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The Sky’s The Limit – ChicaGO!

Watching TV’s The Gilded Age while in Chicago last month,

it occurred to me that Chicago in a way was reborn during “The Gilded Age.” Chicago was built – or rather rebuilt- during those “gilded“ days with the ultimate experience that “leveled the playing field” – burning every field – the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Sadly, it took a tragedy to make Chicago America’s great showplace of great architecture.


If you want to be enveloped in the 18th century (and see the result of its excellent marketing in the 21st century) visit Colonial Williamsburg. If you want to see the best American architecture from the Gilded Age through the 21st century, you must visit Chicago, starting with the Chicago Architecture Center, a museum and primer for your visit. And then when you get tired of your architecture sightseeing walks, relax and sit back and enjoy your architecture cruise on the Chicago River.


Let’s start with the architecture of the Gilded Age with its “starchitect,” Henry Hobson Richardson, who is known for his Neo-Romanesque revival style, reminiscent of the early Middle Ages as exemplified by Chicago’s Glessner House (1885).Constructed of huge granite blocks it looks more like a fortress than a home. (Ironically, just a few years later Chicago led the way in design with buildings that used iron and steel construction instead of brick and stone – enabling greater height and expanded use of glass on the facades).


My favorite Gilded Age residence is the Nickerson Mansion (1883), which is now the Driehaus Museum. The minute you step through the door, you’ll think you’re in TV’s Van Rijn House, expecting Christine Baranski to patronize you. It looks like Christine’s Gilded Age TV house on both the outside and darkly lit interior. It’s unlike Gilded Age museums in NYC with their interiors altered to create an art museum, the Frick, or a library, the Morgan Library.


Attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture in Manhattan, I became a bit “New York City-centric” presuming that America’s earliest and best high-rise architecture was in Manhattan. Then I found out that my favorite early skyscraper, the Flatiron Building (1902), was bult by Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s premiere late-19th-century architect and then one of the world’s most famous, designing Selfridges department store in London, as well as the actual city plan of an American “colony” – beautiful Manila.


For me, Chicago became the US city for culture, art and architecture, when I left my favorite New York City sculpture, the Library Lions guarding the entrance to Fifth Avenue’s Public Library, and then saw their cousins, two-sculpted lions guarding the entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago.


Burnham’s firm also created one of the first iron/steel-frame buildings in the US – the Reliance Building (1895). Doing away with load-bearing stone walls with the use of steel enabled the enlargement of façade windows – which eventually culminated in Modernism. This enabled new buildings to literally reach new heights.


However, Burnham is largely remembered for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition, celebrating (a year later) the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World while bringing back the symmetrical Beaux-Arts Style – Neoclassicism. Beaux Arts/Neoclassicism replaced the dark-red stone and grey-stone facades of Neo-Romanesque and Neo Gothic in post-Great Fire architecture. The Exposition reintroduced marble with its white color which, along with symmetry, brought a new elegance to architecture even influencing Neoclassical architecture in Washington, DC. (Just compare the asymmetrical architecture of the red-stone first Smithsonian Building to the later National Gallery.) In fact, the entire Columbian Exposition fairgrounds became known as “The White City” or “Burnham’s White City.”


Louis Sullivan is perhaps best known for his quote, “Form Follows Function,” which is exemplified in architecture from Sullivan’s buildings through the Modernism of Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius until Zaha Hadid, whose buildings typify my phrase, “Form Follows Dysfunction.”


One of the most elegant department stores ever built is Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie Scott (1899), today’s Sullivan Center, in which its main and side facades meet at a rounded corner with large vertical simple columns on both sides – which appear to be a “thin skyscraper” in its own right — wedged between two buildings – in one building. My favorite Louis Sullivan building is the interior in his Auditorium Building (1899). The rounded half arch repeats from the rear of the stage area through to its proscenium arch which in 1932 NYC’s Radio City Music Hall – continues repeating throughout the entire auditorium.



Louis Sullivan will go down in architectural and Chicago history as being the man who hired America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. So far, I’ve taken you up reaching new vertical heights in Chicago architecture, now let’s go horizontal with the Wright style, simplified horizontal lines (such as overhanging roofs and balconies) stripped of most ornamentation. And if you love Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ve come to the Wright, right place. Chicago.
In NYC, the only Wright exposure is his famous Guggenheim Museum (1959) with its ramp circulating down five stories under the dome. That image of its long winding ramp still haunts me – especially when I have nightmares of climbing up the ramp! NYC also has an unknown, almost hidden Wright living room from his Francis Little House, which you will see on my “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That Metropolitan Museum of Art Tour.”


Since Wright’s horizontal style, aka “The Prairie Style,” has angles instead of curves, I consider it “America’s Earliest Art Deco Style.” Chicago has an exemplary early Wright House, the Robie House (1909). If that doesn’t satisfy your Wright yearning – a short hop on the elevated train to Oak Park is a must, where you’ll see 25 buildings designed by Wright and visit his studio. While in Oak Park you can also visit the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Museum where he grew up.


Chicago’s great architecture continues through today. My favorite Postmodern building is Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center (1985), which reminds me of my favorite Postmodern Berlin building – Potsdamer Platz’s Sony Center (1998). One of Paris’ greatest museums is its National Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center, designed by the great Renzo Piano. Chicago has its own museum designed by Renzo Piano – the 21st-century addition to the great Art Institute of Chicago – a must-see museum, which along with NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the top art museum in America and with the Louvre, a top museum in the world.


I hardly ever write about food but here comes the exception. In Chicago I ate at the original “Pizzeria Uno” and if you like regular pizza, a few blocks away is “Pizzeria Due” (not kidding). I base my pizza selection on architecture. If I tour vertical architecture, I opt for the high-rise (“Deep Dish”) Pizzeria Uno. If I tour Wright’s horizontal buildings, it’s flat pizza at Pizzeria Due.

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