Words With Guides: Ronnie Frey

Published on October 27, 2022

What better way is there to learn about the tours we offer, than to meet the guides who build them? Our latest installment is with Whoa!Guide Ronnie Frey, ASID, who has created seven tours for eATLAS that explore the diverse architecture that can be found throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Try Ronnie’s eATLAS tours featuring art deco, cottages, and colorful communities. Chech them all out at our online store!

Ronnie’s tours stem from his professional training. After growing up on a farm in Indiana, he went to college to study interior design in Michigan. As part of his studies, he took classes in architecture and architecture history. Much of his career has been spent as an interior designer, but he took some time away and spent seven years in retail. During this period, he pursued a hobby of photographing doorways and Chicago architecture, posting them on his Instagram account, Doorways of Chicago. Thanks to his keen eye for detail and a pair of really good photo editing apps, he’s able to get professional caliber shots using only his iPhone.

Frey got laid off from a retail job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave him the opportunity to devote more time to the account, and his account exploded. He went from 5,000 followers to about 30,000 by September 2022. The purchase of a drone in the spring of 2021 allowed him to follow Instagram’s pivot to video in a post-TikTok world. He particularly enjoys finding the right piece of music to accompany his videos, although he readily admits he spends too much time on that aspect.

eATLAS helped him become a tour guide

He’d long wanted to create walking tours around his passion but didn’t know how to go about starting it until eATLAS contacted him in late 2020. The next year, he built his Workers Cottages of Old Town Triangle adventure and loved the concept, both the experience of making the tour and the app. He thought it would be fun to conduct the tour in person, and started offering it in groups of up to 16 people. That led to more eATLAS tours, and he’s since adapted his Historic Homes, Cottages & Buildings of Wicker Park and Chicago Art Deco Madness Part 1 tours to in-person experiences.

Ronnie has discovered that he loves sharing his passion for historic architecture. He continues to research the buildings to find additional little-known info about them, which pays off for Ronnie and his guests: he loves to see the look on their faces when they learn the fascinating histories of buildings they would have otherwise walked past without so much as a second thought.

In addition to returning to the design world, Ronnie conducts his tours on weekends. He also draws upon his expertise with Instagram by creating content and helping brands like Choose Chicago grow their accounts.

How would you describe your tours? 

I would call them a historic journey through time, or a time travel experience, because I work at finding not-known history and stories about an area. For instance, in my Old Town tour, I talk a little bit about Charlie Chaplin, because one of the film people he started working with lived on this street. But then I started doing a little bit more research about Charlie so I could add a few more stories about him. It’s one of the greatest compliments I get in my reviews, that people really feel like they traveled back in time.

How would you describe yourself as a tour guide?

I’m very passionate and enthusiastic about what I talk about, so that gets used in my reviews a lot. I love it. I like to inject humor to get people to laugh. I want people to walk away from it going, “That was a tour I couldn’t get anywhere else.” I love when that gets said, too, because I’ve taken a lot of Chicago tours and sometimes it seems like the guides are there to do their job. They’re not giving the next level of engagement, so I try to work that in as much as possible.

What are your top three favorite restaurants in the city?

On my birthday this year, I went to Carson’s Ribs downtown, and it was amazing. I can’t wait to go back. It’s kind of an old, black-and-white Hollywood-ish kind of interior. Lots of wood and the staff is amazing. It’s an older place, so it doesn’t have the whole glamour of the new spaces. Ada Street is another one. It’s just got such a cool atmosphere; you just walk down this weird little brick hallway and it opens up into the restaurant. You feel like you’re going into somebody’s back room. It’s this really cool, dimly lit place with great food, also. I also love Vincent in Andersonville.

What is your favorite city to visit, other than Chicago?

I’d have to say New York and Toronto. They’ve both got great historical architecture, so it would be a toss-up between the two of those.

When you visit another city, are there any places that you ALWAYS go to check out? Like libraries or grocery stores or do you stick to tourist attractions?

If you look at my Instagram much at all, you know I love churches, especially historic churches. So, I always try to hit up those. I like to go to museums and check out what different museums a city has, either for art or history or even something like a ghost museum. I went to Savannah, Georgia, and they have a lot of ghost tours and ghost museums. And I always check out the historic neighborhoods, too. That’s probably the first thing I do, just walk around and then wind up finding cool places, the hidden gems.

What’s your advice for things people should bring with when attending a tour and how do you prepare for one?

Make sure you have comfy walking shoes—it’s funny because someone showed up to one of my tours in flip-flops recently and I was like, “You’re gonna be sore. We’re walking for three miles here.” And then, bottled water, hats, sunblock, and I did a lot of tours this spring in the cold and rain, so I would say umbrellas.

As for my preparation, it’s funny because no matter how well I know a tour and the script—it’s like a performance, so I get butterflies and I get excited when I get off the bus walking over to meet the people. I didn’t realize it was like a performance until I started doing them; I have to be “on” for two hours while also walking two miles.

What’s the hardest part about being a tour guide?

It’s the scheduling of the tours and the handling of the attendees (laughs). That sounds terrible but sometimes you have a person who wants to change the date and there’s a lot of back and forth. There’s really nothing hard about it, so I guess that would be the hardest part.

Try Ronnie’s eATLAS tours featuring art deco, cottages, and colorful communities. Chech them all out at our online store!

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