5 Chicago Buildings to be Thankful for This Thanksgiving

A lot of people aren’t going to work this week, so chances are you’re not reading this.  If you’ve buried your nose in your phone rather than listen to Uncle Earl lecture your mom — again — about how if it doesn’t say “USA” on the package, the turkey came from China, then read on to understand why there are so many architectural reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

John Hancock Center Observatory sign
John Hancock Center at Christmas, 2008 (file)

1. The John Hancock Center – 875 North Michigan Avenue

It’s huge.  It’s strong.  But it’s somehow cuddly.  Whether you fly or drive in, returning to Chicago and seeing the John Hancock Center waiting reliably for you on the shore of Lake Michigan is like coming back from college and getting a welcoming hug from dear old dad.  Your dad wears suspenders; the Hancock Center wears cross-braces. Your dad has crazy Andy Rooney eyebrows; The Hancock has a pair of 400-foot-tall antennae.  Your dad is sometimes dark and stern; Hancock has dark and stern to spare.  And like your dad, the Hancock Center also a formal name: 875 North Michigan.  But to you, he’ll always be “Dad.” 

Lakeside Technology Center
Lakeside Technology Center (file)

2. The Lakeside Technology Center – 350 East Cermak Road

After you’ve polished off the tater tot hot dish Aunt Ida brought down from Minnesota, clip the kids’ mittens to their coat sleeves and go on a scavenger hunt at the Lakeside Technology Center in the South Loop.  Walk around the outside of this Howard Van Doren Shaw building that was once the world’s largest data center.  Take in the shields, sailing ships, and mythical creatures that decorate this former phone book factory.  Earn bonus points for explaining to your children that the reliefs of sirens that adorn this computer hotel were there for almost 50 years before Starbucks started using the aquatic creature to brand its cups of coffee.  Points will be deducted if you don’t let your kids see the sirens because their boobs are out.  Ever wear a bra underwater?  Chafe city.

3. The Home Insurance Building – Adams and LaSalle

The northwest corner of Adams and LaSalle is notable not for what is there, but what isn’t: The world’s first skyscraper.  The Home Insurance Building was the world’s first skyscraper when it was erected in 1885 to a William Le Baron Jenney design. 

In recent years as the world becomes awash in revisionist history, buildings from Britain to Greece to China are trying to pretend they were the first.  They weren’t.  Even the formerly reliable Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has gone all wishy-washy on the topic as its reliability became questionable in recent years. (1 World Trade Center antenna: height-o-riffic. Willis Tower antenna: *crickets*.)

As pre-1970’s Chicagoans were wont to do, the Home Insurance Building was knocked down before anyone realized what a treasure it was.  In its place now is the Bank of America Financial Center, known as the Field Building when it went up in 1934.  This Graham, Anderson, Probst & White building, too, is full of lessons in history (last skyscraper to be erected in Chicago before a 20-year pause because of World War II), civics (it looks the way it does because of then-new city requirements about public light and air), geography (the pilasters at the entrance are made of marble from the Yule Creek Valley of Colorado), and economics (banks used to build huge, strong, historic-looking buildings to give people confidence that they were stable and would be around for a long time).

Marc Chegal's Four Seasons (bottom) in the Chase Tower plaza.
Marc Chegal’s Four Seasons in the Chase Tower plaza. (file)

4. Chase Tower – 10 South Dearborn Street

While the sloping design of the 60-story Chase Tower is worthy of a fawning essay in The Paris Review, we’re only here for the art.  That art exists in a pavilion on the Dearborn Street side of the sunken south plaza.  There, under a protective canopy, is a freaking I-shit-you-not Chegal.

It’s 168 feet long, wrapping around a 70×14 rectangle.  It’s made of hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of tile.  It’s called Four Seasons and depicts senes of Chicago as seen by Marc Chegal, one of the greatest artists of the modern era.

This is world-class art, right here, in the middle of downtown Chicago, thanks to former Boston mayor and slaughterhouse magnate Frederick Prince, whose charity gave it to the people of Chicago in 1974.

Remember in the 90’s when Microsoft said the human eye could only see 256 colors?  This artwork has 250 of them.  

Remember that month you skipped buying lunch so that you could take the kids to the Art Institute to get some culture?  This thing is right there, out in the open, for anyone to see and enjoy for exactly zero dollars.  

Remember that clown Marty from Cleveland you met at the convention who said that Chicago was an ugly town?  Yeah, well when one of the biggest names in the history of art spends a few years crafting scenes of the Mistake By The Lake, then we’ll talk, buck-o.

The Drake Hotel at Christmas, 2008 (file)
The Drake Hotel at Christmas, 2008 (file)

5. The historic Chicago hotel of your choice

Hotels are wonderful things.  No, not the free-breakfast-and-garbage-wifi temporary business traveler mini-storage warehouses.  And not the Japanese capsule hotels where the night clerk’s face washes over with horror when a six-and-a-half-foot tall Chicago architecture writer enters the lobby pulling a rolling suitcase stuffed with Meiji chocolate and random gashapons.  

I’m taking about the full-service, umbrella-loaning, taxi-hailing, impossible-ticket-getting, blackout curtain-equipped, shoulder-brushing, feather pillow-having institutions with cloth napkin restaurants, potted palms, and shiny-buttoned bellhops at the ready.

These are places with epic lobbies suitable for browsing a newspaper in a language you can’t read, spying people kissing in a language you can’t speak, or just simply watching the world go by as you wait for a local insurrection to pass like a political thunderstorm.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from modern newspapers, old books, and 1940’s movies, it’s that while governments come and go, hotels remain.

Chicago has such places.  They are treasures savored by others, but overlooked and underutilized by the locals.  They exist as the cornerstones of a city that doesn’t understand how much it needs them.  They are the places where historic music was made (The Ambassador East), where broadcasting was born (The Drake Hotel), and where the most powerful people in the world have laid their heads (The Palmer House).  

And at this time of the year, those landmark hotels know how to make everyone from politicians to pipsqueaks feel special. The Peninsula, the Sofitel, and a half-dozen more bring out their best for the Christmas season.  If you don’t have the dosh for afternoon tea (think eighty bucks a head), you are free to take a tour around the public areas and soak in the atmosphere, the music, the decorations, and the occasional miniature train set.  You may even find an available overstuffed chair that will caress your keister with the same generous warmth its given to kings and gentlemen before you.  Sit.  Stay.  For 20 minutes be the person you always wished you could be.

The next time the Chicago teachers go on strike; the next time world trade protestors march down Michigan avenue; the next time civilized people decide that acting in an uncivilized manner is the only way to achieve their goals, head to one of the city’s venerable hotels.  Sit in the lobby.  Listen to the whistles and drums and sirens outside.  Then fluff your newspaper like Hemingway would in Cuba, like Bogie might in North Africa, like Count Rostov did in Moscow, and ask someone passing by what kind of tea they recommend on an afternoon such as this.

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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