Open House Chicago 2015: Beautiful Buildings, Threatened Buildings, and Buildings that are Barely There

This weekend is the Chicago Architecture Foundation‘s Open House Chicago! Which means that, for a very little while (only two days!), one can get into a myriad of spectacular and architecturally (and historically) significant buildings–for free. It isn’t every day one can get access to any of these buildings, and I certainly recommend taking the chance to see them. It’s also perfect timing, albeit far too short–after all, we are in the thick of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, making this the perfect time to sample what Chicago has on offer, every day, all the time, with more coming nearly every day. As I’ve written before, it truly is an exciting time in Chicago architecture.

While nearly all the buildings participating in the Open House are open to all, some few are exclusive: members’ only spaces, for those lucky souls who are members of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (if you’re interested, you can find more information on joining here). Conveniently, levels of openness are clearly marked in the Open House’s brochure, available here as a downloadable, printable pdf. The Open House extends into the North Side; naturally, my domain remains the South Side (although of course I can direct you to a good instrument shop in charming Roscoe Village!), and I am quite entertained to learn that my home turf, Hyde Park, is evidently “Far South.” One wonders what they’d call Mount Greenwood,1 if Hyde Park and South Shore are so far south! Extra-super-far-south, perhaps? So far south it’s Off the Map? That Place Whose Name Shall Never Be Uttered? That Place We Never Go Because it Isn’t Really Part of the City Anyway?2

Voilà. Hyde Park isn’t far south at all. Chicago neighborhood map, from Wikimedia Commons; created by Wikipedian Peter Fitzgerald and available under a Creative Commons license.

Regardless of odd lines of demarcation, however, the Open House isn’t to be missed (except, most likely, by me). The Charnley House, designed by Louis Sullivan (without the brilliant Adler), will be open. Charnley House would be special regardless of its draftsmen, but one of them happened to be a young fellow with about a thousand kids (and a few mistresses) named Frank Lloyd Wright. As it is, Sullivan let Wright help with the house itself, far more than was normal for a draftsman, and so it is a testament to two of Chicago’s great contributions to the architectural world, Louis Sullivan (and the seed germ theory) and Frank Lloyd Wright (and organic architecture, which is almost a sidenote to the sideshow of his life). Naturally, Charnley House figures in nearly every architecture history class I’ve ever taken. In fact, it was described to those of us taking “Origins of Modern Architecture” at the School of the Art Institute as “the first modern house,” a trailblazer in every sense of the word. It is also roughly contemporary with the so-called Bootleg Houses, buildings which Wright designed, just as it sounds, on the sly, because he had so many children and a draftsman’s pay really didn’t stretch to cover them all. (And then, of course, he bolted with a mistress, but that is a tale3 for another time.)

Exterior of the elegant Sullivan Charnley House, with details by Wright. Photo c. 1900, from the Historic American Buildings Survey. Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, the Charnely House is far from the only building to see in and about Chicago during this far-too-short Open House. (I mean, really, we’re in an Architecture Biennial—shouldn’t we make this Open House a wee bit longer?!) Several buildings in the exclusive Prairie Avenue District are open for viewing, including the McCormick Place Rooftop Farm, the Clarke House (which has probably moved more times than any other Greek Revivial house in the city of Chicago), and the Wheeler Mansion. Open House also doesn’t seem to have Glessner House on their list, which really is odd—especially since the Clarke and the Glessner are at least moderately tied (see: the Glessner’s website). And, of course, if one does visit McCormick Place, one simply must look out to the east, and see Northerly Island, on its way to becoming what Burnham and Bennett dreamed it would be, so long ago when they wrote their Plan of Chicago.

Also in the Loop, or at least rather more downtown than anywhere else, are buildings like the Civic Opera House (which is amazing! lovely piece of Deco architecture!), home of the equally amazing Lyric Opera of Chicago, which everyone should have a chance to see at least sometimes. Buildings ranging from the Palmer House to the Rookery, Tribune Tower (which is for sale 😦 apparently) to the Intercontinental Hotel, the Fine Arts Building (which has elevator operators!!) to the Aon Center, and pretty much everything in between. Once more, with feeling, as Buffy might say: this should happen more than once a year, and go for more than two days.

Rockefeller’s great and geometric rose window, in an image by Karla Kaulfuss of Flickr. Wikimedia Commons.

Heading south (though hardly into the “Far South Side,” which barely has any representation at all on the list—the closest they come appears to be Pullman), the Open House includes a number of buildings in Hyde Park, though not as many as one might expect—several churches, including the lovely little Bond Chapel (closed Saturday but open Sunday), the ultimate Prairie School building (Wright’s Robie House), the stunning Rockefeller, and even a building with which I am not all that familiar, Loewenburg & Loewenburg’s ’23 Grand Ballroom, on Cottage Grove. (It looks smashing, but since I’ve never been in, I can’t offer any more information than that.)

View from the second floor: main area of the South Shore Cultural Center.

The South Shore Cultural Center, one of the buildings I recommended as a place to visit during Lolla this summer, is participating in Open House Chicago, and it’s ever and ever so much worth seeing. However, if it can’t be fit in, it, like Rockefeller, is always available for visitors: the South Shore Cultural Center, once a Gilded Age country club, is now part of the Chicago Park District, open to all. (It’s also the home of Chicago’s police horses, of course, so expect a police presence.) And the new Stony Island Arts Bank will also participate. There really are far too many amazing places to see; I really don’t think that the Open House should be but two days, but once a year, but I believe in access, which might be the issue. (Eventually I’ll be able to join the Chicago Architecture Foundation, but even if that means I get access, it still doesn’t resolve the issue of Chicagoans being able to get into their own cultural heritage.)

The Administration Building in Pullman, designed by Solon S. Beman (yeah, he really was S.S.). It’s still standing, although Pullman himself is well-weighted in the ground. Image by Wikipedia user Boven. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite all the glories accounted for in this year’s Open House, however, there are a number of striking absences. Remember Mount Greenwood, which I mocked so relentlessly as being Not Really Part of the City? Well, there doesn’t appear to be anything in this architectural Open House south of Pullman—and, as amazing as I consider Pullman to be (it really is incredible), it shouldn’t be the southernmost point of our Open House. That, folks, should be somewhere by the southernmost borders of the city, and Pullman isn’t even close. (Sure, it was once, but that was a very long time ago, indeed.) That said, go south, please. We aren’t the WWII Russian Front, and we’ve got a lot of lovely spaces and places, and a whole lot of history. Even if you don’t venture south of South Shore, give us a try.

It’s also worth noting that, as far as I can tell at a glance, none of this year’s Open House locations are, shall we say, endangered landmarks. In a way this makes a lot of sense—I suppose that, considering liability, it wouldn’t make sense to bring people to see what is left of the beautiful Pilgrim Baptist Church, in which gospel first rose to the rafters and about which I wrote in the late summer of this year. At the same time, I feel that this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight endangered buildings such as Pilgrim Baptist. Let the world see how beautiful it is, even in its skeletal state,4 and perhaps somehow we can pull together enough to save what is left. (Ebenezer Missionary Baptist,5 by Dankmar Adler, is on the list, and should definitely be seen—but I strongly feel that our endangered landmarks deserve to be shown as well.)

Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center. Image by Wikipedia user Primeromundo. Wikimedia Commons.

Another endangered building does not appear on the list. Now, this one is a state building; one can get in pretty much any time, or at any rate, one could, prior to Rauner. I am unsure if this has changed: the guy loves to monetize stuff, after all, so I’d guess that if he could charge for entry, he would. It is German-American architect Helmut Jahn‘s Thompson Center, or State of Illinois Building, and it is currently endangered. Jahn, we were taught, was mocking hyped-up, jingoistic
patriotism when he conceived and created the Thompson Center, with its bright red and blue and white color scheme—so American!6 We were also told, back in our Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture course, that the building’s vary transparency was supposed to symbolize, or maybe encourage, transparency in government.7 (I’m going to guess that the closest we’ll ever come to that is having alderpeople, because they’re directly answerable to us and we can always go yell at them. I think that’s why Chicago, in my experience, works, somehow, but the ‘burb in which I live now doesn’t.)

Faded patriotism: a section of the red, white, and blue interior of Jahn’s Thompson Center. Image by Fernando González del Cueto. Wikimedia Commons.

The building is also in desperate straits—in need of basic maintenance and basic cleaning that would make it once again a star of the Chicago skyline, even if it is rather shorter than many of our conversation pieces. And, worst of all, Blair Kamin tells us that it may be destroyed, yet another Chicago gem lost to the wrecking ball. The building deserves a second chance, and, if it must be sold, as Rauner would evidently like, at least let it be sold to someone who will, as Kamin himself urges, give it the chance it needs, and deserves.

So. It is an incredibly exciting time in Chicago architecture, although I guess it almost always is. It’s also an incredible opportunity to get inside Chicago’s architectural gems, and see them with one’s own eyes—and getting inside a building, taking the opportunity to really get to know it, should never be turned down. But as one visits buildings, and figures out which ones can be seen later, when this wild weekend is done, and which should be seen right now, remember Chicago’s endangered landmarks, buildings like Pilgrim Baptist and the Thompson Center, and give a thought to the preservation of our architecture, which is surely one of our city’s greatest ongoing contributions.


1 I would argue that “Far South Side” is, in Chicago, going to start at South Deering, at its northernmost point, and extend down to Hegewisch, Riverdale, Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park. But I am a South Sider, and know it well, so my reckoning is likely quite different.
2 I don’t go there all that much either, as Mount Greenwood is a fair bit different than my normal stomping grounds of Hyde Park and southern Kenwood and the Loop…but it’s definitely there, and it is part of the city, and since S goes to college there, I do turn up. Occasionally.
3 Which is probably a tale I’ll tell, at some later time…because I’ve always been fond of scandal, and the arts offer it in spades.
4 I passed Pilgrim Baptist only three days ago, heading towards Hyde Park on MLK Drive; it is worse now by far than it was when I saw it only a month or so before: even the tarp over the roof is in decay, and the spires look as if they might fall. It breaks my heart that we are allowing such destruction to come to one of our great buildings.
5 The building is a Chicago landmark; its landmark designation report, a pdf, is available via the City of Chicago, here.
6 Origins of Civic and Commercial Architecture, Tim Wittman, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
7 Ibid.

Naturally, a lot of other people have written about the Open House. My favorites (or the ones I’ve actually bothered to read) include the following:

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