August 4th, 2018 is the first inaugural Barack Obama Day here in Illinois. This new state holiday celebrates President Obama and his time in office. POTUS 44 rose to prominence and began his political career here in Chicago, of course. As only the fourth Illinoisan to become President, he will always have a special place in locals’ hearts. Here I highlight some Chicago locations worth visiting to celebrate Barack Obama Day. You can visit many of the South Side spots on our Neighborhoods and Cultural Diversity Bus Tour, Transformations on the South Side Bus Tour, or University of Chicago Campus Architecture Tour.
President Obama’s Home
When I moved to Hyde Park in 2009 it felt like I could sense them everywhere. Barack and Michelle Obama had been familiar neighborhood figures for 15 years. Their first kiss was down the block from me, at a Baskin-Robbins at Dorchester and 53rd. They both worked at the University of Chicago, where I studied. Their first home was in a condo near Harold Washington Park, where’d I’d walk after class. They were everywhere!
Most tangibly, the Obamas’ house is at the intersection of Hyde Park Blvd. and Greenwood, right on the border of the Kenwood neighborhood. They made big move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave in 2009 and still live in DC as of 2018. I once updated his mailing address in the donor database during my grad school internship. Closest I’ll ever come to global importance!
The Obama Home is a gorgeous Georgian mansion which sits right across the street from the historic KAM Isaiah Israel congregation. Concrete barricades and a cadre of Secret Service agents protected the red brick building until last year, but today you can easily saunter down Greenwood to admire the Obama Home and Kenwood’s many other stately residences. Of course, their current residence is still in Washington.
The Valois Restaurant, on 53rd Street, is reportedly President Obama’s favorite Hyde Park restaurant. He was a regular visitor in his pre-POTUS days and visited again just before making his presidential farewell speech in Chicago. Valois, a cafeteria-style neighborhood staple, loves the former President right back. They even have his favorite menu items displayed for visitors.
Valois is a good place to marvel at just how rapid President Obama’s political ascension was. Step back in time 15 years and it would have been no big deal to see Barack, Michelle, and their two young daughters stepping up to the counter here for a classic bacon-and-eggs breakfast. If you stop by on Barack Obama Day you’ll likely see this humble diner mobbed with fans and sightseers thrilled to experience just a brush with the Obamas. For me, the Obamas’ dramatic rise to national prominence underlines just how much they exemplified the best of the American Dream.
University of Chicago Law School
Barack Obama’s main job before his election to the U.S. Senate was as a Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He taught Constitutional Law there from 1992 until his election to the Senate in 2004. The Law School is one of the most prestigious in the world – in the same class as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
The Law School’s architecture is probably the most unique on this Barack Obama Day Tour. Famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen designed the central building and courtyard, which opened in 1959. He was a master of mid-century Modern architecture, and the Law School is one of his rare Chicago designs. I love how open and airy its spaces are – the lush Midway Plaisance and serene reflecting pool seem to come right inside the building.
Chase Tower one is well out of Hyde Park, but still a key stop for a Barack Obama Day tour. The former First Chicago Plaza, which our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour visits, was once host to the Sidley Austin law firm. Sidley Austin is one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in the country. As you can see below, the firm’s offices were at the tower for decades.
Sidley's Chicago office was in what is now the @Chase Tower from 1969-2005. #TBT to the 1966 model unveil #Sidley150 pic.twitter.com/0p31XLb4pv
— Sidley Austin LLP (@SidleyLaw) August 25, 2016
Chase Tower is where Barack and Michelle first met. Michelle was an associate at Sidley Austin for three years after graduating from Harvard Law. In the summer of 1989 she was assigned to mentor a hotshot young law student from Harvard: Barack Obama. As this Washington Post feature explains, the young lawyers were instantly smitten with each other.
I’ve stood inside that building for countless hours, signing people in, guiding the tour, even shaking Senator Tammy Duckworth’s hand once. Nevertheless, it’s always surreal to imagine the young Obamas stepping out of an elevator together into that spacious lobby.
Other Spots for Barack Obama Day
These three locations just scratch the surface of Obama-related locations in Chicago. The dude lived here for the better part of 20 years after all! In fact, we ran down some of these locations in a blog post a few years ago. I definitely recommend taking the time to visit the South Shore Cultural Center. A beautiful piece of architecture and its history tell us so much about the South Side in the 20th Century.
As we commemorate the inaugural Barack Obama Day here in Chicago, we’ll patiently await their return to us!
– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide