Sunday, October 14, 2018

Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of the Brownie, Upon Its 125th Anniversary

I love a good old hotel, and I'll always choose to stay and/or eat in one over the latest, hippest, most modern accommodations.

So, while I chose to stay at the Allerton Hotel by Chicago's Magnificent Mile, I was eager to check out the Palmer House—the longest continually operating hotel in the country.

The Palmer House that stands in the Chicago Loop today is actually the third iteration of the hotel—the first having been built across the street in 1871, just 13 days before succumbing to the Great Chicago Fire.

The second (the world's first fireproof hotel) was built in its current location two years later—and hosted "The Greatest Banquet in American History" in 1879, held in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, hosted by Mark Twain, and attended by Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and even Buffalo Bill.

It was one of the first Chicago hotels to contain passenger elevators, advertised as "a vertical railroad"... well as in-room telephones and incandescent bulbs.

The third iteration, designed by the architectural firm of Holabird and Roche, replaced the second at the same site in 1925, increasing its height from seven to 25 floors.

In celebration of Bertha Honoré Palmer's French heritage and the time she spent in France with the likes of Monet, the Palmer House is decorated in the style and period of the French Empire. The Grecian frescoes on the ceiling of the gilded lobby were created by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal.

The statue of Romeo and Juliet at the entrance dates back to the French Empire, though it wasn't installed at the Palmer House until the 1920s.

By 1945, the Rococo landmark attracted the attention of its next owner, Conrad Hilton—hence it being known since then as The Palmer House Hilton.

But the real significant date in all of the hotel's timeline is the year 1893. The World's Fair (then known as the Columbia Exposition, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival) was in full swing, and Bertha needed a dessert for a group of women who were attending the exposition. She wanted something cakey that could be cut into squares and portable.

And so, the chocolate brownie—with walnuts and apricot glaze—was born.

The hotel still uses the same recipe to serve the iconic brownie in its eateries—including at the Lockwood Restaurant and Bar, where you can get it as part of a marshmallowy ice cream sundae.

Tours of Palmer House are available once monthly and give access to the hotel's archives and museum room, which is otherwise locked. The timing didn't work out for this trip, but if it does for the next, I'll be back.

But this time around, I really just went for the brownie.

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Photo Essay: Chicago's Chapel in the Sky (Or, The World's Tallest Church Building)

Oh, how Chicago loves its skyscrapers. Sure, it's not quite as dense as Manhattan is, but the Windy City always seems to be trying to break some kind of record with its tall buildings.

Not only is there the Sears Tower (tallest building in the world in 1973) and John Hancock Center (second-tallest building in the world in 1968)—stay tuned for photo essays from both of those—but there's also the Chicago Temple Building, which houses the tallest church in the world.

It's a skyscraper church, built in 1924 to house the First United Methodist Church (and the tallest skyscraper in Chicago until 1930).

Technically the church occupies just the bottom couple of floors and the top couple of floors, with a bunch of leased offices on the floors in between.

The real draw to the Chicago Temple Building is, of course, the SkyChapel—way up at the top, just beneath the spire—but first, you've got to visit the mini museum that honors the men who inspired the creation of the United Methodist Church.

That is, the life and teachings of John Wesley and his brother Charles.

Climbing up the building, on one of the parsonage floors you'll find an outdoor patio, where you can look at both the steeple and the sky...

...and compare heights of the even taller buildings that have sprung up around the skyscraper church over the last 95 years.

Surprisingly, no one else was out there, admiring the view.

But up there, 22 floors above the traffic and the tourists on their way to the other towers of Chicago, it's heavenly and peaceful.

But the climbing isn't over, because past an intermediary floor marked by a saltire (a.k.a. St. Andrew's cross)...

Photo: Jeff Gunn (via Flickr, CC by 2.0) climb another narrow staircase and emerge into the chapel at the base of the steeple (and try to catch your breath).

You need someone with a key to bring you up there, unless you book it for a wedding or christening.

It only seats 30 people, so all the regular church services are held downstairs in the sanctuary that holds 1000.

But it's worth it to find your way up here, in the clouds, to bask in the colors of the stained glass windows...

...learn a bit about the history of Christianity...

...ponder Moses and the burning bush...

...the sacrificial lamb...

...and the holy cherubim.

While the Chicago Temple is still the tallest church building in the world, the architectural firm of Holabird & Root outdid themselves in 1930 with the Chicago Board of Trade Building, which unseated the Chicago Temple as Chicago's highest.

Personally I'd love to see a chapel of some sort—of any or no denomination—on the top of every tall building.

Because if there's a heaven, I'd like to take an elevator there, instead of climbing up to it one step at a time.

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Photo Essay: Feast Your Eyes on Chagall's Monumental Mosaic

"Do you like Chicago?" someone asked me the day after I'd gotten back from the Windy Cindy.

"It has amazing architecture and art..." I started to explain, when he interrupted me.

"But you can't eat the buildings."

Um, no, you can't. But fortunately Chicago is more than deep dish pizza and hot dogs.

There's also Chagall—a feast for the eyes.

The artwork by Marc Chagall that most people associate with Chicago is the "America Window," a stained glass work at the Art Institute that was featured in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

But while working stained glass provided the perfect opportunity for the Belarusian-born painter to play with color, so did another medium: tile.

Over 250 colors are represented in the tile chips that comprise Chagall's monumental mosaic piece "Four Seasons," installed in the plaza outside the Chase Tower in the Loop.

Installed in 1974, this gift to Chicago was a kind of culmination of Chagall's 30-year relationship with the city.

As its title suggests, it depicts scenes from all four seasons in various Chicago cityscapes.

It's a marvel how he got those pieces of glass to look just like one of his paintings or stained glass windows.

It's unmistakably and surreally... Chagall.

And it contains many of the same images found in Chagall's other works... birds and fish...

...pairs of lovers...

...and mothers and their babies.

At 70 feet long, 14 feet high, and 10 feet deep, it looks as though it depicts many more than just six scenes...

...and perhaps more than just four seasons... more than one city...

...and that's what makes it so hard to take your eyes off of it.

Interestingly, the Chicago that Chagall decided to portray was the one he'd last visited in the 1940s—which turned out to be seriously outdated.

So when he returned to Chicago three decades later to help install the monumental piece, he also helped update it to a more current version of the city.

Chicago wind and weather took its toll on the work over the next 20 years, requiring a million-dollar restoration. Now, it's protected by a canopy—which means that I could sit outside and enjoy it on a 40-degree fall morning when it had just been a summer-like 80 degrees the day before.

It felt like a necessary part of the experience. It wouldn't be the same if the "Four Seasons" were squirreled away inside a museum gallery somewhere.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Photo Essay: The Creepiest Street in LA, With Zombie Houses and A Witches' Lair

When you live in LA, time isn’t exactly linear. You can be a perfectly modern-day man or woman and yet be completely immersed in the architecture, wardrobe, and traditions of a completely different time from days gone by.

For those whose bailiwick is the era of Queen Victoria—for those Anglophiles who long for refined sensibilities and parlor visits in gingerbread cottages—there's a particularly good opportunity to completely immerse oneself in Victorian culture in LA.

And, you know, the Victorians just loved creepy stuff. They're the ones who managed to popularize taxidermy, after all.

The highest concentration of Victorian Era houses in LA can be found on one street: Carroll Avenue in Angelino Heights, an affluent subdivision and one of the city's first suburbs. 

It's a time capsule of an 1880s building boom that ceased with the onset of a recession in 1888. The residences, once considered fanciful, came to represent spooks and spirits starting in the mid-1890s when real estate developing resumed... but developers (and home buyers) had moved on from the style.

Walking down The Creepiest Street in LA is like walking through a neighborhood that’s just full of haunted houses. (Hence the onslaught of trick-or-treaters on Halloween.)

Several of these Victorian-era mansions have been restored or are in the process of being restored but still get their “creep” cred from having appeared in any number of unsettling TV series, films, and even music videos.

Welcoming you to the historic district, on the corner of Carroll Avenue and Edgeware Road, is the Phillips House (not to be confused with Phillips Mansion), so named after a hardware merchant from Iowa named Aaron P. Phillips, who moved to LA in 1887, the year that this Eastlake-Queen Anne behemoth (nearly 3000 square feet, and occupying two lots) was built.

Like the Phillips House, many of the  properties in the area seem innocent enough, though perhaps mysterious. The Newsom Brothers (Joseph and Samuel) designed the shingle-and-clapboard Sessions House with "vaguely Eastern" elements that range from Moorish to Chinese (like the dog/lions that guard the front porch). Quite fancy and exotic for Charles H. Sessions, a dairyman from Connecticut with oil aspirations.

Then the strange creatures begin to emerge, like the 1887 Pinney House that's clad in scales just like a fish. Named after industrialist and civic leader Henry Pinney (former VP of Los Angeles Iron and Steel Company), this "high society" domicile depicted a brothel in a flashback episode of Mad Men. Henry's son Charles lived in the house until he died (here?) at the age of 106 in 1980.

Among the bird necks and beast heads of horse tie-ups (probably none original, though there would've originally been some there in the days before the automobile), the swan one can be found outside the Foy House, which was built in 1872 in Downtown LA (where the Wilshire Grand is now) but came back from the dead twice to land in Angelino Heights.

Named after Samuel C. Foy but often attributed to his daughter, city librarian and suffragist Mary Foy (not the actress), the Victorian Italianate mansion (the first three-story building in the city) was designed by the first professional architect to practice in SoCal, Ezra Kysor. The elder Foy was afflicted with "dropsy" and confined to this home for two years until he died (probably here) in 1901.

And then, the architecture becomes more sinister. The last Victorian built on Carroll, and one of few remaining "Gay Nineties" houses in LA, the 1894 Queen Anne "tower house" built for Wisconsin real estate developer Charles C. Haskins (a.k.a. Haskin) and his wife boasts a "witch's hat" turret.

Another zombie house of Carroll Avenue is the former residence of gardener Hiram B. Irey and his wife Tryphena, an Eastlake-style home that was built in 1887, seven blocks away from its current location, where it was moved to in 1978. Forty years later, this Queen Anne/Eastlake mansion still hasn't been completely brought back to life.

Next is perhaps the most foreboding of the creepy Victorians on Carroll Avenue: the so-called "Thriller" house, named after possibly the most famous music video of all time, Michael Jackson’s 1983 magnum opus.

Known better to architectural historians as the “Sanders House,” the Queen Anne-style manor was originally built in 1887 as a single-family residence, though at one time it was converted into a duplex (four bed, four bath). It patiently awaits restoration (or another horror shoot).

Finally, something wicked or at least witchy may come out of a visit to the Innes House, also circa 1887--better known as the Charmed house because of its role in the TV series from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Queen Anne/Eastlake home is named after former city councilman Daniel Innes, who was also a real estate developer. No word on whether Mr. Innes was a warlock.

Thanks to the Los Angeles Conservancy, which protects the exterior and interior of the home (including original woodwork and hardware), the Charmed house is one of the few creepy manses on Carroll that you can actually go into.

There, you can examine the leaded windows... and look out onto the world through red-, gold-, green-, and blue-colored glass.

You may never want to reemerge. And the house may not let you go, even if you try.

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