Well, it’s over. As we sit here watching the rain fall outside the window of an airport lounge at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, we think how long it’s been since we left home almost three months ago. We’re tired; we want to go home, and yet we feel a bit melancholy at the end of the trip. Maybe it’s just that endings are hard or maybe continuous travel is like a drug that we’re withdrawing from.
Certainly there has been nothing unrewarding about our activities since our last epistle. In Illinois, we sampled the pleasures of 19th-century Galena and learned about the life and times of Abraham Lincoln at Springfield. In Indiana, we relived old friendships and old memories at Wabash College in Crawfordsville before discovering one of our country’s greatest concentrations of modern and post-modern architecture in Columbus. Finally, in Chicago, we said goodbye to friends and family members before heading to the airport. It’s been our kind of trip, and it’s been fun. Allow us to expand a bit and recount some of what we’ve experienced.
Days Later at home in Istanbul . . .
All Galena must have been celebrating on that day in 1865 after the Civil War when General Ulysses S. Grant, victorious commander of the Union Armies, arrived to accept the gift of an Italianate home on a prominent hilltop overlooking the river and the town of Galena on the far bank. Lead mining and smelting (“Galena” is the name of the mineral containing lead sulfide) had made the town one of the most prosperous in the state of Illinois and Grant’s return, along with eight other Civil War generals, only added to its prominence.
The town is situated in the valley of the Galena River, once navigable by steamboats that made it an important river port on the Upper Mississippi only three miles distant. Today, the river, long since silted up, is placid and its wide green banks are grassy and park-like. Like the river, lead, too, has long ceased to drive the town’s economy having been replaced by tourism.
Besides the Grant Home and its outbuildings there is the town’s Main Street. If one were to substitute horses and wagons for automobiles and imagine the street as it was before it was paved, it would look pretty much as it did when Grant and his family arrived in the 19th century. The authentic redbrick commercial buildings and the Desoto Hotel have been restored and preserved. The entire town is listed on the country’s National Register of Historic Places.
Kay and I spent a charming day in Galena, first touring the Grant Home with its original décor and furnishings before taking a long walk along both sides of the river to end up on Main Street. In front of the Home stands a bronze statue of Julia Grant, who deserves to be remembered as well. She was a smart, educated woman who, when Grant became the country’s 18th president in 1868, was the first presidential wife to be known as the First Lady. She took her responsibilities in Washington seriously. A friend of Susan B. Anthony, she worked for women’s rights and suffrage when those were radical ideas.
Filled with shops and restaurants, Main Street is crowded by day. Durty Gurt’s Burger Joynt, Savvy Scavengers, the Log Cabin Inn, Little Tokyo, the Victory Cafe, Honest John’s Emporium, and Vignettes of Galena are just a few of the businesses that cater to the hordes of day trippers that pass by.
Because the city of Dubuque, Iowa is only fifteen miles from Galena, Kay and I drove there that evening to check it out. Never having been in the city but remembering the title of Edward Albee’s play The Lady from Dubuque, we were curious to see this Mississippi River city. Unfortunately, we arrived after business hours and the downtown was deserted. We had hoped to dine in Dubuque, but there was not a single restaurant open.
Later that evening, lying in bed in our comfortable motel room, I thought of the Grant Home with its copper-lined bathtub, in which the whole family would bathe, one after the other, once a week after laboriously heating water on the kitchen stove and filling the tub. The bathing order was based on seniority, with the youngest family member bathing last. This we understand is the origin of the expression, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”
We are happy we waited until now to visit Springfield and the sites associated with Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). If we had gone years earlier, those sites would not have existed in the condition they do today. Lincoln lived and worked in Springfield for seventeen years until he was elected president and moved to Washington in 1860.
His and his partner’s law office still stands, as does the Old State House where he argued cases. Lincoln came from the most humble of circumstances, a one-room log cabin on the Kentucky frontier. His formal education likely didn’t amount to more than a single year.
A notable theme throughout Lincoln’s life was loss. His mother died from milk sickness when he was eleven. He lost a beloved sister in childbirth. Ann Rutledge, the first love of his life, died at 22, and his second son Eddie died at four. He lost a senate race to Stephen A. Douglas. Then, of course, came the assassination, his final loss.
Our most moving visit in Springfield was to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and especially those sections that dealt with his first presidential election and it aftermath. Has any president had to deal with a harsher first term? He might not have been elected at all were it not for the fact that two of his opponents split the Southern vote between them. Before he even moved into the White House seven slave-holding states formed The Confederate States of America. It seemed that Lincoln was surrounded by enemies, and it is the measure of his greatness as a politician that he was able to play them off, one against the other, so well.
The beauty of this museum is that it can be enjoyed on different levels. Children and young people can see what Lincoln, his family, and the other principal actors of the time looked and sounded like because their likenesses have been created as three-dimensional figures. The most prominent example of this is Lincoln introducing the Emancipation Proclamation to the members of his cabinet in a recreation of the actual room where they met. One of the museum’s strengths is the research and care that went into making its exhibits authentic.
In addition to the life-like figures, the museum uses explanatory panels, replicas of broadsheets, copies of photographs, live spokespersons, multi-media presentations, and a horde of volunteers to give a rounded picture of Lincoln’s life and times. The section illustrating the virulent criticism of Lincoln, including the ad hominem attacks, is especially saddening.
This museum experience was moving in different ways. Both Kay and I were choked up at times. At noon we needed a break from the emotion and found it in the museum café where we had lunch.
Abraham Lincoln is well represented in Springfield. In addition to the museum, there is the Lincoln Library, the Lincoln Home (now run by the National Park Service), and his magnificent tomb located at the rear of a large cemetery with plenty of green space around it. The tomb has a large base with two symmetrical staircases leading up to a balcony. Above that is an obelisk reaching more than 100 feet into the sky. On the balcony are sculptural groupings that we didn’t examine since the balcony was closed to us. The ensemble is majestic and satisfying to look at, a fitting memorial for one of our country’s greatest men.
I can’t leave Springfield without giving an account of a haircut. I had been searching for a barbershop, and Kay identified one on a south downtown street. We walked in only to discover that it was African-American owned with three barbers cutting hair for quite a few customers. We sat down and had to wait for perhaps an hour to be served. We’re pretty sure we were the first white persons to enter that shop in a long time, perhaps ever, yet no one batted an eye except a couple of children who starred at us. We sat, watched, and listened to the conversation and repartee. It was a scene out of a Spike Lee movie. Finally it was my turn, and after a few minutes in the chair, Kay pronounced my new haircut good.
My relationship with the State of Indiana began in 1961 when I enrolled as a freshman at the small, all-male, liberal arts school that is Wabash College. There have been many changes at the college since then, but fundamentally it is no different from my student days. It has kept up with the times and maintained its reputation for excellence.
Hundreds of Wabash men have come and gone since the early 1960s, and some of them returned this June to reunite with their fellows during what the college billed as its Big Bash weekend. Kay and I had been to other Wabash reunions but not like this one. It has been 50 years since my classmates and I were graduated, and seventy-six of us came back with our spouses and partners for a magnificent time that will never be repeated on this scale.
For one thing, we are all getting a bit long in the tooth. For another, some of us are in poor health. But for a while, there we were, together again for the first time in a long time, laughing, reminiscing, and reliving our best and worst moments as college students. The weekend’s weather was lovely. The college gave us a full schedule of events in which to participate. We ate meals together, received awards and recognition, and competed with other classes on the steps of the college chapel to sing Old Wabash the loudest. In spite of our numbers, it was the upstarts from the Class of ’05 who won. Our class got second place.
Our 50th reunion felt like a rite of passage, probably the only one left in our long lives. Above all, for me it was a great moment — of this year, this trip, and this life.
The question is how did a small southern Indiana city with a population of less than 50,000 acquire at least seventy significant examples of modernist and post-modern architecture by some of the most important architects working in America in the 20th century?
The answer has to do with one family and especially with one man. I. Irwin Miller was the scion of a wealthy family that had made its money in banking and Indiana real estate in the 19th century. As a result, Miller, educated at Yale and Oxford, would have led a comfortable life no matter how he chose to spend it. In fact, Miller was one of those exceptional Americans who left his mark as an industrialist, a civil-rights activist, a lay leader in the Christian ecumenical movement, and a patron of modern architecture.
In the business world, Columbus is best known as the headquarters of Cummins, Inc., a Fortune 500 company that designs and manufactures diesel engines as well as other industrial products. Clessie Cummins was a man of little formal education with the vision and entrepreneurial spirit to improve and develop the diesel engine for farm use. He worked for the Miller family as a chauffer and mechanic, and it was his employer, William Miller, who provided Clessie with the stake to found the Cummins Engine Company in 1919.
It is said that the company didn’t make a profit for seventeen years; however, once it was discovered that diesel engines were the best solution for powering long-haul trucks, the company’s prospects improved. Today, Cummins sells its products in 190 countries and territories.
With a large headquarters building and several manufacturing plants, including a design center in and around Columbus, the company is the city’s major employer. I. Irwin Miller worked for Cummins much of his life, serving at different times as executive vice president, president, and chairman.
Wanting a new kind of church building for his Christian community, Miller persuaded Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen to design the First Christian Church, built in 1942 as one of the first modern church buildings in America. Thus began the very interesting account of the architectural transformation of the city of Columbus. When the city decided it needed a new library, I.M. Pei was chosen to design it for a site across from the modern church. Pei’s library, flat-roofed, rectilinear, and asymmetrical is a striking companion to Saarinen’s church. Pei persuaded the city that it needed a plaza and so one was created in front of and beside the library. Furthermore, to soften the effect of the architecture, a large sculptural arch by Henry Moore was off-centered on the plaza.
It was from this plaza that Kay and I began an intensive one-day exploration of Columbus architecture. We began with a two-hour bus tour organized by the Visitor’s Center. Later we took a second tour of the home that Eero Saarinen designed for Miller and his family in the early 1950s. The home, with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, is located on a 13-acre site near the Flat Rock River. Hedges of arbor vitae protect its privacy. Keeping to the Modernist principle that less is more, the house has a single storey with a flat roof and glass-and-grey-slate walls set under a wide projecting roof. Its exterior can’t be seen whole from a single viewpoint due to its form and the vegetation surrounding it.
The interior by noted designer Alexander Girard has a large, sky lit, open plan that is most impressive. Slender, cruciform steel columns support the roof. Walls of Alabama marble have a slightly ribbed texture. The floors are of travertine, a kind of limestone. There is a large, circular, marble dining table set for six over a custom-made brightly colored carpet whose pattern is echoed in the upholstery of the side chairs.
Bright colors are everywhere. The room is filled with beautiful objects and furniture, some of which was designed by Charles and Ray Eames and made by Herman Miller. An unusual feature is a circular conversation pit set two feet below the floor. It is lined with divans lined with colorful cushions.
Landscape architect Dan Kiley was responsible for the home’s natural surroundings. There is an allée of locust trees along a wide gravel path. There are large European weeping beech trees and willow trees in another area. The house itself is situated on a rise in the land and in the direction of the river Kiley created a very large sloping lawn. I asked and learned that back in the day three gardeners were kept busy full-time caring for this landscape.
The American Institute of Architects rated Columbus sixth on its list of the top 10 American cities for architectural quality and innovation — sixth after cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
The buildings and structures such as bridges and park amenities include schools, banks, churches, a prison, Cummins headquarters, a hospital, firehouses, and a city hall. In addition to the Saarinens, these are credited to Richard Meier, I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Harry Weese, Robert A. M. Stern, and Kevin Roche, to name only a few. Kay and I walked and drove around, seeing as many as we could until evening and fatigue had us repair to a fine Japanese restaurant downtown for a well-earned meal. We’re sorry we didn’t plan an additional day in Columbus because there was so much more to see.
I was raised in Beverly Hills, an established residential neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side. Among Chicago’s South-Side neighborhoods, Beverly stands out because of its concentration of large homes designed by architects.
Most of these were built in the 1920s and 1930s when the neighborhood was a bedroom community for men who worked downtown in Chicago’s Loop. The largest and most impressive Beverly homes are built closest to the stations of the commuter rail line that connects the neighborhood with the Loop. Although I haven’t lived in Beverly full-time since I was a teen, I’ve visited countless times over the decades.
My sister and brother-in-law still live there in a home designed in 1928 by the young Robert O. Merrill, who became one of the founding partners of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
As a child I played in the Beverly streets and knew their names by heart. As an adult I recognize that Beverly’s homes are very special. Built in traditional styles (no Modern architecture here) with many European influences, each one is distinctive and different from the others. What’s more, as they attain old age, they are still in fine condition. Houses and landscaping have been well preserved and cared for. The demographics of the neighborhood have changed with Irish Catholics and African Americans replacing the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of my youth, but Beverly looks and feels the same. When I visit, I take long walks around the neighborhood to reacquaint myself with the beauty and interest of those old homes. I wonder if it was my daily exposure to them as a child that partly accounts for my interest in architecture as an adult.
Other parts of the Chicago of my youth have changed greatly. In his book Thinking about Architecture, Colin Davies makes the point that in traditional cities “individual buildings are frequently demolished and replaced but the streets and public open spaces tend to stay put.” For me this has been especially true (and not for the better) downtown and on the near North Side now known as River North.
The little stores on Vanderbilt that sold army-navy goods and equestrian outfits and accessories are gone, as are the movie theaters and used bookstores I used to haunt as a kid. Gone too are the nightclubs with names like the London House and Mr. Kelly’s along with the bars and restaurants that once gave Rush Street and the surrounding Gold Coast such a cosmopolitan air. They have been replaced by undistinguished, monolithic buildings and hotels whose commercial spaces, where they exist, are occupied by the kind of products with designer names that we find in every big American and European city. No, these parts of Chicago have lost their charm, for me at least.
Fortunately, there are other parts of the city like Pilsen, Uptown, and Andersonville on the far North Side that have changed demographically and become more interesting. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and I feel I’ll never run out of interesting ones to explore.
Kay and I have lived abroad for eleven years now. We still feel very much like Americans, yet it takes a continuing effort to remain in touch with friends and changing American politics and lifestyles. We feel we may never take such a long trip to the States again. The United States and Canada are beautiful countries. We’ve seen much of them but know there is still much left to explore. In the future, our visits will become shorter and more sharply focused. We like the idea and the reality of train travel in North America and would like to do more of it. Who knows? There are so many adventures still to be had in the world.