I woke up very early – 4 am, (which would be 10 am in the UK as Chicago is six hours behind – so that has to count as something of a lie-in). I managed to snooze for another hour, but then had to get up. Bonnie had left out breakfast food and had bought soya milk – she’s an absolute superstar Warm Showers host), so I had some muesli and set about reassembling our bikes.
Bonnie got up and was dressed for going cycling, she was wearing a fantastic Chicago jersey with a picture of the Chicago skyline wrapped around her – the Willis (formerly Sears) tower front centre and the Hancock building centred on the back. Fantastic! We were going to get a guided cycle tour of Chicago.
Before heading into the city we wanted to find out about getting our bicycle bags to Mike in Columbia. So we looked up the address of the nearest courier and went to off to check where it was. I tried to put my cycle helmet on, but it wouldn’t fit on my head – very odd – I turned it over to adjust it and when I looked inside I saw the problem. My bike helmet was crushed and misshapen; further inspection revealed an enormous gaping crack in the styrofoam inner shell. The helmet was in the bag with my bike on the aeroplane, so it must have been crushed on the journey. I imagine that perhaps Richard Branson is getting his own back for the disparaging things I wrote about him yesterday. It’ll need to be replaced and it’s a good excuse to visit some bike shops in Chicago.
A defective helmet wasn’t going to be allowed to get in the way of us having a good day cycling in Chicago, so we set off in search of the nearest UPS or FedEx office.
We headed south past the huge Chicago convention centre in the Bronzeville neighbourhood, a relatively prosperous African-American part of the city. It was so good to be back on our bicycles after so long cooped up on trains and planes and buses. The weather was warm and there were plenty of others out on bicycles and running. In fact there were cyclists and runners and children playing everywhere we went all day – it was wonderful and made Chicago feel all the more welcoming.
At the Bronzeville neighbourhood boundary there was an enormous bronze statue of a man with a suitcase standing on a mound of shoe soles and striding purposefully forward. The statue was made up of pieces that also looked like the soles of shoes – some obviously worn through with holes. The statue was wonderful – looked at from a distance it had the appearance of a green man clothed in leaves, but of course they were shoe soles, not leaves. The monument is to the great northern migration of African American men and women after the civil war. Opposite the statue was a lovely Bronzeville rusted iron bench designed using the shapes of houses.
We couldn’t find the UPS office that we were searching for, so we went instead to the United States Postal Service, to see if they’d be able to ship the bags. They’d definitely be cheaper than a commercial courier. They weren’t sure without seeing the dimensions and weighing it – but they were very positive – we can give them a try as they’re open on Saturdays until 3:00.
We were back near Bonnie’s apartment around the historic neighbourhood of Prairie Avenue. Bonnie took us through the Women’s Park and Gardens – a peaceful space with some allotment-type planting and in the middle of the park, Chicago’s oldest house: the Henry B. Clarke house, which was built in 1836. Its a lovely wooden classical square structure, painted pale grey, with a pediment and a central tower (that was added later, Bonnie said). The tower reminded me of the corner towers of Osborne House – Queen Victoria’s house on the Isle of White. The Prairie District was where many of the wealthiest people in Chicago made their homes after the great Chicago fire in 1871. Prairie Avenue is tree-lined and contains some really imposing mansions, including the John J Glessner House, which is a museum that Bonnie volunteers at. The Glessner house was designed by the architect Henry Hobson Richardson who wanted to develop a particularly American architectural style – he succeeded and it became known as Richardsonian Romanesque – and he remains the only American architect to have had a style named after them. The house is solid and rectangular, the exterior has dressed stone and a huge arched doorway with very restrained decoration. Bonnie has a tile that shows the decoration from the front door, which are rectilinear – almost portcullis-like. The proportions of the house are lovely and the whole has a real harmonious feel to it.
We didn’t have time to visit – maybe tomorrow(!) We headed off towards downtown Chicago. At the end of Bonnie’s apartment building is a cycle route that goes to Lake and then either north to Downtown or south towards the University of Chicago. On the corner of the block by the start of the path is an area of grass with a commemorative sign – it was the site of the Battle of Fort Dearborn in August 1812. The sign makes it seem less dreadful than it really was, but basically the Potawatomi Indians, encouraged by the British, attacked the fort and burned it down – 50 soldiers and 41 civilians (including children) were evacuated from the fort and were attacked – 60 of them were killed and many more captured. It all sounded horrible. Britain was trying to prevent the westward expansion of the United States, while the native Indians were trying to preserve their lands. Trust the British to get involved – in a bad way – of course.
We rode on the cycle route – marvellous; really wide and well signed. On a railway bridge that afforded some stunning views of the city we stopped for some photographs – we were so preoccupied that we kept stepping in front of runners and other cyclists! That was a little bit embarrassing!
We passed Soldier’s Field stadium, where the Chicago Bears play. Then the Natural History Museum – solidly built, imposing and in classical style. The look of the stadium is rather spoiled by a modern extension that looks as though a flying saucer has landed on top of it.
The cycleway went into Grant Park – sometimes known as ‘Chicago’s front yard’. The park is part of a long stretch of open space on the shore of Lake Michigan that’s remained largely undeveloped and open to to the public since the nineteenth century. Bonnie told us that preventing the land from being built on has historically been something of a challenge. In the early twentieth century Aaron Montgomery Ward, (who first developed mail-order catalogue shopping – and became very wealthy as a result) fought a number of legal battles (and made some powerful enemies in the process), to stop development of the waterfront area and maintain the rights of all of Chicago’s people to access it. He’s something of a local hero as a consequence. Ward’s office was high up a building that overlooks Grant Park – Bonnie said that this was so that he could keep an eye on the park to make sure no inappropriate developments were going on!
We paused at an enormous and elaborate fountain – like something from Versailles, the Buckingham Fountain was built with money donated by Kate Buckingham in memory of her brother, Clarence.
There were some young women in graduation robes and mortar boards having their pictures taken in front of the fountain – they looked to be very happy and we congratulated them. It was a lovely reminder of graduation to come in Bath when I get back home – that’s always a good day.
In Grant Park there was also a beautiful rose garden where a couple were getting married. The garden was set up with chairs for the guests and the couple were standing in front of a big rose arch. We were passing just as he was making his vows. We paused to watch for a while – who knows, it might be us getting married in a year or two!
On the other side of the street, Bonnie pointed out the Blackstone Hotel – where apparently the saying ‘smoke-filled rooms’ to refer to political plotting and scheming was first applied! That’s not surprising that such a saying comes from Chicago!
Ever since we decided on coming to Chicago, Matthew had wanted to go to Millennium Park. So when Bonnie asked us if we should go there next, of course he said yes! The park has an amazing garden – lots of grasses, with purple planting arranged in drifts. There were volunteer guides at the garden and while Matthew explored, Bonnie and I chatted to them. I said that I was visiting Chicago and when a volunteer asked me where I was from, I suggested that she might be able to guess. “The Netherlands or Germany”, she said! What is it with me and Americans not being able to hear that I’m English? When we were in California, a man we met there thought that I was “Goddam French”! When she learned that I was British she said that she’d had been on a tour of English gardens in the 1980s: Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Hidcote. All lovely gardens that we know well. She also told us that she’d managed to get a spare ticket to the Chelsea Flower Show from a friend – a very generous friend, obviously. I imagine that even back then, Chelsea tickets were really expensive and difficult to get hold of.
It was good to admire the skyline from the gardens and Bonnie pointed out some of the beautiful buildings around us. At the Standard Oil building (now Aon), apparently the wife of the company ceo insisted that the building should be clad in Carerra marble – so it was – but apparently the marble soon started to drop off! The building does look better without it I think – rather finely austere, tall and graceful with lots of narrow vertical lines that serve to accentuate the height. Close by and just to the west was an unusual tower – Aqua – the tallest building designed by a woman, Jeanne Gang. It had shimmering bulbous and flatter sections and semi-circular balconies projecting by different amounts all the way up, Which makes it look as though the facade is undulating. Its 82 stories high – and it’s stunning.
The concert area in Millenium Park was next – with the orchestra rehearsing for that night’s performance. A real treat to listen to some Ravel and if there’s time we might get to go to the actual concert. It’s thrilling that there are free outdoor classical music concerts in Chicago.
We saw the ‘bean’ (Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture). It was beautiful – highly polished and shimmering – impossible to find a seam or a join anywhere on it. There was a security guard keeping watch and I asked her why she needed to be there – to stop people writing on it apparently. She said that the sculpture was inspired by a drop of mercury. We took lots if pictures – including of the adjacent historic Chicago Monument: the row of benches and tables where Bonnie met Frank!
On next to the Crown Fountain – a pair of amusing rectangular columns with water cascading off the top and down three sides. The fourth side display huge moving images of faces and every 15 minutes a jet of water looked like it was coming out of a person’s mouth. The pool at the base of the fountain was overflowing with children splashing about, whooping and yelling and just having a wonderful time. All around the edge their carers relaxed and chatted. When the spouts started the children went crazy and congregated under them – getting absolutely soaked. We were beginning to get soaked too, because it had begun to rain quite heavily, so we headed into Toni’s, a little French café around the corner for some lunch.
After lunch we went to the Chicago Cultural building, which was opposite the café. It used to be the main library and the headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic. Incredibly it was threatened with demolition, it has the largest Tiffany glass dome in the world, which has been recently restored. Beautiful smooth marble walls inlaid with borders of mosaic tile in different shades of green – some in the shape of stylised tulips, others with geometric designs. Inside a (rather loud) gospel music festival was just finishing, also a fantastic exhibition of architects and designers Alfonso and Margaret Ianelli. Beautiful work that Matthew has already blogged about.
Bonnie took us to the Chicago River, not dyed green at the moment as it’s not near St Patrick’s day! But seeing the size of the river made me think that getting it to be green must be an incredibly big task. We saw the amazing Marina City twin towers. These are locally known as the ‘Corncobs’. Seeing them in real life was thrilling. But they were not as high as I’d expected them to be. Nonetheless, they look more graceful in real life than I thought they’d be. The concrete floors hardly seem deep enough to take the weight of all the cars parked on them. Next door the elegant, tall black IBM building (as was – they’re no longer there) – the first of an amazing collection of towers in Chicago that were designed by Mies van de Rohe.
I’d been hoping to get my haircut before leaving the UK. But there hadn’t been time. So I asked a street cleaner where the nearest barber shop was, (they always seem to know where everything is). He directed me to the Illinois Centre – an odd, 1980s rounded building. I had my haircut while Bonnie and Matthew had some tea in a nearby café. The woman cutting my hair was Mexican and was interested in running. She said that when she went running it hurt. So we talked about how maybe she needed to run for less time or not so far and gradually build up distance. I also said that she could try having a shoe fitting to see if that would help.
Our day of sightseeing in central Chicago was almost done. We saw some more incredible Mies van de Rohe towers – the Federal Center – breathtaking: sleek and dark and generously proportioned. Really dignified buildings. I loved them.
At the base of the Chase building we saw an extraordinary Marc Chagal mosaic mural of the four seasons.
During the day Frank tracked down a vegan restaurant. What a sweet man. So we headed off to meet up for dinner. Native Foods had a cycling promotion poster on the wall (always a good sign), the food was good and there was lots of it. There was so much in fact that on this rare occasion that I was in a restaurant where I would eat desert, when it came to it I was too full!
The ride back to Bonnie’s was wonderful. Dusk was falling and the was warm and the air was sweetly scented. Bonnie took us through some parks and attractive new residential developments.
Once we arrived home Matthew fell asleep almost immediately. I stayed up and to talk to Frank for a little while – mostly about the changes in Apple iOS 7!
That was a good day.