Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chicago Day 2: River Cruise and Sears Tower

River Cruise
Our first full day in Chicago was Tuesday, September 26th and we decided to start out getting oriented by taking an architecture cruise down the Chicago River on Chicago's First Lady. To get the launch site of the ship we got subway passes valid for the week we'd be there, called Ventra cards, and experienced our first train ride in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Here we are on the platform waiting for our southbound train toward 95th/Dan Ryan. Dan Ryan was an insurance broker who served as President of the Cook County Board of commissioners and was a promoter of super highways in the Chicago area, which were extremely difficult to finance before the creation of the Interstate Highway System.

The CTA system map looks complicated but is really well organized. I will admit it has far more colors than the red, blue, green, and orange lines of Boston. It includes also pink, brown, and purple. We got on at the right angle bend in the red line at Clark/Division four stops north of The Loop, got off just short of The Loop at State/Lake, then walked on down to the river.

The direction to go was cast in stone.

We enjoyed a bit of modern art on the posters en route.

We got our tickets and waited to board the boat. 

The First Lady could house about 125 passengers and was almost completely full.  And there she was.

We chose to sit out in the air on the sunny upper deck. The weather was gorgeous with a gentle breeze amplified as the boat cruised along leisurely. The tour was 90 minutes and we initially had some concern about getting sun burned.  Actually we passed under bridges sufficiently often, such as the one in the background of the next photo, that over exposure did not turn out to be an issue. Periodically we would pass into the cooling shade and sigh contentedly.

The river route meanders through the city and under many road bridges, visible on the tour map. The First Lady started out westward bound, cruised up and down the northern branch and then down and up the southern branch. She then returned eastward to where the Chicago river flows into Lake Michigan, turning around at the mouth of the river to return to dock.

The tour was narrated by a university docent very knowledgable of the variety of Chicago architecture we passed. Her talk was fascinating and loaded with historical and design information about the buildings. We learned how the dredging of a ship canal reversed the flow of the river. Our docent taught us about the buildings' exteriors, contrasting those with sleek minimalistic skins to those sporting ornate concrete carvings to their structure. I took tons of photos and listened attentively but when it came time for me to describe what had impressed me or what specific building it was, or the architect's name, I recalled very few details. Some building had names but most were merely referred to by their street address. But with some reinforcement from museum displays later on in our week's visit to jog my memory, and with some Google image searches of my photos, I pieced together a lot of the info.

Located on the southeast bank at the Y in the river where the north and south branches join, the curved green glass facade of 333 Wacker Drive beautifully reflects the curves of the river and the sky. In the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, this building was featured as housing Ferris' father's offices.

Today's Chicagoan government is dedicated to preserving the river banks for all citizens. Structures must allow space for pedestrians to walk and enjoy the ambience along the shoreline.

At the northernmost point of the route is a building with a huge footprint called the Montgomery Ward Complex. The photo does not do it justice; it appears to stretch on forever. Major companies such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, and JCPenney had their catalogs printed in Chicago and handled in this big complex for distribution throughout the nation. Remember the Penney's Wish Book at Christmas time? What kid did not pour through it and dog ear the pages for Santa. For the younger generation on the tour, a catalog was described as on paper.

The building at 300 South Wacker Drive has a 36 story map of the Chicago river with the red rectangle showing where the building is in relationship to the river, slightly south of branching. The lead designer from ESI Design stated that the idea was to “highlight the building’s connectivity to the city and the river, and to elevate its presence, literally and figuratively putting it on the map.”

This S-shaped undulating structure is the River City Condominiums. The designer believed that buildings should reflect nature and that are no straight lines in nature. In the background off to the far left, the tall charcoal grey tower with the white antennae on top is the famed skyscraper, called the Sears Tower by Chicagoans, but which, because of a change in ownership, has been more politically renamed the Willis tower. Siri can still help you find information about it under the either name. Later in the day, we would ride to the top of it to enjoy the views.

This building is at 150 North Riverside. It is unique because its base is narrower than the portion towering above. Land was very dear and this plot had gone undeveloped for years until this innovative design was implemented.

The building at 150 North Riverside was built on a very limited piece of land just south of the branch of the river. The footprint of the base was constrained by the river on the east and rail yards on the west.

On the return portion of our voyage we passed once again the Marina Towers, multipurpose twin buildings with condominiums, commercial businesses, and parking garages at the lower levels. There is valet parking only. Marina Towers is famous for its role in the 1980 Steve McQueen movie The Hunter where a car zooms out of a high level of that parking garage and plunges down into the Chicago River far below. Here is the movie scene on YouTube. The dive downward occurs 2:30 into the 3:09 video. The stunt was repeated for an AllState commercial on YouTube.

The Marina Towers is located midway between where the northern and southern branches of the Chicago River join and where the consolidated branches stretch toward Lake Michigan.

Navy pier is in the background beside Frank's classic profile image. Because I wanted to experience navigating the locks between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, later in the week he and I went on a boat tour that cruised out onto the lake and we approached pretty close to that huge ferris wheel.

As we exited the tour boat, I gave a last pat to the iconic black stack on the upper deck of the First Lady. We were off on foot to find and explore the Sears Willis Tower.

Sears Tower
After a short subway ride to get us a bit closer to the Willis tower from the First Lady dock. We set off walking for the rest of the way.  Walking was not as easy as we had anticipated. It seems all the tall skyscrapers really messed with the GPSs on our cell phones. I felt like a duck in one of those carnival shooting galleries. Bang! We were heading one direction. Bang again! Whoops wrong way, turn around. Bang once more! Reverse direction... yet again! Not only were our cell phones fickle, they were constantly inconsistent with each other. We eventually just looked at a map of where we were, found where we wanted to be, and made sure we passed streets in the correct order to be heading the right way. We also checked by asking real human beings and not that ethereal Siri hidden within the bowels of our iPhones.

The construction on the Sears Tower is interesting. It is composed of nine tall columns each of equal square cross section, in a configuration called a bundled tube arrangement. Its designer illustrated the strength this design gave by likening it to a pack of cigarettes. One tall, thin cigarette alone is not very strong, but grouped together they are mutually supportive and work very well. The stepped height design also offered more windows to its occupants. This photo from Wikipedia illustrates the concept well.

As we walked toward the Sears Tower I captured a couple sights along the way. Frank and I noticed this sign in a store window. Of course this reminded Frank of his beloved college basketball team, its famous hawk mascot and its motto "The Hawk will never die!". To be honest, this is more likely related to the Blackhawks, a hockey team based out of Chicago, Illinois. It could also refer to a youth hockey club based out of Darien, Illinois about 24 miles southwest of Chicago. It was still fun to see a reminder of past memories.

Also as we walked along, the marquis from the Civic Opera Building amused me.

This is the view of the Civic Opera Building we saw from the river cruise. The ornate carvings on its facade are very impressive. Zoomed in close, the alternating squares are seen to be the classic theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy.

Once we reached the base of the Sears Tower we bought City Passes containing coupons for special savings at the following Chicago attractions: Skydeck Chicago*, The Museum of Science and Industry* (or John Hancock Building), the Art Institute of Chicago* (or Adler Planetarium), the Field Museum*, and  Shedd Aquarium. Some or all of us went to the starred choices.

Before taking the elevator up to the Skydeck, the enclosed observation deck at the top of the Sears Tower, we all posed for a photo of the six of us.

Scattered around the Skydeck were clear boxed protrusions you walk out/into and take your picture. I'll admit it was a bit of a scary feeling walking out there with nothing below your feet but a l-o-n-g way down. Here are Frank and me in the professional photo. The background is real, not a faked-in backdrop. Ooh, wish I had not mentioned the word drop...

Here we are in our own home-grown cell phone version.

One of the displays in the observation deck area honored the Chicago hot dog. I had repeatedly mentioned that one of the things I wanted to do in Chicago was get a hot dog from a street vendor. I love the scene in While You Were Sleeping, one of my favorite movies, where Sandra Bullock asks for "the usual" from a hot dog street vendor. Notice the Chicago "L" is featured in the movie poster. I wish I had remembered to re-watch this movie before heading to Chicago, but I will do it now after my return.

I was expecting to find a small cart along one of the streets, with stainless steel quilted sides containing steamed hot dogs within, but I never did come upon one. It is just as well. This display made me realize what a Chicago Dog was and I decided I did not really want one that had been "dragged through the garden".

After descending from the tower, we took the subway back home again to Old Town. We had dinner that evening at the Fireplace Inn. I remember I had their 9oz Grecian style Pork Chop described as succulent White Marble Farms center-cut chops, oven roasted to perfection with butter, lemon, & oregano, served with oven-roasted potato wedges. I was sooo good and I got two meals out of it.

Stuffed with our dinners we managed to climb the two flights of oh-so-steep stairs even on a full tummy. We played a few games of Sequence before retiring for the night. Our first day had been a big success. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Chicago Day 1: Traveling, Settling In, Getting Oriented

Frank and I just enjoyed a week's vacation in Chicago with college friends John & Sue and Joe & Margaret,  Monday September 25th through Monday October 2nd. Frank and I flew out of Oakland. I dropped him at the curb with the luggage and parked the car. As I always do (or try to remember to do) I took a cell phone picture of where I'd parked. The space I found was way, w-a-a-a-a-y out in the boonies of the parking lot, at G8, by the cyclone fence near one of the gates. I told myself the mnemonic GATE for G8 but needed a photo as a backup to my fading brain cells.

The bookend Mondays were everyone's traveling days. Our friends flew from the Boston, MA and Washington, D.C. areas into O'Hare International Airport, about 60 minutes northwest of our home-base-to-be. They met up with each other at O'Hare. Frank and I flew into Midway International Airport, about 45 minutes southwest of our home-base-to-be in Chicago's Old Town near the Division/Clark metro subway stop. With the distance and the time zone differences we convened with them at our rental about two hours after their arrival. The water to the east is Lake Michigan and we learned we could actually walk to it from where we were staying.

After Frank and I landed at Midway, as we exited our plane, I scoured the airport for the first signs that we were in Chicago. The first clue I was able to glean was this skyline silhouette painted on a set of utility doors. I cropped the trash can out of the photo so it would not be my first memory. Aah. There I go. Chicago Department of Aviation.

Then we came upon this sport store and Frank posed for me to get in the mood. Aha. Chicago Sports. Wrigley Field was a point of interest we were planning to visit.

Then we came upon a newspaper and magazine store that sported the nickname Windy City News. We were to learn later on, during a boat tour out on Lake Michigan, that Chicago was named the Windy City not for its weather but rather for office seekers and office holders. For a period of its history Chicago had very long-winded politicians and due to them the name was coined and stuck. Through the years, the reason behind the nickname morphed into something less controversial. You know the adage... it is safer to keep the conversation on weather rather than politics.

We stayed in an area of the city called Old Town. It was an excellent location, nestled in the midst of great restaurants. We had only to walk a few steps beyond our front door for a tasty meal.

We stayed in a four story brick building. That is our apartment on the third floor, the higher up of the two white fish scaled bay windows.

The entrance from the street was subtle, nestled between two businesses. When our Uber driver dropped us off I wondered if we had the address correct.  Fortunately we did, reassured by the fact that our friends came down to greet us. They helped us haul our luggage up two flights of very steep old, vintage style stairs. Huff, puff, ooof!

It was worth the climb. Our apartment was bright with lots of natural light and had been freshly renovated. However, a lot of the old time charm remained such as the window casements and corbels...

... and the detailing in the lock of the pocket doors.

The kitchen was white and cheery. It conveniently had simple stools on which to sit for chatting, sipping a glass of wine, or nursing a cup of tea or coffee.

The apartment was shotgun style and so functional we were able to thoroughly enjoy our stay there. The round table hosted games of Splendor, Martian Dice, and Sequence and even a 300 piece jigsaw puzzle.

At the far end of the hall was the bedroom Frank and I occupied for our stay. The back doorway led to a huge walk in closet with open shelving - just the place to dump our suitcases and spread out our "stuff" while leaving the sleeping area relaxed and uncluttered.

Here is a view from our window. This direction showcases the fascinating graffiti on the taco bar called Broken English, catty-corner from our home base. We walked across the street and had dinner there our first night.

There was a huge variety of tacos on their menu.

During our stay we used the mass transit of the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority), experiencing the subway, the "L"(short for elevated), and the buses traveling to our various activities:
  • self-guided tours of the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago History Museum
  • Millennium Park including en route statuaries and "The Bean"
  • guided river and lake boat tours and a guided walking tour of Wrigley Field
  • sky-high overlooks from the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and sea level activities at the shore of Lake Michigan. 
Here is a map of most of our outings. Division and Clark was the subway stop closest to our home base, a few blocks walk. Chicago's First Lady was the name of the Architectural River Cruise site-seeing tour boat. My plan is to write a post on each day's adventures so stay tuned. There is more to come.