An IRS Tour of Chicago
Michael was sent to Chicago by the Service to teach some compadres about the latest nuances of tax law. Dan came along to get the benefit of the government-sponsored hotel. We had a blast. Feel free to stop reading here, or continue as you will. If you received this at work, please print to read on your own time.
We arrived at Midway Airport noonish, and caught a cab east on 55th to Hyde Park. Our friend Liz was putting us up for our first two nights, so we stopped first at her house. Liz has a quite cool I.M. Pei/Harry Weese-designed home from 1960. A concrete box with style, opening up with large banks of windows to an inside garden. She wasn’t home, so we found the alley entrance, broke into the garden, and dropped our bags under her 2-year-old’s empty wading pool. Coming out we surprised them as they pulled into their parking space. After a quick visit, we left Liz to get Anna used to the idea that we would be staying with them, and headed over to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. Pretty much all of Hyde Park is Dan’s old stomping grounds from when he attended the University of Chicago. Michael humored me as we walked around the ‘hood and campus, checking out Dan’s old dorm, the Reynold’s Club, and Woodward Court, which for one unfortunate year was Dan’s cafeteria. Turns out Woodward was designed by Eliel Saarinen, although as the guide said later, it’s not a work he was very proud of <smile>. Checked out the recently reopened Oriental Institute. They’ve recently completed a major addition, and a good chunk of the collection is under wraps. Dan wants to know where they’re hiding those Assyrian bulls, sculptures from ancient Iraq that were over eight feet high and must weigh tons. We crossed the street to Robie House, which is almost through with renovations by the Oak Park based Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. They’ve done a great job, and the house itself is stunning.
Back to Liz’s to reacquaint ourselves with Anna. The absence seems to have done the trick, and she was pleased to show us a good chunk of her toy collection. Dan, of course, is jealous. The four of us walked over to the Medici, a pizza/coffeehouse, where we shared a little of everything and got caught up on each others’ lives. Anna had great fun with the swinging doors to the bathrooms. Liz drove us up Lake Shore Drive to Buckingham Fountain, which was as beautiful as ever in the night lighting. Liz preferred the white and gold, Dan the red and gold (very Italian), and Michael the black and blue.
The city has never looked so good. Daley Jr. may be lucky, or may be a good mayor, or may just be a smart politician. He does not seem to be rebuilding his father’s machine, but then again, the polity of today is not the blue collar ethnic world of Daley Sr. The streets are clean, the fountains work, traffic flowed, El’s run, there’s new construction, and the money seems to be shared by North, South, and West Sides, as well as the Loop. Several times we were walking late at night on the Lake, on city streets, and even in some creepy spaces under Wacker Drive, and never did we fear the consequences. Cool.
Who wakes up first, Dan or a two year old? Let’s just say Anna was a little stunned to find a man in her bathroom. Liz had plans to hit a kid’s outfitter with a friend in Niles, which is suburban somewhere, but dropped us off at the Dan Ryan El first. Major chunks of the El have been rebuilt since Dan was here in 1982, including an entirely new line to Midway Airport. The Howard runs on what used to be the Dan Ryan, and the old Howard now goes to Lake (i.e., West Side), but doesn’t stop at 55th Street anymore. Whew! Michael was stunned to discover subway platforms in the middle of the Expressway with no concession to the weather: no shelters, no benches, barely a roof over the platform. Chicagoans are tougher commuters than Washingtonians by far. Went uptown to the new Museum of Contemporary Art. A fabulous modern facility, with an entirely new collection from twenty years ago. They are ruthless about the term “contemporary”, which is a good thing. The Sol Lewitt retrospective was good, although one wonders whether the galleries of wall drawings are quite what Sol had in mind when he designed the pieces. Maybe we’ll paint the stair walls at home in primary colored stripes?
Got lunch at Giordano’s off Rush Street, home of the real stuffed Chicago pizza, not that deep-dish mess that Pizzeria Uno’s franchises try to pass off. Michael was annoyed by the wait and the iceberg lettuce salad, until he saw the size of the pie. Delicious. Walked through River North, the neighborhood to the west of Michigan Avenue/the Gold Coast. Is supposed to be a gallery/trendy/loft district, which Dan remembers being factories and porno theaters. Seemed to be mainly franchised theme restaurants: Rainforest Cafe, Hard Rock, sports bars. Wuh. Headed south to the Merchandise Mart, competitor with the Pentagon for the world’s largest building. It’s essentially a design showroom for “the trade”, but the first two floors have been converted to a retail mall. Rent from the Mart is one of the cornerstones of the Kennedy family fortune, has been for decades. The architecture is way cool, the mall a disappointment.
We were blessed by circumstance. As we admired the bridges on the Chicago River, a bridgekeeper shouted a two minute warning to us. We saw the raising of the bridges as a flotilla of sail and pleasure boats moved down river to the Lake. Most cool.
Caught the El up to Belmont, where we shopped antique stores on Lincoln Avenue. This is the fringes of the main gay neighborhood, Boys Town, which we never did get to the heart of. Gay bars come and go, but furniture is forever <grin>. Some quite good retro-Seventies stuff, and better junque than we see on the East Coast for lower prices. Dan got an old punch board, a gambling game from the 1930’s, and some Viewmaster slides.
Back south on the Howard El to 55th and then bus to Hyde Park. Liz and Anna took us up to dinner in Chinatown, which again is bigger, newer, and in better shape than we’d ever seen it. After dinner we drove to the Museum Campus. This is the land where the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium have been since the 1939 World’s Fair. Recently the city picked up one side of Lake Shore Drive and shifted it to the other side of the Field Museum, so what had been islands with museums in them have been transformed into a park-like setting on the Lake. Again, it was evening, dark, and there were tons of families out enjoying the space. You won’t catch that on the Potomac Basin this year.
This was our last morning with Liz and Anna, and we took goodbye photos at Promontory Point on the Lake, just north of the Museum of Science and Industry. Liz rode us up the Drive to our hotel. Turns out we would be staying in Harry Weese designed buildings our entire stay, this one the Swiss hotel where the Chicago River meets the Lake, just east of the Loop. The development is called Illinois Center, and is essentially a corporate headquarters: Amoco, Prudential, and Liz’s bank, Mid-City National. We savored the luxury of the hotel for just a few minutes before walking over to the Loop. Gave ourselves a tour of the historic skyscrapers there: Reliance Building, Auditorium, Rookery, Board of Trade, Sears Tower, Santa Fe Building, Civic Center, Monadnock. Lots of Daniel Burnam, Louis Sullivan, and Skidmore, thank you. Got lunch at Marshall Fields, which continues to hold up the banner of the greatness of American department stores. Really, don’t think there’s anything like it outside of the grands magazins in Paris. Delicious fish and chips, too.
Caught the Howard El (again, we were starting to think it was the only El line) north to the end, then the Dempster line two stops up to Main Street, Evanston. Walked through a palatial turn of the century suburban setting to the beach, where we met up with our friend Nisan Chavkin. Nisan had invited us to share Taslich with his family and friends. For we goyim, Taslich is a Rosh Hoshana related celebration where you cast your troubles of the year past into the water to be taken away. Nisan had orchestrated this at Lake Michigan, where we were quickly engulfed in a flock of seagulls eager for our matzoh, bread heels, and Twinkies. Did you know that you can skip 6-month-old Chinese almond cookies <grin>? They seemed like an appropriate contribution to the festival. We then walked to their house for dinner and New Year’s celebration. Nisan and Sarah have two angelic daughters, and with their friends it seemed like thirty or so kids and parents, although there were probably only ten. We were bad guests, and stayed after everyone else had left. The girls asked for a command bedtime reading of an Ed Emberley book they own, figuring that as a distant relative Dan might be able to add a useful spin. Most fun.
Turned out we had great views of Navy Pier, the Chicago River, and Wrigley Building from our hotel room. We slept with the curtains open.
Unfortunately, Michael had to go to work. The IRS office is on West Adams, in the Loop not far from the hotel.
Dan walked over to Navy Pier. This is the only one built of the four giant piers that Daniel Burnham had specified in his parks plan for Chicago, and for a century made the city one of the world’s major ports. It has been turned into an amusement park, sculpture garden, and Children’s Museum. The ferris wheel at night had caught my eye the night before, and it looked just as great in the morning sunlight. Took a bus to the Loop, where I was able to get into the lobby of the Rookery. This had been built by Burnam in the 1880’s, but the lobby was redesigned by Wright in the 19-oughts. It has recently been restored, and is stunning. From there caught the Ravenswood El almost to the end.
I’ve seen subway stations below ground, in tunnels, in ditches, and elevated on raised tracks. This was the first subway station I’ve ever seen that crosses the street at grade. Honestly, the old railway gates come down on Rockwell Street every five minutes to let a subway train cross. Our friend Ellen MacRae has recently married, and her husband, Trig, is head of the Chicago Maritime Association or Yacht Club or something. So, he’s found this cool apartment in a working class neighborhood that he may never leave: the backyard is the Chicago River, and he can moor his boat there in the winter. You’ve got to love a city like this. Ellen took me out for burgers and shakes - shakes like they make nowhere else. Milk, tons of ice cream, pineapple/blueberry/cherry/chocolate syrups, whipped cream, cherry, and a cigarette cookie. Yum. We worked lunch off at Architectural Artifacts, an antiques shop that specializes in lamps, stained glass, built-in furniture, and other pieces taken from condemned buildings. They had great fun house mirrors, and naive wooden models of buildings from a closed tourist-trap-like place nearby. I found a plaque from a Kaskaskia College building built in 1970 and designed by Helmuth Obata and Kassabaum (architects of the Air and Space Museum in D.C.). The proprietors let me have it gratis, on the grounds that no one else would ever value it. I don’t think we’ll be hanging it on the front door, but you never know.
Ellen gave me a lift southbound on Lake Shore Drive back to the hotel. I don’t think there’s a more beautiful street in the country. After she dropped me off I headed south on Michigan Avenue for some shopping, and opened a charge account at Marshall Fields to get my new account discount. Stocked up on Frango mints, and caught a cab to the NBC Building. This is behind the Tribune Tower off of Michigan, and was built about five years ago to a design that honors the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center in New York. Unfortunately, the shop sold mainly stuff from shows I would never watch, but are broadcast from here, like Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones. Where’s Judge Judy when you need her <smile>?
Caught up with Michael at the hotel, who had gotten his class off to a good start. We headed up Michigan to the Magnificent Mile. Got dinner at a quite-nice Armenian restaurant (who knew there were Armenians outside of Watertown, Massachusetts?), and checked out the shopping on the Mile. Water Tower Place still looks good architecturally, but the stores there pale next to the newer ones on the Avenue. Most of the small buildings Dan remembers have been replaced by single-block skyscrapers with major department stores on the first five floors: Saks, Nordstrom's, Pottery Barn, Ralph Lauren. A shame the intimacy is gone, but the swank remains, and it’s still the kind of shopping high the folks who own Tysons Corner would kill for.
Michael had to get class started early to catch up with topics that were left behind the previous day. Dan packed up and took his bags over to the Art Institute. They’ve added major wings and moved much of the collection in twenty years. It’s still a temple, a palace, a must-see on the art pilgrimage. Decent bratwurst in the cafeteria, too. An excellent show on contemporary skyscrapers, a mediocre one of Willam Merritt Chase Impressionism, and great installation of American Decorative Arts. Got my bag out of the checkroom, walked a block west, and caught the El to Midway. An uneventful flight took me to National by 5 EST and Metro took me home from there.
Michael taught until late afternoon, dismissed class, and caught the Art Institute himself. After all, on Tuesdays it’s free! Dinner with his teaching partner at the Ralph Lauren Restaurant on Michigan, since the partner has a Ralph fixation.