Behind Closed Doors...

One of the things that has always captured my imagination about life in the city is the buildings; not just how they appear on the outside, though I've always been interested in architectural design, but what might be going on inside the behemoths of steel, glass, stone, and brick that populate the streets of Chicago. We all go on about our lives in a relatively limited number of spaces, but for every building we have an opportunity to enter, there are thousands for which we never have a reason to see the interior. What stories are unfolding in all those apartments and offices? We may never know, but it's an interesting question to consider.

This weekend, the Chicago Architecture Foundation gave the citizens of this fair city a chance to experience some of those mysterious buildings by granting them rare behind-the-scenes access to a number of public and private spaces across the Chicagoland area. I first learned about Open House Chicago, as the project was called, from my Facebook feed, where I follow the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. Initially, I was most excited by the list of churches that would be open to the public for the weekend, as these sacred spaces can be notoriously difficult to visit if one doesn't want to sit through a service for the privilege. I was intrigued by a host of options on the city's west and south sides, but I couldn't find anyone to go along with me on Saturday, and the neighborhoods were a little too dicey for me to want to visit alone.

I was planning on visiting a few today with Justin, since he had the day off, but the threat of rain kept us confined to the Loop, where we could beat a hasty path home if the skies opened up upon us. After doing a hasty revision of my schedule for the day, I think we managed to curate a rather interesting tour of the city, which took us to some fascinating sites that we never would have been exposed to otherwise.

First, on Justin's insistence, we stopped at the Tribune Tower, whose iconic Neo-Gothic facade is one of the city's most identifiable landmarks. Due to its notoriety, the tour for the Tribune Tower required the longest line of the day, but I think we still waited no more than a half hour.

Completed in 1925, the Tribune Tower was designed to be a secular temple to freedom of the press. The interior is festooned with quotes about the right to self-expression, which is somewhat ironic in light of what the tour guide had to say about Colonel McCormick, the dictatorial, arch-conservative editor of the paper from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. I'm not sure the Colonel believed in anyone's freedom but his own, but I digress...

Case in point, the Colonel's private elevator, that went from the ground floor straight to his office, so he wouldn't have to mingle with the unwashed masses.

Apparently, the Colonel was also the kind of man who has his own quotes carved into the fireplace in his office. Classy.

The main thrust of the tour took us through the former publishers' offices, both the Colonel's and his cousin Joseph Patterson's, which feature sweeping views of the city. Patterson was apparently the paranoid type, as his office featured a staircase hidden in a wall that led to a unpopulated machinery floor where he would be able to take service stairs out of the building, should he be pursued by the members of the Chicago mafia who the paper often exposed and editorialized about during the Prohibition era. The Colonel's office was more an exercise in intimidation -- his desk faced away from the windows so that he would remain in shadow, and his visitors would have to squint to see him. He also had the room built with no door handles; his guests would leave when he decided they were good and ready.

Though the Tribune Building is probably the most famous of the places we went today, I think our tour of it was the least interesting. It was fairly limited in scope, though we did pick up a few interesting historical nuggets that we wouldn't have gleaned otherwise. 

From the Tribune Tower, we progressed in a southwesterly direction towards City Hall, stopping to pop into a few buildings along the way. We saw two churches, so the day wasn't a complete loss in terms of ecclesiastic architecture, but I'm going to save those for individual posts at some future date. On the secular front, we made one stop that I was particularly keen on seeing, though I think Justin was dubious about my selection: the Chicago Motor Club Building.

Located on East Wacker Drive, the Chicago Motor Club Building is a delightful gem of Art Deco design in the city of Chicago. During college, I had a pair of summer internships in the city at both the Chicago History Museum and the Museum of Broadcast Communications. Since I'd need to be downtown every day, my parents helped me find a summer apartment in the city, so I ended up living right around the corner from the Chicago Motor Club Building on Michigan Avenue. I'd pass it every day on my way to work at the MBC, and I became increasingly curious about it. It appeared to be abandoned, as its windows were dirty and nobody could ever be seen entering or leaving. I grieved a little that nobody seemed to be using it, and feared that it would eventually be torn down for a new development.

The lobby of the building features a quaint map of the country showing "major" highways of the day.
As it turns out, I was correct. The building has been vacant since 2005, and the collapse in the real estate market that accompanied the financial crisis means that its owners haven't been able to sell it. The owners decided to open it to the public for Open House Chicago, probably in the hopes of drumming up a bit of public interest in the property, and although I'm not in the market for a downtown commercial high rise, my curiosity was definitely piqued.

The Chicago Motor Club, which built the structure during the skyscraper boom of the 1920s, was founded near the turn of the 20th century by a group of "horseless carriage' enthusiasts. They worked to further the cause of the newfangled technology in the city by agitating for paved roads, and later, championed a number of safety causes like school crossing guards. Over time, the organization evolved into a type of travel organization, helping motorists plan road trips during the golden age of the interstate highway system. Eventually, the Chicago Motor Club could no longer compete with AAA, so it merged with the larger body and no longer needed its own space. Now, it's little more than an obscure municipal history footnote.

Art Deco details in the lobby of the Chicago Motor Club Building.

The interior of the Chicago Motor Club Building has definitely seen better days. The paint is peeling and the fixtures are dated, but it has good bones. Besides, it was kind of fun to imagine myself there in the 1960s, wearing a cute little pillbox hat and some white gloves, as I sought out guidance for a family vacation. Pretty keen, eh?

Our last stop for the day was City Hall, into whose imposing halls I have never had reason to tread, despite having been a Chicago resident for the past four years. Built in 1911, the building was designed by the notable local architecture firm of Holabird and Roche (curiously, the same architectural firm as the Chicago Motor Club Building, though the styles of the two are vastly different), with a curious layout that, we learned today, was meant to accommodate the later addition of a mid-rise tower in the center. That addition was never made, but the extra strength built into the roof was later utilized to bear the weight of the green-roof initiative begun by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

We walked past the office of my alderman, Bob Fioretti, a scuzzy career politician if ever there was one.
The interior of the building was rather unremarkable, as far as government buildings go, but the tour we were led on through the building provided surprising behind-the-scenes access. Apparently, Mayor Emmanuel (or M-Rahm, as I like to call him) was a big supporter of the Open House Chicago project, so he signed up City Hall as a way of welcoming the public into the apparatus of government. We were shown through the aldermanic offices, which, while not particularly interesting unto themselves, were nevertheless something that the public never gets to see. I was, at least, surprised by how humble and normal they seemed. I would have figured the aldermen would have mahogany paneling on the walls and chairs upholstered in $100 bills, but no such luck.

The highlight of the entire day came at City Hall, when we were ushered onto the floor of the Chicago City Council. We were allowed to roam at will, sitting in the aldermen's chairs, and even doing this:

Yes, this is me, standing at the mayor's podium. I could have sat in his chair too, but I demurred. Awesomely, sitting on the podium was a copy of the seating arrangement with each alderman's name and photo, for the Mayor's convenience. I was surprised they left that sitting there for the public tour...
Frankly, I can't believe we were offered that photo op for free, or that we were allowed that kind of access to the City Council chambers without having to pay for the privilege either. It was kind of shocking and amazing all at the same time. 

Despite my extensive reading of the Open House Chicago website, I was unable to discern whether this was the first year it has taken place, or if it will take place again. I most certainly hope the Chicago Architecture Foundation repeats this program, and if they do, I am absolutely going to make the most of it. I regret not going anywhere on Saturday, and getting a chance to visit more inaccessible spaces around the city. I'm glad I participated this year as much as I did, though, and I'll be on the lookout for information about more Open House Chicago events in the future.

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