Normally, we are all about “taking the path least travelled” yet when it comes to the very popular Chicago architectural river cruises, we were all over getting in line to join the masses to take the 75-minute cruise up and down the Chicago River to see and learn more about the city’s amazing history and architecture.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise is one of the most engaging, enlightening and entertaining experiences we have enjoyed in a long time. Our guide, a retired architect, was a fascinating storyteller who made architecture both interesting and understandable, no small feat given the need to use architectural lingo like curtain wall, footprint, setbacks, art deco, post-modern, bundled tube and skeleton frame.
Did you know that “Chicago” is an Indian world for stinkweed, a plant prevalent in the swamp that is now the city? We learned about how the “Great Chicago Fire” of October 8, 1871 that took the lives of 250 people, left 100,000 people homeless and destroyed over 17,000 homes and buildings, was the catalyst for the city to become the Skycraper City. Chicago is home to the first skyscraper the Home Insurance Building built in 1885. It was the first building not made of bricks and mortar, but instead had a metal frame. This reduced the weight of the building and allowed taller buildings. Subsequently, the Chicago School of Architecture was created with many high-rise buildings built form the mid 1880s to 1910. The design of the buildings often consisted of a three parts: a wide base, a narrower tower on top of the base and a decorative top.
We also learned about the “reversal of the river.” In the late 19th century, the Chicago River which runs through downtown, was used as an open sewer. However, since it flowed into Lake Michigan. it polluted Chicago’s drinking water. After thousands died from water-related diseases, it was determined the river needed to be reversed. So, a 26-mile canal was dug 15 feet deeper than the river so when the sanitary and ship canal opened in 1900, the river began to flow backwards naturally as a result of gravity. Today, the river is much cleaner and while it is still a working river, it is becoming more and more an urban playground with residential development and pathways for recreational uses along its banks.
For photographers, the river cruise simply “eye candy.” It seems like every minute there is a new perspective, a different juxtaposition of architectural styles. We were fortunate to take the cruise on a warm, blue-sky day – the light was spectacular.
Our tour guide was full of fun little factoids and memorable comments including:
“Architecture is the art in which you live in.”
“In Chicago, things are always changing. Nothing stays the same.” A quote from Mark Twain
“Chicago is sometimes called Paris on the prairies as the river and its bridges are the heart of the city.”
“Tall, dark and handsome” is what some people call Chicago because its signature skyscrapers of the 20th century are tall, dark and handsome buildings – Sears Tower and John Hancock Tower.
1. Book the river cruise tour before you leave home so you aren’t disappointed
2. Go on your first day as it will provide you with a perfect orientation to the city and its illustrious history
3. Sit at or near the back of the boat. You’ll have no problem hearing well and this will prevent lots of “turning around” to see or take pictures after the tour guide finishes their banter about the buildings.