Thursday, April 22, 2010

Three Songs For Spring Break

No more posting till May 2 at 7:30 pm (it's already in the queue). Next week is going to be my own personal spring break. Not from work -- I've got a lot of that to do, in some ways more than ever -- but from daily posting. Wish I could say that I'll have descriptions of a long trip to report afterward, but that isn't going to happen. Maybe we'll make a few short expeditions to somewhere in greater Chicago. Or more likely to the deck in the back yard, if it's warm enough to sit around out there.

Till then, some songs for spring break. "Glow Worm," both in the original German version of 1902 ("Das Glühwürmchen") and the Johnny Mercer version later in the 20th century, speaks of young lovers wanting to sneak away into the woods. That could fit into a springtime mood. I had no idea until recently that there was an earlier version, but listening to the Mills Brothers not long ago, it occurred to me that I didn't understand quite all of the lyrics, so I looked them up, and found out about both versions.

The part that I never got was: "Glow little glow worm, turn the key on/ You are equipped with tail-light neon/ You got a cute (something, something)/ Which you can make both slow and faster."

According to "Perfessor Bill" and his lyric sheet, the missing words are: "You got a cute vest-pocket Mazda." A what? To me, Mazda is a car. Most people would say that now. But not to song listeners in the early 1950s, it turns out. It was a popular brand of light bulb once upon a time. The Wiki entry on this kind of light bulb is interesting, but doesn't quite answer the question of how the brand name so completely shifted from a GE product to a Japanese car, or why the name of a Zoroastrian divinity was picked for the bulb or the car, if that in fact happened. I always thought the car name was simply an Anglicization of Matsuda.

Dipping into the marvel that's still YouTube, I found a '50s performance of the song by the Mills Brothers on Nat Cole's show. Listen carefully for the Mazda. Man, we don't have lyricists like Johnny Mercer any more.

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Next, a song with a different vibe. It mentions summer, but never mind. Could be spring break too. Not that I ever had a spring break quite like in either of the video clips below. First, the original by the Strangeloves:

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That isn't the version I first heard. The Bow Wow Wow version of the song, and its video, were in heavy rotation in 1982 on MTV, back when that M stood for "music" rather than "moronic." It is in fact one of the first videos I ever remember seeing on that channel.

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Finally, I can't really argue this has anything to do with spring, but I know what I like. I was listening to Bob Edwards Weekend by chance a while ago when he interviewed the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Later I went to the great Internet jukebox to see what I could find of theirs, and came up with "Cornbread and Butterbeans," with the added benefit of learning about the WDVX Blue Plate Special, which seems like a wonderful use of radio.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shine Little Glowgolf, Glimmer, Glimmer

There are only 18 Glowgolf locations currently operating -- in Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin -- but I understand that more will be opening this year. It's a growing retail operation, something of a rarity in our time, and as such I took a professional interest in Glowgolf. One of these locations also happens to be a few miles from where I live, so I packed up Lilly, her friend Rachel, and Ann and went to play Glowgolf today.

Miniature golf's native habitat is outdoors, but some are tucked away indoors. (I need to play this basement course before it disappears.) All of the Glowgolf courses reside in malls. We went to the one at the Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, Ill., on the upper level across from Cold Stone Creamery. Unlike the rest of the stores in the mall, the Glowgolf space isn't brightly lit with regular white light. Instead it's well illuminated with black lights, and the usual black-light effect of glowing shirts and shoelaces kicks in right away.

The golf balls glow too. They're infused with something that makes them a variety of pale colors under black light. The wood beams that define the holes are more brilliantly colored in green or orange or yellow. The walls are black but painted with brightly colored images -- undersea images in the case of the Stratford Square Glowgolf, including giant sea turtles and sea horses, octopi and schools of fish. Let's be charitable and call it vernacular art. That fits in the with the whole esprit de minigolf anyway. (See the Glowgolf site photo gallery for more decor in other locations.)

Otherwise it was a fairly straightforward 18-hole miniature golf course. Some holes had obstacles such as a windmill or lighthouse or a painted board with a small hole at the bottom; others were merely laid out challengingly. Lilly and her friend had a giggling good time in the way that 12-year-old girls do, hitting the balls well, or indifferently, or so badly that they wandered outside the bounds of the hole. Ann didn't know what to do with the club at first, since I don't think we've ever taken her to a miniature course before. Any younger than she is and your main worry is going to be the kid whacking things that aren't balls. I showed her how to hold the club and she took to it immediately. In fact she was the only one of us to hit a hole-in-one, there on the 14th hole.

Not that we were keeping track very closely. Or score either. My own favorite hole sported a loop-the-loop that rattled as the ball sped through. The hardest hole for everyone featured some small plastic trilithons anchored in the floor. I called it the Stonehenge hole, though it didn't really look like the monument (now that would have been interesting).

Buying a round of Glowgolf allows you to go around the course three times if you want. We went through more-or-less in order once, then played the holes we liked again a time or two. This was easy enough since the only other customers at the time were a young couple who seemed more interested in each other than the finer points of the game. The 18th hole has a sign that explains that it will take your ball for good, and not to play it unless you wanted to quit. It had two holes. Hit hole #1 and "win a prize." Hole #2 merely takes your ball. Only Lilly hit hole #1, which made a little light and noise when she did -- and so she got a card good for a free game.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Priscilla's Ultimate Soulfood Cafeteria

To judge by its looks, Priscilla's Ultimate Soulfood Cafeteria in Streamwood, Ill., could be any large cafeteria pretty much anywhere, with mostly neutral colors and spare decor. Pleasant but not special.

But Priscilla's is special. It charms the nose first, from the moment you walk in. The place smells like the wonderful working kitchen of an old friend. That is, an old friend who really knows how to cook, who honed her talents in the Deep South, and who can feed a small army.

We went on Sunday for a late lunch. Sunday's menu includes a choice of main meats: fried chicken, fried catfish, beef short ribs, turkey, ham hocks, baked chicken and cornish hens. The sides are many, and most everything you'd expect: dressing, greens, candied yams, rice and gravy, corn, blackeyed peas, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, potato salad, and a multitude of beans -- string, pinto, red, baked, lima, navy.

Other days of the week have other menus, sporting the likes of pot roast, liver & onions, gumbo, pork chops, meatloaf, barbecue ribs and (on Thursdays) ox tail. I have to try that last one.

Priscilla herself, an affable black woman likely a few years younger than I am, greeted us as we came in. She and her husband Mansfield own the brand's two locations. I told her we'd wanted to try the cafeteria for a while now, and had heard good things about it. She seemed glad to hear that, and told us how each meat came with two sides and cornbread, for the fixed price, not including a drink, and that it would be a lot of food. She wasn't kidding.

I asked her about the other location in Hillside, an inner western suburb that I rarely have occasion to visit. That one was going well, she said. Some day, she added, she hoped to have "48 more" locations. I wished her well with that. Retail expansion is no easy thing.

Mainly I hope the quality doesn't suffer in any expansion. We took an instant liking to the Sunday offering of baked chicken, which luxuriates in a savory brown gravy -- we all ordered it, except for Ann, who had a kid's plate with fried chicken and macaroni & cheese. All the sides we had were good, too; and each one fresh. No opening industrial-sized cans of green beans (for example) for Priscilla. The desserts looked good: cakes and pies and pudding and cobblers. But the rest of the food was so filling that dessert had to wait for another visit, which will certainly happen sometime. All in all, haven't had Southern food this good since the last time I passed through the South.


Monday, April 19, 2010

"Bug Bomb Explodes in Apartment Complex"

I scan Google News many times a day in the course of my work, and I feel like I live a nice, quiet life when I put in the word "apartment" into the search function. I'm not looking for lurid local-news stories, but information about the apartment market. Still, I mostly get the kind of items that lead on local TV news.

If I were more simple-minded than I am, I might conclude that apartment dwelling is dangerous, conveniently forgetting the many years I lived in apartments without serious incident. Unless you count the time a neighbor down the hall at the Sunshine Mansion in Osaka had a cooking fire, and the rest of us residents got to see Japanese firemen in action. But they didn't even make us leave the building.

Anyway, I ran such a search at about 10:30 this morning and Google offered me the following menu of headlines, in exactly this order:

Blaze Destroys Apartments in Far East Dallas
Police Find Explosives in Chicago Apartment
Fire Destroys NJ Apartment Building
Dozens Displaced After Two Apartment Complex Buildings Burn in Starkville
Fire Guts Apartment in White Plains
Newhallville Apartment Blaze Was Arson?
Suspected Robber Shot and Killed at East Armour Apartment Building
Asheville Police Investigating Shooting at Apartment Complex
Bug Bomb Explodes in Apartment Complex [!]

Bug bomb, eh? I had to look at that, even though it was a Fox News story. Dateline Los Angeles: "An explosion from a bug bomb gone bad damaged some apartments in a four-story building on Sunday but no injuries were reported from the mishap." Helpfully, a video attached to the story explained that a moron (my term) set off a number of bug bombs simultaneously in a room that also contained lighted candles. "No injuries" was incorrect, if the video is to be believed, since it shows the fellow with minor lacerations to his head, the result of flying debris.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Item From the Past: Madrid, NM

No wonder I haven't heard news announcers on the radio use the name of the volcano that's disrupting air travel in Europe, which I finally read today: Eyjafjallajökull. Iceland might not have the GDP it once had, but it's still got cool volcano names.

For us, the Year 2000, as it used to be called, was a good year for going places. In late March, I was offered a new job starting May 1, so a window opened up for late April. We -- just three of us in those days -- went to San Antonio that year in time for Fiesta, and then flew to Albuquerque one morning and drove to Santa Fe for a few days. Before leaving Albuquerque, we ate a fine lunch at the M&J Sanitary Tortilla Factory, a place of local renown, I heard. I'm glad we did, because a few years later it closed.

Without any need to rush to Sante Fe, we went by way of New Mexico 14, which roughly parallels the Interstate. Lately I've learned that this brief stretch of road is also the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, so designated only a few weeks after we drove along it, winding our way through a number of small towns. One town was Madrid, which the U.S. Census Bureau says had a population of 149 in 2000; these days, I've read about 300 people reside there. It's a place with a curious history: a 19th-century coal mining boomtown, then deserted, then a late 20th-century arts and crafts town, which is what we experienced. Arts and crafts isn't so surprising. It's near Santa Fe, after all. But coal mining in New Mexico? Who knew?

We stopped there and ate something, dessert maybe, at a shop that had art and crafts for sale as well, plus a screen door that fascinated Lilly. So much so that we had to tell her to stop opening and closing it. This is what she looked like at that exact place and time.

For contrast, to the right is a picture she took of herself a few weeks ago at most, one of many, many self-portraits. Such is the ease of photography in the digital age. At this moment standard parental sentiment says I must point out how fast my eldest daughter has grown. But thinking about it, the last 10 years seem like a long stretch of time. The Year 2000 seems remote as a small town in rural New Mexico.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Big Barrel by Actual Size Artists

I'm not the best headline writer, but I did come up with one I liked yesterday: "COP Says HAMP Remains FUBAR." COP is the Congressional Oversight Panel and HAMP is the Home Affordable Modification Program. The head wouldn't have made any sense only a few years ago, except for FUBAR, which has endured since WWII as the more extreme version of SNAFU. I try to use it when I can. Another one of that era that I'm fond of is JANFU, which is so specifically military that you never see it now (but for all I know, it could still be current in the Army and Navy). The euphemistic definition is here.

Though it was open last Saturday, the Evanston Art Center was between exhibits, according to the college girl behind the desk who had little to do but read. But there was an installation on the lawn, "Trickledown," which is supposed to be taken down sometime this spring. The sign near the work said it was by "Actual Size artists Gail Simpson and Aristotle Georglades."

For a while I thought Actual Size might be a style of sculpture I'd never heard of, which would be no surprise. Turns out the two artists themselves made that up as the name of their collaboration. It's amusing anyway. "Actual Size? No, I prefer the handy Travel-Size artists."

The sign further added that "it is inspired by the current economic situation and its effect on our communities," showing as it does parts of houses spilling out of a bucket. It was also inspired by the Jack-and-Jill rhyme, noted the sign.

A new Jack-and-Jill might go something like this, with complete disregard for making the thing scan, because that's an oppressive paradigm: In 2006 Jack and Jill/Went up the hill/To get a subprime or Alt-A or even prime mortgage they couldn't possibly afford from lenders who didn't care about that fact/Jack came down/And defaulted his crown/And the foreclosed property affected everyone else's valuations.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Grosse Point Lighthouse

At about 11:35 this morning, I was waiting for the light at the intersection of Schaumburg Road and Braintree Drive and this vehicle, or one just like it, drove by going westbound. What was the Liverpool Legends WV doing in Schuamburg on a brilliant warm April morning? Drumming up business in metro Chicago for the Beatles tribute show of that name in Branson, no doubt. Summer's almost here.

My experience with Branson is limited to lunch at a Chinese buffet while passing through back in 2001, so I missed noticing this particular tribute band's operation there, if it existed then. The act is George Harrison's sister's way of cashing in -- I mean, honoring her brother's memory and artistry -- and has spawned at least one funny commercial.

We've had two warm, dry weekends in a row here in April in northeastern Illinois, which I can't ever remember happening before. Last Saturday we drove eastward and by early afternoon had made it to Lake Michigan's shore in Evanston. Just north of the Northwestern U. campus is the Grosse Point lighthouse, located next a former mansion that's now the Evanston Art Center, a place called Lawson Park, an officially closed beach (meaning no lifeguards and no charge to get in) and a parking lot convenient to all of these but not full even on a pleasantly warm April day.

The lighthouse isn't open until June, but the grounds are -- so much so that you can wander right up to the lighthouse. But our first order of business wasn't inspecting lighthouses up close, it was finding a picnic table to inspect the flavor of the rib tips we'd bought at Hecky's Barbecue, another Evanston institution. If I've never blogged about Hecky's, I've been remiss. A former Northwestern student introduced me to it more than 20 years ago. It's carry-out only at a corner location on two busy streets. Since returning to the Chicago area, I've managed to visit once or twice a year. Hecky's motto is, "It's the Sauce!" Boy is it ever. It's never disappointed.

While the kids played at the Lawson Park playground -- turned out that Lilly wasn't too old for such, especially when it came to spinning around one of those tire swings with her sister -- I wandered off to look at the lighthouse. It's a storied structure, standing nearly 140 years now. Then again, lighthouses tend to be storied. That's just the kind of buildings they are: Man Against Nature stories mostly, to use the high-school English teacher division of story types.

Once Chicago became a major inland port before the Civil War, it became clear that the shoals around Grosse Point were hazardous without a light. According to the lighthouse's web site: "Undoubtedly the greatest tragedy to strike these waters occurred in the early morning hours of September 8, 1860, when the passenger steamer Lady Elgin collided with the lumber-carrying schooner Augusta. Not knowing the extent of the damage, the Augusta was sent on her way. But soon after, the Lady Elgin began to break apart and sink. Passengers jumped or were thrown into the water by high seas and clung to anything that floated. By daybreak, the shore was lined with townspeople from north suburban Evanston who helped when it was possible, all the while frightfully watching as survivors battled the elements in their attempts to reach land. A definite accounting of all who died isn't possible, but estimates range from about 300 to 400.

"The citizens of Evanston petitioned Congress for a lighthouse on Grosse Point but the Civil War and events afterward delayed the project. Then, in 1871, not long after the great Chicago Fire, Congress formally authorized construction of a lighthouse on Grosse Point.... Finally, on March 1, 1874, traditionally the start of the Great Lakes shipping season, Grosse Point Lighthouse sent its welcome beacon of light over the waters of Lake Michigan for the first time."

Remarkably, the lighthouse is no museum piece. It's still in use as a secondary aid to navigation. Not only that, it sports a second-order Fresnel lens, reportedly the only one of those astonishing monster glassworks still in use along the Great Lakes. I stood face-to-face with one at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum a few years ago, and I'm glad to know another is still proving itself useful.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sens. Durbin & Douglas

Sen. Dick Durbin may be distinguished as a Senator but I'm afraid his countenance isn't all that distinctive. Put him in a board room or mid- to upper-level manager's office in just about any kind of business that uses offices, and he'd fit right in. But his business happens to be governing, and I'd say he's reached upper management -- he is the Majority Whip, after all.

I'm not the sort of man who will ever have an office littered with awards and decorated by photos of me with various luminaries. For one thing, the most recent award I won was in 1983. For another, if a luminary is at hand, I'm more inclined to take a picture rather than be in it. This is Sen. Durbin and Joanna, the PR woman who invited me to the breakfast at the Halsted Pershing Business Center.

The property is on the South Side of Chicago, near the site of the former Union Stockyards. When mapping out my route to the place (no GPS for me), I noticed that the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial wasn't all that far away. So after shaking hands with one US Senator from Illinois, I went to pay my respects to another, one with a more distinctive look about him. Or maybe that's just the 19th-century tailoring and hairstyle.

The tomb sits on a square of land right at the end of 35th Street, or perhaps the beginning. When the street plays out, a footbridge crosses Metra commuter rail lines and Lake Shore Drive to the parkland along Lake Michigan. If it had been a little warmer, I might have crossed the bridge, but a chilly wind had followed the rain, so I took a look at the tomb. This is its base, looking about as 19th century as Sen. Douglas.

There's a statue of the Little Giant atop the tomb, but it's impossible to get a good look at it without binoculars. "A larger-than-life bronze figure perches ninety-six feet in the air surveying Lake Michigan -- or preparing to dive in, according to more than one critic," says the AIA Guide to Chicago. "To offset the height, sculptor [Leonard] Volk placed allegorical figures on freestanding plinths around the vault that contains Douglas's sarcophagus. The grounds were intended for Douglas's own elegant home."

To take a picture of the upper part of the monument, I had to leave the grounds and go across the street, but it's still a distant figure. I also wondered why Sen. Douglas faces east, considering his advocacy of westward expansion. Then again, maybe he's having second thoughts about the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Halsted Pershing Business Center

Not all buildings get to be Italianate mansions or steel-and-glass creations by starchitects (see last week and the week before). In fact, very few do. Much more common, and arguably more useful, are ones like the recently completed industrial structure I visited on the South Side of Chicago last week.

I drove through heavy rain to get there early in the morning. I stepped inside to attend a breakfast event, and saw this.

It isn't what you'd call beautiful, and doesn't reflect innovative design, but it's got muscle. Steel to give the box shape, concrete panels to keep out the elements. Wiring to bring in electricity for useful tasks, and HVAC to make sure the box doesn't get too hellishly hot or cold. Blue-collar work is going to happen here.

The only part of the structure not yet complete are the tenant buildouts, mainly the ultra-smooth floors. Highly smooth floors are very important in the scheme of things for industrial buildings, especially if the building is being used in any kind of warehouse or distribution capacity. If you need to move around items that weigh a lot using machines that weigh a lot, and move them quickly and without mishap, you're going to need really smooth floors.

Anyway, this particular building is 104,800 square feet but expandable to 200,000 square feet; built on 6.96 acres; has ten exterior docks and four drive-in docks; ten spots for trailer parking; ESFR sprinklers (trust me, that's the kind you want); and 30-foot clear ceilings. About a third of it is slated to be leased so far. But I'm sure that the leasing agents will be able to lease the rest before long, since the facility has good highway and railway access, as well as proximity to the Chicago CBD.

About 100 people came for the breakfast. Some probably wanted a look at the building, but more probably turned out for the breakfast speaker, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. That helped get me out of bed, since I knew I could quote the Senator for an article. Looking at the map of Chicago beforehand, I realized I would have the opportunity to see two Illinois Senators on the same day if I went to the event, and that clenched it. More about that tomorrow.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Item From the Past: Instant Ruin

I've seen a fair number of ruins over the years, but only one structure that became a ruin instantly -- the Atomic Bomb Dome (原爆ドーム Genbaku Dōmu). It's familiar enough in other people's pictures, but when I was in Hiroshima in April 1993, I had to take my own.

I didn't know until more recently the story of the fellow who designed the building, one Jan Letzel, born in Bohemia in 1880. Apparently he left few buildings behind in his homeland, but several as an expat architect in Japan. One was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which wasn't completely knocked down in 1945 because of its inherent strength as a concrete structure, and the angle of the blast. But it was ruined in that instant.

Outside of Hiroshima proper is Itsukushima Shrine (also known as Miyajima), which has a different historic vibe all together. Its torii, like the genbaku dome, is an iconic image of Japan. And what did I see when I was there? The torii under scaffolding.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Racine Kewpee

Though not hungry enough for dinner, we stopped at Kewpee Hamburgers in downtown Racine just before leaving town last week to buy milk shakes. I've read that there used to be about 200 places called Kewpee (spelled that way, not quite like the doll) before World War II, though it wasn't a standardized chain in the way McDonald's et al. would be after the war. According to Wiki at least, there are only five Kewpees left: the one in Racine, one in Lansing, Mich., and three in Lima, Ohio.

The spelling might be different, but there's no doubt that the place is named after the Kewpie doll. To say that the restaurant has a Kewpie theme understates things. A Kewpie graces the sign outside. Kewpies are on a row of tiles on the wall of the main room, and on a row of tiles in the bathroom as well, at least the men's room.

Not only that, there's an entire wall of Kewpies and Kewpie-related items in a glass case: new dolls and ones possibly 70 or 80 years old; large specimens and small ones; some naked and others dressed in various ways, such as a bride and groom, Santa Claus and a baseball player. There was a Kewpie clock, puzzle, coloring book, plate and other knickknacks, and some books, including one called A Kewpie Primer by Rose O'Neill, the illustrator who invented the Kewpie as a drawing. Also on display was her cover for the December 1927 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featuring a bevy of Kewpies around Santa (and what is the collective for Kewpies? Gaggle? Pod? Murder?). In any case, Kewpee has more Kewpies than I'd ever seen in one place before, as many as in a small museum.

The shakes were good, maybe an 8.5 on the scale on which the shakes at the Elliston Place Soda Shop in Nashville are 10. Besides shakes, the menu mostly offers hamburgers and other short-order fare, which smelled good.

The place seemed to be popular enough on a late Friday afternoon in early spring. So Racine is supporting its pre-WWII hamburgerie with the pre-WWI doll theme, in preference to chains that span the continent, and I was happy to chip in at $2.40 a shake.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Fortaleza Hall

I bought two packs of marshmallow peeps yesterday, one yellow, one pink; three trays were in each pack, at a post-Easter half price (49¢ per tray). By the end of the day today, no peep had survived. They were as completely vanquished as the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Fortaleza Hall, completed last year on the headquarters campus of SC Johnson in Racine, Wisconsin, has been open to the public for only about six weeks now. That alone made it unusual for me. I'm almost never ahead of the curve when it comes to visiting interesting buildings, or anywhere else, come to think of it. No matter. Most of time, I'd rather see things marked by time and chance.

SC Johnson noted in a January press release that "the 60,000-square-foot facility, which broke ground in September 2007, has two distinct sections: Fortaleza Hall, which provides historical context for the company and the advances that continue to take place through displays and memorabilia, the Frank Lloyd Wright Library and the Legacy Gallery; and a second part, The Commons, which offers employee services like dining, a company store, bank and fitness center in a comfortable environment."

The company's a bit touchy about just anyone taking pictures of the structure, so I had to stand right at an open gate, just a few feet from the entrance to the Golden Rondelle, to take my shot. Not the best vantage, and probably not the best time of day for a photo either. At night, light from inside must radiate through the 85 ultra-clear, inch-thick, curving glass panels that ring the main part of the hall to create a haunting glow and clearly show the airplane hanging from the ceiling inside.

Back in 1935, Herbert F. Johnson Jr., grandson of the founder and head of the company at the time, outfitted a twin-engine Sikorsky S-38 amphibious aircraft and hop-skipped a 15,500-mile round-trip course from Racine to Fortaleza, Brazil, stopping in a good many North American, Caribbean and South American places en route.

"The purpose of this trip was to discover new stands of carnauba palms and whether existing growths could sustain the demand for raw material for Johnson Wax," notes the web site of the Southeastern Wisconsin Aviation Museum. "The model S-38 aircraft was remarkable in its day, flying a number of history-making flights in the 1920s and early 1930s. One of which was Lindberg's 1929 inaugural airmail flight for Pan American Airways from Miami to the Panama Canal. Of the original 100 Sikorsky S-38 planes built, none still exist."

Meaning that the airplane hanging from the ceiling of Fortaleza Hall like the Spirit of St. Louis at the Smithsonian isn't the one H.F. Johnson flew to Brazil. He later sold that plane, and through some mishap it ended up in the ocean off New Guinea, only to be discovered in 2006.

Instead, the plane that hangs over everything in the hall is a replica built in the 1990s by Owatonna, Minn.-based Born Again Restorations. To the casual observer, looking up several floors from the gleaming white floor and bright clear walls of Fortaleza Hall, it looks like Born Again did a swell job. A functional job, too, since H.F. Johnson's son Sam Johnson (d. 2004), who succeeded his father as boss wax man, had it built for more than just hanging in a building. He and his sons flew the thing to Fortaleza in 1998 in a re-creation of the original carnauba-seeking expedition.

Two staircases on opposite sides of the round hall lead from ground level down to a circular expanse of floor directly below the airplane. Carved on the wall next to one staircase are quotes by H.F. Johnson. On the wall next to the other staircase are quotes by Sam Johnson. I don't remember any of the quotes now, but they made me wonder whether I've ever said anything worthy of being carved in stone, literally that is. "Statistics don't apply to individuals"? "Foolish willows don't grow into wise old oaks"? "Every man loves the smell of his own farts"? Maybe not, if those are the best I can do (and that last one is supposedly an Icelandic proverb). Mainly, though, I'm not qualified because I wasn't born into a family of consumer-product industrialists who have the scratch to hire Lord Norman Foster to build something.

The floor of the hall was as amazing as the quote-stairs were silly. The floor features a polyconic projection, mosaic map of the Americas created by one John Yarema of Troy, Mich., nine-time recipient of the National Wood Flooring Association Floor of the Year Award, according to his web site. He ought to get another floor award just for this map, which is made of 19,200 pieces of three-inch by three-inch blocks of wood. Not just any wood, but four different types -- black walnut, American cherry, maple and hornbeam -- to give the map four different colors. Why four colors? To make it a topographical map. The route that the Johnsons flew in 1935 and 1998 is marked in brass, with each stop along the way named. The map alone was worth driving to Wisconsin to see.

In a room next to the floor map were exhibits about the Johnsons and their company. Interesting enough, but I kept wandering back to look at the map until it was time to go upstairs again to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Library, as well as something else amazing in its own right: a vertical garden (mur vegetal) by Frenchman Patrick Blanc, reportedly only one of four such installations in the United States. It's a 49-foot by 18-foot wall of plants featuring 79 species, or about 2,500 total plants. Without the use of soil.

How does M. Blanc do that? The Wall Street Journal wrote about the concept in 2005: "He applies a sheet of PVC to a metal frame and staples a synthetic felt onto the PVC... Seeds, cuttings and full-grown plants -- about 20 per square meter -- are put in pockets cut into the felt, where their roots will take hold and feed from the water and fertilizer absorbed by the felt. Blanc chooses plants for their ability to live together..."

So there are new things under the sun. Or in this case, under sunlight through enormous glass walls.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Golden Rondelle

According to the SC Johnson web site, "the Golden Rondelle was originally designed by Lippincott and Margulies as the SC Johnson Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1964-65... At the Fair, the Golden Rondelle had a soaring superstructure of 90-foot high columns that arched inward to form a partial canopy over the rest of the building."

It's a little hard to find an image of the Golden Rondelle as it appeared in '64, though there's a rendering here toward the bottom of the page. These days, the theater is in Racine, Wisconsin. At 2:50 pm on April 2, 2010, it looked like this:

"Taliesen Associate Architects, the architectural group founded by Frank Lloyd Wright, was commissioned to redesign the structure to compliment [sic] the company's existing Wright designed Administration Building and Research Tower," SC Johnson continues. "Construction began in 1966 and the new building was officially dedicated and opened to the public in July 1967. Only the theater portion of the original structure remained; it is now suspended between two auxiliary buildings with curved, Cherokee red brick walls and horizontal bands of glass tubes similar to the other Wright designed SC Johnson facilities. These auxiliary buildings house the administrative offices for the company's guest relations and public tour program."

So it does. If you want to tour any of the SC Johnson buildings, you go to the first floor of the Golden Rondelle structure -- not the theater itself, which is accessed on the second floor -- and wait there for your tour to begin. On display in a large glass case in the waiting area are an astonishing variety of familiar products by SC Johnson -- Johnson's Wax when I was growing up -- such as Drano, Glade, Pledge, Scrubbing Bubbles, Shout, Windex, Saran Wrap, Ziploc, Off!, Raid and more. I looked at the display thinking, "They make that? And that?" Clearly the company knows a thing or two about maintaining brand loyalty in a retail environment that never sits still.

We were able to take a peek inside the theater before we left. The seats are arrayed stadium-style, like they might be at a planetarium or IMAX theater, and the curving ceiling is a golden color. Interesting, but not actually what we came to see. Last week, when I got the urge to visit Racine, I called SC Johnson to make reservations to tour the Administration Building and Great Workroom, a well-known work by Frank Lloyd Wright. Those tours were all booked, but SC Johnson was happy to show us around Fortaleza Hall.

I made the reservation without actually knowing what that was. But I looked it up and found out we were going to see a spanking-new building by Norman Foster and partner-in-charge Giles Robinson, completed only last year and opened to the public only in February 2010. More about that tomorrow.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

Ankole-Watsui & Turs & Meerkats, Oh My

One of the reasons for living in the Chicago area is because Wisconsin is so close. Last Friday -- a day called "Nonattendance Day" on the school calendar, a thin secular mask for getting Good Friday off -- we drove to Racine, Wisconsin, one of the small cities on Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee. The last time we were there, Lilly was small and Ann wasn't born yet, so it's been a while.

Our first destination was the Racine Zoo. Last time the zoo charged no admission. At some point in the last eight years, it started to charge admission, which made me grumble for a while, but in the end we got our money's worth. With 76 species on 32 acres, it isn't a huge zoo, but size isn't the thing. Novelty is, and at Racine I saw some animals I don't see often, or ever, such as Ankole-Watsui Cattle, with their enormous horns.

Ankole-Watsui is an ancient African breed, with ancestors among the Hamitic longhorns bred by ancient Egyptians. Lately North Americans have taken to breeding them.

Also living at the Racine Zoo are coati -- South American raccoons, essentially -- ever-active meerkats, West Caucasian turs, Andean bears ("last of the short-faced bears"), Amur tigers and African penguins. It was news to me that any kind of penguin lives on the southwest coast of Africa. Off the west coast of South America, there in the Humboldt Current, certainly, but Africa? About a half-dozen African penguins stood in the shade, reminding me of my ignorance about most things penguin. They are short, stubby penguins, not the kind that are lauded in noble penguin movies.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Wheeling Superdawg

Happy Easter. I'll post again on Monday.

Wow, it was well over 80° F. here today. No fooling. Probably the warmest April 1 I've ever experienced in the North, and according to the weather nerds, a record high temp for this date in metro Chicago. Ants appeared on the sidewalks. So did a single, very small ladybug. As if on cue, a baseball team -- real equipment and all -- materialized in the park behind my back yard late in the afternoon and started practicing. The ping of aluminum bats announced spring, at least for a few days.

One more post about last week's sojourn to a mansion. What to do after touring a mansion exuding poshness, if you happen to be hungry? Go to a hot dog stand.

Not just any hot dog stand, but the drive-in Superdawg. Not the original, which is on the Northwest side of Chicago, but the Wheeling, Ill., iteration that opened in January. It was on our way home.

Superdawg is one of those places that gets written up and televised. Its web site (which says "hiya" when you open it), cites references in Frommer's Chicago, NorthShore Magazine, Fodor's CityGuide Chicago, National Geographic Traveler, Eat Your Way Across the USA, Midwest Living, USA Today, and other publications; as well as pieces on ABC, CBS, PBS, Fox, Travel Channel and Food Network. It's also, for some reason, in the famous (infamous) 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.*

If the Wheeling location is anything like the original, vintage 1948, it's got atmosphere, at least. The signature hot-dog mascot statues are on the roof -- one in a party dress, the other in a loin cloth -- and they appear on the food boxes and in other places around the restaurant. There are black and white tiles that made diamond patterns. There's some chrome and a little neon. The place is ringed with order stations serviced by carhops.

Each order station also has a sign that says: "We're super sorry, but we're unable to accept credit cards because of our unique drive in/carhop service..." We went inside anyway, and they don't accept cards there either. Retro indeed. But what's this about having a unique drive in/carhop service? It is not. I've been to a handful of carhop places in recent years -- one in Oregon, Illinois; another in Indianapolis; and a few others whose locations I forget, not counting Sonics.

Never mind that. The food's the thing. I had a hamburger and it was... OK. The fries were tasty enough, and the small sample of milk shake that I tried was pretty good too. I'll put the place in my book: 1,000 Places to See If You Happen to Be Nearby, But Don't Fret About it Otherwise.

* I don't own this book, but have looked at it some detail. A spot-on review by D. Kester at notes: "This book was written by a tourist industry writer, and it shows... it seems that a third of her recommendations are for hotels. Much of the rest are the obvious famous places. In her book fantastic nature takes a back seat to hotels. Beautiful scenery is less important than hotels. Exotic cultures are rarely mentioned unless presented as entertainment at one of her 5-star hotels. Amazing art is less important than a hotel with a nice lobby. Critical places of human history are only worth visiting if there is a good hotel nearby. The book should have been named 'My favorite hotels, plus a few other places I like.' "

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