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Local Architecture Photographers Discuss Favorite Buildings, Vantage Points

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Photo: Michael Salisbury

Chicago is the home of many landmark high-rises and grand park spaces, and the city's architecture photographers are perhaps the best folks to ask when seeking a spectacular vantage point of downtown. And much like the city's diversity in building design, Chicago's photographers have their own flavor and offer a different take on the same city. It's no surprise that architectural photography will play an important role in the Chicago Architecture Biennial, as the way photographers frame a streetscape or a tower's stance influences the impact and feeling that a building or environment has on us. Chicago's photographers are the unofficial yet crucial historians of the city's changing landscape. We reached out to a few regular contributors to the Curbed Chicago Flickr pool to discuss underrated buildings and best photo opportunities.


Michael Salisbury

The first spot that comes to mind is one that I've only recently discovered. There's a UIC parking garage right off the Racine Blue Line station on Congress that offers a unique view of downtown. I think it's best to shoot this when the sun is setting or during the blue hour. The reflections off the buildings are spectacular.

Another good view is similar to the last one, but has more of the skyline. It's right off the Chicago Blue Line station over 90/94. Along the fence facing south, there's a small hole that you can conveniently stick a camera lens through. This shot is cool to me not just because of the view of the skyline, but the expressway adds a different dynamic to the photo, especially how it seems to flow right out of the skyline itself. I'd like to come back here with a tripod for longer exposures.

Lastly, there's a lot of parking garages around downtown that offer different views of the city. I've been recently hunting around downtown and the south loop for different garages, and I've never been disappointed. If you're looking to get a different perspective of the city, I would recommend checking a few out.

The Reliance Building downtown is one that contained features ahead of its time that would later become a staple in modern architecture. It has large glass windows as a result of William Ellery Hale's desire for an abundance of natural light for the building's tenants, which other buildings followed. I'm not saying it's under appreciated in terms of photography, but more in it's construction technique and aesthetic which had a large influence on a lot of other buildings in the city.

Next would be Inland Steel. This is purely from a photography standpoint, because it's one of my favorite structures in the city and I think a lot of people overlook it. The windows have a nice green/blue tint to them, and during the blue hour reflect a magnificent color. The structure of the building itself is very geometric, which for me is fun to take photos of. Also it has one of the best lobby art installations, Radiant 1 by Richard Lippold.

The Rookery building almost goes without saying. It's my personal favorite interior, and really feels like stepping in another era. If you're quick enough, slipping into an elevator and taking it to the top floor is worth it, just to peer down the main staircase.

I would also encourage people to walk through the Monadnock building as well, it's another classic building with remarkable attention to detail both on the exterior and interior.


Gabriel Xavier Michael

One of my favorite areas to photograph in Chicago is along Lake Street. To me, the interplay of the elevated rail infrastructure, extra-wide street, and changing building types and land uses as you go from east to west creates an interesting and unique visual experience. West of Western Avenue, you see that Lake Street is largely vacant, but the buildings that remain offer an insight into the history of the "oldest street" in Chicago.

Another would be any of the city's many diagonal streets. They all point towards and provide a unique view of the downtown skyline as their diagonal position breaks up the monotony of Chicago's rectangular street grid and each holds its own story of how it came to be. Clark Street, Milwaukee and Elston Avenues are the well-known ones, but others like Ogden, Blue Island and Fifth Avenues tend to be overlooked, and many architectural gems spanning the decades can be found on these streets.

In my experience exploring Chicago, I've noticed that most of the city's West Side architectural stock, including East & West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin, tends to be overlooked and ignored. These neighborhoods were first settled in the 1870s by Chicago's wealthier families moving further outside of the downtown area, where they built extremely beautiful and stylish homes. So many of these have been demolished due to neglect or disrepair, but the ones that remain on classic streets like Washington, Douglas, and Fulton Boulevards are visually striking and even more precious since they have survived. People want to believe that these neighborhoods are "dangerous" or threaten their lives, and don't deserve their attention, but they're wrong and only perpetuate a toxic stereotype.

A specific example of a historic but largely unknown building would be the James Von Natta Farmhouse in Chicago's Hermosa neighborhood on the Northwest side, at 4618 West Armitage Avenue. While researching a story for local architecture website Chicago Patterns, I discovered historic images and texts that dated the surviving structure to 1858 (arguably now one of the oldest structures in Chicago) when it was built as a farmhouse for rural landowning family on the outskirts of the city. At the time of my story, it was threatened with demolition by the construction company that owns it and the adjacent parcels, but was ultimately saved and recognized as historically significant by the owners, historic preservationists and the surrounding community, once its history was brought to light.

I would recommend checking out Midway Park in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on the far West Side. Highly overlooked and culturally significant, this area is a well-preserved glimpse into 19th-Century Austin and features exquisite Neoclassical homes and some of the most beautiful & eclectic Queen Anne-style designs in the city, on a broad tree-lined boulevard running from 5700 (Waller Avenue) - 6000 (Austin Avenue) West. It was designated a National Register Historic District in 1985, with many of the structures designed by architect Frederick Schock, as well as Frank Lloyd Wright and his students.

Another fascinating area to explore would be the Claremont Cottages development in Chicago's Tri-Taylor neighborhood. This development sits north of Roosevelt Road on the 1000 block of Claremont Avenue. Originating as a collection of Queen Anne-style 1-1/2 story-cottages that were mass-produced by architects Normand S. Patton and Cicero Hine in the early 1880s for Chicago's working class, these picturesque houses are in excellent condition, and retain much of their historic character and ornamentation, despite being renovated to suit their current owners. They are truly one-of-a-kind in the city, and are recognized in the AIA Guide to Chicago. Just to the south of Roosevelt Road, on the 1300 blocks of South Heath and Claremont Avenues, is an extremely similar collection of cottages, leading to speculation that these were an extension of the original development to the north. There are currently efforts underway to have these blocks also recognized as historically significant buildings before any additional ones are lost to neglect and demolition.

Nick Fochtman

Chicago is such a great city to look at. Not just because the amazing diversity of design, but the ability to see it from so many different angles. Some great spots include Olive Park, Lake Shore Path (South of Museum Campus), Kinzie Bridge, and LaSalle Street in the financial district.

From a design and history perspective, I think there are a number of city park buildings that go under appreciated. Some of my favorites include Cafe Brauer, the Humboldt Park Boathouse, the Garfield Park Fieldhouse and the South Shore Cultural Center.

In my mind, no architectural trip to Chicago would be complete without checking out The Rookery and Monadnock buildings. They are buildings that have an amazing presence to them, and transport you to another time the second you step inside.

Debbie Mercer

Some of my favorite vantage points in Chicago include:

13th street just east of Ashland
Rush Medical Center parking garage
Ashland Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River (just north of Webster)
New Northerly Island park
North Pond in Lincoln Park
Montrose Point
Ping Tom Park

As far as under appreciated buildings are concerned, a few of my favorites are:

Guyon Hotel, 4000 W. Washington
Masonic Temple in Englewood, 64th and Green
Buildings in the Central Manufacturing District along Pershing Road
Von Holst substations, various locations throughout the city
Schulze Bakery building, 55th and Wabash
Laramie State Bank, Chicago Ave. and Laramie
Belmont and Central, buildings on SE, NE, and NW corners
4000-4200 W. Madison Street
W.M Hoyt Building, 465 W. Cermak

Visitors coming to Chicago for only a few days need to check out:

Motor Row—1400 to 2500 S. Michigan Avenue
Uptown—Broadway and Lawrence
Central Manufacturing District—Pershing Rd. from Ashland to Western
Bronzeville—various locations
Pilsen—18th Street between Halsted and Ashland
Milwaukee Avenue—starting around 600 North and continuing the whole length!
Martin Luther King Drive—3800 South to 4800 South


Bill Guerriero

My favorite after-work spot for taking photos and relaxing is the Cityscape Bar at the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza (350 Wolf Point Plaza). During the week, I recommend getting there on the early side (a little after 5:00 pm) so that you can reserve a table with a beautiful, expansive view of Chicago River's South Branch.

I love having some drinks and conversation while clicking away at the sunset and the blue hour light that follows. The staff is very relaxed about photography, but it's always courteous to ask your server or bartender if it's OK to bust out advanced photo gear or a mini tripod. They'll surely be OK with it, but it's always best to ask.

I love the sunset/blue hour view here for so many reasons. It's a southern view that becomes increasingly dramatic if some puffy clouds catch the sunset colors from the west. There's also a lot of traffic and activity on and around the river. You can watch elevated trains cross the Chicago River bridge, or see tug boats and barges making their way down. With all its hustle and bustle, the view is also ideal for recording time-lapse video.

Sunset at the Cityscape is almost always beautiful, but the blue hour period that follows is (for me at least) even more sublime. As the blue hour gets darker, you'll need to stabilize your camera with a tripod or by bracing it on a flat surface. Cheers and happy shooting.

The Reliance Building isn't under appreciated by those who love and follow the history of architecture, but thousands of people walk by the building every day without recognizing its significance.

The Reliance was the first early skyscraper to feature large plate glass windows that made up the majority of its surface area — a basic design idea that became dominant in the 20th century. In its early days, the Reliance was a towering presence, but these days its large windows and yellowed terra cotta facade project elegance and grace.

I wouldn't put the Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk on a must-see list of Chicago architectural sites, but I think it's a relatively hidden gem that is under-utilized by visitors and photographers. I love macro (extreme closeup) photography and the boardwalk has been a fruitful location for macro work. The boardwalk affords great views and access to a variety of natural habitats in the park.

I love getting there around sunrise and watching the park's herons and egrets start their days. Or watching the bees and damselflies go to work.

·All previous Chicago Architecture Biennial coverage [Curbed Chicago]
·Adventures in Architecture archives [Curbed Chicago]
·Curbed Chicago photo pool [Flickr]