The Blog: News, Works in Progress, Reflections
Today we have a guest post by J.B. Rivard, who wrote Illusions of Magic, an illustrated novel set in Chicago in 1933, weaving a suspenseful story of a stage magician's life into the fascinating historical fabric of the day. Highly rated on Amazon, the book is available in Kindle format here.
The final two chapters of my novel Illusions of Magic take place in the Chicago & North Western railroad terminal. But, since the book is set in 1933, it’s not THAT North Western Terminal, the station that today occupies the lower floors of that 42-story glass-and- steel building at 500 West Madison. Yet it IS, in many ways, the same terminal. What do I mean? Read on.
More than a century ago, as rail passenger and freight transport more than doubled and tripled, railroad companies recognized a shortage of facilities for handling the traffic. Chicago, the hub of railroads that crossed the continent connecting the cities of the east with the booming west, saw the construction of two great terminals to meet passenger demand: the Chicago and North Western Railway Terminal, and Union Station.
Where the Transportation Center serving Metra’s commuter trains now stands, the Chicago and Northwestern Railway built a Renaissance Revival-style station (photo below), which opened in 1911. It occupied the block on Madison from Canal Street to Clinton Street.
Easily the most monumental structure on the city’s Near West Side, its six huge granite columns rose more than 60 feet from street level. Two clocks with nine-foot faces towered above and alerted passengers to the hour. But its prize feature was the 40,000-square-foot main waiting room on the second level interior, which rose 84 feet to a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Light streamed through north- and south-facing arched skylights in the sides of the vault onto the richly colonnaded walls below. In its early years, 50,000 passengers a day passed through this waiting room.
Stretching three football fields in length to the north of the terminal was the train shed, housing 16 tracks elevated above street level. This huge structure of steel columns and arched steel ribs included roof slots allowing smoke and steam from the locomotives of the time to escape as well as skylights to allow light in (see my illustration below). Passenger platforms, two city blocks long, separated pairs of tracks. At the far north end, the 16 tracks merged through intricate switches and crossovers to six tracks that led trains west, northwest, or north.
Demolished in the mid-eighties, this famous terminal was replaced by the 42-story Citicorp Center skyscraper (photo below). Its train station, now called the Ogilvie Transportation Center, was renamed after Gov. Richard Ogilvie, who created the RTA, the parent of Metra, in 1997. Yet it still features 16 tracks entering from the north under a rebuilt train shed, with passenger platforms separating pairs of tracks. Thousands of passengers still leave the station in trains, bump along the crossovers and switches to six tracks that head north, northwest, or west to their destinations.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Thanks to J.B Rivard for this contribution. Be sure to check out his website, Illusions of Magic, here.
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Sharon Wiesenmayer has lived with her husband, Peter, in her home on Ainslie Street for 49 years. In that time she's seen lots of changes to the home and neighborhood.
She remembers kids wandering through the streets of Lincoln Square on their own, seeing shows--plays, not just movies--on the Davis Theater stage, remembered a belly dancing club at a site on Western Avenue at Leland, that is now a parking lot.
Through all the changes to the neighborhood, though, the area always been a "sleepy enclave of nice and decent."
She and her husband had sights on their home, a gorgeous, 1916 example of American Craftsman style with a Spanish style roof, long before they had ever made a purchase offer.
Sharon and Peter had each grown up in the neighborhood and, once married, moved into a condo building at Winona and Western. One day, Sharon's cousin dropped a hint that the Ainslie home's owners might be looking to sell, though they hadn't listed nor even told many others. Sharon and Peter went up and knocked on the front door, introducing themselves to the surprised owners, setting events into motion that led to the ultimate sale of this beloved home. They are the home's fourth owners.
Much later they found out that the former owner, who ostensibly worked as a newsstand attendant in Evanston, was a bookie. He had been stashing evidence of his occupation under a radiator cover.
They found the home and neighborhood well-suited to raise their children.
Two occasions in their personal history with the home stand out:
The first was when they and neighbors handed over the control of the "baby street" that borders the home on its eastern side, running perpendicular to Ainslie. For its early history, the street was private, under control of the homeowners around it. The street at one time had two pillars and a wrought-iron gate that could be opened and closed.
The city approached the street's owners with a deal: Make the street public and we'll maintain it for you. The homeowners agreed. Years later, a water main broke and completely flooded the street and surroundings. The city took responsibility for maintenance, true to their word.
The second event in the home's history was a fire. Previous owners had at some point created a false, second wall in parts of the home, obscuring some of the home's beautiful leaded glass windows. Besides that, the electrical outlets were dangerously jerry-rigged for the new design.
One day, Sharon came home to find that the electrical setup had failed and that the walls were smoldering. While Peter ran to grab the attention of the fire department battalion chief who lived nearby, she rushed in to see what could be salvaged. Opening the door and letting in air, however, only strengthened the fire.
When the battalion chief arrived, he directed the crew to douse the flame at its source first, eschewing the common practice of punching a large hole through the roof and windows. He wanted to save as much of the beautiful house as possible.
That decision helped save the original windows and Spanish tile roof. A fortuitous result of the fire was that Sharon and Peter could finally restore the walls to a state closer to the original, finally exposing the beautiful living room windows. They also expanded the kitchen to a more modern, larger state than the space offered up by the original.
Both Sharon and Peter show evident pride in what the home has become, and in the neighborhood. They know many neighbors who, like them, have kept house and home for decades and tell the story of the area through the story of their own lives.
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I love the NYTimes feature, "36 Hours in..." The articles boil down a place, usually a city, to the absolute must-visits and must-sees. As a reader, you know that there's lots more, but the recommendations are well curated and generally not directed at the casual tourist. I remember seeing "36 Hours in Chicago" and expecting to see Navy Pier and Weber Grill but finding some great choices, from a meal at Ruxbin to a beer at Revolution.
I'm inspired to do to the same for Lincoln Square/Ravenswood for a few reasons.
- I love this neighborhood.
- I've lived here since 2009 and tried most things.
- I love giving unsolicited advice to visitors.
As locals know, Chicago is two cities: A Winter City in which you bundle up and get from one place to another in as little time as possible; and a Summer City in which you wear shorts at the first blush of sun and spend as much time outside as possible.
This short guide is for the Chicago summer season, since we're right now, as of May 1, at the cusp of enduring warm weather. Another motivation to do this is to warm up my own memory muscle and recall what makes the neighborhood great.
BREAKFAST: Morning (early side) Head up to Overeasy on Damen Avenue for a fantastic breakfast. I say early side because it gets crowded by 9:30-10. This cozy, tucked-away has always seemed like a small miracle to me, and I've been going there for years. Always smoothly run despite the crowds, always delightful service, and always phenomenal meals. The consistency blows me away. You can tell that that owner-chef wants things done just right, every time, and at a high standard. The breakfast menu has an array of standards, but a page of enticing new meals that keep every experience fresh. You usually have a choice between a sweet stack of amazement or a savory serving of bountiful satisfaction.
After breakfast, saunter south (take a left out of Overeasy) down Damen Avenue and find some great retail gems:
Alapash, which has a beautiful and light-filled store chock full of delicate and natural objects and elements of wood, succulents and ceramics. Marco, the owner, is so personable and has been a neighborhood fixture for years.
Cross Lawrence Avenue and you'll find a few other great stores:
Amy's Candy Bar--just go and stock up for later--and Orange Beautiful, which has some of the best, most imaginative retail displays you'll ever see.
Turn right and head down Leland Avenue, a street with some spectacular examples of Chicago residential architecture. You'll see classic greystone and other varieties of two-flats, Victorian cottages, neo-classical, and more. Most date to around the 1910s and 1920s, but you'll find a few examples of new million-dollar homes that sprung up from tear-downs. (Here is an illustrated "taxonomy" of local homes I did a few years ago).
Keep going on Leland and you'll find yourself just about at the center of Lincoln Square, right where Leland and Lincoln Avenue join up at the Lincoln Square Athletic Club.
Turn right on Lincoln Avenue and you'll find yourself on a welcoming commercial and pedestrian friendly street, at the heart of which is Giddings Plaza.
Spend your time here checking out some of the great shops. Merz Apothecary's selection of herbal supplements and old-timey and European remedies, all in a setting that keeps its vintage apothecary feel, will blow you away. It's claustrophobic and enticing at the same time. Further down, Fleet Feet is a chain of Chicago running shops that is legendary for its customer service and evangelical flair for running. Their selection of running apparel and equipment is top-notch. Book Cellar, Chopping Block, Savory Spice Shop are all great and will probably feature more prominently in the 36 Hours Winter Edition.
LUNCH: Go into Gene's Sausage shop, stand in awe of the two-story spectacle of imported European quality food, and then make your way to the back of the store. There are a few elevators to the back right, almost hidden. Those will take you up to the roof, where there is a great beer garden and grill with bratwurst, huge German pretzels, and more. It's decadent, fresh, and all to be consumed in the open air surrounded by fresh flowers. It's paradise on a beautiful summer day.
After your meal at Gene's rooftop, head back down to ground level. You might need a minute to slow down and catch your breath but hopefully you're still hungry...
Head to Paciugo, a gelato place right in Giddings Plaza, the public square with the fountain and (on nice days) dozens of kids, the occasional street musician, and lots of strollers. Get a gelato at Paciugo and sit outside on one of the benches by the square and just people watch. It'll pay off.
Stroll south down Lincoln Avenue and check out some of the others spots along the way. Check out the record shop, Laurie's Planet of Sound. Stop in Sacred Art, a fantastic shop with a great selection of Chicago-themed gifts (full disclosure: They sell some of my prints, but I loved them before that).
Keep heading down Lincoln Ave and, continuing the chill, sit in Welles Park or maybe even stop in nearby Sulzer Library if you want a dose of the written word.
DINNER: For dinner, there are too many great options to count, but one little-known gem of that area is Royal Thai on Montrose and Lincoln (by Welles Park), which has one particular, fantastic spin on a popular dish: The Crispy Pad Thai. The restaurant itself is unassuming, very quiet, but the servers are always great and you might get a cozy seat right by the window to get a view of passersby. Your bill will be very reasonable.
Following dinner--and I hope you've done this in advance--take out your tickets to the Old Town School of Folk Music's Saturday night show (< link is to schedule of upcoming concerts). The Sat shows almost always sell out, as they often feature well-known musicians, from Patti Smith to Arlo Guthrie to the Steep Canyon Rangers. This school is an institution dating back to the folk music boom in America, and dedicated to promoting folk music of all kinds through concerts, classes, and the annual Square Roots festival. The school is just a gorgeous venue, too, now in two locations: the original on Lincoln and the new one right across the street. Be sure to check out the WPA murals in the original building. Concerts are held in both locations.
After dinner, if you're up for more stuff, head South on Lincoln Ave for one of the great beer bars of the neighborhood: Bad Apple. Yes, technically you're heading out of LSq and into North Center, but just make an exception for this place. The beer list is stunning, the decor has sharp edges and interesting and they're always friendly despite the crowds.
One other nearby option (across the street) is the Half Acre taproom. Half Acre is one of the best respected breweries in Chicago, known for a few beers that have become standbys (Daisy Cutter, for example), and their taproom is just well-done, well-ornamented, and a neighborhood favorite.
Hope that was enough for Day 1.
The Lincoln Square-Ravenswood neighborhood definition has blurry borders. To me, the backbone of Lincoln Square is Lincoln Avenue, and the backbone of Ravenswood is Ravenswood Avenue/Metra tracks, and that's enough for me. I'm sure many maps dispute that. When it comes to Chicago's neighborhoods, though, there's not much political weight--it's defined by how the residents choose to define it. Here's a link to my illustration of Ravenswood's industrial history.
My recommendations for Day 2 focus on the Ravenswood things.
BREAKFAST: Go to River Valley Ranch & Kitchens on Wilson Avenue (near Wolcott). This place is, so far, not packed with crowds to befit the level of its food. I knew River Valley from their presence at the LSq farmer's market--they sell mushrooms and other fresh goods from their Wisconsin farm--and this fixed location has all of that plus a restaurant. Their breakfast is hearty, rich, the place is vibrant and friendly. One pro tip: Get their beignets. They will melt in your mouth and melt your heart.
After breakfast, head across the street in a south-bound direction and meander past the new Lycee Francais school, a tin metal postmodern fortress, and see if you can get away with ambling through its pristine schoolyard out back. I think it's open to the public in the afternoon on weekends, technically. They have a genuine French security guard on watch.
Keep heading south on residential streets and you'll find yourself in the pleasant shopping corridor of Montrose Avenue. Montrose and the surrounding area has a great range of offerings, but here are some of the highlights, in my eyes.
Hazel: Great gift shop and, further West on Montrose, a sister store for apparel. Small enough to browse in a short session but a great enough selection that you'll probably end up buying a bag of gifts. Their selection of greeting cards is uniquely good.
Neighborly is another great gift shop, right near Montrose and Damen, with a variety of well-designed prints, keepsakes, and gifts with Chicago and neighborhood themes.
Slightly south of Montrose, on Ravenswood Avenue, is Architectural Artifacts. This is a stunning place that combines high-end with epic with architecture with vintage. Imagine a massive brick warehouse with huge windows filled by someone with a big budget and high class. Between entire vintage cars, to large iron, heavily ornamented gates, this place will blow your mind. You could spend some time in here.
Then check out another one of the neighborhood gems: Lillstreet Art Center. Housed in a 3 (or so) story building that was once a factory from the area's early 1900s industrial boom, Lillstreet offers arts classes, studio space, a gift shop, and special exhibits that burst with life and activity. You'll find people of all ages milling around the spaces, covered in clay and paint, and you'll find phenomenal artistry in the works from the established artists making Lillstreet their professional home. Explore the space and talk to the people there.
LUNCH: There are some great options in this area. These places have always served me well:
After lunch, I'd just recommend a walk up and down Ravenswood Avenue and the parallel Avenues, Hermitage, Paulina, to admire some of the architectural beauty of the neighborhood. This is a great walking tour guide from the local historical association. There is the Abbott mansion, the stunning Queen Anne-style, late 1880s home of the founder of Abbott Labs--that's on Wilson and Hermitage. There's the Carl Sandberg home on Leland and Hermitage. All along Ravenswood you'll find vestiges of the area's former industrial glory, now web and design glory, including the Deagan clock tower, new breweries like Begyle. Much further north you'll find Koval Distillery, which offers tours. [And check out the look/design of their labeling, below. Really amazing.]
Once you're finished exploring...
DINNER: I strongly recommend Spacca Napoli, a neopolitan pizzeria on Sunnyside and Ravenswood, for a few reasons: 1) Amazing, coal-fire baked pizzas with flavors that will make you dance; 2) Just a striking, well-designed space with a great balance of elegant and casual; 3) A great, happy vibe. It's crowded, never overly so. I think that's one of the great things about my favorite places in the area. They're great, but never so overwhelmed with crowds that they become insufferable. They stay friendly and appreciative of their patrons. Anyway--Spacca Napoli will not disappoint you.
After dinner--head West down Montrose Avenue until you get to Damen Avenue, where you'll find Fountainhead, a place with a staggeringly good beer list (and whiskey, I am told) and a great rooftop bar. The rooftop is very tastefully done, highlighting the wood construction and and punctuated by planters. The rooftop gives you the great openness that a rooftop should have, with the feeling of a little privacy from the streets, an elevated speakeasy. Enjoy a great beer on a summer night here.
End 36 hours.
So that's all I've got. There are many other things I'd recommend that I didn't get to here--Selmarie in Lincoln Square, Julius Meinl--but some of them will have to wait until 36 Hours: Winter Edition. Take care and happy touring.
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I was honored to create a print commemorating the 10th Anniversary Shows for the legendary improv group and long-time Chicago fixture, Cook County Social Club. Here are the steps behind the creation:
1. Concept. Greg Hess, CCSC and former classmate of mine at Stuarts Draft Middle School in VA, suggested doing something WPA inspired. That led me to a bunch of great WPA artwork around Chicago, including a very cool mural at the local Old Town School of Folk Music.
2. Here it is more fleshed out. I wanted it to look a little more like a homecoming, since that's what these shows were, CCSC returning to Chicago. And of course, like in WPA art, I needed to show the implements of work. There's also a combination of a few other common Depression-era themes: A fascination with train travel, highrises, and good old farming of the land.
3. Then, since I wanted to make this a screenprint, I used 5 colors: Yellow, dark blue, light blue, green, and brown. It was refreshing to be limited this way.
4. Then I turned to Emily Fundis to put my vision into a workable, screenprintable design. She does great work of her own and has the screenprinting experience to know what would work. This is how it turned out:
And this is the actual CCSC improv team:
One fact about this illustration is that I included two of my friends who were responsible for even getting me interested in trying Map Room, Jim and Tom (pictured walking out front). Jim was a co-worker who was very excited to hear that I lived down the street from Map Room, on Western and Armitage. I think we probably went there within a few weeks of knowing each other or something, and I distinctly remembering him encouraging me to try a Delerium Tremens as a way of getting out of my usual beer standbys and into the new.
I was never the same.
My wife is always getting lost on Chicago streets. Partly to cope, she's great at coming up with little memory tricks. When I first started taking the red line, I didn't know which direction was North or South. She taught me "Ho-No" for Howard-North. I thought it sounded really dumb, but guess what--I think of it every single time I take the red line.
I wanted to help my wife remember the numbers of the major streets. The little rhymes below are supposed to help her make the connection between the streets and the numbers. If she knows the numbers for the major streets, then she'll know roughly where she is just by finding a numbered address. I hope some of these rhymes stick half as well as "Ho-No."
Do you love Two-Flats? You can have a print of my FAVORITE two-flats in your home (or give the gift of a print to the two-flat lovers in your life)!