Losing the blues in Chicago

A warm glow comes over me whenever I think of Chicago. My trip there some years back was memorable in many ways. It was unexpected, for a start. My partner, Anthony, was going to a conference in Iowa and almost at the last minute he suggested that I join him for a week in Chicago beforehand. It seemed a long way to go just for a week and I’d have to fly back on my own but I’d always wanted to see the place. At university I had been captivated by Chicago’s first skyscrapers and I remember how much I’d enjoyed preparing a seminar on the work of Louis Sullivan, one of the city’s many architectural stars, and the man for whom Frank Lloyd Wright first worked.

On that first trip, I wanted to record a piece for the radio programme ‘By Design’ so I approached the Chicago Architecture Foundation for an interview as they run a huge variety of architectural tours in the city. They could not have been more welcoming. Not only did they set up an interview with one of their key people, Jennifer Masengarb, but they gave us tickets to many of their tours. It was my kind of bliss, spending the days gazing up at those titans of the skyscraper world, experiencing the beauty of Mies van der Rohe’s work, and strolling down streets filled with Frank Lloyd Wright’s wonderful houses. It was amazing to be in a city that took such pride in its architecture and offered so much.

The day of the radio interview was particularly memorable (you can hear the whole piece here). Anthony had contracted a bout of food poisoning the night before so he needed to rest in bed. I spent the morning exploring Lincoln Park, the area in which we were staying. It’s a lovely part of the city, obviously prosperous and quite trendy, with plenty of cafes and interesting shops, and with a relaxed vibe. I remember feeling a growing sense of deep contentment as I walked along the leafy streets and an almost euphoric sensation of all being right with the world. The magical atmosphere was enhanced by drifts of fluffy white seeds from the cottonwood trees, filling the air like dandelion clocks in the breeze, and making me wonder at first if it was actually snowing (in June!). I returned to Anthony feeling nourished by my morning, and hoped that he would be feeling better.

As I walked into the hotel, my phone pinged with a message to call my sister in the UK urgently. It turned out that my father had died. He had been weakened by an infection and succumbed to it remarkably quickly. It was his 85th birthday and he died wearing the new sweater my sister had given him that morning. It was a shock and yet I had a strong sense that there was nothing to be sad about. My father had been pretty miserable since his beloved wife, my mother, had died some two years before. I felt almost happy for him.

Obviously I had to change my travel plans and get to the UK but in the meantime I had an interview to record in central Chicago in an hour. It’s funny how you just get on and do the next thing when you get momentous news. The interview went well, and the travel plans were easy to change. The fortnight that followed in the UK was lovely, too. But absorbing the news in Chicago seemed to make everything particularly fine. My father loved travelling and exploring new places. In my last telephone call with him, he was tickled when I told him where I was going and kept singing the name ‘Chicago’ like in the Sinatra song.

Some cities can’t help being exceptional and Chicago will always occupy a special place in my heart.


This week, a half-hour segment of ‘Blueprint for Living’, the radio programme I write for, is all about Chicago. I’ve contributed three pieces about some buildings I thought people might miss in their scramble to visit the more famous sights. Here are the written pieces – you can hear the podcast here.

Monadnock north (Wikimedia cc)

Monadnock & Inland Steel

Among Chicago’s treasure trove of incredible skyscrapers, it’s easy to overlook those that don’t immediately vie for your attention. Like the tall block that sits end-on to Jackson Boulevard, across from Mies van der Rohe’s colossal Federal Center. It’s very plain, built almost entirely from dark brick, and the name above its doorway is taken from a New England mountain – Monadnock. Turn the corner and you’ll see it’s actually a huge building – not only high but long. This was the largest office building in the world when it first went up in the 1890s. It was built in two parts. The northern part was finished first, designed by John Root and Daniel Burnham, while the southern was completed a few years later by a different firm, as Root had died and Burnham was caught up designing the city’s World Fair. The earlier part is the more interesting because its walls are entirely load-bearing. This, in a city where the steel frame was becoming the norm, was a daring throwback to traditional building methods, cocking a snook at the new technology. That load-bearing means the walls are immensely thick at the bottom to take the weight of the building. They curve inwards above the ground floor, and rise for fifteen levels before splaying outwards again to complete the composition. It’s notable for its complete lack of decoration. Inside, the long, dark corridors are still lit with the original light fittings, and staircases of moulded metal curl up to rooftop windows. When so often we knock down buildings after only a few decades, it’s glorious to find a commercial building, more than a hundred years old, that’s survived and been kept in such lovely condition.

For a total contrast, nip up the road to the Inland Steel Building on West Monroe Street. It’s the small but gleaming steel-and-glass tower that faces the fabulous Chagall mosaics on the plaza opposite. This was the first office block to go up after the 1930s Depression, and designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill in 1956. Its spacious Mad Men interiors had no internal supports, meaning genuine open plan flexibility. It’s a bright yang to the brooding yin of Monadnock, but both are little triumphs in this abundant city.

Tribune tower to the right, Wrigley to the left

Tribune Tower

One of the pleasures of central Chicago is to stand on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and simply gaze at the buildings around you. There’s the 1920s Wrigley Building in all its Spanish Classical glory, and there’s Goldberg’s 1960s Marina City, like two immense corncobs, and then there’s the weirdest skyscraper in America- the Tribune Tower. With its spiky Gothic top, modelled on one of the towers of Rouen cathedral, it’s a preposterous blend of modernity and medievalism. The owner of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, Robert McCormack, announced a competition in 1922 for ‘the most beautiful office building in the world’ which would also show America at its most dynamic. There was a huge response, generating a lively discussion on what a truly modern building should look like. Architects from 23 countries entered over 260 designs. Some were daffy, like Adolf Loos’s idea for a huge Doric column, playing on the idea of newspaper columns. Some were cutting edge, like the steel-and-glass of Gropius and Meyer’s tower. One was hugely influential, the stepped blocks of Eliel Saarinen’s design becoming a blueprint for many skyscrapers from thereon. The winner, though, was the New York firm of Hood and Howells, who would go on to design the glamorous Rockefeller Center in New York. Indeed the Tribune design starts off in the relative sanity of Art Deco before rising up and suddenly switching to full-blown Gothicism, complete with buttresses that do nothing but highlight the pinnacled crown. It was utterly despised by modernists who hated its phony historicism although it inspired Australian architect Marcus Barlow to design in a similar vein the Manchester Unity building in Melbourne a few years later. The Tribune Tower has come to be loved, being almost Post-Modern with that kooky blend of styles. The entrance lobby is as gloomy as a castle’s, its walls covered with quotations by Voltaire and Franklin. There are artifacts embedded in its walls, including a cannonball from an English castle. It’s all quite mad. And yet that makes it a beacon, even in this city of marvels, and surely that’s the perfect symbol for any serious newspaper.

Pleasant Home

Sometimes Chicago can seem like it’s just about skyscrapers and Frank Lloyd Wright. Anyone with the least interest in architecture will of course travel out to the suburb of Oak Park to see Wright’s own home and studio as well as a dazzling array of his houses, all set in delightful leafy streets. There’s also his remarkable Unity Temple of 1906, all cubic concrete given decorative geometric dazzle. A few streets away from Unity Temple you’ll find a house with the most cheesy name, Pleasant Home, and while that sounds as bland as an episode of ‘The Waltons’ it’s a good illustration of something of the 1890s that wasn’t designed by Wright.

The house is an example of the Prairie style, which was popular throughout the Mid-West a decade or so before Wright stole the limelight and made it his own. It means a low, spreading type of building with deep eaves and porches, that powerful horizontal nature reflecting the expansive Mid-West prairies. Pleasant Home is set in a lush, park-like garden that adds to its presence. Now a museum, it’s interesting to contrast it with the more rigorous horizontality of Wright’s houses nearby, and to understand how it represents the forging of a new style of American architecture, on the cusp between an Arts and Crafts English style and something much more geometric. It was built in 1897 by George Maher and it’s notable for its use of shapes, with broad curved windows that contrast with the square bulk of the main house, the windows cut deeply into the brick. This is a building that relishes light and shade, the shadows giving a crispness that heralds a modern, less ornamented future. Inside, rooms flow one to the other, and are richly decorated with stained glass, floral motifs and expensive timbers worked by the best artisans of the time. Wright took details like this and simplified them, making them his own. This house has all the swagger of American affluence without being overly ostentatious, just as Wright’s houses of a decade later would draw together a wealth of fine detail to create something remarkably liveable and intrinsically American. Pleasant homes, indeed.

Do you have a Chicago in your life?


Categories: Architecture, Design, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What a heartfelt post 🙏🏻💫 and so beautifully written and communicated.
    It must have been a time of extreme emotion.
    I have never been drawn to cities or the US 😆 particularly, but your love of Chicago is beginning to rub off on me. I particularly like being able to recognise it in US tv shows with that building with the quadrilateral light on it (ignorance showing!).
    My Chicago is … drumroll please … Venice – who’da guessed it 🙃

    • Thank you! I think there’s a real Renaissance quality to Chicago – the huge commercial palazzi, the wealth of artistic detail, the immense pomp and pride – that really resonates, and which I think you’d recognise. And such a friendly city, too. The building you refer to must be the Crain Building with its sloping diamond top, but the roe you look, the more distinctive features there are. Glorious!… Well, Venice, of course! I reckon Florence would also figure on any list of mine for different but still emotional reasons. Maybe that’s the thing – when cities become backdrops to something momentous that happens to us or within us then they are seared into our souls! 🌎

  2. Yes, but it can work the other way too. There are some cities I will never go back to – St Petersburg for instance.

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