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A CAC docent since 2005, Mike McMains has been at the forefront of creating some of our most perennially popular tours. The Elevated Architecture and Must-See Chicago tours showcase Chicago architecture from the city’s own celebrated L trains.

Taking Tours to a New Level

A few times a week, tourists and locals alike climb stairs leading to the second-largest rapid transit system in the country, intent on checking out Chicago’s renowned architecture from more than 20 feet above the street. Elevated Architecture is always among the most popular tours that Chicago Architecture Center provides. It lets locals and tourists alike experience the L and take in the Loop’s most intriguing buildings from a unique perspective.

The tour is actually a revived and reworked version of an earlier edition of an L tour that ended in 2007. Docent Mike McMains brought the tour back in 2010, taking advantage of new listening devices that make it much more customer-friendly. McMains was excited to bring technological enhancements to the tour, as well as updated information. “The opportunity to show buildings from a unique vantage point, as well as the chance to tell the story of Charles Tyson Yerkes—the man mostly responsible for the development of the L—makes this a one-of-a-kind experience,” McMains said.

Learning from the Loop

The tour also answers questions about the L system itself. Why do Chicago’s noisy trains run above ground, anyway, and how has the L shaped the development of buildings in the Loop? “Chicago is the only American city still running elevated trains through its downtown, and it’s from that higher perspective you get extraordinary views of Chicago’s incredible architecture,” he said. “CAC’s Elevated Architecture: Downtown L Train tour celebrates this landmark structure better than any other tour in the city.”

Since its 2010 return, Elevated Architecture has proven so successful that it’s become a regular, year-round offering at CAC. Before long, the original Elevated Architecture Loop tour was joined by a second version. Developed to explore the south line of the transit system, Elevated Architecture: South Side L Train features a look at Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus, Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes and much more. 

Making Must-See Chicago

Traditionally, tour development at CAC begins with a docent and an idea. But in creating the Must-See Chicago tour, Mike McMains flipped that process upside-down. Based on proven public interest in a “Chicago’s Top 10 Buildings” tour, McMains knew he wanted to showcase both Willis Tower and the 875 N. Michigan Ave (John Hancock Center). And because this new tour was planned as a way to introduce people to Chicago, it had to fit into a brisk 90 minutes. Those two iconic skyscrapers and the tour’s 90-minute duration provided the backbone for Must-See Chicago.
To that basic framework, McMains added more Chicago notables, including the Water Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Wrigley Building and Chicago Theater. To make it to all of those landmarks in such a short period of time, the Must-See Tour turned once again to the L. Tour-takers hop on and off the elevated train cars, on a journey that begins at the Chicago Architecture Center and ends in the heart of the Magnificent Mile. 

Elevated Innovations

In addition to being the first CAC tour created in response to guest market research, Must-See Chicago marked several other firsts for the organization. “It was the first tour focused on directing guests to go on specific tours after that one,” Mike said. “It was also the first CAC tour to incorporate social media. We encourage guests to post great pictures and fun facts they learn along the way,” using the Twitter hashtag #mustseechicago.

Since its launch in 2014, Must-See Chicago has consistently ranked among CAC’s most popular tours. Most Must-See tour-takers have previously been on only one other CAC tour at most. “They appreciate the way this elevated tour samples and highlights what makes Chicago the architectural capital of the United States,” Mike said. “Creating and launching new tours is a time-intensive process, but CAC’s structure combines supportive, full-time staff and passionate, empowered volunteers working together to create new, special experiences. It’s what makes this organization unique and keeps me and many other docents so engaged.”