Inside the Onion Dome: Atop the Intercontinental Chicago Hotel

(Photo: A giddy Yours Truly, looking over the top of Tribune Tower from a neighboring allium.)

[Note: Welcome to my readers today from Gapers Block and YoChicago!]

This year’s Great Chicago Places & Spaces, the Second City’s annual weekend orgy of behind-the-scenes guided architecture tours, gave me the best moment I’ve had in my entire five years in Chicago. On a sunny afternoon, Oak Park pastry chef Chris and I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to literally peer under the skirt of Chicago. Well, really over it…from a surprise visit to the little-known observatory hidden in the onion dome atop Mag Mile’s historic Intercontinental Hotel.

I could fall off my chair just from writing that sentence. For giddy grins, unexpected views, and a peek inside Chicago’s coolest observatory that you never knew existed, browse below to hear–and see–more of my most magical day ever in my adopted sweet home, Chicago.

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(Photo: A good shot to set the stage: Hotel Intercontinental practically hides behind the Tribune Tower on the east side of Mag Mile. Do you see the observatory yet? Credit: marktci.)

As always on a Great Chicago Places & Spaces weekend, I sat my rear on a cold Michigan Avenue sidewalk at 6:15 a.m. with several hundred other architecture buffs to have my pick of the day’s events. Chris and I wanted to do the tour of the new Trump tower–and being a downtown dweller, I let Chris stay asleep in Oak Park while I took a ten minute walk across the Loop to get in line outside the Santa Fe Building.

The Trump tickets went almost as quickly as Segway on the Lakefront always does, and both before I got to the front of the line. Our backup plan was to do the tour of Chicago’s Intercontinental Hotel. That’s the 42-story terra cotta skyscraper next to the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue, former home of the Medinah Athletic Club in the 1920s and 1930s. You’d know it by the big, gold onion dome that sits at the top.

To make a long story short: who knew there was an observatory on top of that onion?

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(Photo: Pay attention to those black voids atop the dome, ’cause that’s where we’re heading! Credit: MerlinsMan.)

And that’s where our tour ended up. After an hour of viewing gorgeous conference rooms, banquet halls, and the grand old indoor swimming pool, our tour guide, architect Nathan Kipnis, and the assistant building engineer said we had one last place to visit, and it would involve a very small elevator and sweeping away some spiders.

Indeed, first it involved a ride on a spacious elevator to the 38th floor, then a ride on a claustrophobia-inducing five-person (and that was pushing it) elevator to the 42nd floor, where we were treated to shallow outdoor terraces on the eastern and western sides of the building. (Boy, am I glad I had my iPhone with me!)

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(Photo: View southwest from the western outdoor terrace.)

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(Photo: A happy pastry chef.)

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(Photo: Looking up at the onion dome from the outdoor terraces.)

Considering that, as a Marina City resident, I get to have an unobstructed outdoor view of Chicago from our 61st floor roofdecks anytime I want, the unique vista from the Intercontinental roof was astounding. From peering directly at the top of the Tribune Tower to looking down onto the Wrigley Building and NBC Tower, it was an unexpectedly delightful perspective.

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(Photo: View south towards the Tribune Tower from the western outdoor terrace.)

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(Photo: View southeast towards NBC Tower from the eastern outdoor terrace.)

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(Photo: View north up the Magnificent Mile from the eastern outdoor terrace.)

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(Photo: View southeast towards Helmut Jahn’s glassy new 600 North Fairbanks Court from the eastern outdoor terrace.)

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(Photo: View west towards Grand Plaza and the newly monickered “Montgomery” condos from the western outdoor terrace.)

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(Photo: View northwest towards the dowdier Chicago Marriott from the western outdoor terrace.)

Next, a walk up two flights of rusty iron stairs brought us to the mechanical room at the bottom of the dome. There wasn’t much to see in this stuffy, windowless space except for an exhaust motor and the bottom of the observation deck’s concrete floor. But most of us explored the space anyway, the cost of which was a five-second, crouched duck walk underneath a massive exhaust shaft that cuts diagonally through the dome, connecting the basement furnaces with the combination chimney and (never used) zeppelin mooring mast that sprouts immediately north of the dome.

Then it was back out to the landing, where sunlight shined down through the rust of a spiral iron staircase. And then we were in the onion, as if arriving inside a whimsical golden lighthouse with holes instead of windows.

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(Photo: Atop the creaky spiral staircase that leads to the onion dome observatory.)

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(Photo: Narrow windows overlooking a narrow walkway at the entrance to the onion dome observatory.)

That was the most surprising part: not only does that gold dome contain a small, circular terrace observatory, but instead of windows, the dome is perforated with openings. And that meant lots of opportunity to literally hang outside of the dome and lean out over Michigan Avenue. (Also surprising, the dome is really painted cinderblock, although rumor has it that gold leaf will soon be applied as part of a restoration project).

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(Photo: The structure of the dome observatory: a narrow, stepped circular walkway surrounded mostly by open air, and compact structural columns holding up the observatory roof.)

The idea that I would ever find myself in that dome, much less sticking my head up and out of it and staring eye-to-eye with the tippy-top of the Tribune Tower, would have been straight out of Fantasyland before Saturday. And don’t you know Chris and I walked away after the tour with grins on our faces like we two Disneyland fanatics had just hopped off of Space Mountain.

And I mean the good one in Anaheim, folks.

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(Photo: Kipnis and company, at the top of the dome.)

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(Photo: Looking towards the very top of the Intercontinental Hotel from the onion dome: the combination exhaust stack and (never-used) zeppelin dock.)

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(Photo: View south from the onion dome observatory.)

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(Photo: Group gaping, and the top of a soon-to-be-sunburned pastry chef’s head.)

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(Photo: More contented group gaping, and the headgear of someone who’s watched one too many episodes of Rhoda.)

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(Photo: View southwest from the onion dome observatory.)

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(Photo: I look like I’m outside, but I’m really standing on the top step in one of the voids in the side of the dome. Because of the curve of the structure, my head is actually sticking out above the dome.)

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(Photo: Trump, don’t feel too rejected. In 80 years or so, you may be a revered architectural landmark, too.)

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(Photo: Goodbye, little open-air onion dome. Thanks for the great views. Not so much the pigeon poop and spider webs. Where did I put that hand sanitizer…)

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