My Picks for Open House Chicago 2014

                             The home of Hector Duarte in Pilsen

Fall is here in Chicago and that means residents and visitors are getting excited about Open House Chicago. For two days (October 18-19) over 150 unique sites will open their doors to visitors interested in art, architecture, design, and much more.

I recently wrote up my top three picks for this amazing weekend for the Choose Chicago website. Please enjoy and hope to see you out there!

Sunday Morning at MIT


Black steel cuts gently

Course is set, move off campus

What is next for us?

Red forms and blue fills

Follow the curve, find acute

I found a fable

Look through a figure

Fall forms, Charles in the distance

Good morning to you

Starting With Zero

Twenty years ago this week, I commenced my studies at the University of Chicago as a first-year in the College. After ten days of placement exams, group discussions about Plato’s dialogues, and monumental speeches in Rockefeller Chapel, I arrived for my first class in Cobb Hall at the unseemly hour of 8:30AM.

The formal title of the course was “Fundamental Mathematics”. Around the quad it was risibly referred to as “Fun Math”. The formal course description noted that “this two-course sequence covers basic precalculus topics.” Additionally, it was a type of  “two-for-one” offering. That’s right: two quarters worth of instruction for one solo credit. How charming.

As I wandered into Cobb 105, I thought back to the previous academic year at James A. Garfield High School in Seattle. Through a hole in the Seattle Public School system’s educational fabric, I had managed to escape the second semester of supposedly “required” math instruction for all seniors. That fall semester I had a math course that should have been titled “Conversations With a Guy From New Jersey About Classic Chassis”. We mostly talked about cars, hemis, New Jersey-style hot dogs, and University of Washington football. I imagine this young math educator’s instructional style would result in many more children left behind today, particularly when one considers the aggressive focus on testing.

Nine months without math instruction left me woefully underprepared for the mathematics placement exam at the University of Chicago. I left half of the questions blank and I’m fairly certain that I thought delta-epsilon proofs were something that happened at an institution with a larger Greek system. After I brought up my exam after 45 minutes, I knew I would be in for something special in terms of math instruction amidst these august ivy-covered walls.

Sitting down in the classroom, it was clear that no one else was exactly thrilled to be there. As cliche as it sounds, a clutch of football players (yes, UofC has football) took up some prime corner real estate in the tiny room, a couple of proto-hipsters affected disaffection in the corner and the rest of us just looked on gamely, waiting for class to begin.

The instructor, a tall ruddy faced Scotsman, wandered in and greeted us with a exuberant “Welcome to college and to the University of Chicago!” Oh, things were looking up already. He continued: “Can anyone tell me the importance of zero?”

So it began.

Trains, Planes, Automobiles and More: Talking about “Terminal Town” with Joseph Schwieterman

imageThe Illinois Central’s Illini departs Central Station for Carbondale in 1971
                              (Photographer: George Hamlin)

I’ve spent many hours in bus terminals, railroad stations, and airports examining their architecture, art, design, and general appearance. It was with great pleasure that I learned of a new work exploring the history of Chicago’s contributions in this area of human endeavor by Professor Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University. “Terminal Town: An Illustrated Guide to Chicago’s Airports, Bus Depots, Train Stations, and Steamship Landings, 1939-Present” delivers a thoughtful look at this key aspect of Chicagoland’s infrastructure in a way that is thoughtful, chatty, and informative.

What was the impetus for this project?

The demolition of many landmarks, like LaSalle Street Station, North Western Terminal, and the city’s two bus depots, had a profound effect after I moved to Chicago in 1981. I couldn’t understand why such little initiative was taken to save them. Walking through an almost deserted Midway Airport also had an imprint on me. These memories and others—like working at United Airlines when it opened the all-new Terminal 1 in 1987—left me with a strong desire to showcase our magnificent terminal system.


 Main Waiting Room, North Western Terminal as it appeared in November 1981
                                   (Photographer: Craig Blushke)

The photography in the book is magnificent. Can you tell us about combing through various archives to get the perfect image for each transit hub? Any surprises along the way?

Thank you! I switched to a color book after seeing how was lost when those classic photos were printed in B&W. We can be grateful for those went out to capture those images before it was too late. It’s a shame, though, that so few good pictures were taken inside stations. I’ve never found good shots from inside Englewood Union Station or Trailways Station. If somebody has them, please call!

Do you have a favorite transit hub in Chicago for people watching? Or in terms of user friendliness and the like?

You have to admire Skidmore, Owing and Merrill’s redesign of old Randolph Street Station, a damp and dingy place once likened to a bomb shelter. SOM transformed it into the “luminous and cloud-like space” that is today’s Millennium Station. I sometimes gaze out through the curved glass at Starbucks there to watch commuters scurry to Metra and South Shore trains. The architects “took a lemon and made lemonade”.

I remember visiting Union Station for the first time in 1990 as a teenager passing through on my way to Virginia. It’s come a long way, but what does it need in terms of amenities or possible service extensions to improve the facility?

Fixing Union Station has become the rallying cry for thousands of civic leaders and rail-passenger advocate. We need to give Amtrak passengers a better experience, allow Metra to expand rush-hour service, and make is possible for trains to run through our city without the need for everyone to make connections. I can’t think of another terminal in the country that is high priority for improvement. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association rightfully likens its importance to that of a resurgent Midway Airport.


Midway Airport terminal building

Thinking about Union Station, I’m reminded of its appearance in “The Untouchables”. Do you have a favorite Chicago transit hub on film or TV moment?

I really like the Blues Brothers scene where Elwood and Jake drive down Randolph St. with the giant blinking Trailways Bus Station marquee in full view. This scene shows the fading glory of a strip that was once called “Chicago’s Times Square”. The Chicago Greyhound Station looms in the distance. I also like the Home Alone scene where the McCallister family runs through O’Hare without their son. It reminds me of my days as a standby passenger.


Trailways Bus Station, May 1986
                                    (Photographer: Mel Bernero)

Many of the places you write about have been demolished or dramatically transformed. Which one of these would you have liked to have visited in person and why?

I kick myself for not getting even a glimpse of Central Station, which came down in 1974. I came to Chicago many times as high school kid but don’t remember seeing it. Also, in 1989, I got lazy and never came downtown to get photos to the giant Greyhound Station being torn down. Nobody else apparently did that either.

I’m going to put you on the spot here: What’s your favorite CTA station and why?

The Clinton Green Line Stop! On the east end of the platform, you can look out over the tracks at Ogilvie Transportation Center and watch trains come out of Union Station on the former Milwaukee Road. You can even look down to the “L” track toward the Lake/Wells interlocking (crossing). There is a lot of “wow factor” at that spot.

What are the three top transit priorities for Chicago(land) over the next two decades?

The lack of connectivity between our commuter-rail system and rapid transit lines borders on the absurd. God knows how many transit trips are abandoned by those unwilling to schlep from one station to the next to make a connection. I live south of the city and regularly need to get up to Northwestern University, which is way north. The lengthy walk from Millennium Station to Ogilvie tests my patience—and endurance. Maybe I need to get a Divvy plan! When I was in Berlin two months ago, I marveled at the synergy of its giant centralized hub.

What’s a song that would be good to listen to on a South Shore train headed from Randolph Station down to Michigan City?

The song “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” is of course a little stereotypical, referring to the South Side as the “baddest part of town”, but it is a classic. But nothing captures the romance of riding on the Illinois Central line that those trains use better than Arlo Guthrie’s rendition of Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans. I once tried to learn it on the piano but could never master it. After the train switches onto the South Shore Line at Kensington Jct., and heads toward Gary, Indiana, perhaps Michael Jackson’s Thriller is in order!

As a side note, you can also learn more about the book via this website created to provide additional information about the work and transit-related events around Chicago.

Touching Down

We landed at Midway, right on time.

Sun down, Seattle behind me.

As I stepped off the plane, I thought “Wow. It’s a bit like a more charming Greyhound station”

That was 20 years ago, long before Midway got good and gussied up.

It was warm in the terminal and I had my second thought. “Did someone forget to turn on the A/C?” Admittedly, I was wearing a heavy, dusty grey, warm weather coat. Late September, so I thought it would be cold on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Sighing, I turned my head and caught a glimpse of Mayor Richard M. Daley in photographic form. On that dingy yellow wall, he seemed quite young and his tilt seemed to indicate a curious aesthetic decision for such a formal civic portrait.

Perhaps he knew about the A/C problem here? No, he could not be bothered with these details in this distant corner of the city.

A blur of bags on a geriatric carousel passed by. I picked mine up and scuttled off to a waiting Yellow Cab.

The cab driver had a warm face and after some directional directions & personal background he opined up: “Land of flannels and Nirvana. I’ve been there, I’ve been there. Good place, long plane trip. Why did you come out here? Cold weather. Long. Snowy.”

I gave what would become a standard patter over the coming weeks, relating the financial aid package at the University of Chicago, my love of big old sprawling cities, and my desire to explore.

"UofC gives out money huh? Couldn’t have afforded it myself. Went to Circle campus. Lots of concrete and named after the place where two freeways bump into each other. Weird, right?"

Yes, it was, but how could I know this? I pumped my head up and down, indicating general agreement.

We were at the Blackstone now and the cab slid up in front of the main entrance on Balbo  A few bills went up front and the cabbie said “Kid, check out the Jazz Showcase. To your left, off the lobby. Perfect way to meet Chicago”

Jazz and a showcase? Yes, thank you.

First it was up to my room at this grand pile which was home to the smoke-filled rooms of the 1920 Republication Convention. Cough, cough and a bunch of old men put up Warren G. Harding for possible elevation to the highest office in the land.

After a brief discussion with front desk, I went to the elevator and found a man there waiting to take my bags. He was a man in the sense that he was older than me by three or four years.

"Welcome to the Blackstone", he said. "Let’s get those bags and get you up to your room."

Up I went, burdened down by overpacked bags and a mind that felt the same.

The first night of four years that became twenty had begun.