This time of year, when the tourists (and impassioned locals) start crowding the Chicago River's fleets of boats to crane their necks and take in their towering surroundings, Holly Agra is ready for them. As owner and CEO of Chicago's First Lady Cruises, which partners with the Chicago Architecture Foundation for its tours, Agra is well versed in the wonders that draw the city's 40 million visitors each year. We caught up with the award-winning businesswoman to get her take on what makes our city her kind of town.
Curbed: Mayor Emanuel awarded you the Choose Chicago Tourism Ambassador Award in February. In your experience, what is Chicago's greatest selling point for tourists?
The greatest selling feature for Chicago is its fantastic international airport, which is constantly being improved, enlarged and morphed into a city within a city. O'Hare International Airport is responsible for the many international visitors Chicago enjoys due to the large number of non-stop flights landing from countries all over the world. And, Chicago's unique geographical position on the shores of the second largest of the five Great Lakes, coupled with a river running straight through the center of the city's business district. This geography offers residents and visitors an open-air shoreline and provides our guests with an unobstructed picture postcard view of Chicago's river and lakefront skyline.
Curbed: What piece, or pieces, of information are tourists most interested in or surprised by on your boat tours?
Guests on our cruises are most interested in the many differing forms of architecture — as if it's a gallery — lining the edges of the Chicago River. Guests are also amazed at the number and variety of movable bridges spanning the Chicago River. Our boats had to be constructed to pass under each of the bridges on the Chicago River. Passengers see many different styles of bridges, building materials, anchored by bridge houses which are unique to Chicago.
Curbed: What's your favorite Chicago building and why?
My favorite Chicago building is many times completely overlooked, but it is the lock house within the Chicago River Controlling Lock. The lock-tenders are housed in a really unique building that appears to be stainless steel and is designed to look like a ship passing through the lock. Most people who do not frequent the lock have never seen this unique piece of Chicago architecture and those people who traverse the lock are so intrigued by the view of Lake Michigan or the stately Trump Tower anchoring the Riverfront, they never take time to admire the structure. Owned and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, this building was built to offer the lock-tenders a better view of the boats passing through the controlling lock and was built in 2007.
·Chicago's First Lady Cruises [Official]
·Three Questions [Curbed Chicago]