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Open House Chicago grants access to places that define our city

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Updated: November 13, 2012 6:23AM

The John Hancock Center. Millennium Park. Wrigley Field.

These are just a few of the landmarks that make Chicago the city it is. But what about that Art Deco apartment house down the block? Or that church you’ve never been in? And doesn’t that bakery on the corner look like it was once a garage?

Chances are you’ve passed some building that made you wonder, “What’s the story with that place?” The Chicago Architecture Foundation taps into that curiosity this weekend with Open House Chicago, a two-day event that offers free access to nearly 190 sites in 13 neighborhoods, from South Shore’s Mosque Maryam to Park Gables, a Tudor Revival apartment complex in Rogers Park.

Now in its second year, Open House Chicago takes its cue from a similar project launched in London 20 years ago. And unlike many of the tours operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the event isn’t limited to celebrating architecturally significant buildings. Although it does include such marquee structures as the Charnley-Persky House, designed by Louis Sullivan and Frank Wright, and the SOM’S Inland Steel Building, Open House Chicago embraces all sorts of buildings serving all kinds of purposes, from humble, unassuming spots to neighborhood gems. Residences, schools, offices, stores, houses of worship, and cultural centers — all those places that constitute a community are represented.

“Most of our visitors are not what you’d call architecture nerds,” notes Bastiaan Bouma, managing direction of Open House Chicago. “It’s the general public, people who are just interested in these buildings. And that informs the criteria we use for selection, picking interesting sites that may or may or be architecturally important, but are culturally, historically, socially and economically important.”

The architecture foundation collaborates with economic development associations, social justice agencies and historic preservation groups within each neighborhood to identify appropriate sites and recruits the 1,600 volunteers needed to pull off this ambitious and far-flung operation. In addressing Hyde Park, for example, CAF worked with the South East Chicago Commission and the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce to develop a roster that includes the University of Chicago’s Gothic Bartlett Hall of 1904 and the lavishly adorned, Jazz Age, Powhatan Apartments (visit openhouse for a complete listing of sites and neighborhoods).

Organized for easy access via public transportation, the sites are also clustered close together so that once in the neighborhood, people can continue on foot. There are no reservations, no registration. Just get yourself to the area you want to know better and you’re good to go.

The tours are self-guided, but at each stop there are local property owners, business people or residents offering an interpretive experience. The roster of destinations is diverse; stops include Uptown’s Green Mill lounge, the Martinez Funeral Home in Little Village, the crisply minimalist Poetry Foundation downtown, Fire Department (Engine Company 8) in Chinatown, and the mural-bedecked Casa Aztlan social center in Pilsen.

Central to the concept is the notion of how the physical environment has adapted to ever-shifting populations.

“Look at Little Village,” Bouman says. “Buildings — factories, stores, schools — that were built originally to serve the needs of Eastern Europeans are now very effectively serving the needs of Latinos. That story is what we hope people take away with them, more than how many tons of concrete were used for a specific building.”

Humboldt Park is new to the lineup this year, and Eduardo Arocho, executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association, hopes the experience will not only make other Chicagoans more aware of the neighborhood, but impress upon residents the rich history of the area they call home.

“This has been a Puerto Rican neighborhood for 50 years, but many ethnic groups lived here,” he says. “At the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, you learn not only about Puerto Rican culture, but of the contributions Germans, Poles, and Scandinavians made.” And you don’t have to be an architecture buff to appreciate the rich design of the Institute’s facility, Humboldt Park’s former stables, designed in 1896.

“What we’re really after,” says Bouma, “is for people to go to parts of Chicago they rarely visit, to be introduced to how diverse the city is, witness how it’s coping with global forces — demographic, environmental, economic ­­— and providing healthy and vibrant places to work, raise families and enjoy culture.”

Thomas Connors is a local free-lance writer.

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