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Chicago Board of Trade Building | © Brian Lauer/Flickr
Chicago Board of Trade Building | © Brian Lauer/Flickr
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An Art Deco Architecture Tour of Chicago

Picture of Tim Marklew
Updated: 20 April 2017
Just as Chicago was booming in the early 20th century, Art Deco (short for Arts Décoratifs), emerged as a popular style of architecture across North America. These dramatic and stylish monuments are as artistic as they are functional, often featuring multiple towers set back at different heights and widths, as well as incredible geometric ornamentation and lavish lobbies mirroring the excessive optimism of the 1920s. Although the Great Depression curtailed the rate at which they were built and toned down the buildings that followed, Chicago’s finest Art Deco skyscrapers have been lovingly preserved and restored, so let’s take a tour.

Begin your tour at the Chicago Board of Trade Building at 141 W. Jackson Boulevard. Completed in 1930, the 605-feet tall skyscraper is clad in gray Indiana limestone, with a copper pyramid roof that is topped with an aluminum statue of the Roman goddess of grain, Ceres. Its structure has multiple setbacks at increasing heights, typical of Art Deco.

Chicago Board of Trade Building | © Brian Lauer/Flickr
Chicago Board of Trade Building | © Brian Lauer/Flickr

Walk north on S. LaSalle Street to the Bank of America Building, formerly the Field Building. Completed in 1934, it was the last major building finished before the Great Depression and World War II halted construction. From there, continue north to W. Madison Street where S. LaSalle becomes N. LaSalle and you’ll find the One North LaSalle Building. Designed by architects Vitzthum & Burns in 1930, it was the city’s tallest structure for 35 years, and it has one of the city’s best preserved grand lobbies, another hallmark of Art Deco.

Walk west down W. Madison Street, stopping on the bridge over the Chicago River. On the west bank you’ll see Riverside Plaza, notable for a couple of firsts it achieved. It was the first Chicago building to use the “air rights” concept to build above a railroad right-of-way, and the first to incorporate a public plaza in its design, which was the only pedestrian stretch of riverfront developed at the time.

Riverside Plaza | © Kim Scarborough/Flickr
Riverside Plaza | © Kim Scarborough/Flickr

Directly opposite stands the Civic Opera Building, made up of a 45-story office tower and two 22-story wings. Its first opera, Verdi’s “Aida,” was performed just six days after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Civic Opera Building | © Brian Holsclaw/Flickr
Civic Opera Building | © Brian Holsclaw/Flickr

Next we’re heading north, following N. Upper Wacker as it curves around to the east. Stop between the Franklin Street and Wells Street bridges and gaze across the river at the Merchandise Mart, the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930, with 4,000,000 square feet of floor space. Its prominent vertical lines, recessed windows and ornamentation distinguish it as Art Deco.

Merchandise Mart | © Connie Ma/Flickr
Merchandise Mart | © Connie Ma/Flickr

Follow the elevated train line down N. Wells Street and turn left at W. Lake Street to see Century Tower, formerly known as the Trustees System Service Building. Another Chicago building that was once the world’s tallest, it consists of a twenty-story main building topped by an eight-story tower and a ziggurat.

Head back to the riverfront to see the LaSalle-Wacker Building at 221 N. LaSalle Street. A quintessential skyscraper of the 1930s, the four lower towers and one large central tower form an “H” shape, allowing light into the building. Designed by Holabird and Root, it’s clad in limestone and granite and is stunningly lit at night.

Follow E. Wacker Place to Michigan Avenue to reach our next stop, the glorious Carbide and Carbon Building. Standing out from all other buildings in the city, its exterior is a green-tinted terra-cotta, with 24-karat gold leaf accents, particularly on its roof and spire, reflecting the glitz of the Roaring Twenties.

Just across the street on Wacker is the historic Chicago Motor Club Building, a sleek 17-story tower that was built in less than a year and opened in 1929. Be sure to step inside as its grand lobby still features an original mural of the United States by John Warner Norton.

Carbide and Carbon Building | © Danielle Scott/Flickr
Carbide and Carbon Building | © Danielle Scott/Flickr

Now it’s back to the riverfront to see 333 North Michigan, a long and narrow 1928 skyscraper famed for the multiple setbacks of its upper levels, its polished marble lower level, and its embellishments depicting frontiersmen and Native Americans.

Cross the DuSable Bridge and follow the Magnificent Mile until you reach the final stop, the Palmolive Building at E. Walton Place, another Holabird & Root building completed in 1929. One of the first skyscrapers built outside of the Loop, it has multiple setbacks and is topped by the Lindbergh Beacon. It’s a stunning final example of the dramatic detail and beauty of the Art Deco architecture style.

The Palmolive Building | © Raymond Tambunan/WikiCommons
The Palmolive Building | © Raymond Tambunan/WikiCommons