Friday, February 24, 2017

On this week's...

...Urban Hike with Mike we saw the most beautiful views of the Chicago skyline I have ever seen in my 36-plus years of living here. Really. I wish my wife had been with me to see them. I also wish Ryan had been along with his fancy camera to take some shots. My humble iPhone was simply no match for the spectacular vistas that were on display Wednesday night.

Oh, well. It was a great evening anyway -- much better than I had anticipated. We ventured out onto the Museum Campus and Northerly Island and I have to admit, it was more from a lack of new ideas than any brilliant inspiration on my part. But we were lucky -- it was unseasonably warm on Wednesday (in the 60s!) and we were joined by a small cadre of other Chicagoans (and their dogs) on a serendipitous "midsummer night's eve" in February.

The Museum Campus, as any self-respecting Chicagoan knows, is a 57-acre park along the lakefront adjacent to Northerly Island that contains four of the city's most notable attractions: the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium and Soldier Field. The Campus officially opened in 1998, when the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive were rerouted west of Soldier Field creating a scenic pedestrian-friendly area.

After dinner at Pita Heaven on South Michigan Avenue (where everyone -- Michael, John, Nicco, Alan, Jake, Jack and me -- agreed that we got a lot of value for our money), we crossed over the train tracks on Roosevelt Road and then under Columbus and Lake Shore Drives through the pedestrian tunnel in Grant Park.

When we emerged, the first thing we saw was the brilliant Field Museum to our right, illuminated for the passing LSD traffic. (That's a view of the southern entrance.) The Field Museum dates back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition when it was actually located in Jackson Park on the South Side. Originally known as the Columbian Museum of Chicago, it was renamed in 1905 after its first major benefactor, Marshall Field, and moved to its current site in 1921.

The neoclassical design of the Field Museum, which borrows from both Greek and Roman temples, is echoed in the other structures on the Campus.

We then walked north and east along the Lakefront Trail, skirting the Shedd Aquarium. (That's a view from the east.) The Aquarium was the gift of another local retailer and protégé of Marshall Field, John G. Shedd. Although Shedd only lived long enough to see the architect's first drawings, his widow cut the ribbon at the official opening ceremony in 1930.

(Full disclosure: my cousin's fiancee is a real live marine biologist at the Shedd. No kidding!)

Among the many interesting tidbits mentioned on the Shedd's Wikipedia page is:

In 1930, 20 railroad tank cars made eight round trips between Key West and Chicago to transport 1,000,000 gallons of seawater for the Shedd's saltwater exhibits. 

From there we walked farther east, along Solidarity Drive, to the Adler Planetarium. It was here that we saw the most breathtaking views of the evening. The Planetarium was also founded in 1930, by Max Adler, a former executive with Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Field, Shedd, Adler -- what's with all these retail guys?

(Another full disclosure: my grandfather, my father, and one of my uncles all worked for Sears at some point so the Chicago company has an almost mythic place in my family's history.) 

Rounding the Planetarium, we made our way to the small but charming 12th Street Beach, which dates back to the 1920s. Julie, John and I discovered this hidden gem on our bikes last summer (or the one before). The city has so many interesting nooks and crannies!

To the south of the beach is the bulk of Northerly Island, which is not an "island" per se, but actually a 91-acre peninsula. To be fair, it was originally an island, albeit a man-made one, that was part of Daniel Burnham's "Plan of Chicago" which called for a chain of five islands between Jackson Park and 12th Street. The plan was scrapped, however, during the Great Depression, and Northerly Island was ultimately connected to the mainland through an isthmus.

Home to Meigs Field Airport from 1946 to 2003, the rest of the island now consists of an outdoor concert venue and a 40-acre park featuring a trail for walking and bike riding, a lagoon, and landscaped wildlife habitats. It closes at dusk so we weren't able to check it out, but Julie, John and I rode our bikes out there once and it has some great views to the south. I promised the guys we'd be back this spring or summer after the clocks change.

Finally, we turned back toward the mainland and walked between the Field Museum on our right and Soldier Field on our left. The Field Museum, although the best-lit of the bunch, afforded some haunting -- almost spooky -- photos, above.

Soldier Field, of course, is home to the beloved, if inconsistent, Chicago Bears. The stadium opened in 1924 as Municipal Grant Park Stadium, was later dedicated as Soldier Field in 1926, and famously (or infamously) renovated in 2002.

(Full disclosure No. 3: I first saw the Bears play in Wrigley Field in the 1960s.)

I won't go into the whole controversial history of the renovation (Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin dubbed it the "Eyesore on the Lake Shore") except to say that I must be the only person in Chicago -- no, the world -- who actually approves of the new design. I know it looks like "a spaceship landed on the stadium," but how else were they supposed to improve the interior while maintaining its historic, neoclassical facade? What was arguably the worst stadium in the NFL to watch a game became arguably the best -- overnight. And, fittingly, the lead architect was a guy named Dirk Lohan, a grandson of Chicago architecture legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Besides being home to the Monsters of the Midway since 1971, Soldier Field hosted the College All-Star Game from 1934 to 1976. Hard to believe now, but the previous year's NFL champions would face off against a team of college all-stars in a preseason exhibition game in August. Sound like a mismatch? It wasn't initially; the first five games were actually close, with the collegians taking four of them! The professionals soon found their footing, however, and ended up winning the last twelve in a row. The series ended, mercifully, when a blowout was called late in the third quarter in the midst of a driving thunderstorm.

(Full disclosure No. 4: I'm pretty sure I was at that game.)

The stadium has also been home since 1937 to the Prep Bowl, which features the champion of the Chicago Public League vs. the champion of the Chicago Catholic League. In the inaugural contest, Austin defeated Leo, 26-0, in front of 120,000 spectators -- for a high school game! The IHSA began its state tournament in the 1960s, and the Prep Bowl has since evolved into more of a consolation game.

(Last full disclosure: the greatest day of my dad's life was probably without question when my oldest brother played for Loyola Academy in the 1965 Prep Bowl. The Ramblers easily defeated CVS -- Chicago Vocational School, not the pharmacy chain -- with over 70,000 fans in attendance.)

After turning north and walking past the Field Museum from the west, we bade farewell to the Museum Campus, crossed Columbus and Lake Shore Drives again and boarded the No. 12 Roosevelt bus for home.

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