I'm On A Boat...

It is no secret that I really love my hometown; it is a topic that I have explored time and time again here at "The State I Am In." Therefore, when I got an invitation to go on a free Chicago River boat tour through work, I signed up to go, despite having gone on river tours before, and despite my general dislike of schmoozing. It was hard to turn down an opportunity to see the city at night from the unique vantage point of the river.

Not surprisingly, the event turned out to be very sparsely attended. Perhaps fifteen or so of my fellow coworkers showed up, but thankfully, one of them was my friend Brandon, who readers may remember from this summer's spontaneous lunchtime trip to the
Lincoln Park Zoo. His presence made the trip much more tolerable, as he provided humorous color commentary on both our coworkers and the people and places lining the river as we passed by.

The Trump Tower, center, truly dominates the skyline as seen from the Chicago River.

My favorite buildings along the traditional river tour route are the corn cob shaped spires of Marina City. I appreciate the unique organic lines of the structures, although I imagine the round buildings must make for unusually-shaped units inside.

Once the sun dipped below the horizon, the beauty of the evening cityscape became apparent. This view of the city, looking south towards the Willis Tower, reminds me of Van Gogh's "Starry Night Over the Rhone."

The excursion might have been a little too long, lingering beyond the traditional southernmost point for river cruises of the River City apartment and marina complex and traveling all the way to Chinatown instead, and the evening might have been a little too cold to be outside for quite so long without gloves, but the city was, as always, lovely, and it was nice to be reminded of that.


Sweet Relief...

I hate to indulge in stereotypes, but there are times in a girl's life when dessert isn't an indulgence, it's a downright necessity. Personally, I think the world might be a happier place if chocolate were available in the same way as emergency fire hoses: tucked into a convenient nook in the hallway with a little sign reading, "In case of emergency, break glass." For me, this weekend was definitely a chocolate emergency. I am the type of person who is intensely affected by the problems of those around me. The same empathy that makes me a good listener, and a reliable source of solace advice in a dark time also leaves me emotionally drained when my loved ones are in trouble. Their stories are not mine to tell here, but suffice it to say that the past week was not a good one for several of the people in my inner circle.

For me to cope, it was time to turn to chocolate.
In the interest of killing two birds with one stone, I opted to bake a batch of chocolate thumbprint cookies from a recipe I'd spotted on Martha Stewart's website last year when I was assembling my Cookie Bonanza lineup. I didn't have the time to make them last year, what with the seven varieties of cookies I was already baking, but in my post-Bonanza analysis, I couldn't help but wish I'd been able to include a thumbprint type cookie. The chocolate recipe stuck in my mind, and I decided to give it a test-run for this year's giveaway. Ultimately, these cookies turned out to be too labor intensive for the Bonanza, and the the soft chocolate ganache centers that make them so special turned out to make them poor candidates for packaging.

However, the chocolate thumbprints turned out to be profoundly tasty and were enthusiastically recieved by all who sampled them, so I've decided to make them for this year's
cookie exchange instead, when I'm baking fewer other things and will have a much shorter distance to transport them. The ingredients for these cookies are a bit on the pricey/difficult to source end of the spectrum (I'm looking at you, vanilla beans!), but if you're looking for a special treat that will not fail to impress, this recipe comes highly recommended by me.

Chocolate Thumbprints

adapted from Martha Stewart

2 c. all-purpose flour

1 c. plus 1 tablespoon Dutch-process cocoa powder

scant teaspoon salt

1 c. unsalted butter, softened

1 1/3 c. sugar, plus more for rolling

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons heavy cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Chocolate Vanilla Bean Ganache, recipe follows

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour, cocoa powder, and salt into a small bowl. Cream butter and sugar with a mixer until pale and fluffy. Reduce speed to medium, and add yolks, cream, and vanilla. Scrape sides of bowl. Beat in flour mixture until just combined.
2. Roll balls using 2 teaspoons dough for each, and roll each in sugar. Place 1 inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. With the handle of a wooden spoon, press gently in the center of each to create an indentation. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until cookies are just set, about 10 minutes. (If indentations lose definition, press centers again.) Let cool slightly on baking sheets. Transfer cookies to wire racks, and let cool.

3. Spoon warm ganache into center of each cookie. Let stand until firm, about 15 minutes. Cookies will keep, covered, for up to 3 days.

Chocolate Vanilla Bean Ganache
adapted from Martha Stewart

1/3 c. honey
1/3 c. heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped, pod reserved
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

1. Combine honey, cream, and vanilla seeds and pod in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring until honey dissolves. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 20 minutes.
2. Place chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Return cream mixture to a simmer, then strain through a fine sieve into the bowl with the chocolate, and let stand for 1 minute. Discard solids. Stir until smooth. Add butter, and continue to stir until butter is incorporated. Let cool slightly, and then use immediately.


A Religious Experience - Part Six

Second Presbyterian Church
1936 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois

If there is one lesson that I have learned through this exploration of Chicago's religious sites, it is not to underestimate the treasures that might be hiding just a few blocks away. For this week's visit, I found inspiration in a newly acquired library book, Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, by George Lane. I had actually been planning to see a different church, but when I spotted Second Presbyterian Church, and realized it was practically in my own backyard, I quickly changed my mind. I could vaguely recollect having seen pamphlets for the church when I toured the Glessner and Clarke Houses with Derek, but out of sheer exhaustion after three hours of guided tours, we opted to skip the church. Checking out Second Presbyterian would be a fitting continuation of my exploration of the Prairie District, and it would expand my understanding of my neighborhood. I was sold.

In its day, the Second Presbyterian Church was the house of worship for Chicago's elite families. The Swifts and Armours of meatpacking fortune, the Fields, and the Pullman families all financed the construction of the church, along with some of the city's other preeminent families whose names have not withstood the test of time. It was completed in 1874, after the original church, located at the corner of Wabash and Washington, burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire. Although the parishioners opted to move the building closer to their Prairie Avenue homes by relocating to South Michigan Avenue, they conscripted the same architect, James Renwick (famed in the United States for such church designs as New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral) to design the new building, and selected stone from the same Illinois quarry with which to construct it, even though the rock contained black bituminous deposits that give the building a spotted appearance.

The exterior of the church is done in a style reminiscent of the early Gothic era in Britain. The tower to the left was originally topped with a spire that was lost to fire in 1957 and not replaced.

The congregants of Second Presbyterian were accustomed to the best, so when the original neo-Gothic interior of the church was destroyed by fire in 1900, they selected Howard Van Doren Shaw, a member of the church and a budding architect to redesign the interior in the latest style -- the Arts and Crafts Movement. In large part, the Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the design excesses of Art Nouveau and the declining quality of consumer goods caused by mass production. Its adherents sought cleaner lines, emphasized superb craftsmanship, and were heavily influenced by medieval art forms such as stained glass and wood carving.

In his design for Second Presbyterian, Shaw selected a warm color palette draw from nature. Carvings on the pews, the coffered ceiling, and the organ screen behind the pulpit carry botanical themes that also symbolize the Christian faith. Grapes represent the Eucharist, while pomegranates signify the Passion and Resurrection. The other prominent motif in the sanctuary is angels: the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael watch over the pulpit, the light fixtures are sculpted in the form of angels, and in total, there are over 175 representations of angels inside the church. However, lovely as the church is, the real draw is its stained glass windows.

Ascension Window, William Kline

Although representative art is not a traditional feature of Presbyterian churches, the well-heeled members of Second Presbyterian Church had traveled extensively in Europe and wanted to recreate the feeling of the great Gothic cathedrals at home. To achieve this, they turned to the greatest stained glass artists of their time, and as a result, the church features nine windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and a handful by other prominent artists such as Louis Millet and the workshop of William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement himself.

Left: St. Paul Preaching to the Athenians, Louis Comfort Tiffany
Right: Peace Window, Louis Comfort Tiffany

To create these windows, artists such as Tiffany shied away from the industrialized techniques that were being used to create cheap ecclesiastic stained-glass at the time. Mass produced windows were created by applying thin layers of pigment to regular glass, which faded quickly. The preeminent artists at the turn of the century returned to medieval techniques, coloring the glass itself so that the windows they created would withstand the test of time. The vibrancy of the windows at Second Presbyterian speak to the efficacy of that strategy.

Left: Pastoral Window, Louis Comfort Tiffany
Right: Jeweled Window, Louis Comfort Tiffany

However, as is quickly becoming a theme in this project, the Second Presbyterian Church is badly in need of restoration. When it was built, the building served a congregation of over a thousand worshipers, whereas now it serves slightly over fifty people on a regular basis. There is simply not enough money within the congregation to maintain the building. If you look closely, you can see chipping paint and plaster around many of the windows. What you cannot see from these photos are all the gaps between the windows that bring in the air from outside. Furthermore, looking at the windows from the side reveals that they are badly bowing and warping. A non-profit organization, Friends of Historic Second Church, was founded to raise money to maintain and restore the edifice, but it seemed like their efforts had not been particularly successful so far.

Left: Behold The Lamb Of God, Louis Comfort Tiffany
Right: Cast Thy Garment About Thee, Louis Millet

To be able to see the church, I was obliged to participate in a guided tour offered by a volunteer church member after the Saturday service. Amusingly, the elderly woman, who had been attending services at the church for over forty years, seemed to know little about the building's art and architecture. She seemed more interested in garnering sympathy for her sciatic nerve pain. As a result, I administered much of the tour to the other two attendees myself. They had trouble believing that visiting churches is just a hobby for me, and that I'm not a graduate student, nor am I writing a book. I suppose it is a bit of an unusual project to undertake for no reason other than an interest in church architecture, but there was something gratifying about getting to share my knowledge with others. Perhaps I should look into becoming a tour guide...


Cheesy and Corny...

I'm not sure what the weather is doing this week, but I can only hope that summer is having its last hurrah, and will soon become a pleasant memory. Because, seriously, 90 degree days are too hot for the month of September! After last weekend's shopping trip with Mom, I have new fall clothes that are beckoning to me from the closet, begging to be worn. However, this interlude of Indian summer has not been enough to dissuade me from eating as if there is already a chill in the air.

I found this recipe for corn chowder a couple years back when I was hosting a Halloween-themed soup buffet dinner party for a few friends. I had also prepared lentil soup and Cincinnati-style chili, but I wanted to have a third option for my guests. I've always liked corn chowder, and did a search on the Food Network website for a recipe. I found one from Ina Garten that I thought looked appetizing, and had had good results with her recipes in the past, so I decided to give it a go. I also have a bit of a soft-spot for Ina because she could be my mom's doppelganger. If you don't believe me, just do a Google image search.

This chowder was a huge success at the party, although Ina's original recipe made a truly preposterous amount of soup. I sent home leftovers with every single guest who would have them, and I still ended up throwing some of it away because I couldn't eat it all in time, and cream-based soups cannot be frozen. Nevertheless, this cheddar corn chowder went into my regular recipe rotation, albeit it in one-third of its original form. If you're looking for a hearty fall meal, I highly recommend this soup.

Cheddar Corn Chowder
adapted from Ina Garten

3-4 slices of thick-cut bacon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1-2 tablespoons butter
1/4 c. flour
scant 1/4 teaspoon tumeric
4 c. chicken stock
2/3 lb. red potatoes, peeled and diced
1 lb. frozen white corn
2/3 c. heavy cream or half-and-half
4 oz. cheddar cheese, grated

1. Heat olive oil over medium-high heat and add bacon, cooking until crisp. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate, and crumble when cool. Set aside.
2. Reduce heat to medium, and add butter and onions to the pot, salting generously. Cook until onions are translucent, 7-10 minutes.
3. Stir in the flour, tumeric, and pepper to taste, cooking three minutes.
4. Add the stock to the pot, stirring well to incorporate the flour. Add potatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.
5. Add the corn to the soup, then the cream and cheddar cheese. Cook for 5 additional minutes until cheese is melted. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Serve with a garnish of crumbled bacon.


Bag Lady...

As I've explored in the past, shopping at Macy's makes me feel vaguely dirty. I don't like patronizing the store that bought out my beloved Marshall Field's, but their selection and their sales are hard to beat. However, if there is one thing that drives me crazy above all else when shopping there it is their perpetual shortage of paper shopping bags. Their plastic bags are shoddy and cheap, and likely to break before you even get your purchases out the door of the gargantuan store. Yet they rarely have any paper bags on hand to offer their customers. Well, ladies and gentlemen, on yesterday's shopping trip to Macy's with my mom, we discovered just where all those elusive paper bags have gone:

While the giant paper bag dress was undeniably cool, it was little consolation in light of the rapidly stretching handles of the plastic bag I was holding. Perhaps Macy's needs to focus more on providing tangible customer-service and less on providing eye candy to distract from that lack of service...


A Religious Experience - Part Five

Queen of All Saints Basilica
6280 North Sauganash Avenue
Chicago, Illinois

I must give thanks to my friend Derek for indirectly leading to this week's installation of my ongoing church pilgrimage. You see, Derek shares my enthusiasm for ecclesiastic architecture, and had recommended a book on the subject to me nearly a year ago. The title, Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago, sat scrawled on a piece of paper on my desk for all that time, until I decided to undertake this project and I sought out the book at the Harold Washington Library. Without that book, I never would have discovered this week's church: Queen of All Saints Basilica. To say it is far flung is an understatement -- it's practically in the suburbs, and despite its immense size, it is not visible from any major roadway. Yet, it is one of only three churches in the Chicagoland area officially designated as a basilica-level house of worship by the Vatican.

Queen of All Saints was dedicated in 1960, making it a decidedly large and ambitious project for its time. It was built in the Gothic style, at a time when Gothic, and Gothic Revival architecture had long been eschewed in favor of the clean lines (and cheaper construction costs) afforded by modern architecture. This anachronistic choice was hoped to capture the fervor and devotion inherent to the medieval era in which Gothic architecture was developed, at a time in which parishioners were beginning to stray from the church.

Queen of All Saints was elevated to basilica status in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. Basilicas are usually large churches, often, though not necessarily cathedrals, and receive special privileges, such as a special symbols to display in red and gold, the colors of the Papal See, and the presence of a Papal throne at the altar.

The interior of Queen of All Saints was very dim, which certainly evoked the feeling I get when visiting Gothic cathedrals in Europe. I was the only person there, having arrived shortly after the end of confession on a Saturday, and I felt overwhelmed by the scale of the cavernous interior. The ceiling was elaborately painted, although it is hard to tell due to the ambient darkness.

Part of the darkness can be attributed to the lack of light coming in from outside, due to an overcast day, but it was clear that the church was cutting back on their energy costs by not having many of their lights on during non-peak hours. Only about half of the lights were on in the nave, and the lights were actually turned off above the altar by some unseen caretaker while I was in the church. It only added to the spooky, Gothic ambiance.

By far, my favorite part of Queen of All Saints was their stunning stained glass windows, which were beautifully illuminated despite the poor weather. Those in the nave contained images of various saints, keeping in the theme of the basilica's name. The windows in the transept bore images from the life of Jesus. This depiction was undertaken in accordance with the instructions of Vatican II, which asked that newly constructed churches reveal "heavenly realities" through sign and symbol.

Although it did not photograph well, this panel in the baptistery told the story of the church's construction, starting with Columbus bringing Catholicism to the New World, followed by the arrival of the first Catholic missionaries in Chicago, the founding of the Queen of All Saints Parish in 1929, and the designation of the church as a basilica in 1962.

Above the choir loft is a particularly large window dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her different shrines throughout the world. This is only a detail.

In fact, the stained glass windows at Queen of All Saints made it worthwhile to wake up at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday to drive there. (Yes, I had to drive, because this church is so remote it isn't even accessible by public transportation, despite technically being in Chicago's city limits.) Even if the rest of the basilica was dark, a little dreary, and full of 1960s decorative touches that looked like they could have come straight from the home of someone's grandparents, the windows fully realized the building's intent of capturing the glories of heaven in visual form. Just another hidden gem in the religious world of Chicago, accessible only to those who actively seek them out.


Girls Will Be Girls...

The back-to-school season is always a time when I reflect upon my friendship with Lisa, my high school best friend. We met on the first day of sixth grade, in the locker room after gym class, because our lockers were next to one another. In an uncharacteristic moment of extroversion, I randomly struck up a conversation with her, and even though she looked at me like I was from another planet at the time, the rest was history. In the fall of 2005, we passed the point by which we had been friends more of our lives than not. Now our friendship is going into it's fifteenth year.

So many things have changed since then, and we have seen each other through some difficult times. Lisa has gone from my naive, tom-boyish friend that I taught about makeup and etiquette, to a mature, accomplished, married woman with a successful career. I am truly proud of all the ways she has grown and continues to grow into the person is today, and now it is often me turning to her for advice.

But, in spite of all that has changed in our lives, there are some things that will always remain the same in our relationship. We still get together and gossip, shop, and talk about boys (well, more like men these days.) And today, we even sat and painted our nails together while we gabbed, just like we would have done back when we met in sixth grade.

Lisa and I. Note the light reflecting of my blindingly white hands...

So often I document only the "interesting" things that I do on my blog -- the things I do and see around the city, the special foods I prepare, and the major events that occur with family and friends. But who says that those are any more worthy of remembering than the quiet moments spent with close friends? Those are the times that will fade from memory over the years anyway, and likely, the sorts of things I'll want to remember when looking back. Such moments are the things that truly speak to who we are as friends, and how our friendship has stood the test of time. I can only imagine where we will be in another fifteen years, but hopefully we'll still be doing all the girly things together that we've always done...


Just Play It Cool Boy...

Chicago is a truly great city for public art, whether it be permanent additions to the cityscape such as Cloud Gate (better known as "The Bean") in Millennium Park or the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, or temporary installations like "Cows on Parade" in 1999. The latest of these temporary exhibits can be found on the Mag Mile, and is entitled, "Fine Art Fridges," and is sponsored by Com-Ed. It consists of nine re-purposed refrigerators from the company's appliance recycling program, turned into works of art to promote environmental issues. After passing by these artworks dozens upon dozens of times, I finally took the time to capture the installation on film before it is dismantled later this week.

"Running Down, Out to Pasture," Mike Helbing

"The Power of Flowers," Beth Kamhi

"Peas And Quiet," Victoria Fuller

"The Last Tree Exhibit," Tyrue "Slang" Jones

"Calming, Calling, Cooling," Ginny Sykes

"Coldspot: A Gulf Story," Nicole Beck

"Green Lifestyles," Kate Trumbull Fimreite

"In the Land of Love, There is No Garbage," Lucy Slivinski

"Recycled VooDoo Retro Rod," VooDoo Larry

In all honesty, I felt that "Fine Art Fridges" was fairly mediocre. I thought the concept of taking several like objects and decorating them differently was clever in 1999 with "Cows on Parade," but it was already played out by 2001 when "Suite Home Chicago" filled the sidewalks with decorated furniture. I think it's time to develop a new concept for public art. Furthermore, I thought that the only truly clever piece in the exhibition was the refrigerator-cum-hotrod, which was the only work in which the appliance transcended its original purpose and became something else. As a mosaic afficianado, I did enjoy the two tiled pieces, "The Power of Flowers," and "Coldspot: A Gulf Story," but aside from being attractive, they weren't really inspiring. I'm glad that Com Ed got their message across, and increased awareness about green issues and their recycling program, but I'm not sure that the end of this installation poses any great loss to the Chicago art scene.


La Dolce Vita...

Once upon a time, a comment was left on my blog. A comment, that after much searching, I haven't been unable to find to link to. It came from a friend of my Dad's, and it suggested that if I wanted to make some cookies, I should make pignoli cookies, an Italian confection based on pine nuts. I filed that suggestion away, and when I spotted almond paste (a necessary ingredient) on post-Christmas sale at the grocery store, I picked up a can. But in the the extreme baking burnout in the aftermath of last year's Cookie Bonanza, I let the almond past migrate to the back of the cabinet.

Now that I'm gearing up for this year's giveaway by testing recipes, I decided it was time to finally fulfill that request of so long ago.
Really, I should have known better. I can't think of a single Italian dessert, other than gelato, that I actually enjoy eating. I didn't really have any illusions that I was baking these cookies for my own enjoyment, but I was at least hoping to enjoy them a little. Sadly, I did not. That is not to say that they are bad. My Italian coworker with whom I shared some of the cookies was rapturous over them. Since she's actually from Italy, I'll trust that these are good exemplars of the pignoli cookie form.

The problem is, I just don't like almond-flavored things. I like almonds themselves for snacking, but I don't like almond flavoring. I tend to shy away from recipes that call for almond extract -- the smell alone makes me ill. When I opened the can of almond paste to make these cookies, I just about fell over. I persevered, largely because the pine nuts had been so expensive and I was determined to use them. The dough, despite only having a single egg for moisture, was sticky and hard to work with, although it came together easily with the aid of a food processor. The texture of the finished product was pleasant enough -- chewy on the inside, and crunchy from the nuts on the outside. I just couldn't get over the almond flavor. So if you like Italian baked goods, you like almonds, or you like pine nuts, I would recommend this recipe. If you're like me, and only like pine nuts, I'd recommend making a nice batch of pesto instead...

Pine Nut Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart

2 c. pine nuts

1 c. powdered sugar
1/4 c. almond paste

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Process 3/4 cup pine nuts, the sugar, almond paste, and vanilla in a food processor until fine crumbs form. Add egg; pulse to combine. Add flour, baking powder, and salt; process just until dough comes together.

2. Roll dough into 3/4-inch balls. Roll balls in remaining 11/4 cups pine nuts, gently pressing to coat. Space 2 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.
3. Bake until cookies begin to turn golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool completely on sheets on wire racks.


Never Forget...

It didn't dawn on me what today was, until I was riding the El to meet Lauren for lunch. At each and every train station, there were police officers with bomb sniffing dogs. At first, I thought, "Is there something going on in the city today? Some dignitary in town?" And then I remembered, today is September 11th. Other than a brief shiver that ran down my spine, I didn't give it much further thought until this evening, when I ran across a block of programs on the History Channel dedicated to that event. Particularly chilling for me was a documentary constructed from amateur footage shot that day by real people, spliced together to create a real-time narrative of the attack and the collapse of the towers.

What struck me, was how many details from that day I'd already allowed to slip from my mind. The papers fluttering through the air; the debris left over from people who had been going about their daily working lives strewn across the ground, interspersed with twisted metal, shards of glass, and covered in a thick grey dust; stunned onlookers wandering zombie-like through the city; all that noxious, black smoke streaming from the buildings before they collapsed. It troubled me that I had to be reminded of all these things.

I can recall exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. It was the start of my junior year of high school. I had first period gym class, and we'd been outside playing tennis, so we hadn't heard the news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. I walked into my second period class -- A.P. U.S. History, where the television had been left on by the previous teacher. On the screen was the image of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center. Before I had time to process it, my teacher came in, and turned off the television. I will always remember what he said as he did it: "You can hear about this later. For now, let's get down to the business of history, shall we?"

"Let's get down to the business of history." What could have possibly been more historic than watching the September 11th attacks unfold? Of course, there was no way of knowing their significance at the time. Still, in the days that followed, that flippant remark would echo through my mind over and over.

I don't remember much else about that day. The school was put on lockdown for a long time, and my history teacher tried to deliver some comforting, contextualizing words of solace. I can't remember a single one of them. I can remember sitting in my biology class, the whole class watching the television in horrified silence. Mostly, I remember not knowing if the four planes were the end of the attack, wondering if there were more hijacked planes, and not knowing where they might be headed. I remember being scared for my dad, who works downtown, calling home from a payphone to see where he was, and being completely and utterly relieved that he hadn't gone in to work that day. But that's where the memories stop. Somehow, I got home that day. We probably had dinner together as a family. I know we spent days glued to the television set, watching the coverage on CNN. I can remember that Caesar, a relatively new addition to our family at the time, could sense the tension and sadness in the air, and he stayed close to us that entire week, wanting to be held on our laps.

I knew even then that the world had changed in some fundamental, not yet fully comprehensible way. Over time, those changes have become apparent, from the obvious realities of our ongoing War on Terror and the nightmare that has become air travel, to the small differences, like the knot that forms in the pit of my stomach whenever I see a low-flying plane near the city. I think it is impossible to have lived through and witnessed the events of September 11, 2001 without being altered in some way. Watching the documentary tonight, and reliving those memories made me consider how fresh the wounds of 9/11 still are, even nine years later. Some of the details and nuances may fade, but we will always remember that day.

What kind of feelings does the 9/11 anniversary stir up for you? What do you remember about that day?


A Religious Experience - Part Four

Unity Temple
875 Lake Street
Oak Park, Illinois

For my latest installation in my series on ecclesiastic architecture in Chicago, I decided to bend the rules a little by choosing a completely unorthodox church located in a suburb. However, given the significance of Unity Temple within Frank Lloyd Wright's body of work, and his stature in the history of American architecture, I felt it was fair to make an exception, considering how close it is to Chicago.

Unity Temple is a Unitarian Universalist church, dedicated in 1909. When the congregation's original church burned down in 1905, Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived in the neighborhood and was himself a Unitarian Universalist and family friend of the church's pastor, stepped forward to design a replacement structure. The congregation had a modest budget of $40,000, and a long, narrow lot abutting a busy street. Wright's design for the new church ignored all conventions for ecclesiastic architecture. In his larger body of work, Wright sought to develop a new, modern language for architecture, and he applied that principle to a religious space in his design for Unity Temple.

Unity Temple is built completely out of reinforced concrete, poured on-site, and was one of the first buildings to employ such a technique. Although Wright's design originally fit within the congregation's budget, the unproven construction techniques called for in his design quickly caused costs to balloon, and the church took three years longer than originally planned to be completed.

The building has somewhat of a forbidding air, as there is no readily apparent entrance. To maximize the efficiency of space on the narrow lot, Wright placed the entrance in a vestibule in the middle of the building set back from the street, which divided the sanctuary on the street side, from the church community center on the rear portion of the lot.

To cut down on noise from the busy street outside, Wright employed only a narrow band of windows near the roofline. Since the parishioners would not be able to see outside, Wright employed earth tones such as brown and green in the stained-glass panels, to echo nature.

Although Unitarian Universalism has its roots in Christianity, they embrace a wide array of religious beliefs and practices. They believe in a single God, but reject the Bible as his definitive word, choosing instead to seek truth from all sources. Above all, they preach a respect for all mankind, social justice and equality, and the individual's pursuit of meaning. I've often thought that if I were going to join an organized religion, Unitarian Universalism might be for me.

The unusual multi-tiered seating arrangement devised by Wright allows the greatest possible amount of seating, given the space, while (in his mind), emphasizing the equality of the congregants. No seat is further than forty feet from the pulpit. In my opinion though, I most certainly wouldn't want to be seated in the lower level of pews, sunken halfway into the basement. It felt a little bit like a dungeon down there.

Despite the use of only a small frieze of windows in the walls of the church, the chamber was surprisingly bright and airy. This effect was achieved with the use of stained-glass skylights, set into the coffered ceiling.

Unity Temple demonstrates a unique fusion of Wright's Prairie School emphasis on flatness and horizontality with the traditional sense of verticality found in most holy spaces. Common to nearly all ecclesiastic architecture is a sense of reaching towards the heavens, which Wright realized by creating strong vertical lines. The presence of natural light at only such a high level also naturally draws the eye up. I thought this effect underscored Wright's mastery in this design, as he managed to evoke a traditional sense of heavenly awe, while staying true to his style and employing purely modern, original forms.

Sadly, although Unity Temple is a treasure of modern architecture, a National Historic Landmark, and a nominee to UNESCO's World Heritage list, it is also falling apart. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it to their list of the country's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The church is currently raising funds for a multi-million dollar restoration, to which Mom contributed twenty dollars, plus the change from our entrance ticket sale. As you can see in the above photo, the interior concrete is crumbling and falling. Lights are either burned out, or missing entirely. Water seepage in the roof is threatening a collapse, and panels have been nailed all over the ceiling to prevent pieces from falling down into the building. It was truly a disheartening sight, and one can only hope that they will be able to raise the necessary funds to prevent this architectural masterpiece from becoming another victim of the Great Recession.


Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect...

As part of my ongoing series on historic Chicago churches, I decided to visit Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church designed by famous Illinois architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The church is located in the suburb of Oak Park, where Wright lived, designed, and earned many commissions for private residences. Since I would already be trekking out to Oak Park to visit the church, and because Mom had agreed to tag along to keep me company, I decided to add a walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright homes to the agenda for the day. Thankfully, it turned out to be a perfect day for a good walk -- sunny, but slightly brisk, and not too windy. I found a decent-looking tour online, printed it off, and we were on our way.

Frank Lloyd Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867. After studying to be a draftsman, he moved to Chicago in 1887 in search of work, in light of the ongoing building boom that resulted from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He worked at a few different firms before finding steady work with the firm of Adler & Sullivan, whose work informed the development of Wright's own style. Wright broke out on his own in 1893, and in 1898 he relocated his studio to his home in Oak Park, Illinois, site of many of his commissions. Wright's personal life was marred by constant controversy, but his development of the Prairie School of architecture led to his being named the "Greatest American Architect of All Time" by the American Institute of Architects.

Frank W. Thomas House, 1901

Although not Wright's first home in the neighborhood, the Thomas home was the first home that Wright designed for Oak Park that was distinctively Prairie Style in its sensibility. There is a definite emphasize on horizontal lines, prominent use of geometric stained glass, and the exterior of the home was done in stucco, an innovation of Wright's. This was my favorite house on the tour.

Arthur B. Heurtley House, 1902

The Heurtleys were local socialites, and their home was designed with expansive interior spaces for entertaining, along with a large patio for receiving guests. The variegated brickwork is designed to be harmonious with the tones of the surrounding landscape. Obvious in this design is the trademark emphasis on horizontal lines and flatness that Wright saw in the Midwestern terrain and wanted to capture in his architecture.

Edward R. Hills House, 1906

The Hills home is actually not a Frank Lloyd Wright original. Instead, Wright was contracted to perform an extensive remodel of the home. Ultimately, his plans were so ambitious that very little was left of the original home, save its frame, and the resulting structure is distinctive of Wright's emerging Prairie Style.

Nathan G. Moore House, 1895

This elaborate home was Wright's first independent commission in the town of Oak Park. The complicated pastiche of medieval, Moorish, and geometric themes demonstrates Wright's early quest for a unique style. The influence of his former employer, Louis Sullivan, is evident in the elaborately carved geometric panels. The original home burned down in 1922, but Moore commissioned Wright to build a replica of the destroyed original.

Walter H. Gale House, 1893

The Gale home is part of a trio of houses on Chicago Avenue known as the "Bootleg Houses," as Wright took the commission for them while he was technically still working for Adler & Sullivan, who forbade their employees from taking on personal projects. Although the house is fairly traditional in structure, the use of natural, unfinished materials was unconventional, and foreshadowed Wright's assertion that buildings should echo and compliment their surroundings -- a primary tenet of the Prairie School.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Home and Studio

Wright lived with his family in his Oak Park home from 1889 to 1909, when he abandoned his family, eloped to Europe was illegally wed to a married woman while he was still married himself. The resulting scandal decimated his American career for years, although he was eventually able to stage a comeback. Today, the home serves as a museum to Wright's work, and a visitor's center to people interested in his work in the area.

I found the brief walking tour to be an interesting insight into the evolution of Wrights' style, and a truly pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I'm not sure I would want to live in a historic home, and have tourists standing outside my door snapping photos of my house constantly, nor would I want to live in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. None of these homes, except for Wright's, are open to the public, but my experience with most other Frank Lloyd Wright buildings is that they tend to be dark, due to the narrow rows of high windows, and claustrophobic as a result of the low ceilings that Wright favored to emphasize horizontality in his interiors. Still, even though I wouldn't want it for myself, it was nice to take an afternoon to appreciate his aesthetic.

In closing, I ran across the following quote while I was researching this post, and I just wanted to share it with you:

"A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines." - Frank Lloyd Wright


We've Only Just Begun...

In a city as large as Chicago, one should seldom be at a loss for entertainment. There were, in fact, several things that I considered doing with my holiday, including the Taste of Polonia festival, where I would have found pierogis and other Polish treats, or visiting another church on my list. However, after being out and about the previous two days, I was overcome with the desire to stay home and nest. After all, it is now September, which means that December is a mere three months away, and that can only mean one thing -- it is time to start workshopping new cookie recipes for the 2010 Cookie Bonanza!

Although last year's Ginger & Lemon Cookies were well-received, since they occupy the citrus cookie spot in my assortment, and I am ambivalent about citrus-flavored baked goods in general, I couldn't help but wonder if there was something better out there. So when Mom passed along an article she had seen in the Trib for orange-flavored cookies, I decided to give them a whirl. The original recipe had some odd suggestions that I couldn't bring myself to trust, so I altered the recipe slightly, and was reasonably pleased with the results. Glazing the cookies hot out of the oven keeps them moist, and concentrates the orange flavor. I'm still not convinced by the idea of mixing fruit with my cookies, but if you like orange, you should consider giving these a try...

Orange Delight Cookies
adapted from the Chicago Tribune, July 30, 2010

1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 1/2 sticks butter, softened
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
zest of one orange

1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice, about 3 oranges
3 cups powdered sugar
zest of two oranges

1. Sift flour, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. Mix milk and vinegar in a cup; stir in baking soda until dissolved.
2. Beat brown sugar and butter in large bowl with electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
3. Alternate adding flour and milk mixtures to the bowl. Beat until smooth. Refrigerate dough 3 hours.
4. Whisk together orange juice, sugar and zest for a glaze.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into balls; place on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake until lightly browned on bottom, 10-12 minutes.
6. Dip warm cookies into the glaze; set on cooling racks to dry at least three hours.


The Friendly Confines...

To commemorate the end of summer this weekend, I took my friend Mireya and her brothers to one last Cubs game, our third together this year. The Cubs are totally out of the running this year, yet again, but it was a gorgeous day, and the game was a fun way to spend an afternoon absorbing some of the waning summer weather. The Cubs had gone into the game poised to sweep the Mets, but somehow, they managed a complete collapse instead. The Mets had three innings in which they scored five runs, and in the fifth inning alone, the Cubs threw 50 pitches trying to get the Mets out. It was a long game, but at least the weather was cooperative, and Mireya bought me a couple hot dogs to thank me for the tickets. All in all, it was a fairly idyllic end-of-summer afternoon spent with a good friend, the Cubs' loss aside.

Mireya was sad that I ended my winning streak -- previously, the Cubs had won every game I had attended. For my part, I was mostly relieved to not have to hear the "Go, Cubs, Go!" song for once.

After the freezing cold of the game against the Nationals in April and the rain during the Cross-Town Classic in June, I was happy to finally get an afternoon at the Wrigley with perfect weather.

The siblings Rodriguez.