Art Deco Style Architecture of Chicago

This last week I’ve been prepping for one of the custom tours that we are doing for a big convention group. I did a lot of wandering the city, weaving in and out of buildings kind of like how we did on our Nonsensical Walk a few days ago. On my walk, I began to wonder about the story behind Chicago’s Art Deco architecture.

Art Deco Style

The Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925 is what popularized the Art Deco style. “Arts decoratifs” became “art-deco” and the world quite literally flew into a tizzy over the style.

1920’s Flappers flying into a tizzy.

Stream-lined surfaces, linear and geometric shapes, and symmetry were all used to demonstrate glamor, vibrancy, sex-appeal and money – a far jump from the previous WWI years of chunky, heavy, and conservative Victorian style with its classical-inspired decorations and old money. The 1920’s was about the new, young, self-made man who takes what he wants and gets his own pleasure. Before the 1920’s, the art world was strictly for the high society. With art deco, art became more accessible to other classes. According to cultural writer Carolyn McDowell, “the Art Deco Style was about integrating contemporary living with art, and turning life into art.”

When I look at the buildings downtown and think about this era of “turning life into art,” I wonder how people in the 1920’s and 1930’s must have viewed this new style. They likely saw these buildings as symbols of the future and the power of capitalism.

Carbide & Carbon Building

Let’s look at the architecture of the Carbide & Carbon Building designed by the Burnham Brothers and completed in 1929. The rumor is that it was designed to look like a champagne bottle, with its golden top and green-tinted terra cotta facade. Truth is the top was designed to look like one of the batteries that would have used the chemicals that Carbide and Carbon made. The gold-leaf is not imitation, by the way, it’s real 24 karat gold. I know that seems hard to imagine, but they pounded it out so that it’s 1/5000 of an inch thick. The base is a reflective black granite, popular in Art Deco because of its sleekness and glamor.

Carbide & Carbon Building exterior

Walking past this building in 1929, before the Stock Market crash, would have been uplifting. It was a symbol of Chicago’s and America’s prosperity. However, in the 1930’s it may have been a painful reminder of the negative effects of capitalism. These days, guests on the Chicago Architecture Tour for Design Lovers just really dig its aesthetics.

Chicago Motor Club

The Chicago Motor Club building is another example of the Chicago Art Deco style in full-swing. Not only was it a monument to the rise in popularity of motordom, it was a monument to the progress of capitalism and the prosperity of the 20’s. Everything about the building screams money, power and progress, especially the lobby.

The ceiling is high and the windows linear. If you were to walk inside the lobby, you would feel small in the cathedral high space. On the west wall a 29-foot mural depicts the national highway system. Of course, many of the routes leading to Chicago. It must have been inspiring to look up at the map and see the progress of America. Unfortunately, you cannot walk in unless you want to purchase this vacant historic building.

So, reflecting on these two striking buildings, the Art Deco style is really about a nascent upper middle class access to the culture of high society during the booming economy. You know, that’s why they called it the “Roaring ’20s.”

-Jenna Staff, Chicago Detours Editorial Intern


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!