Architecture enthusiasts might as well accept now that there’s no way to see all 150 spaces in this year’s Chicago Open House. With sites as far north as Roger’s Park and as far south as South Shore, it would take the whole weekend just to get to every neighborhood. The Chicago Architecture Foundation has opened up 20 more buildings since the first Open House last year, but the event is still free and requires no registration. If you become a member of the foundation or volunteer for the event, however, you get priority access to the sites (aka line-cutting privileges). Some of the properties are walk-by only, and only a select few of them have tours, so check the event website before finalizing your itinerary. Credentialed architects will be holding open “Ask an Architect” sessions throughout the day at the American Institute of Architects building (35 E. Wacker Drive, #250), but for a wider scope, here are five suggested jaunts through CAF’s highlighted neighborhoods:
1. Take the Blue Line over to Kedzie-Homan and walk just a few blocks south to visit the “original” Sears Tower in historic Homan Square. Before the community development that exists today, Homan Square was the site of the Sears, Roebuck Company, a place Mr. Sears himself once called “a city within a city.” The remaining tower, the renovation of which was finished this spring, once contained administrative offices as well as an observation deck for the distribution center. The tower opens for some of its first public viewings in years at 9am on Saturday and 11am on Sunday.
While you’re in the area, take the Homan bus a few stops north and feel free to gawk at the grandiosity of Our Lady of Sorrows basilica without feeling like you’re interrupting anybody’s ablutions. The church can seat over 1,000 parishioners and hosts a to-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta. The Italian Renaissance decor is sure to be a breathtaking surprise on the city’s west side. After that, if you’ve still got the energy, save the Garfield Park Conservatory for a trip of its own. Instead stop by the City Escape Garden Center, where you can enjoy 17,000 square feet of retail under a glass dome shipped to Chicago from Belgium. Hop on the Green Line at Kedzie and spend the trip home arguing over which space you least expected to find in Lawndale.
2. Head due south to Little Village for an afternoon of unusual sights. Skip the Cook County Historic Jail (reservations and background checks probably aren’t worth the hassle, although their vegetable garden is worth an appreciative peek) in favor of a truly historic movie palace. The Marshall Square Theater was opened in 1917, given an Art Deco revitalization in 1936, and modernized during the 1990s. Today it is an event and concert space (and also, apparently a quinceañera rental option), as well as one of Chicago’s most nostalgically beautiful theaters. Visitors during Open House will get a sneak peak into the former projection room.
At first glance I would have passed on mentioning the unassuming, repurposed Masonic Temple that is now the La Villita Community Church on Millard Avenue. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to peek in at the old-school boxing gym that is hiding on the third floor of the building that still functions as a youth boxing club. If that doesn’t seem worth the trip, try substituting Friday’s historic Pilsen pub crawl through Landmark Illinois. (Email Mina McMahon at
3. East of Little Village is the infrequently visited Prairie District, full of Chicago’s more classical architectural gems, i.e. the place you’re most likely to visit a “manor,” “a mansion,” or a “house museum.” This is where you’ll find the Clarke House, Chicago’s oldest standing structure, which miraculously survived the Great Fire. It didn’t hurt that the house used to stand considerably further west than it does today. The house is a fully functioning reenactment museum, so count on tour guides in costumes and hands-on craft making. The website promises authentic smells, and one-hour tours are available at 12pm and 2pm. The tours start at the Glessner House Museum, which is also worth a look for it’s inward-facing structure that focuses on an interior open courtyard and mimics an Italian villa. The home is a great example of architect H. H. Richardson’s work and was an influence on both Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
4. Finally, head north and don’t stop until you get to Roger’s Park for Chicago Open House’s most whimsical offerings. Rogers Park features not one, but three of Chicago’s most historic indoor pools. At Casa Bonita, in addition to the pool, visitors can see a billiard room and a library in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style. Chicago magazine’s Dennis Rodkin wrote in 2009 that condos in Casa Bonita go up for sale so infrequently that it’s hard to calculate what one might cost, so this could be one of few chances to get a look inside.
Less than fifteen minutes away, James Denson’s Park Gables is an even further distant fantasy. Designed like a Tudor village meant to mesh with the nearby natural landscape, Park Gables also features an arcaded pool. If you still haven’t had your fill of private indoor grottos, just around the corner is Park Castle, the fortress to Park Gables’ forest cabin; the historic pool there features a softly billowing, tent-like ceiling. Neighboring Indian Boundary Park is not on the Open House list, but also worth a visit, if for nothing else than its elaborately designed playground. Otherwise, head to Uncommon Ground, recently named the nation’s “Greenest Restaurant” in part for its roof-top organic garden.
5. Last, head west and start your tour around Humboldt Park at Cafe Colao, which features original bakery cases from over 100 years ago. Once you’re fueled up, make your way to Pedro Albizu Campos High School, a charter school with a greenhouse on the second floor. You can learn all about the urban agriculture program they teach, as well as imagine what it would be like to go to school in a retail space. For more Puerto Rican nationalism, stop by La Casita de Don Pedro, a traditional Puerto Rican-style home complete with star-shaped fountain and red-tiled mosaics. The house is usually an appointment-only visit, and the high school is usually full of kids, so make Open House your opportunity to visit spots that would typically be a hassle.