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Queen of the River

Tour guide Joan Lindsay (C52, GSESP74) brings Chicago to life on her architectural river tours.


by Kim Weisensee (J08)

“After finishing the World Trade Center in New York City in the early 1970s, architect Minoru Yamasaki approached his next client, Montgomery Ward & Co., to suggest designing its new office building with marble corners. The company officials agreed, saying, ‘We don’t need people arguing over corner offices.’”

Joan Viant Lindsay (C52, GSESP74) delivers the punch line, smiles over her microphone and pauses while passengers laugh and look at the old Montgomery Ward headquarters, home to the world’s first mail-order company, on the North Branch of the Chicago River.

After 15 years of tour guiding on the Ft. Dearborn with Chicago Line Cruises, Lindsay can still keep a tourist’s attention for 90 minutes. Toned and bronzed, bubbly and charismatic, Lindsay mixes North Shore flair with South Shore hospitality, treating every passenger like a Chicago VIP.

River cruisers lean forward in their seats, listening to Lindsay’s stories of the City of Broad Shoulders’ broad-minded architects.

Many people know the popular history of Chicago (Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and corrupt politicians) and recognize the skyline, but Lindsay makes the construction of the metropolis sound like a fairy tale with her anecdotes about the architects. To her, each building has its own combination of “depth, rhythm and texture.”

David Schulz (KSM74), director of Northwestern’s Infrastructure Technology Institute, takes his civil environmental engineering class on the tour every spring and specifically requests Lindsay.

 “She has an encyclopedic knowledge,” says Schulz, who likes the way Lindsay combines technical descriptions with practical applications.

She explains how the Citicorp Center, the skyscraper built above the Ogilvie Transportation Center, looks like “a glass slipcover draped over a steel frame,” a beautiful design that somewhat resembles a cash register. She conjures images of stock boys roller-skating through miles of shelves at the riverside Montgomery Ward Catalog House as she points out the National Historic Landmark’s horizontal lines and prairie-style architecture.

After five years on the river, Lindsay saw demand for a book to complement her tour. Her first edition, the self-published Chicago from the River, came out in 1996 and sold about 20,000 copies, and the second edition was released in 2005. Sometimes, Lindsay admits, she stops by the Michigan Avenue Borders to see how her book is faring.

Lindsay took most of the photographs for the book herself with the help of friends in very high places, literally. Lorry Wolf, Lindsay’s passenger a few years back with an affinity for architecture, invited Lindsay to take pictures from her 40th-floor apartment in Lake Point Towers, the only high rise at Navy Pier.

Aerial photographer Robert Cameron, publisher of Above Books, introduced Lindsay to his helicopter pilot, who put her and her camera in the air. Cameron also introduced her to David R. Phillips, who gave Lindsay 13 historical Chicago images that appear in the book. (Northwestern’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections also provided two historical images.)

Lindsay, who worked in the advertising and promotions department of Life magazine in the 1950s, first discovered her interest in architecture during graduate school when she studied architectural history and design with Ann Gibbs, an assistant professor of art who taught at Northwestern from 1944 to 1980. When Lindsay took the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s docent course, “all the light bulbs went off.”

In honor of her 50th Northwestern reunion in 2002, Lindsay gave a river tour as a culmination to the weekend. Her tour has become a reunion tradition. Fifty alumni and guests attended the tour during the Spring Reunion and Commencement Weekend in June.

“She takes it beyond just explaining who the architect was and when he or she built the building,” says Carolyn Sparks, the Northwestern Alumni Association’s director of reunions and alumni recognition. “She knows so many stories behind the buildings, she really does bring the city to life.”

Joan Lindsay leads a tour on the Chicago River.
Joan Lindsay leads a tour on the Chicago River. Photo by Andrew Campbell