5 Amazing Hidden Places in Chicago
Fragments of buildings from across the world. A 19th-century strolling garden. A silent-film star’s prized possession. Some of the city’s best-known destinations have historic gems tucked away in hidden corners—or hiding in plain sight. Here’s where to find them.
InterContinental Chicago Hotel
You know it for: Its Michigan Avenue opulence, with an arc of flags fanning a swanky entrance.
You might have missed: A Gatsby-caliber swimming pool, among the city's oldest.
On the 14th floor of the InterContinental Chicago, swimmers ply the waters of a sparkling Art Deco gem. Spanish majolica tiles line the pool's edge. Fish fountains flank a statue of the god Neptune. And when sunlight shines through the windows, featuring scale-shape stained glass, the pool glimmers as if stocked with transparent fish. Visit this oasis as a hotel guest or with a $25 day pass.
The 1929 building originally housed the Medinah Athletic Club, a getaway for Chicago's rising elite. (Notice the hotel's golden dome, built as a docking port for dirigibles.) Swimming was a popular spectator sport, and the tiered pool area offers chaises for lounging while you imagine synchronized swimming icon Esther Williams diving in, as she did when the pool was a tony spot to see and be seen. The pool even attracted Tarzan franchise star and Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller, who trained there.
You might also like: A throwback trip to Uptown's Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Step inside the bar to hear nightly jazz acts and see if you can land a seat in Al Capone's strategically located booth.
You know it as: The iconic building that once housed the Chicago Tribune, rising above North Michigan Avenue near the Chicago River.
You might have missed: The historical artifacts adorning its facade.
Talk about bringing the news home: The Neo-Gothic former newspaper headquarters wears the evidence of its reporters' world travels. A chunk of The Great Pyramid. A piece of The Great Wall. Shards of Notre Dame de Paris and the Palace of Westminster. In all, 150 fragments of some of the world's most significant sites are embedded in the building's exterior, where visitors can lay their hands on history. (In places, anyway; scaffolding shrouds parts of the tower as it's readied for conversion to residential space.)
In 1915, the paper's longtime owner and publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick, was covering World War I in France when he toured a medieval cathedral that had been damaged by shelling. He pocketed a piece of the cathedral and toted it home to Chicago-McCormick lived in a time when such actions were acceptable. Other foreign correspondents followed suit, bringing back fragments from their own assignments, which eventually were integrated into the 1925 facade.
You might also like: McCormick's "country estate" in Wheaton, Cantigny Park. Tour the Robert R. McCormick House to learn about the newspaperman's influence on politics, industry, media and patriotism.
You know it for: Its golf course, the 63rd Street Beach and the future Obama Presidential Center.
You might have missed: A world's fair garden.
Cross a bridge over a lagoon to reach Jackson Park's Wooded Island, which offered visitors to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition a breath of fresh air and break from the urban bustle. Today, the island and its Osaka Garden serve precisely that same purpose, with meandering paths, serene green space and large-scale artwork beckoning modern-day strollers.
During the fair, the 17-acre island created by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York's Central Park fame) featured a Japanese strolling garden and the intricate, templelike Phoenix Pavilion, showcasing Japanese fine arts. The pavilion has been lost to time, but an extensive habitat restoration has given the garden new life. Delicate, diverse plantings and refined stepping stones skirt reshaped ponds and lagoons. Giant, silvery lotus petals reach skyward in Skylanding, a 2016 sculpture by Yoko Ono (yep, that Yoko Ono) marking the spot where the pavilion once stood.
From the garden's traditional moon bridge, glimpse the Museum of Science and Industry in the distance, itself one of the last remaining builds from the Chicago World's Fair. And don't miss the garden in the springtime, when more than 120 cherry trees burst with rosy blooms.
You might also like: The elevated Japanese fare at Momotaro in Chicago's Fulton Market. One of the top Japanese restaurants in the country, the spot offers separate experiences-a dining room upstairs and a more casual setting at The Izakaya at Momotaro downstairs.
Museum of Science and Industry
You know it for: Its full-size replica of a working coal mine and the tourable U-505, a captured German submarine housed in its own enormous wing.
You might have missed: The twinkling fairy castle.
Peek through the glowing windows of Colleen Moore's custom castle and marvel. Sumptuous antique furnishings. Glittering golden chandeliers. Resplendent royal regalia. Moore, a silent-film star, commissioned the castle in 1928 to the tune of $500,000, which is $7 million in today's money. That might not sound like a lot of cash to build an entire castle, but this particular fortress measures only about 9 square feet.
Created for Moore-a fashion icon who helped popularize the bob haircut-by a pair of famed Hollywood set designers, the castle made the rounds at major department stores as part of a national tour to raise money for children's charities. It landed at the museum in 1949 and remains secluded in a darkened, out-of-the-way corner on the museum's lower level, which only adds to its enchantment.
See if you can spot the tiny cradle that sits on the rocking tree in the Magic Garden. Made with jewelry from her grandmother, it was Moore's most cherished miniature objet d'art.
You might also like: The captivating Thorne Miniature Rooms exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago. The 68 scale models deliver detailed glimpses of interiors and furnishings from the 13th century to the 1930s. Imagine shrinking and jumping into the velveted 18th-century French boudoir of Louis XV, a rustic Massachusetts kitchen circa 1675, or a soaring Gothic Roman Catholic church from the year 1275.
You know it for: Its prime perch overlooking Millennium Park-the gorgeously restored building with the green-tiled roof.
You might have missed: The prestigious military library and museum housed inside.
An advance appointment grants visitors access to the rare books room at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, an elegant two-story enclave. Inside, finds include an 1814 tome detailing Lewis and Clark's expedition (complete with a giant folding map) and cruise books from the USS Chicago, a World War II-era Naval ship.
In addition to the extensive book collection (which includes a circulating stock of 60,000 military-related titles as well as the rare items), museum displays celebrate the citizen soldier's place in military history and include posters, uniforms and medals. Among the displays, you'll see a rare 1898 45-star U.S. flag emblazoned with "Remember the Maine" (the battle cry of the Spanish-American War) and a remarkably preserved journal from the Revolutionary War detailing the Battle of Rhode Island.
You might also like: Confederate Mound, a monument in Oak Woods Cemetery marking the largest mass grave in this hemisphere. About 6,000 Confederate POWs died at Chicago's Camp Douglas during the Civil War; their bodies were relocated here. Also see the graves of Olympian Jesse Owens, activist Ida B. Wells and nuclear-reactor inventor Enrico Fermi.
For more Chicago insights, check out Amy Bizzarri's book 111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss.