Art, Architecture and Anatomy in Chicago

During the deep freeze of the last week, the city of Chicago was left frozen. But during the summer months visitors can tour the city by boat, walk the parks and peek inside its surgical museum.

Photography by author

During the deep freeze of the last week, the city of Chicago was left frozen. The streets were mostly empty, schools were closed and residents found it difficult to see where Lake Michigan ended and the sky began. (The frigid air caused vapor to wash over the lake.)

True, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, recorded temperatures equal to that of where the Mars Rover was, but Chicago (along with cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh) was colder than the South Pole.

Admittedly, it might not be the best city to visit during the winter. And even during the summer months, it’s not unusual for the city to be cold and windy.

Architecture

Chicago is famous for its architecture and the city enjoys buildings that either contrast sharply with the others or reflect. So it’s not uncommon to see gothic inspired buttresses and arches next to streamlined modern towers (popular from the 1930s to 1980s). Or to look into the glass exterior of one building and be able to see the ones across the street.

If you want to really understand and appreciate Chicago’s architecture, then take a tour like the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Architecture River Tour so you can enjoy the sights from the city’s many waterways.

Like students late to class, we took the seats in the front row, which turned out to be a blessing as even being as close to the speaker as we were, it could be difficult to hear when the boat went under noisy bridges with cars clanking by overhead.

The building with the gold top was designed to look like a champagne bottle. Plus examples of the diverse and contrasting architecture designs.

Art deco, gothic, modern, post-modern — Chicago’s architecture represents it all. But a common sight in the city are buildings by the modern architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — they are mostly towers with glass and black steel façades and they were a severe departure from the brick buildings of the time.

Ironically, enough, one of van der Rohe’s buildings is situated next to two created by one of his protégés. Betrand Goldberg designed Marina City as two, 65-story circular towers with exposed parking on the bottom levels and pie-shaped apartments on the upper ones. Given the shape of the towers, the elevators make up the spine and the apartments are narrow at the entranceway, spreading out and widening toward the windows, which provide views of the city, river and lake.

On the tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation (left); The Jewelers’ Building (right); Art Deco design (bottom).

The buildings of Chicago are full of history despite the fact that they were all rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. For instance, the Jewelers’ Building (35 East Wacker) was created for the city’s diamond merchants. To reduce their chances of being mugged between the building and their cars there was an auto elevator in the building. The merchants could drive their cars right through the front doors! And it is said that during Prohibition Al Capone ran a speakeasy in the huge dome at the top of the building.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion (top); the lawn, full with people playing Frisbee, relaxing or playing with dogs (middle); Navy Pier at night (bottom two).

Lights, camera…

Chicago is a movie town, it turns out. Christopher Nolan filmed The Dark Knight in Chicago, with scenes of citizens fleeing across the bridges to leave the city, car chases through the city’s multilevel streets. The Jewelers’ Building was used in Batman Begins with the superhero surveying the city from one of the turrets below the buildings dome.

During the Hop On Hop Off bus tour through the city our guide, a Chicago native who spent some time living elsewhere in the United States before migrating back home, pointed out that when gangster movies are shot in Chicago, they often use the same street and simply dress it up a little.

In the summer of 2013 when we visited the city, one of the bridges was closed so they could film a Channing Tatum movie. (We didn’t catch any sightings of any movie stars, though.)

Source Code

No visit to Chicago is complete without seeing the Bean (excuse me, Cloud Gate), which appeared numerous times in the Jake Gyllenhaal movie (top); Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park (middle); Lake Michigan and a view of the city (bottom).

For the physicians

In Chicago’s prestigious Gold Coast neighborhood sits a 1917 mansion that would look at home on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles — which was done on purpose as it was modeled after a chateau on the palace’s grounds.

Ophthalmology exhibit (top left); trephined skull (top right); amputation mural (bottom left); and the exterior of IMSS (bottom right). Photos courtesy IMSS.

Inside, visitors are faced with a gilded metal grand staircase, Italian marble floors, decorative plasterwork and the exhibits of the International Museum of Surgical Science (IMSS). Founded by Max Thorek, MD, the museum explores both cutting-edge medicine as well as the historic milestones that shape modern surgical science.

Interestingly, the museum has a creative side with fine arts integrated with the medical artifacts on display. Over 600 paintings, prints and sculptures of individuals and surgical procedures and events are featured.

Food

Yes, Chicago is famous for its deep dish pizza — a crime against nature for an East Coast native. But even this New York pizza lover can admit that the pizza was delicious.

Gino’s East is the famous restaurant for tourists (although locals have their own preferences), but even though we arrived shortly after lunchtime we didn’t have to wait on the ridiculously long line we had been warned about. It just took 15 minutes and we were seated. (Family members who visited prior to us bemoaned they had to wait nearly an hour!) This was mostly due to luck, rather than planning, as we went to Gino’s East after a visit to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, where we perused the exhibits inside and caught a performance by the famous improv group Second City (alumni include Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey).

Second City performs inside the Museum of Contemporary Art (top). Gino’s East and Chicago's famous deep dish pizza.

But our favorite meal of the trip was a little outside of downtown. A short cab ride to Near West Side brought us to The Girl & the Goat — the restaurant of Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard.

To say that it’s difficult to get a reservation is an understatement. But simply to say that it’s worth it is an even larger understatement. Our reservation was 9:45 p.m., and it was the last reservation for the weekend despite the fact that we made our reservation as soon as they opened the book two months in advance. It was only at the restaurant that we discovered people who cannot book a reservation have the option of sitting at the bar when it opens up or at a small communal table in the waiting area and ordering food from there. We preferred the individual table, even if it is awfully close to the neighboring tables.

Our drinks (top) and our first plates to come out: the bread with goat butter and chickpea fritters. (We ate the rest before we could think to take more pictures!)

The restaurant is tapas (meaning “small plates”), so we ordered seven plates for just the two of us, plus dessert to be shared. The menu is broken into three sections: vegetable, fish and meat. And, as you might expect from the restaurant name, there’s plenty of goat.

Don’t worry about finding a taxi late at night in a more residential area: the taxis know they’ll have business if they stick around. There were at least three waiting for diners to leave when we finished up at 11:30 p.m.