Chicago – our final stop in our two-week adventure – is totally different in atmosphere to New York. Yes, it’s a busy city, with tall skyscrapers and plenty of commerce; but it is a city that bustles along politely, without the frenetic and oftentimes aggressive pace of New York. The streets are cleaner, the air seems clearer and the horizon wider.
We arrived under the deep blue sky of a perfect Fall afternoon and so our first sight of the city was one of low, golden light under a cathedral-dome of immense proportions. Travelling above the sidewalks and streets on the ‘L’ gives an almost surreal taste to entering the city, distant and yet immediate, as we shot out to Andersonville, our home for the next few days. There, just a short train ride away from the vertical heartland of Downtown Chicago, is a neighbourhood characterised by old homes, tree-lined avenues and pretty front gardens (some already decorated with pumpkins, ghosts and spooky graves for Halloween). Our friends’ apartment is the ground floor of what looks like a converted house and has the most exquisite wooden floors, dark wooden shelves, lintels and display-cases – original features which, coupled with the deep bay window, give an air of gracious welcome. It felt like coming home.
This old-fashioned elegance is a characteristic of the city, even when juxtapositioned with the sharp, clean lines of the downtown buildings. Despite wracking coughs, streaming noses and shivering from a biting breeze, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat cruise was easily one of the highlights of our US trip. The guide – a volunteer who begged us to support our local architecture society or group rather than tip him – was informative in the most interesting way possible: no weary droning for him, but a light, funny, and above all passionate explanation of how Chicago’s justly famed skyline came to be built. From sweeping modernist curves, tracing the waterline, to the brutalist giants of Mies van der Rohe and his acolytes, aged Art Deco wonders to the echo Deco of the most recent soaring towers, which speak back to where it all started: the careful planning and architectural experimentation of the decades following the Great Fire of a Chicago in 1871.
Even the two museums we visited were architectural giants (like in New York’s Met, we spent many more hours in both than we had planned because they were just so phenomenal – captured u-boats and boeings contrasting with a huge, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Rex; real “asflownbyNASA” space suits competing with beaded and feathered examples of Native American dress; the plunging darkness of an Illinios coal-mine with the light-white of the man-eating lions of Tsavo … And of course more than one trip to the souvenir-creating “mold-o-ramas”!). the Museum of Science and Industry is a relic from the 1893 World’s Fair and suggests by its sprawling prescience the sheer immensity of that occasion. The Field Museum, located on the parklands of Museum Campus alongside the Planetarium, could have been transposed from Paris or London quite easily.
Continuing the theme, Chicago is, of course, one of the homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and the FLW Home and Studio in Oak Park is jaw-dropping example of his work, especially when you consider that he was building the house over a hundred years ago! The vaulted ceilings, built-in storage, angular Art Deco lamps, use of light and space are quite literally worth marvelling over and we experienced a tour only surpassed in enthusiasm by that we were treated to in Ernest Hemmingway’s Birthplace, just around the corner. Honestly, I can say that our day out in Oak Park was both enlightening and enjoyable, and was definitely worth the trip.
Alas, though, our time in the States was ending almost, it felt, before it had even started. An advantage of staying with locals is the little treats they bestow upon one. In our case, our stay in Chicago ended on a crescendo: our friends treated us to a drink in the swish and snazzy Signature Lounge on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Centre. Below us, like an inverted milky-way, shone the lights of building after building, layering up into the real sky in steps – the Trump Tower and the Willis Tower meeting our gaze across the city. Although the favoured view from there is up Lakeshore Drive, showing the tidy grid of the city extending along the plain, I think it’s much better to scan from the water and Navy Pier to the dizzy heights of Lady Chicago’s tallest beaus. The story of the city is, after all, right there in its heart.
Chicago: I have been before; I hope I will again visit this golden nugget in the wide mid-western crown of this amazing continent.