"The real voyage of Discovery lies not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes"
Marcel Proust

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Exploring LaSalle

Over the years, when in Chicago I have logged many miles on Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile.” And I have spent countless days strolling “State Street that Great Street.” As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have often played the role of tour guide when visiting the city with friends and family. My tour would include Michigan Ave and State St., a few of the East-West streets, and the adjacent parks, restaurants, ornate hotel lobbies, soaring skyscrapers and subtle historic landmarks.  However, on a recent visit to Chicago my sister-in-law suggested that we deviate from our normal route (which had become more rut, than route) and explore LaSalle – a street whose name honors an explorer and his explorations.

Our exploration began when we hopped off the Metra Train at the Van Buren St. station rather than the more popular end-of-the-line Millennium station.  Immediately I was transported into a scene from a 1940s black and white movie. Built in 1896, the Van Buren St. station is the oldest active building on the Metra Electric line. Ornate tile floors and pillars reeked with nostalgia. The graffiti-laden wood benches – looking like pews – seemed saturated with stories of generations of commuters who squeezed into them as they waited for their train home.

Heading up the stairs into the bright morning light, I was surprised to exit through a replica of an Art Nouveau-style Paris Metro entrance which the City of Paris gave Chicago in 2001. This would be just the first of many surprising discoveries.

We walked west on Adams past the venerable Bergoff’s Restaurant and then ducked into the two-story lobby of the Marquette Building to see the beautiful mosaics honoring two other Illinois explorers Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet. Four bronze relief sculptures depicting the pair launching their canoes, meeting Native Americans, arriving at the Chicago River, and interring Marquette’s body can be found above the entrance to this National Historic Landmark. Built in 1895, it was one of Chicago’s first skyscrapers. Even the revolving doors are noteworthy with tomahawks on the kick plates and panther heads on the push plates designed by Edward Kemeys of the Art Institute lions fame.

Continuing west we came to our destination. LaSalle Street is the heart of the financial district and this heart pumps money across the city and world. It is cliché to refer to canyons among skyscrapers in major cities, but LaSalle really feels like a canyon. The canyonesque feeling comes from the Board of Trade Building which closes off the south end of the street, thereby making pedestrians feel like they are walled in on three sides by rock canyon/skyscraper walls. Atop the copper roof of the art deco Board of Trade building a 6,500 pound, 3-story tall aluminum statue of Ceres, the Goddess of Grain, looks down on LaSalle Street. 
She holds a bag of corn in one hand and a sheaf of wheat in the other hand to represent the commodities traded in the building.  For many years this was the tallest skyscraper in Chicago and many folks still consider this to be its finest building.

It seems appropriate that in the shadow of the Board of Trade is the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Money Museum.  Ironically, it does not cost money to enter the Money Museum. Once you pass through airport-like security visitors learn how our economy works and why it sometimes doesn’t.  You will see a stack of one million dollar bills and you can put your arms around a million dollars’ worth of $20 bills. 

You also can learn how to identify counterfeit money. Free souvenirs include a bag of shredded currency and photo “ops” include having your face on a $2.00 bill.

Across the street from the Money Museum is another building on the National Register of Historic Places, the Rookery Building. My sister-in-law works in the building and so this was our primary destination on our exploration of LaSalle Street.
Designed by Daniel Burnham and John Root, the Rookery was completed in 1888. Frank Lloyd Wright redesigned the two-story, sky-lit lobby in 1905. At 11 stories tall, it is considered the oldest standing high-rise in Chicago.

Even an untrained eye like mine could see the innovative and intricate approaches applied to designing a building with light in mind. Chicago was a dark, smoky city in the 1880s and even on sunny days the coal smoke shaded the city.  Electric lamps were gradually replacing oil lamps and the Rookery light fixtures were designed to work with either. (A bank vault in the basement stores many original light fixtures, elevator buttons, and other artifacts.) But neither source was reliable and, even when working, these lamps only produced weak light. So the architects designed an open “light court” to allow natural light to permeate the building. 

The friendly security guard led us into the elevator to the 11th floor where we visited the Burnham Library. Burnham, Root and Wright all worked and studied in what now serves as a conference room for the building’s tenants. A photograph of Burnham and Root sitting in the room depicts the furniture and fireplace just as it is today.
The most stunning feature of the building is Root’s vertigo-inducing oriel staircase which goes between the 2nd to the 12th floor.  This staircase is one of the most photographed features in Chicago. It is commonly featured on art posters sold to all of those tourists back on Michigan Avenue. Here on LaSalle you see the real thing!

Before leaving, I asked my sister-in-law how the building got its strange name. She said there were several versions, but most point toward mocking noisy Chicago politicians.  City Hall occupied the site before the Rookery was built. The “Rookery” may have referred to the City Hall’s rundown appearance or the crow-like politicians who roosted there. Others said it was because pigeons flocked to the adjacent fire station to eat the oats that were fed to horses that pulled the fire wagons. In any case, Burnham and Root were not happy that the name stuck to their beautiful building. But whether in jest or resignation, Root did design cawing crows (or rooks) on the building’s exterior.

Daniel Burnham is most famous for designing Chicago’s glorious iconic lakefront. His most notable quote states, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood …” The next time you visit Chicago I suggest that you “make no little plans” and include time to explore LaSalle Street. The architecture may stir your blood and your imagination. - Posted by Ted

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