The story of Chicago – and in great part the story of the United States itself – is told by the Chicago River – it’s colorful past and it’s vibrant, constantly changing future. Attitudes about the river and the environment, the rise and fall of fortunes, the flourishing of art and architecture – all of it can be seen along the river. If you go (what am I saying – when you go) to Chicago, you owe it to yourself to go on the Chicago Architectural Foundation River Cruise.
Led by volunteer docents, the cruise lasts about 90 minutes. It’s lots of fun stories and tidbits of history, engineering, environmental advances and a bit of gossip and the time flies by. I went on the first cruise on Monday morning on a stunningly beautiful day and enjoyed every minute.
A few highlights:
This is Fulton House, the oldest building along the river. Built in 1898 as a cold-storage warehouse, it has wall that are 4 feet thick and floors that are 2 feet thick. It’s been converted to condominiums.
The Merchandise Mart takes up two entire city blocks and was the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930. Built by Marshall Field as a distribution center, it was later owned by the Kennedy family for more than 50 years. The row of busts of famous men has been called the “Pez Hall of Fame” by David Letterman.
The Chicago Civic Opera House, which opened five days after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. They struggled for many years, but are now considered one of the best operas in the world. Notice that there are no windows facing the river. At the time it was built the Chicago River was toxic – not just polluted but toxic – and the trend at that time was to turn your back to the river. The river is now being embraced and Chicago has made significant strides in cleaning up the river – it’s now considered safe to boat in the river again and they plan for it to be safe to swim in within 10 years.
Chicago has more movable bridges than any other city in the world and has been an innovator in the engineering of bridges. The majority of bridges that are in use today are a type called trunnion bascule, operated by a complex series of counterweights. This one is rarely used anymore and therefore stays open most of the time.
There were lots more great stories, like the warehouse built for the jewelry trade in the 1920s that was built with an elevator large enough for delivery trucks so that they could be driven directly into the building and unloaded inside, making it impossible for Al Capone or other crime bosses to hijack their cargo. Or the story if reversing the course of the Chicago River. Or the changing building codes intended to improve the river experience. Or the reason why you never see trash pickup or deliveries on the streets in downtown Chicago (it has to do with the fact that Chicago is built on a swamp). Or how to build a building over a working railroad. Or why Chicago once had the largest post office in the world. You get the idea. Go – you won’t be disappointed.