La Serenissima

Sunday, May 9, 2010


We traveled to Chicago on the overnight train – the Lakeshore Limited. Well, here’s the thing about being on trains … one door can look just like another … On the first morning we were speeding to breakfast and moving quite quickly down the corridor. When we reached a door straight ahead (just like the dining car’s door) I opened it with full force to find two very startled (Julian said terrified) people. The man frozen in mid-movement putting his socks on and the woman was just very still and glazed over…Oops, wrong door!! Julian thought I was really behaving like an undercover agent from the NYPD, and kept reminding me of this by saying “Police!  – FREEZE!!” every I went before him through doorways.

The train was fine. Not as posh as Le Canadien, but comfy and homely. For instance, whereas the Canadian train boasts gourmet meals, Amtrak dining is more like a diner, but there are 3 or so choices and the wine is ok. The service is less professional – but, hey, the price of the ticket for a private sleeper is much less too.
Chicago in America’s Midwest – often known as the heartland – is the business headquarters for many large steel companies and business services, as well as being the transport hub of the country, for both rail and air, and is a vibrant centre for cultural and political life.

Chicago is a wonderful city for appreciating architecture; it is after all the home of the first skyscraper. Ingenuity in building design principles flowed from a major fire that swept through the largely timber constructed city in 1871. 

Chicago needed to be rebuilt quickly and it’s geographic shape necessitated maximum population density in available space. Thus was born the steel skeleton construction method that could be built “as high as you like” – the modern skyscraper – and the architectural powerhouse of elegance, the Chicago School.

Among its stars were Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe and Frank-Lloyd Wright. There are fine examples of early 20th century buildings along North Michigan Avenue and in the Loop. The gothic design of the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley building and the white limestone turret of the Water Tower (the only public structure to survive the Great Chicago Fire) cast a kind of timeless elegance to Michigan Avenue. This is contrasted with the 110 floor Sears Tower (once the world’s tallest building) and the stark black steel and glass construction by Mies van der Rohe of the IBM building in Marina City, behind the twin towers known as the ‘corncobs”.

The Loop is also framed by the elevated rail track; you guessed it, the El! Julian captured it and also took some great shots of different buildings near the Chicago River and in the Loop itself. 

In the meantime … I was working on my first film called “While I was out shopping”….don’t know what happened really … Mind you, the shopping is great in Chicago. The “Magnificent Mile” on North Michigan Avenue is a case in point and is home to high end boutiques, jewellery shops, department stores, bookstores and art galleries. The Loop is also home to some important retail history. The Marshall Field’s department store building (now owned by Macy’s) known, among other things, for it’s beautiful exterior clock and the Carson, Pirie & Scott department store building are both there.

Another striking thing about “the look” of Chicago is the expanse of parklands and beaches along the lake front and the number of strikingly dramatic pieces of sculpture or plaza art, such as Picasso’s “Sculpture” in front of the Daley Centre. (Yes, that’s right, the one that was featured in the Blues Brothers! Here featured with Christmas tree)

We stayed in a great hotel, the Intercontinental on North Michigan Avenue next door to the beautiful gothic style Tribune Building. It’s an art deco building which was commissioned by the Shriners (Masons) and started out life as the Medina Athletic Club – an organisation for pretty wealthy guys.

At the time of its opening in 1929, it was criticised for its “wasteful extravagance” – why? It only had limestone relief carvings in the Assyrian style on the 8th floor (hmmm); three Sumarian warriors carved into the 12th floor façade (well, ok); a chimney-like structure on the roof for docking airships (now you’re talking); a 23rd floor miniature golf course complete with water hazards and a babbling brook (um, if you must); a shooting range (now hang on!); a billiards hall (ho-hum); a running track (where was Nike?); a gymnasium (practical); an archery range (ok Robin); a bowling alley (ppallleeeze); a 2 story boxing arena ( … eee!) and a junior Olympic size swimming pool on the 15th floor.

This pool, with its blue Spanish majolica tiles and terra cotta fountain of Neptune is one of the club’s few features which remain today – and Sue saw it, in full use, each time she went to the gym. Oh, and another modest feature still in use today is the 2 story grand ballroom, complete with a 12,000 pound Baccarat crystal chandelier – the largest in North America. Well the dear Shriners didn’t know that the stock market crash was coming and in 1934, they lost their beloved clubhouse. From then on, it became a hotel.

Another interesting feature in the hotel for us was that in the early 90’s, an Italian conservator from Florence named Raphael Lippi restored several paintings, depicting concepts such as “wisdom”, “consecration” and “contribution”! We couldn’t believe it. 

Postscript: A great day out beyond the city – Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, travelling on the El

Oak Park is a delightful suburb, with tree-lined streets, mostly large house blocks many featuring the strong horizontal lines and glass of Wright’s Prairie School. Other homes are large free standing Victorian style, offering a dramatic contrast to the Prairie look.

I went to Wright’s home and studio in Chicago Avenue. He lived and worked there for the first 20 years of his career. It’s a restored early 19th century building and contains an octagonal, light-filled drafting room and a dramatic barrel vaulted playroom – you sure hope the kids appreciated this architectural masterpiece!!

There are lots of architectural tours available on foot, bicycle and bus and there is information available in Wright’s home. The gift shop has a beautiful range of books, reproductions of his glass and metal works and a host of other things.

I made the return trip on the El. All very straight forward – the station is nearby, but it was a Sunday, so there was a longer wait than usual. So, off the train went. At the next stop, a guy got on and sat opposite me. He was clearly on something, very animated and agitated – started talking in a loud voice to no one in particular. The rest of us were pretending to be cool but averting our eyes just the same. I christened him Loudmouth.

We pulled in to the next station and I spied coming through the turnstile what was going to be a further complication. A striking Afro American man, decked out from head to foot in lime green. Yep, I wasn’t sure if he was a bell captain in a hotel, as he featured silk shirt and matching vest, well-cut trousers, a bowler hat (uh -ha) and boots – ALL in lime green!! I christened him Lime Green Larry.

Well, of course Loudmouth saw him too and even before the guy walked in the door, he was in full flight – “Hey man, get a load of this dude!!” Lime Green assessed the situation and discreetly moved to another part of the carriage. This did not deter Loudmouth, who continued his commentary for the benefit of all of us. It was around this time I realised how hard it is to focus continuously on a spec of dust on the opposite window …

Another stop. Well dressed man in his fifties enters – the New Guy. Loudmouth engages him in a one-way discussion about the state of the world, the El, and Lime Green of course … When the New Guy finally speaks, turns out HE has quite a story too. “Don’t go talkin like this man. Ain’t gonna get you nowhere. I was like you – ran away from home when I was ten; lived on the streets. I was an alcoholic, then addicted to heroin; I’ve seen it all … but THEN, I found Jesus … it changed my life. Now I work in a community support place and I help people like I used to be”. Loudmouth is actually quiet and listening to this; pauses thoughtfully to compose his ideas. Then asks, “Story like that, what the hell are you doing on the EL man?” …  I was asking myself the same question!

But, a ride on the El is an experience. As we turned on a wide curving arc towards the city, I was rewarded with a sensational view of Chicago
Soon it was my stop and as I left the El at Monroe, the New Guy was still trying to save Loudmouth and Lime Green was still keeping a low profile … 

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that my airplane conveyed a silent sermon. To the earthbound observer, its silhouette was the shape of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Flights to Lusaka