Chicago's Lakefront with Geoffrey Baer

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From Cherub to Chief Justice

There's a statue of a cherub riding a dolphin in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton. The model for that statue grew up to be U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. When Stevens was a little boy he and his brothers were asked to pose for the statues by their father and grandfather who built the hotel. It opened as the Stevens Hotel and later became the Conrad Hilton. The hotel is perhaps most famous for the riot that took place on Michigan Avenue directly in front of it during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Yet more lakefront oddities:

The term "smoke filled room" was coined across the street from the old Stevens Hotel at the Blackstone Hotel during a different nominating convention. The Republican National Convention of 1920 was deadlocked. So cigar-chomping pols gathering in a room on the ninth floor of the Blackstone and agreed to nominate Warren G. Harding. The Associated Press reported the deal was brokered in a "smoke-filled room." You can still book a stay in that room. We shot a scene there for our documentary and I brought a stogie. But I couldn't light up. These days the room is strictly non-smoking.

Lakeshore Drive originally had cloverleaf interchanges at Montrose, Wilson and Lawrence. But exiting the drive onto city streets at highway speed turned out to be a bad idea and they were dismantled.

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Charlton Heston in a Speedo

That would top my list of lakefront oddities (maybe anybody's list). Let me explain:

In our documentary about Chicago's Lakefront we show clips of Charlton Heston wearing what looks like a leather Speedo in a low-budget film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He made the movie with some buddies a year or so after graduating from Northwestern University. They used classical buildings up and down the lakefront (Soldier Field, Museum of Science and Industry, etc.) as scenery. Let's say his earnest and at times overwrought portrayal of Marc Antony has not exactly aged well.

Other lakefront oddities:

There was a Civil War prisoner of war camp on Chicago's lakefront. It was on the former estate of Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He was most famous as Abe Lincoln's debating partner, but he was also a wheeler-dealer. In Congress, Douglas arranged a land grant that allowed the Illinois Central Railroad to run its tracks right up the lakefront into downtown Chicago. Then he bought and developed property along the proposed route. Douglas died just a year after losing the presidential election to Lincoln. After that his estate at what is now 35th St. was converted to a Union Army training camp called Camp Douglas. Later tens of thousands of Confederate Army prisoners of war were interred there. Many died in the horrible conditions. They were buried in City Cemetery, which is now Lincoln Park. That cemetery was closed because the shallow lakefront graves created a health hazard. Most of the Confederate dead were relocated to Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side. Today part of the old Camp Douglas is Illinois' smallest state park, and Douglas himself is entombed there under a towering column topped with a statue of the Little Giant.

There's a monument still standing on the lakefront that was given to Chicago by Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. It's a 2000 year old Roman column. It commemorates the arrival at the 1933 World's Fair of a squadron of Italian seaplanes commanded by General Italo Balbo. That's not the only tribute to Balbo in Chicago. The city re-named 7th Street in his honor in 1933.

More oddities to come...

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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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