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Chicago — Inside and out

CHICAGO — This fall, as in the two previous falls, I found myself in Chicago. The days were sunny and the sky was brilliant and streaked with clouds. My husband and I walked through the parks and along the river and out to the lake shore, and I exclaimed about the clean city and the perfect weather.

My daughter, who lives here, said, "You haven't been here in the winter. Or in the summer."

Well. Yes. But even if it were icy or muggy, it would still be a fabulous city for tourists. There's enough to do indoors.

Who wouldn't enjoy a day at the Art Institute of Chicago, wandering among the Impressionists? Or a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry to watch the chicks hatch? If you haven't seen the play "Wicked," there's no theater more wildly ornate and interesting than the Oriental Theatre. You can spend intermission pondering how all those gewgaws get dusted.

Then, too, one of the best things to do indoors in Chicago is to eat. Delicious Italian is the easiest to find. But great steak is easy, too. So is great Chinese.

On this visit we tried to work our way back to a tasty Mexican dinner we had two years ago, so we asked around for a Mexican restaurant that begins with the letter Z and ended up at Zocalo (358 W. Ontario; 312-302-9977). We didn't recognize the place. But as soon as we fell into the food, we ceased to wonder where we were.

The mole was dark and tart and the chili relleno came in a puff pastry. Later, we learned the place we'd enjoyed before was Zapatista, 1307 S. Wabash. We think we remembered eating outside when we were there before, on a warm fall evening. We vow to go back, to both restaurants that start with Z.

Over the last three autumns, we've found a number of sites that bear revisiting. We've been twice to the home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park. And we've been three times on a boat tour; twice on the Chicago River and once on the tour that starts on the river and then goes into Lake Michigan.

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It took me only three times on a Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise before I understood how city planners reversed the flow of the Chicago River.

The river was filthy (Carl Sandburg didn't name this town "Hog Butcher for the World" for nothing) and the city gets its water from Lake Michigan, so how dirty did they really want the lake to get, the citizens asked themselves. They got busy digging a diversion channel that allowed the river to flow into the Mississippi River drainage system instead of Lake Michigan. The Mississippi River got the worst of their waste.

As it turned out, though, the lake needs some water from the river or it will shrink, and so, in the end, city planners devised a way to let some of the river water flow back into the lake. (But wasn't the water still dirty? A fourth or fifth boat tour may be needed before the average tourist can get her mind around the entire Chicago River engineering story.)

The guides on these 90-minute boat tours are volunteers. They are so smart and well informed that they are allowed to choose their own focus, to some degree, to emphasize the aspects of Chicago history they each find most interesting.

All the tour guides will describe the elegant skyscrapers, including style and date of construction and the architect who designed the building. All will mention the Chicago fire. And they'll all tell you about reversing the flow of the river.

But our first guide, three years ago, talked a lot about the bridges. Our tour guide this year barely mentioned those, but he did talk about architectural "referencing." He pointed out how the international-style architects turned their backs on the Chicago School, beaux-arts and art deco details of the original skyscrapers, while the postmodern architects made a point of echoing a few of those earlier details. A statue here. A pyramid there. And over there, a clock on the side of one of the newer skyscrapers.

Our guide also explained how Montgomery Ward got his start. The young traveling salesman quickly learned that his customers, on farms across the Midwest, didn't like to buy from traveling salesmen because they had no way of finding the guy again after the item he sold them broke when they tried to use it.

Ward started the country's first catalog business in 1872, in Chicago. He was also the first U.S. retailer to guarantee satisfaction.

Buildings that stick in your mind longer than the Sears Tower or the John Hancock Building include Ward's old warehouse, the old Marshall Field warehouse, the Civic Opera, the Wrigley Building and the Chicago Tribune. These are places where interesting work goes on, or went on. (In one of the warehouses employees wore roller skates to cover the ground more quickly.)

Other buildings seem like one pretty glass surface after another. Although the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building do offer great views.

You can find information about one of these boat tours, which run through October, for $26 or $28, at www.architecture.org, or 312-902-1500.

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At the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, the guides are allowed the same latitude as they are on the river cruises. Thus, you might find out more details about the dining room on your first tour, and a few years later, you might learn a bit more about the people who worked in Wright's studio, the artists and architects and draftsmen and — unusual for her day — the draftswoman who became an architect, Marion Mahoney.

Here is the house Wright built for his young bride, Catherine Tobin. It is the place where their six children were raised. It is also where he started his studio and where a new style of American architecture was born.

The house itself is shingle-style. Wright had yet to develop the Prairie house for which he became famous. Yet the interior of his first home feels much more open and spare than those of other houses of the time. As you walk through, you get a sense of where Wright would ultimately end up.

The tour lasts a little over an hour, which is hardly enough time to cover the house and studio and to learn of the beginnings of Wright's career and a bit about his family. There is no time to go into the dramas surrounding his love life.

Our latest tour guide did point us toward a new historical novel, "Loving Frank," by Nancy Horan (Ballentine Books, $23.95). Reading the book, we learned more about one of his loves, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. She's the neighbor who left her husband and children to follow Wright to Europe in 1909.

Horan is a journalist who lived in Oak Park for years. Because of the way Cheney's life ended (and Horan describes that tragedy quite hauntingly), none of the couple's love letters remain. Still, Horan had some facts to draw on, and she was able to portray a convincing relationship between Frank and Mamah.

Having lived in Oak Park herself, Horan knows the town. From the newspapers of the day, it was easy enough to understand the mores of the churchgoing Midwesterners who lived in Wright's community 100 years ago.

In her book, Horan reprints some of the headlines of the time, including these two:

LEAVE FAMILIES: ELOPE TO EUROPE; Architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mrs. Edwin Cheney of Oak Park Startle Friends.

ABANDONED WIFE LOYAL. Spouse Victim of a Vampire, She Says, and Will Return When He Can; Other's Husband Silent.

Little wonder then, that Frank and Mamah settled in Wisconsin, not Oak Park, when they came back from Europe.

At the bookshop next to the home, you can get a map and take a walking tour of the neighborhood, noting the Unity Temple and a dozen homes designed by Wright and his followers.

Wright's home and studio is at 951 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park, which is nine miles west of Chicago and is easily accessible by train. Visit www.wrightplus.org or call 708-848-1976.


E-mail: susan@desnews.com