Chicago Architecture and Ideas on Preservation

A sad truth about buildings is that they often come down. A great architect can build a great building and a savvy developer can buy it, demolish it and build a new one. In Chicago, with all our wonderful architecture, this is a song well sung.

Thinking on this idea of preservation, I decided to tour Chicago to find some buildings that were saved from the wrecking ball.

On my quest I began with a famous landmark of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center. Walking through this architectural masterpiece is a stunning experience. I went in through the south entrance, wandered up the winding staircase and gazed at the Tiffany stained-glass dome that we marvel at on our Loop Interior Architectural Tour.

Stained Glass Dome by Louis Comfort Tiffany Chicago

The staircase is a wonder as well. Thousands of mosaic pieces decorate the marble and wind up and up, driving my curiosity as I ascended to the top floor.  Really, how could anyone even think of demolishing this?

North Side of Chicago Cultural Center

Depressingly easy answer for why buildings like the Cultural Center get torn down: money. Buildings cost money to construct and money to keep up. Though it may seem obvious to the average observer that buildings like the Cultural Center need to be preserved as historical landmarks, to the owner or developer of the property preservation isn’t so much a necessity. In fact, it’s probably very painful for the owners to watch their money evaporate in the rusty pipes and seep out through single-paned glass windows.

My other pick for luckiest building of the century is Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building. We visit it every week during the 1893 World’s Fair Tour.

Corner of Chicago Auditorium Building by Louis Sullivan

Opened in 1889, the opening of the Auditorium Building brought senators, governors, even President Benjamin Harrison to its theater. One-hundred-and-fifty craftsmen guilded the interior with 50 million separate pieces of marble, 50,ooo square feet of mosaics, and 350 miles of electric wire and cable. This work of architecture is an engineering masterpiece. It was functionally outdated by the 1930s and demolition was discussed, but at that point in time the demolition cost was greater than the value of the land. It survived.

Thirty years later the discussion of demolition surfaced again, after Roosevelt University had purchased the building. This time the savior was Beatrice Spachner, “a violist with an iron will.” She set out with a $3.5 million fundraising campaign to restore the theater to its former opulence, and architect Harry Weese offered his services at no charge. It was a grand success.

I toured the exterior of this important Chicago landmark, and tried to take in the 17 million bricks that make up that block-long facade. To experience the 4,200 seat auditorium you can go to a show (there’s a ballet this weekend) or join the Auditorium Building’s architectural and historical tours.

Chicago architecture and preservation Auditorium building

These are just two of many Chicago buildings that have beat the wrecking ball. They survived from financial assistance, public outcry and political influence on their behalf.

However, many buildings of architectural significance have been erased from existence. I was shocked to hear just today that preservationists have withdrawn their lawsuit to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital, built in 1975. To some the almost 40-year old building seems outdated, but imagine it was also around 40 years after construction of the Auditorium Building that demolition was first discussed. In the future Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital may have become more widely accepted for its unique cellular forms and advanced structural engineering.

If you would like to help preserve Chicago’s Landmarks or simply learn more about them, here are some good resources. Landmarks Illinois  gives background on important historic architectural landmarks of Illinois, including those that are “endangered.” The City of Chicago Historic Preservation Department shares up-to-date information preservation efforts, and Preservation Chicago is a citizen’s organization focused on saving Chicago’s architectural and cultural history.

– 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!