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The Chicago Architecture Foundation

Finally, all the planning is complete! The speakers are confirmed, the homework assignments for each week are prepared, the sponsors are matched up, and I’ve double-checked that all the buildings are still standing!

As I put together the decent education program tor the upcoming training class, I get a rush of excitement knowing that soon I will initiate a new class of 50 enthusiastic men and women from many different backgrounds. Each of these docents-in-training comes together in the name of one mission: to educate the public about architecture and the built environment in Chicago.

I’m always amazed that people wait in line to join this program each year. In the next ten weeks, they will be working on homework for two hours each night, spending approximately four hours each week outside looking at buildings, and practicing, revising, and practicing again!

Each docent-in-training starts his or her career at The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) with two downtown, or “Loop,” walking tours. “The Early Skyscrapers Tour” highlights commercial buildings from after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 until the beginning of World War II. “The Modern and Beyond Tour” focuses on Modern and Postmodern architecture from 1950 to present day commissions.

Each year, the volunteer coordinator and the curator of education prepare a course in which speakers from all over the city of Chicago are invited to discuss issues related to these two Loop walking tours. In the weeks ahead, the docents-in-training will meet architects, urban planners, university professors, and construction consultants. Experienced CAF docents will introduce them to the process of theme building, creating cohesive tours, and presentation skills. The city is our museum and working professionals are our resources.

History of CAF

The Chicago Architecture Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that is the only group dedicated exclusively to enhancing the public’s awareness and appreciation of Chicago’s outstanding architectural legacy.

CAF was started in 1966 when a group of concerned preservationists saved the Glessner House, one of the few examples of architect H. H. Richardson’s work in Chicago, from destruction. Since then, this outstanding example of 19th century design has been restored and opened to the public. In 1995, it became its own museum along with the Henry B. Clarke house, the oldest building in Chicago. (These two houses are now officially called Prairie Avenue House Museums.) The split from the houses allowed the Chicago Architecture Foundation to focus exclusively on a comprehensive offering of tours, lectures, exhibits, and youth education programs in the Chicago metropolitan area.

The Docent Body

Our intense docent education program was developed in 1971 to prepare volunteers to lead a wide variety of architectural tours throughout metropolitan Chicago. More than 1,000 docents have completed this program.

We currently have 350 docents on our roster, with 335 docents active each year and fulfilling their 30 required annual tour hours. Approximately fifteen docents hold emeritus status, meaning that they are exempt from fulfilling this annual requirement.

The tours are a combination of exposition and inquiry format. Docents conduct tours on foot, bike, bus, and river boat. Our volunteers stand up to Chicago’s extremities whether it is a hot, sticky 110 degrees, or a bone chilling -30 degrees!

CAF docents are lifelong learners who want to teach others about this city’s architectural treasures. They possess a civic pride for Chicago, an enthusiasm for intellectual challenges, and a strong sense of sharing. For the most part, they have earned a higher degree at the university level.

The least similar characteristics among docents are geographic location, age, and economic background. Docents come from all over the metropolitan area of Chicago, including city neighborhoods and suburbs. Docents include younger men, who are scarce at most art and history museums. Interestingly, twenty-six percent are men and seventy-four percent are women, and ages range from recent college graduate to the retired. Approximately twenty percent are in the 25 – 40 year old bracket, fifty-five percent range 40 – 60 years of age, fifteen percent are age 60 -70, and ten percent are above 70 years of age.

Several occupations are represented among the docents, including university professors, television producers, architects, homemakers, paralegals, real estate brokers, elementary school teachers, dentists, nurses, administrative assistants, and librarians, to name just a few. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds work together at CAF, making the organization feel like a community.

Docent Recruitment

The majority of applicants learn about our volunteer program through docents, on our tours, and through our membership. Docent candidates are highly intrigued by the subject of architecture and want to be among a group of people who share their same interest. Many candidates have planned for years to become CAF docents. Having given “unofficial” tours to visiting friends and family, the applicants want to be official!

Docent Training

The docent education program is one of the strongest programs sponsored by CAF. Prior to that first public tour, all docents must take a 10 week training program in which they meet once a week from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. The success of our training program starts with the flexibility. We provide volunteer opportunities for every schedule. The training course is offered on Thursdays and Saturdays, and tours are conducted seven days a week.

Lectures, tour demonstration, tour practice, exercises, and games that solidify facts, observations, and interpretation techniques are all part of the training course. Each week, homework is assigned that helps our volunteers develop and write their own tours. Docents-in-training are also matched up with “sponsors,” experienced docents who mentor them through the entire process from the first day of class. These sponsors are responsible for practicing and certifying the docents-in-training.

Docent Program Evaluation

As with all cultural organizations, we have issues about quality that we continue to face. Ongoing evaluation is one of the biggest challenges to our docent program. The only required evaluation is a “follow-up tour” that is to be completed at the end of the docent’s first year of doing public tours. The sponsor who certified the docents-in-training takes public tours to see how they have progressed and how they interact with their audience.

The docent council provides peer evaluation in the event of a complaint from the public about a docent’s performance. If a docent receives a public complaint in writing about their tour, they are contacted by a member of the Standards Committee. If the complaint warrants further information, a member of this committee will observe that person’s next tour.

Presently, our 31 -year-old organization is looking to establish a formal process that would evaluate each decent on a regular basis.

Creating a Cohesive Tour

Docents are encouraged to write their tours using themes. Early in docent training, they are asked to incorporate a unifying thread that creates a cohesive tour (allowing the visitors to compare and contrast buildings). Themes tor the downtown walking tours might be the philosophy of the First Chicago School of Architecture, zoning laws, technological advances that made the skyscraper possible, or the influence of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition on commercial buildings. Children’s downtown walking tours might have themes based on structure, lines, or ornamentation. Docent-led tours interpret the architecture objectively in order for the public to form their own opinions. Their tours help the public understand the building’s visual organization, historic importance, and design influences.

Educational Programming

CAF’s mission statement, “to educate the public about architecture and the built environment,” signals that educational programming is our primary goal. We have a comprehensive program of tours, lectures, exhibits, and youth education programs, all designed to educate the public on historic and recent architectural works in Chicago. Programs are not solely for our membership, but rather reach out to the general public. Our scope provides for the adult learner down to the elementary school child.

CAF’s dedicated docents are the front line to our educational programs, providing 65 different architectural tours throughout the year. Docents are instrumental in educating the public about architecture, and CAF actively continues to educate docents through opportunities created by the docent council’s Continuing Education Committee.

The Audience

CAF is unique in that we have always given public docent-guided tours of our collection — the architecture of the city of Chicago. We serve an average of 75,000 visitors on docent-guided tours each year.

Most docents are attracted to our volunteer experience because they are interested in working with adults, our largest audience. However, CAP’s program offerings for children grow stronger and docents continue to become more involved. Docents lead a downtown walking tour for grades five through eight. CAP also offers high school groups a downtown walking tour and an Architecture River Cruise.

For more than ten years, CAP docents have been involved with the Chicago Board of Education’s Off-Campus Museum Program, in which Chicago cultural institutions provide on-site learning experiences. Each Wednesday afternoon, two instructors meet a class of fifteen Chicago Public High School students and supplement their regular high school curriculum with lessons, field trips, and projects about Chicago’s architecture.

CAF’s Youth Education Department offers teacher training workshops that educate metropolitan school teachers about ways to use architecture in the classroom. Docent-led tours of Chicago’s neighborhoods are an important aspect of these workshops. Docents also develop weekend family workshops based on our curriculum for grades K – 8. This curriculum uses a language-experience approach to teaching architecture in the classroom.

Special Tour Offerings

CAF offers a variety of public tours throughout the metropolitan area. We are always filling requests for special group tours, which may sometimes be tailored toward a civic, professional, or social group’s needs. We serve children’s school groups on field trips, as well as providing a slide presentation for less mobile groups, such as residents of nursing homes and retirement communities.

Special needs are always a challenge we are willing to work with. Chicago’s architecture is an important attraction for many visitors and we often get requests for tours in foreign languages. A small percentage of docents are able to give tours in foreign languages only for prearranged groups. We continue to increase our number of bilingual docents in French, German, Japanese, and Spanish by advertising our docent program in local foreign language newspapers. Ifwe are unable to provide bilingual docents for groups, interpreters are hired in the foreign language, as well as American Sign for the hearing impaired.

Audience members with physical limitations are welcome on tours, but wheelchair and walker accessibility are a challenge, considering we tour throughout the city. The city of Chicago provides ramped curbs, and automatic doors are found on most buildings. Docents are aware of these amenities and accommodate these needs on their tours.

Docent Program Strengths

CAF offers flexible volunteer opportunities for a variety of schedules. Not only do we schedule public tours seven days a week, but we offer the same excellent docent training on Thursdays and Saturdays. Another strength in the docent program is the high retention rate of volunteers. There is a strong fellowship that continues to year after year.

Docents always have opportunities to be more involved with different departments of the organization. They work in public programming, from scheduling lectures to developing children’s programs. Volunteers also help with planning and fundraising by serving on boards, or selling raffle tickets at the benefits. They also have the ability to initiate special projects for CAF such as the New Projects Committee, which provides special tours of newly constructed buildings.

Docents feel a strong sense of ownership at CAF. Not only do they write their own tours, but they are a self-governing body. The docent council consists of fifteen representatives who meet once a month. There are five highly active committees on the council. The docent-at-large is a voting representative for the docent council on the board of trustees. Docents also have their own monthly publication, Docent News, which offers architectural information, social and continuing education opportunities, class schedules, tour statistics, and tour schedules.


The Chicago Architecture Foundation is very proud of the docent body. Without the docents there would be no CAF. We get calls and visits from many organizations from around the country that recognize and model themselves after our high quality tour and docent programs. Many V. I. P.’s, such as the 50 Democratic Senators for last year’s national convention, have specifically asked for private docent-led tours of Chicago’s architecture. Recently, Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, requested his favorite docent to narrate a private architectural river cruise for him and the Prime Minister of Singapore.

Now that the docent training class has started, I’m inspired by the dedication towards our mission. And, I’m enthused by the discussions we have in class about architectural history, movements, and architects that shaped our city; by the architectural scavenger hunts used to teach new initiates secret architectural gems; and the feisty team spirit during Modern and Postmodern Docent Jeopardy, which solidifies facts on these styles. This is what learning is all about!

Barbara Hrbek is the volunteer coordinator for The Chicago Architecture Foundation, located in Chicago, Illinois.

Hrbek, Barbara. “The Chicago Architecture Foundation,” The Docent Educator 8.1 (Autumn 1998): 10-13.

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