Chicago is full of places that take your breath away, from gilded lobbies to verdant parks and eye-bending skyscrapers to glorious sacred spaces. Geoffrey Baer has seen a lot of these stunning locations while exploring the Chicago area for his WTTW documentaries, and his newest special takes you even further into The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago.
The special premieres on WTTW on Tuesday, March 7 at 7:00 pm and will be available to stream at the same time on the PBS Video app and at wttw.com/beautifulplaces, where you can also find even more beautiful places.
We spoke to Geoffrey about the show and his love for Chicago, its people, and their cherished places.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is the premise of the new show?
I have been doing this for so many years, and in every show, I come across a handful of just amazingly beautiful places or things in the Chicago area. I started thinking about these places that you go into and people just can't believe their eyes. The Elks Memorial in Lincoln Park that looks like the Roman Pantheon; the Hindu temple—it's called a mandir—in Bartlett; these places that are so spectacular.
Part of the fun of this show is that we’re calling it The Most Beautiful Places in Chicago, an intentionally provocative title. We’re encouraging people to get into that debate with us and tell us which other places they might suggest.
Did you include other people’s “most beautiful places” and hear their opinions?
A big component is the interviews with people who are showing us their beautiful places.
We broadened the definition of beauty so that it's not just physical, visual beauty, but it's also what makes a place or a thing beautiful because of what it means to a person or to a community, and how it's used. So we have Ernie Wong talking about transforming abandoned industrial sites like an old quarry and an old railroad yard into beautiful parks [Palmisano Park and Ping Tom Park, respectively] for communities that are in need of open space, and how that feels to him and what it contributes to the community.
Roman Villarreal, the artist who created the sculpture in Steelworkers Park—he's one of my favorite interviews in the show—talks about the meaning of the steel mill to the community and what it meant when the steel mill closed and what he wanted to say with his sculpture. It's just beautiful to me.
I loved hearing from these people. Like Juan Gabriel Moreno, the architect of Northeastern Illinois University’s El Centro, talking about how every community deserves dramatic and beautiful architecture, not just downtown. There’s the physical beauty of his building, but also the beauty of what it means to him and to the neighborhood.
Were there new places you discovered in this show?
I knew nothing about Baitul Ilm Mosque in Streamwood. I was aware of a lot of different mosques, but I really wanted to find one that was just outstandingly beautiful. We had an intern do a huge database of all the Islamic religious sites that we could find in the Chicago region and I just started Googling them all. As soon as I landed on Baitul Ilm, I was like, “How did I not know about this place?” It’s dazzling.
I had never been to the Ukrainian Saints Volodymyr and Olha Church. I’ve known about the ore walls at Steelworkers Park for years, but I got to climb them, which was really fun. I’ve been watching Jeanne Gang’s St. Regis Tower get built over the last few years, but had never been inside. We got to go up to the penthouse, which is the highest residential unit in the city.
The show starts with me getting in a little airplane because the pilot wants to show me what he considers the most beautiful place, which for him is flying at about one thousand feet over the lakefront at sunset or sunrise. Whenever I fly, I always try to get a window seat, and there’s that moment when you’re returning to Chicago and you’re heading over Lake Michigan and I’m just glued to the window hoping I’m on the right side of the plane to get a nice view of downtown, which you get to see for about ten seconds. So to go up in a small airplane and fly up and down the lakefront for 45 minutes was fantastic.
What makes Chicago itself, as a whole, beautiful?
I think people are ready for a reminder of what we love about Chicago. For all our problems, our diversity is our strength. It’s a city of people who came here for a better life, as my grandparents did, as so many of our grandparents did, as Black people did in the Great Migration. Historically, it’s been seen as a place of opportunity. As is true of everywhere in America, there's unfortunate inequity, but the ideal of a place like Chicago is that anybody can come here and make a better life for themselves.