Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Photo Essay: A Tale of Two Towers in Chicago

For all the times I had to go to Chicago for work back in the music industry, I never got to be a real tourist. And then I stopped having to go altogether, about 10 years ago.

So, when I was back in Chicago last week for a conference, I set out for the top of the Sears Tower—by hell or high water.

Only, now it's called the Willis Tower—and while the water underfoot wasn't high per se, it had been pouring rain that day.

I asked lobby security, "Where's the tourist trap?" and was pointed me down an escalator, where a ticket-taker greeted me with a warning: "It's zero to one-mile visibility up there." Normally, you can see as far as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

"I'm going anyway!" I declared. When else is there no line to the top of the tallest building in the world? (At least, from 1973 to 1998.)

Sears may have become irrelevant to modern shoppers (having filed for bankruptcy this week), but even a name change to "Willis Tower" in 2009 couldn't keep visitors from referring to it as the Sears Tower, even nearly a decade later. (And even after Sears actually sold the tower in 1988.)

I probably had a more memorable experience up there than most others, having braved the rain and arrived just in time for the late-day clouds to swirl around me, as I stood on a plexiglass ledge for a prime photo opp, levitating 103 floors above the skyline (making it the highest observation deck in the country).

The next morning, with skies much clearer and air 40 degrees cooler, I set off for the second-most famous tower in Chicago, the predecessor to the Sears Tower completed in 1969, also by architect Fazlur Rahman Khan (who served as engineer), the John Hancock Center.

As in the case with Sears, John Hancock Insurance gave up the naming rights to it in 2013, but that hasn't stopped anyone from continuing to say the name colloquially.

Although the "360 Chicago" observation deck experience offers a view of the Chicago skyline (from, as the name suggests, all directions) on just the 94th floor (compared to the Sears Tower's 103rd floor)... certainly is no worse than its sibling supertall skyscraper (better weather notwithstanding).

And fans of the Sears Tower can get a good look at it from the John Hancock Center...

...which is currently unnamed (save for its address, 875 North Michigan Avenue) until somebody else secures the naming rights to it.

I actually prefer the tapered obelisk of the John Hancock Center, with its X-shaped exterior braces, over the cigarette pack of the Sears Tower.

But either way, after years of visiting, I feel like I've finally seen Chicago for the first time.

I certainly haven't seen everything, and I probably never will. But climbing to the top of its two tallest towers turned out to be a good way to take in a lot of view all at once—and to make this trip really count.

Those views will last me, even if I don't return to the Windy City for another 10 years.

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Farewell to The Golden Spur, A Route 66 Icon—Closed Upon Its Centennial

One of my favorite Route 66 restaurants in California closed over the weekend. And I didn't get the chance to go one last time and say goodbye.

The Golden Spur was one of the oldest restaurants in the entirety of LA County, having first opened in 1918 as a hamburger stand that you could ride your horse right up to.

Although the dirt road was eventually paved, and The Golden Spur transformed into a sit-down steakhouse with leather booths and dark lighting in the mid-1950s, it kept its cowboy feel—right down to its vintage neon sign,* which did what all good Route 66 neon signs do.

It attracted those who were driving by and could use a good meal.

One of those travelers was me back in 2012, when I was in Glendora for a tour of Rubel Castle. I'd heard about another landmark along Foothill Boulevard—the Donut Man, famous for its doughnuts exploding with fresh strawberries or peaches—but when I headed over there, I found myself far more interested in The Golden Spur.

I stopped in for a solo lunch in the dark, air conditioned dining room—escaping the July heat and sun of the San Gabriel Valley for an hour or two with my laptop in tow.

Glendora isn't a common destination for me per se, but in April of this year, I managed to convince myself it would be on the way home from Pomona after watching the horse show at the former Kellogg Ranch.

Something told me I had to go.

It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but I swung that heavy wooden door open with gusto, asked for a table for one, and ordered the prime rib special.

I drank about 47 glasses of Diet Coke.

And I lingered, though I was alone in there—save for the hostess up front, the bartender who doubled as my server, and the musician who was setting up for his show later that evening.

Circa 2010 (Photo by Chuck Coker via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

I soaked it in, not knowing that the ownership had changed—or that the new owner wasn't making enough money off the business.

I didn't know that in its 100th year in business, it would shutter forever with only a couple of days' notice—or that the circa 1930s building would be on the chopping block, cleared away for some new development.

It's a loss to the community and roadtrippers alike. But just as nobody rides their horses to dinner anymore and few bypass the 210 freeway to drive Route 66 instead, maybe a cowboy-themed steakhouse in a bedroom community between Los Angeles and the Inland Empire has become obsolete.

But I sure am sad to see it go.

*the neon was replaced with LED rope sometime in the past few years

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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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