Chicago Architectural Cruise

Chicago - City of trade and commerce.

Carl Sandberg describes Chicago in "Chicago Poem":

"HOG Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders."

Chicago is the home of big shoulders, of engineers, of architects, of visionary building pioneers of the world’s first skyscrapers.  Today, the city is a pin cushion of high rises along the Chicago River, a stream that once flowed into Lake Michigan, but now flows out of the lake after the city fathers reversed the Chicago River’s course down to Joliet. The once polluted river is now greatly cleaned up.

Tower tales told on the Chicago
Cruise Line's Architectural Tour.

Today the tycoons of towers are still building their magnificent monuments along the river, and each of these manmade pillars of ingenuity have a history all their own that I am about to learn more about..

I meet the Chicago Line cruise boat on the North Pier Docks at River East Plaza, the oldest building on the river, and at only three stories, certainly not the giant that we will be photographing on the 90 minute summer time cruise. Cruises run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; be sure to distinguish if you are taking an architectural river cruise or a historical lake cruise by checking

During the Chicago Line architectural tour along the river, the cassions of a new tower are placed for the Donald Trump skyriser, squeezed into an area between other magnificent feats of concrete and steel.

The Chicago River is the heart of the city as
seen in an old postcard of the North Docks.

Abraham Lincoln was once a surveyor and mayor of early Chicago, long before the famous 1880s Chicago fire. Here in the heart of Chicago’s Cityfront Center, which was once an onion field, "Honest Abe" must have surely boated on the Chicago River, an area that was purchased from the first settlers, the Potawotami Indians.

I didn’t realize how magnificent the skyscrapers of Chicago were until the narrator or docent on the cruise spilled out an amazing amount detail and data about a city that grew up and up to touch the sky. 

The new towers over the old, side by side.

The area was once a tropical sea 400 million years ago, then the Ice Age carved out the Great Lakes and whales swam in Lake Chicago . Chicago was once a frontier outpost, but with the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad grain and timber were transported from the hinterlands to sail down the Chicago River, across the majestic fresh waters and out across the world.

The classical style of the
Shedd Field Museum.

This is the same Chicago River that Father Marquette and Louis Joliet explored in 1673. We pass the north bank where Du Sable was first to establish a trading post among the Potawatomi.  We ride down stream to where Fort Dearborn stood to protect the community in 1803.  We sail through the heart of the city where the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 once vaulted across the river, utilizing the wooden boardwalks as fiery road to other quarters of the city to reduce it all to ash and cinders, at a rate of 65 acres per hour. We cruise past the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 with the legacy of the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry still standing. 

The Gothic Tribune Tower.

But above it all rise high the high rises.

After the great fire Chicago had a chance to reinvent itself with the innovation of structural load bearing steel. No more need for wooden structures.  A new symbol of architecture was born in the work shops of Louis Sullivan, the first modern architect of the skyscraper. Those that carried on the tradition included Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohr, who built simply with the philosophy, “less is more”. On the cruise we get stiff necks peering into the heights of a broad shouldered city.

The Tribune Tower was built by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells in 1925. It is one of Chicago ’s most famous structures at 35 stories that are now dwarfed by the bigger egos.

The Kennedy's once owned the Merc Mart.

The Merchandise Mart by Forest Graham of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White was built in 1929, just as the Great Depression was looming.  Later the building was purchase below the cost of completion by JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy, and served as the world’s largest office complex at the time, and it was later sold at a hugh profit, buffeting the Kennedy clan fortune, a foundation in steel and brick. The 25 story, four million square foot structure is now the second largest office complex in the world, after the Pentagon.

Scenes from Steve McQueen's movie,
"The Thomas Crown Affair" were
shot at the Marina City Towers.

Lake Point Tower, above.

IBM Tower, above.

The Sears Tower, one of the
tops in the tall tower scale.

The NBC Tower.

Marina City was designed by Bertrand Goldberg Associates, in 1964, which is really five buildings, but with a twin tower complex of 65 stories of apartments, offices, restaurants, garages, hotel, and marina. The intention was a city within a city before the suburbs exploded with growth.

Lake Point Tower by G. Schippore and J. Heinrich, with Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, was built in 1968, another post modernist and simplistic work of modern art from the students of van der Rohr.  The structure is a tribute to the master architect from a 1922 proposal that was never built.  The triangular style is the only and last building to be built east of Lake Shore Drive near the Navy Pier.

The boxy IBM building was the simple design of van der Rohr that was completed from 1969-1971. This is the last major Chicago building designed by Ludwig himself, and the second largest of his career.  Because of the large amount of sensitive commuter equipment installed throughout the structure, a special curtain wall treatment was designed with double glazing and thermal breaks between.

The Sears Tower is once again the largest skyscraper in the United States after the 9/11 disaster of the World Trade Center in New York City.  Designed and completed in 1974 by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the 1,454 foot high building was the largest inhabited structure in the world for a quarter of a century prior to the massive scrapers in other countries. With 4.4 million square feet of space and with a daily population of over 16,000 people, it had to have its own zip code. The tower was designed by the famous Dr. Khan with nine 75 foot square tubes banded together to form a bundle tube that creates a vertical truss of incredible strength.

The reinforced concrete NBC Tower by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, was designed in 1989, and it was modeled after New York City ’s RCA Tower .  The tower is a work of sleek lines resembling flying buttresses of the old Gothic churches of Europe.

Other countries now claim the tallest skyscrapers in the world, but few cities can count the sheer number of spires like Chicago, best viewed from a sunset skyline cruise on Lake Michigan.

And Sandburg agains says it best about Chicago in "Chicago Poem":

"Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning. Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities."

For more information about the Chicago Line Cruise call 312/527-2002 for groups; or individuals at 312/527-1977. Prices are about $27 per adult, $25 seniors, $15 for ages 7-18.  Beverages are served onboard. Most Chicago hotel concierges can set up tickets for this wonderful cruise. To find the 25 tallest skyscrapers in the world visit

By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.