Margaret Hicks has a simple message for visitors to Chicago and natives alike: Look up.
Better yet, look up and look closely at all the rich ornamentation adorning so many classic buildings in the Loop. Here, take these binoculars, take a moment — and take it all in.
And then imagine the stories these buildings are telling us.
Hicks, the sole proprietor and guide of Chicago Elevated, has been carving out a unique niche in the walking-tours landscape since 2010, when she started her business from the ground up — literally. Her first (and still quite-popular) offering was a tour of the Pedway that runs underneath the Loop. She has since added the Disaster! tour (which I took more than a year ago), focusing on such catastrophes as the Great Chicago Fire, the Iroquois Theatre fire and the Eastland disaster, as well as a more general walking tour of the Loop.
With the brand-new, 90-minute Binoculars Tour, Hicks provides a guide to decoding the semiotics of buildings ranging from City Hall and the County Building to the Oriental Theatre and the Tribune Tower. A veteran of the volunteer docent program at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and local improv outlets, including the Annoyance, Second City, and iO theaters (she also provides a walking tour of Old Town through Second City), the chatty and personable Hicks brings a mix of camp-counselor enthusiasm and wide-ranging historical and architectural tidbits to her tours.
On a recent Saturday, Hicks told her audience of 11 that, though she had been admonishing people to "look up" for a long time, "I realized I hadn't really been doing it. I wasn't taking in the bits and pieces. There is a whole world on these buildings." According to Hicks, there isn't a tour like it anywhere else in the world.
As we peered up through the binoculars Hicks provided, she pointed out recurring motifs beloved of architects and designers from Chicago's Gilded Age and after. Acanthus leaves, wreaths and lions cover Holabird & Roche's Greek Revival City Hall, also known as the City and County Building. "On this tour, you will get to know the acanthus leaf better than you've known anything in your life," Hicks said. She also pointed out that using neo-classical motifs on City Hall sent a message: This is a secular building, not one devoted to religious meaning.
For the latter, there's the Chicago Temple. Also designed by Holabird & Roche (though Hicks doesn't always mention the names of the architects for all the buildings on the tour), the building represents what Hicks called "the movement from Greek logic to Gothic emotion and fear." The Clark Street side of the building contains a wealth of images — demons, angels, the winged cherub heads known as "putti," and gargoyles. Hicks pointed out that a true gargoyle spits water, as the name is derived from the same root as "gargle." There is also a parade of commoners running horizontally along the wall, connecting the worldly to the otherworldly. (The plaques depicting rare coins for Harlan J. Berk on the ground level add a much more recent twist to the tug of war between the ethereal and the earthly that plays out in the temple's decorative motifs.)
Not all the buildings are high-profile. The Commonwealth Edison substation directly across from Daley Plaza gets its moment in the spotlight as Hicks points out the art deco image of a godlike creature with lightning bolts in his hands and a skyline of skyscrapers and humble houses alike underneath him. (Sylvia Shaw Judson sculpted the relief, called The Spirit of Electricity.)
The building that inspired the tour, Hicks said, is the old Dearborn Bank building, now being remodeled as the Virgin Hotel. So much of the decoration on the skyscraper is up on the top, prompting Hicks to ask us why it would be there, rather than the more-visible friezes and arches on the Oriental and Chicago theatres that invite patrons inside. One woman posited that perhaps it comes from the same impulse that caused the ancient Egyptians to keep the most luxurious details inside the pyramids — the riches were not for the eyes of commoners. "I love that," Hicks said. She then pointed out some of the more prosaic, but cunning, details that signify the building's original purpose — an industrious squirrel and a "matronly" face of a woman among them, suggestive of thrift and caution.
We ended the tour outside the Tribune Tower, famous for incorporating bits of so many other significant buildings from around the world. Hicks pointed out the elements drawn from Aesop's fables in the entry arch, and conjectured that a helmeted soldier represented publisher and editor (and World War I veteran) Col. Robert McCormick. Allegorical faces represent "News" and "Rumor" — the one shouting, the other whispering.
Decoding the world above our eyes makes the story of Chicago even richer. As Hicks said near the end of the tour, "This is about a conversation between us and the buildings, and with each other, using emotion and asking us to pay attention."
Oh, and the binoculars? You keep them – so you can keep the tour going on your own.
When: 1 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Where: Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St., in front of the Picasso sculpture
Tickets: $28; reservations and information for all Chicago Elevated tours at chicagoelevated.com