I saw a city in the clouds

Chicago City Hall

Among the many tours offered last weekend as part of the Great Spaces program was a trip to City Hall’s green roof. I though it’d be interesting… it turned out to be awesome.

City Hall's green roof

It’s not just some little patches of grass up there, folks; it’s a veritable garden — a little slice of prairie twelve stories above the street, planted with native grasses and flowers intended to survive the harsh conditions inherent to Chicago. Paths marked by concrete pavers wind through the garden and over its gentle rolls and rises. Magnificent buildings surround it on all sides, creating a dizzyingly grand space.

City Hall's green roof

City Hall's green roof

According to the city’s architect (our tour guide), the roof has been a smashing success. It’s saved the city money on heating and cooling costs. It’s only had one leak in the 8 years or so since its installation, and the vegetation cover actually protects the roof membrane from sunlight and other weathering. Necessary paraphernalia like vent stacks are simply extended up beyond the level of the soil and vegetation; most other HVAC equipment is out of the way in a central penthouse. A couple of trees are strategically located over structural columns to avoid loading issues. The entire building was designed with a mind toward adding more floors (though it never happened), so the structure in general is up to the extra loading.

Makin' the county look bad

“City Hall” is actually two structurally and functionally independent buildings behind a united facade. The eastern half is home to Cook County administration… and its roof never got the green treatment. It still retains its old black rubber roof, and looks sad and desolate by comparison. A chain-link fence separates the two roofs.

City Hall's green roof

It’s truly a shame that this flabbergasting space is only open on rare occasions. If it had elevator access and two fire exits, it’d be the perfect setting for a garden cafe.

City Hall's green roof


Indian Boundary Park

The best discoveries are the kind you’re not expecting at all.

Indian Boundary Park

Biking home from the store in yesterday’s blissful sunshine, I took a longcut through the side streets near Touhy and Western. Lo and behold, as I cruised along ordinary streets lined with ordinary houses, I suddenly found this lovely mid-sized park, surrounded by several amazing period apartment buildings, full of people and life.

I was stunned. I spent about half a blissful hour walking around, investigating. I vowed to come back with my camera as soon as possible, which turned out to be today.

Park Castle apartments

The most amazing of the period apartments is the Park Castle, pictured at top. It’s an E-shaped building that turns its back to rushing Western Avenue, choosing instead to face the park. The designers went to quite a bit of trouble to make this building live up to its name, with turrets both massive and tiny, crenelated parapet walls and brick corbeling the length of the cornice. Some less impressive but still nice apartment blocks form a complete wall of architecture on the park’s eastern side, a graceful enclosure that is the very model of an “outdoor room”.

Magnificent quarter mile

Another period apartment building

The half-timbered apartment block on the park’s north side is lovely as well. A section of Estes Street was closed down to join its courtyards directly to the park. This was a change made in the 1960s, in imitation of the adjacent apartments on the east side, whose front courts directly abut the park.

The park features a massive playlot with a climbing complex; it is supposed to mimic an Indian village but its wooden construction brings to mind a frontier fort, ironically enough. A pair of metal plaques inset into massive granite rocks tell the story of the play lot and the Indian Boundary Line, a treaty line set up in 1816 and occupied by the Potawatomie Indians (and having lived in Milwaukee 7 years, I recognized that the plaque doesn’t use the most common spelling of the name.) Typical of American dealings with the natives, the treaty only lasted till 1833. Land for the park was first acquired in 1915.

Fort Indian Treaty!

Indian Boundary Park headquarters

A Tudor Gothic field house, from 1929, is the park’s headquarters, and hosts various classes and events. A steady stream of park visitors was entering and leaving the building as I passed by.

And in the park’s opposite corner is… a zoo?

Lone resident

Yep, it’s a children’s petting zoo, normally occupied by goats, sheep and the like. Aside from this adolescent goose, it’s empty at present; I don’t know if it’s just for the winter or a semi-permanent closure.

There’s more — tennis courts, a water play sprayer thing — but I don’t mean to just make a laundry list of amenities. This is a lovely park, one of the prettiest and most charming I’ve found in Chicago. It has the right mix of fields and trees, development and grassland, architecture and nature. It’s comfortable without being bland. It’s really a great park.

I’m delighted to find this amazing gem so close to my home, and stunned that I’d never encountered it before. Just goes to show there’s a whole lot of Chicago left for me to see.



  • The Chicago Park District’s page for the park

  • Buildings of Humboldt Park

    Humboldt Park — between North and Division, a bit west of Western — isn’t really hidden, but it’s easy to not really know about or visit. I paid it a visit by bicycle a while back. It’s in a neighborhood that feels transitional — old clans and residents still around, but starting to dwindle; newcomers with a bit more money to spare moving in to escape rising prices to the west. People fish in the lagoons, children run wild in the fenced play area, and a fantastic drum jam was going on when I passed through on a Saturday afternoon.

    Humboldt Park lagoon

    Three of the park’s buildings are worthy of special note:

    Humboldt Park stables

    The old stables building is fairy tale architecture at its best. There are ten thousand photos hidden in those gables and red tiles. It’s been under renovation for a long time; it suffered a fire years ago, but looks great today.

    Humboldt Park bath house

    The Tudor Gothic bathhouse faces an empty lagoon at present.

    Humboldt Park pavillion

    An open-air pavilion shows a Prairie School influence, echoed in a formal garden court nearby.