Heidi Stevens: ‘I find joy there.’ Volunteer architecture tour guide draws healing from a winding river

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When Patricia Grund was growing up in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, she and her sister would ride the Milwaukee Avenue bus downtown just to walk through lobbies.

“I was in love with the buildings,” said Grund, 76.

The Chicago Cultural Center — then a Chicago Public Library — was a favorite, with its stained glass domes and imported marbles.

“But at my age women didn’t go into architecture or math or science,” she said. “You were either a teacher or a nurse.”

She chose nurse, working first as an oncology nurse and later, after earning an MBA from DePaul University, as a regional director for United Healthcare.

Through it all — marriage, children, career changes — architecture tugged at her heart, and in 2001 she enrolled in the nonprofit Chicago Architecture Center’s volunteer docent training program, a three-month dive into the city’s buildings and history and culture.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” she said.

For three years she led walking tours through Chicago’s streets, teaching tourists and locals about the city’s post-fire rebirth, its evolution into a commercial hub, and its famous architecture’s ability to withstand its equally famous wind.

Then she was accepted as a docent in the walking tours’ sister program: the Chicago Architecture Center river cruise aboard Chicago’s First Lady with an open-air upper deck, climate-controlled lower cabin, buildings so close you can practically touch them as you snake through the water. Ninety minutes of liquid, languid architectural bliss.

“I was like, ‘I am home,’” Grund said.

If you happen to have Grund as your tour guide — I did recently — you’ll receive a master class in art deco and neo-Gothic and Jeanne Gang and structural engineering and reversing a river.

“I’ve always leaned toward the scientific stuff more than the artsy,” she told me. “I knit, but I need a pattern.”

You’ll also hear her say this, as the boat is pulling back into the dock alongside Wacker Drive.

“I spent quite a few years with a wonderful man who always told me to always find joy. This is my joy. Thank you for letting me share it with you.”

She says it at the end of every tour.

That man was Bruno Grund, her husband. Bruno was a joyful guy, a doting father and grandfather and an avid Cubs fan. (Patricia has a blue “W 2016” tattoo on her left ankle, an homage to the Cubs World Series win.)

He passed away suddenly in 2021 after experiencing a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.

“It was very unexpected,” she said. “No comorbidities.”

His death was grief layered on top of grief. They had lost their daughter, Carole, 10 years earlier to ALS.

“When my daughter was sick, it helped me to go out and give tours,” Grund said. “It was 90 minutes of peace that I could forget everything going on in my life. I find peace on the river. I find joy there. It’s just been a wonderful place for me.”

And she shares that wonder with others.

I asked Grund if she has a favorite Chicago building.

“I do,” she said. “But it changes all the time.”

RIght now it’s maybe a tie, she said, between 150 North Riverside, a 54-story Goettsch Partners beauty that sits at the confluence of the river’s three branches, and the Old Post Office, a 2.5 million-square-foot building dating back to 1921.

“You’re showing people the city at its best: its most beautiful parts,” she said. “It’s very hard to put into words what these tours and the river mean to me. Maybe it’s because of the life-changing events that have happened to me, but the tours have become a part of me. They’re emotional.”

On the anniversary of her husband’s death, Grund’s son asked her how she planned to spend the day.

“I said, ‘I’m going to go give a tour because they need a sub,’” she said. “My husband would always encourage me to go. If they needed someone to give a tour, he’d always say, ‘Go. It brings you joy. Go.’”

How’s that for a lesson on love? I want you to know joy. If it gives you joy? Go do that. If it brings you peace? Go do that.

And when you can? Try to make that joy and peace — and wonder — contagious.

That way it lives on forever.