50 Years of Sharing Chicago’s Visual Wealth
By Elizabeth Richter
For fifty years, a group of dedicated volunteers has brought you soaring skyscrapers, historic mansions of the city’s elite, colorful ethnic neighborhoods, (and even by chance, a dead body!) – what more could one want in a tour of Chicago! All this and more is available to residents and tourists alike thanks to docents from the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC).
These enthusiastic educators have devoted 3 months of their lives to lectures, homework, tests, practice, and evaluation, not to earn a college diploma, but to qualify to share Chicago’s great buildings with the public. Celebrating the program’s 50th anniversary this year, CAC docents are the city’s most rigorously trained ambassadors for Chicago’s stunning and fascinating built environment, our visual wealth.
Chicago Architecture Center at 111 E. Wacker Drive
If you love Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style, Louis Sullivan’s floral ornamentation, Mies van der Rohe’s elegant sense of design or you want to experience a sample of Chicago’s great buildings along the Chicago River, CAC is the place to start. Here you can sign up for some 90 tours led by arguably the best-trained volunteers in the city.
CAC Chicago River tour
“It was like going to graduate school,” says Karen Clapp, a docent for 20 years. “The presenters were excellent…[There was] excellent content. We had to write an analysis of a building…there were reviews by peers and the docent committee.” Unique among other tour companies, docents personalize their own tours around a theme that appeals to them. There are no cookie-cutter scripts to memorize. Clapp, like many docents, developed a new tour, Historic Austin. “[The tour was] 2 years in the making. We talk about the history, the development of the community as a railroad suburb [for residents to] get away from the grimy city. [It] became a place where a lot of European immigrants [settled]. The main architect was Frederick Schock, who worked for Solon Beeman.” Other architects represented in the area include Dwight Perkins, William Drummond, and Alfred S. Auschuler.”
Karen Clapp leads the Historic Austin tour.
Photo: Alexa Rogals, Austin Weekly News
1886 house designed by Frederick Schock
The docent program is run as an independent organization in collaboration with CAC, which handles scheduling, coordination, and promotion. The Docent Council is elected by the docents and has the authority to develop and run tours, establish tour standards, remove members with cause, plan enrichment and social activities for docents, and train docents. CAC President and CEO Lynn Osmond, a docent herself, couldn’t be more pleased with the relationship. “I am always refreshed and find energy from my connection with the docents…you are truly the backbone of the organization,” she wrote in the recently published Celebrate 50 Years 1971-2021 Docents.
Lynn Osmond, President, and CEO, Chicago Architecture Center
The first docent class was launched in April of 1971 in response to requests for tours of Glessner House. This massive Prairie Avenue mansion designed by Henry Hobson Richardson for International Harvester executive John J. Glessner was under threat of demolition in 1966. A group of architects and friends of architecture organized to save it and other historic structures under the new banner of the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation (CSAF).
CSAF would evolve into the Chicago Architecture Foundation and in 2018 was reborn as the Chicago Architecture Center at its current location on Wacker Drive at Michigan Avenue. Throughout its existence, the accompanying docent program would evolve as well, adding and editing tours, enriching the training experience, and growing to 200 docents by the late 1970s and to some 400 docents today.
Kathy Baker developed a love of architecture when she lived and traveled in Europe while working for a global company. She’s the co-director of docent education and by necessity is somewhat guarded about the course material. “We don’t share the curriculum. It’s a more competitive environment than it used to be,” she observes. Baker was able to describe the structure of the course.” You spend the first 5-6 weeks learning fundamentals of architecture. It’s eight full hours on five Saturdays structured around specific reading before class, discussion, lecture, field work, where you look and learn from buildings and homework. [One] should assume 20 hours a week in addition to the class.” These fundamentals include “how to interpret, how to look at a building, different architecture styles…the history of Chicago,” she explains. Docents report that readings by architecture and history experts like Carl Condit, Paul Goldberger, and William Cronin are assigned. WTTW personality Geoffrey Baer, himself a docent and host of many documentaries on Chicago history and architecture, has lectured to the class.
Kathy Baker, co-director of docent education
Baker leads a river tour.
Once they learn the fundamentals, docents-in-training spend the next five weeks learning their first tour. Baker says this includes “reading, discussion, lecture, field work, how to engage with an audience, how to deliver a tour, how to tell stories… what it looks like to stand in front of a group of people who [at first] may not be interested and when you’re done, they will be.”
Finally, a second tour is learned during the remainder of the initial training. The process is collaborative. “Every new trainee has a sponsor to help them and mentor them, develop the tour, practice, get them ready. Another docent will listen before a tour is given to public,” she said. The Chicago River tour is among the most popular, particularly for out-of-towners; it’s the go-to activity for Chicago residents entertaining houseguests. Docents can train for this tour during their second year with additional time required to learn and develop their personal approach.
Tom Carmichael leads a Chicago River cruise.
Tom Carmichael, who trained docents for nine years, points out that each river cruise docent has a great deal of leeway in developing his or her tour. There are over 100 buildings along the route covered by the cruise, which goes from the Michigan Avenue Bridge to parts of both the north and south branches of the river. A core of 30 buildings is covered in each tour, changing from year to year. “That’s the rock bottom. From that we require everyone talk about the great Chicago fire, the reversal of the river, and some mention of environmental issues, LEED etc. From that point on, put your own cruise together… it must have some cohesion… most mention 15-16 buildings in addition,” said Carmichael. He points out that plain facts can be boring. An interesting tour tells stories. “Some docents talk about structure, building technology…wind resistance…People like stories about people. Who are the key figures…Mies, the Daley mayors, Burnham…[it’s] more engaging to hear about people and not just buildings.”
Cruising under one of the river’s many bridges, Tom answers questions from his engaged listeners.
Tom has a few stories of his own, some that he does not normally share with his audiences. “I’ve seen dead bodies in the water,” he related. “We were on the south branch, more or less where the civic opera is…The AIA (American Institute of Architects) was in town for a convention. This was a cruise for their families and friends. Some guy yells, ‘there’s a body in the river…my reaction…probably a bird, a goose. I walked over to look and yes, a body was floating. I went to the captain and he said, ‘the police have been looking for it all day.’’
River cruise docent-in-training Ingrid Nelson takes notes in the front row.
River cruises are not usually quite so dramatic! But Ingrid Nelson, a river docent-in-training, doesn’t need dead bodies to be excited about the tour. She joined a recent cruise led by Tom Carmichael, taking notes as she developed her own unique approach. She began training before COVID, and only this spring was able to continue. “[Developing our own tours] makes it more fresh…A canned tour is fine, you can’t go wrong with these buildings, but I think our program really offers a unique perspective by having the docents do their own thing,” she said.
The Astor Street tour includes a home designed by Douglas Pentercost for Thomas Hinde in 1892. Its yellow-brick façade replicates the 16th century home of a mistress of Henry II of France. The red brick home to its right was designed by Arthur Heun for Helen Bowen and William McCormick Blair, a wedding gift from her parents.
Back on dry land, a favorite neighborhood tour explores Astor Street on the Gold Coast filled with multi-million dollar city residences built for the city’s elite in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Long-time docent Virginia Gerst leads tours here and throughout the city, from the Loop to Graceland cemetery. A journalist and newspaper editor for many years, Gerst quit her full-time job, tried freelancing, and decided she’d rather focus on architecture. “I was always interested in architecture,” she said. “I chose my college because Vassar had a Saarinen dormitory [Eero Saarinen, 1958]…[Giving walking tours] changed my life. I look at cities differently. When I travel, I take architecture tours when I’m in a foreign city.” When Astor Street tour director Joe Cain steps down, she will take charge of this tour.
Gerst checks the list of those who signed up with Astor Street tour director Joe Cain xxxxxxxxxxx
Gerst describes the Astor Street mansion as once the home of Chicago’s Roman Catholic archbishops.
Gerst relishes the enthusiasm of her audiences. Once, she guided a group through the Chicago Athletic Association building, designed by Henry Ives Cobb and inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice. They turned out to be members of the Wrigley family from Catalina Island, California, and were interested in the club because William Wrigley had been a member. It’s said that when he bought the Cubs in 1925, he adapted the club’s logo for his baseball franchise. The Cubs held spring training on Catalina Island from 1921 to 1951.
Tourists and visitors alike rave about CAC docents. Whether on it’s Yelp or Trip Advisor or another Chicago travel website, the tours get five-star ratings. Gerst’s experience with a man who attended her Graceland cemetery tour on a Sunday says it all. Seeing her leading another tour in the loop the following day, he leaned out his car window and shouted, “Isn’t she the best tour guide you ever had?” Gerst humbly says “I’ve heard a lot of pick-up lines in my day but that’s the best.”
Visitors await the Chicago River tour departure
Should you be interested in becoming a docent, watch for information to be posted about the next docent class on the CAC website. There’s an initial screening to determine interest and likelihood to complete the course. About 50% of applicants are accepted for round two. A three-person CAC committee interviews those who are selected. Each is asked to give a three-minute presentation on a building. Judging is based on the ability to communicate and a cohesive approach to the presentation. About 70% make it through this step; it becomes a self-selection process. Only those really serious about becoming docents remain. A typical docent class is 30-40 people.
CAC offers the following recommendations to anyone interested:
- Attend a docent information meeting to receive the most current information about our next docent class.
- Commit to attending all training class sessions.
- Commit to completing all class requirements.
- Be available to give weekend tours.
Kathy Baker encourages applicants, “I don’t want anyone to be frightened by rigor. I’m always looking for talent.” She’s attended an open CAC class and approached interested attendees, “You sound like you want to be a docent….”
Docents not only give tours but also go on field trips, tour new buildings, and share information through the Docent News. Interested docents have created new tours on a regular basis from one inspired by The Devil and the White City to Art Deco Chicago. Tom Carmichael expressed the feelings of his fellow docents when he said, “It’s interesting to me that one of the great things about being a docent for CAC is getting to know your fellow docents; they are a wonderfully interested, intelligent, fun group of people. Being a docent has added a new facet to my life that is very important to me.”