Justin and I aren't exactly a conventional couple -- not only did we spent our most recent Valentine's Day touring a cemetery in New Orleans and eating muffulettas in bed, but we spent virtually the entire weekend of our anniversary trekking around Chicago to visit historic churches and architectural gems as part of Open House Chicago. It may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but we got to spend two whole days together discovering the amazing secrets that our city holds behind closed doors, and for us, it was a perfect way to spend the weekend.
Last year, when I first heard about Open House Chicago, I was not as enthusiastic as I should have been. My mom had seen it either on television or in the paper, and she suggested I go. Justin and I pulled together a slapdash itinerary largely as we walked through the Loop, though I did know that I wanted to see the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist and the Methodist Chicago Temple building as part of my ongoing series on Chicago ecclesiastic architecture. We ended up having some incredible experiences that day, including learning about the escape tunnels built into the Tribune Tower so that editors could escape a strike from the city's crime lords during the 1920s and standing on the floor of the Council chambers at City Hall. After that day, I vowed that if Open House Chicago was held again, I would do more to maximize my time.
Starting a month or so ago, I hit the Open House Chicago website to check out which buildings would be participating this year. This year, I wanted to cover a much wider geographic area, so I made all my choices in conjunction with Google Maps, to generate an itinerary that allowed me to fit in as many of the sites I was interested in seeing as possible. Again, this year I wanted to focus on churches and synagogues, since I've been terrible this year about continuing my church project, but I also had a few other objectives:
- Explore our new neighborhood.
- See the Driehaus Museum, a renovated historic house that normally has a $20 admission fee, but that was going to be free during the weekend of Open House Chicago.
- Visit my former coworker, Jessica Harvey, at her studio (she's also an artist), which was going to be open for the weekend.
Because I thought it was important to get a better appreciation for our new environs, I had to make the difficult decision of skipping locations on the city's south side. There are some fantastic churches to be see down there, with a rich history in the African-American community, and they've been languishing on my to-do list for years, but all of the buildings that were open last year were open this year. I'm hoping that the same will be true next year, so that we'll be able to focus on exploring that area, now that we've seen so much of the north and west sides this year.
Over the course of two days, we managed to see twelve different buildings, which may not seem like a lot, but when you plot them on a map and see the distance between them, along with factoring in time for meals, and I think we did fairly well.
View Open House Chicago 2012 in a larger map
I'm going to give the six religious sites we visited proper posts of their own, but for now, let me talk a bit about the other buildings we visited during the weekend:
We started our Sunday bright and early at the Driehaus Museum. We had tried to go on Saturday afternoon, but we were delayed in arriving due to a last minute visit to Justin's uncle who has been hospitalized at Northwestern with a aggressive brain tumor. By the time we arrived, the line wrapped around the corner and down the block, and we were the first people to be turned away since we wouldn't make it into the building before it closed. Newly aware of how popular the site was, we resolved to return early the next day.
Our plan worked perfectly, and we were able to walk right in with no wait. At first, it wasn't even especially crowded, though the longer we were there, the busier it became. By the time we left, the line was back to wrapping around the block. We appeared to hit the museum at just the right time.
The Driehaus Museum consists of a historic house, built in the 1880s by the Nickersons, a family of wealthy Chicago socialites. Though the Nickerson's abode was not as grand or elaborate as the Glessner House or the Palmer Mansion, it actually cost more to build, as Mr. Nickerson's first mansion had burned down during the Great Chicago Fire, and he insisted on the latest in fireproof construction for his new dwelling. Though wood was used as a decorative element in the interiors, the structural elements of the home were built of stone and other non-combustible materials. Furthermore, the house is clad in so much marble that it became locally known as the "marble palace."
The home was acquired about a decade ago by wealthy Chicago hedge fund manager and philanthropist Richard Driehaus, who restored the building to its original glory with the intent of turning it into a museum to house his extensive collection of stained glass, antique furniture, and objets d'art. Though his collection was indeed formidable, I actually found the single most impressive aspect of the home to be the stunning stained glass dome located in the "gallery," a room where the original homeowners had displayed their own art collection.
To me, it seemed like there actually wasn't much on display at the Driehaus Museum, aside from a few nicknacks and some furniture. It was worth seeing for the incredible stained glass that was original to the house, but I was glad I hadn't paid $20 for the privilege. While we were there, I overheard a volunteer describing an upcoming exhibit featuring Driehaus' extensive collection of Tiffany glass, which might be worth paying to see, but I can't say that I'd recommend the Driehaus Museum with it's current installation.
Later in the day, we stopped by the Albany-Carroll Arts Building, where my friend Jessica has her studio space. We got to see some of her photographs taken in Iceland earlier this year while she was there on a Fulbright Scholarship, and meet her studio-mate. We had a lovely visit with them, before pressing on with our afternoon.
Across the street from Jessica's studio was the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company Building, also part of Open House Chicago, so we ducked in for a quick look. The building was constructed in 1926, in the wake of Howard Carter's discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb, when all things Egyptian became seriously trendy. Today, the building houses artists' studios (it would seem that Garfield Park is the hot, up-and-coming arts district, due to all the large, former industrial spaces and cheap rents), and we got to meet the eccentric owner of the edifice.
The interior was not especially notable, aside from the thickness of the walls, which were designed to help contain explosions, given the volatile nature of the chemicals used in lacquer production. Similarly, the ceilings were constructed from wood, so that any potential fires would burn up and out through the roof, instead of spreading from room to room, where they would meet more chemical accelerants.
After our brief visit, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss. There was still more time left in the day, so we wanted to squeeze in a few more locations, but most of what remained on my wish list was located on the south side of the city, and we were on the west side. By the time we got there, there wouldn't be time to see enough to make the journey worthwhile, so we decided to head for home.
In the car, however, I remembered seeing a pair of Roger's Park apartment buildings in the Open House Chicago guide that were not especially far from our condo. Both were showcasing their unique indoor swimming pools; in fact, one of the buildings was deemed interesting enough to make the cover of the guide itself. We decided to make the pools our final stop of the day, and it turned out to be a fantastic decision.
The Park Castle Apartments and Park Gable Apartments actually ended up being Justin's favorite stops of the entire weekend. Though he's a good sport, he doesn't share my fondness for ecclesiastic architecture (my favorite stops for the weekend were the chapel at St. Scholastica Monastery, also in Roger's Park, and Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on West Jackson), but the 1920s glamor of the buildings captured his fancy. They reminded him of a place where F. Scott Fitzgerald might have Gatsby take a swim.