Sunday, May 22, 2011

Travelogue: Chicago Architecture Foundation Historic Skyscaper Tour

In front of "The Bean" in Millennium Park with El in a Chicago Bulls headpiece and Daisy with a flower made by the Balloon Lady

Only two students took advantage of the class field trip to Chicago today, which was part of the geography class:  Daisy Villa and Elvin (El) Caldwell, who drove. 

We met a 8 a.m., which was when I learned that two other students scheduled for the trip had to cancel at the last minute due to illness.  So we started our 2.5-hour journey westbound down I-94 to Chicago.  The students wanted to hear rock music on the radio and I was fine with that.  Once a month I take care of a 14-year-old girl who likes these stations so not only was I used to the music, but I was familiar with some of it!  Of course, that surprised the students—and me, too.

Daisy, who is from Los Angeles, was quite taken by the drive.  She is used to total development in her area and the city sits in desert lands.  So the greenery and open spaces that El and I take for granted, were a pleasant surprise to Daisy.  Traveling with people from other places really helps put what you are used to seeing in perspective. 

As we drove through Gary, Indiana, I informed them about how this area used to be filled with smoke from the steel plants.  Now the plants lie idle.

“This is what the Rust Belt looks like,” I said. 

As we drove over the Skyway, I also pointed out to them how close together the houses were in the industrial towns below.  They were utterly amazed.  Also, as we neared the city, we could all feel the anticipation of it, like we were about to encounter “the beast,” as I called it.  Soon we sighted the city's skyline around the bend of Lake Michigan.  What a dramatic entrance to this great city.  It's almost like a dream!

As we exited the freeway and approached the tall buildings, our excitement mounted.  The parklands around the University of Chicago are indeed impressive and once again Daisy noted this quality as something she is not used to seeing in LA.  The lake was beautiful as this large body of water at the city's edge makes for a dramatic sight, especially as we saw the tall buildings grow larger as we drove closer to them.  You just feel the city's greatness as you enter it.  I, who have been here many times, can still appreciate this approach to the city.  I feel my heart jump with excitement every time whether I’m in a car or on a train.

We arrived in the big city safely with just eight minutes to spare before our tour of the historic skyscrapers was to begin.  This tour is one of over 100 tours put on by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, which is strategically located right across the street from the Chicago Art Institute.

We parked in the underground Grant Park Garage on Michigan Ave but had difficulty finding an exit so we walked out on the driveway.

Model of the city at the Chicago Architecture Foundation
“This is unsafe,” said Daisy.

“I know,” I answered, “but I can't find the stairway or the pedestrian walkway and we'll be late for the tour if we don't go this way.”

Thankfully, we escaped the garage without incident and made it to our tour just in time.  Actually, there were so many people for this tour that we were split up into three groups with a docent leading each group.

As we went through the tour, I took photos (since neither Daisy nor El had a camera).  The Architecture Foundation now provides earphones to each participant to make it easier to hear the docent's excellent history of Chicago architecture.  What was really exciting for the students was to recognize the various parts of the buildings.  We had just studied a bit of architecture in class!  They'd knock each other on the arm and smile broadly at me.  I felt as though I had accomplished something in my teaching!  Their other big revelation on this tour was that the lobbies of the buildings gave them an understanding of how attention to detail brings out the beauty in the built environment.  They were dazzled by the fine artwork exercised on the buildings—and I was excited that they recognized it!    

Juxtaposition of new "Sears Tower" with an historic skyscraper
Sculptures on Board of Trade Building

Our docent explains the renovation of an historic skyscraper with the El in the background

Lobby of Roosevelt University
Elegant entrance of Fisher Building




Santa Fe Building where Daniel Burnham designed the "new Chicago"













Rounded bay window of a building needing renovation






After our tour we consulted the docent for some suggestions of a place to eat.  El mentioned the Billy Goat Tavern and the docent affirmed our choice and directed us to its location.  We made our way north toward the Chicago River but on our way stopped in Millennium Park to check out “the Bean” as well Crown Fountain—two outstanding must-sees.  We got as close to it as we could so we could feel the mist, as Daisy suggested.  Different faces appear on Crown Fountain and it is so funky that it's difficult to take your eyes off of it.

Our reflection at the Cloudgate "the Bean" sculpture
Traveling with students is a particularly wonderful experience because their curiosity drives the journey.  For this I was grateful.  They wanted to get close to Anish Kapoor's Cloudgate sculpture, a.k.a. “the Bean,” in order to see themselves in it.  So crazy a thing it is in the way the bends of the object reflected our images.  I'm not necessarily one for kooky modern art objects but this one is a definite exception—and it is exceptional!  We also looked at the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor auditorium, and marveled at its construction, as odd as it is.  I'd really like to attend a concert here someday because it's really made for acoustics and I'm sure performers' offerings are greatly enhanced by them.  It would likely be an experience of untold proportions!

Millennium Park is now a Chicago landmark although it is less than ten years old.  Completed in July 2004, construction began in the late 1990's over what was once an unused railyard—and an eyesore. 

Posing with the Crown Fountain
We walked north and took note of the architecture of the buildings.  When we reached the river, I told the students to prepare themselves for a unique adventure in crossing the bridge.  You automatically assume such structures are safe and you can see people crossing.  However, as you walk over the heavy metal you can feel it bounce as cars cross over it.  It is also a little unnerving when you look through the grating of the roadway and see the dark green water below. 

The bridge is also the site of old Fort Dearborn, which was constructed by early settlers as a shelter and a defense against the native peoples who lived there.  You can see a pictorial history of the founding of Chicago in the various relief works on the bridge. 

Once we crossed the river we made our way to the Billy Goat Tavern, which is a bit hidden.  After picking out a native Chicagoan who could direct us, we found our way to the tavern by going down the stairs on the north side of the bridge.  It was the only shop in the area, so you can't miss it. 

The World Famous Billy Goat Tavern, a Chicago legend since 1934, has a motto:

"Cheezborger! Cheezborger!
No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!"?

Upon entering the bar, our host from behind the counter yelled at us to get in line and give our order.

“A hamburger, please” said El.

“You don't want that,” said the order taker with the big black mustache and a paper hat that advertised the bar, “you want a double hamborger.”

“OK,” said El.  “I'm easy.”

“Do you have french fries?” he asked.

“No, you want potato chips.  Plain or BBQ?”

The order taker then seemed to speak to Daisy in Spanish but when she gave her order in Spanish he couldn't continue with the conversation very well.  We eventually asked one of the staff circulating the bar what nationality this place was and found out it was Greek.

We each ordered a double “hamborger”, chips and soft drink as we watched the Chicago White Sox kick the stuffing out of the LA Dodgers on the TV that was on our side of the bar.  A NY Mets and NY Yankees game was in the other corner of the room only the sound was muted so as to let people hear how the home team's game was going.

It had been a long day, which started out at 8 a.m. (EDT) and included a 2.5-hour drive to Chicago, a two-hour walking tour, and a one-hour walk around Millennium Park and north over the river to Billy’s.  So we savored our lunch, watched a bit of the Sox baseball game, and talked with each other for maybe an hour.  We interacted with the wait staff and eventually discovered we could get free refills on our drink, which we all took.  I would highly recommend this place both for its “hamborger” as well as the experience. 

I took photos in case I get a spot on the Food Channel and later learned who the owner was:  an old Greek man.  While I didn't have any paper for an interview with him—or time, since I was with the students—this place is the type of place to return to for a report, say for the Food Channel.  It’s bizarre, simple, and fun....the kind of place you’d want to go for a cold one.  It was obvious that the Billy Goat Tavern is popular as the doors of the entrance keep swinging open with more customers.  We even saw a small food tour group come through!  That's a good sign that we had met “the real Chicago” in a place that the locals patronize.  Later we learned that journalists from the Chicago Tribune have made Billy’s a hangout for years.  I knew there was something about it I liked!

After our lunch I thought we would head home but El and Daisy were up for some more time in the city, this time by the lakeside.  We walked over the bridge again, took some photos, and finally found a pathway to the lake as we followed the crowd of local residents who were likewise intending to spend some time there on this sunny, hot, but pleasant day.  (The weather report had predicted thundershowers, but fortunately, they were nowhere in sight.)

On our way to the lake the students recognized the tremendous heat sink of the city but soon found out how a small, green parkway cooled us down.  We retreated there for some heat relief.  The shadows of the tall skyscrapers also helped make the air cooler.  I mentioned that Chicago is trying to do something about this unbearable heat by planting roof gardens, and that this, too, was a project of the visionary Mayor Richard Daley during his 20-year administration that included much renovation and revitalization of the city.  While he remained a controversial figure in his methods, he did make his mark in beautifying and updating the city that we—and a multitude of visitors and residents—enjoy.

Cancer survivors memorial with Field Museum in background


 Then we came upon the northern section of Millennium Park that was dedicated to cancer survivors.  I don't think I've ever seen such a piece of public space.  El noticed that the center path of the memorial led straight south to the front portico of the Field Museum.  How well thought out that was in planning out this part of the city, especially since we were in the midst of some pretty awesome and pretty high skyscrapers that could have obscured the view.  That’s one good thing about a city on a grid!

Daisy and El on Lake Michigan shoreline.






Finally, we found the entrance to the lakeside park and found a spot on one of the full-bloom and deliciously pink cherry trees.  This section was part of the marina with several sailboats anchored in the water, so we looked at them as we talked.  Occasionally, a boat would travel the waters.  We also watched people as they walked the sidewalk or biked or trotted or roller-skated past us.  And we sat there for another 60 to 90 minutes just talking on subjects that covered the gamut of our human experience.  Most enjoyable, relaxing, and a unique experience for me to spend that much time with K students.  This time with El and Daisy could only be rivaled by last year's excursion with my First Year Seminar students when we spent the day on the other side of this lake in South Haven.  Such precious moments.  As we left I made note of our spot so that when I visit here again sometime in the future I can recall this marvelous day.  (I would find it two weeks later while I was on a bus trip to a Chicago Cubs game!)

Suddenly, around 4 pm the air began to change.  It felt like a storm was coming.  I suggested we return to the car and head home.  Fortunately, we were not that far from the garage, however, looking for an entrance to the underground structure was not easy.  While we were in the cool underground structure, we missed our turn to the garage and ended up near the tracks of the intra-city trains.  The maps on the wall were of no help so we had to navigate by intuition.  Fortunately, we found a door that led us to the section of the lot right where our car was parked. 

Once we got above ground on Michigan Avenue, it was apparent that many other people were heading out of the city, too, and I feared we'd be caught in a real live Chicago traffic jam.  As El concentrated on traffic, I concentrated on signage and attempted to skirt the congestion.  Once again, the Chicago grid helped us out as we zigzagged away from the traffic.  Although I was edgy about correctly leading us out of “the beast,” El maintained a cool head in getting us through it all. 

After about an hour of travel east on I-94, lightening and thunder began to rage outside our car.  It was only 5 p.m. but the cloud cover made it look like dusk.  This was a bit unsettling to Daisy who is not used to such natural displays in LA.  Must be lake effect, I said, just as all weather patterns in this area are blamed.  Nevertheless, I am reminded of how large our country is and how diverse our climatic regions are!  Eventually it began to rain, but luckily it was steady and easy for El to drive through—until we got closer to Kalamazoo.  That’s when it started to pour.  We exited the freeway about 7:30 and as we drove down Oakland Drive, we saw the damage a storm had done.  Several tree limbs had been downed undoubtedly by lightening.  And, just before we made our turn on Lovell part of an old tree had been felled by some pretty vicious lightening.  The tree covered half of the road and El had to steer around it.

During our car ride back to Kalamazoo, we listened to rock music on the radio.  El would change the stations unless an oldie came up and bid me to start singing.  On our way back Daisy was exhausted and stretched out on the back seat, she snoozed a bit as the music came through her ear buds.  Sleeping also helped her get through the disturbing lightning.  El and I talked through most of the trip home, which was uneventful except for one traffic slowdown and, of course, the thunder and lightening show. 

Inside the Santa Fe Building where the Chicago Architecture Foundation resides with the majestic marble beaux artes staircase.
We pulled into Kalamazoo just before 8 p.m. and filled up the gas tank of our college-owned car.  We dropped off Daisy at Chrissy Hall.  El and I returned the car to FacMan and I drove him home to his house on Stanwood, just a block away from campus.  I was exhausted but satisfied with this wonderful trip.  I also made it home in time for a snack, an email look-see and my favorite TV show, “Army Wives.”

We had all had a wonderful time and expressed this to each other several times.  Travel is a good thing to do.  And, when it is done with K students, it frequently turns out to be the best of experiences.

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