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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 04:28 pm

Visiting outdoor Chicago

Turn a weekend trip into memories for your children

Untitled Document Once the school bell has rung for the last time, parents are ready to schedule a little summer fun for the family. Try a weekend in Chicago, where it’s easy to plan loads of outdoor fun activities that will thrill and amaze. With gas nearing $4 per gallon, the train may be the perfect way to travel. To avoid last-minute delays, purchase tickets in advance and be patient — Amtrak does not always run like clockwork. Be sure to bring along activities to keep you and the kiddies busy on the trip. One good, centrally located place to stay is the Palmer House. Kids will get a kick out of the beautiful architecture and, surrounded by the luxury and beauty of the historic hotel, can pretend that they’re royalty. The original hotel was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, just 13 days after opening, but architect John Mills Van Osdel, wisely, had buried the construction plans. Before the ashes were done smoking, Potter Palmer chose the lot across the street for the second Palmer House, this one fireproof, and it was completed by July 1873. President Grover Cleveland had an impromptu reception on the staircase in 1884, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant held a banquet there in 1879, and in 1933 the hotel opened the Empire Room, where some of the most famous performers of all time have appeared. Famed hotelier Conrad Hilton bought the Palmer House in December 1945. Should you stay, take family pictures on the grand staircase and spend a minute gazing up at the amazing ceiling. The restaurant at the hotel is pricey, so you may want to go around the corner to the Corner Bakery to find good, reasonably priced fare. Meals are also available at some of the fun stops you plan. The Palmer House Hilton is located at 17 E. Monroe St. Call 312-726-7500 for more information.
After checking in, hit the street and head for Millennium Park, but on the way take a detour to the Chicago Cultural Center. The center, located at 78 E. Washington St., opened in 1897 as the first central Chicago Public Library. Today the center hosts performers and public programs. Kids will love the building’s castlelike architecture and amazing stained-glass rotunda. Programs at the center include classical, jazz, world, folk, pop, and vocal music concerts, new and classic plays and readings, modern-dance performances, art discussions, film screenings, lectures, cultural celebrations, and participatory events for people of all ages. For those who have patient kids who like the arts, a “LunchBreak” session is offered each weekday, along with weekly “Sunday Salon Series” afternoon concerts. Building tours are offered at 1:15 p.m. each Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Groups may tour the building at other times by appointment. The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington St. Call 312-744-6630 for more information.
You’ll find a great photo op right in front of the center, where you can take a picture with one of Chicago’s famous cow sculptures. Across the street is Millennium Park, which is open daily 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Admission is free. One of the highlights of the park is the Frank Gehry outdoor concert venue, which measures 120 feet at its highest point. A variety of concerts and events are presented at this modern art arena during the summer months. The kids will enjoy seeing their reflections and taking their pictures at what Midwesterners refers to as the soybean sculpture, a 110-ton piece made of stainless-steel plates. The real name of the shiny bean, designed by British artist Anish Kapoor, is “Cloud Gate,” and beneath the 12-foot-high arch of the soybean or kidney shape is a “gate” where visitors can walk beneath the sculpture and see themselves from all sides. Millennium Park also boasts the quirky Crown Fountain, consisting of two 50-foot glass-block towers, each projecting video images, set at the ends of a shallow reflecting pool. Another fascinating feature of the park is the Lurie Garden; guided tours of the mazelike garden are offered every 10 to 15 minutes on Sundays through Sept. 28. For more information, call 312-742-1168 or go to www.millenniumpark.org.
Millennium Park is just north of the Chicago Art Institute. The kids may want to take a pass on Monet and Matisse and head instead to Navy Pier, with its amusement-park feel. Opened to the public in 1916, the pier offers a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. Here you can hop on a boat tour and enjoy the Chicago Children’s Museum, rides, shops, eateries, and other attractions.
If you’re looking for a bit of culture at Navy Pier, try the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. Located inside Festival Hall, this is the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to stained-glass windows. You can walk briskly with the kids along an 800-foot-long series of galleries boasting a permanent display of 150 stained-glass windows. The museum, housing both secular and religious windows, is divided by artistic theme into four categories: Victorian, Prairie, Modern, and Contemporary. Frank Lloyd Wright admirers will also enjoy examples of his work. During the summer, a free trolley takes visitors to Navy Pier; your hotel concierge can offer details. Navy Pier is located at 600 E. Grand Ave. For more information, call 312-595-7437 or go to www.navypier.com. Up for a ride on the L? For a small-town boy or girl, riding on the rapid-transit rail system (much of it on elevated tracks through the city) may the ultimate excitement of the trip. Our suggestion: Catch a line and head for the Garfield Park Conservatory, which celebrates its centennial this year. This jewel was designed by famous landscape architect Jens Jensen, best known in Springfield for the Lincoln Memorial Garden. The conservatory has a distinctive ceiling that Jensen, in a nod to Midwestern agrarian sensibilities, wanted to be evocative of a haystack.
Garfield conservatory offers a variety of indoor gardens and this year provides a series of events under the theme “Chicagoasis: The Greenest Show on Earth.” Many of the plants on display at the Garfield Conservatory are very old. Because there is no foundation beneath the conservatory, just Chicago soil, plants with roots that require a lot of space can flourish. One of the ones in this category is the Scheelea palm, which was grown from a seed given to scientist on an expedition to Brazil in 1926. The palm is now the largest — although not the tallest — at the conservatory. Cultural exchanges such as this one have resulted in the great variety of plant life from all around the world here. Outside the conservatory are communal gardens. Some summer highlights include the “Flower Power” show, June 7-Sept. 28. The newly established Museum of Botany will feature the exhibit Cultivars of the Past & Present June 7 through Sept. 28. Located at 300 N. Central Park Ave., the conservatory is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Thursday until 8 p.m. For more information, call 312-746-5100 or go to www.garfield-conservatory.org. These are just a few of the things to do in Chicago. Although the Sears Tower, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Museum of Science and Industry still top many lists, these summer activities will get your kids outside to enjoy a little cultural beauty and make memories that will last.
Cindy Ladage of Virden is a
frequent contributor to
Illinois Times.


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