A child sits at the helm of a CTA bus, furiously spinning the steering wheel, following his own inclinations. Public transportation is unreliable anyway; you may decide to foot it. Turn left and find all of Chicago spread out before you -- in a cramped basement.
"Amazing Chicago," a new permanent exhibit at Express-Ways Children's Museum in Lincoln Park, scales down the city into modular stomping grounds for children. The Sears Tower pokes its head into cutout clouds, becoming an architectural playground. Two miniature lions guard the entrance to the Art Institute; inside, an Alexander Calder-ish mobile is repeatedly dismantled and reconstructed by feverish hands.
The exhibit is largely the brainchild of noted architect Stanley Tigerman, who designed it pro bono. "What can I say? I like kids. Kids like what I do. My biggest constituency has always been the prepubescent crowd."
Tigerman has covered the museum's basement with painted-on figures. The room's columns are disguised as el supports, while a CTA train rumbles along a ceiling duct. One wall bears the expanse of the Chicago skyline -- John Hancock, the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart, the works of Mies and Sullivan, all crowding together. On the other side, Lake Michigan spreads to the horizon, and above it, a skywriting plane bursts out of the wall and into three dimensions.
The building replicas themselves have intricate trompe l'oeil facades with meticulously detailed curlicues and columns. Made of wood, each building stands about six feet tall, with steps leading into carpeted enclosures, where disarming tableaux beckon. Inside Cook County Hospital, teddy bears lie prostrate on an inclined bed. Underneath are three drawers, clearly marked "Bones"; X rays, doctors' masks, and a life-size skeleton complete the medical ensemble.
The pieces on display are meant to engage children in creation, encourage them to participate by adding on or reconstructing. They can build their own structures on blueprints for already existing edifices (maybe in the case of the State of Illinois Building they can improve matters). They can write letters in the U.S. Post Office building, put together books in the Tribune pressroom, or create "concrete poems" out of an old-shoe collection.
"Amazing Chicago" had its first incarnation at the Public Library Cultural Center, the previous home of the children's museum. When Express-Ways moved to Lincoln Park, museum director Dianne Sautter approached Tigerman about the prospect of redoing the project. She says now that she expected only friendly advice. "We needed to do something to make the (basement) room hang together. He didn't want to just give us ideas and have other people implement them. He wanted to be in on the beginning, middle, and end."
Tigerman, with two grown children of his own, has lent his name to the museum's activities, including a "Meet the Architect" program. To create structures sufficiently impervious to the onslaught of children, he and his assistants, Fred Wilson and painter Tony Melvin, had to put in a good number of hours, he says. "But so what? Architects never grow up anyway."
Nevertheless, "Amazing Chicago" has features that may keep even adults occupied. Labels hidden away in the facades of dollhouse-size buildings identify architectural features particular to Chicago: when, for example, was the last time you encountered a prairie-style cantilevered roof -- and knew what to call it?
Tigerman insists the designs are exclusively for children. "I'd like them to enjoy their life in Chicago a little better. Adults, it's too late."
The museum, at 2045 N. Lincoln Park West, is open Tuesday Friday from 12:30 PM to 4: and Saturday and Sunday from 10 AM to 3 PM. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children; call 281-3222 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.