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Becoming a Chicago Architecture Center docent is a demanding, engaging and educational experience. We’re pulling back the curtain on docent training, to track a few new recruits with a passion for sharing Chicago’s architectural wonders.

by Jen Masengarb, Director of Interpretation and Research

First Day of Class

Although we didn’t spot many sharpened No. 2 pencils or colorful new backpacks on a cold Saturday in January, it was still the first day of class for more than 30 bright-eyed and eager CAC docent trainees. Volunteers are the heart of CAC, and each year our annual docent education program attracts an amazing group. After an interview process that began in November and an orientation focusing on CAC and its mission, the trainees gathered together to begin.

Among our new docent trainees, there were lifelong Chicagoans and newer transplants; south siders, west siders, and north siders; and city dwellers and suburbanites. The group split 65% female and 35% male, and featured trainees in their 20s, trainees in their 70s and many in between. Some trainees were retirees; others were employed full-time—and in a variety of industries, including architecture, building management, health care, consulting, advertising, education, and IT. What they all had in common was an eagerness to learn, grow, give back to the city they love and share Chicago’s architecture with visitors and residents alike.

Becoming New Docents

CAC sets several goals for docent trainees during their first five weeks of learning architecture’s fundamentals. Trainees learn how to “read” a building; use architectural vocabulary; compare and contrast buildings; deliver a brief history of key buildings; and gain tour skills and techniques. Each week of training includes readings, group discussions, lectures by scholars and experts, hands-on activities and on-the-street practice in talking about buildings.

Between sessions, trainees read articles and book excerpts, write short essays and synthesize notes for speaking about buildings. While every CAC tour has a specific route, buildings and timing, one of the hallmarks of a CAC tour is that there is no script. Docents synthesize lots of information on their way toward personalizing their own talking points and storytelling.

CAC trained its first docent class at the Glessner House in 1971. While the training program has evolved over the years, one of the key aspects of CAC’s training is the strong peer to peer learning environment. Each trainee is matched with three experienced docents who generously give back by serving as homework readers, coaches providing advice and practice time, and certifiers who assure that each new docent is ready to put on the red CAC shirt and lead a public tour.

Delving into Chicago’s Built Environment

Chicago’s rich architectural tapestry goes far beyond the iconic skyscrapers of the Loop. Neighborhood homes, schools, houses of worship, parks and commercial structures—the old and the new; big structures and small dwellings; buildings designed by famous architects and otherwise—all of these help tell the complex stories of our city’s development.

In their first five weeks, docent trainees learn about the city through a wide variety of case-study buildings. In addition, big events such as Chicago’s two World’s Fairs; the Great Chicago Fire; neighborhood and suburban development; city plans; and canal, sewer, railroad and highway construction allow us to explore the intersections between Chicago’s people, its geography, its technology, and its built environment.

A Dose of the Docent Experience

Wishing you could be a fly on the wall at a docent training session? Or have we inspired you, perhaps, to start learning more about Chicago’s history? Here are a few suggestions from CAC’s Docent Training playbook.

  • Our Buildings of Chicago collection introduces more than 50 significant structures across the city—including Chicago bungalows, the Reliance Building, the Inland Steel Building, and the Gary Comer Youth Center.
  • Many of our course readings can be found in your local library. Books such as Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (William Cronon); City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America (Donald L. Miller); Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (Joanna Merwood-Salisbury); and Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography (Franz Schulze) are just a few of our favorites.
  • Consider taking a CAC tour. Our 2017 trainees are learning to lead the Historic Skyscrapers tour, as well as several other walking tours.

And stay tuned! In the fall of 2017, we'll begin recruiting the docent class of 2018. Sign-up for CAC emails to stay in the know.