Rolling on the River/Going and Coming | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Rolling on the River/Going and Coming 

The Chicago Architecture Foundation saw some tough times after 9/11, but vice president of marketing and tours Bastiaan Bouma thinks the ship is back on course.

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Rolling on the River

It's the nature of annual reports to be out of date by the time they're issued. The one the Chicago Architecture Foundation is expecting back from the printer this month--for the year that ended in December 2002--reflects the double whammy of 9/11 and the stock market drop. Just two months before the World Trade Center attacks, CAF had opened a major expansion of its quarters on South Michigan Avenue, adding about 50 percent to the size of its gift shop and a separate visitor's center and gallery to the space it had occupied for a decade. Like many other organizations coming out of the cash-drenched 90s, it had become used to robust growth, says Bastiaan Bouma, vice president of marketing and tours. Then, suddenly, tourists disappeared, money from financially squeezed donors became scarce, and gift shop revenues dropped. Last fall CAF laid off a dozen members of its full-time staff--about a 20 percent cut--even as the tourists were coming back. "We clawed our way back a bit," Bouma says of 2002. Total revenues were $6.5 million, total expenses $6.8 million. But this year business is robust once again. By the end of 2003, Bouma projects, 175,000 people will have taken CAF tours, led by its army of 425 rigorously trained volunteer docents. The hope is that increased tour revenue, a push for more corporate memberships, and "remerchandising" in the shop, along with the leaner administration, will make up for any continued doldrums in donations.

CAF was created in 1966 when four buddies decided to save the Glessner House on Prairie Avenue and then realized they'd bitten off more than they could chew. Wayne Benjamin says his college friend, architect Richard Wintergreen, came up with the idea of buying the rusticated, circa-1885 granite building, designed by H.H. Richardson. With Paul Lurie and James Schultz, they offered about $35,000 for the house. When they found it needed repairs that might cost $100,000 or more, they formed a nonprofit organization they called the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation (in spite of the fact that Richardson wasn't local) and began to enlist the help of prominent architects and donors. Benjamin, who met his wife, Susan, an architectural historian, when she became one of the foundation's first employees, credits Marian Despres (wife of early supporter and former Fifth Ward alderman Leon Despres) with the idea for a docent corps, which quickly became the engine of the organization.

Glessner House became the foundation's headquarters, and by 1971 CAF had found its mission of architectural education (as opposed to activism) and was offering docent training and its first tours of the Loop. (A group more interested in advocacy developed on a parallel path as the Landmarks Preservation Council.) In '76 it opened a shop and exhibit space in the Monadnock Building that it dubbed the ArchiCenter. In 1992 the offices and ArchiCenter were consolidated in the Santa Fe Building, and in '95 the board decided to divest CAF of Glessner House (now run by the Glessner House Museum), a move that Benjamin says is "still a personal sore point." With the move to Michigan Avenue the staff began to grow and the foundation began to develop from a largely volunteer-run, under-the-radar phenomenon into one of the city's major institutions. Seasoned docents who regret the passing of the group's grassroots era--and also fret now and then about the possible influence of developers or other factions--also mostly see the change as inevitable. They credit president Lynn Osmond, hired in 1996, with CAF's heightened visibility.

About 115,000 of the folks taking CAF tours this year will opt for the river cruise. As Osmond notes in a recent member's newsletter, there's competition for that business now: "Success always inspires imitation." But Bouma says CAF retains the lion's share of the business by offering reasonable prices (walking tours start at $5; the river cruise is $23 to $25), limited group sizes for the walking tours, and something no commercial operator has--the passion of its volunteers. Docents have their own elected council and committees (including a standards committee that serves a self-policing function, easing out guides who may not be up to par) and handle all new-docent education. The 70 accepted each year (from a pool of applicants that's usually at least double that number) commit to ten weeks of training that involves one full day of classes and as much as 10 to 20 hours of homework each week before they give their own test tour and--if they meet the standard--are certified. After that they give at least 39 hours of tours the first year and 30 hours each subsequent year. New tour ideas are generated by the docents, who also write the narratives. The resulting numbers are eye-popping: this year CAF docents will put in nearly 30,000 volunteer hours on a roster of 78 different tours, leading 7,300 individual tour departures. Open houses for prospective docents will be held Saturday, September 6, at 1 PM and Thursday, September 11, at 6 PM at the ArchiCenter, 225 S. Michigan.

Going and Coming

Columbia College executive vice president Bert Gall, who headed operations and facilities, resigned August 29 amid a politically charged atmosphere. Valedictorian of Columbia's class of 1969 and an employee of the college for 34 years, Gall was a significant force in the school's expansion to 1.2 million square feet (in 11 buildings) in the South Loop and worked with DePaul and Roosevelt on the construction of the University Center of Chicago, the new superdorm under construction at 501 S. State that will serve 1,720 students starting next fall. According to a spokesperson, Gall will see that project through....Alan Salzenstein, executive director at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights in its for-profit days, has been hired as an assistant professor of performing arts management at DePaul University.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.


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