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Chicago! A Second City second to none

Courtesy Chicago Skydeck

Chicago is one of the great cities of the world and one of my favorites to visit. Known by various monikers, such as the Windy City (thanks to local politicians, not the gusts off Lake Michigan), the Second City (thanks to its rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1871) and the City of Big Shoulders (thanks to poet Carl Sandburg), Chicago is an exciting combination of architecture, culture, music, food, shopping, theater and sports.

But Chicago is not resting on its laurels. Several of its vintage cultural institutions are in the midst of major changes, from a striking new contemporary wing on the Art Institute of Chicago to a dramatic new multispecies show at the Shedd Aquarium, a massive 10-year redesign of the exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, and a redirection of the exhibits and mission of the Adler Planetarium.

Even its iconic skyscrapers, the Willis Tower — the former Sears Tower — and the John Hancock Tower have made major renovations of their famous observation decks to greatly enhance the visitor experience as the buildings move into middle age.

On a recent visit, I checked out some of the newest happenings in the Windy City, the Second City and the City of Big Shoulders.

Outside the Box
A 40-foot-high tornado, a 30-foot-long tsunami and a 10-foot arc of lightning greeted me as I toured the newest permanent exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago. However, the massive museum, located in a building from the 1893 Columbian Exposition five miles from downtown in the Hyde Park neighborhood, was in no danger.

Courtesy Museum of Science and Industry

The natural phenomena were simulations that are part of Science Storms, a bevy of innovative hands-on exhibits that illustrate the basic principles of chemistry and physics that are responsible for tornados, lightning, tsunamis, fire, sunlight, avalanches and atoms in motion.
The exhibit, which opened in mid-March, just a few weeks before my visit, is part of an ambitious 10-year remaking of the museum’s exhibits.

“Ninety percent of the museum will eventually be redone,” said Beth Boston, public relations manager for the museum.

That’s a huge undertaking, considering that the 77-year-old museum is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 400,000 square feet of exhibit space. Science Storms and You! The Experience, which opened in October, total 40,000 square feet of new exhibits. Each exhibit has more than 50 interactive stations.

“Hands-on is what we are really known for,” said Boston. “We want to inspire any age to understand about the world.”

In Science Storm, I watched dozens of children on spring break stand inside the 40-foot-high column of vapor that simulates a tornado, trigger a 20-foot avalanche to see the dynamics of granules, make a giant rainbow with optical prisms, get tips from Chicago Bulls basketball star Derrick Rose about the parabola in a perfect jump shot, and create a tsunami and see its impact on different coastal environments in a 30-foot-long wave tank.

A special SciPass ticket allows you to scan your interactions with the exhibits and later download them from the museum’s Web site,

Science Storms augments its high-tech interactivity with more than 200 historic artifacts, including a 1704 first copy of Isaac Newton’s records of his experiments into the physics of light.
You! The Experience explores health and well-being. “The stress is on living a more healthy lifestyle,” said Boston.

As a heart attack survivor, I was particularly intrigued by the new 13-foot-tall virtual heart, which replaces the museum’s longtime walk-through heart. With the latest high-definition digital imagery, I was able to make the heart beat in time with my pulse and see a lifelike right main artery, which in my heart had been 99 percent blocked.

In another area that displays breakthroughs in medical technology, I saw a medicated stent like the two that were placed in my own heart after the blockage was removed through angioplasty.
I also checked out an earlier part of the makeover, the 30,000-square-foot U-505 submarine, the only German World War II submarine on display in the United States.

“This is not a reproduction or a movie set, but a real German submarine,” said a guide as we prepared to enter the boat.

The submarine is easily entered and exited through large doors cut in the side, but the tour, which discusses the submarine’s critical capture in 1944, gives a good feel for the stark and claustrophobic conditions under which the crew worked.

The U-505’s capture by a special task force yielded 900 pounds of critical classified documents and two Enigma machines that enabled the Allied forces to break German codes.

One of those machines is among some 200 artifacts that are part of the informative and interactive exhibits alongside the 700-ton submarine. The submarine was moved five years ago from the outdoor space where it had sat for 50 years to a climate-controlled underground exhibit hall in an amazing engineering feat that is shown on time-lapse video footage.

Courtesy Chicago Shedd Aquarium

The latest technological innovations were on display in real time at my next stop, the Shedd Aquarium, whose popular dolphin show, Fantasea, has been expanded and upgraded into a high-technology, multispecies production.

“Instead of just dolphins, the show also now includes beluga whales, penguins, a sea lion and a red hawk,” said Brad Martin, manager of tourism sales for the 80-year-old aquarium. “Dolphins are still part of the show and are the grand finale.”

The show also features a high-tech sound system, computer-controlled lighting, high-definition cameras that broadcast the smallest detail and the latest in projection systems. Images 110 feet wide and 20 feet high are displayed on the amphitheater’s new white curtain, which descends to cover the 450-foot-wide expanse of windows that normally look out over Lake Michigan.

The show was the result of a major renovation in the Shedd’s 19-year-old, 3 million-gallon Oceanarium, which re-creates the Pacific Northwest coast. The area was closed from Labor Day 2008 until mid-May 2009 while its five pools were recoated and the latest in animal-care technology and heating and cooling systems were installed.

The renovations also included the Shedd’s first permanent exhibit for children, expanded underwater viewing and upgraded sea otter, sea lion and penguin exhibits.

A starry outlook
The Adler Planetarium, located near the Shedd in the Museum Campus area that also includes the Field Museum, is also undergoing a major change.

Courtesy John Hancock Observatory

“We are trying to become more space exploration oriented,” said Julie Bishop, director of sales for the historic planetarium. “And we will continue to go more interactive.”

The planetarium already has on display the Gemini 12 capsule and the personal collection of memorabilia from astronaut Jim Lovell. A large new children’s area, Planet Explorers, which opened in late March, has numerous interactive, space-related exhibits that take kids on a flight to mysterious Planet X.

The Adler’s original 1930 Sky Theater, one of its two full-size theaters, will close in September for renovation and reopen the following May. The renovated theater will have the latest equipment and projectors, the dome screen will be extended to the floor, and a new show will be developed.

“It will provide more of an experience than just a show,” said Bishop

A new welcome gallery will be built outside the theater, where the current gift shop is located. The shop will be expanded and moved to an airy and bright corner that will provide outside access.

Another longtime Chicago cultural mainstay, the 131-year-old Art Institute of Chicago, opened its most ambitious building project last May: the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing.

The 264,000-square-foot limestone, glass and metal wing, with its unusual sunscreen canopy that floats over the roof, is linked to Millennium Park, another ambitious Chicago project, by a hull-shaped pedestrian bridge.

The wing increased the size of the Art Institute by one-third, making it the second-largest art museum in the United States. It houses the museum’s collection of modern European painting and sculpture, contemporary art, architecture and design, and photography.

Walking through the bright and expansive galleries, you encounter works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Salvador Dali, Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Robert Gober.

Courtesy Millennium Park

Stroll across the Nicholas Bridgeway to the six-year-old Millennium Park, the 24.5-acre site of landscaping, architecture, sculpture and public spaces that replaced an industrial wasteland.
Striking features of the park include the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion outdoor concert venue, the interactive Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s popular Cloud Gate sculpture.

The Pritzker Pavilion has 120-foot-high billowing, brushed stainless-steel ribbons framing the stage and an overhead trellis of crisscrossing steel pipes that support the sound system.

Two 50-foot glass-block towers frame a shallow reflecting pool at the Crown Fountain. Faces of Chicago residents are projected on light-emitting diode screens on the towers; water flows from their mouths.

The Cloud Gate, which measures 66 feet long and 33 feet high, is an elliptical sculpture of highly polished stainless-steel plates that reflect the city’s famous skyline and clouds. A 12-foot-high archway through the middle invites people to touch the sculpture.

A night at the theater
Chicago is one of the top cities in the country for theater. In addition to a regular season of Broadway shows, Chicago is a center for long-running shows. After three and a half years with Wicked and nearly two and a half years with Jersey Boys, in mid-March Chicago welcomed the first appearance outside New York of the Tony Award-winning Billy Elliott, with plans for a long tenure at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre.

Chicago has also been a launching pad for several hit Broadway shows, which present their pre-Broadway tryouts there. The most recent was The Addams Family, which ran through early January in Chicago before heading to the Great White Way.

Million Dollar Quartet, a surprising hit at the Apollo Theater in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, debuted on Broadway this spring.

Out on a ledge
“Three one-half-inch pieces of glass are between you and 1,353 feet straight down.”

by Herb Sparrow

Randy Stancik, general manager of the Chicago Skydeck, gave me that reassuring bit of information as I looked down between my feet at the Chicago River and the ant-size cars moving along Wacker Drive on a bright, unusually warm spring day. I was standing in one of Chicago’s newest attractions, the Ledge, fully enclosed glass boxes that extend out just over four feet from the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower.

The Ledge, which marks its first anniversary July 2, was part of a major redesign of the Skydeck that also included interactive and educational museum-quality exhibits and a film at the entry level and informational videos on elevators that whisk you to the observation level in 60 seconds.

“We wanted people to have an unforgettable experience,” said Stancik. “What would be the coolest thing we can do to give the most memory?”

Stancik said the first major test of the Ledge was a group of adults ranging in age from their 50s to their 70s. “It was a tough crowd,” he said. “They had seen everything, both the good and the bad tourism experiences. All of them lit up like 5-year-olds.”

The new entry level keeps people informed and entertained as they wait for the elevators. The interactive stations provide quick tidbits of information about Chicago pop culture, sports, architecture, history, food and music. You can see what makes up a real Chicago hot dog or compare your hand print to Michael Jordan’s — his fingers are twice as long as mine.

I especially enjoyed five video monitors in the floor that show how iconic Chicago locations such as the pitching mound at Wrigley Field and the Water Tower would look from the Skydeck’s elevation.

“We wanted to give a showcase for Chicago so you get a nice feel for the city,” said Stancik. “We know people are coming for the view and the Ledge, but there is a lot more to show.”

The John Hancock Observatory, Chicago’s other popular high-altitude vantage point, also had that in mind with its recent makeover of the visitor experience.

“We surveyed a large number of people, and the things they most wanted were a cafe, multimedia and assistance in planning their Chicago trip,” said Daniel Thomas, general manager of the observatory.

The remodeled observation area, on the 94th floor of the 1,127-foot-tall building affectionately called Big John by locals, includes all three for the first time.

Courtesy John Hancock Observatory

“Our end goal was to give our visitors even more to engage them during their trip than the amazing views for which we’re known,” said Thomas. “The observatory is their key to this great city, and we hope they’ll spend some more time exploring all that we have to offer.”

Knowledgeable concierges at a special desk on the 94th floor provide a wide range of assistance, from getting show tickets to finding restaurants and hotels. They will even work up an itinerary and print it, along with Google maps.

Thomas is especially proud of the new hand-held multimedia SkyTour that everyone gets with admission. The devices combine audio and video narrated by Friends actor David Schwimmer to give in-depth explanations of what visitors are seeing and insider tips about Chicago.

I wrapped up visits to both sites with a light dinner at the Espression by Lavazza Cafe at the Hancock Observatory, a casually elegant, European-style coffee shop that fills the observation deck’s southwestern corner, and watched the sun set and the city lights come on through its large windows.

The cafe features a range of specialty sandwiches, salads, pastries, gelato and espresso.
What remains unchanged at both skyscrapers are the great views for which they have been known for 40 years.

Although you can see for more than 50 miles on a clear day from both buildings, they provide different views and angles. I would recommend going, as I did, to one during the day and the other at night, when many of Chicago’s buildings are ablaze with multicolored lights.

Researching your trip:

Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau
(312) 567-8571