Geoffrey Baer: Chicago's storyteller extraordinaire

“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I pass that every day, and I never knew that,’” says Geoffrey Baer. “And in doing this work, I find that there’s endless things that I never knew.”

Baer, an Emmy-award winning producer who has been with Chicago’s WTTW since 1989, is widely known as the host of multiple specials devoted to the city’s history. A collection of his video tours of Chicago consists of 16 DVDs and 25 hours of film.

In 2013, Baer hosted 10 Buildings that Changed America, which aired nationally on PBS. It led to three sequels, recently broadcast by PBS, spotlighting 10 homes, parks, and towns across the U.S.

The 10 That Changed America series “is a really different direction,” says Baer. “The local tour shows have been at the core of what I’ve done since 1995,” when he hosted the first special for WTTW. “From that, we felt like we had learned a lot about how to tell local history and particularly the history of architecture and the built environment. And we wanted to bring what we’ve learned here locally to a national audience.”

Baer has been a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation since 1987, and he leads at least five tours each year. “It’s a good insider network of people,” he says. “They’re always sharing tidbits. And when you’re giving a tour as a docent, you have a live audience. So it’s a good way to keep your skills sharp. It’s like standup. You really see what’s working and what’s not working.”

Baer’s upcoming projects include a special devoted to Navy Pier, which turns 100 this year. It will premiere this fall. He’s also preparing to begin work on another update to his first local special for WTTWChicago by Boat. It originally premiered in 1995 and was remade in 2005.

Highlights from a recent SC conversation with Baer:

On having a dream job

For most jobs, if you travel for work, you’re getting off an airplane and going to a bland conference room that could be anywhere, having a meeting, and going back home.

Our job is to go to places and see the coolest thing to see in that place, the defining thing about that place. And we get the run of them—we will spend several days in these iconic places, Monticello, Falling Water, Taos Pueblo. By and large, we get to get into every nook and cranny of these places. And that is incredibly exciting.

Why architecture is key

My first show of this type was the river tour, Chicago by Boat, in 1995. But as those local shows evolved over 10 to 15 years, they became more and more about stories. So, when it came time to look at what we might do nationally, we went back to where we started, which was architectureknowing that architecture broadens out into history more generally. And not just history. One of the things we’ve been saying with this series is that, unless you live in a national park or a virgin forest, the world around you was designed by somebody, for better or worse.

Favorite local story from 10 That Changed America

Marina City was a great one. I’ve been a docent with the Chicago Architecture Foundation  since 1987, and I’ve been doing the river tour since 1988. So I’ve been floating past Marina City, telling the story from the perspective of the river, for going on 30 years. So it was terrific to do a much deeper dive into it. Because it’s like a poster child for what’s happening all across Americapeople moving back into the city.

What’s mind-blowing about Marina City is that [Chicago architect] Bertrand Goldberg had this idea in 1959, 1960, when people were abandoning the city and fleeing to the suburbs. And the government was abetting this, and encouraging what we now know was the worst kind of land use. And here was Goldberg saying: You should live in the city. So it was decades ahead of its time.

 Marina City

Marina City

Marina City was popularly called a city within a city, because back then, nobody wanted to live in the city. So you had to give people assurance when they rented there that there would be a grocery store for people to shop at and a movie theater and a bowling alley, and stores. So that they could feel like they weren’t marooned within a wasteland.

We tend to forget that the time it was built, what we know as River North now was really a cruddy area. As were Old Town and parts of Lincoln Park. So, that office building at the north side of the complex is really a giant fortress, up against the north side of Chicago, walling you off from that part of the city.

Creating compelling television

Our local tour shows, which have gotten us a tremendous amount of love from the public, are almost languorous in their pace. It’s television, so you can’t do a master’s thesis, but they’re like 90 minute shows. The national series is, by design, super fast paced. But in television, five minutes is a long time.

You have to decide what story to tell in five minutes, and you have to decide to tell a story that can be told in five minutes. And you’re always going to meet with the disapproval of some people. But we want to make a show that will be seen by, and uplift and educate, a broad audience.

Favorite Chicago stories

I like stories that have some humor in them. And I tend to like outrageous characters. George Streeter (1837-1921) is as outrageous as anyone we’ve ever had in our history.

Here’s this guy who was kind of a ne’er do well, a circus promoter, always trying work a scam of some sort. And he decides he’s going to run guns to Honduras. So he gets this leaky steam boat in Milwaukee and starts sailing it down the lake. And he’s not any kind of boat captain, so he runs aground off the shore of Lake Michigan [in 1886], where the John Hancock building is today.

This was a notorious district already—called “the Sands.” It was an area where sand had filled in north of the mouth of the Chicago River. They had put piers out into the lake to protect the mouth of the river, and because of the way the current is in Lake Michigan, sand had built up against the pier. When you stick a pier in the lake, you get a beach north of it.

So here he is. He’s run aground. And he abandons his plan to run guns and decides to live there. And he starts inviting contractors who are excavating in Chicago to dump dirt around his boat, which makes the area a little bigger. And pretty soon he’s kind of the mayor of this property. And he starts selling it. He doesn’t own it, but he starts selling the land, and inviting squatters to build shacks on the property. So it becomes a shanty town. And he forges the president’s signature on a document saying that he only has to abide by federal law, not local law, since this land doesn’t appear on any maps.

So it’s not part of the land that local authorities have any sovereignty over. And the local leaders try for decades to get rid of him. There are literally battles—people are actually killed. They send armies of police down there. And the media loved him. But eventually they got him for selling alcohol on Sundays. The authorities came down and burned the whole shanty town. That property, Streeterville, is now some of the most expensive real estate in Chicago.

I like infrastructure stories. The lake near the shore was heavily polluted, and our drinking water comes from the lake. So they decided to try to draw the drinking water from three miles out in the lake. Well, that meant they had to dig a tunnel under the lake. In 1869.

And they did this by floating a crib three miles out into the lake, and establishing an intake crib there. And then they started digging this tunnel from both ends—from out in the lake toward the shore, and from the shore toward the lake. And after I don’t know how much digging—by hand, with picks and shovels—the two tunnels met, and they were just seven inches off. It was an extraordinary thing that they were able to do that.