My kind of town

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 56, Autumn 2018

Page 80

Chicago is a place for art, food and architecture. Isobel Cockerell can't resist

On a hot, dry and windy day in October 1871, the city of Chicago burned almost entirely to the ground. According to popular legend, the blaze began in a barn in a poor Irish neighborhood on the south-west side, when a cow kicked over a lantern. The fire lasted three days, and more than 17,000 buildings – two-thirds of them built of wood – were left in ruins.

In the years following the fire, the city provided a blank canvas for the most innovative architects of the time, among them Louis Sullivan and Henry Hobson Richardson, members of what became known as the 'Chicago School', and later, a youthful Frank Lloyd Wright. The Chicago School pioneered new construction techniques, building the first skyscrapers on the soft, marshy land by Lake Michigan. This new city became the hub for America's 'Gilded Age', setting the stage for the opening in 1893 of the World's Fair, which brought the latest innovations in architecture, culture and industry.

The Beaux-Arts main buildings of the Art Institute of Chicago date from the World's Fair, although the collection was founded in the decade following the fire. Its world-class, globe-trotting collection now spans Etruscan and Amerindian art and work by Cy Twombly and Cindy Sherman, taking in Hopper's Nighthawks along the way. The gallery's current John Singer Sargent retrospective (until 30 September) offers a glimpse of the role the artist played in establishing Chicago as a cultural center. Between 1888 and 1925, Sargent's paintings would feature in more than 20 exhibitions in the city, and when La Carmencita went on display at the Institute in 1890, it drew huge, admiring crowds. The acquisition of Sargent's work – as well as that of James McNeill Whistler, a fellow American in Europe – had come to symbolize Chicago's cultural ambitions.

The palatial neo-classical structures of the 1897 Chicago Cultural Center speak to the same burgeoning sense of civic pride. Here a dramatic pair of stained-glass domes – one of which is the largest Tiffany dome in the world – preside over one of the liveliest arts and exhibition programs in the United States, a program that celebrates the city's legacy in jazz, ragtime and blues with as much confidence as it tackles the grand old men of classical music.

History is not the whole picture. Even in the 19th century, Mark Twain was able to write of the city, "She is novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time."

Unafraid of embracing the new, Chicago continues to redefine itself today. The cutting-edge Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance, features every creative medium, from sculpture to virtual reality. It is currently grappling with what it means to live in the digital age with the pioneering exhibition I Was Raised on the Internet (until 14 October), for which dozens of contemporary artists were commissioned to explore what it means to be "millennial".

Built on the plains of Illinois, the city is almost unremittingly flat. Yet it conjures a sense of grandeur from the elevated subway line and skyscrapers that fade gradually into low-lying greystone houses. As you move through its streets, Chicago changes before your eyes, revealing without shame all the successes and failures of the past, stretching from the hard-edged, glimmering towers downtown into the empty lots and former industrial neighborhoods of the West Side.

The streets of Pilsen, lined with classic cars and tiny taquerias, tell another story. In this historically Mexican borough in the west of South Side, locals sit beneath the catalpa trees, eating deeply flavored seafood caldos and mole as rich as any you'd find in Oaxaca.

However, this is a tale not of modern economic migration, but of the population movements of the past. It was the new railroads that brought them via the industrial Midwest from towns along the Mexican border. Attracted by Chicago's reputation for innovation, Mexican creatives and artisans had also begun to arrive in the city soon after the Great Fire.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent his early career working from a studio in Oak Park, a West Side suburb, mused that "eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world". On a sunlit day, when light from the vast, horizonless lake plays on thousands of windows along the shore, it's very hard to disagree.

Isobel Cockerell is currently producing for The City, a documentary podcast about Chicago for USA Today (released on 28 September).

Where to stay

Chicago's elevated subway runs in and out of the city center, so the Loop is one of the more convenient area to stay in if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing. The Chicago Athletic Association was, until 2007, an elite gentleman's club; it is now a hotel. Founded in 1893, the year of the World's Fair, the hotel can't be beaten for its elaborate Venetian Gothic charm and spectacular views of the lake. The Silversmith Hotel is another throwback to the Gilded Age, built at the height of the Chicago School's success.

If you'd rather escape the tourist crowds of the Loop, head up to trendy Andersonville. You could stay in the Guesthouse Hotel, where they'll welcome you with afternoon tea and insider tips for exploring the neighborhood, but by far the coolest option is the Robey, a boutique hotel in a distinctive art deco building in Wicker Park.It has a rooftop pool, Bluetooth soundsystems and a breezy line in denim bathrobes.

Where to eat

For a singular Chicagoan dining experience, seek out EL Ideas in Douglas Park, a former industrial neighborhood on the Near South Side. Against the backdrop of a freight-train yard and abandoned basketball courts, this unmarked building is home to chef Phillip Foss and his Michelin-starred menu. Should you manage to get a table, it will be worth the pilgrimage. Nondescript exteriors are something of a theme in the Chicago culinary landscape. Gray, minimalist Alinea is as unprepossessing at first sight as EL Ideas. But it's famous for a culinary spectacle: highly Instagrammable helium-filled apple balloons given to each guest on arrival. And yes, they are edible. With its significant Mexican population, Chicago has some of the best Mexican food in North America. Rick Bayless is a legend on the Chicago restaurant scene, and all his establishments are worth a look. The most coveted of this tables, though, is at Topolobampo, with its modern, Yucatan-inspired cuisine. Although it's been around since the late 1980s, it retains its buzz – it doesn't hurt that it's a favorite haunt of Barack Obama. Chicago is also home to a thriving Korean community, with Korean spas and restaurants dotting its outer neighborhoods. Parachute in Avondale may be a little off the beaten track, but its calming traditional stone-and-wood interiors host exciting and innovative Korean American cuisine, such as deeply savory spring onion pancakes and perfectly balanced bibimbap. I.C.

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