• Colin Phelan

RT: West Across PA; Frank Lloyd; The Phoenix-like Comeback of the Windy City and Its Buildings

Note: If interested in reading other writing from this specific road trip, please go to ‘Travel Writing’ tab and click any title that begins with ‘RT' which stands for 'Road Trip.'


Day 1: Drive, NY to Chicago

This first drive was pretty standard, riding along I-80 through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, until reaching Lake Michigan and leaning northward along the lake aiming for Chicago. We only made one accessory stop on this drive, at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. We were there for about 45 minutes, stopping for a prayer at the Grotto for Christina’s late grandfather. It was good to walk and shake out the legs after having been in the car for about ten hours at that point.

We pulled into Chicago late, even with the assistance of the time-change (Central Standard Time afforded us an extra hour of daylight). We unpacked the car and lolled for longer than we were planning, before having an especially nourishing meal: citrus-y salad and pickles. I also enjoyed a single scoop of peanut butter. The airbnb itself was a single room, very cozy.

As we drove through PA earlier that day we resolved that, because of the high gas prices in the state, PA is more of a place that people drive through, a bridge between the (excessive) consumers and the producers of America (this is not to say people do not live in PA, of course they do. Rather, from a top-down, macroeconomic perspective of our country, it is inevitable that all those UPS, FedEx, and Amazon trucks need to drive across this state in order to reach the preeminent customer base; of course raise gas prices!) We later found this to be true as we drove through NE, IL, IN, and IA, seeing nothing but miles and miles of production, corn fields and the mechanized skeletons that tend to these supernatural and virtually indestructible radioactive green crops.

The drive itself entailed a lot of podcasts, especially those discussing Frank Lloyd Wright. We planned for our time in Chicago to by-and-large focus on architecture, as we had booked an architecture boat tour planned for the following morning and then planned to check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s neighborhood project that is the West Chicago suburb of Oak Park.

From what I remember about these several podcasts which discussed Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and work, Wright was best known for his architectural attempts to ‘eliminate the box,’ for his structures’ ability to blend in with the surrounding environment (Wright called this his architecture’s being ‘organic’), and for his use of local materials. He thought American square homes to be a shameful waste of space. He spent his early life as any young architect would, working for a major architecture firm; in his case, he worked in the nearby city of Chicago. Eventually, Wright began planning and building homes for some of his neighbors in Oak Park. These homes, as we later saw, were akin to his ‘prairie style,’ of architecture: flat, long, and as was his intention, blended in with the surroundings around him.

In his time Wright was an American celebrity. This status was not only due to his success as an architect, but also due to both his personality and the excitement surrounding his personal life. His personality: egotistical, to say the least. Wright was a confident yet contentious figure, and he made a few enemies along the way; but, his work often backed his confidence and and many often hail Wright as the most successful – and important -- American architect. Despite what many sometimes viewed as a lack of humility, what Wright wanted to do was a noble endeavor – Wright wanted to create an American style of architecture. In contrast to the boring American homes constructed in the booming ‘50s, ruthlessly ambitious Wright wanted to add some flair to American homes, and hopefully, help define both a generation and a nation through building. Also adding to his celebrity status was his personal life, which entailed many wives (including the wanton murder of one of them – a murder not committed by Wright, don’t worry). We saw and learned more of Wright the next day, our first full day of the road trip (not on the road, that is).


Day 2: Chicago

On this tired morning, we woke up and slowly got out of bed before biking through our neighborhood of Lincoln Park towards the lake. After reaching the lakefront trail, we rode south about 20 minutes into the city-proper, only to return north an equal 20 minutes; after a long drive the day prior it felt great to move our bodies and sweat a little. The bike ride itself was relatively uneventful and unfortunately quick, we read a few bulletins in Lincoln Park on our way back that described the historic boulevards and the inspiration for Chicago’s green spaces (as these bulletins indicated, Chicago is often called the ‘city within a garden’); whereas other cities such as NY and LA developed park plans as they grew, Chicago outlined its parks from its conception. Driving this agenda was non-other than Frederick Law Olmstead, the 19th-century visionary, state-hopping conservator who also designed New York's Central Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, as well as having a omniscient hand in the choosing and protecting of many National Parks under the then-nascent National Park Service. Playing a prominent role in humanity's demarcation of nature and civilization, Olmstead's foresight and meticulous planning has been, even if unknowingly, appreciated for well over a century. As we would later realize on this trip, St. Louis, and even Omaha Nebraska are especially green cities, cities which are more proactively built around their parks.

Photo: View of the Chicago skyline from the north


After returning home and taking a quick shower we drove downtown for our 11AM architecture tour. We highly recommend the Chicago river architecture tour, and next time I’m in Chicago I’ll definitely do it again. The only rough-patch of this morning was the fact that we paid $41 for a parking spot, one of, if not the most, excessive spends of the whole trip. Pro tip: use Spot Hero when trying to park, or as our tour guide later said, betraying his political affiliation, “As much as I hate to say it, he has cheap parking” (gesturing towards Trump tower, the only building in Chicago with giant letters stretched across the front).


The tour began with the captain of the boat introducing Joe, our tour guide, as a “wealth of knowledge.” In his red Hawaiian shirt and his Blackhawks face-mask, Joe looked like any other guy walking the streets of Chicago. The tour itself began by heading northward along the Chicago River, running fairly parallel to Michigan Avenue which, as Joe quickly pointed out, used to be the lakefront of the city; back in the day, Michigan Avenue was a beach. Now, as any Chicago tourist will quickly see, Michigan Ave is as ritzy as can be, saturated with some of the world’s most expensive shops.

Map of Chicago

Heading northward up the canal, Joe emphasized some of Chicago’s miraculous architecture. Some learned sites and terms include, but are not limited to:

London House: Back when Chicago was but a military fort on the banks of Lake Michigan, London House served as the barracks. Of course, as the burgeoning American nation expanded westward, military personnel stations moved too. American soldiers were likely deployed from such a base in the 19th century to clash with the preeminent native-American tribe residing in this part of North America, the Black-Hawks; ironically, the city of Chicago now reveres this group, albeit as professional hockey team.

The Boeing building: At first glance, this structure looks relatively uncomplicated, a skyscraper conjoined with a much smaller, 15-or-so-story building. But here’s the catch: As the architects planned to append the smaller building to the larger one, they found that the foundations below the prospective smaller building were weak. So, they decided to stretch massive steel beams from the larger building in order to suspend the smaller one in mid air. Joe described this levitating building, saying that you can wave your hand between it and the street below.

Photo: The smaller building in the foreground is suspended in mid-air by horizontal steel beams extending from the larger building in the background


Modernism: Many of Chicago’s buildings were built with modernist architecture, which builds from the premise that, “Less is more.” Conveniently, we also recently visited one of the most famous American modernist buildings, the Superdome in New Orleans, a place we had been just six months prior to this Chicago visit when my New Orleans Saints (again) choked in the playoffs.


Photo: A prime example of modernist architecture; highly practical apartment building, with parking spaces and even shops located directly below residences.


Merchandise Mart: Before the construction of the Pentagon in 1941, this was the biggest building in the world.

Photo: Merchandise Mart


Contexturalism: An architectural style which attempts to blend buildings in with the local environment. Chicago is full of these types of structures. Many of its skyscrapers, in particular, are gilded with an especially reflective glass which mirrors the river and the surrounding buildings. Some of these buildings are so contexturalized that they are even difficult to differentiate as buildings themselves; the river seems to thickly evaporate, or even flood, into the sky.


Photo: Contexturalism within Chicago

In addition to the unique architecture dotting the city, it is also very clear that Chicago’s skyline is delicately approached. Whereas buildings are erected without much thought in a city like New York, Chicago’s structures are built with the surrounding buildings in mind; buildings will not be built if they in any way overshadow their neighbors. To this end, architects’ plans must be vetted vigorously before they began construction.

Furthermore, unlike many major cities – and in line with Chicago’s building in-sync with natural spaces - Chicago’s lakefront is, as Joe noted, “for the people.” Of the thirty-four miles of Chicago’s lakefront, only four belong to corporations. This became very evident when, later in the tour, our boat sailed out onto the lake for a westward-looking view of the skyline. As is clear, Chicago’s biggest buildings are not constructed anywhere near the water. The lakefront is reserved for parks, trails, small bars, amusement parks, and even Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.

Although this was an architecture tour, part of the reason we enjoyed it so much is because Joe very clearly outlined Chicago’s storied history, putting Chicago into context and context into Chicago. Joe surveyed from 1836, when Chicago became an official city, and explained Chicago’s rapid growth through the 1800s. “The railroad built Chicago,” Joe explained, just as Chicago’s he harped on advantageous position as a shortcut and crossroads between the Gulf of Mexico and the northern Atlantic Ocean. Back when fur traders roamed the Mississippi river, Chicago evolved as both a crucial midway point and also as a booming market. Although construction of the Chicago canal - which connected Lake Michigan directly to the Mississippi watershed -- didn't occur until the early 20th century, traders nevertheless utilized Chicago as a midpoint in their journeys. Even as these traders alternated between water and land, Chicago developed into one of the biggest cities in America, growing at an exponential rate until in the year 1870 Chicago housed an astounding 300,000 people, having grown from about 30,000 just several decades prior.

Chicago faced a crossroads (using the term metaphorically this time), though, just one year after the census had affirmed Chicago’s status as a major American city. On a standard night in 1871, a woman named Mrs. O'Leary and her cow are believed to have accidentally started the infamous Chicago fire, a fire which ravaged both the city and its residents. But the people remained, still in Chicago, and they strove to keep Chicago on the map, to not squander its recently attained status. “Chicago will rise again,” read the Chicago Tribune front headline the day immediately after the fire. And Chicago would do just that. But how?

Chicago’s rise from its own ashes can be explained by two main factors. First of all, Chicago had proven itself to be a resilient city with resilient people. The people would rebuild; the people would work hard and remain ambitious. In fact, they built much more than had originally existed in Chicago, such as when in 1885, the city endorsed the building of the world’s first sky-scraper. But, Chicago's rise from its evident death can also be explained by Chicago’s hosting of the World’s Fair in 1898. Held over five months, the fair attracted people from all over the world, and easily trumped previous Worlds’ Fairs in both size and participation. Tourists – both domestic and foreign -- flocked to the city, and this influx of money stimulated the Chicago economy. According to some statistics from the fair, about half of the U.S. population was said to have sojourned to the Windy City.

After the architecture tour, we walked around the downtown area and then drove down south to the University of Chicago (as we found out, the University of Chicago isn’t exactly in Chicago. Well maybe it is technically in the city, but it’s a whopping seven miles south of the downtown area). There, in the spirit of architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright, we paid homage to the Frederick Robie house, one of Wright’s original prairie style homes that is located on-campus. From UChicago we drove over to Oak Park, through the brutal Chicago traffic, and checked out the neighborhood which catalyzed Wright's fame and fortune.

Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House

Next, we planned to head to another Midwestern city which housed a major world’s fair in the 19th century, a city which, contrary to popular perception today, served a prominent role in the development of 19th century America and rivalled both Chicago and a city we would visit later, St. Louis, for the most important commercial and cultural artery in the gateway west.

We enjoyed our time in Chicago, but spending only one day in such a huge city is tough. We will be back to Chicago, I’m sure of it. As Christina reflected upon our departure, “Chicago has a nice in-between pace. Hard working, but also laid back.” She added, “It’s also full of niches, lots of public art, murals, and obviously, well construed architecture. Chicago is full of nooks.”

Note: If interested in reading other writing from this specific road trip, please go to ‘Travel Writing’ tab and click any title that begins with ‘RT' which stands for 'Road Trip.'

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