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A 2-HOUR DRIVE FROM CANCÚN’S BEACHES, THE MYSTERIOUS AND LOOMING PYRAMIDS AND TEMPLES OF CHICHÉN-ITZÁ OFFER A FASCINATING JOURNEY INTO AN ANCIENT MAYAN CITY IN MEXICO’S YUCATÁN JUNGLE INTERIOR.

Chac-Mool statue on top of the Temple of the Warriors at the ancient Mayan archeological site of Chichén-Itzá. This impressive sculpture was used in ancient times as an altar for sacrifices.

Text and photographs by John P. Walsh

Cancún’s spit of land at the northern tip of the Yucatán peninsula was uninhabited by the ancient Mayans, trodden by the conquistadores, and used by assorted pirates as a hide-out. Today, oozing like wet plaster into the Caribbean sea, the beaches are a new jet-age resort. I visited the Yucatán from Chicago for a few days in May 1988.

Though the tourist board in Cancún was telling of more resort development by the mid-1990s, during my trip it already boasted of 85 hotels and about 9,000 guest rooms.

After two days acclimating myself nicely to the Caribbean climate and working my way un poco with the Spanish language, I signed up with a local tour operator for a 12-hour bus tour to one of the most famous sites on the Yucatán peninsula, as well as the world: the ancient Mayan archeological site of Chichén-Itzá.

With its mysterious, virtually-intact looming pyramids and temples as well as startling tales of human sacrifice and one of the world’s most accurate cosmic calendar systems—all from over 1,000 years ago—I was excited to adventure out of the comfort of Cancún’s “Zona Hotelera” into the Yucatán jungle interior.

Setting out from Cancún into the Yucatán jungle

The ancient Mayan cities and later Spanish colonial ones that sit on top of them are a stark contrast to the touristy jet-set beaches of Cancún. An extensive jungle stretches across the Yucatán’s three states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatán that are inhabited by human communities as well as wild animals such as jaguars. We frequently saw black-headed, blue-bodied birds called Yucatán jays. We also saw iguanas on the sun-washed rocks.

I left the hotel and met the bus in Cancún town at 8:00 a.m. Francisco drove the air-conditioned 40-seater as Raúl toted a microphone and told the group about some of the things we were seeing.

They would take us out of Quintana Roo’s Cancún to Yucatán’s Chichén-Itzá about 125 miles away. On arrow-straight highway 180 we drove into several small local communities along the two-lane road. We would finally reach Chichén-Itzá by way of a short distance out of the Mayan/Spanish colonial city of Valladolid which is sometimes called the most colorful town in Mexico.

Chichén-Itzá’s famous complex of Mayan ruins dates from the Classic period of 600 CE to 1200 CE. Important archeological sites in the Yucatán still await reclamation from the jungle–such as a smaller Cobá in Quintana Roo. Guided tours like this one are recommended for a remarkably extensive and safe visit into these interesting but backwater places.

Route 180: From Cancún to Valladolid

Yucatán’s South 180.

The bus climbed onto south highway 180 and followed it through villages such as Cocoyol, Catzin, Chemax, Xalaú, and others. Along the route there were thatched-roof dwellings which held patterned hammocks inside. Outside, dogs slinked around and small farm animals sometimes shared the road. The entire Yucatán peninsula is sparsley populated with only a fraction (about 4%) of Mexico’s total population. 

Francisco told us that the thatched-roof dwellings were durable. One such dwelling could last almost 20 years. The huts were made of sticks which we were told kept dwellers cool and comfortable year-round. Raúl said that the average year-round temperature on the peninsula was 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Starting in April, humidity levels rose and the temperature hovered over 100 degrees. Thatched hut dwellings were the predominant local housing we saw from highway 180.

With few exceptions, the lifestyle of modern Mayans has not strayed far from their ancestors of previous millennia. Traditional Mayan homes are oval-shaped huts made of sticks bound together to form walls. Palm fronds are laid upon this wood frame for a peaked roof. Inside there is a main room usually with a dirt floor. Hammocks create a sleeping area.

In Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town founded in 1543, there were larger stores. From the bus windows, we saw local women in the huipil, the traditional garment worn by indigenous women from central Mexico to Central America, doing their errands. They outnumbered men on the street who were mostly absent on this sunny, hot weekday May morning.

Raúl said the men worked in Cancún during the week for about eight dollars a day, This wage was significantly higher than the $5 a day usually earned on the peninsula. The workers, Raúl said, are “smart” because when they are working, they live at the hotels where they eat, shower, and live rent-free. When they return home to the villages, they bring all of their earnings with them to their families. In most of these outlying towns it requires about $40 per week in income to meet living expenses, whereas workers in Cancún can earn nearly twice that amount.

Iglesia de San Servacio (1545), Valladolid

The Iglesia de San Servacio is in the center of Valladolid on the south side of the main square. It was founded and built by Fr. Francisco Hernandez on March 24, 1545.

In 1705 part of the original church was demolished by order of the Benedictine bishop of Yucatán, Pedro Reyes de los Ríos de Lamadrid (1657-1714). The bishop ordered this partial demolition following the desecration of the sacred building during a political battle in July 1703 known as the “Crime of Mayors.”

San Servacio, founded 1545, Valladolid, Mexico.

After Captain Hipólito de Osorno lost political favor in Valladolid he decided, together with his lawyer Pedro Gabriel de Covarrubias, to take refuge in the church of San Servacio.

But the political excitement of the time had reached an uncontrollable situation. In the pre-dawn hours of July 1703, a frenzied mob, led by Valladolid’s newly-elected mayors, Señors Avuso and Tovar, broke into the sacred enclosure.

The lawyer De Covarrubias was killed in the church after being driven through by a spear. His blood spilled upon and stained the altar. The captain was also mortally wounded when the mob found him hidden behind the organ. The ruckus in no way benefitted the two new mayors. Both Señors Ayuso and Tovar were found guilty of murder and hanged.

Catholic cathedral in Valladolid demolished and rebuilt after being profaned by a mob during the hot summer of 1703

Due to this murder in the cathedral the bishop had it rebuilt in 1706 as it is seen today. The altar’s position was moved to face north and west towards Rome. The church building is located on Valladolid’s main square named after Francisco Cantón Rosado (1833-1917), a conservative governor of Yucatán (1898-1902).

The church building’s main façade has a coat of arms carved on stone with arabesques, a royal crown, and a Franciscan cord. There are images of an eagle and a palm that were frequently used in the decoration of Franciscan churches in the Yucatán. Two square-shaped towers rise on either side of the central façade.

Near downtown Valladolid.

The Ancient Mayans — from the Bronze Age (2600 BCE) to Classic period (1200 CE)

The Mayan civilization is shrouded in the mists of history. Archeologists, anthropologists and historians have speculated that they originated in about in 2600 BCE in the middle of the Bronze Age (3300 BCE to 1300 BCE). The origins of the Mayans therefore predate the oldest books of the Bible by 1,000 years.

Mayan culture made remarkable advances in mathematics and astronomy. Mayans are also known for their impressive urban planning, farming methods, and architectural achievements, all of which are on view at Chichén-Itzá in its pyramids, temples, ball courts, palaces, and observatories.

Mayan technical skill extended to complex calendar systems and hieroglyphic writing whose images are in evidence at Chichén-Itzá. Mayan artisans were skillful weavers and potters and artifacts have been found in vast quantities at the site. The ancient Mayans also cleared routes for trade. Their main source of fresh water was from cenotes (sink-holes) and they stored rainwater in reservoirs called chultun.

Complex, evolving social structures.

By 300 BCE Mayan society had evolved into a hierarchical social structure where kings and priests ruled. Stretching from Cancún through the Yucatán, Belize, and Guatemala to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, Mayan civilization was a highly structured society. It consisted of several independent states, each possessed of several classes—a ruling class, warrior class, and agricultural class. The society reached its apex in the Classic period from about 200 CE to 900 CE.

The stone monuments at Chichén-Itzá were built as a ceremonial center during the Classic period. As it continues to impress visitors today, it accomplished the same thing for ancient Mayans over 1,000 years ago.

The decline of ancient Mayan civilization started around 900 CE as they began to surrender their independence to the Toltecs who absorbed them. Though Chichén-Itzá as a ceremonial center would not die for another 250 years, the city became a vestige of itself whose remnants alone of a great civilization survived when conquered by the Spanish colonists in the 15th century.

Arriving to Chichén-Itzá

It was hot and humid when we arrived into Chichén-Itzá. Discovered by explorers as early as the 1830’s—and opened to the public in 1922—it was today an impressive and expansive series of ancient stone monuments on a grassy 1200-acre campus carved out of jungle. Do people live further into the jungle? Raúl said about one mile from the road there are small communities of two or three hundred people who live in farther from the main road.

The pyramids and temples of Chichén-Itzá are the Yucatán’s best known monuments. The Mayan city was absorbed by the Toltecs in 987 CE. According to legend, a man named Kukulcan—who is the same figure as Quetzalcoatl from the Toltec capital of Tula —arrived from the west “for the redemption of his people.” In Chichén-Itzá, Kukulcan built this magnificent city which combined the Puuc style of the Mayans and the motifs of the Toltecs, namely, the feathered serpent, warriors, eagles and jaguars.

Modern Mayan explorers

Starting in the midnineteenth century and then again at the end of the century, there was a range of scientists and explorers associated with the discovery and excavation of the archeological site of Chichén-Itzá that we see today.

As its great natural water well (or cenote) likely gave Chichén-Itzá its name, one major figure worth considering is the early American explorer Edward Thompson (1857-1935). For most of his adult life Edward Thompson lived and worked at Chichén-Itzá including famously dredging and diving into the sacred well in search of treasure and human remains for evidence of legends of human sacrifices.

A diplomat by profession and an amateur archeologist, Thompson had an indefatigable curiosity about the ancient Mayan ceremonial city and did important work here.

As a young scholar Thompson was inspired by the writings of American explorer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852). Together with English artist Frederick Catherwood (1799-1845) they were pivotal figures in the rediscovery of Maya civilization in Central America.

Catherwood’s detailed drawings of the ruins of the Maya civilization explored by Stephens led to best-selling books published in the early 1840s such as Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. These were illustrated works that introduced Europe and the United States to the civilization of the ancient Maya.

Portrait of John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán published in 1854.

Lithograph of a maize god by Frederick Catherwood in Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán published in 1844.

Stephens and Catherwood in turn had been inspired by earlier pioneers of scientists and explorers. Two figures who influenced them were Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Juan Galindo (1802–1840).

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Joseph K. Stieler (1843). Charlottenhof.

Juan Galindo before 1839. From the book Ancient Maya Cities: The Hidden Wonders in the Forest.

Von Humboldt was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer whose work in botanical geography led to the development of the field of biogeography. Galindo was an Anglo-Irish military and administrative officer in the short-lived liberal Federal Republic of Central America (1823-1841) and who was actively engaged in Maya archeology.

In 1847 the Caste War of Yucatán broke out limiting access to the Yucatán’s unexcavated ruins. The Caste War restricted the borders of Yucatán and Quintana Roo to all but indigenous Maya for nearly 60 years, making travel to the area dangerous. When the United States appointed Edward Thompson archaeological consul to the Yucatán in 1895 he became one of the first to explore the land since the Caste War.

Edward Thompson, before 1920. Thompson famously dredged and dived the sacred well at Chichén-Itzá and brought up a fortune of gold and jade as well as human skeletons providing evidence for legends of ancient human sacrifice.

Edward Thompson arrived in the Yucatán at Mérida in 1895. He had purchased land in 1894 that included the unexcavated site of Chichén-Itzá. For the next 30 years Thompson dedicated his life to exploring the site.

In 1904 Thompson started to explore the bottom of the sacred well— the cenote sagrado. Thompson used divers (including himself) and dredges. Over six years he brought up a fortune in gold, copper and jade as well as a wealth of vases, obsidian glass knives and the Maya incense called copal. Thompson did some of his explorations for major American museums such as The Field in Chicago and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, among others.

From his arrival, the sacred well attracted Thompson’s intense interest. In his 1932 book, People of the Serpent, Thompson stated he became intrigued with the murky waters of the great well as soon as he first saw it from the top of El Castillo.

Though most ancient Maya artifacts as well as its codice books with its written language were destroyed by the local Catholic Church authorities in the 16th century, Thompson read the colonial Spanish accounts of Mayan history.

Spanish Franciscan Fray Diego de Landa (1524-1579), colonial bishop of Yucatán. De Landa later regretted destroying the Maya civilization’s cultural treasures and wrote a history of the Mayas (Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, c. 1566) to make up for his thoughtless, wholesale destruction. Edward Thompson read the bishop’s account of the “cenote,” where Fray Diego detailed the pilgrimages of ancient Maya priests and farmers to the sacred well to “appease the gods.” These pilgrimages included throwing gold and ornaments into the waters. The bishop’s history also told of human sacrifices there as well.

To implement his plan to explore the cenote, Thompson returned to his hometown of Boston where he raised money, took diving lessons, and constructed a specialized diving mechanism. Thompson sent the dredging bucket, winch, tackles, steel cables, derrick and 30-foot boom to Chichén-Itzá.

The dredge buckets brought up ornaments and objects of daily life. Thompson’s and another diver’s plunges discovered more precious treasures, including human skeletons. These discoveries were controversial. The fact that this ancient site was being disturbed brought critics. Further, Thompson was neither a scientist nor academic but simply an enthusiastic amateur. He published his Maya civilization studies in Popular Science Magazine. But these critiques aside, Thompson’s field work virtually single-handedly put Chichén-Itzá on every world explorer’s own bucket list.

Edward Thompson dredged the sacred well at Chichén-Itzá between 1904 and 1910.

The cenote in May 1988 from the platform of El Castillo. This is the view Edward Thompson had when he first became fascinated with the sacred well in the late 1890’s. Author’s collection.

Thompson also excavated graves at the Ossario (High Priest’s Temple), the mid-sized step-style pyramid within the Ossario Group complex of Mayan temples found just south of the Kukulkan pyramid series. Thompson’s discoveries there offered an outcome not unlike the cenote. In the Ossario pyramid and its cave Thompson found more jade, pottery, human bones, and various other ancient Mayan artifacts.

How the pyramids at Chichén-Itzá were built

Close to Chichén-Itzá Thompson discovered pits with quarried veins of lime gravel that the Mayan’s used for mortar. Nearby he found stones of calcite (to hammer), flint (to pick) and smooth stones used to produce flat surfaces on walls. Ancient Mayan craftsmen had no metal tools, but these stone implements helped scientists to reconstruct how the monumental buildings could be constructed. Thompson also uncovered shards of nephrite (a type of jade) as well as the so-called Mayan “date” stone, known later as the Tablet of the Initial Series. This stone let iconographers decipher the dates of Chichén-Itzá’s Classic period.

In 1926 Thompson’s land was seized by authorities of Mexico’s new nationalist government and Thompson was charged with removing artifacts illegally. It was only in 1944, almost a decade after Thompson’s death, that the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in the North American explorer’s favor.

Major sites at Chichén-Itzá

Visitors climb El Castillo’s steps to the top in May 1988. A visit to the pyramid (Temple of Kukulkan), is a highlight at Chichén-Itzá.

It is thrilling to see the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican step pyramid that, at almost 80 feet tall, dominates the center of the archaeological site of Chichén-Itzá. It was built between 700 CE and 1100 CE.

Chichén-Itzá relief carving depicting a Mayan warrior in elaborate headdress and jewelry. Warriors were one of the major classes in Mayan society in the Classic period.

El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkan. Each side of the pyramid has 91 steps for a total of 364 steps. With the platform at the top, it equals the 365 days of the year. There are 52 smooth stone panels on each side of the pyramid which coordinates with the ancient Mayan calendar’s 52-year cycle. The nine terraces on each side of the pyramid represent the 18-month solar calendar.

Twice during Spring Equinox (March 21) at sunrise and sunset, the sunlight is observed to move down stair by stair from the top stair of the northern stairway until it touches the famous serpent head stone carving at the base of the pyramid. In a marvel of nature, sunlight and shadow work to form a “serpent” that appears to descend into the earth. The cosmological phenomenon was an important fertility symbol for the Mayans whose society was agricultural. It signaled that the golden sun had entered the earth in the form of a serpent and that it was time to plant corn.

Serpent head at the base of El Castillo

Unexcavated El Castillo in 1882 in a photograph by Teobert Maler

El Castillo dominates the Great North Platform Series. Known as the Kukulkan Pyramid and the Temple of Kukulkan, the 8-story 1,500-year-old stone structure is a masterpiece of ancient Mayan Cosmovision. Author at Chichén-Itzá in May 1988.

Snakehead sculpture at Chichén-Itzá in Mexico. There are smaller pyramids inside the Chichén-Itzá ruins with “snakehead” statues scattered around.

Walking towards the Nunnery complex with the stone steps of its north side in the distance.

El Palacio in the complex of buildings called the Nunnery. Edward Thompson used these buildings as his headquarters during his first explorations of Chichén-Itzá.

Teobert Maler (1842–1917) was another pioneer of ancient Maya research. Maler’s expeditions in the Yucatán began furtively in the 1870s and he explored over 150 ruins. This 1892 photograph of El Palacio (Templo de tres Cuerpos) of the building complex called the Nunnery at Chichén-Itzá gives record to one such expedition. Several ruins Maler described and photographed had been discovered by him, and his photographs of its architecture and inscriptions aided further research in ancient Maya civilization. Many sites Maler photographed were not visited by scientists until decades later—and as the ruins were often further damaged by climate events or human impact—the photographs remain often the best record of known Maya ruins. Because of Maler’s work at Chichén-Itzá and elsewhere, the German explorer is regarded as one of the most important research photographers of the 19th century.

At Chichén-Itzá, the buildings of the Nunnery (Las Monjas) –including La Iglesia (partial view, left) – are Mayan-temple structures in the Puuc style. These buildings at Chichén-Itzá shared similar designs with the ruins at Kabah and Uxmal about 100 miles to the southwest of Chichén-Itzá.

Chichén-Itzá serpent head sculptures guard a staircase.

In the day’s heat and humidity, the profligate flora delights the visitor’s senses at Chichén-Itzá. On the site’s 1200 acres, the blooms of jungle growth offer a feast of fragrances, colors and living forms. From the Temple of Warriors, the visitor can see nestled beyond a field of red flowers the Grupo de las Mil Columnas (“The Forest of 1,000 Columns”). These stone columns may once have had a thatched ceiling to enclose an expansive space.

In the landscape of Chichén-Itzá there are a variety of mammals, hundreds of species of birds and many reptiles. On the Yucatán peninsula there are almost 150 varieties of snakes, many of which, including at the archeological site, are highly venomous. This is a shot of the jungle from the air in May 1988.

One visitor climbs atop the Nunnery, the Mayan temple complex built in the Puuc style during the Classic period of 600-1200 CE at Chichén-Itzá.

The El Caracol observatory temple at Chichén-Itzá. The Mayas built the observatory over an extended period of time to coincide its construction with their increasing knowledge of day-time and night-time skies. The Mayas’ objective was to acquire more exact measurements of cosmic bodies. We visited the dark recesses of El Caracol’s central circular tower. The highly sophisticated Maya calendar system was based on their study of the movements of the sun, moon, and planets, particularly Venus’s orbit. The position of El Caracol’s front staircase aligns with Venus’s most northern position while the building‘s corners are affixed to the sun’s position at sunrise of summer solstice (June 21) and sunset of winter solstice (December 21).

The “Venus” staircase of the observatory at Chichén-Itzá.

The Observatory temple at Chichén-Itzá in a photograph by Teobert Maler. When explorers first viewed the ruin in the late 19th century, it was buried in centuries of natural debris.

Maya Calendar System. Ancient Maya time-keepers designed highly accurate methods to measure time that interwove calendars as space/time cycles. Mayan calendars formed an understanding of the interrelationships of cosmic bodies—the moon orbiting the Earth; the Earth orbiting the sun; and the sun as it travels in the galaxy.

The Great Ball Court at Chichén-Itzá from El Castillo. Almost two football fields in length (181 yards), it is enclosed by 13-foot high stone walls and is the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. Sports arenas like this were a staple in the sacred complexes of ancient Mayan cities. Some archeological anthropologists believe the nature of play in the ball courts had a purely sporting purpose, though the games may have had high-stakes cosmological and mythological dimensions.

Grand Ballcourt—field of play.

Temple of Warriors. The Chac-Mool sits atop the platform of this temple dedicated to the Mayan warrior class.

OTHER PHOTOGRAPH CREDITS:
YUCHATAN JAYS – Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic  license. Tony Hisgett – originally posted to Flickr as Yucatan Jays – immature
IGUANA – CC BY-SA 2.0 view terms.

Signs. (27 Photos).

Photographs and Text ©John P. Walsh

Swap Mart, Villa Park, Illinois, May 2018.

Pabst Blue Ribbon, Lisle, Illinois, 2018.

#HotHair Color, Chicago, 2018.

Rebirth, April 2020.

Covid-19 quarantine, Downers Grove, Illinois, April 2020.

Covid-19 quarantine, April 2020.

Covid-19 quarantine, April 2020.

Covid-19 quarantine, April 2020.

Phone, 2018.

The Wilmette Theater (1913), 2016.

The Tivoli Theatre (1928), Downers Grove, Illinois, 2016. The 1,000+-seat movie theater was designed by Van Gurten and Van Gurten architects and opened on Christmas Day, 1928. The theater was the second in the U.S. fitted for sound movies. The first was the 1200-seat Brooklyn Paramount Theater in New York City that opened in November 1928 and closed as a movie palace in the early 1960’s.

Symphony Center, Chicago, 2014.

Miss Dior, Macy’s, State Street, Chicago, 2018.

Chicago Loop Synagogue (1958), 2015.

The Auditorium Theatre (1889), Chicago, December 2017. The 3900-seat theatre was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In 2019 choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed turn-of-the-century tale opens on Christmas Eve, 1892, mere months before the grand opening of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, as young Marie and her mother prepare for a Christmas Eve potluck celebration. The magic of the season takes hold when a visit from The Great Impresario sets off a whirlwind journey of romance and adventure through a dreamlike World’s Fair. A must-see tradition boldly reimagined for a new generation. The production includes the singing voices of five local choral groups.

Chicago, 2015.

Yeti in My Spaghetti (Hey, Get Out of My Bowl!), April 2020.

The Braddock Road, south-central Pennsylvania, March 20, 2010.

The Braddock Road was a military road built in 1755 in what was then British America and is now the United States. It was the first improved road to cross the barrier of the ridge lines of the Appalachians. It was constructed by about 2,500 troops of the Virginia militia and British regulars commanded by General Edward Braddock (1695-1755), part of the expedition to conquer the Ohio Country from the French at the beginning of the French and Indian War (1756-63). George Washington, who was aide-de-camp to Braddock, had pioneered this route a year earlier when he traveled into the Ohio Country and met Native American leader, Tanacharison (1700-1754).  The expedition gave Washington his first field military experience as well as other American military officers whose numbers profited from this military outing later during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

Braddock’s men had to cut a road wide enough to accommodate the wagons and draft animals that accompanied them, as well as the siege artillery that they brought along to use against the new Fort Duquesne established by the French in 1754 at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.  Progress was painstakingly slow until Braddock split the force into a lead column of about 1,500 men and the rest as a support column to drag artillery and supplies. The flying column made rapid progress, and with each day, the distance between it and the support column increased. This marker is on the (later) National Pike (Route 40) between Elk Park and Farmington, Pennsylvania.

Cloaked Cats, April 2020.

flexible mannequins (Memorial Day weekend), May 2018.

Restoration, Grand Theater (1925), Wheaton, Illinois, May 2018.

April 2020.

Poetry (CTA Green Line), Oak Park, Illinois, January 2018.

Near Chicago-Kansas City Expressway (Eisenhower), Forest Park, Illinois. July 2016.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd national protests, June 2020. Near Chicago.

Demonstrators, June 2020.

Chicago, September 2015.

France: Évreux, Chenonceau, Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Belgium: Nivelles. (5 Photos).

Photographs and Text ©John P. Walsh

Tour de l'Horloge (1490-97) Évreux, France.

2002 November 1. Tour de l’Horloge, 1490-97, Évreux, France.

2005 May 24. Le Château des Dames, Main Entrance, 1514-22, Chenonceau, France.

1979 July 12. Gargoyles, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.

Tourists can visit the gargoyles on the façade of Notre-Dame de Paris by ascending the south tower that leads to a passageway to the outdoor balustrade of the tower base. (A second balustrade at the top of the tower is not open to the public.)

The exuberant Gothic design of the cathedral — a stone structure that dominates the Île de la Cité — in the most ancient part of Paris, was built in stages. The building project was instigated by Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris (in office, 1160-1196). It started in 1163 with the construction of the choir at the back of the church. The front portals were next starting in around 1200. The towers followed, rising into the Paris sky in the 1240’s.

Whether at ground level or far out of sight at the top of the cathedral, the building’s details are meticulously construed. Its gargoyles of birds, humanoids, and chimeras are, along with its main portals and flying buttresses, the cathedral’s most photographed exterior feature.

With time and changing artistic tastes, 13th century Gothic architecture became greatly reviled in Paris by the early 15th century. Witness to important political and cultural events in the early 19th century–- including the crowning of Napoléon I (1769-1821) as Emperor of France in 1804 followed by the publication of the French Romantic Gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo in 1831–-public interest in Notre Dame de Paris and Gothic design in general was revived.

In the 1840’s, French architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus (1807-1857) overhauled most of Notre Dame. The cathedral’s exterior gargoyles also underwent reconstitution though to what extent is not fully known. The roof fire in April 2019 is the most recent challenge in the church’s long history.

2002 October 31. Courtyard of Le Prieuré Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.

1992 March 1. The Collegial Church of St. Gertrude, c. 1050, Nivelles, Belgium.

The westwork’s appearance is the result of a reconstruction finished in 1984 following the severe damage it received during World War II from bombing by the German Luftwaffe in May 1940. The church was built in the 11th century to serve a Benedictine abbey of cloistered nuns whose first abbess was St. Gertrude of Nivelles. This dramatic church is classified a major European Heritage site and remains one of the finest examples of the Romanesque style in Belgium. Its Romanesque crypt is one of the largest of its kind in Europe where Merovingian and Carolingian tombs have been found.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles, patron saint of cats!

St. Gertrude’s feast day is March 17–the same as St. Patrick of Ireland.

St. Gertrude is also the patron saint of gardeners.

St. Gertrude de Nivelles, from the Hours of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, c. 1522. Opaque water-based paint mounted on board by Flemish artist Simon Bening (c.1484-1561). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Ray Kroc’s very first McDonald’s franchise restaurant started in 1955 in Des Plaines, Illinois, is slated to meet the wrecking ball.

First McDonald's franchise restaurant, 1955, May 2018.
McDonald’s very first franchise restaurant on its original site, 1955 (replica, 1985) is slated to be razed by McDonald’s Corporation immediately. — John P. Walsh, May 6, 2018.

By John P. Walsh

A closed-down weather-beaten replica of the very first McDonald’s franchise restaurant started by Ray Kroc (1902-1984) on April 15, 1955 standing on its original site in Des Plaines, Illinois, is slated to be demolished by McDonald’s Corporation with its land donated or possibly sold.

It was not long ago that McDonald’s touted that approximately one in every eight American workers had been employed by the company (Source: McDonald’s estimate in 1996) and that even today McDonald’s hires around 1 million workers in the U.S. every year. By 1961 there were 230 McDonald’s franchises in the United States. In 2017 there was 37, 241 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. Not only historians and historic preservationists decry the imminent demolition of the first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois, just west of Chicago, but others impressed by its direct significance to the growth and impact to U.S. labor history as well as the American restaurant industry and American automotive culture in the post-World War II era. Further, McDonald’s restaurants today reach into 121 other countries around the world influencing and being influenced by global cuisine. That all of this cultural and business import was born on a now-threatened patch of land on Lee Street in Des Plaines, Illinois, is impressive.

It appears that if and when McDonald’s follows through on its November 2017 decision to raze the building and give up the site, this originally-designed McDonald’s restaurant on Ray Kroc’s original site in Des Plaines will be forever lost. The story of how that planned demolition of this unique piece of Americana came to be began 35 years ago. It was on March 3, 1984 that after 29 years of continual operation the original franchise restaurant on the original site was permanently closed and demolished. Founder and former McDonald’s Corporation chairman Ray Kroc had died less than six weeks before in January 1984 at 81 years old in San Diego, California.

The McDonald’s restaurant brand opened its first burger bar called McDonald’s Bar-B-Q in California in 1940 – and, by 1953, brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald started a small franchise business in Phoenix, Arizona and Downey, California. Today’s nationwide and global franchise empire that serves 75 burgers every second (Source: McDonald’s Operations and Training Manual) began when Oak Park, Illinois-born Ray Kroc, a paper-cup-turned-milkshake-machine salesman, convinced the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their business nationwide. Kroc offered to manage the franchises in the U.S., excepting the brothers’ first franchises in Arizona and California, and the pair were to receive a tiny percentage of gross sales nationwide in return.

Kroc’s first walk-up franchise McDonald’s restaurant at the “Five Corners” intersection in Des Plaines, Illinois, served an assembly-line format menu of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries and a selection of drinks. In 1955, he founded McDonald’s System, Inc., a predecessor of the McDonald’s Corporation, and six years later bought the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name and operating system. By 1961, Ray Kroc’s vision had clearly paid off for the now 59-year-old former paper cup salesman. That same year, Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million and launched his strict training program, later called “Hamburger University, ” in nearby Elk Grove Village, Illinois, at another of his 230 new McDonald’s restaurants. Ray Kroc’s original vision was that there should be 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States. When Kroc died in January 1984, his goal had been exceeded six fold — there were 6,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. and internationally in 1980.

The Des Plaines suburban location of Ray Kroc’s very first McDonald’s franchise retains its relatively humble setting even as the McDonald’s Corporation it spawned earns $27 billion in annual sales making it the 90th-largest economy in the world (Source: SEC). Kroc, the milkshake machine salesman who convinced the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their fast-food operation nationwide, saw his original McDonald’s franchise at 400 Lee St. in Des Plaines open for business until, shortly after his death, it closed on Saturday, March 3, 1984.

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Ray Kroc (1902-1984) with his highly successful McDonald’s franchise restaurant. The franchise started in Des Plaines, Illinois, in 1955 has had a significant impact on U.S labor history as well as the American restaurant industry and automotive culture in the post-World War II era. 

In 1984 there were no plans to preserve the site – its golden arches and road sign had been carted away –  but a public outcry prompted McDonald’s in 1985 to return the restaurant’s restored original sign designed by Andrew Bork and Joe Sicuro of Laco Signs of Libertyville, Illinois, and dedicate a restaurant replica that still exists today on the original site though it is now slated for demolition. The historic red neon-lettered sign turned on for the opening of Kroc’s first store on April 15, 1955 – there is one similar to it preserved in The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan dating from 1960 – proclaimed “McDonald’s Hamburgers” and “We Have Sold Over 1 Million” and, intersecting with an iconic golden arch displayed a neon-animated “Speedee” chef, the fast food chain’s original mascot. (The clown figure of Ronald McDonald first appeared in 1963).

Newspaper advertisement
Newspaper advertisement announcing the opening of Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois. It featured the franchise’s first mascot, Speedee who was significant to the assembly- line format menu and prevailing automotive culture.
Ray Kroc_s first McDonald_s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois April 15, 1955.
Ray Kroc’s first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois on April 15, 1955.
McDonald's first franchise Des Plaines IL.
The replica of McDonald’s first franchise restaurant is missing its golden arches, “McDonald’s” sign over the entrance, and original 1955 Speedee neon lettered sign. In January 2018 they were dismantled and removed by McDonald’s to an undisclosed location out of public view – John P. Walsh, May 6, 2018.

The day after the original restaurant closed –  Sunday, March 4, 1984 – a McDonald’s restaurant franchise moved across the street into a state-of-the-art new building on a site that once accommodated a Howard Johnson’s and, after that, a Ground Round. The full-service McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois, today continues to operate out of that 1984 building. It may confuse the visitor which exactly is the original site of the first McDonald’s as the newer 1984 building not on the first site displays inside a high-relief metal sign that reads: “The national chain of McDonald’s was born on this spot with the opening of this restaurant.” Though undated, it is signed by Ray Kroc which points to it being brought over from the original restaurant when it was closed. At the replica restaurant on the original site two metal plaques (dated April 15, 1985) properly proclaim: “Ray A. Kroc, founder of McDonald’s Corporation, opened his first McDonald’s franchise (the ninth McDonald’s drive-in in the U.S.) on this site, April 15, 1955.”

A few months after the first franchise restaurant was closed and demolished in 1984, the parcel of land on which it sat – it had only always been leased since 1955 – was purchased by McDonald’s at the same time they announced plans for the replica landmark restaurant.

The original architectural plans by architect Robert Stauber from the mid1950’s were lost, so 1980’s planners applied architectural drawings of McDonald’s restaurants built in the late 1950’s for the replica. Its kitchen included refurbished equipment brought out of storage, including the restaurant’s original six-foot grill. It also displayed one of Ray Kroc’s original multimixers like the ones he sold to Maurice and Richard McDonald that started a fast-food partnership in the 1950’s which by the mid-1960’s inspired many well-known copy cats of McDonald’s model, including Burger King, Burger Chef, Arbys, KFC, and Hardee’s.

Soda_fountain_Multimixer_5-head_malt machine_mfgd_by Sterling_Multiproducts (1)
Soda fountain multimixer.

The original restaurant had been remodeled several times during its almost 30 years of operation but never had much in the way of indoor seating or a drive-through. It did feature a basement and furnace built for Chicago’s four seasons and was used by the replica museum to exhibit items. The McDonald’s Museum was open for tours until September 2008 when the site experienced record-setting flooding from the nearby Des Plaines River. In April 2013 another record flood in Des Plaines submerged the McDonald’s Museum and produced serious speculation that the site would be moved or permanently closed.

Aerial 2013 Des Plaines
An aerial view during the April 2013 Des Plaines River flood shows the replica first McDonald’s franchise restaurant (right) with its original Speedee neon sign that was first lit on April 15, 1955 — Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2013.

In mid-July 2017, only four years since the last significant flood, the area experienced its worst flooding on record. In November 2017 McDonald’s announced it would raze the replica restaurant structure and by May 2018 the site had had its utilities disconnected and its golden arches, Speedee sign, and main entrance McDonald’s sign dismantled and removed. These historically valuable items were taken by McDonald’s out of public view to an undisclosed location. Once again, and this time more seriously it appears, the prospect of pleas by Des Plaines municipal authorities, historic preservationists, social media and others for McDonald’s Corporation to preserve the site intact is murky at best.

first night Des Plaines
The original Des Plaines McDonald’s restaurant (pictured here in 1955) was demolished in 1984. A replica restaurant built in 1985 was based on architectural plans of later McDonald’s restaurants. The historic site is awaiting demolition announced by McDonald’s in late 2017.  

Notes:

number of franchises in U.S. 1961 – http://sterlingmulti.com/multimixer_history.html# – retrieved May 8, 2018

number of restaurants 2017- https://www.statista.com/statistics/219454/mcdonalds-restaurants-worldwide/ -retrieved May 8, 2018.

121 countries – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_with_McDonald%27s_restaurants – retrieved May 8, 2018.

McDonald’s System, Inc; McDonald brothers for $2.7 million; Hamburger University; Kroc’s 1,000 restaurant vision – https://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en-us/about-us/our-history.html – retrieved May 8, 2018.

6,000 McDonald’s restaurants by 1980- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_McDonald%27s#1980s – retrieved May 8, 2018

original architectural plans lost – http://www.dailyherald.com/news/20171120/mcdonalds-plans-to-tear-down-des-plaines-replica-retrieved May 6, 2018.

2008 Des Plaines River flood- http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-04-18/news/chi-des-plaines-roads-flooded-after-storm-20130418_1_des-plaines-river-big-bend-lake-water-levels- retrieved May 8, 2018.

2013 Des Plaines River flood – https://patch.com/illinois/desplaines/bp–des-plaines-river-flood-information-03bfa82b– retrieved May 8, 2018.

2017 Des Plaines River flood

©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.

Midwest Roads, U.S.A. (45 Photos).

Photographs and Text ©John P. Walsh

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Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket is 22 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Its address is 645 Joliet Road, Willowbrook, Illinois. It first opened in 1926 as a gas station/lunch counter on a brand-new Route 66. In 1939 the original owner, Irv Kolarik, served fried chicken for the first time. That was over 80 years ago.

The one-story brick commercial building was built next to the original building in 1946 by architect Eugene F. Stoyke (1912-1993). It became a full-service restaurant at the time of the post-World War II travel boom. The path of U.S. Route 66 traveled the western two-thirds of the U.S. from Chicago to Los Angeles, California, a distance of more than 2,000 miles.

Dell Rhea’s window bay of nine single-light-glass-and-wood-canted windows is original as was the neon-and-metal sign in this photograph taken in 2016 (an exact replica of the original sign was erected in 2017). With a fireplace anchoring the restaurant’s north wall, a cocktail lounge was added to the south in 1956. In front of the restaurant on U.S. 66 there was Bluebird Bus stop which people could take to St. Louis and send packages across country.

In 1962 Interstate 55, a major expressway connecting Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans basically retired U.S. Route 66 as a major thoroughfare. In 1963 the Chicken Basket was bought by Chicago businessman Delbert Francis “Dell” Rhea (1907-1992) who reinvigorated the eatery for the new era. The popular Chicken Basket was owned and managed by the Rhea family until 2019. That year the Lombardi family bought the restaurant with the promise to continue the tradition by keeping intact the original recipe which has remain unchanged since 1946.

Vintage roadhouse decor and family-oriented service joined to a menu featuring fresh and deliciously succulent cooked-to-order fried chicken makes the Chicken Basket a mandatory Midwest Roads stop.

(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” is a popular rhythm & blues standard composed in 1946 by American songwriter Bobby Troup (1918-1999). It was a hit that same year for Nat King Cole who, with the King Cole Trio, first recorded the song. Troup got the idea for the song when taking a ten-day cross country trip with his wife in a Buick from Pennsylvania to California on U.S. Routes 40 and 66. The lyrics include some of the popular cities and towns on the route. Troup, who later became a film and television actor, certainly drove by what is today Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket on that historic road trip.

Grundy Co., Illinois, 2016. 

INTRODUCTION.

These are some of my photographs featuring the people, places, and things I have met along today’s American Midwest roads.

I have a personal affection for the American Midwest. I grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, and went to grade school, high school and university here.

Growing up In the Midwest I had my family, friends, diverse outings, engaging jobs, and, later on, married here. I continue to enthusiastically explore this vast region that’s rightly called “The Heart of America.”

Memories of the Middle West — its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes — and mostly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan — are the mother’s milk of my life. Through steamy summers, multi-colored autumns, ice-bitten winters, and flowering springs to traverse Midwest roads spell adventure — both then and now.

The American Midwest is filled with human stories and diverse and awesome natural beauty. There is timeless nostalgia, and, when those things don’t entice for the moment, unexpected curiosities.

For those who love it, the Midwestern terrain possesses what Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) spoke about in his last major book, The Sangamon, as “magic in that soil, in the plains, the borders of forest, the oak trees on the hills.” The poet was sure that “if you should drive through (this region)…strange dreams would come to you, and moreover those dreams would tally with mine.”

The region continues to offer the sightseer magical things including impressive remnants of an American Indian mound-building culture and encounters with animals and birds, wild and domestic. Edgar Lee Masters understood that it is the Midwestern people – individualistic, hospitable, industrious, good willed, courageous and independent – who bestow to the central part of the country its greatest distinction. It is this populace that, like the past, builds what is frequently photographed on Midwest roads and in its towns and cities: canals, roads, barns and farms, houses. In the 21st century new things of interest can be seen on a Midwest road trip– such as cellphone towers or wind turbines — while older things, like barns, disappear.

Many famous Americans and international figures have traversed the Midwest roads, some perhaps unknown or unexpected–James Monroe (in 1785), Charles Dickens (1842), John Muir (1849), Henry David Thoreau (1861),  Antonín Dvořák (1893), Winston Churchill (1946). Others were born or lived here, such as Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Edgar Lee Masters, Walt Disney, Mark Twain, Jane Addams, Harry S Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Barack and Michelle Obama,  Frank Lloyd Wright, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Jesse James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Dinah Washington (“Queen of the Blues”), and many more.

It is Abraham Lincoln whose memory is most famously linked to Midwest Roads. Riding his horse, “Old Bob,” Lincoln loved to travel the Eighth Judicial Circuit as a defense lawyer. It is to the sixteenth U.S. president and the Midwestern spirit he manifested that this photographic essay is dedicated.

Asian Garden (Man), July 2018

Man in his garden, DuPage Co., Illinois, July 2018.

Woman in her garden, DuPage Co., Illinois, July 2018.

Illinois Farm (Bureau County IL) June 5, 2017.

Bureau Co., Illinois, June 5, 2017.

Crucifix and wind turbine (Bureau County IL), June 5, 2017.

Crucifix and horizontal-axis wind turbine. Bureau Co., Illinois, 2017.

Wedding party, Waukesha Co., Wisconsin, 2017.

working farm 5.31.17 jpw

Walworth Co., WI, 2017.

Tuesday Taco jpwalsh

Kirkland (DeKalb Co.), Illinois, 2017.

red barns jpwalsh

Northern Illinois, 2017.

Dixon, Illinois, 2017. The Ronald Reagan Trail is a route in Illinois that follows areas and sites of interest associated with the 40th president of The United States. Reagan grew up in Dixon, Illinois. Route 26 originally ran north-south about 25 miles from Freeport, Illinois to Polo, Illinois. In 1937, IL-26 was extended north about 15 miles from Freeport to the Illinois-Wisconsin state line and south about 15 miles from Polo to Dixon, Illinois. In 1969, IL-26 was extended nearly 100 miles south from Dixon to East Peoria, Illinois.

Honor Guard, Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon (Lee Co.), Illinois, June 5, 2017.

Walworth Co., Wisconsin, 2017.

1992 Case IH 7150, DeKalb Co., Illinois, 2016.

Midwest roads.

DeKalb Co., Illinois, October 9, 2016.  

Midwest Roads.

Grundy Co., Illinois, 2016.

Kendall Co., Illinois, 2016.

Grundy Co., Illinois, 2016. 

Midwest Roads.

LaSalle Co., Illinois, 2016. 

Tazewell Co., Illinois, 2016. 

Midwest Roads.

LaSalle Co., Illinois, 2016.  

LaSalle Co., Illinois, 2016.

Midwest roads.

Grundy Co., 2016. 

Midwest roads.

Detail, Downtown Mural, LaSalle Co. (Ottawa), Illinois, 2016.

DeKalb Co., Illinois, 2016.

Midwest Roads.

Lake Co., Illinois (Wauconda), August 2016. 

Kendall Co. (Oswego), IL, April 2, 2016.

Iroquois Co., Illinois (Watseka), 2017.

LaSalle/Grundy Cos. (Seneca), Illinois, 2016.

Leaf blowers, 2018.

Cook/DuPage Cos., Illinois (Schaumburg), 2016.

DuPage Co. (Downers Grove), Illinois, 2018.

DuPage Co. (Wheaton), Illinois, 2018.

At about 3,100 miles long, U.S. Route 20 is the longest road in the country. It stretches east to west from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon. Its origins began on the east coast in the early to mid-1920’s. Its designation and routing reached Illinois in 1938 and is since unchanged. In 1955 the Illinois General Assembly designated the entire length of U.S. 20 in Illinois the U.S. Grant Memorial Highway. This sign was produced in late 2006.

Lake Geneva (Walworth Co.), Wisconsin, 2017.

Grotto shrine, Des Plaines, Illinois, 2018.

Mass, Des Plaines, Illinois, 2018.

Winnebago Co. (Rockford), Illinois, 2017.

The Worker, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Camp Chicago-Lemont, Company 612, Willow Springs, Illinois. Established June 4, 1933.

The CCC was a major part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Federal program provided manual labor jobs related to conservation and the development of natural resources on mostly rural lands owned by government entities. The CCC was specifically designed to give jobs to young men so to relieve their families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression. The CCC was active from April 1933 to July 1942. In those nine years and 3 months the program employed approximately 3 million young men who, with food, clothing and shelter included, earned $30 a month, of which $25 had to be sent home to their families.

Capt. A. Lincoln, Illinois Volunteer Militia, Black Hawk War, 1832, bronze, 1930. Sculpture by Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944) in Dixon, Illinois.

During the 1832 Black Hawk War, 23-year-old Abe Lincoln was a captain in what is today the Illinois National Guard. Lincoln enlisted in the Volunteers on April 21, 1832 near Richland Creek in Sangamon County, about halfway between New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. He was mustered into State service the next day at Beardstown, Illinois, on the Illinois River almost 40 miles to the west and elected captain, a position Lincoln said he was surprised and proud to receive.

Illinois and adjoining states at this time were at the edge of the American frontier. Lincoln was mustered into the U.S. service on May 3, 1832 near Janesville, Wisconsin and mustered out on May 27, 1832 as they camped in Ottawa, Wisconsin, without having fired a shot. On that same day, Lincoln re-enlisted as a private in Captain Iles’ company and when that expired re-enlisted again in Captain Early’s company. Lincoln was finally mustered out of military service on July 10, 1832 at Whitewater, Wisconsin.

For a time, young Lincoln was stationed at Fort Dixon on the Rock River in Dixon, Illinois where this statue, unveiled in late September 1930, stands. The sculptor is French-born Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944). Crunelle’s immigrant family came to Illinois in 1889 and settled in Decatur, about 40 miles east of Springfield, Lincoln’s hometown. As Crunelle worked in the local mines, he started making fired clay sculptures. His work was brought to the attention of Lorado Taft (1860-1936) who brought young Crunelle to Chicago to study at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Crunelle also began to do decorative work for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

The bronze sculpture of Lincoln, who later as a lawyer and politician expressed pride in his brief military service, is one of the first attempts to depict the Great Emancipator in his youth.

Old Glory, June 2020.

Chicago, 2018.

Buying corn, Watseka, Illinois, August 2017.

Barn and silo, Illinois, June 2017.

Fox River near West Dundee, Illinois, August 2014.

NOTES:

for photograph 1-Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket. http://www.chickenbasket.com/; https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/dell_rheas_chicken_basket_hinsdale.html .

INTRODUCTION – Masters quotes from The Sangamon by Edgar Lee Masters with Introduction by Charles E. Burgess, University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, 1988 (first published 1942), p.6.

Angels in Stained Glass at Old Town’s St. Michael Catholic Church in Chicago. (11 Photos).

Photographs and Text ©John P. Walsh

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ASSUMPTION WINDOW (central panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

INTRODUCTION:

St. Michael Church in Old Town on Chicago’s north side is one of the oldest parishes and church buildings in the city. Founded as a parish in 1852, the church building’s brick walls from 1869 withstood the flames of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Yet those flames left it a charred, empty shell. Hot flames fed on clapboard wooden houses that surrounded the historically-German parish. The bell tower collapsed in the fire’s intense heat as it continued its northward march out of downtown until it petered out completely about one mile away. The Great Fire had started about three miles to the south at the site of today’s Chicago Fire Academy. In 1871 that was the site of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn and her cow.

In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build– approximately $2.25 million in today’s dollars. After the fire in 1872 its repairs cost $40,000, though not including unknown insurance money amounts, or about $700,000 today. Reconstruction did not include the stained glass windows included in this post that were photographed in 2015. Gloriously preserved in the sanctuary today, they were created and installed in the early 20th century.

In preparation for St. Michael’s Golden Jubilee in 1902 the tall, thin stained glass windows made in Bavaria, Germany, were installed. They were the fourth set to be installed into church architect August Walbaum’s original design. The first sets of glass in the same windows–in 1866, 1873 and 1878– were either frosted or tinted.

The Golden Jubilee windows in 1902 drew on centuries of craft and technique in stained glass-making. The Franz Mayer & Company of Munich produced some of the finest stained glass in the world. For St. Michael’s east and west walls they created colorful glass depicting familiar New Testament scenes.

For the Golden Jubilee St. Michael Church also had hand-crafted and installed five new altars by Hackner & Sons of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The realism and expressiveness of the Franz Mayer & Company windows –in 2013 these windows underwent a complete professional cleaning– offered to the prospering Chicago parish an added sense of wonder and joy in their sacramental worship that can still be experienced and seen today in its intact form.

Mayer’s WEST windows depict events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: the (non-biblical) Presentation of Mary and (biblical) Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Epiphany, and Assumption.

The EAST windows depict events in the life of Jesus: Finding Jesus in the Temple, Jesus Blesses the Children, Jesus’s feet washed by Mary Magdalene, the Ascension and the (non-biblical) Sacred Heart.

The windows’ rich color tones are rendered by using precious metals — gold dust for red; cobalt for blue; uranium for green.

The story scenes are given a Renaissance Europe setting.

All of these faith events are accompanied by Mayer’s fine depictions of the heavenly host of angels.

Franz Mayer & Company, founded in 1847 as “The Institute for Christian Art,” established a stained glass department in 1860. In 1882 it was awarded the designation as a Royal Bavarian Establishment for Ecclesiastical Art by “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) . The Pope later pronounced the foundry a Pontifical Institute of Christian Art. Instead of thinking of St. Michael Church commissioning a venerable Old European arts company to create their stained glass as would be Franz Mayer & Company’s status today, in 1902 Franz Mayer was a new German arts company whose religious artwork would mirror the sensibilities of a new parish on the north side of the new city of Chicago.

The founder’s son, Franz Borgias Mayer (1848-1926), continued to grow the royal manufacturing company for Christian Art. Ten years after St. Michael’s stained glass windows were installed, Saint Pope Pius X (1835-1914) commissioned the same German company to make stained glass for St. Peter’s Basilica as well as windows in important chapels throughout Vatican City. 

In the United States, Mayer’s client base and prestige grew in its service of an increasingly prosperous and broad-based Catholic immigrant community. Their ecclesiastical work can be found in Chicago, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Washington and California. As of 2016 Franz Mayer & Company continues as a family-owned and operated business (see http://www.mayer-of-munich.com/werkstaette/). 

NOTES:
valuation comparables – http://www.in2013dollars.com/1870-dollars-in-2015?amount=40000

stained glass department in 1860- Franz Mayer of Munich, edited by Gabriel Mayer, University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Pope Pius X commission – Nola Huse Tutag with Lucy Hamilton, Discovering Stained Glass in Detroit, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1987. p. 152.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

ASCENSION WINDOW (side panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

ASSUMPTION WINDOW (central panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

ASSUMPTION WINDOW (central panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany- Oct 30, 2015.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

SACRED HEART WINDOW (detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

ANNUNCIATION WINDOW (detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

PARABLE WINDOW (detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

VISITATION WINDOW (detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

CHRISTMAS WINDOW (detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

ASCENSION WINDOW (side panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

ASSUMPTION WINDOW (central panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.

Chicago’s Oldest German Parish (1852): St Michael Church in Old Town.

The bell tower of St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue. It was in 1876 that the church having rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 hoisted five new bells into the tower that were cast by McShane Company. In 1888, the tower’s four-sided clock was installed. atop the steeple, the twenty-four-foot tall cross weighs over a ton. Until the mid-1880’s this church tower was the tallest building in Chicago.

By John P. Walsh

The story is told that if you can hear the five 2-to-6-ton bells peel from the 290-feet-tall tower of St. Michael Church you live in Chicago’s Old Town. Yet it depends on which way the wind is blowing.  

St. Michael Church is one of Chicago’s oldest parishes and church buildings. It was founded by German Catholics in 1852. From their arrival in the 1830s and 1840s until World War I, German immigrants of all faiths made up Chicago’s most numerous nationality.

German immigrants quickly migrated out of downtown Chicago the two miles or so north to North Avenue, a thoroughfare which became known as German Broadway.

This West and East European community expanded to settle a four-mile square area that was called North Town. St. Michael Church was placed in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman-brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey had immigrated to the United States in the 1830s from Saarland in western Germany.

Michael Diversey
St. Michael Church stands on land donated expressly for the purpose of building it by successful German-American brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey emigrated from Germany in 1830, and by 1844 he was a Chicago alderman. The church is named after the wealthy beer maker’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel, whose limestone figure stands in the high niche on the façade (see photograph below). Diversey’s so-called Chicago Brewery, first established in Chicago in 1839, grew to become one of the most extensive establishments of its kind in the West.

Draft 5368 - Copy

The church building is built of red brick with limestone trim in the Romanesque style. Construction started in 1866 and was finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was virtually destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire along with its North Town neighborhood. Only the church’s exterior walls remained. Using these existing walls, the fire-gutted St. Michael Church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1873. Ashes from that infamous conflagration can still be seen in the church’s basement.

main entrance

The gabled three-portal main entrance harkens back to the cathedrals of Europe and was added to the façade in 1913 by a Chicago architect.

St Michael Church, interior.

St Michael Church, interior.

In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s total population was around 30,000 making it the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States.

Ten years later, in 1860, right before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had almost quadrupled and ranked in the country’s top ten largest cities.

Chicago’s Catholic Church hierarchy in the midnineteenth century was mainly Irish. The English-speaking bishops relied on religious orders to handle the tidal wave of non-English-speaking immigrants to Chicago, such as the Germans.

In 1860, the St. Michael Church parish was entrusted to the religious order of Redemptorists founded in Italy in 1748. The Redemptorists with the German congregation built the church in Chicago that stands today. One hundred and seventy years later the Redemptorist order continues to shepherd the parish.

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A mosaic of Saint Michael the Archangel in the floor at the entrance of the church. He is an angel whose title “Archangel” signifies he is the leader of all God’s angels. 

The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one of the many religious images—others in stone, wood and paint—that constitutes the interior and exterior decoration of  St. Michael Church. St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude, and the Book of Revelation. St. Michael the archangel is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Daniel where in the first instance he helps the prophet Daniel and in the second he is linked to the “end times” of the world. In the Epistle of Jude, St. Michael the archangel guards the tombs of Eve and Moses and combats Satan to protect these holy sites. In the Book of Revelation St. Michael and his angels do battle with the “dragon.” St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.

The High Altar

The Main Altar of the Angels in St. Michael Church dates from 1902.

The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. The motivation for the church’s extensive redecoration in 1902 was its Golden Jubilee as well as one expression of the parishioners’ decided prosperity by the later 1890s.

In that Jubilee year, the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. Though there are five altars in St. Michael Church, the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward from practically anywhere in the church. Crowning this painted construct—which is so heavy that it required a new local foundation to be dug for it—is the figure of St. Michael the Archangel described in the Book of Revelation. The angel is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. St. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul are also depicted in wood. Smaller human figures depict the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols—specifically, the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). All five altars were made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings.

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The Annunciation window, Franz Mayer & Company of Munich, St. Michael Church, Chicago.

In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build which is approximately $2.65 million today. After the fire the repairs in 1872 cost an additional $40,000 plus unknown amounts of insurance money–or upwards of $700,000 today. Reconstruction did not include the stained glass windows which were installed in 1902. For a history of the stained glass in St. Michael church go to: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2016/05/10/angels-in-stained-glass-1902-complete-st-michael-church-in-old-town-chicago/.

Anointing of Jesus, window detail, 1902, Franz Mayer & Company of Munich, St. Michael Church, Chicago.

The anointing of Jesus in Bethany by the sinful woman, traditionally the Magdalene. Though the story varies in certain details, all four gospels relate the anointing set in a house for a meal and a woman who pours expensive ointment on Jesus to which someone objects. In regard to the ointment, Mark’s account (14:3) records that it is the purest of spikenard which was very expensive costing over a year’s wages (Mark 14:5). Spikenard was grown in India, China, and Nepal and known in ancient Rome where it was used as a cooking agent. By the time of Jesus, in the early Roman Empire, spikenard was used primarily in perfume. In 2020, the spikenard plant is part of Pope Francis’s coat of arms. He uses the image of the plant as does the Latin American church, as a symbol for St. Joseph. Luke’s gospel speaks of Jesus’ feet being anointed by a woman who had been sinful all her life and who was crying (7:38). As her tears fall on the feet of Jesus, she kissed and wiped his feet with her hair. The iconography of the woman’s actions in the Gospels has traditionally been associated with Mary Magdalene though none of the biblical texts specify her as the story’s subject.

Coat of Arms of Pope Francis (2013-). According to the Vatican, the image of the plant to the right of the star is spikenard and represents St. Joseph.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.

CHRISTMAS WINDOW (detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany. 

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Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich in 1902 for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee, the tall and thin stained glass windows —the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design— depicted biblical and other scenes and drew on centuries of craft and technique.

As with other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuated the use of Gothic-style glass in Chicago’s Old Town Roman Catholic church.

Carved pulpit, St. Michael Church.

Carved pulpit, St. Michael Church.

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Ceiling mural over the central nave includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists–the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts and perhaps a scene from the Book of Genesis that was painted in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice in the fifteenth century.

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A copy made around 1913 of a sixteenth century Swabian-style Pieta.

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The Sacred Heart side altar to the east side of the main altar honors Jesus’s apparition to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690).  Statues depict St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) and St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), founders of religious orders.

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Side altar honors Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help whose image was important to Saint Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists who were the religious order pastors of St. Michael Church from its start. Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) gave this specific icon to the Chicago Redemptorists in 1865. After the Great Fire, it was picked out of the charred embers. Having survived intact in the rubble, it was taken as a sign to rebuild the church building and later set the icon into this nearly Indo-Chinese-style retable.

The history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in a new American city that was itself rising as the City of the Century. Chicago in less than 50 years developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States.

Between 1874 and after World War I Chicago’s rapid emergence on the world stage was accompanied by Deutschtum (or “Germanness”) in its culture. While Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the Kaiser’s defeat in 1918 in the European war signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago. This cultural hegemony was virtually completely dismantled by World War II.

Sources: G. Lane and A. Kezys, Chicago Churches and Synogogues; P. d’A Jones and M.G. Holli, Ethnic Chicago; D.A. Pacyga and E. Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods; D. McNamara, Heavenly City; St. Michael Church website.

Photographs by author taken on February 13 and 17, 2013; and May 6, 2016.