Treasures of Culture and Commerce in Historic Downtown Chicago
It’s fashionable to say that New York is the greatest city in the world, but this Chicago girl prefers the Second City. For the first time in many years, I had an opportunity to spend summer in the Chicagoland area, where my family still lives. As I always do whenever I’m here, I took one of the many walking tours offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Last time I opted for a lunchtime tour of the Chicago Board of Trade Building, which provided a fascinating in-depth architectural look into the art deco skyscraper and allowed me to watch commodities traders screaming out orders in the “pit.” Since I focus on issues of culture, this time I chose the Treasures of Culture and Commerce walking tour in downtown Chicago, which promised to share the stories behind the great architectural landmarks of State Street and Michigan Avenue from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
So much has changed since I grew up on the south side of Chicago. When I was a child, mom and dad would take my sisters and I downtown for the unveiling of the department store Christmas windows. For days beforehand, the giant windows that front State Street were covered in butcher paper. We’d plaster our noses to those icy window panes, excited beyond words as the paper was peeled away to reveal heaps of toys amidst a wonderland of animated figures.
Those days are long gone, as are many of the original department stores. Mandel’s, where my mother worked as a young woman, is just a memory. Marshall Field & Company, where we had lunch at the Walnut Room at least once each holiday season, is now a Macy’s. The gargantuan Christmas tree that rose seven floors through the atrium, terminating in the center of the restaurant, has been replaced by a huge American flag.
On the top floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, I gazed up at two exquisite stained glass ceiling domes. I couldn’t shake the feeling of having been there before. Suddenly, something clicked; years ago this building had housed the Chicago Public Library, where I had spent many hours studying during my first year of college at what was then the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus.
Even the Art Institute, with its two stately bronze lions flanking the Michigan Avenue entrance, began life as something else. Built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition, the building was converted to the Art Institute at the end of the fair. Though still being used for the same purpose as when I was a youngster, the museum long ago outgrew its original building. It has seen eight major expansions, the latest being the Modern Wing, which opened in 2009.
More memories bubbled up when we walked into the Palmer House and rode the escalator down to the sunken lobby. Business magnate Potter Palmer risked his reputation and fortune on the belief that State Street would become the heart of downtown Chicago. He acquired much of the land on what was a narrow, unattractive lane, then petitioned the city to reconfigure it as a broad Parisian-style boulevard. Many property owners refused to move their structures back from the street to accommodate this plan, but Palmer got his wish after the Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed all the buildings on State Street, including his new hotel, which he had built as a wedding present for his bride, Bertha.
Never one to give up, Palmer rebuilt, and Bertha set about decorating the hotel in a manner that celebrated her French heritage. She filled it with French impressionist paintings, Tiffany chandeliers, and commissioned the French painter Louis Pierre Rigal to create an immense fresco on the ceiling. That ceiling swept me even further down memory lane. Everything looked exactly the same as it had the day I crossed the lobby in a white ballgown studded with tiny embroidered red roses, to the Empire Room for my Senior Prom. Today the Palmer House is part of the Hilton hotel chain and, although it has undergone a $170 million renovation designed to upgrade the amenities to 21st century standards, the famous lobby retains its original decor. Many things may have changed since I was a child, but with each Architecture Foundation tour I become more convinced that, in the case of Chicago, those changes are for the better.
About the Chicago Architecture Foundation:
The Chicago Architecture Foundation presents more than 85 different tours of Chicago’s neighborhoods and suburbs by boat, bus, trolley, bike, L-train or walking. Volunteer docents lead these tours after completing a graduate-level ten-week training program. Most tours last two hours and fees begin at $5, but an annual membership to CAF – which may be the best deal in the city at $55 – provides members with free, year-long access to any tour other than the River Cruises and bus tours. CAF is located at 224 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60604. For further information visit www.architecture.org or call 312-922-3432.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Chicago Architecture Foundation on this tour, however the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.