The Errol Kirsch House on Fair Oaks Avenue in Oak Park get a star turn during WTTW’s new program “Beyond Chicago from the Air,” which premieres Dec. 1 and provides aerial views of interesting sites – from notable architecture to wind farms to state parks -- throughout Illinois. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

On Dec. 1, WTTW will premiere a new show filled with history and scenery from an unusual vantage point. Host Geoffrey Baer will take viewers on drone tours of multiple sites in the Chicago area and beyond as he explores famous and not-so-well-known places throughout the state.

“I’ve done these shows for more than 25 years on different parts of Chicago,” said Baer, the writer and host of the new show “Beyond Chicago from the Air.” 

“What’s different is that I’m not in this show except for one shot. I narrate it, but it’s all shot with a drone.”

Geoffrey Baer | Photo by Ken Carl for WTTW

Building on the success of the show “Chicago from the Air,” which premiered last year, “Beyond Chicago from the Air” will give viewers a bird’s eye view into the sites. The immersive experience allows viewers to travel Illinois without leaving the comfort of their own homes. 

The original show was a response to the pandemic. 

“Flying 300 to 400 feet in the air is the ultimate social distancing,” Baer said.

Even as they produced that first show, Baer says the team knew there were so many sites outside of Chicago that didn’t make the cut that a sequel felt natural. The sequel show is loosely built around three parts: waterways, land/soil and how humans have shaped the region.

Oak Park connection

In observing the marks humans have made on the region, Baer and the crew wanted to include a segment on dream houses from the air. A varied set of houses from a medieval castle-like home to the ultra-modern minimalism of the Farnsworth House are included.

One of Baer’s producers suggested including the Errol J. Kirsch House in Oak Park, and Baer says that in 30 years of reporting he’d never heard of the house. Once he took a deep dive, he says the house was worth an extra look.

“At first, it was very hard to find anything out about the house other than the fact that architect Errol Kirsch designed the house for himself,” Baer said.

Built in 1982 on Fair Oaks Avenue, the concrete home stands out among its more traditional neighbors. 

Errol Kirsch built his one-of-a-kind home with the energy crisis of the 1970s a not-too-distant memory. In designing the energy-efficient concrete house, with its thick walls and narrow windows, Kirsch “was decades ahead of his time,” according to Geoffrey Baer, writer and host of “Beyond Chicago from the Air.” | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Baer says he was delighted to reach out to Kirsch and speak to him about the house. 

“I love finding people like this,” Baer said. “He opened right up and gave me all this great information. We talked about how the house looks like a sandcastle, and he said he liked building those as a child.”

While Baer says that many would describe the house’s style as brutalist due to its heavy massing of concrete, the house was also influenced by the energy crisis of the 1970s. 

“He was very focused on energy,” Baer said of Kirsch. “Obviously, a house with smaller windows and thicker walls has some inherent energy-saving properties. He calculated the window openings and the prevailing winds to make it more energy-efficient. He was decades ahead of his time.”

Baer says the home ended up getting significant coverage on the program.

“We ended up using so much of it in the show because you really can’t stop looking at it,” Baer said. “Every angle of the house is interesting. It’s good to see it in context. It just jumps off the screen in context with its surroundings.”

Other highlights

Baer says he loves telling stories and researching things he’s never talked about before, and “Beyond Chicago from the Air” gave him plenty of opportunity to delve into little known areas and activities. 

On top of exploring some well-known sites like fall colors in Starved Rock State Park and the annual Chicago to Mackinac race, he reveled in more obscure discoveries that produced beautiful drone footage. 

Filming in Mississippi Palisades State Park while rock climbers were active produced some amazing footage. 

He wanted to explore Mark Twain, so they filmed an authentic river paddlewheel boat, and he calls filming a moving boat with a moving drone especially challenging. 

Another favorite segment is on the horses of the Temple Lipizzan. 

“The footage where the horses are galloping at full speed is just beautiful,” Baer said.

A 25-square-mile wind farm where the drone shot up-close footage of massive wind turbines provides another daredevil perspective that couldn’t be captured with traditional cameras.

In addition to covering a wider geographical area, Baer said that he wanted “Beyond Chicago from the Air” to cover a broader time span. Some historical sites tell stories that he thinks few viewers will be aware of.

The Cahokia Mounds near St. Louis reveal the sophisticated culture of Native Americans hundreds of years before Europeans settled in the area. 

“There was a city that was the size of London in Illinois 1,000 years ago. There wasn’t another city of this size in the state until Chicago,” Baer said. “History is written by the conquerors, so we don’t think of sophisticated civilization here before European settlers.”

The program also delves deeply into the history of Black Hawk, leader of the Sauk tribe. Baer notes that most are only familiar with the hockey team that bears his name and calls the story of the Native American chief and leader a tragic one.

“The show is beautiful to look at, but the stories are really compelling, too,” Baer said.

The show premiers on Wednesday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. on all WTTW platforms.

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