Having attended Open House Chicago a half dozen times now I thought I'd share some insights for those interested in attending! This year OHC is being held October 19-20. You can check out my previous posts from 2018 and 2017 for more info on what we saw those years.
First off, Open House Chicago is an annual 2-day architectural event in which more than 300 locations are open to the public. There is great diversity of locations, including sacred spaces, theaters, private clubs, mansions, hotels, skyscrapers, and the list goes on. The Chicago Architecture Center (formerly known as the Chicago Architecture Foundation) organizes and hosts the event, opening many rarely accessible spaces to the public for free. I've linked as many of the sites as I can below as I mention them so you have shortcuts to check them out.
Tips for the first timer:
1) Use the Open House Chicago website to browse the open locations and build your itinerary. This feature was added a few years ago and it is a huge help!
Pay attention to the days/times the sites are open. Not all sites are on the same schedule. Some may only be open one of the two days or for a more limited time frame than most other sites.
When browsing the sites, also be sure to read the 'Visitor Experience' section as that gives you some info about what you will have access to. Just because a site is on the tour doesn't mean that you have free rein to all areas within it.
2) Once you have your itinerary, look at your map (it creates this for you!) and game plan your order of attendance. Double check those availability times to make sure that all the sites you want to hit in a neighborhood are in fact available when you plan to be there. Be sure you build in travel time between neighborhoods if you are jumping around. One year I was hard-core and got us to about 24 sites in 2 days. This is totally doable while still being enjoyable if you mark a lot of sites in a few neighborhoods. If you want to be a more casual participant you can open up the site page on your phone and click on 'view sites near me' to see what is near by and just wing it.
3) Consider your best transportation options. Some years, our itinerary allowed us to use public transit (mostly the train) with just a couple of Lyfts for some off-the-path spots. Other years we've driven our car because our sites were so spread out. If driving yourself, be aware that not all sites have easy/abundant or accessible parking. You may have to park a number of blocks away and still walk a decent amount.
4) Other useful info provided in the site descriptions relate to what to expect upon arrival. For example, some sites might list that photography is prohibited or that public washrooms are accessible or that you may encounter long lines and wait times to get into the site. Some sites are VERY popular and limit the number of people allowed in at a time. This can result in a lot of standing in line waiting your turn. If this doesn't sound appealing, I've got a tip for that, too (see #5)! A good example of long lines is the House of Blues Foundation Room VIP Club. We've walked by this site a number of times and the line is outrageous. Same for many of the Frank Lloyd Wright locations when they are on the tour and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
5) If you want to bypass long lines or get into the Members-only sites (there are only a few of those this year) all it takes is a basic membership! Members of the Chicago Architecture Center have a number of perks and the Priority Access Pass for the OHC weekend is a big one. We have jumped some really long lines in the past-- think wrapping around the block long-- and only waited a few minutes thanks to our Priority Access Pass. A good example of this was Frank Lloyd Wright's home/studio in Oak Park. The line was huge but we walked right past it and up to the entrance where we jumped in the Members line which only had 3 other people in it and were in the house within 5-10 minutes.
If you are thinking that one weekend event isn't worth a membership, let me tell you about the other benefits you get with membership. First off, you get free access to more than 65 of the walking tours offered by the organization. Depending on your level of membership (individual or dual +) you also get a BOGO (max is buy 2 get 2) on the River Boat cruises which are amazing! Every member gets discounts on special tours/events, discounted parking at the LAZ garage and discounts in the Center's store. With the higher level memberships you get even more access to various things. You can check out membership benefits here.
6) Sites change from year to year. Some are consistently on the site list but others may not be on again for years (or ever). So really think about what your priorities are. Some sites are public buildings that you can get some access to on your own at other times-- like churches. Some sites are never open to the general public except for this event weekend. I'm impatiently waiting for the upper level of the Jewelers Building to make it back onto the list especially after all the restoration work that has occurred on the façade. The restoration is still in progress but in the later stages. Examples of other sites that were on the tour before but not this year include: The Robey, Broadway in Chicago's Oriental Theatre, the LondonHouse Hotel and the Emil Bach House.
I only just started to put together a list of the sites we've been to in order to keep track (I wish I had done this from the start) so I'm certain I am missing/forgetting some but I did manage to identify more than 60 sites that we've been to. The below recommendations are only based on the sites I've been to so be sure to check the exhaustive listings on the website to see if something else catches your eye.
If you are into sacred spaces:
If you are into old mansions:
The Richard H. Driehaus Museum (you can pay to enter the museum during its normal operating hours-- which is actually how I've been in this space-- so go during OHC if you want to save some money)
International Museum of Surgical Science (Eleanor Robinson Countiss Home)
Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts (MADLENER HOUSE)
Other old buildings:
Elks National Memorial (I don't have pictures from here because it was in our early years before I had even a decent quality camera)
The Cliff Dwellers Club (Swing in and have a drink overlooking the park and lake while you are downtown)
A few spots on my itinerary for this year:
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Grand Ballroom at MacLean Center
Broadway in Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre
There are modern sites on the tour as well, but they aren't the sites that I gravitate toward as much. I appreciate them and their architectural style but they just aren't the style of architecture that leaves me in awe.
If the event feels overwhelming, just choose a neighborhood or two and check out the sites in that area. The downtown has a huge number of sites available and it is so easy to walk from one to the next so this is a great area to start in if you haven't been in many of the downtown buildings.
I'm extra excited to book my stay for the weekend after reviewing all of these amazing places! If you are a local, this is a great way to see some new places or neighborhoods. If you are an out-of-towner like me, this event will really help familiarize you with Chicago and its history. We found the Publishing House B & B one year when they were on the tour and now we make an effort to stay once a year. Let me know if you have questions or any recommendations on your must-sees if you are an attendee!