Chicagoans know the names of architects who designed their twinkling skyline as well as they do the names of hometown sports heroes. Now they’ll have a chance to cross into “I’ve always wanted to see that!” territory.
This weekend marks Open House Chicago 2013, two days of architectural peek-a-boo as 150 mostly unseen rooms, basements, lofts, stairwells, offices, drinking holes and underbellies of Windy City buildings are unlocked for the masses. Held by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), the open house is free and expected to draw at least 60,000 visitors.
Last year, despite a volatile rainstorm, 40,000 people from 56 countries, arriving from all 50 states and every local zip code, cased the architecture on display. CAF has added new sites this year that cover 15 vastly different neighborhoods.
The open house movement began in London in the early 1990s and has since spread to 20 cities worldwide. Chicago, New York, Milwaukee and San Diego are the only U.S. cities that have adopted the idea, but don’t even ponder which might put on the best open house.
Chicago, after all, is where the skyscraper was born. Grand design rose up after the city was razed in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire. The Chicago School began here, begetting a style known for steel frame construction and the use of large plate glass. Pioneers such as Louis Sullivan, John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright started here. And from the “Second Chicago School” of the 1960s emerged Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Bruce Graham and later Thomas Beeby, to name a few.
This makes choosing what to showcase a daunting task. Mixed with the expected — the corncob twins of Marina City, the row houses of the Pullman District, the gothic Tribune Tower — are churches, synagogues, theaters, hotels, secret gardens, prohibition-era jazz clubs and the occasional speakeasy. Scattered throughout, however, are even quirkier hidden treasures.
Places such as the Brewster Apartments, originally known as the Lincoln Park Palace, in Lakeview. Designed by Enoch Hill Turnock, the spread was home to Charlie Chaplin, who lived in the top-floor penthouse. Suspended interior glass block walkways and a giant skylight are just two of the notable elements in this Romanesque Revival.
Back by popular demand, but on CAF’s members-only list, is the 1926 Jewelers’ Building on East Wacker Drive, designed by Gavier & Dinkelberg. Home to JAHN, the firm of architect Helmut Jahn, the building is known for its famous cupola that once housed the stunning Stratosphere Lounge, a bar and restaurant said to be run by Al Capone.
There’s the Garfield-Clarendon Model Railway Club in the basement of a field house in the Uptown neighborhood. One of the largest model railways in the country, it has nearly 1,400 feet of hand-laid track that curve through the surrounding fictional Appalachian town of Summit. Or consider a visit to the original Sears Tower, built in 1906 in the Garfield Park/Lawndale neighborhood. At 14 stories it was once the world’s largest commercial structure.
Pilsen artist and muralist Hector Duarte will open his studio for the second year in a row, greeting visitors in one of the more personal stops on the circuit. Since arriving in Chicago from Mexico in 1985, Duarte has helped create more than 50 murals and his work has been on exhibition at major museums. The three-sided work, Guillver in Wonderland Mural, graces the outside of his studio.
“I work on my own art while the people visit,” Duarte says. “They come in and I can talk to them about how my art is made. Sometimes I invite people to make some art, too, and they can take it home with them.”
New sites are added to the open house each year. The task of unearthing them falls to Caroline Stevens, program manager for Open House Chicago. An architecture buff and blogger, Stevens says she and a team meet with community leaders and take suggestions from the public and CAF members. They drive back alleys and comb stairwells, eyeballing whether a structure and ornamentation are up to tour snuff.
“I consider myself an expert on Chicago architecture,” Stevens says, “but when I’m out talking to people and seeing these hidden places, I discover how little I actually know.” In total it takes about six months, beginning in January, to tool around the city for new locations.