Along both sides of the Chicago River are some of the most fascinating architectural projects Chicago has to offer. I’ll point out a few of them moving from east to west along the main stem, and then down the south branch of the river.
London Guarantee Building
The London Guarantee Building, to the southwest of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, was built in 1923. It sits on the site of Fort Dearborn, originally built in 1803 and slowly destroyed over the years by many factors. The last pieces of the fort were destroyed in the 1871 Great Chicago Fire but the sidewalks have outlines of where the original fort stood. A plaque above the entrance commemorates the old fort.
The thin skyscraper to the west of London Guarantee is the Mather Tower. When it was completed in 1928, it was the tallest building in Chicago. It’s got the smallest footprint of any skyscraper in Chicago at just 100 x 65 feet. It’s also got an unusual design with a 21 story octagonal tower sitting on top of a 20 story conventional box tower. It was built for the Mather Stock Car Company, which made train cars.
Trump International Hotel and Tower
Across the river is the Trump International Hotel and Tower. It’s a 98 story hotel and private residence completed in 2009. It sits on the site formerly occupied by the Chicago Sun-Times Building and is the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world.
For great views of the river and surrounding architecture, head up to the 16th floor terrace to the aptly named Sixteen. Tables are on a first come first served basis and the terrace is open daily from 2pm to midnight, weather permitting. Service was a little slow but the servers are outstanding. Food at drinks are not cheap. The restaurant is a two star Michelin rated restaurant.
Across Wacker Drive from Heald Square is the Jeweler’s Building, also known as 35 E. Wacker. It was completed in 1927 with an interesting feature to protect jewel traders. For the first 14 years of its use, the lower 23 floors each had a private parking garage. Jewelers concerned with their safety would drive into an elevator and were lifted to their floors. During Prohibition, the building’s dome held Al Capone’s speakeasy, the Stratosphere Club.
Marina City, on the north bank along Dearborn and State, are two towers shaped like ears of corn. They were designed by Bertrand Goldberg and opened in 1967. The buildings were meant to be a city within a city, and contain several features including restaurants, shops, a gym, a theatre, laundry facilities, a bowling alley, and a marina. The first 19 floors are a parking garage. The units were originally used as rental apartments but were converted into condos in 1977. In addition, the structures run solely on electricity, with gas playing no part in the functioning of the building. When the towers opened, they were the tallest residential buildings and the tallest reinforced concrete buildings in the world.
77 W. Wacker Dr.
77 W. Wacker Dr., formerly the United Building and R.R. Donnelly Building, was in 1992 and added a modern touch to the Chicago River skyline when it was completed. The top floor of the building is shaped like a Greek pediment.
Across the river, the massive structure of the Merchandise Mart might not be a tall building but it’s sheer volume commands respect. It was built in 1930 for Marshall Field’s and was the world’s largest commercial building by volume with 4 million ft² of floor space.
333 W. Wacker Dr.
Back across the river is 333 W. Wacker Dr., built in 1983. It features a curved glass façade that changes shades of green depending on the sun. It was designed by architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox and was voted “Favorite Building” by Chicago Tribune readers in 1995.
A small historical fact – the building next to 333 W. Wacker, 191 N. Wacker, was the location of the 1860 Republican National Convention. In the Wigwam, built specifically for the convention, Abraham Lincoln won the nomination (although he remained downstate in Springfield during the convention).
150 North Riverside
150 North Riverside is a 53 story building. It’s not the glass exterior that draws your attention, but the cantilevered base. The first eight stories of the building have a smaller base than the rest.
Civic Opera Building
Opened on November 4, 1929, the Civic Opera Building is the second largest opera house in North America. It was funded by Samuel Insull, a utility magnate, but lost a tremendous amount of money because it opened shortly after the 1929 stock market crash which was followed by the Great Depression.
A great way to experience the river and learn more about the architecture along it is to take an architectural cruise with one of Chicago’s cruise companies. Chicago’s First Lady docks along the Riverwalk at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Wendella is at the Wrigley Building, and Seadog is at Navy Pier. Cruises last about 90 minutes and cost around US$35-45 per person. They typically run from April to November. Some cruises even go beyond the river, passing through the locks and into the lake. Check the websites for more information.
I’ve done the the Wendella tour twice and enjoyed it very much. The guides are extremely knowledgable and entertaining, and I’ve learned something different each time. I recommend taking a tour that goes through the locks and onto Lake Michigan. You’ll get to experience the locks and get some spectacular views of the city.