Chicago feels like it belongs to me for some reason. Maybe too many viewings of The Blues Brothers. But there are those cities, you've never lived there, you've never thought seriously of moving there, you've visited a few times, but for some reason you feel like it's a part of you. It feels a bit like home. Or if not home, like visiting a close friend you haven't seen in years. I love New York City. There is no place like it in the world, or at least the small portion of the world that I've visited so far. But New York City is like that girl you admired from afar in high school. You were a freshman, she was a senior. She was gorgeous but not mean, cultured, cool, wore the strangest, best clothes and would smile if you smiled at her, but you could never really get to know that girl. She was out of your league. New York City feels a bit out of my league. I feel frumpy and Midwestern and bright and colorful and lame when I'm there for a few days. And I don't feel that way anywhere else, or maybe cheerful and colorful doesn't feel like a bad thing anywhere else. But Chicago, Chicago is different. It's big, it's full of art and shopping and restaurants and people and all that chaotic city whirlwind, but it feels like I'm supposed to be there, Chicago feels like it wants me there.
Joe and I headed to Chicago a couple of weeks ago to spend a few days just bumming around, hitting some architecture, some food, some culture, and hanging out with Jon Sands, Joe's youngest brother, who has lived in Chicago off and on for the last few years. He's a city boy now. Omaha can't hold him anymore. So Jon took a couple of days off work, scored us this fantastic two bedroom apartment at the complex he works at downtown, and guided us around his town for three straight days of activity and merriment.
As I mentioned earlier, we got into town a little late on a Wednesday, after our road trip up in the convertible from Kansas City. We unpacked the car, changed, and then walked across the street to grab a late dinner at a dark Irish pub. I forgot how wonderful it is to just walk across the street to get to places. No car needed. No parking, just shoes. It was great. Late night happy hour, over ordering way too many appetizers and just getting the chance to spend some time with two of the Sands brothers. We ate sweet curry fries and buffalo calamari and vacation started to seep into the air. We ate and drank and talked and then walked around a bit, before heading back to our apartment to take in the 17th story view and collapse.
Thursday morning we had early tickets to head out with the Chicago Architecture Foundation on their Frank Lloyd Wright bus tour to Oak Park. Joe and I had taken a self guided walking tour of Oak Park a couple of years ago, but hadn't had the chance to tour Wright's original home and studio or visit the inside of his austere masterpiece Unity Temple. So we hopped on the bus, Starbucks in hand, and prepared for four hours of Wright. It got off to a bumpy start.
Our very elderly bus guide kept holding the microphone up to speak and then setting off a crazy burst of feedback every time she spoke. It was cringe inducing, over and over again. Stuck in this confined area, and between ear splitting bits of feedback we could hear tiny bits of the tour. Bus morale started to go south quickly. Best part though, when the tour lady asked for some help with feedback, Jon said "You're doing great." Yeah, not that kind of feedback, sir. After figuring out that it was probably her hearing aids causing the problem, we got back on track and settled back for a brief history of Chicago buildings as we headed out to the burbs.
Wright's home and studio are gorgeous. The preservation and restoration is impressive. Seeing the spaces in both places, it's like an incubator for his future work. Under the more ornate and decorative facade, you can see future Wright designs and more organic work that is to come. He has that combination of tight hallways that open up into tall ceilings and bright windows, somehow managing cozy and bright even with dark wood and a lack of electric light at least for the first few years. Our tour guide, not the bus tour guide by the way, but this high energy woman who talked a mile a minute and walked nearly as fast, was excellent. Even Joe was impressed and he's notorious for asking guides questions they can't answer.
Thankfully the weather was mild and sunny, so after our tour of the grounds, studio and house, we then went on to the walking tour of the major Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the area, and then headed over to Unity Temple for the last tour. The whole neighborhood is full of these gorgeous houses. Mostly 1900's into early 1920's, a mix of traditional Victorian, and then the unique and disturbing Frank Lloyd Wright designs that set the whole neighborhood on edge. They stand out. A lot, particularly among the gingerbread Victorians. But they are spectacular.
I'm partial this this non Frank Lloyd Wright house, I have to say. It was a lovely gray color, with immaculate white, red and yellow trim, perfect landscaping and the kind of front porch you want to curl up with a book and an iced tea all afternoon, waving at tourists.
I think one of my favorite stories from the tour was the very unsurprising story about the house above. Oak Park is overrun with tourists all the time. Generally kind, interested and friendly tourists, but tourists all the same. And the owners of the house above, knowing this, went ahead and bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house in a busy, foot traffic filled neighborhood. And then sued the Chicago Architecture Foundation to get them to stop bringing walking tours in front of their house. Why buy a house in this type of neighborhood if you don't want a lot of photographs and people walking around outside your home? They stopped using their front door. They put a lot of signs up, and were generally sticks in the mud for a few years. It sounds like they've come around and even opened their house up for an annual tour recently, but still, the idea of buying one of these very prominent and very popular houses and then being surprised by the number of people milling around to look at it? Just silly. And of course we are across the street, far enough away from their front door to avoid being jailed.
Then on to Unity Temple. It looks like a big, imposing box. Don't get me wrong, it's lovely and bold and incredibly new, all cubist and concrete, and if you think about the fact that it was built in the early 1900's, it's an amazing piece of architecture. But it does nothing for me. The interior is stunning, but the boxy, gray, chilly exterior, leaves me exactly that, cold.
The inside is all squares of light and mellow organic colors, and it looks very little like a traditional church, other than it has pews and an altar. It was very stuffy inside, but very peaceful sitting on the pews and taking in the space. You can't hear the sounds of traffic. You can't see any of the busy city outside. That brilliant box design insulates and isolates you inside with your fellow church goers and God, I suppose. And our tour ends here. Our bus tour guide was back for the Unity Temple tour, and she did the most boring and uninformative tour I've ever sat through. I learned more talking with Joe on the bus ride home. But the day was wonderful. And there's a reason Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the only architects most people can name. He deserves that fame. As womanizing and free thinking and narcissistic and eccentric and ego-maniacal as he seems to have been, he's also a total friggin' genius.
So we hopped back on the feedback express, go dropped off downtown, and starving, since it was well past noon, we hoofed it over to Oprah's favorite burger joint, Poag Mahone's. A better burger, I don't think I've ever eaten. It was beefy and juicy and perfection. We ate and sat, and it was hot by now, so we needed a break. We'd been walking all morning, the sun was baking the sidewalks, so once we finished our leisurely lunch, we grabbed a cab and headed to the movies.
Why would we go see a movie on vacation in a action packed city like Chicago? Because few people like Wes Anderson movies as much as Joe and I do, and Jon Sands is one of them. So an afternoon showing of Moonrise Kingdom was the perfect antidote to the city sweats, along with the perfect viewing company. This is one of my new favorite movies. I think I might have to go see it again before it leaves the theater.
And who happened to be in the theater at the same time? Jon's friends Kevin and Sarah. Jon has talked about how great Kevin and Sarah are for years, so it was so strange that we all ended up at the same theater, same movie, same time on a random Thursday afternoon. We hung out and chatted a bit after the movie, and they are exactly as cool as Jon always said. Plus it's always exciting to meet a guy with a hybrid helicopter/hamburger tattoo.
After the movie, we headed back to our apartment to change and hang out a bit. Jon took us on a tour of the building, we saw a couple of sweet apartments with spectacular views. We might have wandered up to the roof, maybe, nope, I take that back, no roof, roof access is forbidden. But somehow we have some photos of the view from the roof. Then we went back to our apartment to collapse, Jon got us hooked on The League on Netflix, and after too many episodes in a row in the air conditioning, we braved the humidity and headed up the street for dinner. Asian noodles and homemade ginger soda, and our night was complete.
So that's our first day in Chicago. Other than the old lady and her mic feedback, the fact that I dropped a mini bottle of lotion down the toilet at 7am and then spent the next ten minutes with my hand in the toilet trying to fish it out, and the heat, it was what I would deem a nearly perfect day. Just the right mix of running around and absorbing Chicago, and then hiding in the air conditioning laughing. I'll be back with Friday's adventures and more photos later this week. I know you're excited!
Most photos courtesy of Joe Sands, with a few of mine mixed in.