Chicago – 7

One could quite easily call the stretch of South Michigan Avenue from East Adams Street to the Chicago River “Museum Row”, since there are a couple of cool museums and attractions there, all north of the Art Institute.

The first stop is the Cultural Center, between Washington and Randolph Streets. The building used to be the city’s public library, but got converted into an all-purpose arts and culture facility in the 1990s. It hosts a wide assortment of lectures, film screenings, workshops, and performances – all free to the general public. There wasn’t much happening when I visited, and it seemed like a lot of the rooms were under renovation, since many places were closed off. However, the “holy crap, that’s awesome” highlights were still open.

At both the north and south ends of the main level , you will find huge rooms capped by Tiffany-designed glass domes. The one at the south end serves as the skylight to what was the main room for the library, and the place is richly decorated with panels in many languages. Presumably they are sayings about books…. There are also names of Great Authors (at least the ones they thought were worthy of honor in the 1890s) all around the room. The place is like a temple dedicated to reading.

The glass dome at the north end is in the Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda. The GAR was an organization for Union veterans of the Civil War (sort of like today’s VFW), and when the place was being built, rooms were set aside for their meetings and events. I’m guessing, that given the amount of space they got, it was either a regional or national HQ. The GAR rooms have been recently cleaned and renovated, and they are AWESOME. Nobody does buildings like that anymore…. Our loss.

One neat little thing about the Cultural Center is that just like the Art Institute, the Visitor Guide brochure has, on the back cover, “What to See in an Hour” – a list of the highlights of the place. Unlike the Art Institute, however, there really isn’t that much else to see there….

Next up is a little place that’s easy to overlook. It’s the American Writers Museum, and is dedicated to American writers (regardless of genre) and the Art of Writing. Fiction, science writing, poetry, journalism, screenplays, it doesn’t matter – as long as it’s writing.


The feature exhibit while I was there was on Ray Bradbury – which, to be honest, is why this science fiction buff stopped in. They had a good collection of “artifacts” from his life and career. I had no idea, for example, that he wrote the screenplay for the 1956 movie version of Moby Dick….

They had a good exhibit on local literary talent – and they included Roger Ebert, Mike Royko, and Ruth “Ann Landers” Crowley. What did I tell you about how literary genre didn’t matter?

The place was liberally sprinkled with famous lines from American literature – and I couldn’t help playing the “And then the murders began” Game. Take a famous opening sentence to a novel, play, or movie. For the second sentence, use “And then the murders began….”

Some examples:

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. And then the murders began….”

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. And then the murders began….”

“’Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents’, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. And then the murders began….”

You get the idea…..

Anyway, they had a bunch of manual typewriters around in case you felt inspired. I’d forgotten how much force you needed to press a key….

The last stop is right on the river: The McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. It’s a little museum in the building housing the machinery to move / elevate the DuSable bridge. Yes, you can get down in to see the actual machinery. For the record, the bridge and counterweight are so precisely balanced that:

* It needs only a 112 horsepower engine – about the same as a compact car – to power it.

* When they paint the bridge, they actually have to tweak the counterweight to keep it balanced.

* The bridge has to be locked in place when it’s not being opened to keep it from moving accidentally.

Seems everybody doing anything with the city’s history has to mention how they reversed the flow of the Chicago River so the city would be able to get clean water from Lake Michigan, and St Louis could deal with all their sewage and crap. Well, at the Bridgehouse Museum, they go into a HUGE amount of detail – with photos and diagrams – on the whole thing. And they also discuss the problems of keeping the river clean and safe today. It’s actually clean enough to swim in (the color comes from algae in the sediment), but you’re likely to get hit by a boat, so don’t try it.

We’ll wrap this up with a few odds and ends next time.

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