Open House Chicago Wows Locals, Floors Tourists, Frustrates Fans

View of Buckingham Fountain and the Adler Planetarium from the Cliff Dwellers Club

View of Buckingham Fountain and the Adler Planetarium from the Cliff Dwellers Club

Another Open House Chicago has passed, and right about now the staff and volunteers of the Chicago Architecture Foundation should be slumped down in squishy in Lay-Z-Boys, eating ice cream, soaking their aching feet, and congratulating themselves for pulling off a logistical miracle.

We’ll publish a number of stories over the next couple of weeks about Open House Chicago, and also your photos from the event. E-mail your snaps to and we’ll include your photos in a future article.

Official attendance numbers won’t be in until the end of the week, but if you were to guess “thousands” served, you’d get a smack in the back of the head for being obtuse. It was way more than that, and anecdotally far busier than we’ve witnessed in any previous year of this event.

A quick survey of social media makes it seem that the 41st-floor observation deck at the Kemper Building was among the most popular stops. It hasn’t been open to the public in 40 years, and hopefully this event shows the building owners an managers that there’s a pent-up demand for an immersive viewing experience in the middle of downtown Chicago. Undercutting both the SkyDeck and the Hancock Observatory with a $5 admission fee would have lines around the block. And the view has the potential to be quite good.

The upper floors of the Daley Center provide wonderful views of The Loop.

The upper floors of the Daley Center provide wonderful views of The Loop.

The lines were huge for the Jahn architectural studios at 35 East Wacker drive, the former Jeweler’s Building. This was a members-only event, but when we checked the line still snaked down the block with a minimum 45-minute wait. In marketing terms, that’s an almost “New iPhone” level of success.

Exploring the wonders of Chicago’s architecture was very popular not just with local architecture buffs and skyscraper needs, but with tourists as well.

As Chicagoans, we are somewhat inured to the spectacle of great architecture. It was nice to be among tourists from around the world who audibly gasped at things we take for granted every day.

The water always tastes sweeter when you’re thirsty, and Open House Chicago slaked the thirst of many people who simply aren’t used to being surrounded magnificent design and inspiring edifices.

We ran across many people from places like Berlin, Connecticut, and a magical hinterland known as the “Upper Peninsula.” They seemed to appreciate what was going on far more than those who gave ZIP codes starting with “606” to the docents at each venue.

That’s not to say there weren’t hiccups. With any large event there are going to be disappointments. But if you found yourself frustrated with the crushing masses that seemed to double after noon, you could just take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This is free.”

The Good:

  • German tourists getting a lesson in American civics at the Daley Center. They were amazed by the notion that any American could be a juror. Anyone at all. Juries were abolished in Germany in 1924.
  • Four from Arkansas marveling at Grant Park from the Cliff Dwellers Club. One of them mused to herself, “This must be the most beautiful city in the world.”
  • The Kemper Building observation deck being open to the public for only the second time in 40 years.

The Bad:

  • View from the occluded windows at the Kemper Building

    View from the occluded windows at the Kemper Building

    The Kemper Building observation deck windows haven’t been cleaned or maintained in 40 years. Most of the windows were fogged, warped, or worse. Only three were clear enough to take decent pictures through. The C.A.F. docents seemed surprised by this.  In addition to not cleaning and repairing the windows, the ledges just outside the windows were littered with dead birds, and dead bird parts.  Yes, Halloween season is upon us, but this is supposed to be a family event.

  • Planning early didn’t pay off. Especially if you were eager to relive your Adventures in Babysitting years with a glimpse of the Wells Fargo boardroom inside the diamond portion of Crain Communications Building (150 North Michigan Avenue). The former Smurfitt-Stone building actually dropped out of Open House Chicago. Security guards in the lobby knew nothing of its former participation, and responded with polite confusion when approached by people eager to see the boardroom. Nor have have they ever heard of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
  • TheWit hotel might as well have dropped out. Its big attraction was supposed to be access to the 22nd-floor roof deck. On Saturday the roof was closed, “Because of the bad weather.” As six brazillion photos of Flickr can attest, “bad weather” must mean the sky was simply too blue and too cloud-free to allow people to see the view. Sunday was worse, with the roof deck remaining closed but no explanation available. Instead, Open House Chicago guests were encouraged to marvel at a metal staircase that’s supposed to be evocative of the L. It’s no different than any fire escape stairwell. Also, people were allowed to go to the fourth floor to see the hotel’s screening room. No big whoop. Every apartment building in Chicago built in the last 20 years has a screening room of equal or better quality. TheWit was an embarrassing waste of time.
  • Having to go through security screenings at the Daley Center. In this post-9/11 world, Americans have quickly forgotten that “public” buildings of all kinds used to be open to the public. Yes, even schools. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Daley Center had security screening, and when it was put in, it was very controversial. It was seen as a waste of taxpayer money, and an affront to the taxpaying public that built the building and that should be able to enjoy the freedom to visit its spaces and enjoy its magnificent views and courtrooms with as little impediment as possible. But worries about the safety of Cook County’s 400 judges won out, and now even though any American citizen has the legal right to visit its upper floors simply to enjoy the view, nobody does because the public has been intimidated into being excluded from its own “public” buildings.

The Ugly:

  • Admission to any of the venues only involved giving your ZIP code to the volunteers at the C.A.F card table. But at the Kemper Building it was more. There, visitors were also required to give Kemper their name, e-mail address, phone number and more. Not for security, but for marketing, “To make sure you have the right insurance, and the right amount of insurance for your needs.” I made the mistake of giving ZIP code 60601, which triggered a burly bouncer of a man to block my way to the elevators until I met with a salesman stationed nearby. “Your local agent is right here!” he proudly exclaimed. Kemper must be very desperate for business if it needs to turn a goodwill event into a sales opportunity. “Always Be Selling” isn’t just a grammatical nightmare, it’s a public relations faux pas.
  • At least one tour company took advantage of Open House Chicago to let its customers see the view from the Willis Tower for free, instead of having them pay to go to the SkyDeck. We witnessed a busload of mainland Chinese, led by a tour guide, shoving past Open House Chicago patrons while shouting “free tour!” and cramming themselves into the Willis Tower elevators. They swarmed into the genteel spaces of the Metropolitan Club like a cloud of crazed, camera-toting bees. In the future, the Chicago Architecture Foundation is going to have to figure out a way to prevent commercial interests from hijacking venues for their own purposes.

Disclosure Notice: The Chicago Architecture Foundation has provided the author of this article with a free all access pass to this event.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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