Friday, August 10, 2012

Of Dawgs and Domes

Warren and I got out of town for a few days a few weeks ago, spending most of the time in Madison, Wisconsin, with family.We were long overdue for a few days away not related to the Symphony and this was our best opportunity.

You can't get to Madison without going through Chicago. Well, maybe you can, but we can't. Especially when we were on the trail of a hot dog. Not just any hot dog, mind you, but a Superdawg.

You know it is a Superdawg because of the statues on the top of the drive-in.

Warren and I are hot dog aficionados and have been known to plan our travel just to make sure certain hot dog stands are part of the route. Superdawg, long on our list, was why we chose the path we did in heading to Wisconsin. Other routes would have been more direct and a lot more efficient, but they would not included Superdawg.

Yes, that is traditional Chicago "green relish" on the Superdawg. 
We were not disappointed. In fact, I can easily say that the Superdawg is the best hotdog I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a lot of hotdogs in my life). In fact, Superdawgs are so good that they are permanently on my "gotta eat this when I am Chicago" list, right alongside Harold's Chicken.

Although I probably could have stayed and eaten at Superdawg for the remainder of the weekend, we were headed to Wisconsin. Warren and I continued north under the delusion that the roads leading to Wisconsin would not be clogged on a bright, sunny Saturday and that Lake Geneva, a resort town in Wisconsin, would somehow be anything other than bumper-to-bumper crawling traffic on a bright, sunny Saturday.

Let's just say our delusions were soon smashed.Warren had memories of being at Lake Geneva as a child, and I think harbored some faint hope that he might even be able to find the vacation house his grandmother had rented that long ago summer. We quickly realized that the only sensible response to Geneva Lake was to get out of it as soon as possible, and the fastest way to do that was to turn along the lake (cleverly named Geneva Lake) and head towards Williams Bay, with the thought of picking up a blue highway leading to Madison from there.

As we drove towards Williams Bay, I reminded Warren that it was the home of Yerkes Observatory, the University of Chicago's architectural and astronomical gem. Warren said in response, "there it is."

And he was right. There was the main dome of the Yerkes Observatory, looming up over trees on the horizon.

We debated whether to stop. Warren had never seen the building (we were too late for any tours that day); I had not seen it in over 35 years. I thought it was out of our way and we should keep driving. Warren thought otherwise. "How many times are we ever going to be this close to it again?"

He was right.

We flashed through Williams Bay, coming upon the observatory quickly. I had forgotten it was set so close to town and the road, but had not forgotten the long, sweeping drive leading up to it.

And then there it was.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... Or something like that. A very, very long time ago, in my first year of college, I was in an ill-advised (and blessedly, in retrospect, ill-fated) relationship with someone pursuing a PhD in astronomy. The sole good thing that came out of this was I spent more than one weekend at Yerkes Observatory and got to know it in a way that only graduate students in astronomy would.

And here I was, almost 40 years later, seeing it again.

Warren had to attend to some urgent Symphony business by phone, so I was on my own to wander around the grounds. For the longest time, I just stood there and let it sink in. I stared up at the main dome, the one that houses the 40 inch refracting telescope through which I once looked at a double star in a far away galaxy. I looked at the shutters on the dome and distantly recalled the sound of them opening.

I admired the building, seeing it architecturally in ways I did not know so many years ago. Yerkes Observatory remains one of the great architectural accomplishments of Henry Ives Cobb, who was the principal architect for the University of Chicago. While the campus is a collection of Gothic Revival architecture, Cobb designed Yerkes in a classical mode with strong Romanesque features.

Roman arches march around the domes, frame the long sweeps of windows, and mark the identical front and rear entrances.

In keeping with the gargoyles and other grotesqueries with which Cobb marked the Chicago campus, Yerkes is also adorned with strong, ornate carvings. They run up the columns,

they adorn windows,

and they are tucked under, above or around the various portals.

As I looked at the carvings, I sought out the most famous of them: the portrayal of John D. Rockefeller, the founding benefactor of the University of Chicago, whom Cobb had caricatured in a repeating motif at Yerkes. Originally there was also a large wasp with the face of William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University, perched on the end of John D.'s nose, but the wasps were ordered chiseled off when the building was opened. The chisel marks still remain.

Many years ago, I had written a poetic monologue featuring George Ellery Hale, the great astronomer who founded Yerkes Observatory and, later, the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. (He is the "Hale" of the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory.) The poem did not survive the Great Poetry Massacre of the late 90s, but as is the case with a number of those never to be read works, pieces of it have remained in my mind. In the poem, Hale talked of going west in part because the Wisconsin nights were often too misty for astronomers to get good work done. The skies of California were crisp and dry, and presented no such problems. Hale, already an established, highly respected scientist when he made the move, became even more prominent in his field after he left Yerkes. I have never read that he regretted leaving behind Yerkes. But my poem ended with him musing about what he had left behind, "back in [his] youth," his little observatory, his "little Yerkes."

While I felt the faint whiff of the past—my past, the observatory's past—when standing there once again, I felt more the strong pull of the present. The day was growing later and family was waiting. Warren finished his phone calls and I quickly pointed out a few features, including the Rockefeller carvings. I marveled aloud that I was sharing Yerkes with him. We gave each other a hug, then climbed into the car, drove out of the grounds and on down the road.


see you there! said...

I've never chased down a hot dog. You are a die hard fan it seems.

I want to know the story behind the wasp on the nose, the wasp that had to be removed. Sounds interesting.


Linda said...

Hi, a new follower here. I had to read more after I saw Wisconsin. I live in a small town in central Wi on Lake Michigan and don't get to Madison, Milw, or Chicago (mostly by choice).
I am not a hot dog lover, but then I have never had a superdawg....if I come across one I WILL have one!
And why couldn't the wasp stay on his nose?
I understand about just standing there and soaking up the scene of so many memories.

Sharon said...

You made the hotdog sound awfully good...

That observatory looks fabulous..I know my son would LOVE to see it. Thanks for sharing!

Ellen said...

Thanks for the insight into the observatory! Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, my best friend would miss my birthday party every year as it conflicted with her trip to Lake Geneva with her grandparents! And yes, Chicago has the best dogs, bar none. Hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip!