Chicago Architecture Foundation (and Tours)

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Taking a tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation was named the #1 best thing to do in the Chicago area by the well-known magazine U.S. News and World Report and it’s easy to see why. Offering a bevy of tours on land and by sea and claiming that the city itself is their museum, the CAF offers visitors to Chicago a real insider’s look into one of the more architecturally rich areas in the United States.

History

The Chicago Architecture Foundation was founded back in 1966 with a singular goal: saving the H.H. Richardson-designed Glessner House on 1800 S. Prairie Avenue. Since named both a Chicago Landmark (1970) and National Historic Landmark (1976), the Glessner House is one of hundreds of Chicago-area landmarks which displays unique and important architectural styles and designs and showcases the rich, though oft-overlooked history of the art in the United States.

In 1971, once the fate of Glessner House had been secured, Chicago Architecture Foundation expanded its outreach to include lectures and volunteer-led docent tours of the Chicago area. This program of educating volunteers about the richness of the history they tell was an immediate hit from the start. Requiring a 14-week long, intense training, CAF volunteer tour guides are among the best educated in the world about their topic and the program itself has won multiple awards.

The next major development for Chicago Architecture Foundation came in 1976 when it took up residence in the Monadnock Building in the Chicago Loop area. What was, at its construction the largest office building in the world and yet another Chicago architectural masterpiece, the Monadnock Building space allowed the CAF to begin exhibitions and additional education programs. The Foundation has since moved to the Santa Fe Building, designed by Daniel Burnham, located at 224 South Michigan Avenue.

Main Attraction

The Chicago Architecture Foundation is a massive enterprise led by over 450 volunteer docents, 220 other volunteers, and 7,600 members. It offers and unprecedented 90+ different Chicago city tours. The most popular options include the famed Loop walking tour, the same one that the Foundation originated in 1971, and the immensely popular Architecture River Cruise on board the ship Chicago’s First Lady. Additional tours include pub crawls, homes, neighborhoods, and the lakefront.

The types of tours that are offered range in activity level, duration, and education ultimately leading to something to fit everyone and every occasion. These choices includes options which range from typical walking and bus tours to boats, the “L” train, bikes, and even Segways. Tours are offered year-round, though not every tour is offered every day and the variety and frequency of tours depends largely on weather and available guides. Visitors are encouraged to call and book ahead, especially in the summer months.

In addition to their tours, Chicago Architecture Foundation also offers free entry into its headquarters every day. While there, visitors have the chance to view a rotating plate of current exhibitions as well as the famed Chicago Model City, a permanent addition to the Foundation since 2009. This scale model of Chicago includes all buildings in the central part of the city and has drawn praise from visitors and critics alike.

The CAF is also closely allied with the Chicago City Public School System (CPS) providing educational material for classrooms as well as specialized student tours from the elementary level through high school. Additionally, CAF sponsors the largest annual architectural event in the city, Open House Chicago (OHC), which attracts upwards of 10,000 people from around the world each October. OHC allows the public unprecedented access to some of the most famous privately-held, yet architecturally relevant buildings in the Chicago area—for free.

Why It’s a Must-See

There is really no one “thing” to see when it comes to the Chicago Architecture Foundation and its tours. With a plate of offerings that rival most cities CAF gives visitors and residents of Chicago alike a unique opportunity to really engage with architecture and history from volunteers who truly love what they are doing.

Where to Buy It

There are a number of ways you can enjoy admission to this attraction.

1. Purchase a tour ticket from the Chicago Architecture Foundation when you get there.

2. .  .

3. Purchase as part of a money saving package. Popular examples to the right.

4. Purchase a Tourist pass. The Chicago Architecture Foundation tour is available on the Go Chicago Card.