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updated: 5/4/2017 8:02 PM

Global visitors still flock to admire Illinois' architectural history

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  • A panel discusses the history and cultural significance of Chicago area architecture, including, from left, Dr. Robert Bruegmann of University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago Alderman and author Ed Burke, Dr. Kevin Harrington of Illinois Institute of Technology, and Columbia College history professor Lindsay Huge.

    A panel discusses the history and cultural significance of Chicago area architecture, including, from left, Dr. Robert Bruegmann of University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago Alderman and author Ed Burke, Dr. Kevin Harrington of Illinois Institute of Technology, and Columbia College history professor Lindsay Huge.
    Courtesy of Steve Graue

 
Brandon Noel

It has not been any easy year for Illinois. With endless stories about political dysfunction, the unprecedented state budget stalemate and crises related to schools and public safety, there is an almost relentlessly negative picture of our state and our region.

But a historical event took place last week that reminds us why tourists throughout the world still flock to the Chicago area and why, despite our challenges, we should be proud of our region and our state.

Attended by global architectural tourists and historians, the April 25 event took place at the beautiful and historic Cliff Dwellers Club, which sits atop the Symphony Center in downtown Chicago.

Founded over 110 years ago, Cliff Dwellers charter members, including iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, came together to, encourage, foster and develop higher standards of art, literature and craftsmanship. With breathtaking views of artistic and architectural marvels, the name "Cliff Dwellers" refers to the ancient cliff-dwelling Native Americans of the Southwest, a culture perched on high ledges that deeply valued and cherished the arts.

On this particular night, architecture, history, politics and culture blended together as Chicago Alderman Ed Burke -- the longest serving alderman in the city's history -- and architectural historians discussed the treasures -- some more well known than others -- that make our region a global hub for architectural tourism.

Alderman Burke discussed his compelling book, "The Architectural History of Chicago City Hall," which commemorated Chicago's current (and seventh) city hall upon its 100th anniversary. Burke, who has written multiple books and appeared in numerous documentaries discussing his unique knowledge of Chicago history, described the innovative architectural cross currents that led to the creation of City Hall in the Classical Revival style.

Just as intriguing were Alderman Burke's stories of many colorful -- to put it kindly -- characters involved in building Chicago's City Halls over the years. Despite the attempts of so many shady contractors over the years trying to make a quick buck at the expense of the taxpayers, this architectural marvel was built and has stood the test of time. It is a metaphor for the state itself: despite the challenges and a rough-and-tumble political culture, somehow, Illinois still manages to accomplish big things and attract the admiration of cultural-lovers from around the globe.

With a sense of reverence in his voice, Burke described the intersection of form and function that are at the heart of our region's architecture, "In addition to the beauty of the building itself," commenting about City Hall, "think about all the world-changing businesses that have started right here over the past century. Think of all the marriages that began here. Life long unions -- with generations of decedents following them -- that all started with an ascent of those beautiful stairs."

"The interplay of history and architecture are so profound in our region," added Lindsay Huge, an Adjunct Professor of History at Chicago's Columbia College who organized and moderated last week's event at the Cliff Dwellers. "It is all intertwined and it is all part of who we are. These massively beautiful structures act as beacons and provide an energy to our area that attracts the world."

One such example is Tracy Klass, a stand-up comedian and architecture-lover visiting from Cape Town, South Africa. Splitting her time between Chicago and the suburbs, she noted the architectural marvels throughout Northern Illinois.

"This whole region fascinates me," said Klass. "From the Frank Lloyd Wright homes in Oak Park, to the Farnsworth House in Plano, to the incredible Baha'i temple in Wilmette, this trip helped me realize how many architectural masterpieces are in your suburbs as well. I hope residents of your state take the time to appreciate them because they are truly remarkable. They make me want to come back and bring friends who have never experienced Chicagoland."

Among the attendees of the Cliff Dwellers event were architect Derek Rice, president of Vera Rice Architects, and Sean Tenner, president of KNI Communications. Both grew up together in Naperville -- graduating high school in 1995. While many of their friends left the state during or after college, both decided that by staying in the region long-term, they could help play a part in building Chicagoland's future.

Rice cites Chicago's Union Station -- designed by iconic "Chicago Plan" architect Daniel Burnham -- as one of his inspirations for a career designing buildings. For Tenner, it was public buildings such as the Harold Washington Library and the Chicago City Hall that inspired him to become involved in Illinois government and public policy.

As Illinois loses population, and there being a looming bombardment of "the sky is falling" narratives about the state, we should perhaps collectively take a deep breath. Even if for a short period of time, focus at least some attention on the marvels of human ingenuity and culture that have, for centuries, drawn residents and visitors alike.

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