The River Cruise
September 19, 2016
On the Thursday we were in Chicago, we walked from lunch at Frontera Grill to Wacker Drive and descended to the river walk, also known as lower Wacker Drive. There we boarded Chicago’s First Lady for a river cruise sponsored by the Architectural Foundation of Chicago. The Chicago river, which slices through downtown, is dotted with small cruise boats, but the tour we chose is supposed to be the most authentic and thoroughly researched. The docent who narrated our tour had certainly done her homework.
Because the river limits the buildings discussed to those visible from the boat, it necessarily leaves out a lot of Chicago architecture and focuses principally on high rises, though there are a few residences—both multi-story and individual condos—on the river. Our docent wished aloud that the buildings along the river had been built in chronological order, but of course that didn’t happen.
The architectural styles—triangles, rounded surfaces, vertical construction and horizontal, are a bit much for someone like me who has a vague knowledge of architecture but can’t wrap my mind around what feature is typical of what style. But it was delightful, wine in hand, to drift along the river on a pleasant afternoon. Our boat probably held at most a hundred people but was not at all full. We sat on the forward deck.
The Great Fire of 1871 destroyed all of downtown Chicago, with the famous water tower on North Michigan the only structure that survived. Architects realized they could not rebuild with wood, and steel-frame buildings came into existence. The invention of the elevator allowed architects to build up, not out—a huge change in architecture. In some ways, Chicago set the pattern for architectural changes throughout the country, and the city produced world-renowned architects, even though they differed dramatically in their design approach. Example: Louis Sullivan detested the neo-Classical buildings that Daniel Burnham designed for the Columbian Exposition.
We passed landmark buildings such as the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building and Marina City Towers—which I remember from a Blues Brothers movie. We passed buildings designed to reflect the undulations of the river. The closeness of all these tall buildings illustrated something I noticed about Chicago as opposed to my hometown of Fort Worth—Chicago is a dense city. Many people work and live in really close proximity, something we Texans are not used to. I don’t think even Dallas or Houston are that dense.
The river tour necessarily misses some well-known buildings in the city—Robie House, the Frank Lloyd Wright structure on the University of Chicago campus and all of Wright’s Prairie School influence, the Gothic buildings of the University of Chicago. But the tour gives a heady taste of the changing style of the city—and it’s a delightful way to spend an afternoon.