Our connections with the Windy City have made this region a stronghold for architectural intrigue. Join our walking tour and explore for yourself some of the hidden histories and surprising secrets built into our urban environment.
Art and history go hand-in-hand around the Chicago area. After all, this is where Daniel Burnham made no small plans. It’s where Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright established the foundations of the first uniquely American styles. And, it’s where countless other luminaries have left their mark.
Indeed, Chicago’s wealth of architectural treasures – representing more than 150 years of artistic evolution – is recognized around the world. The Loop’s behemoths of stone, metal, glass and concrete are famous the world over. Neighborhood staples, like the bungalow and the two-flat, truly distinguish the city.
It should come as no surprise that the same visionaries who’ve left their mark in Chicago have also impacted our suburban communities. If you know where to look, you can find reminders of the past in our downtowns, in our neighborhoods and in the most obscure places. Sometimes, the stories behind these buildings are just as interesting as the structures themselves.
This season, get out of the house and explore for yourself some of the rich architectural treasures that are hidden in plain sight. Use this guide as a starting point for a good walk, bike ride or scenic drive and follow along at your leisure.
This guide is by no means exhaustive – there are far too many treasures and hidden histories to list them all. But, this tour offers plenty of leads for your own journey. So, grab your camera and prepare to play tourist in your own backyard.
Boasting one of the most diverse arrays of building styles in the Fox Valley, Elgin is a must-see on any architecture tour.
Start your journey downtown, where many fashions collide. The Ranstead Building, at the corner of DuPage Court and Spring Street, was built by Judge John W. Ranstead in 1892 and incorporates many typically Victorian accents – in masonry. Built as offices and shops, it now houses Al’s Cafe & Creamery.
Built in the 1870s as a private residence, the building at 50 N. Spring Street was also the city’s first library. This imposing Richardsonian Romanesque building has several period accents, including rounded windows and ornate decorations. Interestingly, many of these adornments are made from terra-cotta, like that which was produced in Crystal Lake around the late 1800s.
The Art Deco style popular in the 1920s and ‘30s is still visible downtown. The Elgin Tower, at 100 E. Chicago St., boasts a signature limestone exterior, rounded windows and eagle reliefs, but it’s also tempered with neoclassical accents. The building at 101-103 S. Grove Ave. is all Art Deco, with a playful zigzagging pattern that reaches to the sky. Vertical lines abound, as do decorative panels and chevrons typical of the style. The Illinois National Guard building, at 254 Raymond St., is another classic example built in 1937.
The city’s municipal complex and Hemmens Cultural Center reflect the clean, metallic grid of the International Style popular to the middle part of the 20th century. If they look familiar, it’s because the municipal complex was designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill – the same firm that planned Chicago’s Sears Tower. The Hemmens was named for Hattie Pease Hemmens, whose grandfather and husband were wealthy local businessmen.
Head west of downtown and explore the beautiful campus of Elgin Academy. The school’s former main hall, built in 1856 following the Greek Revival style, now serves as a public history museum. The Academy’s neoclassical arts center, located just to the west, was built in 1924.
Immediately south of the Academy is the Gifford Park neighborhood, Elgin’s oldest residential area. Neighbors here have spent 40 years preserving a rich array of architectural styles, many of which are distinctive to the 1880s and 1890s. The Gifford Park Neighborhood Association recommends walking from Elgin Academy south along College and Church streets, then heading east on Prairie Street, north on Channing Street, east on Chicago Street and then north along Hill Avenue or Liberty Street. Helpful tip: Neighbors typically host an open house/housewalk in the summer.
Elgin’s historic neighborhoods west of the Fox River are also worth a closer look, as they’re filled with a variety of pre-Depression housing styles. Most notably, the area contains a high concentration of Sears Catalog and other kit-made houses. Some estimates suggest the city has nearly 200 of these homes, which were ordered via the Sears Catalog, delivered by rail and built by the new homeowner using a detailed instruction manual. A rough inventory of these properties can be found at elginbungalows.com.
For more architectural treasures, visit OpenElgin.com.
First settled in the 1830s, this community made its mark with the arrival of the railroads in the 1850s. Its namesake lake was once a summer retreat for wealthy Chicagoans, and after the Chicago Fire in 1871, a local terra-cotta manufacturer began putting its product on the Windy City’s newest skyscrapers. Consequently, many buildings in downtown Crystal Lake also bear terra-cotta exteriors.
The quickest place to spot terra-cotta is downtown, along North Williams Street. A former vaudeville and movie house, christened El Tovar when it opened in 1929, bears terra-cotta features among its Spanish Mission exterior. Locals know it today as Raue Center for the Arts. Down at Brink Street, the white-clad exterior of Heisler’s Bootery is covered in terra-cotta. So, too, are a pair of former banks at 72 and 78 N. Williams. They’re now a Moretti’s Pizza and an accounting/law office, respectively. Also check the Warner Building across the street (Carlos Pancake House). See if you can find terra-cotta adornments hidden elsewhere downtown.
A real glimpse of the past is best found around Dole Avenue, a route that at one time was a railroad spur leading straight to the lake. There’s a beautiful Gothic manse at Lakeshore and Woodland Drive, just west of U.S. Route 14. The Dole Mansion, at Dole Avenue and Country Club Road, was built in 1865 as the summer retreat of a Chicago grain merchant. The home was later owned by the widow of the Ringling Brothers, who established the city’s first country club there. Several wealthy people set up nearby homes, including the white-glazed Georgian-style home just north of Dole’s mansion. Follow Lake Avenue and the stream of walkers/bike riders west for a look at mid-century modern lake houses and more contemporary additions. A few early 20th-century homes are hiding nearby, if you know where to look.
The city’s present skyline owes much of its existence to Col. Edward J. Baker, heir to the Texaco Oil Co. fortune. The businessman and philanthropist’s vision is enshrined at the Hotel Baker, located right at the Fox River on West Main Street. Opened in 1928, this Spanish vernacular structure reaches five stories high, with a squarish penthouse tower at the top. Look for curvy, Spanish-influenced designs near the roof line and a decorative clay tile roof overhang. Terra-cotta adornments grace the grand entrance and several windows above.
Across the river, Baker and his niece, Dellora Noris (also an heir to the Texaco fortune), commissioned the striking Art Moderne-style municipal building, which opened in 1940. The linear shape of the building and its obelisk-like clock tower have made it a distinctive landmark. The structure was designed by R. Harold Zook, a Chicago-based architect who’s best known for his distinctive suburban home designs. Many of Zook’s works can still be found around Hinsdale. Just around the corner from the municipal center, the original City Building reflects a typical Romanesque structure with an imposing brick facade and curved windows and doors.
From the river, head east along Main Street in search of the newly renovated Arcada Theatre, another Spanish-style landmark opened in 1926; the city’s history museum (located in a converted gas station); Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, a modified Gothic structure built in Wisconsin stone; and the terra-cotta faced Illinois Cleaners building. Step back a few blocks to the north or south and find a variety of charming mid-1800s homes, many built with locally harvested stone.
West of the river, look for examples of mid- and late-19th century structures, both businesses and homes. There’s the 1850s building that houses La Za’Za’ Trattoria, the 1905 turreted structure at Second Street, and the Tudor Revival-style Baker Community Center one block south. Stroll along Walnut, Fourth and Fifth streets for a deeper walk back in time.
Helpful Hint: A new historic walking tour in downtown St. Charles offers a closer look into the city’s historical properties. A joint venture between the Downtown St. Charles Partnership, the St. Charles History Museum, the City and the Historic Preservation Commission, the walking tour is available online at stcmuseum.org/historicwalkingtour. Look for newly placed signs at all 27 locations.
The city owes its existence to the railroad in more ways than one. Legend suggests the village was first platted in 1854 by a civil engineer who worked for the St. Paul & Fond du Lac Railroad. When area farmers revolted over a new station at Deer Grove, the engineer’s new town graciously invited the station – which was loaded onto a flat car and established in Barrington. The Chicago Fire of 1871 brought prosperous grain merchants to town in search of a new residence, and the arrival of another rail line in 1889 further supported the city’s agricultural interests.
Consequently, there’s a rich array of late-19th century and early 20th century construction to be found in and around the downtown area. Start your tour near Village Hall at Station and Hough streets. Head west along Station Street, then follow Dundee Avenue around to County Line Road/Main Street. The Octagon House, at 223 W. Main St., is beautifully preserved in its original accents. The octagonal shape was a short-lived fad in home construction during the early 1860s, when this dwelling was built.
Farther down, near Hough Street, find the beautifully restored Barrington’s White House at 145 W. Main St. Built around the time of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, the house combines Queen Anne-style adornments with more classical elements. Keep walking and find the Catlow Theatre, which combines Tudor Revival and English accents outside with Prairie and Art Deco touches inside. It was designed by Alfonso Iannelli, whose work adorned several pavilions at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Take a detour along Park and Cook streets to see a range of late-19th century buildings, many of which have been redesigned over the decades. Farther south on Cook Street, look for buildings that date to the 1860s and ‘70s, including the Masonic Temple at 312 S. Cook. Its entrance still bears distinctive Gothic-style brackets and eaves.
Then, follow North Avenue toward Liberty Street, where late 19th and early to mid-20th century designs happily coexist. Farmhouse on North (117 North Ave.) was originally one wing of an old schoolhouse. There’s a lovingly preserved Italianate home at the corner of Washington Street.
For more local landmarks in Barrington and elsewhere, find “A Guide to Chicago’s Historic Suburbs,” by Ira J. Bach. While some of the structures he highlights in this 1981 tour have since been demolished, it offers additional landmarks and historical background on a time when our architectural heritage was just coming in to vogue.
Other Notable Visits
Woodstock Square – The charming square is largely frozen in time – one of many factors that made it an ideal backdrop for the film “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray. Look for 15 plaques around the square where filming actually happened. The old courthouse and the Opera House are worth a closer look on their own merits.
Plano – The town’s best-known architecture is at the Farnsworth House, a mid-century glass structure designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His work appears in several spots around Chicago’s Loop.
Frank Lloyd Wright Homes (Driving Tour) – The architect’s work is found in multiple locations around the northwest suburbs. Most are private homes that can be viewed only from the street. Look for Wright’s work in Barrington Hills, the Muirhead Farmhouse in Hampshire (tours available, though temporarily suspended, Aurora, Batavia, Geneva and Elmhurst.
Geneva – State and Third streets are lined with beautiful examples of late-19th century architecture, most notably the Kane County Courthouse, an imposing Romanesque built of red brick. Its edges are curved and its entrance marked by three great arches. A rectangular cupola sits atop the building. For a real treat, stroll west and explore around Fifth and Sixth streets. Then, drive down to Fabyan Villa, a former country estate that was redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright.
East & West Dundee – Start on West Main Street, where the buildings are largely frozen in mid-1800s styles – occasionally mixed in with a few late-20th century modifications. East of the river, find a similar combination around the old depot on North River Street.