GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Four – Skyscrapers and Stones in the Windy City

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Stephanie and I are about to ask the hotel concierge how to find a few sites from my list, when we overhear him telling some senior citizens about a boat tour of the skyscrapers lining the Chicago River. Chicago was the birthplace of the modern skyscraper, back when that word meant a building of ten stories. We’ll soon hear this point of Chicago pride repeated several times by our river guide: “We did it first”…“We did it here first”… “The technology was available, but we were the first to use it.”

We’ve chosen the worst day to sit outside on the open deck of a tour boat for an hour and a half.

We’ve chosen the worst day to sit outside on the open deck of a tour boat for an hour and a half. A freezing wind worthy of an Alaskan winter prevails, until soon my body aches with cold. Steph tells me she had a relative who used to say, “There’s no such thing as inclement weather, only inadequate clothing.” And I’m wearing it. Each time the wind penetrates the light spring fleece and windbreaker I brought for my idea of a chilly spring day, I mouth the word “F- – -” to Steph. By the end of the tour, even our guide, a Chicagoan, is shivering visibly, and her voice is shaking.

The Etch A Sketch skyline that draws us into a watery canyon of modernity is much more enchanting than I expected. It’s like one of those past-meets-future cities you might see in a sci-fi movie set against a utopian backdrop.

The Etch A Sketch skyline that draws us into a watery canyon of modernity is much more enchanting than I expected.

Our guide tells us enough information about each building for us to earn advanced placement credit for architectural degrees. I won’t bother you with the extra-credit details, but here are a few highlights:

– If you count the two antennae on top, the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) is still the tallest building in the world.
– The people who developed Chicago in the nineteenth century, back when the waterfront was just mud, had the foresight to require that no tall buildings ever sit right at the lake’s edge where they’d ruin the view.
– If we were to continue down the South Fork, we could take our boat all the way down to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico.
– The architectural styles of Chicago’s high-rises include art deco, modern, post-modern, and contextual (as in: Chicago has an industrial past, so howzabout a building of industrial-looking brick and steel?).
– The art deco, and therefore very symmetrical, old post office was built with a hole in the middle for vehicle traffic to pass through on its way to cross a nearby bridge.

I feel soothed by the reflective curve of towering green glass that bows toward us from 333 Wacker Drive.

As we pass under several of the river’s many bridges, I feel connected to the city as if by the webbed cross-strings of a cat’s cradle. I feel soothed by the reflective curve of towering green glass that bows toward us from 333 Wacker Drive. I feel drawn to the charismatic personality of the Tribune Tower, with its moody, intricate, Gothic elements.

I feel drawn to the charismatic personality of the Tribune Tower, with its moody, intricate, Gothic elements.

When we leave behind the frigid river for the misty shore, I walk to the Tribune Tower to take photos, while Steph walks to Portillo’s Hot Dogs to wait for me indoors, out of the increasing drizzle. The tower’s arches with their graceful carvings of flora and fauna are not disappointing up close. The peacock and other birds carved over the doorway are true works of art.

The peacock and other birds carved over the doorway are true works of art.

Yet I’m most enthralled by the odds and ends of mainly shapeless stones plucked from architectural and natural wonders around the world, which are embedded in the walls of the building. Among them are stones from Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Parthenon, the White House, Alaska’s Mount McKinley (a.k.a. Denali), and Antarctica. I touch those I can reach, as if the feeling of rough cool stone might impart a permanent memory to my fingertips.

I’m stunned by the delicate perfection of a white bas relief of a Chinese man in ancestral garb carved from the stone of an ancient temple in Honan.

As I make my slow way along the stone-pimpled walls, I’m stunned by the unexpected delicacy of a white bas relief carving of a Chinese man in ancestral garb plucked from an ancient temple in Honan. But the rock that moves me most is an ordinary-looking, chipped, white square that’s both smooth and rough to the touch: a piece of the Alamo. The story of the Alamo has always made me uncomfortable: yes, the defenders of the Alamo were courageous and their fate pitiable; and yes, Mexico got a crappy deal when Texas played finders-keepers with their northern lands. I suppose it’s corny to touch a rock and feel this stirring of ambivalent emotions about an event that happened more than 1000 miles away and 170 years ago. But I can’t be alone in this sort of reaction, or why did Colonel McCormick, former Tribune publisher, ask reporters to bring back these bits of rock from around the world?

The rock that moves me most is an ordinary-looking chipped white square that’s both smooth and rough to the touch: a piece of the Alamo.

After spending half an hour caressing the Tribune building like some perverted architect with a stone fetish, I had to run, actually run, to catch up with Steph at Portillo’s. We picked Portillo’s because it’s a good spot to enjoy a proper Chicago dog loaded with everything: relish, mustard, onion, tomato, peppers, and pickles. I skipped the tomato. Tomato on a hot dog? Please, enough is enough.

Portillos is a good spot to enjoy a proper Chicago dog loaded with everything: relish, mustard, onion, tomatoes, peppers, and pickles. I skipped the tomato.

Despite lingering hypothermia from the boat ride and the Tribune Tower touch-a-thon, I’m craving a chocolate milkshake, so I order one. It’s one of the three best I’ve ever had. (The other two were at the Arctic Roadrunner in Anchorage, Alaska and the All For The Better ice cream shop in Englewood, Colorado.) Now I’m shivering sort of violently, even though we’re still sitting inside this oversized indoor hot dog stand. In a city famous for its many magnificent buildings, I can’t seem to find a way out of the cold.

2 thoughts on “GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Four – Skyscrapers and Stones in the Windy City

  1. Beverly Diehl

    Had my first visit to Chi-town a couple years ago, and can’t wait to go back. The boat tour looks amazing – except for the freezing cold wind & rain part. I did not have a Chicago hot dog but did get deep dish pizza. And a show at Second City. And drinks at the Signature Room in Hancock Tower.

    I want to take the chocolate tasting tour. The museums. And and and.

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Oh snap! How could I have skipped “Second City,” Beverly? I guess I’m going to have to go back, too. I had deep dish pizza, which was delish… but will have to put the Signature Room and the chocolate tour on my wish-list. We have a great chocolate tasting tour in Denver, too. I have to pace myself on those or I get dizzy. 🙂

    Reply

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