One of my favorite weekends of the year is the 48 hours in October when distinctive buildings, architectural icons, historic gems, and forgotten pockets of Chicago throw open their doors for Open House Chicago. This year I had limited time so I made the most of it with strategic stops in Edgewater on Saturday and downtown Chicago on Sunday. Here are some of Day One’s highlights.
Episcopal Church of the Atonement
Henry Ives Cobb architect, 1890
We stopped here spontaneously, as we were walking down Kenmore on our way to the Edgewater Beach Apartments. The sudden surprise of this building and its amazing interior made this visit all the more delightful. A friendly and knowledgable parishioner greeted us and gave us a history of the building, the community, and the neighborhood.
Apparently the big draw at this church is the columbarium, but I was much more interested in the impressive pipe organ.
The Edgewater Beach Apartments
Marshall & Fox, 1928
After passing by this iconic fixture at the end of Lake Shore Drive about a million times, it was fun to get a glimpse inside. The swimming pool used to have a retractable roof and a restaurant on the terrace overlooking the pool. And of course, through those windows there once was a view of Lake Michigan and the beach, which used to come right up to the building–and gave the place its name–before the extension of Lake Shore Drive in 1957 cut the “Pink Palace” off from direct access to the lakeshore.
Riviera Motor Sales Company Building (1925)
Final stop of the day was another building I’ve been past hundreds of times. The bank that previously occupied this space has recently vacated and the empty place definitely conjures up its former life as a high-end Chrysler showroom. Aren’t you whisked away to the Italian Riviera? But seriously, the place must have looked impressive, stocked with dapper cars like these.
The ceiling and light fixtures are really something and still look good. The interior space had lots of crazy touches, like wall fountains in nearly every room and disquieting doors that looked as if made of softened chocolate fudge.
Other than professional sports, I try to take advantage of all Chicago has to offer, from dining to neighborhood diversity, storefront theater, gallery shows, and public art. When it comes to live music, my focus tends toward the classical variety, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, choir and organ concerts, and season tickets for Lyric Opera (for the past 20 years!)
But when it comes to jazz and blues (Chicago’s own!) I’m something of a slacker. Thanks to the gumption of friends, I’m filling in the gaps with visits to local music venues made famous by the likes of The Green Mill (which I finally visited for the first time this year.) Last night, it was Andy’s Jazz Club for dinner and a couple of sets of a quartet led by a talented, and loud, trumpeter. (Probably not the best choice for any conversation.)
We were downtown and just a few blocks from where the real action was last night–the first annual Great Chicago Fire Festival, put on by one of my favorite theater companies, Redmoon. At about 6:30, crowds had already started to form along the Chicago River, between the Michigan Avenue and State Street bridges. I walked across the State Street bridge for a view of one of the floating buildings, due to alight at eight o’clock, when flaming cauldrons would be lowered from the bridges.
Unfortunately, the weather (a tremendous amount of rain fell over the previous day) and technical difficulties prevented the building bonfires to go off as scheduled, and in some cases at all. By all reports, the flames were minimal and the pyrotechnics mostly confined to the brief fireworks display that was originally to follow the buildings burning away to reveal surprises hidden inside. Sadly, with such a lengthy delay and pathetic payoff, many disappointed spectators left early, missing a parade of grass boats (kayaks) that sounded like quite something to see.
By the time I left the jazz club, the Fire Festival should have been wrapping up, however it had yet to burn. People were three-deep to the riverfront, and the bridge was packed with some standing on the metal railing dividing the pedestrian walkway from traffic. I couldn’t see a thing, nor was I willing (or able) to climb a tree, as some did, for a better view. Instead, we walked a few blocks over to Xoco and grabbed a churro snack–the best churros, anywhere, hands down–before beating the crowds home on the el.
I’m disappointed the event didn’t succeed and feel bad for all the volunteers who put in many hours to create the spectacle. The floating buildings certainly looked impressive (and so Redmoonesque) but the execution was obviously flawed. We needed Robin Hood with a flaming arrow to save the day or at least tarps covering the structures, preventing them from becoming waterlogged in the rain.
Hopefully the city will treat this as a dress rehearsal (albeit an expensive one) and make adjustments for next year. I’m sure the first Macy’s Day Parade didn’t go off without a few hitches. It was nice to see a cross-section of Chicago gathering together at the river, despite the unseasonable cold (there were snow flurries that morning!) Colorful buildings floating on the Chicago River, set off by the amazing cityscape around them, were definitely something to see; it would have really been something had the spectacle ignited as planned.
As a huge fan of the 1893 World’s Fair (also known as the Columbian Exposition), I made a special point of getting down to the Field Museum to see the exhibit Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair. The Field owes its creation to the Exposition, absorbing a great number of exhibits, artifacts, and stuffed animals (many of which continue to be scientifically relevant) from the fair. Items from the museum’s “hidden collection” are now on display. They provide a glimpse of this important chapter in Chicago history, as well as the changing way specimens and non-Western cultures have been studied and presented to the public.
It’s quite something to walk among displays that amazed visitors to the Fair 120 years ago. So much about our knowledge of the world has changed, it’s hard to imagine how mind -blowing it must have been to see electric lights, meteorites, exotic animals and Eskimos for the first time. (Not to mention Cracker Jack and the Ferris Wheel.) With nearly all the physical reminders of the fair long gone (the Museum of Science and Industry is the only surviving building), it’s also quite something to walk among tangible reminders of the 1893 extravaganza.
This electrical contraptions (right) is thought to have been the switch that turned on the fair, but even today, scholars and scientists are unsure of how exactly it worked and what its function was.
Not to be missed in the gallery next door, is another new exhibit at the Field that’s sure to be popular with families this summer. The Machine Inside: Biomechanics is a fun and fascinating explanation of some of the most amazing tricks of nature. How does a toucan use his large bill for heating and cooling? Why doesn’t a woodpecker rattle its brain? How does a giraffe’s heart pump blood all the way up that neck? And what about the cheetah’s body allows it to fun so fast? Displays are clever and concise, breaking down information into easy-to-understand pieces, often with entertaining and educational interactive components.
I’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.
I started off my Steppenwolf Theatre season with a star-powered production featuring ensemble member Joan Allen in her first appearance here in over two decades. The Wheel, by Zinnie Harris, is the slightly surreal tale of a peasant woman caught up in war as she attempts to reunite an abandoned girl with her exiled father. The story begins during the Spanish Civil War and over the course of nearly two hours, morphs from one conflict to another, taking Allen’s Beatriz (now saddled with three children to protect) from the trenches to WWI through to the Iraq War.
While it would be difficult for me to explain exactly what the play is about (other than to say, living through war is hell), any frustration I might have felt about the ambiguous narrative was kept at bay by Allen’s riveting performance. (She’s on stage nearly the entire time.) Acting across the board is top-notch, combined with a set and staging that is nothing short of incredible. Set pieces come in from every direction, and sound and lighting create eerie and arresting images of war. By the end, the stage has been transformed from a relatively simple and bright Spanish countryside, to the murky chaos of war. The stage crew certainly has its work cut out of it every night, having to clean up the mess and reset for the next show.
I’d recommend The Wheel as a thrilling evening of theater that will give you lots to discuss over drinks after the show. Performances continue at Steppenwolf through November 10.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There’s a new hot dog joint in town that will have Hot Doug’s fans sitting up and taking notice. And probably waiting in equally long lines. The place is called Hoppin’ Hots and it officially opens tomorrow. I had the good fortune to score an invitation to their soft opening yesterday and wow, was it good. I can’t wait to go back.
Like Doug’s, HH gets very creative with their hot dogs. In addition to the standard dog, there’s a menu offering ten tasty combinations, and three different types of meat (beef, duck or veggie). I went with the Ooh-La-La, a duck dog topped with duck confit, lavender-fennel aioli, goat cheese and house-pickled celery. Oh man, was it delicious. The duck, fennel, and goat cheese are a winning combo and the pickled celery had me rethinking the value of celery in a recipe.
As any hot dog connoisseur will tell you, the bun is just as important as what goes inside. HH uses more of a light, crusty bread and it’s the perfect complement. All hot dogs come with fries, for a flat $10 across the board. The fries were tasty as well, hand cut, not soggy, and lightly salted. Milk shakes looked good too; I’ll have to try one next time. And soon.
Hoppin’ Hots is located at 1477 W. Balmoral, just off the main drag in Andersonville. The place is small, with limited seating, but it’s bright and cheery and even on their first trial run, fairly quick, considering everything is made to order. The only downside–it’s only open for lunch and closed on Sundays.
And did I mention this is another fine effort from the folks who own Over Easy Cafe? Yeah, so you know it’s going to be great.
I was sorry to see so many empty seats during last Friday’s performance of Head of Passes, an absorbing drama about calamity, grief, acceptance, and faith. While not perfect, the current Steppenwolf Theater main stage production, a world premiere by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a thought-provoking and timely piece that deserves a wider audience.
Set in Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River, members gather at the family home on a stormy evening to celebrate matriarch Shelah’s birthday. A leaking roof and an unexpected guest (the woman’s doctor) are portents of doom. And then there’s the handsome stranger who’s hanging around, a smiling man only Shelah can see.
Family and friends mix it up in a lively first act while water drains through the house from the roof and a slow tension builds. The story, based on the Book of Job, takes a slightly surreal turn in the second half. Shelah, who has resigned herself to one fate, is served up another, greater challenge, which tests her faith in ways she could never have imagined.
Performances across the board are strong and well drawn but the undisputed star of this show is the phenomenal set by David Gallo. The first act concludes with a heart-stopping, thrill ride of a theatrical moment that on its own is worth the price of admission.
Head of Passes runs through June 9.
December is off to a great start: I scored an excellent Christmas tree on the cheap, enjoyed tea with friends at the Drake and then swam upstream against the tide on Michigan Avenue for the only Christmas shopping I care to do, cheese from Pastoral. Best of all, I caught a winning performance from my favorite street performer, the Puppet Bike, and got to the el platform just as the holiday train came rolling in!
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.
The plaster ceiling, which looks brand new, was restored in the 1970s using the original Wedgewood-inspired color scheme.
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.
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.