“Off our starboard,” says our tour guide, voice crackling with static from the speaker attached to the boat’s coach roof, “you’ll see the Chicago Tribune Tower.” He points to the right in the event lubberly visitors don’t know port from starboard, then he points skyward. No coincidence this building towering over “Chicago’s First Lady,” our ninety-nine-foot tour boat, looks like a cross between an office building and a church. Architects envisioned the 140-metre tall edifice as a Gothic Revival masterpiece; they even visited its inspiration – the French cathedral at Rouen – before finalizing the design.
“Its original owners called it ‘the world’s most beautiful office building’,” adds our guide.
Now we clear the shadow of DuSable Bridge, bursting into sunlight at the bottom of a glittering steel, glass and concrete canyon, reflected in almost perfect mirror image on the emerald waters of the Chicago River.
This Chicago Architecture Tour features ninety minutes of skyscraper close-ups accompanied by an incomparable history lesson and Chicago introduction.
Nice day on the water too, on this river that runs through the heart of the city.
“Next up is the Wrigley Building,” says our guide.
A clock nearly twenty feet high decorates its polished white terracotta facade.
The captain throttles up; the 680 H.P. engine barely murmurs. We turn to starboard to clear a whole flock of lemon and lime kayaks, now bobbing in our wake.
“On your left, the Carbide and Carbon Building,” continues our guide, “a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture.” Universal oohs and ahhs.
“On your right, the Trump Tower.” Universal groans.
A champagne bottle reputedly inspired the design of The Carbide and Carbon Building, a building both august and whimsical, topped by a “cork” covered in gold leaf.
Stainless steel letters spelling Trump’s name on the façade of that behemoth are twenty feet high.
We glide beneath another bridge, a passing train rumbling overhead.
We pass Marina City Towers (they’re nicknamed the “Corn Cob Towers” because that’s what they look like). Three stories overhead people are dining on the terrace of Dick’s Last Resort and Bar. At river level pleasure craft on covered docks await their owners.
Next we turn to starboard, into the river’s North Branch, gliding past gentrified factories; we retrace that course to explore the South Branch, taking note of the later architectural styles congregated there, of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), Chicago’s tallest structure.
We discover how Chicago became the “Capital of Skyscrapers,” thanks to an intersection of events and inventions.
The fire of 1871, destroying more than 17,000 buildings resulted in the “Great Rebuilding”, an opportunity for innovation.
The invention of safety elevators and a process to cheaply mass-produce steel allowed those innovations to take the form of skyscrapers.
Enter the world’s first one, the 10-storey Home Insurance Company building, circa 1884.
Taking a break from the history lesson, I head below. At a bar at one end of an elegant stateroom of brass and mahogany, I order a signature drink: a “Chicago Mule.”
Thus fortified, I return topside. Now the guide shares a fascinating tale about this river itself.
In the middle of the 19th century it was basically a raw sewer emptying into Lake Michigan. Engineers came up with a plan: by 1900, when the last dam and lock was created, they’d actually changed the direction of the river’s flow.
It’s been considered one of the greatest engineering feats in U.S. history, an accomplishment I toast with my Chicago Mule.
Back on the main branch we head toward the lake, turning at last near Navy Pier to make for our berth beside the Chicago Centre for Architecture.
We’re treated to one last panoramic view of the skyline.
“Remember that tourism motto for the Yukon?” my wife says, taking in this vista, shaking her head in disbelief. ”’Larger than Life?’ They should use it for Chicago.”
I’m thinking something different entirely, focused on the waterway we’ve just traversed, thinking on the lessons learned, the name of a movie title looping through my brain.
I’ve learned three lessons on this nautical excursion.
First, skyscrapers and Chicago are synonymous. Second, the best way to see them is by the river.
Third, when it comes to Chicago, ‘a river runs through it’.
Even if it runs the wrong way.