Summary – day 03 – Chicago (Saturday 22 June)

Today our friends Ed and Pete were married. Warmest best wishes to them both! We were really sorry that we weren’t able to be there. They told us of their wedding plans about a week after we had booked our flights to the United States. Matthew did get involved in the wedding preparations though and he made their wedding cake. A three tiered affair with two grooms on the top! He didn’t want to post a picture of it on line because he didn’t want to spoil the surprise for everyone. It was really spectacular, though, so now that it’s after the event, the picture can be shown! By all accounts everyone liked it. We’re really looking forward to hearing about how the day went and catching up with Ed and Pete when we get back.


For us, today was more sedate and there’s less to report (phew!). We needed to get the bicycle bags off to Mike’s in Columbia, Maryland. I needed to replace my damaged helmet. We also wanted to go and look at a Frank Lloyd-Wright building at the University of Chicago and Matthew wanted to fantasize about being Sandra Bullock by riding the elevated Loop metro train (he’ll explain, I’m sure). Then we might still have time to go to the open air concert tonight at 7:30 in Millennium Park.

After breakfast we headed over to the post office to send the bike bags. There were some other people in the lift as we came down from Bonnie’s seventh floor condo. As usual, they asked us “What’s in the bag?” They didn’t look convinced when we told them that they were our bicycle bags. I think that perhaps they imagined we were smuggling a body out of the building!

We wheeled the bike bag (one is folded up and packed inside the other), to the post office which was a couple of blocks around the corner. Despite having called in yesterday to check that they’d be likely to be able to handle the shipping, when they actually saw it they said “no”, *fume*. We asked where the nearest courier’s might be and they just didn’t really know, (which to be honest, I found a little unconvincing). The woman at the counter thought that there might be a Fed Ex along the street, but it was “quite a way”. When I asked her how long it might take to walk, she said “About 15 minutes.” I said “we’re cycling to Washington DC, I think that we can walk for 15 minutes!”

We decided to try the bicycle store next – we figured that we’d get more sense out if them. They were in the same direction as the Fed Ex store in any case. We also wanted to ask some advice about the route out of Chicago.

We walked to the bike store, still trundling the bike bag behind us. Matthew had two more enquiries about what they were! The Cycle Store was a real treat – lovely, helpful staff, a very friendly old dog and the whole place really had the feel of a down to earth, honest bike store – staffed with people who cared about cycling and cyclists and busy doing repairs and giving good service. It’s on South Michigan Avenue, between 14th and 16th street if you ever need a bicycle store in Chicago. I told them I needed to replace my helmet and we looked at the ones they stocked. Unfortunately, many of them had what I regarded as rather garish designs on them and/or were too brightly coloured and/or had big designs or even text all over them … Aargh! These Just Would Not Do. There was one that I would have just about coped with – in any case it was the least awful, but just like any good bike shop should, the guy I was speaking to suggested I visit the Trek store down the road. He thought that they might have more choice. Despite my not buying a cycle helmet from them, they were perfectly happy to go through potential routes out of Chicago for us, even going so far as to call up various options on the computer screen and talk us through them. Also of course, they knew exactly where the nearest courier was. It wasn’t a Fed Ex it was a UPS store, and we were given clear directions to that.

The UPS store were really efficient – the man on the desk said that he’d wrap the bags in cellophane before they were shipped and also promised to tie through the zippers to keep the bag sealed. I was a little nervous when I noticed a big notice informing everyone that valid identity would be required before sending anything because we’d not brought our passports. But we must have appeared honest to him – there were no conversations about bodies. We weren’t asked to prove our identity, but we were asked for $130. So the bags are on their way to Columbia near Baltimore and should arrive there on Wednesday. Mike (McLoughlin) please note!

A little further down the street was the other bike store – it used to be a Trek Store, but now it’s called On The Route – it’s not at all like The Cycle Store, it’s obviously quite high-end and kitted out in a way that makes me feel that they were way more interested in selling stuff than caring about bicycles and bicyclists. They sell expensive Bianchi as well as Trek. They did have a replacement for my helmet, but in grey, rather than red and black. But I could live with that. The helmet cost $300 – this was turning into quite an expensive day and it wasn’t even lunch time. Hopefully, Virgin or our travel insurers will help to defray the cost.

Back at Bonnie’s we met her son-in-law, Gary and her two grandchildren. They’re all off camping on Northerly Island, which is now a public park, but was Meigs Field Airport until the mayor of Chicago controversially ordered that the runways be bulldozed in 2003.

We wouldn’t be seeing Bonnie and Frank again before we left, so we took some photos. We asked the grandchildren to take some pictures of all of us – one was too shy, the other wasn’t – so you can see the result below!

We set off for the University of Chicago campus, further south, to look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie house. It was warm and humid so we decided to use the three-day travel passes that we had bought at O’Hare rather than cycle there. But we thought that we could take a bus from Lakeshore Drive where it runs just behind Bonnie’s apartment block. We wandered over there, but couldn’t find any bus stops and eventually realised that the particular buses we needed don’t stop between 11th and 43rd streets. No matter, we could easily walk down to 11th Street – it was just past the Natural History Museum that we had cycled past the day before.

There were loads of people cycling and running in all directions and we saw a cycling accident at a junction. It was one of those curious incidents where having seen absolutely everything right in front of us, we were still both slightly confused about what quite had happened. Cyclists were coming from both left and right and where the cycle path crossed over the road cyclists coming from both directions had to stop to give way to any cars that might be passing. On our right the cycleway curved around to the junction, so any cyclist approaching the junction and travelling quite quickly would not have much time to stop. A guy on a racing bike coming from our right stopped rather suddenly at the junction, and immediately in front of us. Another cyclist travelling more sedately from our left braked briefly at the road and carried on over the junction. He had obviously seen the speeding cyclist that was coming towards him, but I think that he must have expected the faster guy to go around him – but the first cyclist wasn’t going to do that – he’d stopped to give way. So the second cyclist rode on into the first: colliding head on with a stationary cyclist and then both ended up on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs and bicycles. The cyclist who actually crashed into the first hit the ground and scraped his arm, but quickly got up and back on his bike without really saying anything. What was so odd was that the stationary cyclist kept apologising and saying how sorry he was. But we didn’t think that he’d done anything wrong! They both continued on their way. Anyway, we hope that’s the only cycling incident that we’ll witness on this trip.

We got to the bus and headed up to the university. The bus dropped us off by the Museum of Science and Industry – a vast, beautiful classical building of pale stone and copper domes. The university is in a lovely area – wide leafy streets with lots if detached houses that have been taken over for university use. The main part of the campus is very grand – it has a tall thin Gothic tower that’s very ornate at the top. There were a couple of quite English-looking church buildings, quadrangles, halls of residence and lots of rather imposing Victorian-style halls. Further away some less faux-Oxbridge and more interestingly original modern buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House is close to the main older-looking buildings and really stands out among its surroundings. It was built between 1908 and 1910, (before any of the other stuff around it – much of which is made to look older). The house has three stories, is cantilevered out at one end and is low-roofed, long and thin in brick and glass and concrete. The colour palette is kept minimal – red brick and tiles, grey concrete in bands, black window-frames and light stone. It’s considered the best example of Wright’s ‘prairie style’ – the first architectural style considered uniquely American. the house is stunning and it still looks fresh and original and harmonious.

We were just in time for the 3pm tour and the volunteer tour guide was fantastic. The building is still in the process of being restored, so it wasn’t possible to see it all. What we did see exceeded my expectations – the way that everything was designed to look good together, the spare uncluttered interiors, lots of light, lots of glass with brick and stone made the upstairs feel very light and spacious – even though it’s a fairly modest house.

It was interesting to learn about the people who have lived in the house: the Robie’s had financial problems and marital difficulties, so they and their two children only lived there for fourteen months. The house changed hands a couple of times before being bought by the Chicago Theological Seminary, who used it as a student dormitory and dining hall. So, perhaps inevitably, it was knocked about and damaged quite a bit, (trust the bloody church – they always seem to think that they can do exactly what they like). Worse, the seminary only really bought the house so they could demolish it and redevelop the site – so they didn’t ever really care about the building. Three times the seminary tried to redevelop the site – the onset if WWII put those plans on hold and after the war when they tried to demolish the house again there were international campaigns to save it. The seminary were offered alternative (and more) space up the street – so agreed to move out. The building passed to the University of Chicago who gave it to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in 1997. the house is still being restored to its original appearance in 1910.

The Robie House had a beautiful shop, with some lovely books on Wright and his buildings … also some Lego models of some of his buildings (they might well end up on my Christmas wants list!). We saw some lovely matte ceramic coasters, that we thought might sort of compliment a tile from the Glessner House Museum front door that Bonnie has, so we they might make a good thank you gift.

We were taking pictures outside a woman who was passing offered to take one of both of us. Her son had just graduated and she’d sold the condo that she’d bought for him while he was studying at university. I’m always amazed when I come across this sort of thing – parents with so much that they can buy their children flats near college. I can’t help thinking that however well-intentioned it stifles hard work and fosters a sense of entitlement in the recipient. Anyway, she was kind and we were glad to get the pictures.

We made a little tour of the campus. What seems odd and immediately obvious to someone from the UK on a US campus is the number of privately-funded institutions, buildings and departments. It’s rarely the Department of Sociology, it’s very likely to be something like the Ellen Degeners Institute for Social Research and the Louis B Meyer Department For Film and Media. In the socialist utopia that is UK HE the Jane and John Doe Centre for the Study of People With Too Much Money And Reactionary Opinions That They Believe Everyone Else Should Share is, thankfully, still quite rare. But we’re headed that way – there’s a Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford – I wondered how anyone with any integrity could possibly accept such a post, then I noticed that the current post is held by someone called Deborah Cameron – this kind of stuff couldn’t be made up! I wondered if the Co-op Academic Bookstore building up the road was THAT seminary building. The library – sorry, The Joseph Regenstein Library with The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library Extension – is fascinating – a very tall blocky concrete central structure with a soaring curved glass canopy over a big hole in the ground for the adjacent extension. This latter looked like a smaller version of the beautiful National Botanical Gardens of Wales glasshouse (see here: Next to the library a monument commemorating the splitting of the atom – the monument was great, but I I’m not entirely certain that on balance this particular scientific endeavour requires such uncritical celebration.

We headed back to the metro through Hyde Park, a lovely expanse of green with lots of people enjoying the sunshine, families eating out having made quite elaborate arrangements – big dining tables, chairs, lights, sound systems outdoor games – the whole works – looked to be great fun. The area around the 51st Street station was run down – I’m amazed at these sorts of stark juxtapositions between very wealthy (university area) and adjacent poverty (the South Side), that are so common in the US. I suspect its necessary to be an outsider to even notice the glaring unjust inequality in such short distances. We got on the train and Matthew had his take a ride on the elevated Loop.

We disembarked at Madison/Wabash station to get to Millenium Park in time for the concert. We were a bit early, so having secured our spot I scooted over the road to take a close look at the Aqua building that I’d only seen from a distance yesterday. As I suspected the building really does benefit from closer inspection, from below the whole thing ripples and undulates up into the sky – it’s a marvelous effect. I attracted some attention staring up and photographing the building – so by way of explanation I said “This is the tallest building designed by a woman.” A man replied “That must explain all those curves.” This was very annoying, sexist rubbish. Why is so much that women are and do and achieve linked so easily and lazily linked to their bodies and their biology? This just does not happen to men. I wanted to smack him for being so stupid – but that would probably have proven his biologically determinist view of the world!

A happier experience next door at the Aon Building. I was taking some pictures from outside the main entrance and a man came out of the building carrying a huge folder. I asked him if this used to be the Standard Oil Building and he confined that it was. When it was completed in 1974 it was the tallest building in Chicago and the fourth-tallest in the world. As it was built for Standard Oil Indiana, it was nicknamed Big Stan.

The man introduced himself as James and we chatted a bit about the building, about what it was like to work there and who occupied it. He was with Aon on the 14th floor. The upper part of the building is KPMG :(. James was really enthusiastic about Chicago and seemed delighted that I was interested in it and the buildings. He asked me if I was going to the concert in Millennium Park and I said that I was. He wasn’t going because he had work to do! I suggested that he probably wasn’t paid enough to be working at 7 o’clock on a warm summer Saturday evening! I started to head back over to Millennium Park and I heard someone running behind me. I turned around and it was James! He’d walked on after our meeting, had an idea and then run back after me. He was out of breath and he said (rather ruefully) that he shouldn’t run! (He was carrying a bit more weight than strictly necessary!). Anyway, he said that as I was interested in the Aon building, that he had some time to spare and that he would take me up to the 14th floor and then up to the top floor to see inside and take some photographs. What a sweet man. I was really tempted, but (a) I really don’t like heights, and (b) the concert would be starting in a few minutes and I was worried that I might not get back in. I politely declined and thanked him. I regret that now – because I realise that I could easily have gone back into the concert area at any time and the first half was pretty uninspiring – so missing the start Wouldn’t have been much of a loss and it would have been a wonderful opportunity to see inside Big Stan.

It was wonderful to go to the concert in Millennium Park. The atmosphere was so relaxed and friendly. Lots of people having picnics and children were playing and running about. I thought that the program was rather challenging for a free public open air concert . Quite a few people left in the first half! But the children really enjoyed it a piece modeled on Peking opera and classical music and concerned with the different facets of womanhood. The second half was more predictable: Fauré and Ravel. I chatted with our neighbours who Belonged to a choir that had talked extensively. Including to Coventry and they knew and loved Coventry Cathedral very well. He told me about it tapestry that had been created for a concert that they were involved in, the tapestry was in two parts and all of the members of the orchestra and choir had signed the tapestry and one part and gone to Dresden and the other to Coventry. I wondered where it is now. They’re about to start rehearsing Handle’s Jeptha – a piece that I really love. They’ll be performing it in Dublin in the autumn.

After the concert we wandered back towards the Cloud Gate sculpture, which looked lovely in the moonlight With all the buildings eliminated around it. We took some photographs and then went down to the Crown Fountain, which was as popular and as busy as ever with children and adjusts alike enjoying it.

We caught the bus back to Bonnie’s from outside the Symphony Centre (sigh), did some laundry and went to bed. Another lovely day in Chicago.

2 thoughts on “Summary – day 03 – Chicago (Saturday 22 June)

  1. Cake was indeed a work of art, tasted lovely and the waistcoat matching bunting was also pretty special. Missed you on the dance floor.

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