Open House Chicago: An Open Door to the Windy City

Allerton Hotel

I have lived in Chicago for more than a decade, but there are still a lot of places I haven’t seen, things I haven’t done and buildings into which I have never ventured.

Sometimes all it takes is a good excuse to do so and Open House Chicago this past weekend provided such an excuse.

OHC started in 2011 (while I was out of the country) and is really pretty amazing in its premise: open up more than a hundred buildings throughout the city to the public for free over a weekend in October. This year, it included 150 buildings spread across the city, from Bronzeville and Hyde Park all the way up to Edgewater and Rogers Park. I made the mistake of only spending one day exploring, but was still able to pack in a lot.

I left home promptly at 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning and headed to the nearest OHC attraction: the Airstream in Ravenswood (actually two other sites are closer, but they were only open on Saturday). This is basically a 1960s era trailer that is perched upon an office building – I wanted to see it more for the view of the city than for the actual trailer.


From there, I headed over to the DANK-Haus German American Cultural Center. I had been there once before for a monthly happy hour but never really explored, which is a shame since I am largely German in heritage. Not only did the center provide great views of the skyline, but also an interesting exhibit on the history of German migration to Chicago, a few beer halls with the smell of stale beer wafting in the air and some kind of swanky private club room.

Dank Haus view

Dank Haus bar

Dank Haus private room

Then, I hopped on the el to go downtown. First stop: the Tip Top Tap Ballroom atop the Allerton Hotel on Michigan Avenue. The hotel’s sign is almost as iconic to Chicago as the Sears Tower or the Marshall Field’s Clock. The ballroom hadn’t been opened to the public since 1961 but promised great views down Michigan Avenue, so I wasn’t surprised when the line was already around the corner and down the block when I arrived.

Sure enough, it was more than an hour later when I finally stepped off the elevator on the 23rd floor to visit the ballroom and check out the view. Already renovated, the ballroom itself was kind of a disappointment, but the view was not. That said, I did lose a lot of time and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Allerton view

Allerton ballroom

Tip Top Tap sign

I had intended my next stop to be the Tribune Tower further along Michigan Avenue, but that line proved to be crazy long as well, so I instead moved on to the Bridgehouse and the Chicago River Museum.  After just a ten minute wait, I entered the cramped museum to see the massive gears of the movable DuSable Bridge (known more commonly as the Michigan Avenue Bridge) before exploring a series of exhibits detailing the history of Chicago’s bridges and the river, including how the city ended up reversing the river’s flow. At the top of the bridgehouse tower, I got to enjoy a unique bird’s eye view of the river and street below.

DuSable Bridge

Flags on bridge

Michigan Avenue

Next up was the Oriental Theater, originally a movie palace built in 1926 that was restored and re-opened in 1998. The interior was simply amazing and while I have seen at least one show at the theater in the past, I don’t think I fully appreciated the exquisite decor until this visit.

Oriental Theater

From there, I made my way to City Hall, where I learned that the current building is the city’s seventh city hall since it was founded in 1837 and got to visit the hall where city council meetings take place.

City Hall

Further down LaSalle Street, I visited the Money Museum inside the Federal Reserve Bank before waiting for 30 minutes to go up to the law library on the 40th floor of the 190 South LaSalle building. I know this library well since it once belonged to Mayer Brown, my former law firm where I worked from 2001 to 2005. I even recognized one of the doormen in the building who worked there back in my day! Mayer Brown is long gone from the building, but they left the books in the library and it now serves as a private event space. I tried to find some of the old tax books I used to refer to often, but was unsuccessful. Nonetheless, it is a very cool space and offers a great view straight across to the statue on top of the Chicago Board of Trade building known as Ceres.

190 S LaSalle library

library books

Board of Trade view

By the time I left, it was close to 3:30, but I wanted to make it to Ukrainian Village to see a series of Russian and Ukrainian churches before OHC wrapped up at 5:00. This is one area of the city I have been meaning to explore ever since I returned from my career break trip, so this was the perfect reason to finally do so.

I took the Blue Line to Division and Milwaukee and then headed west to Leavitt for my first stop: the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral, one of just two remaining churches designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan. Consecrated in 1903, it is also the oldest Orthodox parish church in the city.

St Nicholas Cathedral

St Nicholas interior

St Nicholas 2

A few blocks away, at Oakley and Cortez, was the St. Volodomyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral. Built in 1913, it was once a German Lutheran Gothic Church.

Ukrainian Church

Ukrainian Church interior

And just a couple blocks south on Oakley was the St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Modeled after an 11th century Ukrainian church, it was brightly lit by a massive chandelier and was just as colorful (if not more so) than the churches I visited when I was in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Catholic church

Ukrainian Catholic interior



Finally, near the corner of Oakley and Chicago, I wrapped up my day by visiting the Saints Volodomyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church. Just as colorful and bright as the St Nicholas church, it is relatively young, built only in 1973.  The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art and the Ukrainian National Museum were nearby as well, but as it was nearing 5:00 p.m. I would have to save those for another day.

Sts Volodomyr & Olha Church

Volodomyr & Olha interior

Volodoymr & Olha iconstasis

Altogether, I made it 12 sites in eight hours – not too shabby considering I lost more than an hour at the Allerton Hotel. I am already looking forward to next year, when I most certainly will set aside the entire weekend to explore – and try to be much more strategic about my exploration!


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