Where to Go During Open House Chicago

Daniel Hautzinger
The Terrence J. O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers
The Terrence J. O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

On October 13 and 14, you can see things you’ve never seen before: the ultraviolet disinfection operation at a wastewater facility, an elementary school converted into residential units, the remains of a moat surrounding a castle-like apartment building, spectacular views of the city from new vantage points. More than 250 locations across Chicagoland throw open their doors for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago that weekend for free admission.

The choice of sites is overwhelming, so we’ve chosen a few highlights, with emphasis on uniqueness, places that are typically closed to the public, and locations that offer stunning vistas that you typically can’t see. Most are new to Open House Chicago this year. Pick a few and create your own tour around them. See their locations mapped out here.

Catalyst Circle Rock

5618 W. Washington Blvd.

Catalyst Circle Rock in Chicago. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

This Mid-Century Modern building from 1954 housed a school until 1977, then remained vacant for decades. In 2008, a charter school moved into the Austin building and began renovating it. The latest renovation is on the 1,000-seat auditorium, which is almost complete. Open House Chicago offers an exciting chance to see a renovation in progress, and explore the attractive school, which is new to Open House this year.

Catholic Charities Father Augustus Tolton Peace Center

5645 W. Corcoran Pl.

Catholic Charities Father Augustus Tolton Peace Center. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Another Austin building new to Open House Chicago, this neoclassical building was designed by the neighborhood’s own Frederick Schock, who designed many nearby homes. Originally a bank when it opened in 1913, it gained an annex in 1926 and another addition in the 1960s. Though it is now home to a Catholic Charities community center, it still has a bank vault and some striking decorative features.

Optimo

1700 W. 95th St. (Closed Sunday)

Optimo hatmakers in Chicago. Photo: Tom RossiterPhoto: Tom Rossiter

Like Austin, Beverly is a new neighborhood in Open House Chicago. Optimo is a haberdasher (hatmaker) that has long had a cult following. It has a store in the Monadnock building downtown, so it’s only fitting that its factory also have an architecturally pleasing space. This firehouse was recently redesigned by the renowned firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to fit Optimo’s factory, which includes vintage hatmaking equipment that they still use. Not only do you get to see a hatmaking factory that is normally closed to the public, you get to see one that uses old-fashioned equipment! 

ArtReach Chicago and Great Lakes Yard

2651 W. Lake St. (ArtReach Chicago opens at 11:00 am)

Great Lakes Yard in Chicago. Photo: Kyle BiceGreat Lakes Yard. Photo: Kyle Bice

These two sites, both new to Open House Chicago, share a building in Garfield Park next to the Green Line El tracks. At ArtReach Chicago you can watch glassblowing and ceramics work as well as take part in some hands-on art projects. Great Lakes Yard salvages lumber and architectural artifacts from deconstruction and demolition sites around the Great Lakes region to be re-used in new art, crafts, remodeling, or architectural projects; you can glimpse some of these historic features in their warehouse, which is normally open by appointment only.

Loyola University Piper Hall

970 W. Sheridan Rd., use west entrance (Closed Sunday)

Loyola University Chicago's Piper Hall. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

This grand 1909 residence, designed by William Carbys Zimmerman and new to Open House Chicago, is one of the last of the ornate mansions that used to dot Chicago’s lakefront. It became part of Loyola University Chicago in 1991 and was restored in 2005, so you can get a sense of how the ultra-wealthy of a century ago lived. It’s now home Loyola’s Gannon Center for Women and Leadership and the Women and Leadership Archives. 

Stewart School Lofts

4525 N. Kenmore Ave, enter at north end of building

Stewart Lofts, formerly Graeme Stewart Elementary, in Chicago. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

Designers and architects don’t just repurpose architectural artifacts and old materials these days; they even reimagine entire buildings. Graeme Stewart Elementary in Uptown was located in an Arts and Crafts Style building from 1905 that was designed by Dwight Perkins, who is responsible for many schools across Chicagoland. It was one of 50 Chicago Public Schools closed in 2013, and the Chicago Landmark building has now been redesigned into 64 apartments. Many of the school’s features remain, making this a unique residence.

Park Castle Condominiums and Park Gables Apartment Homes

2416 W. Greenleaf Ave., enter from park; 2460 W. Estes Ave., enter from park via east courtyard

Park Gables Apartment Homes in Chicago. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPark Gables Apartment Homes. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

These two apartment buildings from the 1920s, both new to Open House Chicago, border Indian Boundary Park in West Ridge. They’re both fantastically strange and opulent. Park Castle, designed by Jens J. Jensen, is true its name, featuring battlements and bridges that once spanned a moat graced by live swans. Park Gables, designed by James Denson, is inspired by a traditional English village, complete with an elegant courtyard, half-timbering, and slate roofs. Both buildings also contain highly decorated indoor pools – the ceilings over them look like a tent.

Terrence J. O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant

3500 Howard St., enter via main gate; parking available (Closed Sunday)

The Terrence J. O'Brien Water Reclamation Plant. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

If you’ve ever driven down McCormick Boulevard and wondered what the gargantuan structure at Howard Street was, now’s your chance to see inside. The 1928 Water Reclamation Plant, new to Open House Chicago, is one of seven wastewater treatment facilities servicing Greater Chicago. If you visit you can take a guided walking tour of the plant and learn how an average 230 million gallons of wastewater is sterilized per day. It’s a rare chance that’s not to be missed.

Unity in Chicago

1925 W. Thome Ave. (Opens at noon on Sunday)

Unity in Chicago. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

This 1925 building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé George W. Maher has seen some very different tenants over the decades. Originally built for the Chicago Town and Tennis Club, it is modeled on the Tudor Revival buildings of Wimbledon. It later served as an Elks Lodge before sitting vacant for a decade, whereupon the Unity in Chicago church moved in. Now the church has sold the building, which is new to Open House Chicago, and the new owners are reportedly considering demolition, so this may be your last opportunity to see the vaulted dining hall and large gardens. 

VCNA Prairie Material Concrete Plant

835 N. Peoria St. (Closed Saturday)

VCNA Prairie Material Concrete Plant.

Sure, this industrial plant near Goose Island isn’t as attractive as most of the sites in Open House Chicago, but how often do you get to tour a giant concrete production yard and see how the concrete used in high-rises such as Aqua and Trump Tower gets made?

Chicago Tribune Freedom Center

560 W. Grand Ave. (RSVP required by September 21; Closed Sunday)

Chicago Tribune Freedom Center. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

One exciting part of Open House Chicago is getting to see behind the scenes of industrial facilities, like at this enormous 1981 plant where the Tribune and other newspapers are printed and assembled. On the guided tour, which requires an RSVP, you’ll see 1-ton rolls of paper, printing presses, inserting machines, and more.

Lake Point Tower

505 N. Lake Shore Dr., enter on Grand Ave.(RSVP required by September 21; Only open until 1:00 pm)

Lake Point Tower in Chicago. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

It’s one of the most prestigious residences in Chicago, having been home to celebrities from Sammy Sosa to Tom Cruise, and is the only high-rise east of Lake Shore Drive. While you don’t get to see any of the residential units during Open House Chicago, you can enjoy its beautiful garden, located above the parking pavilion and designed by the revered landscape architect Alfred Caldwell. 

CTA Skokie Shops

Via Howard CTA Station, 7519 N. Paulina St. (RSVP required by September 21; Closed Sunday)

The CTA Skokie Shops. Photo: Eric Allix RogersPhoto: Eric Allix Rogers

A fleet of trains as large as that operated by the CTA requires a lot of maintenance, and all major repairs and overhauls are carried out at the Skokie Shops, located along the Yellow Line since 1926. During Open House Chicago, you can ride a vintage train from the Howard CTA Station to the shops, then take a tour of the facilities and learn how trains cars are maintained.

Looking for a stunning view? Here are some of our vantage point choices

The view from Eastlake Studio. Photo: Steve Hall, Hall + Merrick PhotographyThe view from Eastlake Studio. Photo: Steve Hall, Hall + Merrick Photography

Try the new offices of the architecture and design firm Eastlake Studio, in the historic Holabird & Root-designed 333 N. Michigan, one of Chicago’s “gateway buildings,” located at Michigan Avenue and the river. Located on the 26th floor, the studio offers stunning views of some of Chicago’s most iconic architecture, from the Wrigley Building to the Carbide and Carbon Building. See up and down Michigan Avenue, and up and down the Chicago River.

Thornton Tomasetti is an engineering firm with offices on the 15th floor of Mies van der Rohe’s landmark 1972 IBM building that is new to Open House Chicago. Not only do you get to go inside one of Chicago’s most famous riverfront buildings, you also get views along the Chicago River out to Lake Michigan.

If you want to see the skyline from a bit farther away than right in the middle of downtown, head to the Ambassador Hotel in the Gold Coast, new to Open House Chicago. Weather permitting, the historic hotel’s rooftop terrace will be open on Sunday between 3:00 and 5:00 pm.

For a panoramic view of the city, with the skyline as background, head to the 14-story original Sears Tower in North Lawndale, Nichols Tower at Homan Square (closed Sunday), which was built in 1906 as part of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Complex but now houses a community center and event space.

And if you're looking for more vista suggestions, most of the sites we recommended last year are still participating this year.

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