Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chi-town, Frank Lloyd Wright, and House Lust

Last week, I booked a national commercial where they flew me out to Chicago to eat potato chips. On my way to the airport, I chatted with my town car driver, who was an older, black gentleman who had gone to college and lived in the same neighborhood where I lived when I was at the University of Chicago. Just talking about Hyde Park with him brought me back to memories of living there in that leafy neighborhood that's one part gothic and depressing, one part university-style quadrangle clubs and ivy-covered buildings, one part rich jazz history, one part roughneck South Side, and all parts nerd.

Yes, a certain pre-presidential Barack Obama was my neighbor just a few blocks away, as was bowtie-donning Louis Farrakhan.* Hyde Park is a historically rich neighborhood, having been the home of residents such as Nobel prizewinner Saul Bellow, pilot Amelia Earhardt, infamous activist Bill Ayers, and Nobel-winning physicist Enrico Fermi (he developed the world's first self-sustained nuclear reaction, purportedly in the university's lab underneath the squash courts, leaving a radiation footprint for ages to come).
*A few of my friends thought it would be hilarious to dress up and go trick-or-treating at Farrakhan's house on Halloween, only to be scared shitless by guns drawn on them by his Nation of Islam security guards parked out on his front lawn 24/7.

All hail POTUS!
I loved the multiple layers of Hyde Park: the Thai and Lebanese restaurants on 55th Street, the very Shining-esque luxury hotel turned dorm, The Shoreland (aka The Scoreland), my first home away from home, where Al Capone and the Queen of England had stayed. The green expanse of the Midway, where the 1893 World Fair was held, where nobody in their right mind would cross mid-winter, student eatery The Medici, where a friend of mine once found glass in his salad (and kept eating), and the eggplant sandwiches from Pizza Capri, the grassy Quad, where I'd guiltily spend cut-class time laying out and reading, the colonies of monk parakeets that were bright glimpses of green in the dead of winter.
Harper Library, location of many a good nap


Bond Chapel, where socially weird U of C people can marry only other socially weird U of C people

But visually, when I think of Hyde Park, I most immediately think of the buildings--the grey, gothic structures on campus, the 1900s craftsman-style apartment buildings with stained art glass, the professors' houses on Woodlawn.

The law quad, where I spent some time due to some misguided moment in which I thought I might go to law school so I better take some law school courses, was designed by none other than Eero Saarinen, maker of the famed drool-worthy tulip tables. And the school's groundbreaking School of Social Service Administration was housed in a building designed by Mies van der Rohe, one of the forefathers of modern architecture.

Saarinen's tulip chairs and table
And, of course, there Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a masterpiece of American architecture and a stunning example of prairie style. I spent a lot of days walking by this place on campus.

Robie House in Hyde Park, Chicago
My conversation with that driver inspired me to rethink sunny Los Angeles. Sure, LA is pretty in some places. I can't deny that looking down from the top of Temescal Canyon in the Pacific Palisades at the Pacific Ocean doesn't appeal to me, or watching the sun set over the Hollywood Hills isn't awesome. Mostly, on the ground level, though, I see LA as strip malls, traffic, newness.

But talking to driver guy reminded me of a little spot I discovered just a year ago on my birthday, Barnsdall Park. I had a picnic on top of a peaceful, grassy hill, where my friends and I spread out with cupcakes and wine and spent the day overlooking LA's city expanse. Behind us was Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House, but it was closed at the time.

Since Alex's architecture-loving parents were in town when I got back from potato-chip-eating, I figured it might be a nice idea to see the city from the top of Barnsdall and check out Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House while we were up there. There, I got a good, healthy dose of house envy.

The living room. There's a moat around the fireplace!

Wright's art glass windows.
By the way, I didn't get it at first, but this is a hollyhock flower:

And here is Wright's abstraction of it:

Get it? Anyway, lesson learned: LA's not so bad after all. It's just as historically rich as Chicago. You just gotta look...and house lust is not a bad way to motivate yourself to turn off reruns of 30 Rock and explore the neighborhood.