Chicago's Lakefront with Geoffrey Baer

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Buildings in the Parks

Them's fightin' words.

Purists get hot under the collar just thinking about anyone violating the promise of a lakefront "forever open, clear and free of any buildings whatsoever." That pledge appears on one of the city's earliest plat maps.

Frontier mapmakers notwithstanding, some of the city's most interesting buildings are in the lakefront parks.

Frank Gehry's Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is the most obvious example. Unless it's not a building. Maybe it's a... sculpture? I've heard that those who raise objections to it are told it's art, not architecture. But since it was completed in 2004 and we all started proudly showing it off to our out of town friends there have been few complaints.

One of the best views of Gehry's gargantuan creation is out the windows of another building in the park, the dramatic new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago by Renzo Piano. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a hardhat tour of this lighter-than-air gem which is still under construction. The view of the Pritzker Pavilion from the galleries facing Millennium Park is so breathtaking that Art Institute curators are afraid it will upstage the art. They're installing some walls to partly mask the view. A source at the Art Institute told me that after Piano himself saw the view on a visit to the building he called up Frank Gehry and said, "I've just given you the best gift of your career."

And what about Lake Point Tower? How did that curvaceous twist on Miesian modernism end up on the wrong side of Lake Shore Drive? According to the book "The Politics of Place" a city ordinance permitted construction of harbor and terminal buildings near the mouth of the Chicago River. The developers of Lake Point Tower used this loophole to get permission for their building which opened in 1968.

But architectural gems are not limited to the lakefront parks downtown. Lincoln Park Zoo is like an architectural jewel box. Many of the finest buildings there are by Dwight Perkins. The finest of all is Cafe Brauer, a masterpiece blending Arts and Crafts and Prairie Styles. And don't miss the quirky comfort station just south of Cafe Brauer. It's a picturesque Victorian folly by Joseph Lyman Silsbee (viewable at the Cafe Brauer link above). Silsbee also designed the oh so Victorian Lincoln Park Conservatory just south of Fullerton, but he's best remembered for giving Frank Lloyd Wright his first job in Chicago.

One of my favorite buildings in the parks (I can just hear the teeth grinding when I use that phrase) is now called Theatre on the Lake. It's another pavilion by Dwight Perkins and it's located almost on the lakefront at Fullerton. It was built as the Chicago Daily News Fresh Air Sanitarium for Sick Children. The building featured hammocks for babies to swing in the lakefront breezes that were thought to cure tuberculosis. Sadly an entire wing of this Prairie Style building was lopped off when the entrance ramp to Lake Shore Drive was built at Fullerton.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I stole the title of this post. It's a term used by Chicago's Grant Park Conservancy as they talk about the built environment that surrounds Chicago's front yard. As I set out to make a TV show about Chicago's lakefront I was surprised how often I kept coming back to the subject of architecture. Sure the parks play a starring role. But the buildings are the best supporting actors. (Or worst, depending on your point of view).

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Jackson Park was Daniel Burnham's showcase for neo-classical design and the public went wild for it. Louis Sullivan, a proponent of a more modern style, groused that it set architecture back 50 years.

The Century of Progress Fair of 1933 showcased modern architecture, but Sullivan's former apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright was not impressed. He wrote, "There is nothing in the fair except wholesale imitation." Today the austere modernist McCormick Place stands on the site of the 1933 World's Fair, much to the dismay of Lakefront advocates.

Montgomery Ward fought his fiercest battle to prevent any buildings from being erected on the lakefront and he was despised for it. Oddly, he found himself opposed to the wishes of that other great lakefront champion Daniel Burnham. According the the Burnham Plan of 1909, the Field Museum was supposed to go where Buckingham Fountain is today. If you want to see what it would have looked like, check out Virtual Burnham, an initiative of Professor Davis Schneiderman at Lake Forest College to visualize built and unbuilt elements of the Burnham Plan.

The Supreme Court eventually sided with Ward and the museum ended up on former Illinois Central Railroad land to the south. It's a rather conventional (if monumental) Greek temple. I think the other two buildings in the Museum Campus are more architecturally interesting.

The Shedd Aquarium looks at first glance like another neo-classical homage. But look closer. Everywhere possible (outside and in) the architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White encrusted the building with ornamental sea creatures and other aquatic references. The light fixtures have bronze octopi lounging on top of them and the pinnacle of the building's dome is Poseidon's trident (with an anti-collision warning light left over from the days when low-flying aircraft frequently passed by on final approach to Meigs Field).

Adler Planetarium is a true art deco gem. Architect Ernst Grunsfeld (whose son Tony is a noted modern architect) created a sublime eight-sided jewel. It's ornamented with wonderful zodiac bas relief sculptures by Alfonso Ianelli, a Park Ridge resident and collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright's.

The question of whether the Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is art or architecture is worthy of a post of its own. So I'll leave that and other discussion of Parkitecture for later...


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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