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Chicago, my kind of town

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

How do I love Chicago?  Let me count the ways:  

  •  hanging baskets of flowers and curbside planters so lush and colorful a master gardener would weep with joy
  • extraordinary architecture both vintage and cutting edge
  • the river that winds through the city
  • expansive Lake Michigan that gives the city a downtown beach (take that, NYC)
  • sidewalk cafes spilling out of great restaurants
  •  and hundreds of other things.

Driving into Chicago was the one thing I worried about for this trip.  Turned out I had reason to be anxious, hitting Chicago outskirts at 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon.  I inched along for an hour and was beginning to wonder what sane person would choose a traffic nightmare on purpose.  But I took a deep breath, moved across four lanes of wall-to-wall traffic to the nearest exit and actually figured out how to get to my hotel.  Jubilation!  I’m happy to say that leaving the city later on was fairly easy.

My second trip companion also arrived that afternoon, friend Maury from New York, for a Chicago weekend.  We hit Chicago running and eating.  Dinner was at Graham Elliot of Iron Chef fame.  Chef Elliot does essence food with a capital E.  I really liked his staff in jeans, black t’s and black kitchen jackets.  Dessert was oatmeal light like a souffle, topped with puffed and toasted grits, juicy raspberries on the side.  Those teensy grits were the size of sesame seeds and they were memorable.  We met Chef Elliot briefly after dinner.  He  wore jeans, a plaid shirt and  sneakers and his hair had that cute, quirky peak.  He looked and acted just the way he does on TV.

My favorite experience was a city architecture tour by boat.  The skyscraper was invented in Chicago after the Great Fire destroyed most of downtown, when planners realized they needed to build up and fit tall buildings into specific spots.  Seeing the skyscrapers from a river view was great perspective.  The new Trump Tower is a triple level of graceful curves in shining charcoal blue.  An expert guide gives you history with a little humor  and points out plenty of architectural details.  It’s a terrific way to learn and see a lot while enjoying the weather and a breeze.  I would take it again in a heartbeat because no two guides do it alike.

Speaking of architecture, Chicago is full of buildings by the masterful Frank Lloyd Wright.  He’s the architect who turned design on its head by scorning boxy plans and Victorian excess.  Wright wanted his buildings to look like they grew out of their sites naturally, using clean lines, angles, natural light, and blending indoors and outdoors seamlessly.  

I love his work and couldn’t wait to see his famous Robie House and the FLW bonanza in Oak Park.  Nothing disappointed.  The Robie House is considered the best example of his revered “prairie style”…extensive use of wood interiors, built-ins, his signature art deco-like windows, sleek lines, spaces created within spaces, quiet nooks mixed with open rooms for family  and gatherings.  Decades later, this house remains classic — still modern today.  Ditto all that for his home and studio in the toney Oak Park area.  This neighborhood is a treasure trove of Wright designs.  You can buy a map and amble the streets.  Wright’s homes are easy to spot — each makes a statement but looks natural in its space.  And if other styles appeal to you more, Oak Park has plenty of grand mansions and Victorians.

Enter Erica, Maury’s longtime friend and a Chicago resident for 30 years.  She loves the city like crazy, and it was great fun to share some of her haunts and hear a local’s take.  Plus she says “swell” which is, well,  swell.

Exploring with a good friend, meeting a new friend, in a great city, so very swell.