Rx for Travel: Chicago is Looking Up

By Peter Wortsman
Photos by Peter Wortsman

Chicago skyline

For sheer magnitude, multitude, and magnificence, the spectacle of manmade stalagmites on Michigan Avenue boggles the mind. In the wake of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city became a tabula rasa for visionary builders. It was here that the first modern skyscrapers were built. Towering landmarks, like the dark green terra cotta and gold leaf covered Carbide and Carbon Building, the sprawling, sparkling white Spanish Renaissance style Wrigley Building, the neo-Gothic Chicago Tribune Building, and the Beaux Arts Crain Communications Building, to mention only a few, call for constant neck craning. Massaging the tendons one windy November morning, even this visiting New Yorker had to admit that, architecturally speaking, Chicago is second to none.

Chicago from Art InstituteGone is the grimy, gritty, homespun hodgepodge of a city I remembered from my last swing through town in the ’70s. Maxwell Street Market, immortalized in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” where blues bands sprouted like mushrooms on Sunday morning, was no more. The checkerboard of quasi-independent ethnic enclaves had melded into a true metropolis, forfeiting in local flavor what it gained in polish and patina. Chicago was looking up.

Opened in 2004, Millennium Park, the capstone of the city’s rebirth built in an abandoned railroad yard, literally gives the city a 21st century facelift. The myriad blown-up mugs of Chicagoans materialize and morph on the massive twin blocks of the Crown Fountain, giving the city a face. Frank Gehry’s magic mushroom-shaped Pritzker Pavilion freezes motion. And his pedestrian BP Bridge unfurls like a wave of aluminum foil rolling to Lake Michigan.

Battered by the wind whipping off the water, I took refuge in the newly refurbished Chicago Art Institute, home to one of the country’s outstanding collections, including rare Impressionist works and such New World classics as “American Gothic” by Grant Wood and Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Less well known, but of considerable interest, the International Museum of Surgical Science, on North Lake Shore Drive, runs the gamut in its collection from ancient Roman surgical paraphernalia, medieval cupping devices, and an operative iron lung to the first magnetic resonance imaging device. 

Buttoning my raincoat all the way to the top, I hit the street again to take in more buildings, including Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive Apartment complex. There was much still to discover and walking is good for the heart.

Chicago another viewSpeaking cardiovascular, the health-minded visitor may take some solace in the fact that Chicago, America’s former meatpacking and bootlegged booze capital, and, incidentally, the birthplace of Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds, was also where cardiologist and biochemist Dr. Angelo Scanu, of the University of Chicago, first separated the fat and protein in human serum lipoprotein and described the biochemical makeup of HDL, the “good” cholesterol.

Which, of course, did not keep me from indulging that evening in a thick slab of rib eye at Gibson’s Steakhouse on North Rush Street. I figured the resveratrol in my wine would balance out the beef. I stayed inexpensively, centrally, and in style, at the boutique Hotel Felix, in the River North neighborhood, http://hotelfelixchicago-px.trvlclick.com/.