n a typical year, spring sees the Chicago Architecture Center well into planning Open House Chicago, the largest architectural festival in North America, opening architectural and cultural sites throughout the city’s neighborhoods and the suburbs of Oak Park and Evanston.
Spring 2020 threw the Chicago Architecture Center a bit of a curveball. When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the state in March, like countless other organizations, the CAC had to pivot and reimagine an event that, by definition, brought masses of people together in indoor spaces.
The pandemic made long-range planning a bit difficult.
“In March, we had no idea what October would look like,” said Zachary Whittenburg, director of communications for the CAC. “We had to make some executive decisions early on that we were fairly confident we could do regardless of where we stood from a public health standpoint.”
Whittenburg said it was important for the CAC to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the architecture festival in spite of COVID-19. The team at CAC worked tirelessly to create two methods of discovering the city’s sites without endangering participants by focusing on a two-pronged approach: virtual and outdoors.
The 2020 Open House Chicago offers something for everyone in a format that has expanded from two days to 10 and allows participants to take part from home or outside with their own family group or small cohort.
Remotely accessible content will include almost two dozen virtual programs, according to Whittenburg. The My Neighborhood My Story programs will provide deep dives into neighborhoods throughout the Chicago area. An event list and registration for the virtual tours are available at www.openhousechicago.org/programs and via the Open House Chicago app.
These programs are ideal for residents of the Chicago area looking to learn more about a specific area of the city and can also be enjoyed by those who are no longer able to travel to the city for the event.
Whittenburg says the virtual events, which require registration, bring together local experts with the CAC’s expertly trained volunteer docents for informative glimpses into Chicago neighborhoods.
Some of the virtual tours will provide unique access to architects like Gordon Gill and Carol Ross Barney. Other virtual events include WXRT’s Lin Brehmer and Jazz Institute of Chicago’s executive director, Heather Ireland Robinson, sharing architectural and cultural spots in Chicago neighborhoods.
“One of the most fun, given that it is almost spooky season, is the tour of the Pulaski Park Field House. The building may be haunted,” Whittenburg said.
Free Street Theater Creative Director Coya Paz, along with the theater’s director of education, Katrina Dion, and CAC docent Kathleen Hanley will lead a virtual tour of the mural-lined field house.
For those looking to enjoy a safe, outdoor experience, CAC is introducing an app powered by Vamonde, which goes live Oct. 14 and allows participants to experience themed trails throughout the neighborhood sites.
CAC stresses that there is no interior access this year, but says participants can walk or bike through trail experiences.
“The audio narrations unpack a whole other layer that you wouldn’t get just from looking at the exterior of the building,” Whittenburg said of the app.
In addition, the app will offer “enhancements” based on your location.
“I don’t think anyone will miss standing in line for Open House Chicago,” Whittenburg said, though he noted small businesses have enjoyed the crowds in previous years.
“There’s a positive economic impact on nearby businesses that it was important not to lose, especially this year when so many businesses are suffering,” Whittenburg said. “The enhancement on the app might tell you that you are right around the corner from a Joan Miro sculpture or a restaurant or boutique that is open.”
Oak Park, Austin highlights
Adam Rubin, CAC’s director of interpretation, says that two of the neighborhood trails will spotlight architecture in Oak Park and the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.
In Oak Park, the Young Frank Lloyd Wright trail will focus on the architect’s early years in the village. Rubin calls it an architectural coming of age story.
The trail will include seven Wright homes dating from 1892 to 1909. Rubin says the Walter Gale and Thomas Gale homes straddle the pivotal years of 1892 and 1893.
In 1892, when he designed the Thomas Gale House, Wright was still employed by Louis Sullivan and moonlighting. By 1893, he was starting out on his own. Rubin says that the houses show one foot in the Victorian era and one in the beginning of Wright’s new style.
Further down the Oak Park trail is the 1909 Laura Gale House, which Wright called the progenitor of his 1935 design of Fallingwater in his 1951 memoir.
“Frank Lloyd Wright was often moving on to the next style,” Rubin said. “There was no real page break. It’s always an evolution, which these houses show.”
In Austin, a trail takes participants by four landmarked homes designed by architect Frederick R. Schock. Rubin says the houses tell a story.
“Here’s a person who’s got a foot planted in the style of the era — the Victorian or Eastlake style — but who is also trying to do something different,” Rubin said. “He’s playing with the Shingle style. That style wasn’t really popular in the Midwest. He’s looking to the vanguard of houses on the East Coast and integrating that to a Midwestern, suburban Queen Anne house. He’s trying to do something that’s really unique and personal.”
Schock designed houses in Austin for himself, his mother and his aunt, Catherine Schlect, evidence, says Rubin, that he was not just building a house, he was building community.
That community is something that Whittenburg says Open House Chicago is trying to build on during a year when people can’t gather in person the way they usually do. He says that this year, CAC moved the curatorial focus of the event to Chicagoans, knowing that Chicago residents already have an understanding of architecture and want to learn more deeply.
This year, Whittenburg says the CAC is telling its home, “Let’s celebrate the city and give Chicagoans some help in rediscovering their city.”