedral and constructed in six different shades of white terra cotta. Or you might prefer 150 Riverside, completed in 2017, which comes to a point at the bottom and is nicknamed “The Tuning Fork” for its shape. Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” philosophy is embodied in the rectangular AMA Plaza, formerly the IBM Building. If height appeals to you, you’ll no doubt be drawn to the 1,730-foot Willis Tower, which uses bundled tube construction to vault upwards. (Chicagoans still aren’t ready to give up the skyscraper’s old name: “We spell Willis S-E-A-R-S,” said our guide.)
For the Chicago Tribune’s 75th anniversary in 1922, the newspaper sponsored an international design competition for a new downtown headquarters. The winner from more than 260 entries was a Gothic Revival design by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, in a clear nod to nostalgia. The top of the tower evokes Rouen Cathedral, with ornate buttresses surrounding its peak. Interestingly, Howells and Hood beat out Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius and other influential architects to take top honors.
Our ship floated past kayakers and below 25 different bridges, including a trunion bascule span that works like a teeter-totter. Fulton House was a cold storage facility that took six months to defrost before it could be converted into condominiums. A Prairie-style building is now home to Groupon, and the glass-walled Apple store has a flat silver roof designed to look like a MacBook Air.
We waved to the people enjoying the fresh air from the terraces of their riverside residences. We puzzled over the façade on 300 South Wacker for a few seconds before realizing that it shows a map of the Chicago River and surrounding streets, complete with a “You Are Here” red block.
One complex that never fails to delight sightseers is Marina City, the pair of corncob-looking towers designed by Bertrand Goldberg in 1959 and constructed between 1961 and 1968. The first 20 levels constitute a parking garage, and the top 40 floors are condominiums with semicircular balconies. When it opened, it was the world’s tallest apartment tower and the tallest reinforced-concrete building. You may recognize Marina City from The Bob Newhart Show and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s easy to get queasy looking at the vehicles perched around the perimeter of the parking levels. In the 1980 film The Hunter, Steve McQueen’s quarry in a car chase plunges off the edge into the Chicago River.
Our guide told us a little about the training for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s docents. “We cover 150 buildings,” she said, “and for each one we have to know the architect, year, style and owner. That’s why it’s so helpful when the owners put their names on the buildings,” she added wryly, gesturing toward a tower with the unmistakable TRUMP logo.
Contemporary works enhance the city. My new favorite is the undulating, sculptural Aqua Tower, designed by Jeanne Gang and her firm, Studio Gang. This 82-story mixed-use building is aptly described by the architect as a vertical landscape made up of hills, valleys and pools. Each wave-shaped white-concrete balcony is unique, designed to foster social interaction and provide a view. Sustainability was front and center in the design: Aqua Tower uses heat-resistant and fritted (porous) glass, energy-efficient lighting, and rainwater collection/irrigation systems. It also has one of Chicago’s largest green roofs.
As construction reshapes the skyline, Chicago continues to venerate the old and embrace the new. The CAF River Cruise is a wonderful opportunity for you to do the same. o
Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise: Early April through mid-November. Regular, twilight and photography cruises available. Food and drink can be purchased on board. Upper deck is open to the elements, so dress for the weather. Departure location: Southeast corner of the Michigan Avenue Bridge at Wacker Drive on Chicago’s Riverwalk.
Additional info, pricing and reservations: (312) 922-8687, www.architecture.org.