Started in 2011, Open House Chicago is a fantastic way to explore the nooks and crannies throughout Chicago that you might not otherwise get the opportunity to see up close. Presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the event boasts free tours of over 200 buildings that will open their doors to visitors on October 15-16. You can spend one day exploring sites in the Loop, and the other day check out some of the amazing opportunities in other great parts of the city. Here’s a guide to three neighborhoods you’ll want to visit as part of this amazing two-day celebration of Chicago architecture and design.
Located within the South Loop, historic Prairie Avenue was occupied by Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen and their families. Industrialists flocked there in the late 19th century to build elaborate mansions, and a number of the homes still remain as a testament to their owners’ financial prowess. Visitors to Open House Chicago shouldn’t miss the Glessner House Museum (1800 S. Prairie Avenue), a masterwork of architect H. H. Richardson. The nearby Keith House (1900 S. Prairie Avenue) is a stunning Victorian Châteauesque mansion that includes 30 rooms and a large coach house.
A few blocks away is the Second Presbyterian Church (1936 S. Michigan Avenue) designed by James Renwick in 1871 and renovated by Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1901. Not surprisingly, many of Chicago’s uppercrust citizens worshipped there, including the Armours and the Pullmans. Make sure and wander inside to look over their remarkable stained glass windows crafted by the likes of Tiffany and Morris & Company.
Bridgeport/Back of the Yards
Cast a bit farther south, and you'll find a trove of spots to explore in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. The “yards” in the neighborhood's name refers to the former Union Stock Yards, which closed over 40 years ago (much to the delight of pigs, sheep, and other animals around the United States). Today, the neighborhood continues to have a strong industrial base with some traditional industries, along with the addition of some rather "green" developments.
Your first stop in the neighborhood should be Growing Power's Iron Street Farm (3333 S. Iron Street). This former warehouse property that sits along the banks of the Chicago River has found new life as an urban farm, providing the surrounding community with hands-on lessons about healthy food production and sustainability. Stop by and get a personal tour by the knowledgeable and eager youth volunteers, who will proudly show you their crops and explain the science behind their aquaponic tanks and the farm's composting system.
Next up is Stockyards Brick (4150 S. Packers Avenue). You'll get a firsthand look at one of the largest providers of reclaimed brick and other building materials in the United States. In keeping with their name—and the history of the area—the main building of Stockyard Bricks used to be a former Swift meatpacking warehouse.
Don’t forget to swing by The Plant (1400 W. 46th Street) for a taste of Chicago’s food-production future. This 93,500-square-foot structure was once a meatpacking facility too. Today it contains Chicago’s largest vertical farm and food business operation. Along with creating a raft of new jobs, it also contains sustainable closed-circuit growing systems, as well as a craft brewery, a bakery, and a massive anaerobic digester that will eventually consume 30 tons of food waste per day to generate heating and cooling.
The Lincoln Square and Uptown neighborhoods contain a handful of extraordinary Open House Chicago sites. You could walk to most of them as part of an afternoon excursion. I’d recommend starting at All Saints’ Episcopal Church (4550 N. Hermitage Avenue), which is the oldest wood-frame church in the city and a rare example of the stick style, distinguished by vertical beams and decorative shingles, with an in-the-round worship space that is quite lovely.
A few blocks away is The Airstream (1807 W. Sunnyside Avenue), an urban spectacle for curious passersby. As the name suggests, it is in fact a 1960s-era Airstream trailer perched on an office building. The whole project was the brainchild of architect Edward Noonan, who used a crane to install the trailer. From the deck you gaze out on the Chicago skyline, then step inside the trailer for a bit of transportation nostalgia.
Finally, you’ll want to walk over to the Buddhist Temple of Chicago (1151 W. Leland Avenue) for a glimpse of this six-sided structure. The inside is sparsely adorned and dramatically capped by a timber roof resting on radiating trusses. The altars are truly the showpieces, particularly the one that depicts the life of Buddha.
Get all the details about the free weekend event at openhousechicago.org, or start exploring on your own! Here's a mix-and-match Chicago architecture itinerary with a primer on must-see buildings and top picks for sightseeing on an architecture tour.