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A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
Chicago has been called many things, so it's odd that it has adopted "The Windy City" and "The Second City" as its nicknames. Both were originally intended as put-downs.
Contrary to popular belief, Chicago is not exceptionally windy. The average wind speed is 10.4 mph, much calmer than in many towns. "The Windy City" is instead a nickname coined by Charles Dana of the New York Sun, who was criticizing city boosters as loudmouthed windbags. When Chicago and New York were bidding on the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he advised his readers to "pay no attention to the nonsensical claims of that Windy City. Its people could not hold a World's Fair, even if they won it." Well, Chicago did both, but still the name stuck.
"The Second City" was the title of a derisive piece about Chicago in The New Yorker in 1951. It was written by reporter A. J. Liebling, who accused Windy City folk of always wanting to be everything New York already was. Again, rather than taking it as an insult, Chicago's citizenry adopted it.
These nicknames are much better than titles like "Hog Butcher Capital of the World" or "Porkopolis" and much preferred to "The Stinky Onion." The word Chicago is a bastardization of Checagou, meaning "wild onion" or "stinky onion," a common plant in the swamps along the river. Early settlers spelled the Native American term Schuerkaigo, Shikkago, Ztschaggo, Stachango, and Psce-shaggo, among others, according to Bill Bryson's Made in America (1994). Thank goodness they settled on Chicago.
What Goes Up
What They Rarely Tell You on the Architecture Tour
Chicago has a lot to be proud of when it comes to architecture. It invented the skyscraper. It has North America's tallest building. And when Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-tall, sunshine-blocking superscraper with atomic-powered elevators, did he propose it be built in New York? Absolutely not! It was Chicago where his massive ego felt at home.
There are some, however, who don't see tall buildings as architectural advancements. They block the light, diminish the humans who live and work in them, and invite a messy form of suicide. Well, the war's over, gang, and the skyscrapers won. Here are a few you should check out on any Chicago visit.
Site of the World's First Skyscraper
Most architectural historians now agree that the 10-story Home Insurance Building, designed in 1884 by William LeBaron Jenney and completed in 1885, was the world's first skyscraper. A skyscraper is defined as a tall building supported by an interior steel structure where the exterior walls bear no weight.
Jenney never lived to receive his due, nor did the Home Insurance Building. His groundbreaking accomplishment was not acknowledged until the building was being torn down in 1931. Historians got a good look at the interior structure as the wrecking ball leveled the innovation floor by floor. Yep, they were demolishing a landmark. Now all there is to look at is a bank.
135 S. LaSalle St., Chicago, IL 60602 No phone
Hours: Torn down
Directions: On the northeast corner of LaSalle and Adams Sts.
Sears Willis Tower
When the Petronas Towers in Malaysia bested the Sears Willis Tower for World's Tallest Building in 1996, American architects had to look around for a new way to brag, and for a time the Sears Willis Tower could still claim it had the highest occupied floor and highest top roof, though those eventually were bested, too. Now it has to be satisfied being North America's Tallest Building. It all makes you wonder if Freud had a point.
Regardless, it is hard not to be impressed by this building. Built in 1973, it's 1,454 feet tall (1,707 if you count the antennas), weighs 222,500 tons, offers 4.5 million square feet of office space (that's 101 acres), and contains enough concrete to build a five-mile, eight-lane highway. When it was built, it even had its own zip code: 60606.
The view from the 103rd-floor Skydeck is impressive. You can see four states on a clear day: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. On a foggy day you won't even see Illinois. And on a windy day, you might be able to feel it sway 6 to 10 inches back and forth, baaack and forrrth, baaaack and forrrrth. For daring souls, the observation deck added a Skydeck Ledge, four glass boxes that extend 4.3 feet out into nothingness. Step on in and look right past your feet to the pavement a quarter-mile below.
233 S. Wacker Dr., Chicago, IL 60606
Tower, (312) 875-0066; Skydeck, (312) 875-9447
Hours: April-September, daily 9 AM-10 PM; October-March, daily 9 AM-8 PM
Cost: Adults $15.95, Kids (3-11) $11
Websites: www.willistower.com, www.theskydeck.com
Directions: In the southwest Loop, bound by Adams St., Wacker Dr., Jackson Blvd., and Franklin St.
The Chicago Tribune Tower is both a modern gothic masterpiece and the city's greatest monument to institutionalized vandalism. Embedded into the exterior walls of this 1925 structure are hunks ripped from the world's most famous historic buildings, including the White House, Great Pyramid of Cheops, Independence Hall, Cologne Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Fort Sumter, Lincoln's Springfield Home, Notre Dame de Paris, the Alamo, the Parthenon, the Great Wall of China, the Arc de Triomphe, the Kremlin, China's Forbidden City, the Berlin Wall, and the Taj Mahal. Every US state contributed a brick or rock, too. Most are within arm's length, so you can touch these pieces of history if you want.
The Tower also contains several unique architectural features. Gargoyles and grotesques on the fourth and fifth floors include an owl with a camera, a monkey, and a porcupine holding a horn. The Robin Hood and howling dog figures over the entryway are nods to its architects, Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells.
435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611
Hours: Always visible
Directions: On Michigan Ave. just north of the river.
If you're headed to the Loop, you'll soon discover that most street-side parking is banned. So if you must pay for parking, you should at least support a lot with a sense of humor: the SelfPark on Lake Street.
You could pass it without noticing, so step back and take a good look. The building's facade was designed to look like the front of a 1930s touring car. The floors and railings form a grill and the awnings are two treaded tires. A large vanity license plate says GOLF, a statue on the roof serves as a hood ornament, and two "headlight" domes finish off the illusion.
SelfPark, 60 E. Lake St., Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (773) 436-7275
Hours: Always visible; Parking Monday-Friday 6 AM-Midnight, Saturday 7 AM-Midnight
Cost: Free to view; parking $4-$35
Directions: One block east of the El tracks' turn at Lake St. and Wabash Ave.
Ship-Shaped Beach House
A daydreaming tourist driving down Lake Shore Drive might think a steamer ship has run aground near North Avenue. But it turns out to be nothing more than a ship-shaped concession stand, lifeguard station, and restroom facility.
The original North Avenue Beach House was constructed in 1938 by WPA workers. Though made of little more than plywood, it lasted until 1998-99, when another beach house was erected. The new structure is even more realistic than its predecessor and includes two smokestacks, a mast, and two fake air vents on the roof/deck.
North Avenue Beach House, 1600 N. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60614
Phone: (312) 742-PLAY
Hours: Always visible
Directions: At the North Ave. exit from Lake Shore Dr.
Reebie Storage and Moving
The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 led to a surge in public interest surrounding ancient Egyptian culture; Egyptian Revival became an architectural fad. The Reebie Storage and Moving Company Building, built on North Clark Street in 1923, is an excellent example of this style.
Two pharaohs guard the entrance to the storage facility. Rumors say they resemble John and William Reebie, the two brothers who founded the business and commissioned the building. Hieroglyphics over the entrance translate as "I give protection to your furniture" and "Forever I work for all your regions in daylight and darkness." Now that's service! Where else can you get your sofa protected by an ancient curse?
2325-33 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60614
Phone: (847) 994-8000
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Just south of Fullerton Ave. on Clark St.
The Raisin in the Sun House
While not architecturally significant, this South Side brownstone has had a greater impact on the way people live in Chicago than any other building.
A Raisin in the Sun is a classic in American drama, and it is based upon events that happened to the family of its playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Central to the plot is the story of an African American family that plans a move to a new home in a restricted white community.
When Hansberry was just eight years old, her father, real estate broker Carl Hansberry, bought a home in west Hyde Park, and the family moved in on May 26, 1937. The neighborhood reacted violently, harassing the children as they played outside and throwing a brick through their home's front window. Anna M. Lee, on behalf of the Woodlawn Property Association, filed suit against the Hansberrys, saying they were in violation of a local covenant.
The Circuit Court of Cook County and the Illinois Supreme Court sided with Lee, but the US Supreme Court overturned the lower courts' decisions in 1941. While Hansberry v. Lee did not universally abolish real estate restrictions based upon race, it dealt a major blow to the practice.
A Raisin in the Sun was published in 1959 to critical acclaim. Whether by coincidence or design, the family's name in the play was Lee, the surname of those who had challenged the Hansberrys in court two decades earlier. The Hansberrys' former home still stands, though there is no official recognition given this historic piece of property.
6140 S. Rhodes Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Three blocks east of Martin Luther King Dr., two blocks north of 63rd St.
Playboy Mansion (Midwest)
Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tininnare (If you don't swing, don't ring). This was the Latin motto at the Gold Coast's Playboy Mansion for more than 20 years, and did it ever live up to it. No discussion of funky Chicago buildings would be complete without mentioning this place.
Hugh Hefner, former student council president of Steinmetz High School, class of '44, founded Playboy magazine (first called Stag Party) on December 10, 1953, with a $600 bank loan and $8,000 from investors, including $1,000 from his mother. At the time he was living in a first-floor apartment at 6052 South Harper Street.
The magazine was an instant success, and before long Hef had purchased the ultimate groovy bachelor pad, the Playboy Mansion, a mere two blocks from the Archbishop's residence. The mansion had four bedrooms, five fireplaces, an indoor pool, a game room, and a single-lane bowling alley. A fire pole dropped visitors into the Underwater Bar, a cozy joint with a window that looked into the swimming pool from below. Bunnies were allowed to stay in the mansion for $50 a month, though they had to bunk four to a room and share the bathroom facilities.
Hef felt quite comfortable here, lounging around in silk pajamas, smoking his pipe, and guzzling up to 36 bottles of Pepsi a day. He left the building only nine times during one three-year stretch. When questioned why, he confessed, "Why should I? I've got more right here now inside this house than most people ever find in a lifetime." But a case and a half of Pepsi a day? Maybe he couldn't stray too far from a bathroom.
Eventually, the lure of the West Coast became too great, and Hefner took up permanent residence in his Los Angeles digs. He donated the mansion to the Art Institute in 1989, and for a while it was used as a dorm, though not with the old Bunny accommodations. Later it was divided into two private residences, which is what it is today.
If you're into Playboy history, take a quick stroll over to the former flagship Playboy Club on the Magnificent Mile (919 N. Michigan Ave.) The former Palmolive Building was converted to the members-only club in 1960, and it hung on until 1988, when Christine Hefner shut its doors. The northwest corner of Walton Street and Michigan Avenue has since been given the honorary designation of Hugh M. Hefner Way.
Playboy Mansion, 1340 N. State Pkwy., Chicago, IL 60610
Hours: Private residence; always visible
Directions: Two blocks south of North Ave.
Chicago Public Art
Little-Known Masterpieces in Fiberglass, Concrete, and Bronze
Formal public art in Chicago is confusing. There's a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Grant Park, and a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in Lincoln Park. Were their work orders mixed up? And who knows what that Picasso is in Daley Plaza (50 W. Washington St.)? A baboon? A woman? A lion? It recently has been upstaged by an even more enigmatic sculpture, Millennium Park's Cloud Gate (201 E. Randolph St.), which looks like neither a cloud nor a gate. Perhaps that's why most folks just call it The Bean.
While everyone's deeply confused about the highbrow subsidized art of the city, nobody's paying any attention to Chicago's tacky and wacky masterpieces, the downright odd and misplaced public artworks of the city. Nobody, that is, but this travel guide.
Note: What follows are hard-to-categorize artworks. Sculptural themes can be found later in this book — Big Men (see pages 152–54), Big Weenies (pages 45–49), Big Indians (pages 120–21), and Big Cows (pages 161–62).
If you're like sculptor Jerzy Kenar, you're no fan of dog crap. If you're like sculptor Jerzy Kenar, you want to draw attention to the issue. And if you're like sculptor Jerzy Kenar, you'd do this by making a bigger-than-life, dog-crap-shaped fountain in your front yard. Chances are, you're nothing like sculptor Jerzy Kenar.
Back in 2005, Kenar had had enough of dog owners who wouldn't clean up after their pets, so he created Shit Fountain, a brown bronze monument to man's inhumanity to man's shoes. Neighbors were both amused and appalled. Either way, he'd made his point. And before you dog lovers assume that Kenar is a dog hater, you should know that the artist has a pooch of his own ... he just doesn't let it use the city sidewalks as a toilet.
1003 N. Wolcott Ave., Chicago, IL 60622
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Two blocks east of Damen Ave. at Augusta Blvd.
So maybe you're no more a fan of the Windy City's winters than you are of its sidewalk dog poo. As it happens, just a couple blocks from Shit Fountain you'll find Tony Tasset's Snow Sculpture for Chicago. This 2004 work can be found in the only remaining display window of the old Goldblatt Brothers Building on Chicago Avenue. It isn't a quaint Currier and Ives wonderland or a sparkling snowscape; instead it's a more realistic version of January in Chicago: an enormous grime-covered pile of slush littered with cigarette butts, coffee cups, and other garbage.
When asked to explain himself, Tasset stated, "These piles of snow are sublime, both ugly and beautiful, like life." Well that may be true of life, but a Chicago slush pile? Does anyone see an oversized, never-melting, black sidewalk iceberg as a beautiful thing ... other than a mayoral challenger?
1637 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622
Hours: Always visible
Directions: One block west of Ashland Ave.
Big Ball and Bat
The only thing worse than Chicago's dog poo and bone-chilling winters has to be its two professional baseball franchises — just ask Cubs fans about the White Sox or vice versa. So, as long as canine crap and crusty crud have their monuments, so should this city's favorite sport.
The big baseball outside Thillens Stadium draws visitors to the park district's North Side Little League stadium. It's about ten feet in diameter, which in theory both Sox and Cubs players could actually hit.
Thillens Stadium, 6404 N. Kedzie Ave., Chicago, IL 60645
Phone: (847) 329-7102
Hours: Always visible
Directions: Where Devon Ave. crosses the Chicago River.
However, it would be a lot easier to hit a ball of this size if you had a bat to match. Back in 1976 the city erected a 101-foot slugger outside what is today known as the Harold Washington Social Security Center. It is the work of Claes Oldenburg, titled Batcolumn, but given its mesh construction could just as easily be titled Whifflebat.
Harold Washington Social Security Center, 600 W. Madison St., Chicago, IL 60661
Phone: (312) 353-8277
Hours: Always visible
Directions: West of Jefferson St.
Big Ball and Pin
Maybe baseball isn't your thing. Bowling, perhaps? The Woodmac Lanes may be out of business, but their giant bowling ball and pin still loom over Western Avenue, ready to pick up that 7-10 split. The pin once had BOWL outlined in neon, and the ball urged passersby to stop by their Snack Bar for cocktails. It must have been a classy joint.
Excerpted from Oddball Illinois by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2012 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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