Pick a neighborhood — or two — and spend the day during Open House Chicago 2020

Thanks to COVID-19, the annual celebration of architecture moves online, with a new mobile app offering audio tours of sites in many neighborhoods, including a public library in Kenwood and some historic apartments in Hyde Park.

SHARE Pick a neighborhood — or two — and spend the day during Open House Chicago 2020
The Blackstone Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., was the system’s first branch location. It opened in 1904.

The Blackstone Branch of the Chicago Public Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., was the system’s first branch location. It opened in 1904. The library, which serves the Kenwood and Hyde Park neighborhoods, is on this year’s audio tour of the area on the Open House Chicago mobile app.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Open House Chicago, the annual event giving architecture enthusiasts a closer look at some of the area’s most treasured buildings, will go on this year despite the pandemic.

Still, the coronavirus has forced some changes.

The biggest change: people won’t be able to go inside the more than 100 sites featured this year. Instead, the festival has gone virtual, with a mobile app that the Chicago Architecture Center launched Wednesday.

And instead of the usual weekend, this year’s festival will mark its 10th anniversary by lasting 10 days.

The Open House Chicago mobile app helps users to experience what neighborhoods have to offer. For example, its “Architectural Innovation Trail: Hyde Park” is 1.5-mile route passing by some of that community’s most historic buildings.

That trail will guide people through six innovative buildings and each stop will offer a lesson from experts on how the structure came to be.

“Part of the vision for these trails is like an art museum because you can rent a headset and someone will narrate to you what it is you’re looking at,” said Zachary Whittenburg, a spokesman for the Chicago Architecture Center. “We are looking at neighborhoods like galleries and framing the buildings as the sculpture in a gallery, so when you get to a specific location, a few minutes of audio will play from a subject expert telling you what it is you are looking at.”

The Hyde Park trail starts off at the Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments, at 5557 S. University Ave. — an International Style three-flat. Brothers William and George Fred Keck designed the building in 1937 following their successful House of Tomorrow at the 1933 World’s Fair.

The design avoids decorative art or ornaments, and its “passive solar design” helps the building self-regulate its energy.

Whittenburg says the expert narrators on the app not only dive into the weeds on how buildings like Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments function, but also offer history buffs an opportunity to learn about the social conditions that allowed a building to be developed.

The next stop on the trail notes the University of Chicago’s “slum clearance” policy created “disruptive and discriminatory urban renewal projects” with the creation of University Park Apartments, 1451 E. 55th St.

University Park Apartments, a mix of townhomes and mid-rise apartment buildings, is considered one of the nation’s largest urban renewal projects. Planner-architect partners I.M. Pei and Harry Weese tried to avoid blanket clearance approach by using selective demolitions and rehabbing distressed properties.

The must-see building on the trail is the Frederick C. Robie House, 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., the Prairie Style masterpiece designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and a designated World Heritage Site.

Those looking to go off-trail in Hyde Park and Kenwood also can visit any of the eight Open House Chicago sites in that area featured this year. That includes KAM Isaiah Israel, 5080 S. Greenwood Ave.; Solstice on the Park, 1616 E. 56th St.; Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave.; and Blackstone Branch Library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave.

The app can be downloaded at openhousechicago.org/app. It also offers virtual tours inside some of the city’s most coveted buildings.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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