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Margaret Deefholts
For Travel Writers' Tales

"Did you know that Chicago was built on a swamp?" my guide Jim Gary asks. We are standing in front of the highest building in Chicago - the 108 storey-high Willis Tower, (once the Sears building) soaring 1,451 feet against the sky. I stare. "You're kidding!" He smiles and shakes his head. "As early as 1873, architect Frederick Bauman, devised a ten-storey building that stood on a broad foundation pad, thereby distributing its weight over the marshland. Twenty years later, architects devised vertical and transverse iron and steel girders as skeletons for supporting brick walls. He waves his hand expansively at the scene around us. "And so, in the late 1800s, the first American skyscraper was born here in Chicago!"

Today that legacy has expanded to include extraordinary edifices of glass, steel and, yes, even terra cotta resulting in a melange of styles, shapes and silhouettes that define Chicago as a living museum of grand architectural design and imagination.

Jim Gary is volunteer "Greeter" with the Chicago Tourism Office a program that takes visitors on tours around the city year round, come rain, hail or snow! Jim's specialty is architecture (in addition to music and history) and I'm apologetic at my lack of knowledge about the subject. He says reassuringly. "You don't need a degree…just an eye for the unusual. The city has many faces. Some wacky and frivolous; others breathtaking!"

The Loop bristles with theatres, art galleries, restaurants and museums, and arresting street art-murals by Miro and an enigmatic metal sculpture by Picasso. As we walk along Michigan Avenue, an arterial road in downtown Chicago, Jim talks about the history of the city, its first permanent settlement founded in 1781 and the catastrophic fire of 1871 that reduced the city to charred rubble, and how it rose again, Phoenix-like from the ashes to an architectural renaissance by the end of the century.

Jim interrupts himself at the corner of Adams Avenue, an ordinary-looking street. "This," he says, pointing a marker at the corner, "designates the start of Route 66, but in actual fact, Jackson Boulevard, a block over, was the original starting point prior to the1933 World's Fair.

The Marquette Building, a structure with a brown-banded terra cotta façade was among the first of the city's steel-framed structures. The entrance hall rotunda is adorned with Tiffany mosaics depicting Indians greeting Fr. Marquette and Louis Jolliet, the first explorers to arrive in this area.

The iconic "Chicago" theatre sign on State Street beckons and I pause to take in the five storey-high grand entrance. Gilded Baroque embellishments, velvet drapes, Renaissance art and glittering chandeliers, plays up Chicago's flashy show biz persona.

Many of Chicago's architectural wonders lie beyond walking ambit, so I board "Chicago's "First Lady" one of the Chicago Architectural Foundation fleet of riverfront vessels. On this pleasantly breezy afternoon we pass fifty or more buildings running the gamut from classical to modernistic: the dazzling white glazed terra-cotta façade of Wrigley's building, the diamond shaped upper storied facet of the Smurfit-Stone building, and the whimsical Marina City semi-circular structures, colloquially known as "The Corncobs" -an apt description of 61 storey twin towers that provide parking on the lower floors and residences, shops, theatres and a hotel on the upper floors.

The multi-tiered Tribune Tower, another Chicago landmark, and home of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, has an impressive Gothic entrance, and its walls are reputedly embedded with pieces from Westminster Abbey, Cologne Cathedral, the Alamo, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid, and the Arc de Triomphe. Lake Point Tower has a curvilinear glass tinted wall, and at the east end of the river, the 86-floor Aqua, rises like a rippled wave.

No matter the towering giants of Chicago, I am captivated by a building that has no pretensions to height. The five-storey Chicago Cultural Centre, built in five years from 1892 to 1897 is the grand old dame of the city's architectural heritage.

Two magnificent glass domes are highlights: the Grand Army of the Republic glass dome with a botanical theme shimmers in warm autumnal colours, while the Tiffany designed dome in Preston Bradley Hall is a composite of 2,848 faceted glass jewels and rippled opalescent glass cut into a fish-scale pattern. This was the original library and the walls are stippled in mosaics that bear the names and quotations of famous literati. Mosaic designs in iridescent jewelled colours of jade, topaz, sapphire and ruby also border the sweeping marble stairwells. This is American 19th century decorative art at its finest.

The Chicago Architectural Foundation, among its many programs, runs bus tours through the elegant Gold Coast residential neighbourhood where the rustle of leaves whisper secrets about the folks who once lived in the gracious mansions along the tree-lined avenues. The highlight of the tour is Robie House, designed by 20th century architectural guru, Frank Lloyd Wright. The building was completed in 1911 at a cost of $58,500 - the equivalent of about $1,500,000 today. The entrance hall appears small and rather dark and perhaps Wright deliberately made it so that, as we walk up a flight of steps, the light and airy living room and adjoining dining room, comes as a welcome contrast.

It would take an entire article, and a great deal more than a single hour's tour to do justice to Robie House, but I carry away with me with an impression of linearity - horizontal strips bind the long red brick building, its length relieved by glass windows etched with geometric diamond-shaped designs.

Whimsy and grace vie with each other at Millennium Park. Flanking a shallow pool near the entrance a face projected onto a giant screen suddenly puckers his (or her) lips to spout a stream of water amid shrieks of delight from kids splashing in the water.

Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate", inspired by a drop of mercury, is more popularly known as "The Bean" because of its shape, offers visitors multiple distorted metallic reflections in its concave underbelly.

Millennium Park's Jay Pritzker Pavilion is a vast outdoor concert arena. The stage at one end of the lawn is sheltered under an exuberant canopy of curled-back steel petals. Webbed criss-cross pipes embedded with amplifiers fan out to carry sound to as many as 13,000 listeners. Sleek, gleaming, modernistic, it is the city's 21st century showpiece.


If You Go:

Chicago Greeter Program:
About Chicago, Chicago Tourism:
Chicago Architecture Foundation:
Architectural River Cruise: http://
Chicago Cultural Centre:
Grant Park Music Festivals:

Photos: Margaret Deefholts (unless otherwise specified)

1 Willis Tower
2 Board of Trade Building
3 Miro Mosaic
4 Start of Route 66
5 Marquette Building Mural
6 Chicago Theatre
7 Architectural Cruise
8 Marina City Building
9. G.A.R. Dome detail
10. Tiffany Dome Bradley Hall
11 Robie House
12 Face Mural at Millennium Park
13 Cloud Gate
14: Jay Pritzker Pavilion

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