Chicago’s bustling downtown core business district may seem like a conglomeration of tall unforgiving office and government buildings with some shopping and theaters mixed in, but there’s much more to it than that. All my life, I had walked, driven, or rode the “L” past these buildings and paid little attention to them until I finally decided to dig deeper and explore. What I found was a collection of incredible architecture of varying styles and a touch of history.
A good place to start is the shopping district of State Street, where legendary department store Marshall Field and Co. stood from 1902 until it was converted to a Macy’s. The name change ruffled feathers in Chicago because it erased a piece of the city’s history, but the original splendor of Marshall Field’s still exists. My favorite features of the building are the clocks that adorn the corners of the building. Also visible are original plaques from Marshall Field’s.
The building’s interior is also impressive. There are several floors to explore and some interesting features including three atria. If you’re there during the holiday season, head up to the Walnut Room to see the Christmas tree. The Walnut Room is also the first restaurant ever opened in a department store, and has been in operation since 1905.
During the holidays, the elaborate window displays outside of the building are popular to walk by.
Nearby is the old Carson Pirie Scott and Co. building, which was built in 1899 and designed by Louis Sullivan. The original flagship store opened in 1904 and closed in 2007. The building is currently home to a branch of Target. Of particular interest is the marquee on the north face and the stunning entrance on the northwest corner. It’s made of ornamental iron designed by Sullivan.
To the west are a few government buildings. The Richard J. Daley Center is a 30 story building that houses city and county offices and courts. The plaza out front, Daley Plaza, frequently hosts civic events, farmers’ markets, and festivals. Christkindlmarket, the traditional German Christmas market every holiday season, is the most popular. The plaza also features an unnamed sculpture by Pablo Picasso which was presented as a gift to the city in 1967. On the south side of the plaza is the Chicago Temple, a mixed-use church building that was once the tallest in the city.
A short walk south is the Federal Center, which is comprised of the Kluczynski Federal Building, the Dirksen Federal Building, and the Loop Post Office. The complex was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built between 1960 and 1974. The design of the buildings is cold and sterile, which is fitting given their purpose. The plaza is adorned with a sculpture called Flamingo by Alexander Calder. It was erected in 1974 and adds a little life and color to the complex.
Chicago Board of Trade Building
At the south end of LaSalle Street is the Chicago Board of Trade Building, built in 1930. It’s crowned by a statue of Ceres, goddess of agriculture. In popular culture, the building was the headquarters of Wayne Enterprises in the 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins, and was used in the infamous funeral scene in the sequel The Dark Knight in 2008.
Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago
Across the street from the CBOT is the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. It serves the Seventh Federal Reserve District and is the location of the Money Museum. The museum is free and open year-round Monday through Friday except bank holidays. After entering the building, you go through a metal detector and have your bags scanned. You’re then free to wander around the museum where there are displays on the history of money in the United States, the fight against counterfeiting, and much more. A bag of shredded money is given to visitors as a small souvenir.
A short walk to the west is the Willis Tower, still called by many Chicagoans (including myself) by its original name, the Sears Tower. It was completed in 1973 and for 25 years was the tallest building in the world at 108 stories. The building was constructed in phases of “bundled tubes“.
The observation deck on the 103rd floor, the Skydeck, features a several facts about the building and a glass ledge which visitors can climb onto and look straight down to the ground level. It’s terrifying but a great experience. Basic admission is US$23 for anyone age 12 and up and US$15 for children age 3 to 11 (as of December 2017). There are numerous other admission packages including a pass that allows for a visit during the day and another at night. No matter what time of day you visit, the views are breathtaking.
Harold Washington Library
On the south end of the Loop is the Harold Washington Library. It was built in 1991 and was the largest public library building in the world when it opened. Of particular interest are the lobby and the Winter Garden on the 9th floor.
Last update: June 2, 2016