Kiss the Sky: Chicago's Secret Spaces Above the City

Author Tony Macaluso takes a tall look at this urge to climb and how Chicago became the epicenter for observation decks, daredevil stunts and why secret clubs meet at the top.

Photo from Tony Macaluso’s forthcoming book "Secret Spaces Atop Chicago." One of several in a series. An amazing undated photo (likely 1920s) of a woman aerialist in ballet slippers, sparkling elbow-length gloves and satiny costume caught in mid-air jumping rope on a disk the size of a large Frisbee high above traffic and the jutting rooftops of downtown. Notice the tripod on the roof of the building to the right.  

"Not if I had a hundred tongues, every one shouting a different key, could I do justice to Chicago’s splendid chaos. Where in all the world can words be found for this miracle of paradox and incongruity? Who would suppose that mere lumps of iron and bricks and mortar could be sublime? Go first up into the tower of the Auditorium.” 

British journalist G. W. Stevens, the traveling correspondent of the Daily London Mail, filed that ecstatic report on visiting Chicago and the Auditorium Tower just after the World’s Fair of 1893. At the time, the imposing Adler and Sullivan Auditorium Building was the tallest in the U.S., its tower the city’s first big observation deck. 

But what happened in those spaces above the city? On those rooftops? In those towers? That idea, a fine flint of brilliance, is the seed of author Tony Macaluso's Secret Spaces Atop Chicago: A Cultural History of the Urge to Climb Above. Why are people are drawn to climb above the city? 

It’s an ancient thread, this fascination to do important things in the sky, for ritual and adrenaline junkies, and connects myths like the Tower of Babel or Asian pagodas to the first steel skyscraper: William Le Baron Jenney's 1884 Home Insurance Building. Although New York beat out Chicago for tallest building in the U.S. last year, this town still has the tallest skyline in the nation, and third tallest in the world. Macaluso, who claims the book “began as a whim” after spending seven years giving architecture tours on a riverboat, discovered that Chicago led the tourist trend of posing on top of buildings and climbing above the urban sprawl.

And we still want to kiss the sky. Last year, the photo of a billowy bride hovering between glass and sky on the 103rd floor of Willis Tower's Skydeck was a finalist in Sprint’s Built for Chicago campaign. Trump Tower casts a billion-dollar shadow as the tallest residential tower in the western hemisphere. The plans sound manic, but don’t forget British investor Bill Davies' impossible $3.5 billion pipe dream to build a 120-story high-rise taller than both the Willis and One World Trade Center on the site of the Old Main Post Office. 

Macaluso covers approximately 40 buildings and reveals a cultural roadmap of Chicago’s observation decks, daredevils, flagpole sitters, aerialists and Flappers dancing on the ledge of buildings, and tightrope walkers mocking the skinny inch between disaster and escape. And there’s the secret clubs and secret societies. 

The book is scheduled for release this year. But you can check out an online version of Macaluso’s spirited presentation, part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation weekly Lunch Talks series.  

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