We've heard about Art Deco as an architectural style, with its stream-lined surfaces, linear and geometric shapes, and symmetry. All these characteristics expressed the glamor, vibrancy, sex-appeal and money of the Roaring '20s. They were a far cry and a reaction to the previous WWI years of chunky, heavy, and conservative Victorian style. That kind of architecture was inspired by classical motifs like columns and stonework, and while it may not have always been true to its form, for many the earlier, Gilded Age kind of architecture - like what one can tour in the Driehaus Museum - represented old money.
The Beginning of an Era
The 1920's was about the new, young, self-made man who takes what we wants and gets his own pleasure. "Living an artistic life" is how one Chicago Art Deco Society member put it:
"Everyone wanted to live like high-society... (and) to turn life into art."
The word "art deco" comes from the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925. This event popularized the Art Deco style. "Arts decoratifs" became "art-deco" and the world quite literally flew into a tizzy over the style.
Art Deco Chicago
Looking at the buildings downtown, one may wonder what the sleek modern skyscrapers of the 1920's and 1930's would have seemed like to a passerby back then. Likely these looming buildings with their super modern materials and streamlined design would have forged into the future, and been powerful symbols of the growth of capitalism.
Chicago's Carbide & Carbon Building
Let's look at the architecture of the Carbide & Carbon Building designed by the Burnham Brothers and completed in 1929. The rumor is that it was designed to look like a champagne bottle, with its golden top and green-tinted terracotta facade. Truth is that the top was designed to look like one of the batteries that would have used the chemicals that Carbide and Carbon made. The gold-leaf is not imitation, by the way, it's real 24 karat gold. I know that seems hard to imagine, but they pounded it out so that it's 1/5000 of an inch thick. The base is a reflective black granite, popular in Art Deco because of its sleekness and glamor.
Walking past this building in 1929 before the Stock Market crash would have been an uplifting symbol of Chicago's and America's prosperity. However, in the 1930's it may have been a painful reminder of the negative effects of capitalism.
Chicago Motor Club Building
The Chicago Motor Club building is another example of the Chicago Art Deco style in full-swing. Not only was it a "monument to the progress of motordom," it was a monument to the progress of capitalism and the prosperity of the 20's. Everything about the building screams money, power and progress, especially the lobby.
The ceiling is high and the windows linear. When you walk in, you feel small in comparison. On the west wall is a 29-foot mural depicting the important national highways and cities of the time, with many of the routes leading to Chicago. It must have been inspiring to look up at the map and see the progress of America. Oh, and sorry - you can't actually walk into it unless you're interested in buying this currently vacant skyscraper.
Ultimately the Art Deco style is really about a new upper middle class having access to the culture of high society during the booming economy. You know, that's why they called it the "Roaring '20s."
Learn More with Chicago's Art Deco Tours
PRICE: Adults- $17, Members- Free
DURATION: 2.25 hours
MEET: CAF Shop and Tour Center, 224 S. Michigan Avenue. Tour ends at Michigan Ave. and Wacker Dr.
PRICE: Regular - $26, Students - $24, Seniors & Children - $18, Children under 5 - Free
DURATION: 2 hours
MEET: Meet inside southeast entrance of Chase Tower, 10 S. Dearborn. End at Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. - Walk .5 mi
Help us keep the lights on by subscribing to Chicago Like a Local. For your efforts, we'll deliver awesome stories (like this one) to your inbox. Do we have a deal?