If you’ve ever walked by a building and wished you could explore it without risking a trespassing citation, Open House Chicago is for you. Every year, the Chicago Architecture Foundation throws the city-wide party that lets architecture nerds, history buffs, and simple creeps look behind typically locked doors. Over 200 sites around the city will be open this weekend, including banking institutions, logistics hubs, apartment blocks, and more.
There’s a little something for everyone and tons of higher quality click-bait than this listing the best spots to hit. But, I figure you don’t need to be told why the Chicago Board of Trade building is worth seeing. Instead, here are some of the more strange spots that might fall by the wayside in the calamity to get the highest view of downtown:
Yale Building – 6565 S. Yale (Englewood)
You might be surprised to learn that the best substitute to a New Orleans vacation is taking the 8 Bus to Englewood. Hiding off of Marquette Road, this 7-story condominium has exterior style could be described as Romanesque Revival, but its interior is something entirely unique. Bright colors, hanging vines, steel balconies, and interior courtyard brings to mind images of the iconic architecture of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Constructed in 1893, the Yale Building was originally luxury housing for visitors of the Chicago Columbian Exposition. In fact, it’s just blocks away from the location of the infamous H.H. Holmes Murder castle (now the site of the Englewood Post Office). It remained high-income housing until the early 20th century when it was gutted and converted to mid-market apartments. Towards the end of the century, the building was dilapidated and on the path towards destruction. Luckily, it was registered a landmark in 2003 and converted into subsidized housing – today it is inhabited mostly by about 74 seniors.
UIC Police Department – 943 W. Maxwell St. (University Village)
This is the perfect opportunity to check out this place by choice, versus after a weeknight bender. Constructed in 1888, the building is a well-preserved example of a classic Chicago neighborhood police station. Its iconic exterior is built of red pressed brick and Joliet limestone, with walls three feet thick at the base. If the station looks familiar to you, there’s a good chance you have a corny taste in TV. In addition to being the oldest running police station in the city, the building has been immortalized on cop dramas Chicago PD and Hill Street Blues.
While the UIC Police Department now patrols a relatively low-crime area made up largely of students and professionals, this wasn’t always the case. Before it was the UIC PD, this building was the 7th Distract Police Station – also known as “the Wickedest Police District in the World.” The 1.5 square mile area surrounding the station was termed “Bloody Maxwell” by the Chicago Tribune in 1906 for its violence and severe poverty. At it’s height, the precinct boasted over 200,000 residents, and more saloons and violence per capita than any other part of town.
Suspect in custody at Maxwell Street Police Station (Library of Congress)
The Tribune wrote, “Reveling in the freedom which comes from inadequate police control, inspired by the traditions of criminals that have gone before in the district, living in many instances more like beasts than like human beings, hundreds and thousands of boys and men follow day after day and year after year in the bloody ways of crime.”
CTA Control Center – 120 N. Racine Ave (West Loop)
1.64 million riders serviced and 381,180 miles of distance covered every day. These are not small numbers when it comes to transport logistics. CTA manages 1,888 buses and 1,492 rail cars around the clock, and the magic’s got to happen somewhere. Maybe I just hoped that somewhere would be a little more glamorous than this nondescript warehouse.
There weren’t any exterior images on Google, so this is the best you’re gonna get.
The exterior design very much reads, “Yes, this is a government building. No, you’re not allowed in here.” In fact, in many online articles, they intentionally leave out the control center address. Sorry, CTA, I guess Open House Chicago dropped the ball on that one.
“This is where we coordinate a lot of our service restoration, our emergency response, and just our day-to-day service that we provide,” says De La Cruz, CTA representative. From the West Loop Control Center, employees work 24 hours a day monitoring systems, handling crises, and dispatching relevant city employees. They’re trained to react to everything from snow on the tracks to a full-scale terrorist attack. A huge part of this effort is surveillance: each CTA station has 18-20 cameras, totaling 3600 across the city. There are many employees whose job it is to simply watch these cameras. So, next time you do something weird on CTA and wonder if anyone saw it, the answer is yes.
Zap Props – 3611 S. Loomis Pl. (Bridgeport)
It might not look like much from the outside, but this 36,000-square-foot warehouse stores an incredible variety of oddities, artifacts, and just plain everyday items. Nestled in the industrial no-mans land between Bridgeport and McKinley Park, Zap Props is a family owned business providing prop rental and interior decoration to movie sets and businesses throughout Chicago.
When asked how many items lay behind the doors of Zap Props, owner Bill Rawski gives a definitive, “I have no idea.” Conservative estimates place the amount of items here at over a million, with categories ranging from taxidermy to architectural salvage. Calling this place an antique store on steroids might even be selling it short. A quick look at their Instagram page will show you just how many ridiculous items they have.
“They started seeing what I was buying at the auction houses, they’re looking at me like, ‘You’re crazy! That stuff won’t sell! It’s not antique!’ But I had my own vision.” Rawski says that he gets the majority of his stuff at garage sales and flea markets. If you recognize something here, you might not be crazy. Restaurants all over the city, including chains like Tilted Kilt, Giordano’s and Fuddruckers, have all bought Zap Props.
Zap Props is generally closed to the public, and requires a $45/hr fee to browse. So, make sure you check it out.
Avalon Regal Theater – 1641 E. 79th. (South Shore)
In a city full of historic venues, the Avalon Regal Theater is a true standout. Opening in 1927, the south side icon has hosted stars like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and many more. It was a mainstay on the national tour circuit, and became huge to the city’s growing black population in the 60’s.
Rumor has it that Austrian born architect John Eberson got the inspiration for the Avalon when he found a Persian incense burner in New Orleans. The resulting architectural style has been referred to as Moorish Revival, as it draws inspiration from North African Islamic architecture. Eberson hoped that walking from the gem-encrusted lobby into the auditorium would feel like leaving a palace and entering a night bazaar. 2,500 guests can sit under the painted indoor sky, and be transported somewhere far from Chicago.
Original drawings of the theater side by side with it today.
The theater has struggled since the 80’s, when it first shut down and become a church. It has alternated uses since then, and been shut down for most of the time. Though, it has recently been hosting concerts intermittently, including Soulja Boy and even Tupac. No, you didn’t read that wrong. The same hologram Tupac which visited Coachella had to make a visit to this historic venue. As of 2017, Hologram USA has selected the Avalon Regal Theater to be one of few in America outfitted with the technology to revive dead stars which once graced its stage.
“With Hologram USA’s technology, we’ll not just be able to recreate performances of the past, but also recreate moments in history, which is really interesting because there’s a huge educational component to this as well. Not just with respect to the performing arts, but being able to show a group of kids Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in real-time holography is going to be incredible and way more impactful than educational media available to students today,” owner Jerald Gary said.
International Museum of Surgical Science – 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr. (Gold Coast)
Constructed in 1917, the mansion was originally a gift for socialite Eleanor Robinson Countiss. Fittingly, it is modeled after a chateau on the grounds of Versailles which was given to Marie Antoinette by Louis XVI. If this isn’t already raising red flags, the only way to know you’re at the right mansion is looking for the statue of a dying man out front.
Over 7,000 objects are on exhibit inside – everything from heart valves to brain saws (layman term). In addition to the artifacts, you will find a massive variety of old books and paintings relating to surgery. The atmosphere is intellectual, but undeniably morbid. For every neat paragraph of medical jargon, you’ll also find a depiction of surgery that resembles the inquisition.
If this is all sounding very romantic, you’re in luck. The mansion doubles as an event space – every year a few lucky couples tie the knot in the “hall of immortals.” With the spirit of people Marie Curie, Hippocrates, and Andreas Vesalius in attendance, how could a marriage fail?