“Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world”. Frank Lloyd Wright
I got back late last night from my third trip this year to Chicago. Although my trips start out as work, I have come to love the city so much I now add on a couple of days just to spend time there. Along the way I’ve fallen in love, fallen in love with Chicago and fallen in love with its architecture and particularly with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Not sure if that’s the correct order of events, but it about sums it up. Somehow they are all interwoven.
My first visit was all about architecture. Mention you are going, or have been, to Chicago and people will always say “did you take the architecture tour?” Guaranteed. My good luck is that I never had to because I first met this lovely city and came to admire its broad shoulders” through the eyes of someone who loves both dearly. And as we walked the city I started to realize that not only did he love the city, but he was also astonishingly well informed about its history, architecture and public art. I finally gave up asking, or even wondering, where we were going next because I knew that around any given corner I was not only going to see something amazing but would also be treated to a detailed account of its history and provenance. When you are already involved in a passionate romance, it’s an amazing experience to discover that you are also falling in love with that person’s mind. I was dazzled.
The first place we went to see was the Chicago Tribune Building and it remains my favourite. I was enchanted with the stones that are inlaid around the base of the tower that come from important buildings and historical sites all over the world. I want again this time because I always find new ones that I haven’t seen before.
And no matter how many times I see “the Bean” – Cloud Gate at Millennium Park – it remains fascinating.
Chicago also has incredible public art. Maybe I just think that because I come from Vancouver, a place of spectacular outdoor beauty, but somewhat lacking in history or culture. Public art? Well we have the Steam Clock in Gastown. The Picasso statue in Daly Plaza, the Miro statue directly across Washington and, of course, the Chagall “Four Seasons” mosaic. The mosaic is in a fairly blasé public square and has an unfortunate plexiglass shelter. It is, however, a gorgeous piece of public art that gets almost no attention. I went back this time to see if it was still as amazing as my first visit; it was.
One place I had yet to visit and had made a focus for this trip was the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it completely exceeded any preconceived notions I had. I knew they had an amazing Modern collection, and it was. I got to see my first original Picasso’s and Dali’s. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist galleries were both extensive and crowded. Photos cannot do justice to the way the woman’s face on the right of Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Au Moulin Rouge” simply glowed out of the painting.
And of course there is the Marc Chagall “America Windows“. Chagall donated these masterpieces in stained glass to the city and they are one of the most popular items in the permanent collection. I spent about an hour going back and forth, just sitting and taking them in. They are absolutely beautiful. (and yes the AI allows you to take pictures). During that time half a dozen school groups came by to sit and do their own sketches, it was wonderful to watch them. The Windows alone made my visit worthwhile.
But it was the unexpected that has remained with me. There is an extensive mediaeval collection with items both large and small preserved from the 13th and 14th centuries. This wooden diptych is from the Crusades in the Holy Lands in the 13th century. Something that old is hard to even imagine.
And to my delight I discovered that they have an extensive Decorative Arts collection, including a number of original Arts and Crafts pieces. This is a Charles Rennie Macintosh chair. And the nice part was that while the Modern Art galleries were crowded, I had Decorative Arts almost to myself!
I started my day in the rebuilt Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room. In 1893 – 94 Adler and Sullivan built a 13 storey skyscraper to house the Exchange. At the time it was a marvel of engineering and design and the interior of the Trading Room was one of Louis Sullivan’s most important works. It remains glorious.
And I finished my day in the Chicago History gallery that runs around the top of the Grand Staircase. They have on display original pieces of many of Chicago’s most important buildings, both past and present, and a small gallery devoted solely to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.
After a long hard day in the Art Institute I met up with a friend for drinks in the lobby bar of the Palmer House, one of Chicago’s oldest hotels. I have a great weakness for magnificent hotel lobby bars, as does my friend. She has travelled extensively, being a former consulate official and despite having lived in Chicago she had never been to this one before. She was delighted with it, pronouncing it second to none, and I was so pleased to be able to show her something special. With, of course, full credit to my amazing tour guide on my first visit to Chicago – the Palmer House had been a favourite place for us to take a break from our long walking tours. We meant to go out later for dinner, but somehow ended up spending the entire evening sitting at the bar solving the problems of our world. What fun. It’s not my best photo, but there were more than a few of one of my very favourite craft beers, Goose Island’s Matilda, to blame. It seems to be a Chicago habit!
A year ago I knew almost nothing about Chicago and it’s architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright or the Arts and Crafts Movement. I have always had a great interest in art – my university days were spend haunting the art galleries and museums in Toronto – but I never had anyone to share this interest with. Now my world has expanded and my knowledge grown in ways I could not even have contemplated. And by some strange coincidence this has opened professional doors for me that I could not have imagined a year ago. I have much to be thankful for and much to look forward to, either way, next year.
The only possible music I could be listening to while writing this is Wilco, another gift from Chicago to all of us.