While the Bank of America Chicago Marathon course features plenty of entertainment—cheerleaders in Boystown, the Charity Block Party at Mile 14, lion dancers in Chinatown—the course also passes by dozens of permanent points of interest. In a city known for its architectural history, no one sees the wide range of Chicago’s design better than those who take in the city by foot during the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
With the help of Jennifer Masengarb, director of interpretation and research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, we’ve picked out 12 of the best buildings along the course. Throughout the run, you’ll pass by some of the most influential structures in architecture designed by some of the biggest names in the industry. Whether Art Deco stirs your soul or modernism fascinates you, this guide will give you insight into what you’ll see during your 26.2-mile tour of Chicago.
Note: mile and kilometer marks are approximate. “Look” directions assume the runner’s perspective following the course.
Location: 1 S. State Steet (Mile 1.75, the first aid station)
Longtime Chicagoans know this building as the location of Carson Pirie Scott and Company’s flagship store, though today the building houses the Loop’s only Target. Designed by famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, the center showcases Sullivan’s nature-inspired ornamentation, particularly with the store’s main entrance at the corner of State and Madison.
“While other contemporaries were inspired by Greece or Rome, [Sullivan] rejected all of that and really used organic materials, plants and ivy in the cast iron on the front of the building,” Masengarb says. “The top is all white terra cotta, and the cornice at the top is like the flower of the plants: you have the roots, stem and the flower at the top.”
The building, one of the centerpieces of the State Street retail corridor, also sheds light on the way the shopping experience of the late 1800s and early 1900s shifted as a result of new building designs.
“The skyscraper and a steel frame allowed us to have really big windows at street level,” Masengarb says. “We take that for granted, but gigantic windows at street level were quite an innovation. If you’re showing something, you want big windows to show off what you’re selling. It’s an interesting mix of showing off Sullivan’s work and also an important representation of Chicago’s State Street retail history.”
Chicago Board of Trade
Location: 141 W. Jackson (Mile 2, as you turn right on LaSalle)
One of Chicago’s Art Deco masterpieces, the Board of Trade building at one time stood as the tallest building in the city of Chicago. The structure, designed by Holabird & Root, opened in 1930 and serves as the southern bookend of the LaSalle Street canyon, through which runners run north to exit the Loop. Though difficult to see from a runner’s on-course perspective, a three-story-tall statue of Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture, crowns the building.
300 North LaSalle
Location: 300 N. LaSalle (Mile 3, immediately over the Chicago River)
Completed six years ago, 300 North LaSalle showcases a markedly more contemporary style of architecture compared to the Sullivan Center and Chicago Board of Trade. This sleek, 60-story structure rises above the river with a reflective surface and boasts a Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings: the highest possible rating from the organization.
“From the years of buildings turning their backs on the river, this one embraces it,” Masengarb says. “It has terraces for eating, workers, restaurants and for Riverwalk strollers. It’s a very modern, elegant building.”
Location: 330 W. Diversey (Mile 6.2, just as you exit Lincoln Park after the 10K mark)
Fans of modern architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe likely recognize his downtown works, including the Federal Plaza and the former IBM Plaza (now AMA Plaza), but north, tucked into the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview sits one of his lesser known buildings: Commonwealth Plaza. The mid-century modern condominium building features 29 floors and is easy to pick out as you merge from Cannon onto Sheridan.
Location: 2325 N. Clark (15K [Mile 9.3], by the aid station)
The grand first-floor façade of this building belies its purpose as a storage facility. The company’s Lincoln Park building, built in the early 1920s, serves as an excellent example of Egyptian Revival design with Egyptian columns and statues of Ramses II flanking the main entrance. The company formed in 1880, but rebranded with the Egyptian theme in the 1920s after the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
“They took on a motto that’s written in hieroglyphics on the building,” Masengarb says. “The new logo became, ‘If Old King Tut were alive today, he’d store his goods the Reebie way.’”
The structure still serves as a storage building today.
Location: 516 N. Wells (Mile 11.8, at the aid station)
This 11-year-old residential building in River North may blend in with many of its counterparts today, but upon its construction was a trailblazer in design. The exposed concrete, horizontal bands and interlocking forms of the balconies set the stage for similarly styled tall buildings in the area.
Jackson Blvd. Historic District
Location: Jackson, between Ashland and Laflin (25K [Mile 15.5])
Look: All around you
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon course takes runners through 29 different neighborhoods, each of which has a unique feel and architectural fingerprint. While the transition between most of these neighborhoods feels seamless, perhaps nowhere is the contrast more jarring than at the 25K mark, where, by quite literally crossing the street, runners are transported 140 years back in time.
This tree-lined block features a series of Italianate houses, built between the 1870s and 1880s with no space between them, much like the brownstones of New York City. While these homes used to fill the area, most did not survive urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s: a time when the area had seen substantial economic decline from its heyday almost a century before.
“That’s a well-preserved block,” Masengarb says. “It was homes for, in the 1870s and 1880s, ‘middle managers.’ It wasn’t the super fashionable, wealthiest neighborhood, but people who were up-and-coming middle managers with some companies and industries [lived there].”
A group of twentysomethings purchased the homes on Jackson in the 1970s, saving them from the wrecking ball and preserving a piece of Chicago residential history. Look to your right as you exit the district: the mansion on the south corner of Jackson and Laflin is the Benjamin Ferguson Mansion, home of lumber merchant Benjamin Ferguson. Ferguson’s trust gift funded a variety of public sculptures, including The Bowman and the Spearman at Congress and Michigan in Grant Park and the Illinois Centennial Memorial Column in Logan Square.
Location: 800 S. Halsted (Mile 17)
Established by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr on Sept. 18, 1889, the Hull House stands a symbol of social reform. The settlement house, which used volunteer services of middle class workers to provide services including education and healthcare to local low-income residents, made a major impact on the city, state and country during its operation. Over time, the house expanded to include 13 buildings and helped lobby for the creation of, among many other reforms, a juvenile court system and child labor laws.
The Hull House continued to operate until the 1960s, when the University of Illinois at Chicago constructed its new campus in the area surrounding the Hull House. Two buildings from the complex remain.
Francis Nemecek Studio
Location: 1439 W. 18th (Mile 19, one block beyond the mile marker)
Known today as the Café Jumping Bean, a popular neighborhood coffeehouse and gallery, the Francis Nemecek Studio stands as one of Pilsen’s more elaborate buildings. Nemecek served as a photographer in the days when Pilsen had a high number of Bohemian immigrants. Though the entrance to the building will be tricky to see without turning around while running, the striking second-floor skylight, which takes up the entire side of the building and created well-lit studio space for Nemecek, should be easy to pick out.
Pui Tak Center
Location: 2216 S. Wentworth (Mile 21.5, immediately past the Chinatown Gate)
Though distinctly Chinese in style, the Pui Tak Center—originally the On Leong Merchants Association Building—was actually designed by architects Michaelsen and Rognstad, both of Norwegian descent, as no licensed architects with Chinese heritage lived in Illinois at the time. As the On Leong building, the structure, completed in 1928, served as the cultural center of Chinatown and a resource for new immigrants. The Chinese Christian Union Church purchased the building in 1993 and two years later it became the Pui Tak Building, which provides ESL classes, children’s programs and a variety of other services for the community.
“It’s the most iconic building in Chinatown that runners pass,” Masengarb says. “It has lots of terra cotta, two corners with pagoda roofs with orange tile, terra cotta vases, and lions with their heads facing us.”
Location: 3360 S. State Street (Mile 23.1, beyond the field after the turn onto State)
If Commonwealth Plaza in Lincoln Park didn’t give you your Mies van der Rohe fix, this should satisfy your craving for midcentury modern architecture. The hall, designed in 1956 in Mies’ last years as the head of what we now know as the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Department of Architecture, features a variety of modern architecture hallmarks, including an open plan free of columns and strikingly minimalistic design. It is considered to be one of Mies’ most important designs and masterpieces, the embodiment of all of his architectural philosophies and concepts.
Second Presbyterian Church
Location: 1936 S. Michigan (Mile 25)
After Second Presbyterian’s building at the corner of Washington and Wabash burned down in the Great Chicago Fire, the congregation relocated to 19th and Michigan and dedicated its new building in 1874.
“It’s from the time period when the most fashionable neighborhood in the city was Prairie Avenue, basically from 18th and Prairie heading south,” Masengarb says.
The church suffered another fire in 1900 that destroyed its entire interior. Church member Howard Van Doren Shaw served as the architect for the sanctuary’s rebuilding, which now stands as an excellent example of the Arts and Crafts style of design popular at the time. The building also has nine Tiffany windows. Though the neighborhood underwent dramatic change in the intermediate 140 years, the church has continued to host worship services and two years ago became a National Historic Landmark.