andrew burke





Road Trip 2012: Chicago

Posted on: 2013-03-28

In May 2012, my mother-in-law gave us her old car - but we live in Halifax and the car was in Edmonton. So we flew there and drove it all the way back to Halifax. We had great weather and I had a new camera. This is part 10 of a series of blog posts about the trip.

(All of the photos are hosted on Flickr - click on any to see bigger versions and browse the full set.)

We had seen a lot of gorgeous empty prairie and had survived the House on the Rock. We were now ready for a big city experience. We were in Chicago.

(First off, I want to apologize to my long-time friends who live in or near Chicago and with whom I didn't catch up while I was in town - we had a very limited time.)

We stayed right downtown at the Allerton Hotel on Michigan Avenue's "Magnificent Mile".

It was raining when we came into town but the following two days were spectacularly sunny and warm. Downtown Chicago already looks great, but everything looks better on a nice spring day.


We've both spent a lot of our lives in or near Toronto, and I've always felt that Toronto and Chicago were sister cities: both roughly the same age and built along Great Lakes, just tilted 90 degrees from each other. Much as I love Toronto, I have to admit that Chicago is much more spectacular, especially in its architecture.

It was architecture that most interested us. In fact, our trip centred around two tours given by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which offers many different tours of the city led by locals who really know their stuff.

We got to the Architecture Foundation early, so we spent some time across the street checking out Millennium Park with its iconic 'bean' sculpture and Frank Gehry's exploded postmodern bandshell:

Cloud Gate

Reflected in The Bean

Gehry's Bandshell

The first day we took a bus tour that went down the lakeshore past Soldier Field (which looked like a flying saucer had landed on a Roman Coliseum) to the University of Chicago where (among other things) we saw Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. Robie House's spacious symmetrical austerity was a great remedy to the madness and clutter of The House on the Rock.

We headed back north through some of the gentrifying and not-so-gentrifying neighbourhoods of South Chicago. While stopped at a light, I noticed "Baba's Famous Steak and Lemonade" in amongst the empty lots and abandoned buildings. Some day I really want to try some of that Philly Cheese Steak and Famous Lemonade. (Click on the picture to see it in Flickr where you can zoom in and see all their feature items - cat fish nuggets and 50 wings!).


We stopped by the Illinois Institute of Technology. The campus is full of rectilinear Mies van der Rohe buildings, which are quite elegant and striking even if tainted by how much later bad architecture worldwide has been cheap knock-offs of his style.

Layers of Architecture at IIT

More fun was the funky McCormick Tribune Campus Center (designed by Rem Koolhaas) which is built underneath and around a set of train tracks.

IIT Campus Centre With Train Tracks

We also stopped for the obligatory Chicago Skyline panorama shot from the peninsula that used to be Meigs Field (which I remember as the default takeoff point in Microsoft Flight Simulator).

Chicago Skyline

After our tour dropped us off, we decided to walk around town a bit. We headed up to the mouth of the Chicago River and then westwards along the lower banks through the heart of downtown. One of the bridges is surfaced with steel mesh, and the cars overhead cast cool shadows:

You could actually look up at the undersides of cars directly above you - which felt somehow rude to me.

The city really shows off along the Chicago river. It spaces things out enough to give you a wider perspective of the towers around you - something that's hard to do in, say, Manhattan. The first mile or so of the river features some of my favourite skyscrapers in the world: the cathedral-like flying buttresses of the Tribune Tower, the space-age futurism of Marina City, and (a less famous one I've always been fond of, perhaps because of its if-the-ancient-Romans-were-80s-airline-executives classicism) the United/R.R. Donnelly Building. Here's a shot from the westernmost end of our walk, which includes all three of these buildings (as well as a kayak tour - which is something I'll have to try the next time I'm in Chicago):

Chicago Skyscrapers and Kayak Tour

As we walked along the river, we stopped noticing the other buildings around us because we were distracted by a massive art-deco complex on the far side. It was gorgeous and it was huge. This turned out to be The Merchandise Mart - and yes it is huge: in fact it was the largest building in the world when it opened in 1928.

Merchandise Mart

People had recommended that we eat at Frontera Grill, but it was closed for the day. We were still in the mood for Mexican food (something not readily available in Halifax), so I checked my iPhone and found a lower-key Mexican place just around the corner, the (now closed) Dos Diablos. It was pretty empty in the mid-afternoon, but is clearly a rowdy place in the evening. We got to watch some people try out the bucking bull machine:

Riding El Diablo

(Nice to know we could get the, um, authentic traditional Mexican experience.)

We headed back to the hotel, delighted to stumble upon a Trader Joe's (another thing we miss about not being in the USA). On Ontario Street, we also passed the other Ontario Place:

Ontario Place

The next day we did another Architecture tour, this time on foot and mostly inside The Loop. Many North American cities built up their downtowns in the second half of the 20th century, and often on the cheap, which meant a lot of rectangular boxes. Chicago started growing tall several decades earlier and was in fact the birthplace of the skyscraper, so the city has a great tradition of experimenting architecturally with what a skyscraper means. Gothic, neoclassical, art-deco, modernist, post-modern - it's all here within a few hours' walk.

Picasso's Dragon

James R. Thompson Centre, Chicago

Chicago Temple Building

After the tour, we had lunch and spent the afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. I perused the European galleries, but was most struck by two works in the contemporary section. First, this super creepy statue of a (Sith?) monk:

Ominous Monk Statue at Art Institute of Chicago

Second was a meticulously handcrafted recreation of a half-decayed redwood log in Japanese Cypress. I'm not exactly sure why, but I found the entire idea of the project a bit terrifying.

We decided we couldn't leave Chicago without experiencing authentic Chicago-style deep dish pizza. We had heard that the best bets for this were Uno and Due. We were too hungry to walk all the way to these restaurants, so our guide recommended Pizano's, which happened to be right around the corner.

I had last had real Chicago pizza in around 1994 or so, and didn't really remember it. Several years of living in Ohio made me assume that the 'deep dish'-ness of it was just a kind of Midwestern US excess, and that it would be notable for its scale and density more than anything else.

Boy was I wrong. It was some really really good pizza. It's one of the only pizzas I've ever had where I even enjoyed the crust - it was slightly sweet.

Deep Dish at Pizano's

Well fed, we spent the rest of the lovely dusk wandering a very circuitous route back to our hotel. We passed by the huge-even-for-Chicago John Hancock Center.

John Hancock Centre

Behind the tower, we discovered a (comparatively) small brick building, painted entirely black. There were no signs outside, but there were suited valets at the entrance, and we could see many well-dressed people having a good time inside. I guessed that this was one of those "corridors of power" where the 1-Percenters hob-nob. Further Googling reveals that I was right: this was the super-exclusive Casino Club.

Peering into the Casino Club

We walked back to Michigan Avenue past the castle-like Water Tower. We particularly admired the new deco-but-contemporary tower across the way. Turns out it's a Hyatt.

Water Tower and Hyatt

Then we went to bed, exhausted from pizza and architecture.

Click below to see a slideshow of more of my pictures from Chicago.

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