Chicago Stories and Tips

A Boat Trip Through the Man-made Gorge

Reflections Photo, Chicago, Illinois

Having strolled the considerable distance along Grand Ave after having left the “El” I was certainly ready for this long-anticipated boat ride that would follow both branches of the Chicago River to highlight the amazing buildings that form the backdrop to the water. The boat was ready to go as we arrived and along with around 60 or 70 other people, we took our seats on the open-top deck.

The captain exercises a neat reverse turn and we start by looking to our right at the impressive Lake Point Tower, dating from 1968. At 645 feet, it was in its time the tallest apartment building in the world. Its three wings are spaced at a 120 degree angle to each other affording privacy for the residents. Almost immediately to the left is the unmistakable sheer face of the Aon Centre, dating from 1973, and to my mind, bearing a certain resemblance to the Twin Towers. At 1136 feet it was the city’s tallest building before the completion of the Sears Tower the following year.

Although somewhat set back from the river, the dark, looming presence of the John Hancock Centre is never out of sight on our right. This impressive structure takes third place behind the Aon Centre by just a few feet and dates to 1969. We continue down the river to the next building of note, this being the NBC Tower, a post-modern development that certainly owes its design to the Art Deco movement. Almost next-door is the amazing Chicago Tribune Tower, it’s top third more resembling a Gothic cathedral than a commercial building with its intricate but massive flying buttresses. The Tribune Tower sits at 464 feet tall and can certainly claim to be one of the most recognisable landmarks on the Chicagoan skyline.

The next building of real note has to be the Wrigley Building on our right. Its two towers date from 1922 and 1925 and it was the first in a series of landmarks at the end of the Magnificent Mile. It was based on the Giralda Tower of Seville Cathedral and was constructed in two sections, the southern building being some 30 storeys and the northern 21 storeys. Both sections are linked with elevated walkways on the 3rd and 14th floors. Almost opposite is the Jewellers Building at 35 E. Wacker Drive, completed in 1926. It holds the distinction of being the first commercial structure on Wacker Drive and originally housed many jewellery stores. It is said that during the Depression years, the domed top-floor housed a speakeasy where many of the local politicians went to secretly avail themselves of alcohol.

A little further downstream on the right is the IBM Building, at 695 feet the 14th tallest in the city and pretty much alongside are the truly amazing twin corn-cobs that are Marina City. Each of the two towers rise to 61 storeys with the first 15 on each tower being utilised as parking garages. The buildings are part of a complex that includes the famous House of Blues live music venue and the towers overtook Lake Point Tower as the tallest apartment building in the world upon their completion in 1967.

Now, to a true monster and I mean that literally, the enormous if not overly tall Merchandise Mart to our right, finished in 1931. It is second only to the Pentagon in floor area and was built for the Marshall Field Company as a showroom and administrative headquarters. This building is just colossal from any angle and today still houses over 600 showrooms, a two-storey shopping mall, a cooking school and a food court. Just across on the opposite bank is the fabulous 333 West Wacker, its curved front wall reflecting the bright sunlight on this beautiful morning provides a canvas for the buildings on the other side of the river.

At this point the boat turns right and continues along the North Branch of the river for five minutes or so although there isn’t much to note here. We u-turn, then head down the South Branch, past the Boeing World HQ Building to the daddy of them all, the mighty Sears Tower. The Tower sits immediately to the north of 311 South Wacker, whose shadow attempts to climb the face of the Sears but is never going to make it.

The Sears’ black facade looks stunning again the blue sky of this unseasonably warm October morning. It reaches for the sky in a proud and uncompromising way and is just awe inspiring. It is constructed with bronze tinted glass and stainless aluminium and was originally built for the Sears & Roebuck Company, being topped out in May 1973. It is formed with nine interlocking tubes in a 3x3 configuration. Two tubes stop at the 50th floor, two stop at the 66th, three stop at the 90th, leaving just two to make the final ascent to 108 storeys. The Sears Tower was the world’s tallest building prior to the opening of the Petronas Towers in 1996. Words fail to do it justice really….

The final building of note on our tour today is the Chicago Board of Trade Building that sits just to the southeast of the Sears Tower. It was finished in 1930 and was at this time the tallest building in Chicago at 605 feet, a title it held until 1965. The statue of Ceres on its roof makes it the tallest Art Deco building in the world outside of NYC.

With everything seen, and with cricks in our necks, the boat returns to the harbour side at Navy Pier. This is a stunning feast of architectural delight and I would recommend that anyone visiting the city makes this tour a priority.

For more info see

Shoreline Sightseeing
474 N. Lake Shore Drive
Tel. (312) 222-9328

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