08 November 2015

Touch Tour of the Rookery Building

On Friday, November 6, I attended my first Touch Tour (for visitors with vision impairment) of Chicago’s architecturally significant Rookery Building located at 209 S. LaSalle. The Touch Tour was one of several organized in conjunction with the citywide ADA 25 Chicago Initiative, and excitingly enough, the push to create more accessible programming for people with disabilities has led to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust (FLWT) putting Touch Tours permanently on their roster. Free one-on-one Touch Tours of various Frank Lloyd Wright buildings around the Chicagoland Area will be available upon request, due in part to the success of the programs created specifically for ADA 25 Chicago.

The tour was very simple – with four stops, plenty of textures to touch, and a narrative arc that made following the history of the building accessible to a variety of visitors, with or without a background in architecture or Chicago history. The tour was not only informative and fun, but also intimate. The FLWT capped the participant count at five people. I participated as an observer, which the FLWT was glad to allow. Each tour participant was paired with an assistant from the FLWT to not only act as a guide as we moved from spot to spot, but also to fill in gaps of information and answer questions as needed. With so many staff members trained and able to guide the tour participants, this felt like a group effort that was focused entirely on the visitor experience. I’d never before seen such dedication to making sure the visitors were able to engage, interact, and learn.

[A view of the ornate twisting staircase made of patterned cast iron, looking down on the “light port” or lobby. The staircase has curving smooth brass railings, smooth white Carrera marble steps, and a column of carved marble filled with gold inlay]

We began in the lobby, where we were introduced to our docent, Tom. Tom explained the space we were in, giving us basic facts about the building, its history, and the cast of characters that led to its creation: Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Wellborn Root, and the Great Chicago Fire. In addition to laying out the names and dates, Tom provided us with key logistical information that would make the tour run smoother: how many stops we would be making, what we would be doing, and how the tour would run overall. This information was immensely helpful in guiding our movements as well as fostering the overall flow of the experience. There were to be four stops, we would start outside touching the façade of the building, then move in to experience the different materials, patterns, and textures used in the interior building ornamentation. Tom was fantastic about dropping in names, dates, and architecture vocabulary, all while doing it at a manageable pace and with the finesse of a seasoned teacher. If someone had a question, we all paused to hear the answer. If we needed to spend more time at a location so that everyone was able to really work his or her hands and fingers around a material, we did.

I believe that starting as a group to go over the logistics of the tour and pair each participant with vision impairment with an assistant was really crucial to the success of this tour. Additionally, our docent seemed really flexible when we needed to switch the pacing to meet everyone’s accommodations. Though I haven’t been on one of the general building tours, I would venture to say that this one wasn’t too different in terms of the content shared. We learned the same history, the same context, and the same keywords that any other visitor would have. What made it special was that we were able to engage with the architecture and its rich history with more than just our sense of vision. Rather than feasting our eyes on the gorgeous gilded interior of the carved Italian Carrera marble, we used our fingertips to feel the smooth and cool marble, and the grittier golden crevices. We used our hands and feet to sense the difference in the floor materials – from glass bricks suggested specifically by Frank Lloyd Wright, to smooth Carrera marble, to beautiful lightly textured mosaic squares on the floor of the floor lobby.
[Detail of carved Carrera marble in an ornate, late 19th century curving abstracted floral pattern. The marble is raised, with a golden inlay in the lowered grooves]

Each stop we made and each surface we touched was weaved into the greater narrative of the building’s history. The building, constructed in 1885 and opened in 1888 was one of the first high rises in the world. What made it a fully functional high rise was the inclusion of one of the first elevator shafts – which we rode to the second floor. One participant noted that the elevators were really tiny and narrow, questioning if a wheelchair user could ride it. It’s interesting to think about the tension between renovations of the space for accommodations, while also keeping true to the architectural integrity and intent of the architects’ vision. All of the external building materials were locally sourced, and as we touched the granite exterior, we commented on how one type of stone could be fashioned into so many different textures. The interior ornamentation was not only fascinating, but told the story of three separate architects who had a say in how the building would look, feel, and function. In touching the various materials and surfaces, we were able to engage with the history in a non-visual way that made the narrative architectural story approachable and easy to understand. I walked away with a sound connection to this Chicago gem, while also knowing the intense precision and attention to detail that went into the building that I might not have grasped had I not been able to touch and rub the surfaces of the building ornamentation. For example, I would not have noticed the difference in the starburst patterning on the railings – one designed by Wright and one designed by Root had I not bent down and felt the difference. They looked similar, but the patterning was subtly different. Touching actually brought out something that I was unable to see, which was a revelation for me as a museum educator.
[Frank Lloyd Wright starburst pattern, a 12 pointed star
in cast iron. This shape is more linear, and straight. It was
made in 1905.]
[Detail of Daniel Burnham starburst pattern on
railing, a 12 pointed star, that curves and tilts on a
diagonal along the diagonal of the stairway. It was
made in 1888.]

In relation to our disability culture and accessibility in museums, it occurred to me that this building was not created with people with disabilities in mind. Being of a different era, the building was renovated several times, first in 1905 and again in the 1930s. But both of these renovations were not in consideration of differently abled bodies using the space. The 1996 renovation came after the passing of the ADA, which made me wonder if the automatic doors were part of that project. But beyond the building being architecturally accessible, I thought about whom this tour was created for and why it needed to be created. In affiliating themselves with ADA 25 Chicago, the FLWT had to do a little bit of an internal audit to determine which visitors were being left to the margins on their tours. This tour was devised specifically to meet the demand of a growing population of visitors with vision impairment, and with the formation of the tour came the recognition of the initial inaccessibility of preexisting programming and public engagement activities. I walked away wondering what more the FLWT could do, but excited by the prospect that accessibility was very much on their mind having gone through this process. I’m under the impression that because the tour appeared so seamless and similar to their tours for visual learners, that a change like this was more systematic and staffing-based than monetary in nature. In getting their staff on board, training the docents, and placing this program on the schedule, the FLWT is on their way to making a shift in their programming toward a more inclusive architectural experience.

1 comment :

  1. Thank you for sharing your great experiences with us. The article is really informative and helpful. It’s definitely going to help many of the readers. Keep sharing such posts.