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The Windy City Part 1: Architecture

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Chicago is a city that has been high on my list of places to visit for a very, very long time. The primary reason Chicago was a top destination of mine was the culinary scene. (There will be plenty on that in posts to come.) What I discovered however, is that the food is just one among many reasons to fall in love with this city.

Here are some things that I didn't previously know about Chicago:

1) While visiting, I was told that the moniker, "The Windy City" refers both to the frigid wind that blows off Lake Michigan, as well as the city's verbose politicians and citizens who were accused of being "full of hot air" in a newspaper article written in 1890.

2) The Chicago River is the world's only backward flowing river. The river runs right through the heart of the city. In 1900, the river was engineered to flow backwards in order to divert sewage away from Lake Michigan.

3) Chicago is the birthplace of modern architecture and the site of the world's first skyscraper which was built in 1885, right after the Great Chicago Fire.

This last fact is a perfect segue to the meat of this post which is focused on Chicago's architecture. This city has been called "the ever-beating architectural heart of America."

My adventures in Chicago started out with a bang. I mean, I literally heard a "bang" on Michigan Avenue. As I was standing on East Wacker staring up at the buildings, fireworks started erupting, as if to welcome me to this spectacular city.

For those of you familiar with Chicago, these were not the usual summer fireworks that are launched from Navy Pier. This fireworks display originated on the Michigan Avenue Bridge. I am still unsure what the occasion was, but it was an unexpected joy to have this be one of my first experiences in The Windy City.

The Chicago Riverwalk, which takes you along the Chicago River, is absolutely lovely. From here, you can gaze up at the hulking buildings, or down at the winding river.

The city, with all its beautiful architecture, surrounds the river as it flows west and ultimately empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

I was told that one of the best ways to see the city's iconic buildings is from the river itself, so on day two of my Chicago trip, I took a river cruise.

Chicago's skyline is postcard-perfect. This skyline is home to five of the 15 tallest buildings in America, in this order:

Willis Tower

Trump International Hotel and Tower

St. Regis

Aon

875 North Michigan Avenue

Some of these buildings will be showcased below, while other buildings in this post are those that simply intrigued me.

150 North Riverside

We can start with one of the buildings I found most fascinating because it seemed to resist constructional logic. For about eight decades, the two acre real estate at 150 Riverside was undeveloped because of its problematic location. Its proximity to the river, railroad tracks that run through the property, and an easement, consumed more than 75% of the street-level space and made building seemingly impossible.

In 2012, architects from Goettsch Partners and engineers from Magnusson Klemencic Associates set out to do the impossible and construct a high rise on this compact amount of usable, ground-level space. The result is a 54-story skyscraper that seems to defy gravity. The building is built upon a very small base which slopes outward for the first eight stories and then reaches full width thereafter.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower)

The 110-story Willis Tower, as I mentioned earlier, is the tallest building in Chicago. It stands proudly at 1,450 feet. For sweeping views of up to four states, visit the observation deck located on the top floor.

Marina Village

Marina Village was designed to be a "city within a city" with a bevy of amenities like an on-site gym, bowling alley, theater, skating rink, restaurant and 900 apartments. This might not sound impressive today when many newer apartment buildings come equipped with several of these comforts, but Marina Village was constructed in the 1960s. The two, 60-story towers consist of parking garages that occupy the first 18 stories and apartments that occupy the rest.

While every unit has a gorgeous balcony, none contain any right angles. The architect of Marina Village, Bertrand Goldberg, did this intentionally. This architectural antipathy to straight lines was something I had only seen once before when viewing Gaudi's creations in Barcelona, Spain. Staring up at these two buildings that look like massive corn cobs reaching up to the sky, I wondered how the occupants tackled the interior design challenge of furnishing a place without any 90 degree angles.

The St. Regis

This edifice, with its undulating sides, is both the tallest building in the world designed by a female architect and the third tallest building in Chicago. Jeanne Gang created this 1,191-foot skyscraper, on which construction was completed in 2020.

Gang also designed the nearby Aqua skyscraper, which I was unfortunately unable to get a photograph of. I have seen the Aqua building photographed from afar and the curved, protruding balconies create the illusion that water is cascading down its sides.

Reid Murdoch Building

This building was originally constructed in 1914 for one of the country's largest wholesale grocers, Reid Murdoch & Co. In 1955, the City of Chicago took it over to house the State Attorney's Office and the city's traffic courts. Today, the building is the headquarters of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Yes, this is same company that made the weighty, brown-padded, leather books with the gold lettering on the spine. Many of us grew up relying on these books for information about everything from aardvarks to zyzzyva. Encyclopædia Britannica was first published in 1768. In 2012, after 244 years in production, it went completely digital. I know this probably has no effect on the generations that have been consulting Siri and Wikipedia for information their entire lives, but for me, those leather-bound books with the diaphanous pages were a big part of my childhood.

Tribune Tower

When the Chicago Tribune celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1922, they announced a world-wide competition to design their new headquarters. New York architects Hood and Howells won the challenge with their Gothic Revival tower. The Chicago Tribune has since relocated its headquarters, but the building has been preserved and now houses 162 luxury residences.

Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge

If you are at all interested in moveable bridges, come to the Windy City which has the second greatest number of moveable bridges in the world. These bascule bridges can be seen in movies like Batman Begins, The Fugitive and The Breakup.

The particular bridge in the photo above, is the now defunct, Kinzie Street Railroad Bridge. The Kinzie Street Bridge was the world's longest and heaviest bascule bridge when it opened in 1908. Though the bridge has not been operating since 2000, it remains a permanent fixture, as it was designated a Chicago landmark in 2007.


I'm looking forward to sharing many more of my Windy City adventures with you in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.


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Joan Kosmachuk
Joan Kosmachuk
Sep 05, 2023

I spent several springs in Chicago attending the Writing conference at Moody Bible Institute and loved every moment exploring that wonderful city -- their architectural boat tour is the best and so much history in every building and street corner!

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