These Painted Letters Tell a Story

The House Tells the Story: Homes of the American Presidents
Adam Van Doren (2015)

I heartily recommend this book to those who enjoy: A) American history, B) American architecture, C) gorgeously illustrated art books, or D) all of the above. Painter Adam Van Doren visited fifteen homes of U.S. presidents where he was granted special access and spent extended time–then rendered each place in watercolor illustrations for a series of letters he wrote to his friend, noted historian David McCullough. Thanks to McCullough’s encouragement, the artist turned his personal project into a book.

Van Doren paints the exterior and interiors of each home, with the eye of a trained architect (which he is) and a wonderful attention to detail that illuminates the sense of place and character of each president who lived there. In his letters, Van Doren talks about his process and experiences getting to know each site, and through the work, each president.

As I’ve been to more than a few of the homes featured in this book, it was extra fun for me to revisit highlights of recent road trips. I would encourage anyone with an interest in cleverly presented U.S. history to spend time with this lovely book.


Open House Chicago is This Week!

Agudas Achim SynagogueI’m very excited that this weekend is the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago, a unique opportunity to see architectural wonders in the city that are often off-limits to the public. I went last year and was so awed and impressed by what I saw. (You can read about my visit to the Bridgeview Bank and Aragon Ballroom, and the rarely open Agudas Achim Synagogue in Uptown last year.)

Whether you are an architecture buff, have an interest in Chicago history, or just want to explore the city in an unusual way, you’re bound to find something of interest out of the 150 sites open over the weekend.

2012 Road Trip Catch-Up: Monticello

Monticello Vegetable Garden

Sunday, 22 July 2012

A fantastic day, filled with American presidential history.

After breakfast in the hotel, we hop in the car for the 15-minute drive to Monticello, climbing the hill to the visitors’ center where we wait for a shuttle bus to take us the final leg up to the house and grounds. To finally see Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece, a repository of so much history, is thrilling.

View from the DomeWe begin with the house tour, led by a very personable UVA student; the highlight for me is seeing Jefferson’s bedroom and library. After the standard tour, which includes the main rooms on the first floor and the immediate grounds, we kill a bit of time looking around in the basement (work areas, store rooms, wine cellar, slave quarters) before the start of the “back stage tour,” which takes us through the second floor of Monticello. We see a few bedrooms (none of which were furnished with Jefferson items but you get the idea) and it’s nice to see the view from above. We also get to climb the incredibly narrow winding staircases to the second floor, spending time in the dome room and the hidden alcove over the porch.

The Hidden Alcove Over the Porch
Double doors open onto the hidden alcove over the porch.
Monticello Interior
From the upstairs hallway, looking into the main entry way.
Monticello Kitchen
A big kitchen needs multiple burners.
Monticello Vineyard
The Monticello vineyard.

Afterward, we take the Slavery at Monticello and garden tours, both of which are chock-full of information. I’m impressed that at no point do they shy away from the subject of slavery, Thomas Jefferson’s complicated relationship with the institution and, of course, Sally Hemmings. All the tour guides are excellent and really know their stuff. On the day we were there, Monticello was busy, but not insanely crowded, and I marveled at the impressive volunteer army on hand. Five hours later, we’ve seen it all, and wrap-up or visit with lunch at the visitors’ center.

Monticello Vegetable Garden
Monticello vegetable garden.

View From the Garden

Monticello Slave Quarters
Slave quarters.
Monticello Worshipers
I quickly snapped this photo when a group of young girls ran up to the base of the steps (you can just make them out above the tree stump) and began worshiping the house with full flailing arm movements.

Next, we’re off for a quick visit to James Monroe’s abode, conveniently located about a five minutes drive away. Quite a stark contrast between these homes. Ash Lawn-Highland is smaller, humbler, less impressive but no less interesting. Monroe’s home is notably different from when he lived there (the second floor was added later) and the later time period is quite apparent by the different style in architectural style, furnishing and decor.

Ash Lawn

We take a quick house tour, given by a young man dressed in a sports coat on a very warm day. I take a photo of a 300-plus-year-old tree on the grounds and we call it a day. Montpelier, James Madison’s home, would have to wait until tomorrow.


Back in Charlottesville, we take a dusk walk around the UVA campus. Much of the historic Jefferson-era section is under restoration, looking less than its best. It’s still fun to see after hearing and reading so much about the place. Dinner is at The Virginian, a local university hangout. So far, Virginia’s craft beer scene is nothing to write home about.


Open House Chicago: Day Two

Bridgeview Bank

A belated wrap-up of my second day, popping in to architectural gems open to the public a few weekends ago for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago.

First stop was the Bridgeview Bank at the intersection of Broadway and Lawrence. The building dates from 1924.

Bridgeview Bank

Bridgeview Bank

The plaster ceiling, which looks brand new, was restored in the 1970s using the original Wedgewood-inspired color scheme.

Bridgeview Bank
A 1920’s-style office cubicle.

Bridgeview Bank

Aragon Ballroom

My next stop was around the corner on Lawrence, the formidable Aragon Ballroom. Built in 1926, the dance hall (now a concert venue) was designed to look like a Baroque Spanish courtyard, complete with mood lighting and a nighttime mural painted on the ceiling with electric twinkling stars. The neon beer signs are a crass reminder of modern times.

Aragon Ballroom
Nearly every flat surface is painted in garish murals. It’s all a bit of sensory overload and best seen in dim light.

Aragon Ballroom

Aragon Ballroom
The stairway leading up from the ground floor entry.
Aragon Ballroom
The lobby is downright crazy.

My last stop of the day was the nearby Riviera Theater, another venue best scene when the lights are low. It was fairly unimpressive, so I kept the camera in my pocket and quickly left once the Sunday rainstorms allowed.

Open House Chicago Grants a Rare Peek and a Solemn Reminder

Agudas Achim SynagogueThis was the weekend of The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s second annual Open House Chicago, a free invitation to peek inside a number of buildings across the city that aren’t usually open to the public.

Despite a busy weekend and lousy weather, I managed to pop in to a few locations yesterday and today. None was as impressive and affecting as the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Uptown. Built in 1922, the synagogue hasn’t been in use since the late 1980s and was closed in 2008, so the CAF open house was a rare opportunity indeed.

The building is impressive and eerie. In its current crumbling state, it serves as a sobering reminder of what happens when an architectural gem languishes, awaiting restoration. Open House Chicago is a wonderful way to raise awareness to historic preservation, while giving the public a glimpse inside buildings we’ve passed by for years, thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what it looks like inside.”

Agudas Achim Synagogue
The exterior of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation synagogue.
Agudas Achim Synagogue
Beauty amid crumbling plaster and missing ceiling tiles.

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Agudas Achim Synagogue
Evidence that pigeons have taken up residence in the disused building.
Agudas Achim Synagogue
A pigeon warms up by the lights illuminating the ceiling.

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Agudas Achim Synagogue

Saturday 3 pm ~ It’s Been a While

Saturday 3 pm: Contemporary
My Saturday Three P-M photo series sure took a hit while I was busy shooting my feet every day. I’m fairly certain that I have a number of Saturday photos sitting in limbo but I don’t have the time or inclination to dig them up now. Maybe snowy winter day when I have nothing else to do. Ha!

I took this shot of the Trump Tower from the el platform, heading home after taking another downtown architecture tour; this one focused on modern skyscrapers. Obviously, the tour had changed quite a bit since I last took it, what, maybe ten years ago. It was a very comprehensive and interesting tour and I now finally understand the difference between modern and post-modern architecture.

Saturday in the City

Made the most of a walkabout through the city yesterday, on a warm and sunny Saturday in September. First, I took the Historic Downtown Loop walking tour offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It’s been a few years since I’d taken a CAF tour. It was enjoyable to take this one again and reacquaint myself with some familiar old buildings. If you haven’t taken their downtown walking tours, I highly recommend them as a unique way to gain insight into Chicago’s rich (architectural) history. It’s also a good reminder to always look up and take a moment to walk through the front door to see the wonders inside some of the most unassuming edifices in the loop.

After lunch at my favorite sandwich shop downtown (Cafecito) we stopped in Central camera and then walked over the river to the Poetry Foundation to see their recently opened new building. It’s a unique corner structure, with one side screened by a faux wall. The exterior of the building is a mixture of stone, metal, glass, mirror, and strategically located trees.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t open on a Saturday afternoon (!!) so we had to content ourselves with walking around the outside and peering through the screen and into the window. The entryway looked interestingly laid out, but unfortunately, we couldn’t get in to see it. They have a very unique way of keeping people out, as you can see in the photo above; an entire section of the entry way raises up to act like a barrier.

Bokor Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge

Afterward, we hopped on the el, got off at Argyle and walked over to Hopleaf. The entire summer had gotten away before I’d spent one afternoon sipping beer in their back patio and this seemed the perfect afternoon to set that right.

Bridge Museum

Feet First | 349
Monday, 22 August

Feet First | 349

JD and I took a trip to The Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum on the Chicago River, which in my opinion isone of the best museums in the city. From the gears at river level that raise and lower the bridge we traveled up four flights to the top of the bridgehouse for a great view of the river, the Wrigley Building, Tribune and Trump Towers and south down Michigan Avenue.

The last time I was in the Bridgehouse, shortly after it opened in 2006, the Trump Tower looked like this. The view is quite different now.

Saturday 3 p.m. ~ Big Stone Things

Big old head

I visited the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park yesterday to see the exhibit Visible Language, which included the earliest example of cuneiform writing (from 3200 BC Mesopotamia) and Egyptian examples from 3300 BC. Very interesting.

The trip was a good excuse to visit some old friends, like the impressive two-story high fellow above. This museum is one of my favorites, filled with great old stuff and big stone things. It's quiet, rarely crowded, and has an old-school museum vibe that I like.

Afterward, I took a spin through the fantastic book stores nearby, the Seminary Co-Op and its sister store 57th Street Books, my favorite book shop in the city. I found a book I've been looking for that's not available in my library, Goat Song by Brad Kessler (whose book Birds in Fall I loved) about a year spent on his goat farm) as well as a nice copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans–a classic I've long wanted to read.