Funny, isn’t it, how transplants often know a city’s landmarks better than the locals. It’s so easy as a local of a major metropolis to push aside going to its museums, historic sites, or other attractions—the excuses are as numerous as they are flimsy: they’re too touristy, there’s not enough time, they’re too expensive, they’re too inconvenient, etc., etc.
Locals and tourists alike no longer have any good reason to miss seeing Chicago’s many architectural gems, thanks to the publication of AIA Guide to Chicago. This third edition, released just this summer, is packed with hundreds of visit-worthy architectural sites across the city, from lakeshore to West Side, from north to south.
Last updated in 2004, this new edition adds a decade’s worth of progress—beautiful, stark, or controversial—including Aqua, Millennium Park, and Trump Tower. This edition features three dozen maps, charts, and tables as well as more than 450 black-and-white photographs and illustrations. The guide also features a new preface from WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer, whose popular PBS specials hit a number of the architectural highlights in the book.
Arranged by neighborhood, the guide is divided into four main sections comprised of twenty chapters that take readers building by building and street by street through the neighborhoods of the Loop and the South Loop, the North and Northwest Sides, the West Side and suburban Oak Park, and the South and Southwest Sides. Each section gets a minihistory of the area, noting how it first developed and, in many cases, fell into decay before becoming gentrified (or not). Detailed maps serve as fodder for self-guided tours, although the guide does not advise whether readers should walk or drive through certain areas (or, for that matter, whether it is wise to even get out of your car in some neighborhoods). Some of the maps might have readers walking around in circles every now and again, but even those circuitous routes would be worthwhile since they highlight some of the city’s wonderful architectural gems.
The many gems found in these pages are both well known and little known, and it is this expansive scope that makes the AIA Guide to Chicago so enthralling. The editors and contributors have in these pages hit the major highlights—the Sears Tower (sorry: can’t call it “Willis” yet), the Hancock, the Monadnock, the Rookery—but they also have revealed countless lesser-known buildings peppered throughout the city. Readers, for instance, will find information about the William V. O’Brien House on Arlington Place, “one of the city’s most unusual for its era;” the Cardinal Meyer Center, originally “Soldiers’ Home,” on 35th Street, “a rare example of a surviving Civil War-era building in Chicago;” and the Warren McArthur and George W. Blossom houses on Kenwood, “the most important of the ‘bootlegged’ commissions done while [Frank Lloyd Wright] was working for Adler & Sullivan.”
Indeed, Wright, Adler, and Sullivan are just a few of the popular architects whose structures are featured in these pages. Readers also will find listings for buildings created by the likes of E. E. Roberts, George W. Maher, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frederick Schock. More recent entries include those by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Frank Gehry; and Mies van der Rohe. As might be expected, most of the structures and places covered in the book date to the early twentieth century during the post-Great Fire building boom, although this new edition features a number of buildings from recent years as well.
In addition to residences, office buildings, and government buildings, readers also will find information about parks and cemeteries and the structures and grounds therein. Even O’Hare Airport gets special attention, with a few pages dedicated to its terminals and outbuildings.
One could easily spend the better part of nearly every weekend for six months exploring the buildings and other sites detailed in these pages. For those who don’t wish to dedicate quite so much time exploring the city and its architectural treasures, it’s just as easy to pick one or two of the neighborhoods to explore using the detailed maps. Even those who prefer armchair adventure will find much to enjoy in this expansive guide, packed as it is with images and history.
AIA Guide to Chicago makes it difficult to come up with an excuse not to explore the city, whether in person or virtually through these pages. Architecture buffs, historians, Chicagophiles … whether tourist or local, there is something of interest to many a reader in this fact-filled guide.
June 2014, University of Illinois Press
$34.95, paperback, 550 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
“Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.“
—Frank Lloyd Wright