OHC: It’s Like a Backstage Pass to Chicago’s Architecture


 just got back to Chicago after attending the annual architecture festival in Palm Springs.  As a non-architect, I’m learning to appreciate different forms of architecture slowly, one at a time.  Mid-Century Modern is on my plate right now, and the Palm Springs event offered more rambling ranch houses than you can shake a goldenrod-colored refrigerator at.  Plus a hotel where the Rat Pack would blow off steam.  And Sinatra’s grave; though that wasn’t an official part of the event, I found that one on my own.

Palm Springs architecture.  Dig them crazy trees.

Palm Springs architecture. Dig them crazy trees.

The point is, for every impossibly manicured palm tree lining the boulevards of Palm Springs, there is a skyscraper in Chicago.  And having been to both, I can say without question that Chicago’s architecture festival is better.

That is fortunate for you, dear reader, because this weekend is Chicago’s architecture festival.  Or as it’s formally known, Open House Chicago.

Organized by friends-of-the-blog, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, this is the big one, people.  It’s like Comic Con for skyscraper nerds.

On Saturday and Sunday (October 18 and 19), 150 buildings in Chicago will open their doors to the public.  Sure, City Hall is open to the public every day.  But most of the rest of these places would normally kick your sorry butt to the curb if you darkened their doorstep.  This is your chance to get an epic view of the Chicago River from the penthouse of the DIRTT building, climb aboard the only ship permanently moored on Chicago’s lakefront, and use the spectacular toilets at the Metropolitan Club on the 67th floor of the Willis Tower.  (The restrooms aren’t actually an official part of the tour, but if you’ve got to go, nobody is going to stop you.)

This is the third year this blog has covered this event, so here are our top ten venues to hit (in no particular order):

  • 10 The Kemper Building (1 East Wacker Drive): This weekend is the only time this building’s observation deck is open to the public.  The glass is old and foggy, but you get some great insight into the design of the nearby buildings like Marina City and 35 East Wacker.
  • 9 Inland Steel Building (30 West Monroe Street): Architects are always gaga over this building.  But to us noobs, it looks like any other.  Until you get to go inside a completely bare floor of the building and see how there are no freaking columns holding the place up.  Suddenly it dawns on you, “Oh, now I get it.”
  • 8 Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architecture (111 West Monroe): Unfortunately, most of the architects studios that are open to the public are pretty boring.  Some look just like any other office with no sign of creativity or inspiration at all.  But this one is different.  It starts  in the lobby where there’s a seven-foot-tall model of a building that really, we promise, cross our hearts and hope to die, is not the Burj Khalifa.  It just looks like it.  But it was a submission for another project. And there are others.  Dozens of dozens and dozens of crazy, fantastic, interesting, and inspiring models show the iterations that architects go through turning a notion from their noggin into something you can live in.  Look hard enough and you might even recognize a building or two, and get to see them in their primitive form.
  • 7 City Hall (121 North LaSalle): Yes, this is a great piece of architecture, but it’s more than that. You should go here because it’s your building.  You pay for it.  And you have every right to roam its hallways as much as any influence-peddling lobbyist, fat-cat lawyer, or corrupt politician.  And maybe if more regular people did spend more time in City Hall, there might be fewer of the other three groups.
  • 6 Holy Name Cathedral (735 North State Street): There are a bunch of churches on the list this year.  But if you can only go to one, this should be it.  Holy Name Cathedral has had a rough decade with fires, floods, and structural problems.  The upside of that, though, is that now that it’s repaired, the place hasn’t looked this good in decades.  In an age when newly-built churches look more like Picasso than Saint Peter (*cough*Los Angeles*cough*) and some Catholic congregations have to rent space inside other brand churches (I’m looking at you, Seattle), Chicago can be proud to have this flagship house of worship that combines old world splendor with prairie sensibility.
  • 5 Columbian Model and Exhibit Works (1528 West Adams Street): We know you love architectural models. Google tells us so.  These are the people who do the models for firms that choose not to have an in-house model shop, or who need a little help with a special project.  If you remember our Light-up Lakeshore East video, that’s these people.
  • 4 Thalia Hall (1807 South Allport Street): Our own Bill Motchan did a series of articles about the recently restored Pilsen landmark. Formerly a Bohemian residential, retail, and theater building, it’s now a suds house under the protection and care of a local restauranteur-turned-preservationist.
  • 3 Second Presbyterian Church (1936 South Michigan Avenue): Yes, another church.  But this one has a totally different vibe. Instead of gothic-frontiersman style, this one is straight outta Hogwarts.
  • 2 Prairie Material Concrete Factory (835 North Peoria Street): I haven’t actually been to this one, but people I know who have been there say it’s pretty cool.
  • 1 The Pullman Administration Building (11057 South Cottage Grove Avenue): This is the best of the remaining Pullman District buildings.  Ordinarily it’s kept locked up behind a very tall fence.  But you have the rare opportunity to actually go inside the clocktower building without committing a third-class misdemeanor.

So put on your walking shoes, load up your Ventra card, and head out to explore your own city in a way that’s only possible once a year.

Disclosure: The Chicago Architecture Foundation has supplied me with a priority access pass to this event for free.  But I would still go even if they didn’t.  The only difference is now I don’t have to wait in line with every Joe Lunchbucket and Sally Hoopskirt in town from Moline.  Also, I am a former member of Holy Name Cathedral.  Not sure if that needs to be disclosed, but better more information than less.

Author: Editor

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

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