Midwest Modernism

October 2016.

Modern Architectural Masterpieces of the Midwest


Think “Wow,” not plough. Sure, fields of corn, bluestem grass and wildflowers all grow on the American prairie, but Modern architecture has roots there, too…deep ones. Ever since Chicago became—after the great of 1971—the world’s laboratory for Modernism, its groundbreaking innovations spread and seeded outlying regions with an appetite for the au courant that thrives up to this minute. Hop aboard our 10-day road-trip and clap your bedazzled eyeballs on some of the most impressive architectural icons of the 20th century, as well as new ones of the 21st by celebrity “starchitects” of today.

Day 1 – Chicago

Arrive at The Hotel Burnham, occupying the Reliance Building, one of the earliest skyscrapers and at the time of its 1895 completion, one of the most daring. With broad panes of glass dressing most of the façade, this famous edifice by Daniel Burnham (architect of New York City’s Flatiron Building) clearly bares itself as a precocious precursor to the mid-20th-century work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. After settling in, toddle over with your Alpha Guide to nearby Millennium Park, a recently inaugurated crowd-pleaser with stunners like Frank Gehry’s performance pavilion; the water, glass and electronic Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa; and Anish Kapoor’s elephantine butterbean-shaped sculpture, better known as Cloud Gate.

Day 2 – Chicago

After breakfast in your room, join our guide from the Chicago Architecture Foundation in a private van at 9 a.m. Chicago’s diversified mix of architecture can intoxicate but today we limit ourselves to only an apéritif, one that will whet our palate for creations by architects whose handiwork we’ll encounter later in the trip. First off, a Louis Sullivan masterpiece: the Carson, Pirie, Scott Store, richly embellished with the architect’s signature organic motifs of botanical configurations that have no precedent in European styles. Next stop: Frederick C. Robie House, the epitome of Frank Lloyd Wright’s hallmark Prairie style. We’ll have a complete tour of this landmark and its grounds with full exegesis by our guide. After lunch, our boiled-down survey of Chicago Modernism concentrates on the work of Mies van der Rohe. An expert from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Mies van der Rohe Society will offer critical interpretation of the campus’s S. R. Crown Hall and Carr Memorial Chapel, as well as the landscape plan by Alfred Caldwell (whose work we’ll also see in Dubuque). Also on the itinerary will be piping-fresh new works at IIT by Rem Koolhaas and Helmut Jahn.

Day 3 – Chicago to Davenport

After breakfast and a 9 a.m. check-out from the hotel, board the van, which is stocked with articles and monographs related to our itinerary and your own individual folder filled with information about the area to be covered today, for the 50-mile drive to Plano, Ill., and a rendezvous with architectural gold: The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. This 28 x 77-ft one-room residence of 1950 strips architecture down to the bare bone: a roof, a floor, four glass walls, eight I-beams and a terrace, all combining to achieve the sublime. After the house tour, we’ll have a picnic lunch in the Woodland Walk, a feature of the surrounding landscape designed by Lanning Roper. From Plano, we head 121 miles to Moline, Ill., and stop in on the John Deere & Co. Administration Building, a 1964 masterstroke of oxidizing steel and glass by Eero Saarinen. Its gracefully landscaped grounds are by the illustrious maestro of trees, shrubs and water features, Hideo Sasaki. We then cross the Mississippi River into Iowa to take a gander at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum, a coolly Minimalist glass concoction by acclaimed London architect David Chipperfield, before continuing 58 miles to Iowa City.

Day 4 – Davenport to Sioux City

After breakfast at the hotel, board the van at 9:30 a.m. for a spin around the campus of the University of Iowa, best known for its Writers’ Workshop (the wellspring of wordsmiths like Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams) but also the site of Modern works by Gehry, Gunner Birkerts, Gwathmey Siegel and Steven Holl (the School of Art). Lunch is a spread of fried chicken and Iowa ham served family-style at the Ox Yoke Inn in Amana, a well-preserved village settled by Germans in the 1850s a half-hour away. From there we travel 56 miles to Grinnell, Iowa, for Louis Sullivan’s diminutive but dapper Merchants’ National Bank, then to Des Moines (54 miles), where we visit the Des Moines Art Center. As an amalgam of work by three contradistinctive architects—Eliel Saarinen (Eero’s dad), I.M. Pei and Richard Meier—the museum is as much a menagerie of architecture as of art. On the grounds are virtuoso compositions by Andy Goldsworthy and Mary Miss, both commissioned by the museum. Other distinguished architecture in Des Moines: Butler House, one of the finest Moderne houses from the Depression era: Eero Saarinen’s round Scott A. Chapel on the campus of Drake University; and Mies’s American Federal Savings and Loan Association of 1962. Along the journey to our next destination, Sioux City (200 miles), while watching the Ken Burns’ documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright on the van’s DVD player, we’ll sample achievements of various Midwest wineries, served with cheeses from Wisconsin and Iowa, notably Maytag blue, applauded world-wide as one of the best.

Day 5 – Sioux City to Minneapolis

After breakfast, we start the day at 8:30 a.m. with an architectural experience to which only an informed very few have bragging rights: The Woodbury County Courthouse, the largest Prairie-style structure in the world. Handsomely ornamented inside and out with iconography of the American Midwest, this work of 1918 by William Steel, George Elmslie and William Purcell, clearly shows the influence of their former associate, Louis Sullivan, and transports the visitor worlds away from the usual Neo-classical style of your everyday courthouse. Here, you’ll gaze on the only Prairie-style courtrooms in the universe. After a quick Charlie Boy sandwich (a cousin to the hamburger and a regional spécialté of the the Miles Inn), we depart by air at 1 p.m. for a nonstop flight to Minneapolis, where we’ll stay at the contempo Le Meridien. We’ll enjoy a performance this evening in the spanking-new Jean Nouvel-designed Guthrie Theater, an arresting configuration of glass and metal terraces, cubes and cylinders that pays homage to the grain silos of the Midwest. Dinner at Murray’s, Home of the Silver Butter Knife Steak.

Day 6 – Minneapolis to Owatonna

After breakfast at the hotel, we pay visit to the newly born and blindingly contemporary Walker Art Center addition, clad in silvery crinkled panels by the Swiss architectural team of Herzog & de Meuron. Lunch is at the museum’s restaurant 20.21, which is under the aegis of Wolfgang Puck and has prominent views of the Minneapolis skyline. Save room for the signature dessert––Spoon, Cube, and Cherry––that mimics the famous Claes Oldenburg sculpture, Spoonbridge and Cherry, in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. We board the van at 1:30 p.m. for the 77-mile trip to Collegeville, Minn., home to St. John’s University Church, a large, sculptural concrete masterpiece by Marcel Breuer, architect of New York City’s Whitney Museum. St. John’s is likely the best designed 20th century church in the United States. Breuer also designed the Alcuin College Library (1967) nearby. Then on to Owatonna, Minn., for the night at a motel.

Day 7 – Owatonna to Dubuque

After breakfast, we head to Owatonna’s charming town square and confront American architecture at its most original and majestic: the National Farmers’ Bank of 1908 by Louis Sullivan. St. Peter’s Cathedral, Radio City Music Hall, the Opéra de Paris—all possess interior spaces of the highest order, and the inside of the Farmers’ Bank, small though it is, ranks right up there with them. Also in Owatonna: Purcell & Elmslie’s John Adair residence. Afterwards, we head 94 miles east to Winona, Minn., for the Merchants’ National Bank by Purcell & Elmslie (1912), another jewel box of a repository. While listening to audio tapes of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, we head 150 miles south to Dubuque, Iowa, along the tall bluffs bordering the Mississippi River on the Great River Road.

Day 8 – Dubuque to Madison

After breakfast in the galley, we tour Eagle Point Park, the sole example of large-scale Prairie-style landscaping, by the gifted designer Alfred Caldwell, who channeled inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright for park structures using native materials. We board the van to continue 120 miles to Spring Green, Wis., and tour Taliesin III, Frank Lloyd Wright’s primary home and studio, and a masterwork expertly arrayed around courtyards and cascading water effects. The 600-acre Taliesin estate also includes Wright’s grave bearing a marker in his signature style. Back in the van we go for the 37-mile drive into Madison, Wis., where we’ll tour the First Unitarian Meeting House, one of F.L.W.’s finest ecclesiastical designs. Lodging is at the Edgewater Hotel, where rooms overlook Lake Mendota; dinner is in downtown Madison at Harvest.

Day 9 – Madison to Milwaukee

At 9 a.m., we head to Milwaukee (80 miles) through Columbus, Wis., to see another Louis Sullivan gem, the Union Bank; then to Delafield to take a look at the 19th-century Carpenter Gothic-style St. John Chrysostum Church by Richard Upjohn, architect of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan,; and then to Wauwatosa to view the flying-saucer-like Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church by F.L.W. In Milwaukee, we encounter the Milwaukee Art Museum, the first building in the U.S. by Santiago Calatrava. This brilliant white aeriform creation with its moveable brise-soleil wings appears to be on the verge of take-off from its Brew City perch. Lodging at the Hotel Pfister; dinner at Karl Ratzsch’s, a German restaurant in business since 1904.

Day 10 – Milwaukee to Chicago

After breakfast at the hotel, board the van at 9 a.m. for the 32-mile journey to Racine, Wis., where we rub eyes with the Johnson Wax Building of 1949 by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Earth’s most dramatic architectural experiences and the building Philip Johnson declared the best in all America. Pyrex glass tubing glistens along the exterior curving red-brick forms while high-flying interior dendriform columns—looking like trees or perhaps giant golf tees––make working here an almost religious experience. After a complete tour, we pick up from Berdsten’s Bakery a bag of Kringles (a pastry known only around Racine that is a hybrid of croissant and Danish) to take to friends back home before heading the 76 miles to Chicago for airport departures. v