Meet our new friend, Larry Ambrose, a Chicagoan for half a century. On a frigid January day, he showed my wife and me around the downtown Loop, took us to all the sculptures I had asked to see (by Picasso, Miró, Calder, and Dubuffet), and pointed out a Chagall I didn’t know existed. Almost as important, Ambrose directed us to a handy spot to use the restroom (Sears on State Street).
Ambrose could be your friend, too. Although he made us feel special, we are two of dozens of people the semiretired management consultant has befriended since he became a Chicago Greeter in 2009. The free service, which turns 10 in April, matches visitors with their own private greeters, some 200 enthusiastic locals of many ages and backgrounds who have volunteered to tout their hometown in two- to four-hour tours. The concept started in New York in 1992, and while it operates in only three US cities (Houston is the third), it has spread to other continents.
For Ambrose, 73, the joy is in seeing others delight in the discovery of Chicago’s treasures, especially if their preconceived notions are upended.
“I get a bang out of showing people what they can see here, and especially things they might not know about on their own,’’ Ambrose said. “I think a city helps define its personality by sharing it with other people. For a long time, people viewed us as just another Rust Belt city. That’s changed, but even so, people often will go to New York, San Francisco, and Boston first. Then after they tour Chicago they’ll say, ‘I don’t know why it took me so long to get here.’ ’’
To book a personalized greeter tour, advance reservations are required (there also are shorter on-demand “InstaGreeter’’ options). I signed up online a couple of weeks before our visit, choosing “public art’’ from options including art and architecture, food, shopping, gay Chicago, ethnic Chicago, film, and nature, and spanning more than 25 neighborhoods. (A “Greeters Choice’’ option is also available.) We wanted to stay around the Loop, as we had planned to venture out into other parts of town on our own. Had we traveled beyond downtown, a free transit pass - and the all-important demonstration on how to use it - would have been provided.
A week after submitting the form, I received an e-mail from Ambrose, welcoming us to Chicago. Greeters choose whether to reach out ahead of time, and I was grateful he had. I appreciated his warm Midwestern welcome and description of himself. We would meet at the Chicago Cultural Center, where all tours begin.
“I’m 5 feet 7 inches and bald on top, with a smile on my face,’’ he wrote, including a head shot. A few days before we left home, he e-mailed again, including his cellphone number and recommending we bundle up because a cold front was moving in.
As promised, Ambrose was waiting for us, and though he had forgotten to mention he had shaved off the beard he had in the photo, he was still easy to spot.
“Let’s s it and plot out some general things, and then we’ll wing it,’’ Ambrose said, leading us to one of the tables greeters use to get acquainted with their charges. He thumbed through a worn guide titled “Chicago Public Art’’ and fanned the pages of a new booklet published by the Chicago Transit Authority about art installed at dozens of transit stops. When I asked where I could get a copy, Ambrose wasn’t sure, then offered up his own, saying he could find another one. He had also printed out a couple of pages from the website of an organization called the Chicago Public Art Group.
“They’ve done this project putting mosaics in underpasses from the street to the lake,’’ he said. “In the past, those tunnels were dark and scary. Now they’re works of art. We can try to see one if there’s time.’’
He surveyed the winter gear of his thin-blooded guests from North Carolina and deemed us passable, while we fawned over his heavy-duty Eddie Bauer parka with fur-lined hood augmented with a Russian-style cap.
“In Chicago, we have coats for every five degrees,’’ said Ambrose, who relies on public transportation and walking to get around. When he and his wife moved from the suburbs to a high rise on Lake Michigan two decades ago, they sold their car.
Ambrose’s specialties include the Loop, lakefront, Hyde Park (the Obamas’ neighborhood), Michigan Avenue (“the Magnificent Mile’’ of upscale shopping), and his own neighborhood of Streeterville, which he told us originated in the late 1880s when scallywag George Streeter claimed part of the shoreline.
“He set up shop on a barge just offshore back when the lake came up to where Michigan Avenue is. Most people don’t realize how much of Chicago was once underwater and has been filled in.’’
Tidbits like that throughout the tour reminded me of the advantages of being with a knowledgeable guide.
Ambrose took us through the neoclassical Chicago Cultural Center, built in 1897, which we never would have known to explore. “This used to be the library,’’ he said, leading us down hallways to the vaulted lobby and marble grand staircase. As if from the heavens, a chorus of angelic voices wafted down.
“That’s probably the Chicago Children’s Choir rehearsing,’’ Ambrose said, an assumption confirmed when we reached the top of the staircase to find dozens of youngsters singing under the world’s largest Tiffany dome.
From our third-floor perch, Ambrose took us to the window overlooking Millennium Park, arguably the city’s best-known landmark after its completion in 2004. “We call it the world’s largest green roof because underneath is a parking garage and commuter rail station,’’ Ambrose said. “It used to be just spotty grass and scrubby trees. Let’s go see it.’’
Our first stop was at the park’s centerpiece, a curvy stainless steel reflective sculpture by Anish Kapoor.
“Everyone calls it ‘The Bean,’ ’’ Ambrose said. “If you use its real name, ‘Cloud Gate,’ half the people won’t know what you’re talking about.’’
He pointed out the highlights of the gleaming concert band shell designed by Frank Gehry and the nearby “Crown Fountain,’’ an interactive video sculpture and fountain by conceptual artist Jaume Plensa.
“It’s my favorite part of the park in the summer,’’ he said. “Kids are sliding and crawling, and everyone gets soaked. Then every so often water shoots out of the mouth of the face on the screen and the kids go wild.’’
As we admired the Chicago skyline towering like a mountain range behind the concert pavilion, Ambrose noted, “When I moved here after college in 1961, that Prudential tower was the only building here. Can you imagine?’’
We couldn’t, but we appreciated his flashback.
From there we used my greatest-hits list to visit downtown sculptures, a job made much more efficient with a Chicagoan leading the way.
The only thing Ambrose could not help with was the temperature, around 20 degrees with a wicked wind chill. But he did know where to take us to thaw out, which he had been offering to do repeatedly until we finally agreed.
“Let’s go to a place you’ll want to see and get you warmed up at the same time,’’ Ambrose said as he guided us up Dearborn Street and inside the toasty lobby of the landmark Marquette Building. Built in 1895, it is now owned by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the country’s largest private philanthropic organizations and presenters of the so-called “genius grants.’’
“These are some of the best mosaics I’ve ever seen. See how they just shine,’’ Ambrose said, motioning upward to a circular panel covered with shimmering images of Father Jacques Marquette, the French Jesuit missionary who in 1675 explored the Great Lakes region.
We were thankful for the hidden treasure and the heat, which warmed us up enough to tackle a 15-minute walk to the closest art-covered underpass. Ambrose did his best to get us there, but the route, along the Chicago Riverwalk, was buried under ice and snow.
With our checklist completed in under three hours, we said our goodbyes, but Ambrose stayed with us in spirit. The next day we used the transit public art guide he had given us to station-hop our way to a handful of murals and mosaics. Our pal would have been proud.