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Walking Tour 2: The Gold Coast

Start: Oak Street Beach.

Finish: Bellevue Place and Michigan Avenue.

Time: 1 hour, more if you stop to eat along the way.

Best Time: Weekends are ideal for this walk at any time of the year. On weekdays, wait until after the morning rush before setting out.

Worst Time: After dusk, when it's too dark to appreciate the buildings' decorative elements.

The Gold Coast, as its name implies, is Chicago's ritziest neighborhood, site of its most expensive and exclusive houses. Its reputation dates back to 1882, when Potter Palmer, one of the city's richest businessmen, built a lakeshore castle here, in what was then a relative wilderness north of the city. The mere presence of the Palmers served as an instant magnet, drawing other social climbers in their wake (and Palmer, who owned vast parcels of northside land, saw his holdings shoot up in value). This itinerary begins with a walk overlooking Lake Michigan before heading down charming tree-lined residential streets.

Begin the tour at:

1. Oak Street Beach

This confluence of city and lakeshore epitomizes what Chicagoans love about the city: Facing downtown, you've got the ultimate urban vista; stare at the shoreline, and the seemingly endless expanse of water makes you feel like you've escaped the city completely. You can stroll along the sand or keep to the concrete path (but beware of speeding bikes and rollerbladers). As you head north, look across Lake Shore Drive to see a few remaining historic mansions scattered among the more modern high-rises.

The first mansion you'll pass, just north of Scott Street, is:

2. The Carl C. Heissen House

Both the Heissen House (1250 N. Lake Shore Dr.), built in 1890, and its neighbor, the Starring House (1254 N. Lake Shore Dr.), built in 1889, show the popularity of the sturdy Romanesque style among wealthy Chicagoans.

A second cluster of former private mansions, all vaguely neoclassical in outline, faces Lake Michigan north of Burton Place. The first of these is:

3. 1516 N. Lake Shore Dr.

This building is home to the International College of Surgeons; its neighbor at 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr. is a museum belonging to the same institution. The International Museum of Surgical Science houses a fascinating collection of exhibits and artifacts that portray the evolution of medical surgery, but it's worth visiting for its elegant interior as well, designed by Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1917 as a private mansion (highlights include a massive stone staircase and the second-floor library, with fine wood paneling). A third structure, 1530 N. Lake Shore Dr., is today the Polish Consulate.

Follow the lakefront path to the Chess Pavilion on your left, and continue past the patch of green where the jetty leads out to a harbor light and into the parking lot. Straight ahead is:

4. North Avenue Beach

One of the city's prime summer spots, North Avenue Beach swarms with beach volleyball players and sun worshippers from June through August. But I think it's just as worth a visit -- maybe more so -- in spring and fall, when you can take in the view without the crowds. Check out the retro-style beach house, which was designed to look like an old ocean liner.

Double back and cross Lake Shore Drive by way of the North Avenue underpass, directly west of the Chess Pavilion. From the cul-de-sac here, continue west on North Avenue 2 blocks to North State Parkway. The imposing residence on your left, surrounded by spacious grounds, is the:

5. Residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago

Catholicism has strong roots in Chicago, thanks to generations of German, Irish, and Polish immigrants who brought their faith along with them; the city's current archbishop, Francis Cardinal George, is a well-known local figure who receives regular press coverage. This Queen Anne-style mansion was built in 1885 for the first archbishop of Chicago, Patrick Feehan; it sits on the site of what used to be a cemetery that stretched between present-day North Avenue and Schiller Street. Of the 19 chimneys that march across the roofline, only 3 are still in use.

Across the street on the opposite corner of North Avenue is:

6. 1550 N. State Pkwy.

Each apartment in this 1912 vintage luxury high-rise, known as the Benjamin Marshall Building, originally occupied a single floor and contained 15 rooms spread over 9,000 square feet. The architects were Marshall & Fox, highly regarded in their day as builders of fine hotels. There was once a garden entryway at the ground-floor level. Among the noteworthy architectural features adorning the exterior of this Beaux Arts classic are the many small balconies and the bowed windows at the corners of the building.

Continue west for 1 block on North Avenue and turn left, following Dearborn Street to Burton Place and the:

7. Bullock Folsom House

As its mansard roof reveals, this 1877 landmark, at 1454 N. Dearborn St., on the southwest corner, takes its inspiration from the French Second Empire. (That roof, incidentally, is shingled in slate, not asphalt.) Neighboring houses at nos. 1450 and 1434 have some of the same French-influenced ornamentation and styling. Across Burton Place just to the north, at 1500 N. Dearborn St., is another example of a rival architectural fashion of the day, the Richardsonian or Romanesque Revival.

Return to the east along Burton, but before crossing North State Parkway, stop at:

8. 4 W. Burton Place

Built as a private residence in 1902 by Richard E. Schmidt for a family named Madlener, this striking building today houses the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. There is something very modern about its appearance: The structure's clean lines and the ornamentation around the entrance were inspired by the work of architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. The Society of Architectural Historians offers tours of the home on Saturdays, along with the Charnley-Persky house.

Continue 1 block farther east to Astor Street. On the northwest corner, at 1500 N. Astor St., is the former:

9. Cyrus McCormick Mansion

New York architect Stanford White designed this building, which was constructed for the Patterson family in 1893. Cyrus McCormick, Jr., bought it in 1914, and David Adler's north addition doubled the size of the building in 1927. The senior McCormick made his fortune by inventing the mechanical reaper, which made it possible to farm vast tracts of wheat on the prairie without depending on seasonal labor at harvest time. Cyrus Sr.'s heirs shared in the wealth, and eventually so many members of the family owned homes near Rush and Erie streets, just south of the Gold Coast, that the neighborhood was known as "McCormicksville."

Like the Fifth Avenue mansions White and his contemporaries built in New York, the McCormick palazzo is an essay in neoclassical detailing. Square and grand, like a temple of antiquity, the construction combines Roman bricks of burnt yellow with touches of terra-cotta trim. The building now is divided into condominiums.

Head north briefly on Astor Street to check out a home with a connection to presidential history:

10. 1525 N. Astor St.

This attractive town house was once the residence of Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving child of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. The younger Lincoln started a private law practice after the Civil War. He remained in Chicago for much of his life, leaving twice during the 1880s and 1890s to serve under presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur as Secretary of War, and later under Benjamin Harrison as ambassador to Britain. On the death of George Pullman, one of his major corporate clients, Lincoln became president of the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1897.

Reversing direction, walk south along Astor Street. Notice the houses at:

11. 1451 & 1449 N. Astor St.

The former, occupying the corner lot, is the work of Howard Van Doren Shaw, built in 1910 according to the so-called "Jacobethan" fashion; a combination of Jacobean and Elizabethan, it revives certain 16th- and 17th-century English architectural features, including narrow, elongated windows, split-level roofs, and multiple chimney stacks. The house at no. 1449 was built around the turn of the century, but the architect of this glorious chateau remains a mystery. Guarding the home's entrance is a somewhat intimidating stone porch, seemingly out of scale. Among the home's other unique characteristics are the big front bay and frieze below the cornice, a scroll decorated with a pattern of shells.

Another neighboring home of interest across the street is:

12. 1444 N. Astor St.

While most of the homes in this area were built in the late 1800s and early decades of the 1900s -- and most took their cues from architectural fashions from centuries before -- this house was on the cutting edge of style when it was built in 1929. An Art Deco masterpiece, it was designed by Holabird & Roche, the same firm that designed Soldier Field football stadium a few years earlier.

Next, walk to 1412 N. Astor St., site of the:

13. Thomas W. Hinde House

This 1892 home, designed by Douglas S. Pentecost, is an homage to the Flemish architecture of the late Middle Ages. The facade has been altered, but some of the original stone ornamentation remains, as do such dominant features as the multipaned diamond-shaped windows.

On the same side of the street, at 1406 N. Astor St., is the:

14. Joseph T. Ryerson House

David Adler designed this 1922 landmark home in the manner of a Parisian hotel. Adler himself supervised the 1931 addition of the top floor and the mansard roof. Woven into the wrought-iron grillwork above the entrance are the initials of the original owners.

Walk to 1365 N. Astor St. to see the landmark:

15. Charnley-Persky House

Shortly before he left the firm of Adler & Sullivan, a then-obscure draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, played a major role in designing this 1892 home. The house's streamlined structure gives it a far more contemporary look than its neighbors, making the case that there is something timeless in Wright's ideas. The building -- appropriately enough -- is now the headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians, which gives tours of the house on Wednesday and more extensive tours including the surrounding area on Saturday. (Visit www.sah.org or call tel. 312/915-0105 for details.)

Walk back to Schiller Street. Cross the street and turn left on North State Parkway, continuing south until the middle of the block to 1340 N. State Pkwy., the original:

16. Playboy Mansion

Little did the original owner of this building, an upright Calvinist named George S. Isham, know how his house would be transformed a mere half-century after it was built in 1899. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner lived here from 1959 to 1974, romping with his Bunnies and celebrities in the indoor pool and lounging in silk pajamas while perusing page layouts in his bedroom. Today that hedonistic past has been erased, and the building has been converted into high-priced condos.

Continue south on State Parkway, then swing east on Goethe Street, back to Astor Street. On opposite corners diagonally across Goethe Street are apartment towers that represent the trend toward high-rise living that began in the 1930s:

17. 1301 & 1260 N. Astor St.

Constructed by architect Philip B. Maher in 1932 and 1931, respectively, these apartment buildings are classics of the sleek modernism that characterized American commercial architecture after World War I. Contrast their timeless style with the 1960s apartment tower at 1300 N. Astor St., by architect Bertrand Goldberg; avant-garde at the time, it has not aged as well.

If you're ready for a snack, turn back north to Goethe Street and head west 2 blocks to Dearborn Street. Turn left (south) and go halfway down the block until you reach:

18. Take a Break 

The welcoming Third Coast coffeehouse, 1260 N. Dearborn St. (tel. 312/649-0730), is more laid-back than the elegant neighborhood surrounding it. Tucked below street level, it has a shabby-cozy vibe and makes a good stop for midmorning coffee or lunch (there's a full menu of sandwiches and salads).

Head south on Dearborn Street to Division Street. Walk 1 block east to State Street, then turn right (south), staying on the east side of the street where State and Rush streets merge, and proceed 2 blocks south to:

19. East Cedar Street

This long block between Rush Street and Lake Shore Drive deserves a look because much of its turn-of-the century scale has been so well preserved, in particular the two clusters of "cottages," nos. 42 to 48 (built in 1896 by businessman Potter Palmer) and 50 to 54 (built in 1892).

Return to Rush Street, walk to the next block south, and turn left on Bellevue Place. At 120 E. Bellevue Place stands the:

20. Bryan Lathrop House

New York architect Charles F. McKim, partner of Stanford White, built this mansion for a local real estate agent and civic leader while staying in Chicago as a lead designer of the World's Columbian Exposition. It helped introduce the Georgian fashion in architecture that replaced the Romanesque Revival throughout the Gold Coast.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.