Touring Chicago with the experts – 8 Mar 2007

Touring Chicago with the experts – 8 Mar 2007

The personality of Chicago’s residents tells you a lot about the city. While New Yorkers are brash and full of themselves, Chicagoans take it down a notch or two.

Confident but not arrogant, polite but not obsequious, they’re proud of their city (justifiably so) – and more than willing to how off a little about it.

My first experience of this public-spirited phenomenon was with Marshall Jacobson, one of many local volunteers working with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

Chicago has many things going for it, but its buildings stand out the most. Not just the Sears Tower or any of its other iconic skyscrapers – of which there are many – but in the many building styles on display, from Romanesque to postmodern.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation was set up 40 years ago to celebrate this rich heritage. Thanks to its enthusiastic band of volunteers, it offers more than 80 tours of the city, focusing on anything from a lunchtime walking tour to a cruise of the Chicago River.

Marshall gave us the ‘greatest hits’ package, covering the birth of the city, and its reconstruction following the Great Fire of 1871.

Much of Chicago was wiped out by the fire, allowing the city planners a rare chance to start again. They did so with gusto, taking the wide boulevards of Paris as their inspiration. The result was perhaps the most rigorously planned city in the US a mini Manhattan in the Midwest.

Architecturally speaking, Chicago is possibly better known for nurturing the talent of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose low-slung style was influenced by the flat prairies of his home state Wisconsin, as well as the organic features of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain and Europe.

There are several Wright buildings in Chicago, and more in suburban Oak Park (about 30 minutes’ drive away), but it’s another star who actually held greater sway downtown: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The German-born designer was as famous for his maxim ‘less is more’ as he was for his modernist buildings and furniture. Having settled in the US, he became head of department of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His tenure there coincided with the most fertile period of his career, thus Chicago was bequeathed the greatest density of his work anywhere in the world.

The CAF runs themed Mies (and Wright) tours year-round, despite the weather. The only exception is the boat trip, the last departure for which is in mid-November. “We call it the Shackleton cruise,” vice-president of tours and marketing Bastiaan Bouma said. “You get to eat the dogs afterwards.”

If it had been any colder on my visit – in mid-December – I might have believed him. It’s a fierce wind that blows off that Midwest prairie, so visitors should wrap up warm.

Tours with the CAF cost $28, but there is a cheaper way to see the city. It’s free, in fact. Again reliant on volunteers, the Chicago greeter service places visitors with a local guide who might specialise in anything from art or history to food, fashion or farmers’ markets.

Picking up where the CAF tour left off, our guide showed us around the latest addition to the city’s architectural heritage: Millennium Park.

Stretching between East Randolf and East Monroe Drives, this is a refurbished corner of the old Grant Park, which had gone to seed. Mayor Daley allocated $150 million in 1998 to spruce up a 16-acre corner of the park in time for the Millennium.

In the end, it came in four years late and $325 million over the original budget, but the final project was much more ambitious than the original plan, covering 24 acres. And Chicagoans love it. The centrepiece is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which hosts free concerts and theatre, and Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, Cloud Gate.

Of course, it’s possible to see all this armed with a guidebook and a metro pass – those city planners knew what they were doing, and the city is easy to get around on foot or by public transport. To do so though would be to miss out on a unique opportunity: to be shown around the city by a local who can give you the inside track. It’s what independent travellers dream of – a friend in the city who can show them the way.

Greeter requests have to be made (via Chicagogreeter.com) at least a week in advance tours are free. For details of all the Chicago Architecture Foundation tours, visit Architecture.org.

Hotel check

Hard Rock Hotel, Chicago

Hard Rock Hotel, ChicagoRooms are large, with big mirrors and sexy walnut veneered furniture. There’s an Eames-style chair at the desk; designer mineral water in the minibar. Internet access is free, and there’s a decent gym. This is a four-star plus hotel, in a great location, with attentive staff that live up to their friendly Midwest reputation.

And yet something here just doesn’t rock. The boardrooms are named after guitar manufacturers. Not just the obvious Fender and Gibson, but really specialist makes such as Alembic and Rickenbacker.

There’s a Sony home cinema in the room, but where’s the collection of classic rock films? The Last Waltz, The Song Remains the Same, Spinal Tap? Apparently they used to have a CD/DVD library, but in these days of video-capable iPods and laptops, they thought it wasn’t worth it.

Another gripe: room service. It took three calls to actually get them to take my order. And it was cold when it arrived. Not even Ozzy would put up with that.

Facilities: 381 rooms and suites, gym, business centre, restaurant, bar and shop.
Get there: The hotel is about 45 minutes’ drive from Chicago O’Hare.
Verdict: 4 / 5 for the property, 2 / 5 for its rock credentials.
Book through: Hardrockhotel-chicago.com; or Preferredhotels.com.
Room rates: $179 per night.

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