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Chicago Architecture Foundation’s tours have long received global recognition for their original content and passionate, knowledgeable docents. As CAF marks its 50th year in 2016, we share the story of how our most popular tour came to be.

by Nikki Snodgrass, Media Relations Manager 

The Roots of the River Cruise

The founders and early members of CAF knew that architecture tours were the organization’s most vital offerings. And CAF docents had stories waiting to be told about the Chicago River. During CAF’s early decades, however, the river was not the sparkling waterway winding through the heart of the city that it is today. Decades of industrial and commercial waste had left it highly polluted. In the 1970s, docents approached the river on foot. At first, they brought tour takers to the old warehouses and Chicago’s world-famous bridges, then they brought visitors to see the postmodern structures rising along the riverfront. 

By 1979, a volunteer organization called Friends of the River had been formed to support the restoration of the waterway. At the same time, architects began designing buildings in context with the Chicago River. The shimmering 1983 office building at 333 West Wacker Drive —with its curved, blue-green glass facade designed to reflect the shape and color of the river—perfectly captured this new approach. These factors encouraged CAF’s leaders to recognize that the Chicago River offered one of the most historically and architecturally rich expanses in the city—and that it warranted a larger audience.

Growth on the River

In 1983, the international design convention NeoCon, held in the Merchandise Mart, tapped CAF to guide a private boat tour that would offer its attendees a look at Chicago from the river. Bob Irving, a member of CAF’s 1971 docent class, led the tour. Based on guests’ glowing responses, Bob knew it was time to create a CAF river tour for the general public. 

Because CAF had already been giving walking tours along the river, docents adapted this content to suit a river-going excursion. The first cruise CAF offered to members of the NeoCon convention caught a slight snag; the boat required that the bridges be opened, but arrangements had only been made to open each bridge once, turning that inaugural tour into a one-way river cruise. Passengers were bussed back to the dock. Even so, the tour proved such a success that it would soon offer multiple departures each week—now with bridges always accommodating round-trips for passengers.

In 1993, to respond to rapidly growing demand for more tours, CAF found the perfect boat partner in Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. This family-owned business already had more than 50 years of experience on the river and was led by Holly and Bob Agra. Chicago’s First Lady Cruises had a reputation for Chicago’s finest fleet of cruising vessels which are docked at the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. CAF and its world-renowned docents in partnership with Chicago First Lady Cruises created what’s known today as the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady Cruises

Celebrating the River

Today, the view from the river reveals a skyscraper canyon full of historic and contemporary milestones. Tour takers soak up the relaxed setting, and docents appreciate the unique opportunity to focus more on the stories behind the buildings and less on navigating Chicago’s busy streets. Perhaps most importantly, this tour has inspired Chicagoans and out-of-towners alike to explore the city’s history and vitality—and to understand the role of architecture and design in shaping it.

After more than 20 years of collaboration with Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, the cruise has collected thousands of glowing reviews, leading TripAdvisor to recognize it as the “top tour in Chicago and one of the top 10 tours in the U.S.” based on the quality and quantity of reviews from TripAdvisor travelers. The tour has earned its place among the leading attractions not just in Chicago, but across the country.

Learn more about our partner Chicago's First Lady Cruises at cruisechicago.com.


Chicago's First Lady Cruises logoAbout our Boat Partner

We’re proud to partner with Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, operator of Chicago’s finest fleet of cruising vessels. Its boats hold up to 200 passengers and feature open-air upper decks, full-service bars, climate-controlled lower cabins and upscale marble and granite restrooms. Being onboard is sure to be an experience you’ll never forget.