Blondes, Buildings, and a Bride: Michael and Dan Tour the Upper Midwest
Daniel Emberley, May 2009
Our friends Ann and Nate got married recently in Minneapolis, giving us the excuse for a road trip around Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and a bit of Illinois. Were able to catch up with friends and family in the Twin Cities, Grinnell, and Rock Island (points if you can correctly identify the states!), and see a ton of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings long read about but never visited. This drive is totally worth it, lots of friendly blonde people, great German food, beautiful farmland, and interesting cities. Read or trash; text will be up on my website shortly.
Thursday, April 16
We caught a 7AM flight from National to Milwaukee. Inexpensive and it gave us a full day to play in the home of the Brewers. Mitchell Airport may be the easiest we’ve ever used: landed on time, bags showed up promptly, walked out to the Hertz counter and on our way by 9:00.
That’s way too early for any museums to open, so we hightailed it out on the freeway to Wauwatosa. This was once the Pabst family farm and estate; subdivided into suburbia under the GI Bill. Part of the 1950’s construction was Frank Lloyd Wright’s (hereafter, “FLW”) Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. It looks like a blue-domed spaceship that landed in a parking lot. Lots of lens-shaped windows, and sunken exterior spaces a la the Guggenheim. We tried the doors, and were welcomed into an Orthodox Easter service. This was our first experience with Midwestern friendliness. We politely stood back to not interfere with the ceremony, but seeing a Frank building being used as planned, under his gilded dome, was pretty spectacular. The expansive, open, circular space makes an interesting contrast with the squares, lines, and busy-ness of Wright’s Unity Temple outside Chicago.
A quick Target run for road snacks, case of water, and cooler to keep my drugs cool. Then back on the freeway to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The building is a two-fer: original War Memorial section by Eero Saarinen, and a recent addition by Santiago Calatrava. Most of the art is in the Saarinen (ugly box looming over Lake Michigan, but great display space), with restaurant, shop, temporary exhibits, and soaring rent-an-entry in the Calatrava. We arrived just in time to see the new brise soleil wings open up the museum to the sky. At least as sensational as Calatrava’s bridge in Buenos Aires. The space frames the Lake, and has become an icon of the city. To our surprise, the collection was as good as the architecture. Midwestern Germans collected artists from the old country: Medieval and Renaissance Old Masters, Fauves, and Expressionists. Didn’t realize how southern-European our East Coast collections were until I started seeing the art in museums on this trip. It’s not that they’re lesser pieces (what we expected), but that they see art history through German/Dutch/Scandinavian eyes. Also good American folk art, Modern (some great Wayne Thiebault), and furniture. An entire gallery of important chairs that you are allowed to sit in. A temporary install of a “Cabinet of Wonders”, with drawers that opened to a piece of art, or played music, or explained anamorphic projections. Way cool. The travelling show was Jan Leuven, a contemporary of Rembrandt. I’d seen this show at the National Gallery, so we gave it a quick run through on our way to lunch in the café. They serve a delicious smoked trout salad.
We took a walk into downtown Milwaukee. It’s a grid on a Great Lake, similar to Chicago or Cleveland. Nothing exceptional about the architecture, not a tourist place, but an honest working city with everything you need to live in an urbane manner. The Cathedral of St. James has lovely stained glass of the Twelve Apostles. City Hall is a brilliant 1895 German Renaissance Revival tower; its squashed-hexagonal atrium outdoes Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building.
The Pabst Mansion is on the campus of Marquette University. Like the Heurich Mansion in D.C., a German Renaissance mansion showing off a brewer’s affluence and pretensions. Pabst did it better, with more class and fewer wooden gargoyles. Entry is through the Pabst Brewery Pavilion from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a nice throwback to my undergrad days. Amazing woodwork, pressed-paper walls, and ceiling painting. Renovation is ongoing, with Pabst descendants around the world donating back original furniture and artwork. Best yet, the temporary show was of automata, mechanical adult toys from before WW I. A curator activated singing and moving birds, dolls, and a bread tray that played music when you passed it.
Without meaning to, we kept circling Miller Park, the new baseball field where the Brewers play. Looks okay for a stadium. The retractable roof was striking on the air approach. But, it was not our agenda: Mitchell Park Conservatory called. Known colloquially as “the Polish Bra”, this 1965 greenhouse has a tropical, desert, and European garden, each in its own egg-shaped dome (three domes, get it?). Brilliantly installed, must be amazing during the Wisconsin winter.
Looking for dinner, we drove over to Usinger’s Sausage Factory, hoping to get our first pass at German food. The factory is just that, not a restaurant, although they do sell the sausage from a retail window. Since the basketball and hockey arenas and convention center are clustered nearby, there is a run of restaurants here to service them. Landmark restaurant Mader’s was too pricey; we hit a sports bar across the street. Not many venues can strike fear in my heart like a sports bar, but this one had good bratwurst, burgers, fried onions and mushrooms, all of which we washed back with Pabst lager on tap.
Said goodbye to Milwaukee, and headed south on Interstate 94 to a Holiday Inn Express in Racine.
Friday, April 17
Racine is all about S.C. Johnson and Company. Not Johnson & Johnson, the Q-Tips people, but Johnson’s Wax, Raid, and Pledge. The family hired FLW to build them a corporate headquarters and a mansion. We started with the mansion, Wingspread. It’s now a conference center, and home of the family’s philanthropy. Wright built the Johnsons a spacious, lovely home with four wings reaching out like a pinwheel. After a brief introduction the spokesperson left us on our own to walk around the house. The only restriction was not to sit in some specific original furniture. We lounged on beds, hiked up to the crow’s nest, ran around the wings. It’s great. A flock of Canada geese have taken over the grounds, and nest in Wright’s planters and terraces flush up against the windows.
A drive across town put us at S.C. Johnson headquarters. This is the famous FLW office tower and secretarial “pool”, with lily pad columns. Tours begin at the “Golden Rondelle”, Johnson Wax’s theme building from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It looks like a giant gold pill. The Rondelle is all about presenting the company in a favorable light, which they do very well. The Johnson family is still active in corporate management; the kid who once climbed the crow’s nest grew up to be the president you see in their advertising today. They seem to care about their employees, community, and the environment. It sounds counterproductive to look for an ecologically sound way of killing bugs and dusting furniture, but they’re trying.
The tour is really just a walk across the parking lot, through the carport, and into the secretarial pool room. That base building is used today by the legal department. The tower was outgrown by the research department it was custom built for. Although it worked well for decades, Wright designed it with such tight staircases and elevator that it can no longer be used for office space or even for tours due to access and insurance concerns. The corporation maintains the building, but it is uncertain if it can ever be used again. Tour totally worth it, if only for the experience of being in the work room, under the leaky tube-shaped skylights. Even S.C. Johnson hasn’t been able to create a clear caulk that can seal out a northern winter. Steelcase did the original metal filing cabinets in Wright’s Cherokee Red; would love to use in a future project.
There’s a Midwest sandwich chain called Jimmy John’s that did us well for lunch; then we walked through downtown Racine. Chicago architects Brininstool & Lynch have designed a great glass box for the Racine Art Museum, with a craft collection dating back to the 1930’s. We scoped out the gift shop and Arline Fisch sculptures (crocheted metal) in the windows, but took a pass on the galleries (Viola Frey ceramic statues, uggh).
I-94 takes a direct but long route from Racine across Wisconsin to the Twin Cities, about six hours. Beautiful birch and pine forest interspersed with dairy farms, less of the “pine tree tunnel” that we get on the East Coast. None of the state had that desperate Rust Belt look you see in Ohio and Indiana; instead, most places seemed reasonably prosperous. Suspect it has to do with the strong agricultural economy here, which has helped buffer the decline in manufacturing. We made a pit stop in Wisconsin Dells (Pigeon Forge or Weirs Beach, with many more water parks), and pulled into Eau Claire for dinner at a Perkins, a chain of restaurants affiliated with the Marie Callender’s brand from Los Angeles. Delicious pot pie, and berry pie. Called a halt at a Motel 6 in Menomonie, about forty miles from St. Paul.
Saturday, April 18
Wisconsin has amazing waterfalls, but most are far to the north along Lake Superior. The falls of the Willow River, however, are near the Minnesota border. The trail follows a very steep descent to the falls, but it’s worth it, as they cascade down multiple levels of ancient limestone. We made the hike back up slowly in deference to my heart and the Taco John’s breakfast I’d put away that morning.
Took I-94 straight into Minneapolis to the Aloft Hotel. Aloft is a new Starwood chain under their W Hotel brand. They’re trying to bring the chic loft urbanity of W in at a lower price point. It worked for us: great location in the Mill District, inexpensive city parking under the Guthrie across the street, and a room with a view of the St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi. The St. Anthony Falls are why there is a Minneapolis. They blocked traffic upriver, and provided power first for lumber and then the flour mills that became Pillsbury and General Mills. The mills closed down in the 1960’s, some burned down and/or exploded in the 1970’s, and began to be recycled in the 1990’s. Mill Ruins Park protects foundations and walls of factories closest to the Mississippi. Uphill are loft condos, hotels, and office complexes inserted in the original structures. The Falls itself has been altered so many times in the last 100 years that Father Marquette would never know it; it’s now a concrete apron taking most of the river, with mill races on both shores and an Army Corps of Engineers lock. The Northern Pacific Railroad arched bridge is now a pedestrian path giving stunning views of the Falls and neighborhood. We walked around the Park, and broke for lunch at a Thai place.
The jewel in all this is the Mill City Museum. Built as the Pillsbury Washburn A plant, it was once the largest flour mill in the world. It was abandoned, exploded (that’s what happens when you get a match close to old flour dust), and the ruins incorporated into a museum of the history of Minneapolis. You can lounge on a giant pancake, watch 1950’s Betty Crocker ads, and build dams in a water-filled gallery. In the Flour Tower multimedia show you sit in an original freight elevator, stopping at different floors to learn the story of the mill. “Minneapolis in 19 Minutes Flat” is a movie that crams the city into a quick flick with candor and humor.
Back to the hotel, changed into our Sunday best, and headed south to the Longfellow neighborhood to see our friends Ann and Nate get married. Ann Maki and I worked together at an architect’s office in D.C. Our friendship had much better traction than our employment there <smile>; she is as bright and friendly as she is strikingly beautiful. The wedding was at Eliel Saarinen’s 1949 Christ Church Lutheran. This was one of the first church buildings in the world to use Modern architecture to express our relationship to God. The congregation did not have a lot of money, so Saarinen used light to bring majesty to simple stone, glass, and concrete. Once you’ve seen it you can never look at a hideous Modern church (my childhood’s Sacred Heart was a green aluminum egg) the same way again.
Dropped the car at the hotel and walked across downtown via Nicollet Mall. This was one of the first shopping streets to be closed to cars; it seems to work, maybe because it is still open to taxis and buses. Either of which Michael wanted us to jump on, but I force marched him past Macy’s (nee Dayton’s) and the Mary Tyler Moore sculpture to the Millennium Hotel for the reception. Fun people, great food, and Ann’s Mom almost got me to polka.
Folks at our table told us the Guthrie Theater’s skywalk is open to the public 24/7. The Guthrie is of the stature of D.C.’s Arena Stage, but with productions that are more on the caliber of Studio Theater’s. Like Arena, they’d been in a bunker-like building next to Walker Art Center, but had recently torn it down and hired Jean Nouvelle to design them a blue jewel on the River. Conveniently, next to our hotel. Got a cab back, walked around the lobby, took the escalators to the sky bridge, checked out the view and shop. They are having a Tony Kushner Festival, and when we asked about tickets for “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (not opening for several weeks), were told we could sneak into the performance of “Caroline or Change”. You’ve gotta love the Midwest. Seriously considered, but we’d seen “Caroline” in New York, and were exhausted. Retreated to our room with a view of the neon Pillsbury’s Best Flour sign to lull us to sleep.
Sunday, April 19
A drizzly morning, but not so bad that we couldn’t tour the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center. The Walker is world famous for its collection of Modern art, and the Garden its outdoor annex. Quality every bit as good as one would expect, in a 1980’s rectilinear landscape by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The famous Claes Oldenburg spoon bridge was missing its cherry, out for conservation. The addition, landscaped by Michael van Valkenburgh, provides a necessary calming influence. Neither the Frank Gehry glass fish nor Jenny Holzer square of benches could compete with the joy of watching Michael chase a duck in and out of a Dan Graham installation. Into the Walker itself, which recently added a Herzog & de Meuron addition to the original Barnes building. Neither one blew us away, but at least the original building made sense to navigate amongst the galleries – the addition is hopeless, you just have to wander and see what you can see. You’ve seen similar art at the Hirshhorn and MoMA. Excellent collection of art books. A temporary show of Dan Flavin and Sol Lewitt okay, another of Elizabeth Peyton dreadful. Am tired of seeing poorly painted canvases being hailed as “painterly”, “a painter’s painter”. Oi.
My cousin David Smith met us at the front door of the Walker, and introduced us to his wife Cathy and daughter and son Jocelyn and Alek. We got lunch at a Vietnamese place in Uptown, and Cathy gave us a tour of the beautiful residential neighborhoods around Lakes Harriett, Calhoun, and into Edina, where she grew up. Just lovely. We tipped our hats to the house that served as Mary Tyler Moore’s on her TV show, then back to Uptown for ice cream. Great getting to meet Cathy and the kids, and to reconnect with David.
They dropped us off and we drove over to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I’d thought that this would be maybe a couple of rooms in an old mansion, with one of Asian art and another of mediocre European paintings. Au contraire. The Dayton family, of the department store and then Target, have been major collectors, and through Target continue to support what is one of the major collections of art in North America. Amazing, at least as good an Asian collection as Boston or Cleveland; including an entire Chinese house. Period rooms that go on and on, with pieces of the same FLW house whose living room is in the Met. Great Modern and decorative arts. A textile collection that includes the Jack Lenor Larsen archives. A collection of European Old Masters good enough for an American city, with the Midwestern emphasis on German and Flemish. We’d scheduled thirty minutes, and hours later were still picking our jaws up from the gallery floors.
Off to discover dinner. “Eat Street” is a rebranding of Nicollet south of downtown; it looked to be cheap Vietnamese with a few other cultures thrown in for variety. We stopped at the Black Forest Inn, a German restaurant that pre-dates the Asian invasion, for oh-so-good schnitzel, spaetzel, roast chicken, red cabbage, Belgian beer on tap, and a hard pear cider. We did a drive-by of buildings downtown that were highlighted in the AIA Guide: Gunnar Birkerts’ swooping Federal Reserve, Minoru Yamasaki’s ING, Cesar Pelli’s Public Library. At the hotel, walked across the street to the top of the hillock in Gold Medal Park and back to the Arch Bridge to see the Falls by night.
Monday, April 20
Mondays are tricky on holiday, as so much is closed. We made this St. Paul day. Cass Gilbert’s Minnesota State Capitol is as impressive as his U.S. Supreme Court and Woolworth Tower, with prettier murals, marbles, and gilding. We took the self-guided tour, and cut a bitch docent cold when she tried to make us join her tour. First unpleasant Minnesotan we’d met; don’t think she was ready for East Coast venom <smile>. Up Summit Avenue from the Capitol are the Cathedral, and then the mansions of Minnesota’s Edwardian affluent. The signature building is James J. Hill’s, whose Northern Pacific Railroad created the wheat belt Midwest. On Mondays only his art gallery, music room, and main hall are open to the public, but that was enough to give us a taste of the Richardsonian Romanesque magnificence. Driving up Summit reminded Michael of River Oaks, back in Houston, but older, more Victorian, and less ostentatious. We stopped at Mt. Zion Temple, where the Avenue had degenerated into 1950’s residences. Mt. Zion was designed by Erich Mendelsohn late in his career. Mendelsohn was a Jewish escapee from Hitler’s Germany, whose Einstein Tower in Potsdam is a signature work in architectural history. Who knew he had a building here? More of that great Midwest-German cultural connection.
We drove north then east on University Avenue, dubbed “the Asian Main Street”. Looked like a 1970’s wasteland to us, with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Hmong businesses having taken over the cheap real estate. Maybe useful if we were looking for a Cantonese barber or lawyer, but we were on a quest for lunch. God bless GPS; punched in the coordinates for Kramarczuk’s, and were back in Minneapolis’ Northeast neighborhood in a jiffy. Kramarczuk’s is a Central European cafeteria. Amazingly good pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and apple strudel. At the counter were something called “kolochis”, which sounded familiar but looked like Danish. They are the original Czech apricot pastry that in Houston has evolved into kolaches, a smoked meat breakfast bun. Both delicious; fun to get to taste the original.
Open Book had caught our eye near the Aloft. Turns out it’s a paper studio, similar to Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, where they teach paper making, printing, and book binding. Better gallery, studio, and sales space than we have here.
Minneapolis’s one-line light rail, the Minnehaha Line, runs through a railroad corridor from downtown to the airport to Mall of America. We caught it at Metrodome station, and rode it to the Mall. Like Vancouver’s similar one-line system, they’re going to have a hard time making this work as an integrated part of their transport network, but it’s a start. In their favor are lots of former industrial sites ripe for conversion into offices and condos, which is starting to happen. Opposed, a lot of the land is tied up by active military base Fort Snelling, a cemetery, VA Medical Center, and the airport. There is pleasant art at each stop, but nothing to write about. Michael liked the glass booths at the stops with heaters in the ceiling. I wonder if courtesy degenerates in competition for these in winter?
The Mall is 3.5 floors, four anchors, with a poorly-themed Nickelodeon amusement park in the center. All the stores you’d expect. Not exceptional, not bad, but only memorable because biggest in the U.S. (and a few hours’ drive would put us in the bigger West Edmonton Mall, so what’s the point?). Some okay sales, got underwear and shirts to tide us over to end of trip. Dinner at vaguely-island-themed Kokomos, like a Hooters without the sex: wings, fish tacos, entrée salad, a frozen rum drink. One advantage of vacationing this far north in the spring is that the sun was still up on the train ride back, so we could appreciate (ahem) all that Army stuff from the other direction.
Tuesday, April 21
Michael cracked the books for his accounting class, and I took off for a mop-up walk of downtown. My favorite landscape architect, Martha Schwartz, is the queen of figuring out how to turn the roof of a parking garage into a garden. She designed a signature piece at the Federal Courthouse. Hillocks of grass mimic glacial drumlins, and Tom Otterness sculptures use the hillocks to tell a sad tale of people as goods. Great collaboration and space. Into the courthouse to try my luck on the famous skywalks. These are nowhere near as easy to use as Montreal’s Underground, the best implementation of downtown connection we’ve seen. The skywalks connect most of downtown Minneapolis, but they do so in a way that is counterintuitive and hard to figure out. You often have to go south to head north, and signage is poor and inconsistent. You’d think that being able to see the city streets from the air would serve as a directional guide, but since downtown you have the same numbers going east-west (streets) and north-south (avenues), you end up feeling like you’re lost in an Excel spreadsheet. Gave up after about ten blocks, to discover I wasn’t too far from where I’d wanted to be, an Ameriprise Financial office with a Maya Lin waterwall/sculpture/landscape integrated into its façade and lobby.
Trekked back to the hotel on a different grid-defying system. Much of downtown Minneapolis was wiped out for urban renewal, and has not been rebuilt three decades later. Walked diagonally across the grid through a parking lot wasteland on an almost direct line from Ameriprise to Aloft using the Metrodome and Guthrie as my landmarks. Sad I could do it, but a lot more efficient than the skywalks.
Michael and I crossed the Mississippi to see the main campus of University of Minnesota. Not bad for a major state school. Their Frank Gehry-designed Weissman Art Museum is a brick box with a crumpled titanium Gehry flourish on the front. Interesting show of work by Vietnamese women artists, and a good selection of Modern masters in the permanent collection. Two nice murals, one by Roy Liechtenstein, the other Jim Rosenquist, both from the State of New York Pavilion at the ’65 World’s Fair (funny how that event keeps popping up). We both liked Roger Shimomura’s facetious take on Barbie and Ken with Hirohito smiles.
The campus is on a steep bluff above the river, but buildings and skywalks use the elevation in a way that works well. Gives one hope for a better Rosslyn, which has a similar site but horrible execution. The architecture building, Rapson Hall, is a nasty piece of 1960’s windowless brick. We walked directly through to see the rather cool Steven Holl addition. Michael did some more searching, and excitedly dragged me into the interior courtyard of the original building. Stunning and brilliant. Ann Maki, an alum, tells us it doesn’t work for everything it has to do, but that’s why Holl got to do an addition. They have a cool way of displaying temporary exhibits using wing nuts that I’m going to try to replicate in our apartment.
We’d been fantasizing all morning about menu items we saw at Kramarczuk’s, so went back for Ukrainian meatballs, Polish sausage and sauerkraut hot dish, deviled eggs, and German potato salad. All of Central Europe in one giant carbo-fest.
The Minnesota History Center is downhill from the Capitol in St. Paul. We walked into a building that seemed too big, too loud, with too many screaming kids, reminiscent of the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History in Austin. Then the kids left and we started liking what we were seeing. A good multimedia show themed “What is Home?” interpreted through the words of Minnesotans from native tribes through Sinclair Lewis to Garrison Keilor. Then an exhibit about ethnicity and immigration, using the conceit of an actual St. Paul home that had housed Germans, Italians, and Hmong. Presented food, culture, and industry, all in a subtle and hands-on way that worked. Worked me into insulin shock, so we got to get a pudding parfait in the café – yum.
Driving back to Minneapolis we were looking for things to do, but that need was met when we were rear ended on Park Avenue. While we were stopped at a traffic light. By a Somali driver who lacked insurance, ownership papers, and a driver’s license. Michael had called 911 before he even got out of the car, and after a quick assessment the police sent us on our way. We suspect it was not a good day for the other guy. Fortunately, his car took all the damage, and with just a bumper scratch, we were able to drive off without needing to ask Hertz to exchange the car.
Met Ann and Nate at the Aloft; they drove us into St. Paul for dinner at the Chatterbox, a former Ford-plant workers’ bar with great food, except that Ford had closed the plant just the previous month. Was great to be able to catch up with Ann, and get to know Nate, an industrial designer at 3M of whom we thoroughly approve (Nate, you can stop reading now <smile>).
Wednesday, April 22
We bid a sad goodbye to the Aloft’s luxury, and headed south on I-35 to Owatonna, Minnesota. Louis Sullivan was FLW’s teacher, a brilliant architect who drove clients and partners crazy. At the end of his career he was a lone wolf, designing small commercial projects scattered across the Midwest. Brilliant buildings, but in nowhereville towns a day’s railroad trip from Chicago. His National Farmers Bank in Owatonna is now a Wells Fargo. They’ve preserved the building, with giant arched windows in a brick façade framed by green terra cotta trim. Inside, those windows flood the banking floor with colored light that bounces off of murals portraying Minnesota farming and gilded accents. The kind staff let us go up the balcony to take in the whole room.
Into the rolling farmland of eastern Iowa. This is an amazingly beautiful area: it’s not flat; it “undulates”, to steal a word from one of Minna’s students. The entire northeastern quadrant of the state is the “Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area”, and to our surprise will need a return trip to see properly. We got to roll through and enjoy the vistas of distant farms, flocks of redwing blackbirds, robins, and crows, the fields ready for spring planting, and the splat of many bugs hitting the windshield. We had to clean the window a couple of times, had never racked up such bad karma killing insects. People here wear overalls as clothes, not as a statement. Strange to see such an integral part of the American image up close for the first time. Outside Ames we ran into the Barilla pasta and Ball canning factories, fulfilling the “smokestacks” part of the tour. NPR broadcast that President Obama was speaking at a wind turbine plant in nearby Newton. We were concerned we might have trouble with traffic, but we breezed through with no sign of motorcade or press corps. So different from D.C.
Our second Sullivan bank was in Grinnell, Iowa, just east of Des Moines. The Merchants National Bank building is also owned by Wells Fargo, but they’ve retreated to a 1974 addition and allow the glorious Sullivan section to serve as the town’s visitors’ center. Another massive brick façade, with a small rose window encrusted by a giant terra cotta flower, opens into a breathtakingly bright bank floor lit by an entire wall of art glass. Just as we got our Kodak’s worth, Minna Mahlab met us at the front door.
Minna is a friend Dan met working at the National Academy of Sciences, an Iraqi Jewish vegetarian who grew up in the Bronx. When she announced she was moving to Grinnell, Iowa to run a science retention program at the College we all did a double take. She’s been there over a decade now, and is justifiably happy with what she’s accomplished. She wouldn’t mind taking on a similar challenge at an institution somewhere on the East Coast, but has made herself a place in the community. She gave us a tour of the town and campus, which is spacious, intimate, and has some terrific buildings. A generous Intel founder is an alumnus. The art studios, science buildings, gymnasiums, classrooms and dormitories provide the best facilities currently available. At the same time, the school is relatively small, so is manageable for a young student. Several Cesar Pelli buildings in the mix, plus a rustic stone chapel where Wynton Marsalis recently performed.
Due east on I-80 (hard not to travel on the grid in Iowa) are the Amana Colonies. A Protestant sect, the Society of True Believers started in Germany in the 1710’s. They’d migrated to Buffalo by 1840, and again to Iowa in 1855. The towns are more reminiscent of Shaker than Amish sites we’ve visited. The church continues, but the communal organization was privatized by group consent in the 1950’s. We only had time to walk around the main village of Amana proper. Dinner at the Ronneburg Restaurant, housed in one of the former communal kitchens. Wienerschnitzel and sauerbraten, served with all you can eat beets, coleslaw, fried potatoes, cottage cheese, sauerkraut, spaetzel, and dumplings, accompanied by locally made rhubarb wine. The town shuts down by 5PM, so if you go, arrive earlier than we did.
Back onto I-80, we got as far as Coralville before finding a Holiday Inn Express to spend the night. Coralville is the luxury regional mall headquarters for adjacent Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writers Workshop and other high fallutin’ culture type things we city folks might know. But not us, we watched the “American Idol” results show and went to sleep.
Thursday, April 23
Iowa and Illinois meet at the Mississippi in the Quad Cities: Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. One of the first bridges across the River was at Rock Island, and it remains a major rail and highway intersection. The John Deere headquarters in Moline has been a tourist attraction for decades; it was designed by Eero Saarinen in 1964. Unfortunately, it reminded us a lot of Pepsico, in Purchase, NY: yesterday’s vision of the corporation as global Medici, bestowing art and architecture on the masses. It was also wicked hard to find. Tired of dealing with turistas, Deere built a tourist pavilion/farm machinery museum/gift shop complex downtown. The Saarinen building sits in golf-course-like fields, unmarked, on John Deere Road. Intrepid architectural tourists that we are, we tracked it down. Saarinen’s original exhibit hall still serves as entry to the complex, but staff is not welcoming, more like “oh well, if you’re here, you can look around”. The architecture is much better than your typical suburban office park, but we felt like foreigners in the land of the lawn.
Our friends Rick and Mary Shuda moved to Iowa to be close to Rick’s family. They’ve been inviting us to visit for years, and this was our opportunity. They live with their son Nicholas in Rock Island in a lovely new neighborhood with their own pond. We met at the house, dropped our bags, and went for lunch. Mary went back to work and we headed on to the Rock Island Arsenal. The Arsenal is an active Army base, the entire original island that gave the city its name. Access was easier than at Fort McNair, we flashed our drivers’ licenses and were waved through. There’s a small museum of the armaments made there, the troops who served, and the Confederate prison on the site during the Civil War. Yawn. Better, there’s a Post thrift shop, where we picked up a cabbage-shaped tureen and matching ladle for $2. Best, the Corps of Engineers runs a Mississippi River Visitors Center, where we watched barges get locked through. I’ve seen a lot of falls and locks, but aside from the C&O Canal, this was the first time I was able to see one in operation. Plus, there’s a swinging truss bridge to accommodate the taller barges. Fun.
Across the River in Davenport is the Figge Art Museum. We weren’t expecting much from this, but were pleasantly surprised. The design is an innovative glass box by David Chipperfield. Inside are galleries dedicated to American Regionalism, Mexican Colonial, Haitian, and a survey of Western art. Lots of great Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Stewart Curry. The University of Iowa art museum was heavily damaged in recent floods, and some of the best work from there was temporarily here. Most intriguing were the working artist studios designed into the galleries, so artists are able to create while surrounded and inspired by great art and views of the River.
Across the street is a small but sweet Union Station in a riverside park. A skybridge connects parking on the downtown side of the tracks to a casino on the River side. It looks like more development is planned to make the skybridge pay, but for now it offers good views of the bridges connecting the four cities.
Back at the house we got Kentucky Fried Chicken and hung out with Mary, Rick, and Nicholas. Glad to be able to relax after many days on the road.
Friday, April 24
We walked Nicholas to his school bus, said goodbye to the Shudas, and headed to Madison, Wisconsin. The farmland in Iowa south of Dubuque was even more rolling than in the center of the state. This is the Driftless Region, an area of northeastern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin that the glaciers missed. That means the landscape was not worn down, but has ancient stones and soils close to the surface, more steeply rolling hills, and deep river valleys. Lots of red wing blackbirds, road-kill possums, and limestone layers along the highway.
Madison impressed us as deeply as Austin, Texas: state capitol, college town, great food, and friendly liberal people. Arriving at lunchtime we zoned in on a Culvers. This local fast food chain specializes in frozen custard and butter burgers. Yes, hamburgers fried in butter. Mmmmmm. We got chili cheese fries to go with, to help the dairy economy. We should have gotten the fried cheese curds.
Heading into town, we parked at Monona Terrace. Downtown sits on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. The Terrace is a convention center along the southern shore of the isthmus, looking northwest to the Capitol and south to the eponymous Lake. Originally designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1950’s, it was one of his great unbuilt plans until a decade ago, when the city resurrected and built it. Top is a roof garden, with fountains and views. We arrived during a freak heat wave, with April light but temperatures in the 70’s: bright, breezy, and pleasant.
We walked up to George Post’s Wisconsin State Capitol. Less overbearing than Minnesota’s, with better public art including leaded glass skylights and murals by Kenyon Cox. The “Wisconsin” statue on the dome is by Daniel Chester French. Whole building well maintained; if it had decades of partitions and sub-uses inserted, those have been reversed in recent restoration.
We took a walk up State Street, the main commercial stretch leading up to the University. The Capitol sits in a square toward the center of the isthmus, and diagonal streets come out of the corners of the square, breaking the grid. City fathers thought they were replicating D.C.’s street plan, but it doesn’t work. Where L’Enfant’s avenues cross at easier angles, they give prominence to the main streets and force the grid into a subordinate role. Madison’s 45-degree diagonals make auto traffic a mess. Despite that, State Street is a wonderful commercial stretch of restaurants, stores, and bars. The Overture Center for the Arts houses performance spaces and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Most of the museum was being rehung, but what we saw looked good, the facility is great, and the craft shop terrific.
The University of Wisconsin’s Chazen Museum of Art is a brutalist 1960’s concrete disaster, but with an excellent college collection of Renaissance and Old Master paintings, emphasis on German and Northern European artists. Good selection of John Stewart Curry and other American Regionalists. The campus stretches along Lake Mendota, with major medical and sports complexes, and an entire dairy farm. Returning to State Street we got a mango smoothie in a cluster of food carts, then an affogato at a gelato store. Stocked up on Usinger’s sausage and Wisconsin cheeses in a tourist outlet near the State House.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum is a little tired, but decent. If you start at the ground floor and move up you get the usual progression of native tribes and geography, frontier and immigrant history, and important industries (dairy, manufacturing, paper, tourism). We went the other way, elevatored to the top and worked down, and so began with the most innovative floor, where they attempted to sum up what is important about being from Wisconsin and how those ideas have helped make America a better place. Not bad. We were glad to see our penguin ice bucket in the manufactures gallery, and a lot of campy Liberace memorabilia.
We got back into the car and went on a quest for more FLW buildings. He’d designed a Unitarian Meeting House in what was then the outskirts of Madison, behind the University’s farm, in 1949. They sweetly gave us a personalized tour of the complex, which has a tremendous angular main assembly space, and uncomfortable Wright-designed plywood furniture. Their brochure helpfully listed other FLW buildings in the area, so with the help of GPS we got to see the outside of two of them. The 1903 Lamp House is in the interior of a city block, hard to find, but a compact little townhouse. It has odd (for Wright) Tudor-style diamond-pane windows. The 1908 Gilmore House is in the much swankier Summit Avenue neighborhood, big turn of the century homes with views of the Capitol and lakes. The Gilmore is stunning, but seems crowded by its neighbors.
Tired of fighting the traffic on those damn angled streets we headed off to a Holiday Inn Express in nearby Verona. Found a red-sauce Italian restaurant, Avanti, that served great shells Florentine and all-you-can-eat fried cod (also local bluefish and walleye). They were so hometown that there were little kids sitting up at the bar, drinking Cokes while their parents drank beers. The waitress asked us what was so special about this Chianti that all her clients ordered; I suggested she try a sip herself.
Saturday, April 25
The drive up to Taliesin was over the most circuitous mountain back roads we’d seen on this trip; as much fun driving as the mountain switchbacks in Arizona and North Carolina (seriously, Michael loves this). Perhaps more fun if not in a driving thunderstorm, but you take the weather you’re dealt. Fortunately the worst of the storm was over by the time we arrived at Frank Lloyd Wright’s original home and studio. His family had owned the valley since before he was born, and over the years Wright bought the farms from them. It served as one of his three primary homes (the others in Arizona, Taliesin West, and a suite at the Plaza Hotel in NYC, Taliesin East). Also the summer campus of the Taliesin Fellowship, the architecture school he founded and which continues to operate the property. They offer a variety of tours of the grounds during the regular tourist season, which starts in May. Since it was April, we got the abbreviated-comprehensive; an hour in a van to the Hillside Home School, Romeo & Juliet Windmill, and Midway Farms, then an hour walking around and into the studio of the main house. Just what we wanted.
We drove up to Spring Green for lunch at General Store, a craft shop and organic sandwich café, highly recommended. The Fellows have designed many buildings in the area, and the local tourist board provides a map of some of them. William Wesley Peters was FLW’s stepdaughter’s husband, and one of the forces that kept the Fellowship going after Wright’s death. His Chamber of Commerce and M&I Bank buildings are adjacent in Spring Green, and worth seeing. Wright’s 1956 Wyoming Valley Grammar School has been converted into a studio by a sculptor who makes horrible art out of tree stumps. Finally, there’s a nice 1992 pedestrian bridge at a roadside overlook a little further up US-23. The overlook lets you see The House on the Rock, a tourist trap that was a little too Wisconsin Dells for us.
Instead we went northwest to Richland Center. This was once a regional metropolis, but doesn’t have much going for it today. The FLW-designed A.D. German Warehouse from 1915 is almost a ruin. The town website had said it was a museum, and merchandise and signs in the windows looked like it may have been, but also like no one had entered the building since 1990. We asked at a local antique shop. They said the owner collected historic buildings, but refused to do anything with it. Anyone want to buy an original piece of architectural history in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin?
Caught county roads through the beautiful Driftless to Madison, then back on Interstate to Milwaukee. Found a Holiday Inn Express near the airport, and the Branded Steer, where we got good onion soup and steak for our farewell meal.
Sunday, April 26
An early drive to the airport, and out. We’d decided we liked the cooler we were using for my insulin enough to pay the $15 to check it through to home. Besides, it could hold the sausage and cheddar we picked up for souvenirs. Security raised eyebrows at the cooler, and when asked suspiciously what was in it, we could honestly deliver an only-in-Wisconsin answer: “Cheese”. They let us go <smile>.
FOR FUTURE TRIPS:
Dubuque, Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
Iowa City, University of Iowa
West Branch, Hoover Library
The whole country-woods thing way north on Lake Superior
Four Chimneys (home of Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne)
Harley-Davidson Tour, Milwaukee