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\The author with his daughter Elena in front
of the apartment building where he grew up.


Mark Anthony Wilson

when my family left chicago

When my family left Chicago to move to California in August of 1963, I was 12 years old, John F. Kennedy was President of the United States, and most Americans had never heard of the Beatles. Fifty-two years later, in June of 2015, I returned to Chicago with my twelve-year-old daughter, for a father-daughter bonding experience that became one of the most memorable trips of my entire life. It was also a voyage of discovery, both of my own roots, and of many of those things that make Chicago one of the world’s great cities, as seen through the eyes of my daughter for the first time.

My Travelling companion

My daughter Elena has been light of my life since my wife and I adopted her from a Russian orphanage, on the island of Sakhalin, when she was barely two years old. Like many twelve-year-olds in our self-absorbed, media-saturated culture, she can be a bit full of herself at times, and sometimes stubbornly refuses to do her chores. But on the whole she’s a joy to be with, and a delightful travelling companion. By the time she turned 12, she had heard me describe the attractions of Chicago often enough, and had seen enough movies set in the “Windy City”, to be interested in seeing it for herself. And her youthful enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity about all the places I showed her during our six days there made me appreciate my home town more than ever. Growing up there inspired me to become a teacher of art and architectural history, and lead me to focus during our visit on the great paintings and buildings to be found in that city. Elena was just the right age to appreciate and understand what she was seeing; a year or two earlier such experiences would have been lost on her. I agreed to let her take her new smart phone with her but I insisted she put it away whenever I asked her to, so she could experience all the places we would see in real time. She kept her promise for the most part, but it was helpful to have her search with her phone for useful information during out trip, such as opening times, phone numbers, restaurant locations, and weather reports.

To plan this trip, I chose to use a travel agency, Going Places, in my home town of Berkeley California. I know it’s the norm these days to go on the internet and book all your travel arrangements for yourself, but I prefer human interaction, where I can ask direct questions, and verify the accuracy of all the accommodations through someone who does it for a living. I booked round trip tickets non-stop from Oakland to Chicago Midway Airport on Southwest Airlines which allowed two checked bags and one carry-on for each of us without any fees, a rarity in this day and age.


Before making all the arrangements, I contacted my best friend from childhood, Tim, who was still living in my old neighborhood of Hyde Park, on the South Side near the University of Chicago. He agreed to meet us at the airport the night of our arrival, which saved me the expense of a shuttle or a rental car. But rather than stay with him, I decided to book a fine hotel in downtown for the first three nights, so my daughter and I could walk to all of the major museums there. I recalled from my childhood that Chicago was a great city for walking, and it still is. So, I contacted the Hilton Towers Hotel on Michigan Avenue, facing Grant Park and Lake Michigan. This hotel was featured in the last scene of the film “The Fugitive” with Harrison Ford. I had stayed there in 2003 on my last trip to Chicago, and had fond memories of its 1920’s Beaux Arts elegance. Since then, the owners have created all sorts of family-friendly amenities, and special discount packages. So we stayed in a spacious room with two queen beds on the top floor, with lovely views of Grant Park and the lakefront from our 25th floor windows. The room also included a full hot breakfast each morning, and use of the gym and indoor swimming pool (my daughter is part mermaid). Our room also included two full baths, one on each end, which was very important for the privacy needs of a 12-year-old girl.

After a quick dinner in Chicago’s Chinatown on the near West Side, Tim drove us to downtown via the Outer Drive, which runs along the shore of Lake Michigan, and has fabulous views of the skyline. In the twelve years since my previous visit, the skyline had grown considerably, which is one of the defining characteristics of Chicago, a city that has always been dynamic and on the cutting edge of American architecture. There are now five buildings here over 1,000 feet tall, thrusting their gleaming shafts above the teeming streets, so fitting for the birthplace of the skyscraper. Next, Tim took us to my favorite place downtown, one that has always held found memories from my childhood. Buckingham Fountain, in the middle of Grant Park, was dedicated in 1927, and is the world’s largest decorated fountain. It has 133 jets that shoot water as high as 135 feet into the air. The right time to see it is after dark, when hundreds of spotlights create a dazzling colored light show every hour on the hour. The colors change every minute or so, and play across the shimmering surface of the waters of its wide basin, reflecting off the shiny bronze surfaces of the gigantic horse statues that rise above the waters. Elena loved this place as much as I had growing up, calling it “the rainbow fountain” and frolicking in the spray from its jets in the warm summer winds off the lake. It was a perfect introduction for her to the charms of the “Windy City”.

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park,
with the light show that runs from April through October.

During our first breakfast at the Hilton Towers, we had a touching encounter with a grandmother from suburban Chicago, one that epitomizes the warmth and friendliness of Midwesterners. As we ate I described all the exciting places we would see, and the fun experiences we would have during our next three days downtown. Just as I finished this litany for Elena, an elegant elderly woman came over to where we were sitting and said “Pardon me for interrupting but I couldn’t help overhearing what you were saying to your daughter. I hope you don’t mind my saying that I think it’s wonderful to see a father who takes the time, and cares enough, to share such an experience with his daughter. When I was growing up, my father and grandfather were too busy taking care of their business to spend very much time with me and my sisters. I just thought you ought to hear that”. We thanked her, and smiled as she walked away, and I felt her comments had set the tone for the rest of our visit.


Right after breakfast, we walked five blocks down Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute of Chicago, which has the greatest collection of 19th and 20th century paintings in North America. My parents had met there, as students on scholarships in 1947, and they had taken me and my brothers there dozens of times when I was growing up. One of my favorite memories of downtown was the pair of outsized bronze lions that flanked the wide stone stairway leading to the main entrance, and whose noses and paws were copper colored from being rubbed by the hands of millions of visitors over the 122 years since the museum first opened. We couldn’t partake of this time-honored tradition however, since both lions’ heads were covered up by giant replicas of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team helmets in celebration of their having just won the Stanley Cup trophy.

The interior of the Art Institute had remained almost exactly as I had remembered it from my childhood, except that there were now multiple additions off the old east end of the building to house it’s expanding collection. We chose to focus on the 19th and 20th century painting collection, which took us about three hours to walk through. The first painting Elena wanted to see was “ A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Seurat (1886). She was familiar with it from the film “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off”. This masterpiece, by the father of Pointalism fills an entire wall, and we stood in front of it for 10 or 15 minutes, taking in all the details made up of thousands of tiny dots of paint. Elena was patient with me while I took slides of it and dozens of other paintings to use in the college art history classes I teach, a privilege that visitors can enjoy in this museum, unlike so many other American art museums. During the next three hours, during which we stopped for lunch in the excellent cafeteria, we enjoyed the other world-class paintings the Art Institute displays from their permanent collection. These include: “The Bedroom at Arles” by Vincent Van Gogh (1889), “At the Moulin Rouge” by Toulouse Lautrec (1895), “On the Banks of the Seine” by Claude Monet (1868), The Day of The Gods” by Paul Gauguin (1894), “The Bath” by Mary Cassatt (1891), The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso (1903), “American Gothic” by Grant Wood (1930), “Yellow Hickory Leaves, with Daisy” by Georgia O’Keefe (1928), “Birth” by Marc Chagall (1912), “Time Transfixed” by Rene Magritte (1938), and “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1940). Elena’s appreciation of these seminal works of art was enhanced by the fact that she had studied several of them in her history class at her middle school that year.

"A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat,
1886, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"The Room at Arles" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888,
at the Art Institute of Chicago.

About 7:30 that night Elena and I walked from our hotel a mile or so up Michigan Avenue to the Chicago River, to board a boat for the Wendella Sightseeing Tour of the river and lakefront. This had been another fond memory from my childhood, when my family took in the spectacular views of the city that could be seen from the lake, though the skyline had changed so dramatically since then that the experience was even more of a thrill than I remembered. I chose a Wednesday to take our tour, because that was the night the city put on a magnificent thirty-minute fireworks display over Navy Pier each week during the warmer months. Our guide was well-informed, and had a great comic sense, making the experience even more enjoyable. The ride started at the base of the famed Michigan Avenue Bridge next to the neo-Gothic clock tower of the 1920 Wrigley Building. As we pulled out from the dock into the river, our guide pointed out the sleek, blue-glass-and-steel shaft of the Trump Tower completed in 2009. At 1,389 feet it is the second tallest building in Chicago, and the third tallest in America. The guide told us Donald Trump originally asked that the neon letters spelling his name on the exterior be 40 feet tall, but that Mayor Emmanuel refused, saying 20-foot tall letters would be big enough, even for Trump’s outsized ego. A half-hour into the ride, the fireworks display began. As Elena and I watched the bursts of color spread across the sky and float slowly down to meet their reflections in the water, her shouts of excitement took me back to my own childhood, and her youthful wonder and enthusiasm were contagious.

The Chicago River at night, with Trump Tower
in the distance, 2009.

*  *  *  *  *  *

the next day: Chicago historical society / sears tower

The next day, Tim picked us up downtown and drove us to the tony North Side of the city to visit the Chicago Historical Society. This museum is almost unknown outside the Windy City, but it has one of the finest collections of objects from American history anywhere in the US. Among the important and fascinating objects on display here are: the table used by Robert E. Lee used to sign his surrender to General Grant in 1865; a plaster face mask of Abraham Lincoln made in 1860 before he grew his beard; one of only 23 surviving copies of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence; a wall of logs from the second Fort Dearborn built in 1816; and the bed Abraham Lincoln died in. To my daughter’s disappointment we didn’t see the last item, since it was on loan to a museum in Washington DC. From the Historical Society we took a taxi back downtown to see the Sears Tower. We noticed during our visit that all of the taxi drivers we met in Chicago were friendly and trustworthy, never taking the long route to our destination, and their fares were quite reasonable.

Elena in front of the skeleton of a
Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed "Sue", in the Field Museum.

Sears Tower is now officially called Willis Tower since that company bought it in 2012, but almost everyone in Chicago, and most tourists, still call it by its original name. For Elena, this was one of the most thrilling experiences of our trip. She knew all about the controversy over whether the Sears Tower is still the tallest building in the US. If you count the height of the cornice line (the horizontal line at the highest point on the exterior of the building), which is 1,454 feet, it is clearly taller than the Freedom Tower in New York, at 1,368 feet. Only by including the spire can you consider the Freedom Tower to be taller. The elevator ride to the observation deck on the 103rd floor, takes a full minute. Elena squeezed my hand as we shot upward at increasing speed; her anxious excitement was palpable. When the elevator door opened, she rushed to the nearest set of windows to take in the incredible views. It was a clear day, so we could see all the way to Wisconsin in the north and Indiana in the south. We looked down on a forest of stone, steel and glass towers that stretched for miles in three directions and the shimmering blue waters of Lake Michigan extending to the horizon in the east. My daughter was brave enough to stand in the glass box that jutted out over the west façade of the building, which had been added recently. While I took a picture of her standing there, some teenagers began jumping up and down on the glass floor of this box. Although there was no real danger of it breaking, their antics did unnerve everyone around them, and made me thankful that my daughter was much better behaved than these children.

View of the skyline from Sears (Willis) Tower looking north,
and east along the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

View of skyline along Michigan Avenue, with Hilton Towers Hotel (1927) in the middle and the Sears (Willis) Tower in the background.

*  *  *  *  *  *


The next day, we checked out of the Hilton Hotel, but left our two heaviest bags with the concierge desk, since we had a full day of site-seeing ahead of us before taking a Greyhound bus that night to Indianapolis to stay with my nephew’s family. After that we walked across Grant Park to the new entrance to the Field Museum of Natural History. I say new because the entire area in front of the original museum entrance was redesigned in the early 2000’s, with new landscaping, wide footpaths, and pedestrian tunnels leading to the front steps. But the interior remained just as I remembered, with high barrel vaulted ceilings, marble floors, and tall Ionic columns lining the central atrium. The building was designed in Beaux-Arts style by Daniel Burnham, the supervising architect for the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Indeed, much of the museum’s collection of 20 million artifacts and animal specimens came from that exposition. The Field Museum is most famous for having the largest intact fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, which was nicknamed “Sue” and stands 25-feet tall at the shoulder blades. Elena had fun posing in front of it with mock expressions of horror. However, my favorite parts of the museum had always been the Egyptian mummies and figurines, and the stuffed animals from all over the world. Both of these collections were still on display exactly as they had been when I was a child. We spent nearly five hours exploring these sections, and Elena took dozens of photos of the animals. She was most fascinated by the huge black rhinoceros, and by “Bushman”, the largest great gorilla that ever lived in an American zoo.

Before we went to the Greyhound bus station for our ride to Indiana, we took a taxi to State Street downtown and got off in front of Marshall Field’s department store. I wanted to show Elena some of the historic skyscrapers from the late 1800’s that remained in the Loop. We walked south along State Street to the Reliance Building at the corner of Randolph Street. This elegant sixteen story skyscraper was designed in 1890 by Daniel Burnham, and completed in 1894. Its projecting bay windows, relatively clean lines, and walls of glass mark it as well ahead of its time, and a classic example of the “Chicago School” of early skyscrapers. Then we stopped to look at Carson Pirie Scott department store across the street. Designed in 1899 and finished in 1904 by Louis Sullivan,(Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor) the ornate Art Nouveau ironwork around the entryway contrasts sharply with the unadorned terra cotta façade above, balancing Sullivan’s dictum “form follows function” with his belief that every great building should include “something to delight the eye of the beholder”. A few blocks away, we saw the Monadnock Building, a revolutionary skyscraper designed in two parts. The northern half was designed in 1889 by the firm of Burnham and Root, and was the tallest masonry building ever built when it was completed in 1891, and still is. Its smooth, undecorated brick facade caused outrage among critics for its “naked” appearance. When the south section was designed in 1891 by Holabird and Roche, they made sure to cloak it in decorative motifs to appease the public’s Late Victorian taste for ornament. Just north of this site, we walked over to the Richard J. Daley Plaza and civic center where Picasso’s famous giant red metal sculpture rises above the square---familiar to everyone who saw the film “The Blues Brothers”.

The Reliance Building, by Daniel
Burnham, 1890-1894.

Monadnock Building, by Burnham and Root, 1891,
the tallest masonry building in the world.

Detail of Carson Piere Scott Department Store,
by Louis Sullivan, 1899-1904.

The Picasso statue in Richard J. Daley Plaza, 1967.


*  *  *  *  *  *


We arrived back in Chicago two days later about 9 PM, and took a taxi from the bus station to my old neighborhood, Hyde Park, on the south side. We checked into the brand new La Quinta Inn, on 47th and Lakeshore Avenue. The next day, after we ate a full breakfast at our motel, we took a taxi to what was my absolute favorite museum in Chicago during my childhood: the Museum of Science and Industry. This mammoth Beaux Arts building was originally designed to be the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The interior had been renovated in Art Deco style as a hands-on science museum for the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition, which my father had attended as an 8-year-old child. Of all Chicago’s museums, this one had undergone the most changes since I had spent so many happy hours there as a child. The giant talking head of Paul Bunyan had been removed, among other items, and the entrance and main hall had been remodeled. But many of the original attractions remained as I remembered and Elena was eager to see them. The huge model train exhibit, the largest in the US, was still there, but with new scale models of the Sears Tower and other buildings along the downtown skyline. Coleen Moore’s dollhouse, with it’s dozens of rooms full of miniature furniture and its ornate fairy castle exterior, was still on display. A German Stuka dive-bomber and British Spitfire still hung from the ceiling, and the impressive rotunda was unaltered. But my daughter’s favorite exhibit was the coal mine ride, a recreation of an Illinois coal mine beneath the museum floor, where visitors descend in a metal cage to the mine shaft and ride rail cars along its black, coal-lined walls. We had lunch in one of the museum’s several fine cafes.

The Rotunda of the Museum of Science and Industry, 1893.

That night we met Tim at his family’s old house, and went to dinner nearby. After that, he came by our motel room to talk. Since we were leaving the next afternoon, I said goodbye to Tim that night. I could never have guessed that this would be the last time I ever talked to him. Tim died in his sleep, of a heart attack, on December 30, 2015. I was devastated when I found out. Yet despite my grief, I took comfort in the fact that--as my daughter reminded me--at least we had one last good visit together; one that I will cherish the rest of my life.


On our last day in Chicago, we had time to visit two more unique places in my old neighborhood, before our 7 PM flight back to Oakland. The Frederick Robie House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1906, and completed in 1909. It is considered to be the finest example of Wright’s Prairie School of design by most architectural historians, and therefore the prototype for the modern house. With it’s low-slung, compact massing, sweeping horizontal lines, and light-filled open floor plan, it served as the model for so many single family homes built across the US that it has become world famous; indeed it has been studied by architecture students from around the world, and has had millions of visitors since it became a museum owned by the University of Chicago in 1965. It is one of only a handful of single family homes included on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. My daughter was familiar with this house, and other Wright buildings, from having seen them in my 2014 book “Frank Lloyd Wright on the West Coast”. I included two of my own photos of the Robie House in this book, but I hadn’t been there in fifteen years. So I called the information number listed on the website and asked to arrange a tour for us on our last day in Chicago, but I learned that the house is closed on Tuesdays. Luckily the curator returned my call the next day, and said he had bought a copy of my book, so he’d be happy to give Elena and me a private tour! When we got to the house, two large groups of architecture students were drawing it from the sidewalk. Elena beamed with pride as we walked past dozens of students busily sketching, knowing we were getting special treatment. We spent about an hour inside the house, and Elena took some photos with her smart phone while I took slides to use in my art history classes.

The Robie House, by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1906-1909,
the prototype for the modern house.

Our last stop was at the Oriental Institute, a couple of blocks away, at East 58th street and University Avenue. Their museum is full of artifacts from the Ancient Near East and Egypt, including the tallest statue of King Tut in the western hemisphere. At 17 feet, it commands the room in which it is displayed. The Egyptian wing includes several beautifully painted intact mummy cases, figurines of Egyptians working at various tasks, and busts of other pharos. The Babylonian wing includes gigantic “bull-headed” capitals from the tops of columns that once held up the ceilings of royal palaces, and colorful bas-relief terra cotta panels, with life-sized images of lions and horses. Elena had fun striking silly poses in front of these panels as I took photos of her antics.

Elena in front of a Babylonian bas-relief terra cotta panel
(c.1,300 BC) at the Oriental Institute. 

*  *  *  *  *  *


Elena has talked about what we saw and experienced together many times since we returned. When I look back on our trip to Chicago, I often think about the comment by that kindly grandmother on our first morning there. It reminds me of a lesson I learned from my dear departed father, one which has proven to be true throughout my life: enjoy the company of the people you love, and make time to be with them---since time is really all we have to give each other.


Hilton Towers Hotel, 720 South Michigan Avenue, (800) 445-8667.

Wendella Sightseeing Boat Rides; (312) 337-1446.

Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan Avenue, (312) 443-3600.

Chicago Historical Society, 1601 North Clark Street, (312) 642-4600.

Willis (Sears) Tower, 233 S. Wacker Drive, (312) 875-9696.

Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, (312) 922-9410.

Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, (800) 468-6674.

Frederick Robie House, 5757 S. Woodlawn Avenue, (773) 994-4000.

Oriental Institute, Museum, 1155 E. 58th. Street, (773) 702-9520.

Other Articles of Interest by Mark A. Wilson:

"America's Great World's Fairs"; A New Book Idea
"Bernard Maybeck: Architect of Elegance" - A new book by Mark A. Wilson
Julia Morgan: Pioneer in Green Design

The Greatest Generation: My Father's Journey Through World War Two Frank Lloyd Wright's Other Women

Mark A. Wilson is an architectural historian, author, and instructor of Art History at several Bay Area, California colleges.