By Julia O’Leary
This story is all about the iconic Chicago architecture tours. The tours are consistently rated one of Chicago’s top experiences, as they are popular among tourists and locals. Through interviews with the Chicago Architecture Center and Shoreline Sightseeing, this newscast highlights why the architecture is so special and introduces you to the people behind the tour.
NARRATION: WELCOME TO MEDILL NEWSMAKERS. I’M JULIA O’LEARY.
AS THE THIRD BIGGEST CITY IN THE UNITED STATES, CHICAGO’S TOURISM INDUSTRY IS CONSTANTLY GROWING. BUT IT’S RARE TO FIND SOMETHING THAT BOTH TOURISTS AND LOCALS ENJOY DOING. WHEN YOU SEARCH “WHAT TO DO IN CHICAGO,” ONE OF THE FIRST RECOMMENDATIONS IS THE CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE TOUR ON THE RIVER. THE CITY IS VERY ARCHITECTURALLY DIFFERENT FROM OTHER MAJOR CITIES. BETWEEN THE CAREFUL AND CLEVER DESIGN OF BUILDINGS TO THE STORIES BEHIND THEM, THE CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE TOURS ARE ONE OF A KIND. I WANTED TO DIVE DEEPER TO FIND OUT WHY IS THE ARCHITECTURE SO SPECIAL AND WHO’S BEHIND THESE FAMOUS TOURS?
AN ORGANIZATION AT THE HEART OF ARCHITECTURE IS AN OBVIOUS ONE. THE CHICAGO ARCHITECTURE CENTER, OR CAC, SERVES MORE THAN HALF A MILLION PEOPLE EACH YEAR. AND ONE EMPLOYEE’S PASSION FOR ARCHITECTURE IGNITED WHEN SHE TOOK EVERY SINGLE TOUR THE CAC OFFERED.
JENNIFER MCELROY: So, I thought I would do a social media campaign and challenge myself to take all of these tours. I think at the time there were actually 85 tours around Chicago and 85 tours challenge. And so, I took all 85 tours in one year. I did a blog about it. I invited social media friends to come join me, and it was a ton of fun. So then after that I was like, I might as well become a docent.
NARRATION: A DOCENT IS A PERSON WHO ACTS AS A GUIDE, AND IT COMES FROM THE LATIN WORD FOR TEACHER. MCELROY ENJOYED HER YEARS AS A DOCENT FOR ONE MAIN REASON.
MCELROY: I love the storytelling, just absolutely love the storytelling. We have these beautiful buildings and they’re beautiful to look at. They each have their own unique qualities as far as architecture and design, but the stories behind the people who built them, the people who created them, the people who imagined them are just fantastic and they’re just so inspiring.
NARRATION: ONE OF HER FAVORITE STORIES IS THE CARBIDE AND CARBON BUILDING, ALSO KNOWN AS THE PENDRY HOTEL.
MCELROY: It’s always been this urban myth that the building was designed to look as a champagne bottle, as a kind of resistance to the Prohibition. I found the notes from the architect. It says that the client wants the building to be a green color, like a champagne bottle. So, you’ll see there’s this green terra cotta black granite. There’s bronze on the bottom. But that’s what I think is really phenomenal. As a top, they have a spire that is 24-karat gold like the wrapping of a champagne bottle at the top.
NARRATION: WHETHER IT’S A CHAMPAGNE- LIKE BUILDING, RARE ARTIFACTS ON THE TRIBUNE TOWER OR THE MYTH OF MRS. O’LEARY’S COW, THERE ARE ENDLESS STORIES TO BE TOLD.
WHILE IT’S NOT THE ONLY BOAT TOUR COMPANY, SHORELINE SIGHTSEEING IS THE BIGGEST. IT’S A FAMILY-OWNED BUSINESS STARTED IN 1939 THAT HAS KEPT THAT FAMILY-FEEL ALIVE WITHIN ITS EMPLOYEES.
COURTNEY EATHORNE IS ONE OF 30 DOCENTS AT THE COMPANY. SHE SAYS THE BEST PART IS THE UNIQUENESS OF TOURS.
EATHORNE: Everyone comes from a different background. Everyone comes with different interests as well. And the diversity of interest and diversity of thought is really what makes our team so dynamic. And being able to have some people that come with an architecture background, some people come with an engineering background, some people come with storytelling and performance. And it means that every time you go on one of our tours, you’re going to get a different experience. And so, people that live in Chicago, they bring their family and friends that are in town every single time, and they get a different Shoreline experience every single time.
NARRATION: WITH 11 TOUR BOATS, SHORELINE GIVES 36 TO 40 TOURS EVERY SINGLE DAY. IT’S RARE TO SEE REPEAT BUSINESS FROM LOCALS AND TOURISTS ALIKE, ESPECIALLY FOR A GIANT TOURIST OPERATION.
THE UNIQUENESS OF TOURS COMES FROM THE DOCENTS, WHO ARE ABLE TO RETAIN INCREDIBLE AMOUNTS OF INFORMATION. IT CAN TAKE YEARS TO MASTER, BUT THEIR LOVE OF ARCHITECTURE AND LOVE OF CHICAGO USUALLY MAKES THEM A QUICK STUDY. AT LEAST, THAT’S THE CASE FOR SHORELINE’S LONGEST DOCENT, KEVIN BURROWS.
BURROWS: I am a 23-year veteran of Shoreline Sightseeing, and I am a docent, which can translate roughly as teacher.
NARRATION: KEVIN’S INTRODUCTION TO SHORELINE 23 YEARS AGO WAS COINCIDENTAL.
BURROWS: I was a bike taxi driver, and someone stole my pedicab out of a garage. And my friend Tony Macaluso said, “You should do what I do. Come to the boats, Kevin.” And I came down and took his tour instead of going to a temp interview, and I never looked back.
NARRATION: DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE WAS THRUST INTO AN UNEXPECTED JOB, KEVIN SAYS HE BELIEVES HE WAS DESTINED TO BE A TOUR GUIDE AFTER VOLUNTEERING TO DO TOURS ON HIS FIRST DAY.
BURROWS: I stepped up and said, “I’m a quick study.” I went to the library and got every single book on Chicago I could. I sat down and made note cards. I was scheduled to do three tours that Saturday. I did the three tours, and I put the note cards in my pocket. I was done with them. It was nice. So, I did five tours the very first day I was ever a tour guide. She got that from a frustum, the crystal formation you will find if you look at fluorite or my birthstone, sapphire.
NARRATION: HE SAYS HIS ADMIRATION FOR THE CITY AND ITS INTENTIONAL PLANNING IS WHAT MOTIVATES HIM TO KEEP GIVING TOURS.
BURROWS: Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper. It’s a city like no other. People come from all over the world. They’re amazed by it. Chicago, even more than other major cities, really planned out. The architect of the Plan of Chicago of 1909, Daniel Burnham, Burnham was a genius in urban planning, and what he learned from the World’s Fair led him to map the Plan of Chicago. And this is really special in Chicago. There is no way to really get the effect of the skyscrapers of Chicago unless you’re on the Shoreline boat in the water.
NARRATION: AND KEVIN SAYS HE DOESN’T PLAN TO GET OFF THE BOATS ANYTIME SOON.
BURROWS: I was living 20 years in Chicago, and I never took a boat ride. And then I got on the Shoreline boat. That was 23 years ago. I have not been on land since.
NARRATION: SO MANY YEARS OF HARD WORK AND PASSION. THANKS FOR WATCHING, I’M JULIA O’LEARY.
Julia O’Leary is a video graduate student at Medill.