/ By Jackie Brennan /
For an area that was almost entirely razed by a devastating fire in 1871, we have to give Downtown Chicago props: they have all kinds of fascinating historic landmarks. And many of them are within blocks of where Upswell Chicago is going to be happening this November 13-15. Core to the ethos of Upswell is acknowledging a grounding in place and history while looking ahead to future possibilities. So, we decided to handpick some of the spots surrounding Hilton Chicago that have a geographic and historic valence.
A few things to note before we get to the landmarks:
- Though we’ve plotted these out in terms of walking distance, we recognize that individuals have varying levels of mobility. Because many of these landmarks are public, many are also ADA compliant and conveniently located near many Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) stops in the downtown area. However, if you see something in this mix that you’re itching to visit, but have accessibility concerns about, we’re more than happy to help you find the best accommodation info. Let us known by leaving a comment, shooting us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or tweeting us at @weareupswell.
- Though the dominant narratives about Chicago’s history tend to start with the 19th century, keep in mind that the city is built on the ancestral land of the Algonquian people of the Mascoutens and Miamis tribes. This series from Chicago’s PBS station is a great place to start learning about the Native American history of the area.
So, without further ado, we give you what we’re calling the Great Hilton Chicago Landmark Crawl, complete with built-in stops for pizza, refreshments, and live music to cap it all off.
1. Rookery Building
From Hilton: 0.9 mi (18-minute walk)
Completed in 1888, the Rookery Building is the oldest standing high-rise in Chicago. Once completed, the twelve-story building housed the famous architecture partnership Burnham and Root. The name may ring a bell for anybody who’s read Erik Larson’s popular work of nonfiction, Devil in the White City, as the firm was commissioned to oversee the construction and design of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. In addition to Burnham and Root, the building also housed the offices of another firm, Adler and Sullivan, where a young Frank Lloyd Wright was working as an architectural assistant. In 1905, Wright received the commission to redesign the building’s lobby. Wright brightened the lobby, now known as the light court, significantly. It’s effectively the only work of Wright’s on a building in a downtown cityscape. Hey, he had to start somewhere.
2. Harold Washington Library
From Hilton: 0.5 mi (10-minute walk)
The central library of a city’s public library system is often a historic landmark. While Chicago has no shortage of those, the Harold Washington Library is relatively new. That’s because in 1977, the structure built in 1897 that originally served as Chicago’s central library was converted into the Chicago Cultural Center. The Harold Washington Library is named in honor of Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Elected in 1983, Harold Washington emerged at a time when funding for several things – including the construction of a new central library – had been tabled due to a tumultuous seven-year period under four mayoral administrations. Washington sealed up funding for the library in 1986 and a design competition was held the following year. Construction concluded and the library was opened in 1991. At the time it was the largest municipal public library building in the world. Though that has since been eclipsed, the Chicago Public Library System is still no joke. As the ninth largest public library system in the U.S., Chicago Public Library holds over 5.7 million volumes, a figure dwarfed only by one collection in town – a reputed school of arts and letters called University of Chicago.
Although the Harold Washington Library is quite possibly the youngest structure you’ll read about on this list, its heritage goes as far back as the infamous 1871 fire. After the fire, England donated 8,000 books to the city, which became the foundation of the city’s first public collection. What’s more, in the aftermath of the fire, the first public library opened in an abandoned iron water tank located where the Rookery Building now stands.
Some of the iconic features of the current Harold Washington building include the ninth floor Winter Garden (a public reading room that can be reserved for private events), its postmodern lobby connected to all the public entrances, and a large owl on the painted aluminum acroterium facing State Street.
3. Picasso Sculpture
From Hilton: 1.0 mi (22-minute walk)
The Chicago Picasso is an unnamed Cubist sculpture. As you may have guessed, it’s named for the artist who made it. Yes, that Picasso. It was dedicated in August 1967, stands at 50 feet tall, and was the first major public artwork in Downtown Chicago. It was also the first public sculptural work in the city that did not depict a historical figure and was initially controversial for that break from precedent. Unlike many art installations, this sculpture is intended to be touched physically. Though Picasso himself was famously silent on what the sculpture was supposed to represent, the look of it often invites comparisons to a jungle gym, and visitors to Daley Plaza can often be seen climbing and sliding down its capacious base.
As a fun connection to Chicago’s strong philanthropic tradition, the sculpture (which cost the equivalent of more than $2.7 million today) was predominantly funded by three charitable foundations: Woods Charitable Fund, the Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Foundation, and the Field Foundation of Illinois. Picasso also famously declined payment for the sculpture, stating that he intended it to be a gift.
4. Chicago Theatre
From Hilton: 1.1 mi (22-minute walk)
The Chicago Theatre was built in 1921, and its marquee is one of the city’s signature emblems. It was originally built as a movie theatre at the height of the motion picture palace boom, where theatre operators erected large chains of opulent buildings – many with only a single screen and ample seating – between 1910 and the advent of television in the 1940s. Like many of the buildings from the movie palace era that haven’t been razed, the building evolved into a multifunctional space, and even had a successful run drawing crowds for live jazz through the 1930s.
5. Deep-dish pizza
From Hilton: 0.4-0.9 mi (9 to 19-minute walk)
If you stay anywhere close to on-pace with this lineup of Chicago landmarks, we highly recommend you take a break and refuel with some pizza. It being Chicago and all, you’ll never be far from some transcendent deep-dish goodness. But we’re especially happy to inform you that Upswell Chicago isn’t just close to some good pizza. Nay. You’ll be within range of three of the greatest deep-dish slingers in town according to our resident pizza aficionado. In case you missed it, Christian used Pi Day last month as an opportunity to rank his favorite deep-dish pizza joints in the Windy City. Three of his top five pizza makers have spots located within mere blocks of Hilton Chicago:
- Giordano’s S Michigan Ave | 0.6 mi (12-minute walk)
- Giordano’s W Jackson Blvd | 0.9 mi (19-minute walk)
- Exchequer Restaurant and Pub | 0.5 mi (11-minute walk)
- Gino’s East South Loop | 4 mi (9-minute walk)
6. Field Museum
From Hilton: 0.8 mi (15-minute walk)
Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (or simply, the Field Museum) abuts the shore of Lake Michigan and is just a short trip across Grant Park from the Hilton. Today, the Field Museum is one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Underscoring its premier status as a cultural institution are its extensive scientific-specimen and artifact collections. Perhaps that most high-profile of its specimens (certainly one we love) even got a shout-out recently right here on the Upswell blog. We’re talking about the world’s largest and most complete T. rex, otherwise known as SUE. Besides SUE’s singular status as an impressively intact fossil, they may be the dinosaur with the single most entertaining internet presence in documented history.
In terms of post-industrial history, the Field Museum shares a lineage with many of the oldest landmarks in Chicago in that it has origins in one of two events: the 1871 fire or the 1893 Columbian Exposition. This museum begins with the latter, as the foundation of its collection comes from artifacts that were first displayed for the fair. Afterward, a business man convinced the department-store magnate Marshall Field to establish a permanent museum to house the exhibits and collections assembled for the exposition. The collection was originally housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, the only permanent memorial to the exposition and now home to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). The Field Museum moved out of that building in 1921 and has been at its Lake Shore Drive location since. It’s part of Chicago’s lakefront Museum Campus that also includes Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
7. Millennium Park
From Hilton: 0.9 mi (18-minute walk)
Millennium Park is one of the top tourist attractions in Chicago (and even all of the Midwest), attracting upwards of 25 million visitors each year. If you’ve ever visited Chicago, you’ve likely been one of those visitors. But just because this capacious public park is popular doesn’t mean it’s unremarkable. For starters, it’s one of the largest public spaces in the world. According to this Wikipedia list of largest public spaces on the globe by size, its 30th overall and the single largest space in the U.S.
Construction for the park began in 1998 in an area once occupied by parking lots, rail yards, and undeveloped parkland. It finally opened to the public in July 2004. Many early critics of the park, which opened four years behind schedule and was frequently delayed because of cost overruns, have praised the finished product – a portion of the larger Grant Park now lauded as “the front lawn of Downtown Chicago.” It has several iconic features including indoor and outdoor performing arts spaces, public art installations, fountains, galleries, and a serpentine pedestrian bridge connecting it to Maggie Daley Park on the opposite side of Columbus Drive. One highlight worth visiting the park for in the cooler months is the ice-skating rink that takes over McCormick Tribune Plaza. If you’re in town for an extra day or two after Upswell, you’ll be around right in time for the rink’s scheduled 2019 opening.
8. Clarke House Museum
From Hilton: 1.2 mi (23-minute walk)
If you’re hankering for a longer trek from Hilton Chicago, and a place to explore, the Clarke House may be up your alley. Built in 1836, it’s the oldest residence in Chicago. That’s right: a pre-Civil War home that survived that notorious 1871 fire. The house is in the Prairie Avenue Historic District and operated by the city’s cultural affairs department. It offers free, one-hour guided public tours twice a day Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 1 pm and 2:30 pm. Check out the page for the Clarke House Museum on the city government’s site to learn more about visiting.
9. Exchequer Restaurant and Pub
From Hilton: 0.5 mi (11-minute walk)
If you make it this far in the Great Hilton Chicago Landmark Crawl and haven’t already had a drink, you’ve earned one. Why not grab it in some historic digs? The Exchequer weathered a downtown blight through the 70s and 80s and has emerged as a beloved mainstay for all modes of folks – locals, students, visitors. And if you’re wondering if you’ve recently seen this name elsewhere, it’s because we also gave Exchequer a shout-out for its pizza! Though the space is most famous for being a favorite haunt of Al Capone in its salad days, its pizza is no slouch. And that’s why it earned a coveted spot on Christian’s list alongside Chicago deep-dish institutions Gino’s and Giordano’s. According to the Chicago Bar Project, this spot operated through the 1920s as the 226 Club with a restaurant in the front and a speakeasy in the back. A few name- and ownership-changes followed until it became The Exchequer in 1969. According to this 2015 Thrillist piece on old Chicago speakeasies, one of the two operating escape tunnels in this space that Capone used back in the day still exists.
10. Buddy Guy’s Legends
From Hilton: 0.1 mi (3-minute walk)
If you tear through this landmark tour with abandon and still have energy for some live blues, you’ll be in the right part of town. One of Chicago’s premier blues venues is just next-door to Hilton Chicago. And if there’s a place to experience authentic urban blues today, it’s this spot. It’s still owned by blues musician Buddy Guy. Legend has it that Guy opened the place as a way of keeping a promise he made to his friend, the late Chicago-style blues icon Muddy Waters. His charge: to keep the blues alive. And indeed, the blues have lived there, now for 30 years. Buddy Guy’s is a pilgrimage-caliber institution for all music lovers. If you consider yourself one, be sure to check their upcoming show calendar before you head out to Chicago this November. And if you can’t catch a show, you can still stop in if you have a dire hankering for some Louisiana-style Cajun and soul food.
That’s the Hilton Chicago Landmark Crawl! We should also say that Hilton Chicago is a place with some of its own claims to fame, but that’s for a future blog post. If you’re jazzed about checking out any of these spots, get in touch with us here or on the socials. If we hear from enough people, who knows? We might have to cook up some kind of informal bingo game or scavenger hunt. In any case, we look forward to exploring with you in November.
Jackie Brennan is the associate of social media and web at Independent Sector.