Chicago's Lakefront with Geoffrey Baer

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Behind the Scenes Q & A with Geoffrey Baer

Q: So, Geoffrey, didn't you do a TV tour of the lakefront about ten years ago?

BAER: Yes. But so much has changed along the lakefront in the last decade that the program had to be retired. We thought this was a great time to do an all-new tour of the lakefront because 2009 is the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's great "Plan of Chicago," which gave us our spectacular lakefront park system.

Q: So what has changed since 1999?

BAER: Millennium Park was just starting construction and the comparatively modest design of the park back then was nothing like the dazzling one that was eventually built. Mayor Daley's "midnight raid" on Meigs Field gave us a new lakefront park on Northerly Island. Soldier Field has changed a little bit since then too, wouldn't you say? The 2016 Olympics proposal features events all up and down the lakefront. And many people are unaware that in the last ten years Burnham Park, the historically neglected stretch of lakefront south of downtown Chicago has been dramatically rebuilt and improved.

Q: So, tell us where you begin and end this tour of Chicago's crown jewel...

BAER: Millennium Park! I introduce the show there. Then we jump to the Indiana Dunes and work our way north, returning to Millennium Park. After that we jump to the northern end of the lakefront park system where Lake Shore Drive ends at Hollywood Avenue and travel back south to Millennium Park. Our tour ten years ago started at Buckingham Fountain. But Millennium Park has totally usurped it as the defining touchstone of the lakefront.

Q: If you had to pick one highlight of the journey you took in making this new documentary, what would that be?

BAER: Impossible to pick just one. So I'll give you a few:

The new train set at the Museum of Science and Industry. When I was a kid this was my favorite thing in Chicago. The new one is even more spectacular.

At the Field Museum, I went into the mind-boggling new underground storage area. It's off limits to museum-goers. I walked right up to an Egyptian sarcophagus and imagined some stone carver leaning over it four thousand years ago making the etchings that are still visible.

I visited the actual hotel room where the term "smoke-filled room" was coined during the 1920 Republican National Convention. It's in the Blackstone Hotel on South Michigan Avenue. A group of cigar chomping political bosses huddled together there and picked Warren G. Harding as the nominee. I brought a stogie with me, but the room is now non-smoking.

The Modern Wing at the Art Institute by Italian architect Renzo Piano is a new jewel in Chicago's architectural crown, as is the jewel-like Spertus Institute on South Michigan Avenue.

The Tiffany dome in the Cultural Center across from Millennium Park has been totally restored and is absolutely breathtaking.

The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool next door to Lincoln Park Zoo is the most breathtaking secret garden you'll ever see. Landscape architect Alfred Caldwell cashed in his own life insurance policy in 1936 to buy the wildflowers for it after his budget was cut. But the garden fell into ruin after just a few decades, much to Caldwell's dismay. It was lovingly restored, but Caldwell didn't live to see it.

Q: Any secrets of the Lakefront you and your production crew uncovered along the way?

BAER: A very young Charleton Heston used various classical buildings on the lakefront as backgrounds for a film of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" shortly after he graduated from Northwestern University. We have clips in our show! In the lobby of the Chicago Hilton is a statue of a cherub who grew up to be a Supreme Court Justice. Justice John Paul Stevens modeled for the statue as a little boy at the request of this father and grandfather who built the hotel. Lake Shore Drive originally had cloverleaf interchanges at Montrose, Wilson and Lawrence. Imagine cars exiting at highway speeds onto city streets! Bad idea. We found film footage of bodies being unearthed during some recent construction in Lincoln Park. The park was Chicago's first cemetery.

Q: Can you share a favorite "behind-the-scenes" story?

BAER: In the course of researching Daniel Burnham I learned that he probably never actually said the most famous quote attributed to him, "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood." My wife actually found almost the identical quote attributed to the German poet Goethe who was born a hundred years before Burnham.

Q: Where are you taking us next?

BAER: We're starting a new series of "Hidden Chicago" segments for Chicago Tonight. They'll be compiled into a full-length special next year as a sequel to the first "Hidden Chicago."

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