This piece was written in 2001 for a friend who was to spend a week in my hometown, Chicago. I think it provides still a valuable personal view of the city, although a few things have changed since that time: the wonderful old Berghoff Restaurant is gone; the venerable Marshall Field Department Store has become Macy’s.
If you view my multi-volume collection of Chicago postcards (Chuckman’s Collection, http://chuckmancollection.blogspot.com/), you can get an even better feel for some of the things discussed here.
If you look at a site called The Overflow at 79th (http://groupchi.com/gallery3/), you will find many albums of personal photographs and memories about growing up in a Chicago neighborhood, among them Chuckman’s Places.
CHICAGO, A PERSONAL AND SENTIMENTAL TOUR
A word about addresses in Chicago: The city has the clearest-to-understand system in the world with a grid centered on State and Madison downtown. Addresses running west of State have West in the name; those running east of State have East. Addresses north of Madison have North in the name; those south have South.
Many cities go this far, but Chicago’s grid has additional helpful information. A city block is regarded as being “one hundred.” Thus, 250 West Something is about two and half blocks west of State. 7900 North Somewhere is seventy-nine blocks north of Madison. You know exactly where something is when given an accurate address. And with roughly eight blocks to the mile, you can quickly understand about how far away it is. This numbering system even extends into many old-tier suburbs; thus 159th Street near Harvey is 159 blocks, or just about twenty miles from Madison downtown.
The great vistas, neighborhoods, museums, and buildings of Chicago are just too many and too far-flung to take in on a brief visit. Chicago has long been a very ambitious city, and its buildings and institutions clearly show this. The city has declined from its height of population in the 1950s (then, the city proper was over 3 1/2 million; now it is about 2.9 million, but greater Chicago – what locals call “Chicagoland” – has 6 to 7 million. Its cultural institutions reflect support of a large population.). I have highlighted some points of special interest below, some of which will not be found in the typical tourist blurbs. Taking in some mix of these will give anyone a very good appreciation of Chicago’s best and of its rich and interesting history.
Wacker Drive, where your hotel is located, runs along the Chicago River. It is a beautiful street, and it has a unique characteristic of being two-tiered – there is an underground area (not scenic), used for deliveries, etc. It is also an important connector to expressways. Unfortunately, Chicago has just started a major two-year rebuilding of Wacker Drive. I have no idea of how or whether this will affect pedestrian access in the area. If you look across the river you will see the famous Marina City Apartments on the river (built 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg). The “spiral” part is parking. Years ago, every year they lined all sixty floors with strings of white Christmas lights every year – quite a stunning sight, but something I don’t believe is done anymore.
Michigan Avenue, which intersects Wacker at a beautiful lift bridge (note the Depression era “workers” bas relief sculpture), has wonderful things in both directions, north and south. North is one of the world’s great elegant shopping streets, ending at Oak Street beach, a beautiful public beach right downtown. Beyond this, going north, is the Outer Drive with miles of condos and apartments looking on the lake.
Turning south, Michigan is a beautiful boulevard by gracious parks. The area is dotted with museums and cultural institutions (some explained below). At the corner of Randolph and South Michigan (Grant Park opens out here on other side of street), there is a classic building, now called the Chicago Cultural Center, that was the old central library. I’ve never seen the exhibits here, but I believe they have some interesting stuff including a lot of memorablia around Burr Tilstrom’s Kukla, Fran, and Ollie – the dearest puppet show ever created. Even if you see no exhibits, the building is worth a visit for the mosaic ceilings and grand stairway (mosaic ceilings were big at the early 20th century in Chicago – City Hall near The Daley Center – see below – has them as does Marshall Field’s Department Store and a number of old bank lobbies).
Turning west from South Michigan at any street from Randolph to Adams, you come to “the Loop.” This nickname for Chicago’s oldest downtown shopping, theater district, city government buildings, and corporate headquarters derives from a stretch of the elevated railroad (the “L” to locals) which literally loops the downtown center. This was one of the world’s first elevated railroads (started for the world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition, in 1893) and is a remarkable and interesting thing. A ride around the Loop, with its little cars, sharp turns, and big buildings towering above, is one of the great experiences of the city. You have to be sure not to get on a train going out south or north – there are trains that circle (ticket booth attendant will advise).
Apart from a ride on the “L” around the Loop, there are several other things you must do downtown. See the Picasso sculpture at Daley Center, even if you do not see the many other great outdoor sculptures described below. This has become a symbol of the city, and it is quite striking.
You must have lunch or dinner at the Berghoff (there is a URL reference below. Important: go to the original restaurant on Adams, not the newer brewery restaurant on the North side of Chicago River does not have the same atmosphere.). This restaurant is more than a century old (opened back during the Columbian Exposition), has very tasty German-American food (they brew their own beers), and has a wonderful, busy, urban feeling. Try the sauerbraten. Strawberry shortcake in season is excellent. You often used to have to line up for tables at the busy hours, but that’s okay. A great favorite with sentimental Chicagoans.
You must tour the original Marshall Field store on State Street (there is a smaller branch store on North Michigan Avenue – nice, but it cannot compare to this great old place) – there is a URL below that shows you the store at Christmas. This is one of the great urban department stores – a full block and thirteen stories high with some very beautiful architecture. The wonderful old clocks (which are used as a design for the gold stickers that they seal tissue wrapped gifts with) on State Street were always a favorite meeting place for people going downtown.
Walk in the State Street side to see in the southern quarter the beautiful mosaic ceiling. Walk in the northern quarter by State Street and see the magnificent skylight shaft with balconies going all the way up – the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in any department store.
Go to the seventh floor to look at foodstuff for sale (Field’s makes many of their own things that are quite famous – eg, butter crunch muffins, Frango chocolate mints and mint liqueur. There are several places to eat on this floor, but the one is The Walnut Room. Have lunch here. This is where at Christmas time people wait in huge lines to have lunch under the great Christmas tree. It’s a great old department-store type restaurant.
The store once was a city within a city. You could get your shoes or watch fixed while you shopped for toys or furniture or exotic gifts. Today, like most department stores under economic stress, it is less universal, mostly fashions and expensive house furnishings, but a beautiful store.
The one must-do you may not be able to do is a drive along the Outer Drive, both north ( say to Sheridan Road – nice along there too) and south ( called Lake Shore Drive here – say out to about the south end of Jackson Park) of downtown. At a non-rush hour period and a sunny day or evening, there are many beautiful vistas along here. The lakefront is Chicago’s pride and joy with 20 miles of parks, beaches, and cultural institutions. There really is no other place quite like it.
There are many places from which to get an aerial view of the city. The two most famous observatories are at The John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan) and at The Sears Building (233 South Wacker Drive – Wacker is a street oddity, turning as it does with the river, it has south, east, and west addresses). The Sears Building is the tallest (110 stories), but its observation deck is actually inferior to the somewhat shorter Hancock (100 stories). The Hancock is near the lake, and it gives you a magnificent view up the Outer Drive North with all of its condos and lakefront (which resembles Rio somewhat from up there).
Chicago is a city of great museums, many of them the result of local big-name families in the early 20th century. You cannot visit these all in the time allowed, but several of them are in the downtown area and some, like the Art Institute, have evening hours. These great museums made Chicago a very special place for an average child to grow up because they were all then free to the public (not generally true now).
The Art Institute, Michigan Ave and Adams, has one of the world’s great impressionist collections as well as some outstanding pictures of other periods. It is a handsome series of buildings sitting on the expanse of Grant Park The bronze lions are a landmark – at Christmas, they have huge wreaths with red bows around their necks. The Fountain of the Great Lakes by Lorado Taft at the northern part of the Michigan façade is striking (Lorado Taft was the sculptor who did the twenty-dollar gold piece often regarded as one of the most beautiful of American coins).
If you go, you must see, if nothing else, the following: The Renoirs from his peak impressionistic period; Degas’ Millinery Shop; Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grande-Jatte (his greatest picture); van Gogh’s Room at Arles (one of two he painted); Caillebotte’s Street in Paris (a lesser painter, but a world-famous picture). El Greco’s Ascension of the Virgin; Grant Wood’s American Gothic; Edward Hopper’s The Nighthawks. The collection of miniature rooms in the basement, from an eccentric millionaire, is remarkable, accurate down to the last tiny, tiny detail. There is also a stained glass window in the museum done for them by Marc Chagall.
The museum’s armor collection, only part of which was on display when I was last there, comes from a wonderful private museum, called the Harding Museum, that existed when I was a boy. It consisted of an old south-side mansion packed with armor from various periods and countries. It was a fascinating place that closed down when its neighborhood became a hopeless ghetto. The Art Institute purchase in about the 1970s stopped the armor collection from being broken up.
Chicago also has a large Museum of Contemporary Art (Ontario Street off North Michigan Avenue), but a more interesting collection is the one on Chicago streets and squares. Chicago resembles a European city in this respect. Downtown are Picasso‘s giant Untitled at the Daley Center (Clark and Washington – a gift to the city through someone that knew him, reportedly in return for the gift of a White Sox uniform); Marc Chagall’s wonderful mosaic The Four Seasons (in the plaza of First National Bank, Clark and Madison); Dubuffet’s Monument with Standing Beast in front of the State of Illinois building (Randolph just west of State – itself an interesting modern piece of modern architecture inside by Helmut Jahn); Miró’s figure near the Daley Plaza; Alexander Calder’s Flamingo at the Chicago Federal Center (Dearborn Street between Adams Street and Jackson Boulevard) There is a wonderful Lincoln monument in Grant Park near Congress, and two magnificent, huge, mounted Indian figures (forming a gateway at Michigan Avenue South and Congress Drive). There are many others of note, but these are the ones in downtown area you may easily see.
If you are at the Daley Center for the Picasso, note the building too, clearly showing the influence of Mies van der Rohe. Most interesting is the steel both it and the statue are constructed of. This special steel is chemically treated and deliberately allowed to rust. After some years of slow change it develops a beautiful purple, brown color with a rough texture – most interesting and not widely found.
At the north end of Grant Park ( the park which runs on the other side of South Michigan Avenue from the handsome buildings and surrounds the Art Institute), at the lakeside is a group of museums sometimes called the museum campus. In this group is the Field Museum of Natural History, a white marble Greek temple with a fantastic vista on the stairs back towards downtown. This museum in character is similar to the ROM. It has several outstanding collections including Egyptian antiquities (lots of mummies), dinosaur fossils (including Sue, the largest Tyrannosaurus ever found. There is also a full brontosaurus – not common. I hope they haven’t so updated things that they’ve lost the murals by Charles M. Knight, a very famous dinosaur illustrator early in the century.), and the jewel collection.
The Shedd Aquarium, another white marble temple right nearby, is a memorably beautiful old place. It has dark halls with glorious large aquariums that are almost like galleries of oil paintings of marine life. To some extent this effect has been spoiled (the last time I was there) by the new oceanarium, a much less subtle place with porpoises and belugas in huge glass-walled tanks. The place was interestingly designed with a sight line and windows that line up the lake as a continuation of tank surfaces. Nevertheless, it is too Disneyish for me. The old exhibits are some of the most beautiful of their kind in the world. The old building’s details (light fixtures, trim, etc – all with aquatic themes executed in Greek temple style) are quite remarkable.
The Adler Planetarium, a red and brown granite building, is at the end of a long artificial peninsula near here. The planetarium, apart from the old-style star shows, is a space museum. Even if you do not want to go to this museum, the walk down the peninsula offers beautiful vistas of downtown. The huge Roman-like structure you will see behind the Field Museum is Soldier’s Field, a football and special-event stadium (about to get a huge rehab).
If you walk to the museum campus through Grant Park, you will see Buckingham Fountain near the rose gardens. It is a striking sculpture itself. The water display is under colored lights in the evening (I don’t recommend walking alone through this or any large park in the evening).
Travelling north from downtown, instead of south towards the museum campus, are several other museums in and around Lincoln Park. There are many beautiful streets to walk safely in this area. On the south perimeter of the park are many belle epoque apartments and condos that are very beautiful. There are vistas that much resemble Paris. The Lincoln Park zoo has some charming structures and is a very appealing smallish urban zoo (Chicago’s big zoo is called Brookfield and is located in a western suburb of the same name.). The Chicago Historical Society (Clark St. at North Ave) has a fine collection of Civil War antiquities and clothing, stuff from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and many interesting odds and ends. Unless it has changed, some of the displays here were beautifully mounted in the traditional museum fashion.
Also located in the Lincoln Park area is the Newberry Library (only members can use) and the Academy of Sciences (2001 N. Clark St.). If you are in Lincoln Park, don’t miss the Café Brauer (2021 N. Stockton – on South Pond Refectory). This structure, built in 1908, is an excellent example of the kind of graciously designed, uniquely Midwestern public facility Chicago spent a good deal of effort on in the early 20th century. A walk up Clark Street, just west of the park, is delightful. It has some very interesting shops, a gay, artsy district, and Andersonville, the last authentic Swedish neighborhood in the city. Many odd and interesting bits of architecture are along here. The side streets contain some wonderful Chicago-style apartment buildings.
Chicago was, and to some extent still is, a city of neighborhoods. One of the city’s unique characteristics was entire neighborhoods of handsome apartments along tree-lined streets (I use was because many have become ghettos). These typically were brick, sometimes stone, three-floors tall, often with attractive courtyards. Neighborhoods were well-planned with garbage collection and other services through back alleys and commercial shopping streets about every four blocks in many areas.
Typically, there was a neighborhood park. Chicago has the finest park system in America (although urban decay has taken a toll). Many of these neighborhoods also were within walking distance of the lakefront, the lakefront in Chicago being since the turn of the last century a superb recreational area with 20 miles of parks, museums, and beaches (some of which is now sadly in decline, but more remains than any other city has).
Chicago during the first half of the 20th century was probably the best city on the continent for working class people. A strong job market combined with a huge stock of attractive apartments, fine public facilities, and excellent public transportation made it a good place to bring up a family.
The flight of the white middle class to suburbs, the loss of good-paying jobs through industrial decline, and poor black in-migration have altered this picture from what it was,
but it is still possible to get a good feel for this. Perhaps the best example is Hyde Park,
the neighborhood of the University of Chicago.
The university itself has some striking and famous places (including especially Robie House – 58th and Woodlawn – perhaps Frank L. Wright’s finest prairie house), but it is the neighborhood, say, between 59th and 51st – from the lake to Drexel Ave. that is remarkable. Because of the university’s influence, this is much as it once was, although commercial areas do not have all the lively little businesses they once did. These are truly beautiful streets of apartments – few cities have anything handsomer.
[Caution: Near the university are some dangerous ghetto areas – stick to the well-beaten paths in daylight and there will be no problem – you can tell immediately by sight whether you’re straying beyond where you should. This is all very sad, but a fact of living in every large city in America. You can best reach Hyde Park on the METRA trains, similar to GO. There is an underground station at Randolph and Michigan for this system. The “L” goes out this way, but passes through terrible areas.]
A word about parks. After the Chicago Fire (1871), the city was rebuilt, but along far superior lines to its previous layout. Since its location made it a great economic entrepot to the growing American West, economics literally dictated that the city be rebuilt. Great architects and planners came from all over to take advantage of this immense opportunity (perhaps much like what has been taking place in Berlin over recent years). Architects like H.H. Richardson from Boston, who did some of that city’s great churches and public structures, were attracted. It was a great opportunity to an original genius like Louis Sullivan and his later-eminent pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright. Daniel Burnham gave the city a wonderful lakefront plan by the early 20th century.
The tradition these architects established continued through a good part of the 20th century. Mies van der Rohe from the German Bauhaus lived the last half of his life in Chicago, which as a result has quite a collection of his work. His finest early North American work is the apartment block at 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive (the area around here is wonderful for walking in, much beauty and very safe). Many, many later buildings evolved or were copied from this, including the Toronto Dominion Centre nearly twenty years later. Much of the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology (South Michigan Ave., 31st to 35th Streets – CAUTION: The area around this campus includes some of the city’s worst ghettos. Do not travel here alone or even just two) is his work.
Note, at 3213 S. Calumet are the only row houses ever built by Frank Lloyd Wright (1894), the Roloson Houses. These are beautiful structures, showing clearly the influence of Sullivan. Same caution as Illinois Institute of Technology.
Lake Point Tower (505 North Lake Drive) is one of the most strikingly beautiful condominiums in the world. It was designed by a student of Mies and is based on a very early design (1920s) of his. This building’s curved glass walls produce some splendid effects with sunrise or sunset. At seventy stories it was the world’s tallest concrete building when built. Its location (safe) near the lake and Navy Pier makes it very attractive. Navy Pier is a huge old structure that has enjoyed several purposes during its lifetime. Today, it is a kind of Ontario Place with many interesting attractions including a huge lakefront Ferris Wheel (in remembrance of Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition in 1893).
Frank Lloyd Wright lived in Oak Park (as did Hemingway), a very old, charming “first-tier” suburb on the west side. It has declined some, but is still beautiful. His home/studio is there. There are about 15 Wright houses still standing in Oak Park making it the most important museum of his work. He also has homes in several northern affluent suburbs like Park Forest. His most beautiful “prairie” house, Robie House, is in Chicago at the University of Chicago so you don’t need to travel far to see something exceptional of his. He also participated in a lovingly done restoration of Burnham (of lakefront plan-fame) and Root’s Rookery Building downtown (209 South LaSalle Street). Wright or not, do not miss this extraordinary early office building (1880s) – the indoor courtyard is world-famous.
Redevelopment over more than a hundred years has not been kind to Chicago’s special genius, Louis Sullivan. Many of his finest buildings are lost – including the old stock exchange, remnants of which are in the Art Institute. But two buildings downtown are in splendid condition and well worth a visit. Carson, Pirie Scott & Co department store (1 South State Street) and the Auditorium Building (and Theater) at 430 South Michigan Ave.
Carson’s (as it is called) has magnificent decorative iron work (a Louis Sullivan signature feature) at the main entrance. The building itself is remarkably modern in concept for its time apart from decorative work. Huge display windows, large windows throughout the building – a very simple but elegant design with magnificent detail work.
Go to the Auditorium Building at a time when you can get into the extraordinary theater inside. The building dates from 1889.
Speaking of department stores, State Street was when I was a boy an extraordinary shopping street. There were about eight different department stores, several quite elegant. All these but Carson’s and Marshall Field’s are gone. There are constantly efforts to revive State Street, but the things that made it what it was have all changed. Chicago’s beautiful new central library was built at the south end of the downtown portion with this in mind (the “L” dramatically passes in front of the north face). The center of downtown shopping has shifted to North Michigan Avenue. You should walk the length of this, a very elegant avenue (at its north end, it opens onto beaches) with many fancy shops.
But beside all those department stores and bustling pedestrian traffic, State Street once had a number of magnificent movie palaces, and they are mostly gone or left as hulks. Chicago had one of the largest collections of these fantastic structures anywhere. Virtually every neighborhood had one plus a bunch of them downtown. The old Chicago Theater (175 N. State) was renovated some years ago and is used for live theater. Go through the lobby if you can. Some of these structures were far more fanciful than the Chicago, making going to the movies when I was young a real delight. It is the anchor of what’s developing into an elaborate theater district in Chicago.
Garth Drabinsky from Toronto (he was very fond of Chicago) was working on renovating another of these palaces downtown (the State-Lake?), but I don’t know its status.
The main Chicago park system was laid out by Fredrick L. Olmstead, who did Boston Common and Central Park in New York plus many other great parks. He was the Capability Brown or Le Notre of his day. His Chicago commission outdid in scope those of all other cities, the city fathers taking to heart Burnham’s great dictum: “Make no small plans.”
He planned a chain of great parks that were to all be connected by a series of great tree-lined double boulevards (a la Houseman in Paris). Only part of his boulevards were ever built, but they are still impressive even in neighborhoods that have badly declined. The Midway Pleasance on 59th Street at the University of Chicago is one of these, connecting Jackson Park (at the Museum of Science and Industry) to Washington Park (the other side of Drexel Avenue and the location of Lorado Taft’s extraordinary Fountain of Time.
Note, the Museum of Science and Industry (South Lake Shore Drive at 57th) is a great rambling place left over from the world’s fair. It is the museum from which the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto was in part derived. It has many fascinating exhibits (and some vacuous stuff), but it is world famous for several items.
First is the U-505 German submarine from World War ll (the only captured u-boat that exists – it was brought in the late 1950s through the then-new St Lawrence Seaway – it was quite an event when it was pulled on rollers across Lake Shore Drive). You can tour the sub – I was a guide on weekends when I was eighteen – and it will remind you of interiors from Das Boot, if you saw that – it was very authentic.
Another favorite exhibit is the coal mine. This is an artificial coal mine, all with real equipment from the industry and real coal lining the walls, and is great fun. You go down in an industrial elevator and ride on a little caged-in underground train just like miners used to do. There are exhibits of machines for extracting coal. The technology, unless they’ve updated it, is dated, but the exhibit is great – unforgettable for kids but not at all Disneyish.
Still another favorite is Coleen Moore Doll Castle. Ms. Moore was an eccentric Hollywood actress who collected miniatures (like the ones at the Art Institute). She assembled them all in one fantastic doll castle which you can walk around (behind plexiglass) and examine all the rooms.
There is a train collection that includes two fascinating items, the Zephyr (a beautiful articulated 1939 silver streamliner, the very height of industrial styling, all recently renovated) and one of those massive “mountain engines” the largest steam locomotives ever built. The museum used also to have (haven’t been there in 10 years) one of world’s largest model train layouts in O gauge (Lionel size). Many of its exhibits were early “learning” type exhibits about everything from biology (they used to have, may still, a series of glass cases with real human embryos preserved at key stages of growth – there was also when I was a kid a huge set of glass panels that contained slices of an actual cadaver so you could turn them and follow stained areas right through the body. What a fascinating and slightly frightening place for kids the museum was) to mathematics. There are many exhibits, and since they’ve done a large renovation, I’m sure I don’t know most.
Back to parks. Olmstead’s concept was “a chain of large jewels” around the city. It was never completed, but a lot was done. Other parks laid out by Jenny, Garfield and Humboldt, carried on the concept in a fragmented fashion. Burnham’s plan for the lakefront (1910) also was altered, but it still gave the city something no other city on the Great Lakes had, a magnificent shore virtually its whole length. There are also dozens of small-to-very small neighborhood parks in the city. These once served as very important public spaces with waves of immigration earlier in the 20th century, with many of them having handsome “field houses” where public activities were once mounted and equipment for sports could be borrowed free.
Chicago does today have a still further-out very extensive greenbelt called the forest preserves. These are in suburban areas. With all this plus the elm trees that once gracefully lined most residential streets (their replacements are too young to be impressive in many areas today), you understand the Chicago motto, urbs in horto (city in a garden).
[Caution: while fairly safe in daylight, it is wise never to wonder through most of these large parks alone today. The neighborhood west of Drexel, around Washington Park, is not a good one. The same is true of Jackson Park’s once-gracious neighborhood, except for the immediate vicinity of the Museum of Science and Industry. The parks are very large – Lincoln Park, the safest of them in its near north side location, is three times the size of High Park in Toronto – making it is easy to be lost sight of. A group would be fine. Lincoln with many facilities in it is okay alone.]
Chicago is a very important center of higher education. The University of Chicago (in the south side neighborhood of Hyde Park) focuses on graduate studies rather than undergraduate. It has had had more Nobel laureates than any other place. There is a Henry Moore statue on the grounds commemorating the first sustained chain reaction achieved here before the Manhattan project. The Oriental Institute, part of the university, is a wonderful archeological museum (focused on the ancient Middle East) open to the public. Northwestern University (in the old first-tier northern suburb of Evanston – a beautiful, interesting community) is a quite prestigious school. Other universities include: DePaul University (Lincoln Park area), University of Illinois Medical School, University of Illinois at Chicago (West side Roosevelt Road and Halstead) – campus includes Jane Addams’s famous Hull House as a museum – Caution: area around this campus is a bad one), Roosevelt University (in Sullivan’s Auditorium Building 430 S. Michigan), Loyola University (Sheridan Road and Devon on far north side), The Art Institute School (Michigan Av. And Adams), Illinois Institute of Technology (South Michigan at 31st), plus many small colleges and polytechs. The world’s largest nuclear physics particle accelerator is located in Batavia (I believe you can visit), a very far out suburb.
There are many other interesting places in Chicagoland – too many to write about. URLs are included below. There are also some here for wonderful places in the city that I have not described. Please enjoy.
SELECTED URLs of INTEREST, BEAUTY OR EXCELLENT INFORMATION (CAREFULLY SELECTED – NO JUNK)