Chicago's Lakefront with Geoffrey Baer

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Buildings in the Parks

Them's fightin' words.

Purists get hot under the collar just thinking about anyone violating the promise of a lakefront "forever open, clear and free of any buildings whatsoever." That pledge appears on one of the city's earliest plat maps.

Frontier mapmakers notwithstanding, some of the city's most interesting buildings are in the lakefront parks.

Frank Gehry's Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is the most obvious example. Unless it's not a building. Maybe it's a... sculpture? I've heard that those who raise objections to it are told it's art, not architecture. But since it was completed in 2004 and we all started proudly showing it off to our out of town friends there have been few complaints.

One of the best views of Gehry's gargantuan creation is out the windows of another building in the park, the dramatic new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago by Renzo Piano. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a hardhat tour of this lighter-than-air gem which is still under construction. The view of the Pritzker Pavilion from the galleries facing Millennium Park is so breathtaking that Art Institute curators are afraid it will upstage the art. They're installing some walls to partly mask the view. A source at the Art Institute told me that after Piano himself saw the view on a visit to the building he called up Frank Gehry and said, "I've just given you the best gift of your career."

And what about Lake Point Tower? How did that curvaceous twist on Miesian modernism end up on the wrong side of Lake Shore Drive? According to the book "The Politics of Place" a city ordinance permitted construction of harbor and terminal buildings near the mouth of the Chicago River. The developers of Lake Point Tower used this loophole to get permission for their building which opened in 1968.

But architectural gems are not limited to the lakefront parks downtown. Lincoln Park Zoo is like an architectural jewel box. Many of the finest buildings there are by Dwight Perkins. The finest of all is Cafe Brauer, a masterpiece blending Arts and Crafts and Prairie Styles. And don't miss the quirky comfort station just south of Cafe Brauer. It's a picturesque Victorian folly by Joseph Lyman Silsbee (viewable at the Cafe Brauer link above). Silsbee also designed the oh so Victorian Lincoln Park Conservatory just south of Fullerton, but he's best remembered for giving Frank Lloyd Wright his first job in Chicago.

One of my favorite buildings in the parks (I can just hear the teeth grinding when I use that phrase) is now called Theatre on the Lake. It's another pavilion by Dwight Perkins and it's located almost on the lakefront at Fullerton. It was built as the Chicago Daily News Fresh Air Sanitarium for Sick Children. The building featured hammocks for babies to swing in the lakefront breezes that were thought to cure tuberculosis. Sadly an entire wing of this Prairie Style building was lopped off when the entrance ramp to Lake Shore Drive was built at Fullerton.

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