I love visiting Chicago. The first time I set foot in the Windy City, I was re-entering the US after ten months of international exploration. This was February of 2010 and I was welcomed with ice and frigid temperatures. It seems like I typically find myself in Chicago during the winter months & this trip fell into that familiar pattern. I flew up on Thursday to attend an annual meeting for my employer, kind of a “Let’s go get ‘em!” for 2016. That’s all fine and good; I enjoy traveling for business. However, I took the opportunity to spend two extra days in the city, see a friend, and do a little sight-seeing.
That first time I arrived in Chicago, I met Scott McKenna. We had worked at AT&T together (though never actually met) and he followed my blog while I hopped countries on the other side of the world. When it was decided that Chicago would be my point of re-entry to the US, he was eager meet in person and show me around the city. His generosity and openness has only increased over the years and I cherish any time I’m able to spend in his company. After I arrived at his place in Oak Park, we had dinner and caught up with one another. After that, I sat in the studio of CHIRP Radio while he DJ’d his normal Friday night set from Chicago’s north-central neighborhood, where we talked at length about music, love, and other callings of the heart. It was delightful.
Saturday was sight-seeing day. Some time back I friended one of Scott’s buddies, Andy, who was also into photography. Since Scott was busy with some work responsibilities, Andy agreed to meet up with me for lunch and some downtown wandering. Scott left me his train card and wished me well as I bundled up for my day of adventure. I looked at my knit hat and scarf and decided I didn’t need them; I was otherwise bundled and it was a sunny 34 degrees out. I’d be fine! (I later regretted this decision.) I walked a few blocks to the Green Line train station and looked at downtown Chicago in the distance, awaiting my public transit chariot. It’s still something I get a little anxious about, since we don’t really have much in the way of public transit in Tulsa. Sure, we technically have a bus system, but it’s inconvenient and under-funded.
Once I was underway, I gazed out the window as the train passed through the city. I had never ridden the L before and I loved getting to see the rooftops of the smaller communities as I approached the Big City. Beautiful brick buildings that would be the centerpiece of a rural Oklahoma town are everywhere, and many of them sit right up against the train tracks in various states of neglect. I also observed my fellow passengers; at one point, I was the only white male in the car. That was certainly different than what I was used to back home. Soon enough, I found myself at my stop and began walking south towards Route 66. My destination was Lou Mitchell’s, a diner serving Chicago since 1923, which was three years before the route became a formal highway. I’d missed out on a meal there last time I visited and didn’t make the same mistake twice.
When I arrived, I was greeted by a sweet lady, who immediately offered me a donut hole. There were two counters next to one another, both half-octagons, and several rows of booths. A few items of Route 66 memorabilia were on the far wall, opposite a giant chalkboard menu. Up near the front, they had a small basket of Milk Duds, which were offered to any ladies or children that came in. I was seated at a booth next to one of the counters, had some of their famous coffee, and took in the atmosphere for about five minutes before Andy arrived. I was delighted to hear that he had never heard of Lou Mitchell’s, as that meant I was able to share a new experience with him. We talked throughout lunch (breakfast, actually…no complaints here!) and filled in the gaps in our knowledge of one another. As we made a rudimentary game plan for the day, I told him there was only one other place that I had marked as a ‘must-see’; Andy had a lot of great ideas on what else we could see on the way.
Our first stop was Union Station, the Amtrak depot about a block from Lou Mitchell’s. As soon as we walked in, I was filled with familiarity as I recalled my time at Grand Central in New York City. Tall columns, ornate statues, beautiful windows, the echo of traveler activity. It’s one of the busiest rail stations in the country, but the traffic was pretty light as we wandered the Great Hall, the train platforms, and other accessible spaces. At one end, Andy pointed out a staircase that was used to film an iconic scene from the movie, “The Untouchables” which I recognized as soon as he mentioned it. Once we had our fill of the depot, we continued east to The Rookery Building. It was built in 1888 by Burnham and Root, architects made world-famous by the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (and recently featured in the best-selling book ‘Devil in the White City’.) Unfortunately, the lobby was closed and we were unable to see the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed lobby. Andy was particularly dismayed, as he has tried multiple times to visit and it always seems to be closed when he is in the area.
Since we were unable to venture indoors at the Rookery, and the wind was really starting to get to both of us (remember when I said I would regret opting out of my hat and scarf?) Andy looked for another building we could duck inside and explore. We walked down by Calder’s Flamingo art installation, rounded a corner, and entered the lobby of the Monadnock Building. It was also designed by Burnham and Root in the late 1800s, and at the time was the tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed. Interestingly, a southern half was added a few years later and was built with a steel frame, a brand-new architectural option at the time. The exterior of the building shows a bit of difference in the construction, showcasing how the different internal structure affected the external appearance. After that south half was added, it was the largest office building in the world for a time. Walking through the lobby afforded a view into several quaint shops that also faced the sidewalk. There was a barber shop, a hat shop, a shoe hospital, a cafe, and more. It was a literal window to a sight that must have been quite familiar to consumers in the late 1800s, only the horses and buggies outside were now automobiles.
We still had several stops ahead of us, including a shop and neon sign that has been on my list for years. In my next post, my journey through downtown Chicago will continue.