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A Magnificent Skyline

A boat tour on the Chicago river is an exhilarating journey into the annals of architecture. The skyline of this relatively new city, built after the great fire of 1871, offers an eclectic mix of vistas from the 1920s through the present day.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) boat tours are especially fascinating because of the docents who lead the tours. They are lawyers, architects, doctors, and engineers who volunteer their time because their passion for the skyline runs deep. Our docent was a CAF employee and his knowledge of the buildings, their placement, their sequence and their history was impressive. With no visibility of what was coming up, he rattled off facts and trivia as though he had eyes in the back of his head.

We boarded the boat at Dock 3 on the famed Riverwalk. A bright and sunny day with temperatures peaking in the low 80s was perfection for the body and soul.

We kicked off with a view of a towering building which looked like a short version of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, except this one bears a President’s name. Sitting next door are two from the 1920s – the Chicago Tribune building and the Wrigley building. The Chicago Tribune building is a gothic beauty. Commissioned by the newspaper through a competition in 1922, the building’s façade includes stones from the Taj Mahal, Great Wall, Pyramids at Giza, Angkor Wat, and Abe Lincoln’s tomb. Here's evidence from google.

When Michigan Avenue was expanded beyond the Chicago River, William Wrigley took the responsibility of creating an icon of the Magnificent Mile. His namesake building was completed in 1924. With six different shades of white terra cotta, illuminated at night by brilliant lights, the building inspires awe.

The Chicago Board of Trade is an Art Deco masterpiece. Established in 1846, it is one of the world’s oldest futures and options exchanges. The building is topped by a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The sculptor did not think that any building would be taller and so did not carve a face on Ceres. My camera's reach did not extend to Ceres but here she is from the internet and she is indeed faceless.

The Civic Opera is an Art Deco eye-catcher. Built in 1924 by Samuel Insull, it is shaped like a chair and now houses offices and the Lyric Opera. With over 3,500 seats, it stands second only to the Met in NYC in size.

The Merchandise Mart was built by Marshall Fields & Co. and later owned by the Kennedy family (yes, that Kennedy family). With 4M square feet of space, it is an astoundingly large building with its own zip code. This Art Deco building brought together Chicago’s wholesale vendors for architecture and interior design. It opened in 1930 as the largest building in the world.

The Chicago Water Tower, built in 1869, sits snugly in between tall structures. Although the Water Tower is not visible from the boat, it deserves special mention because it is the only building to have survived the great fire. It is also the second oldest water tower in the United States. The picture below is from google.

The Montgomery Ward building holds a special place in my heart. Our son lived in an apartment at the far end of this blocks-long building and I have fond memories of spending time on the adjacent riverwalk and restaurants. This was the headquarters and catalog warehouse of the Montgomery Ward department store. Between Sears and Ward, Chicago was the center of the mail order universe at one time. After the demise of the brand, this building was turned into condominiums, office, and retail space. Today it houses Groupon.

Surrounding these icons of the past, are modern and post-modern buildings, towering tall glass structures of daring shapes and sizes. The one that caught my eye was the building with the 36-story map of the Chicago river on its façade along with a red rectangle marking where the building sits.

Across from it, another glass behemoth reflected the building with the river in its own facade.

There is much more about Chicago architecture to write about – the massive Old Post Office with Eisenhower Expressway running through the middle of it, Marina Towers with its circular facade, Lake Point Tower with its clover shape, Aqua Building with its eccentric balconies, the iconic drawbridges, and the jaw-dropping, double-decker Wacker Drive.

Let me leave the remaining details to your imagination so you’ll visit this beautiful city and soak in the architecture and skyline for yourself. And if you need inspiration to visit, watch the Lower Wacker chase scene in The Dark Knight. Possible only in Chi-town!

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