Chicago is a town of vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, outstanding museums, and hip and qophisticated nightlife. But if you've got only a couple of hours between meetings to sample its glories, take a boat ride on the Chicago River. Not just any tour, but the cruise run by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. On board Chicago's First Lady, one of the world's most gorgeous skylines comes to life as you snake through downtown and into Lake Michigan.
The river is a showcase for some of the 20th century's most striking buildings and most influential architects--the art deco firm of Holabird & Root, the steel-and-glass-box modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and many of his followers at vast Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Such is Chicago's standing in the world of architecture that "outsiders" such as Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche came to town in the late 20th century to put up important new buildings. Up and down the river, the new pays homage to the old: Just look at the flying buttresses on the neo-deco NBC Tower, built in 1989, similar to those on the nearby soaring neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, vintage 1925.
DECO DELIGHTS. The tour, led by an expert from the architecture foundation, begins beneath the Beaux Arts-style Michigan Avenue bridge. Around you are some hallmarks of the 1920s Golden Age. Just north sits the white, terra-cotta Wrigley Building, with its clock tower, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White in 1924. Across the street is the Tribune, a product of an international design contest. On the south bank are two significant art deco designs--Holabird & Root's 333 N. Michigan and Alfred Alschuler's 360 N. Michigan, replete with columns and a colonnade at the top. A more modern influence waits just downriver: Mies's last major commission, the black-iron-and-glass IBM Tower (1971).
The boat heads east, past former wasteland now transformed into bustling offices and apartments, onto Lake Michigan. As the craft swings 'round toward the city, in the distance can be seen mile-long Navy Pier, built in 1916 but recently reopened as a collection of shops, soundstages, and a brand-new Ferris wheel. More stunning is the skyscape to the west and south. Along Michigan Avenue, a phalanx of handsome structures built after the devastating 1871 Chicago Fire comes into view. In the foreground is the gray-white, spare but sturdy Amoco Building--Chicago's second-tallest--designed by Edward Durrell Stone in 1974.
As the boat winds back into the river and the heart of the business district, you pass an explosion of styles and colors. Unmistakable is the hulking, 4.5 million-square-foot Merchandise Mart, an art deco limestone behemoth with gold leaf running across the top. Originally owned by the Marshall Field family, it passed to the Kennedy clan in the '40s. Directly across the river, there's the neo-classical R.R. Donnelley Center, built in 1992, with its soaring windows set off by narrow strips of concrete. Its neighbor to the south is arguably Chicago's most striking late-20th-century building: the green-glass-fronted 333 W. Wacker building, which snakes for 365 feet along the curve of the river. Designed in 1983 by Kohn, Pedersen, Fox with Perkins & Will, it picks up reflections of the clouds and the Mart across the way.
The final stretch of the tour reaches deep into the Loop--past a collection of Skidmore boxes that derive much from Mies. Soaring above it all, of course, is Skidmore's 1974 showpiece: the Sears Tower, the world's tallest building. As the boat heads for home, you spot two highly idiosyncratic buildings of a type oddly comfortable in Chicago. There's Kohn, Pedersen's postmodern octagonal office tower, a hodgepodge of styles topped by what appears to be a strange, white minicastle, which glows lantern-like at night. Nearby is Bertrand Goldberg's River City apartment-and-marina complex, whose squat concrete structure and bubble-shaped windows remind docent Mary
Allan of an open pomegranate. In Chicago architecture, it seems, even the most eclectic has a place.
BY CAB Chicago's First Lady departs from the south side of the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue and Lower Wacker Drive downtown. It's less than a $5 cab ride from any downtown hotel. Take the curved stairs down to the boarding area. The 90-minute cruises are scheduled at 9:30 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. through Sept. 30. Then, at noon Monday to Friday, and at noon and 2 p.m. on weekends through Oct. 29.