If you have not experienced a tour with Context’s guide, Sally Kalmbach, you might well have missed the magic of Chicago. Sally who is a fourth generation Chicagoan knows and love the city and carves out bits of magic which she offers to her clients. I have had known about Context Travel Tours for many years, having had the opportunity to learn about parts of Europe and Asia with their superior guides. Context is developing their market in the US and have been offering tours in Chicago for only a year. Sally also knew Context from her European travels and the pairing of Sally and Context benefits those who want to see the best of Chicago.
In all of my Context experiences, the guides have been special, especially interesting and interested in their “clients”. They have always presented materials about the places that I was visiting in a manner that was comprehensive and compelling. There were always very unusual visual materials to enhance the tour and, in addition, tsome little known aspects that made the visit memorable.
I emerged from a two-and-a-half-hour tour with Sally with a new perspective of the architecture of Chicago’s Gold Coast. Sally’s stories often had a personal aspect, because she knows the city and those who live in it, so well. Because of her presentation, the architects and the buildings they created are seared into my memory. I had never before had an individual tour, and it was an experience I may want to repeat on one of the other Context tours.
My tour began at the Charnley-Persky House Museum (1891-1892) where I met Sally. Since she is a docent there, we were able to see the beautiful interior. This house is a stand out in the neighborhood, very horizontal in a “vertical universe”. With the clear signatures of both Louis Sullivan who designed it and his junior draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, this house has been recognized internationally as the pivotal work of modern American architecture in which Sullivan rejected the details that were typical in Victorian architecture to incorporate more abstract forms. A National Historic Landmark, the museum serves as the headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians.
The Gold Coast is roughly bounded by North Avenue, Lake Shore Drive, Oak Street, and Clark Street, and was primarily developed between 1920 and the 1929 crash. Walking along Sally pointed out the first town houses nearby and then the location of what was once the Potter Palmer Mansion (castle) which was the largest private home every built in Chicago and influenced the establishment of the Gold Coast drawing many of the elite from Prairie Avenue on the south side. I had the chance to see photos of what once was a very unfinished Lake Shore Drive and the grand mansion.
Along Lake Shore Drive we stopped to view the buildings that currently comprise The International Museum of Surgical Science and once was a 1917 mansion.
There were other beautiful buildings along the way, a grand and beautiful apartment building, other buildings that were once homes and have become apartments, and the first building in what was to become the Gold Coast, owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, the Cardinal’s residence on North Avenue between Astor and State Streets, built in 1880.
Our tour ended at 1300 N Dearborn, the new Restoration Hardware showroom. The building was formerly known as The Three Arts Club, a place where young women who studied the arts could stay and Sally’s sister once stayed there. There we found the beautifully renovated 20th-century historic landmark is more than a showroom. It is a beautiful location and has a lovely restaurant where reservations are a great idea.
The tour offered the opportunity to see the Chicago that once was and some interesting ways in which the old, expensive architectural jewels have been preserved. While an excellent and experienced tour guide, Sally has also authored two wonderful books about two very special Chicago women– The Jewel of the Gold Coast: Mrs. Potter Palmer’s Chicago and Mrs. Thorne’s World of Miniatures,
Any of the Context Travel Tours offer insights into aspects of Chicago that bring visitors and residents a deeper understanding of this great city.
Photos: B. Keer