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Chicago's well-trained docents

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1982


All necks crane upward to check the height of what was once Chicago's tallest structure.

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It's the 16-story Manhattan Building in the South Loop, designed and built in 1890 by William LeBaron Jenney and promptly nicknamed ''Hercules'' for its then-colossal height and size. Not exactly a giant, compared with such soaring modern works of steel as the nearby Sears Tower and John Hancock Center.

Nonetheless, it is a tower worthy of attention, as Doris Lohner, a Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) tour guide, tries to tell us.

''Now what do you suppose Jenney was trying to do in this space?'' she asks, sifting the answers before seizing on one.

''Right, he was trying to give the building as much light and air as he could by those bay windows.''

The day is magnificent, and we are off and running to inspect yet another Jenney landmark, the Leiter II Building, a block or two away on State Street. Suddenly, Mrs. Lohner stops in her tracks.

''Let's stand here because I want you to see the full sweep of the building, '' she says. ''What's different about it? What about ornamentation and rhythm? Do you see any?'' Decked out in sturdy brown walking shoes for the occasion, this retired junior high school history and language teacher admits she keeps her tours on the move.

''If I'm going to cover the ground in two hours, I have to walk fast,'' she explains.

Mrs. Lohner is one of about 550 Chicagoans who, over the last 12 years, have taken an intensive 10-week course offered by the CAF to encourage greater appreciation of the city's rich architectural heritage.

To spread the resulting light and enthusiasm, graduates lead more than 30 CAF tours - ranging from a bike tour of homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in suburban Oak Park and the standard Chicago Loop walk to strolls past the monuments of Graceland Cemetery and special tours in historic trains along the city's elevated tracks.

While the ranks of active tour guides have become winnowed to about half the number of course graduates over the years, most are amateurs like Mrs. Lohner - leading busy lives in other career fields, but enjoying architecture enough to give tours for no pay.

While CAF is grateful to have volunteers, it won't accept just anyone who wants to take the course.

''I had to wait eight months after applying,'' notes Wendy Kilcollin, a recent graduate and an architect who recently moved to Chicago from Washington, D.C. ''They're pretty selective.''

Last year CAF graduated about 60 volunteers, more than it could usefully assign to tours. As a result, this year's class was limited to less than half that number.

To qualify, candidates must be interviewed and sign a contract, pledging to attend all course sessions (usually 10 consecutive Mondays or Saturdays during the winter months), to complete all the homework and tests, and to give 40 hours of tours in the year after they finish. Absences are not lightly tolerated.

''In some ways it's a bit overregulated, but we care a great deal about quality,'' says Jethro Hurt, an education consultant to the CAF, who has taught the course over the last five years. ''It's not insulting training; it's challenging,'' he added. ''It's amazing how many people are talked down to by TV programs, and we don't want any part of that.''

''It's really a university-level course,'' offers Shuli Graham, a former New Yorker who has a master's degree in computer programming and who recently completed the CAF program. ''I'd say I put as much work in as I did at Columbia Graduate School.''

''It's like pledging a fraternity,'' says Al Vagner, a buyer for Sears, Roebuck who got interested in Chicago's architecture when he began reading books on local history a few years ago. ''You look back on it fondly, but you wouldn't exactly want to do it again.''

Mr. Hurt, by his own admission, is a hard taskmaster. It is with obvious pleasure that he admits that his students gave him the ''Idi Amin'' award a few years ago for having worked them so hard.

''He writes superb test questions that make you think,'' recalls Joy Hebert, an education consultant who recently completed her second CAF course to guide tours through the newly acquired Widow Clark House. ''I wrote for three solid hours on the final exam. It wasn't facts and figures. It was 'Consider the significance of balloon-frame construction in Chicago history' or 'Describe the steps in the construction of a building.' ''

The Chicago Architecture Foundation and its guide program emerged in the mid- 1960s when a printing company, which had been operating out of Glessner House just south of the Loop, moved to Pittsburgh. The granite home, which resembles a fortress on the outside, has a handsome wood-paneled, 35-room interior and an inner courtyard. The house was designed by architect Henry Hobbs Richardson and built in 1886 for J. J. Glessner, the founder of the International Harvester Company.