A Free and Easy Walking Tour of the Windy City
Aunt Edna and Uncle Ralph are coming to town, and they would just love you, and I mean you, to take them on a walking tour of the Windy City, without, of course, breaking the bank.
What they have in mind is a trip into Chicago on the South Shore, and then a closer look at all that famous Chicago architecture they’ve been hearing about. You know, buildings by the likes of Daniel Hudson Burnham and Louis Sullivan, and domes by such luminaries as Louis Comfort Tiffany, and lobbies designed by no less than Frank Lloyd Wright.
For some reason, Aunt Edna and Uncle Ralph think you’re the expert on Chicago architecture. They’re counting on you to take them to the promised landmarks, even to buildings by more recent architects, such as Helmut Jahn. All in a day, mind you, with time out, of course, for lunch at some funky, downtown restaurant that only you know about.
Too much to comprehend?
Nah, don’t sweat it. I’ve been there and done that dozens of times for the Florida, Oregon, and Pennsylvania sides of the family.
And, I am happy to report, they would all file favorable reviews of my tours, if you were but to ask.
Okay, so where to start and which way to walk from there?
Let’s just assume that you’ll be riding in on the South Shore to the final stop at Millennium Station. Here’s what I have done, and I know it will work for you. Ready?
Lace up your most comfortable walking shoes and follow closely:
For starters, make sure everyone takes a potty break at Millennium Station. You will find “facilities” along my route, but not in abundance, so take the opportunity before you leave Millennium.
Then, lead your party up the stairs to Randolph Street and on and up into the Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington Street (yes, there are entrances on both ends of the building) where admission is free, and where you will be dazzled by two magnificent, stained-glass domes, as well as free music, dance and theater events, films, lectures, art exhibitions, and more than enough to keep you busy for the entire day.
In fact, when I was a student at Morgan Park High School from 1964-68, a friend and I would take the Rock Island downtown on Saturdays and study at what was completed in 1897 as Chicago’s first central public library. In so doing, we learned that the building was designed to prove that Chicago had arrived on the national stage. According to the Chicago Cultural Center’s website, “the country’s top architects and craftsmen used the most sumptuous materials, such as rare imported marbles, polished brass, fine hardwoods, and mosaics of Favrile glass, mother-of-pearl and colored stone, to create an architectural showplace.”
And it is in this architectural showplace’s stunning Preston Bradley Hall on the Washington-Street end of the building where you can enjoy free, weekly concerts under the world’s largest, stained-glass, Tiffany dome.
When we lived in Chicago, we attended almost weekly—on Wednesdays from 12:15 to 1 p.m. We enriched our cultural lives immeasurably by getting there early and claiming front-row seats, better to watch some amazing musicians in action.
So, consider conducting your walking tour of the Loop and environs on a Wednesday, and do visit http://www.imfchicago.org for a listing of forthcoming Dame Myra Hess concerts.
Speaking of the Loop, you might well want to lead your party to the CTA’s dazzling, new elevated-station, the Wabash/Washington station on Wabash Avenue at Washington Street, and board an outbound, Orange-Line train. Yes, you will have to pay the going CTA fare, which as of this writing was $2.50 per person, but it is a bargain considering the amazing ride you’ll get.
Consider the ride I took recently from Wabash/Washington on an outbound, Orange-Line train. As is my custom, I took a seat on the starboard side, which is the right side as you face the front of the train from the inside. I settled in for a scenic ride to say, the Halsted station, where I intended to cross the platform and return to the Loop on an inbound train. But the elevated views of the rail-yards, tracks, and activity made me keep my seat all the way to Midway Airport, where I did, indeed, cross the platform and board a waiting, inbound train, paying no extra fare. Trains Magazine has rightly called Chicago “America’s Railroad Capital;” there is no better way in which to see proof of that than from the CTA’s Orange Line.
So, you decide how far out the line you want to ride, but do include it in your tour; it will give your visitors from out-of-town a dramatic sense of why poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago a “player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler.”
Oh, and be sure to sit on the starboard side of the train when you return to the Loop: you can see all the neighborhoods, factories, and expressways you missed heading out of town.
Once you’re back in town, exit the train at the Harold Washington Library station over Van Buren Street and, by all means, check out the central library named for Chicago’s first, black mayor. Then lead your party a bit west to Dearborn Street, where you will encounter such jewels in the Windy City Crown as the Monadnock Building at 53 West Jackson Boulevard. Designed by Burnham and Root, the 16-story “skyscraper” began its rise to the heavens in 1891.
To properly experience the wonders that are the Monadnock, you must walk its lobby from the Van Buren Street entrance on the south to the Jackson Boulevard entrance on the north.
As you do, do some serious window-shopping at shops you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Consider what Finis Farr said about the Monadnock in his definitive book, Chicago: A Personal History of America’s Most American City: “Montgomery Schuyler, the country’s leading architectural critic, approved of its walls that ‘are real walls that carry themselves, and that may be properly thickened at the base,’ thus enabling Root to give an inward curve of the exterior at the top of the first story, which he answered with an outward curve at the parapet 215 feet above.”
That might be too much information for you and your tour, but I am sure you will all be as impressed by the mighty Monadnock as we are every time we visit. Oh, I must confess that a certain travel writer does like to give his credit card a work-out every time he chances upon a certain hat shop in the lobby of said building.
So, I have said a lot about walking/riding tours of Chicago when there is so, so much more to see, such as the Rookery Building on LaSalle Street; the three amazing public works of art along Dearborn Street by Calder, Chagall and Picasso; and the Chicago Riverwalk, which now extends the entire length of the main channel of the Chicago River, from the locks to where the river divides at Wolf Point.
And, I said nothing of food. Well, that’s up to you and your party. Downtown Chicago abounds with fascinating food options; I know you’ll find one to your mutual satisfaction, perhaps even from one of the food trucks that line certain streets, such as Clark Street, at lunchtime.
You might want to begin your tour at the Chicago Architecture Center at 111 E. Wacker Drive, which is open daily from 9:30 to 5. Alas, they do charge admission: $12 for adults, $8 for students with ID, and free for children under 5, but you would be wise to spend the money and time there in order to conduct a truly informed tour of Chicago.
And, the best part is that a South Shore train will be patiently waiting for you all at Millennium Station to transport you around the lake, back to Michigan City.