October 3, 2018
“Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and sombre,
but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance
the ivory city, beautiful as a poet’s dream, silent as a city of the dead.”
(quoted in The Devil in the White City)
Chicago is a really cool city. The architecture and the landscaping are beautiful, more so than other big cities, and it feels old and modern and serious and exciting and just generally inviting.
Sadly, as with most of the cities we’re seeing on our trip, we only spent a single day in Chicago. We parked the RV at a campground an hour outside of the city and then drove our minivan — our lovely, non-totaled minivan — into the city to explore. We spent the better part of the day at the Museum of Science and Industry, whose name is deceptively boring. Don’t be fooled — it is one of the least boring places we’ve visited so far, and that’s saying a lot, because we’ve seen our share of really amazing stuff. It may in fact be the coolest museum I’ve ever spent time at, and so I’m super thankful to those who recommended we see it.
We saw only a fraction of the exhibits: We went on the coal mine tour, we went through a huge exhibit that simulated different kinds of weather, we walked on an airplane and saw the U-505 submarine (the actual, ginormous submarine) and learned about its history. The kids climbed on real farm equipment including a shiny green John Deere combine. We paid a few bucks to watch a big assembly line make and package personalized gyroscopes for each of the kids, helping them understand the goings-on inside a factory.
We visited the Numbers in Nature exhibit, which is home to an impressive mirror maze, and the mirror maze is home to a Foss-shaped smudge on one of the mirrors. Well, one would hope the mirrors have been cleaned since then, but there probably WAS a Foss-shaped smudge on one of the mirrors. Despite Todd’s and my warnings to the kids to “please, PLEASE, for the love, go slowly through this maze,” the children (especially the younger two, who are very wise in their own eyes) were still inclined to move quickly, and at one point Foss saw his brothers, apparently straight ahead of him, and he took off running at full speed. The sound his body made slamming against the mirror was…substantial. But lesson learned! He walked very, verrrry slowly through the rest of the maze after that.
If you ever plan to visit the museum, make sure you get there right when it opens, because you’ll want as much time as you can get, and it usually closes at 4 pm. I don’t recall if they allow snacks in (probably not), so budget a small fortune for purchasing food that is only so-so at the food court. Also, leave yourself enough time to really linger at the U-505 exhibit! Even if you don’t pay to tour the actual submarine (which we didn’t), there is a LOT to read and watch all around it, but it takes some time.
Besides all of the amazing exhibits inside, the building itself is both historic and spectacular. Todd and I both recently read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (thanks to my dad’s recommendation!), and in that book you will learn everything you wanted (and didn’t want) to know about the architecture and bureaucracy of the World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a. Chicago World’s Fair) of 1893. (You’ll also learn a fair bit about a serial killer who was operating in Chicago at that time, but oddly enough, that serial killer didn’t factor in to our family’s tour of Chicago.) And as it turns out, the Museum of Science and Industry is the only remaining structure from that event. The World’s Fair. Not the killing spree.
It’s an uncanny experience to read a book, to become really absorbed by it, and then to see the places described in that book in real life. It’s a strange mix of familiarity and awe, a sense of knowing a place quite well and then suddenly realizing how little you actually know it. It’s like that shy feeling you get when introduced to a distant relative or a friend of a friend who you’ve often heard talked about but never actually met. Reading that book, and then seeing that grand museum set against the sweeping backdrop of Lake Michigan, was something special.
The building felt both familiar and breathtaking. It looked the way I expected it to, only far, far larger, and suddenly I could wrap my brain around the kinds of numbers I’d read about — the many thousands of people who walked through those halls, and the many thousands of exhibits it contained. We drove around the building and saw the Statue of the Republic, also from the World’s Fair. The boys commented on the beautiful scenery surrounding the museum, saying it looked the way they pictured Central Park (which at that point we hadn’t yet seen), and it was fun to tell them that they were right, because Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park, also designed the grounds of the Chicago World’s Fair.
After our day at the museum, we went into the heart of Chicago and ate dinner at a spy-themed restaurant called SafeHouse. It’s family-friendly before 10 pm and I think it’s totally worth a visit (if you’re in Chicago OR if you’re in Milwaukee, where the first SafeHouse restaurant is located). You have to earn your way in to the restaurant (you’ll be greeted by someone who will give you some tasks to complete, which I think they adjust based on the ages of your party), and once you’re in there’s spy stuff and history stuff all over the walls and fun nooks and crannies for the kids to find and explore while they wait for food. It’s totally gimmicky, but in a fun, cool way, not a dorky way. Well, I mean, not TOO dorky.
After that we strolled around downtown Chicago and bought some chocolate and admired the buildings and the water and the lights. On the hour-long drive back to our RV park, my head was full of the history, food, beauty, information, and fun we’d experienced that day. But a grand old building in Chicago, surrounded by trees and sprawling lawns and a lake that looks like an ocean, has a special place in my heart on this trip.