On the Chicago River





This week, Judy’s People continues its series on volunteers whose enthusiasm and accomplishments impact Chicago and its visitors.


Surrounded by splendor on the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise (photo by Adam Alexander Photography, courtesy of Chicago’s First Lady).

Surrounded by splendor on the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise (photo by Adam Alexander Photography, courtesy of Chicago’s First Lady).

What do Angela Merkel, Eddie Izzard, and Julia Roberts have in common? They all took the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise – Julia even included it in her hit rom-com from the late 90s My Best Friend’s Wedding.

Taking a Chicago Architectural River Cruise aboard “Chicago’s First Lady” with Chuck McLaughlin explains why TripAdvisor calls the River Cruise “one of the top 10 tours in the US.” Whether it’s on a boat, Segway, bike, trolley, the L, or on foot, 415,000 people took Chicago Architecture Foundation tours last year with the Cruise being among its most popular offerings. Chuck and other docents cover 50 core buildings of the 200 structures along the River, including new ones going up all the time.

A versatile volunteer, whom we last encountered delivering a Civil War heroes tour at Rose Hill Cemetery, Chuck captivates an international audience with his enthusiasm and combined knowledge of history and architecture. While his job at times might feel like that of a riverboat captain, the wealth of information he has to offer affirms his role as docent.

McLaughlin shared with us recently his thoughts on and experiences with volunteering for the CAF tours and some of that depth of knowledge about all things Chicago architecture:

What’s the best part of leading the boat tour?

Someone once remarked that the Chicago River is where some of our finest buildings got together for a group photo. I love sharing our city with visitors and Chicagoans alike. All of the CAF tours allow me to do that, but the River Cruise is different. We cover a lots of great buildings in 90 minutes and can invite a lot more people than a CAF walking tour.

How would you describe Chicago’s earlier architecture that one sees along the way?

As far as downtown architecture, there are several key types of commercial building styles. For many years, Chicago buildings borrowed from historical styles. For instance, the Wrigley Building, clad in stunning white terra cotta, is said to be primarily of the Spanish Renaissance Revival style. Across the street, the Tribune Tower is largely inspired by a Gothic tower in France. Both buildings were completed by the mid-1920s.

 By the late 1920s, a virus lovingly infected the whole world of design known as Art Deco. As it relates to architecture on the River, Deco was short, sweet, and sadly over too quickly. The Great Depression fell upon us but not before a huge building boom that gave us a lot of stunning Art Deco buildings.

What followed Art Deco?

Because of the Depression and World War II, the construction of tall commercial buildings in downtown Chicago didn’t really resume again until the late 1950s. And then they came in a rush. Mid-Century Modernist buildings, as they know them now, represent highly functional architecture based on structure, not ornament. They reveal their materials clearly: steel, plate glass and concrete. They tend to be very structurally expressive and are often black because black is the least ornamental color.

What about more recent construction?

 In the 1980s and 1990s, we went into the Post-Modernist era. Suddenly, it was safe again for buildings to be colorful, ornamental, and often historically inspired. Currently, we are in a new phase of architecture that will no doubt have its own name someday. I just play it safe and call it contemporary architecture for now. Some newer buildings display a softer kind of Modernism like the curvaceous Trump Tower or Aqua.


Stunning views (photo credit: The Chicago Architecture Foundation).

Stunning views (photo credit: The Chicago Architecture Foundation).

Have you had any surprising experiences along the River?

My fondest experience giving the CAF River Cruise occurred last fall. I was meeting people in the queue as they prepared to embark, when a lovely woman said to me: ‘Are you aware you have a famous architect on your tour today?’ And there, tying the shoelaces on his sneakers, was Lucien LaGrange, the highly regarded and renowned Chicago based architect (once with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and now having embarked upon a successful career of his own). We chatted briefly and then a light bulb went off: why not get Lucien to talk about his buildings on the tour? There are two buildings on the CAF River Cruise he designed: Erie on the Park and Kingsbury on the Park, next to one another on the North Branch. Our boat captain was able to stop next to them for five minutes and Lucien got up to talk about his buildings. The people loved it!

How did you decide to be a CAF volunteer and what is docent training like?

In 1988, I attended a formal dinner in the lobby of the Rookery, one of our finest early buildings. A docent from CAF spoke about the building, and I was absolutely fascinated. Although I didn’t start the course until January 2008, I had been thinking about enrolling in the training, which involves lots of reading and writing about buildings, architecture, and Chicago history. The classwork is always fun, lots of lectures from historians and other experts.

What did you do after you graduated from the program?

With lots of practice you learn how to design and give an effective tour. You come up with your own theme and decide what you want to focus on. There are parameters as to what things you are required to discuss but you get to customize your own tour, which is lots of fun.

After a training program lasting several months, I become a docent certified to lead two of our most popular public tours. And now I give a dozen tours in downtown Chicago and some of our other neighborhoods, in addition to the CAF River Cruise.

How long have you been a Chicagoan?

My whole life! I was born in Chicago and aside fro a few years in the Navy, I have lived here my entire life. I attended UIC, where I studied history and later accounting, and DePaul University, where I received an MBA.

What about volunteering really appeals to you? 

Volunteering with CAF has helped me in so many ways. I have met so any wonderful people in our organization and have become dear friends with many. It has taught me so much about the architecture and history of this great city. It has helped me improve my public speaking 1000 percent, and now I even enjoy it – something that I never thought possible. It allowed me to present this fabulous city to visitors – and, just as importantly – to Chicagoans who had no idea as to all the treasures standing here.

Too many Chicagoans, myself included, need to ‘look up’ more often and take a break from the tumult of our daily lives. I even met my sweetheart on one of our tours. It was on our Downtown Deco tour six years ago. She asked for my card afterwards. The rest is history.


Part captain, all docent: Chuck McLaughlin.

Part captain, all docent: Chuck McLaughlin.

Victoria Gray, a friend from Washington, D.C., recently took Chuck’s River Cruise and reported: 

“Having been born in Chicago, I always felt a great affinity for the city, so I was delighted to have been invited aboard the famed architectural boat tour. The city was visually stunning and it was fascinating to hear its political and economic history. Before I knew it, the tour was over and I was a bit upset that my parents didn’t let me grow up here.”



To learn more about the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the River Cruises, please visit www.architecture.org.