CHEVY DEALERSHIP: A TRIBUTE TO ROUTE 66, 2007, 396 N. Chicago Street, Joliet, Illinois, by Marion Kryczka with the assistance of community members. Photograph by author.
Joliet, Illinois, a city of nearly 150,000 people about 45 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, is famous for many things not least of which is its appearance in the opening credits and scene of the classic 1980 comedy film, The Blues Brothers. Starring John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake Blues and and Dan Ackroyd as his brother, Elwood, there is a flyover of Joliet’s old steel mills in operation at night as well as the old limestone walls of Joliet Prison at dawn. The city of Joliet takes pride in this popular culture heritage, though those manufacturing mills are shuttered and the old Joliet Prison, only one mile away from Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66, closed in 2002.
Joliet set out in the early 1990s to celebrate and present its rich and diverse heritage by way of a city-wide public artwork initiative. Depicted in painted murals placed at strategic points throughout the city, it presented the various historic periods, people, and significant activities that preceded and followed Joliet’s establishment.
After many hundreds of years living on the undulating prairie with its deep rivers, Native American communities were met in 1673 by French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet (1645-1700)— and after which the city could have been later named—accompanied by French Jesuit Père Jacques Marquette (1637-1675). These European explorers paddled up the Des Plaines River on which the present-day Joliet straddles and camped just south of its downtown. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came a proliferation of canals, various industries, railroads, and quarries that saw the economic boom of this northern Illinois city surrounded by a broad geographical area of farms. In 1964, Joliet’s significance in the development of this part of the nation’s interior was officially recognized with the establishment of the Illinois & Michigan National Heritage Corridor designation.
In the early 1990s, Joliet started a public art mural project. Contemporary art murals were created throughout the city often on exterior building walls or under viaducts. Several of these early murals, after 30 years being constantly exposed to the harsh weather conditions in summer and winter, are today in varying need of restorative work. Whether as an individual mural or as part of a series, these public murals have looked to depict in contemporary art the diversity of Joliet life in more than five centuries of its history.
The 2007 acrylic mural called Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66 is the artists’ imagined depiction of a Chevrolet automobile showroom in Joliet, Illinois in the mid-1950s. Newer than other murals in the city, the mural is in remarkable physical condition as it sits in the direct western sun on an exterior wall along a high-trafficked downtown street corner. The 10-by-15-foot mural was created by a team of artists led by Marion Kryczka, a Chicago-based artist who was a longtime professor at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artists who matured under Kryczka’s mentorship are today accomplished artists in their own right.
The mural is part of a series at the site. It is the larger of two murals displayed on west and south walls of a historic one story red-brick building at 396 N. Chicago Street in downtown Joliet, Illinois. The building had been the original showroom of Winston Chevrolet, a busy auto dealer in the mid-1930s and 1940s. In 1955 the dealership was acquired by Bill Jacobs, Sr. A vintage photograph from that time connected to the mural shows a bevy of new and used cars lined up and parked around the perimeter of the building apparently awaiting customers.
The acrylic mural of Bill Jacob’s dealership in the 1950s is imbued with cultural and historical significance. Bill Jacobs Chevrolet, which opened in 1955, stayed in the family until it was sold in 2015. The founder’s son, Bill Jacobs, Jr., bought the dealership from his father in 1978 at 23 years old. In 2010, Bill Jacobs, Jr., following a 7-year battle with cancer, passed away at 55 years old. Starting at this showroom building in 1955, Bill Jacobs Automotive Group had, by 2010, expanded to five Chicagoland dealerships. It employed almost 500 people and generated about $300 million in annual sales. Mrs. Jeanne Jacobs, the wife of Bill Jacobs, Sr., and Bill Jacobs, Jr.’s mother, passed away in October 2020. It was because of Jeanne Jacobs that her husband Bill Jacobs, a university professor, entered the car business. Jeanne Jacobs’ father owned a car dealership in Chicago where Bill Jacobs worked before he bought his own dealership in Joliet in 1955.
Since the 1970s, artist Marion Kryczka has had a career as an artist. Mr. Kryczka’s drawing is rooted in his foundation as a figurative artist and a lively technique which uses realism as a launching point to create familiar, beautiful, and meaningful scenes. For Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66, Krycka’s painting imagines a realistic American social scene which reflected Bill Jacobs Sr.’s business philosophy. Mr. Jacobs believed that business is about people and the mural’s showroom is filled with people who worked, lived and played in Joliet in the mid-1950’s. For a public mural like this one, community input was an important part of the process. There were group design sessions and meetings with city officials, with the city approving topics and contracting for the projects. For historic pieces, local residents sometimes posed.
The placing of Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66 in the mid20th century in the middle of the 1950’s helps express several important historical facets about the building, its car dealership, and the road (U.S. Route 66) that runs past it. In this art project are displayed many facets of Joliet’s rich heritage.
The mural is directly meaningful as a display of Joliet, Illinois, especially as it developed into a vibrant city where the Jacobs and many others put down roots. The mural also expresses the profound economic and cultural impact of the car industry in Joliet at that time reflecting national trends. Finally, it evokes the popularity of the legendary U.S. Route 66 which had opened in 1926 and followed a quilt of interconnected state and county roads for motor travel from Chicago, Illinois, through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and all the way to Santa Monica, California in Los Angeles County. Chevy Dealership: A Tribute to Route 66 shows Joliet’s connection and contribution to this important larger national phenomenon.
The mid1950s for the Chevy dealership mural depicts that unique historical moment when old Route 66, just then 30 years old, was already on the threshold of major change. In the mural U.S. Route 66 was still in its hey-day—though, at the very same time, it was headed for a rapid and transformative decline. In 1956 the Federal Aid Highway Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Eisenhower. It authorized $25 billion for the construction of over 40,000 miles of an Interstate Highway System. The bill was the largest public works project in American history—and quickly displaced U.S. Route 66 as a major throughway.
Jerry Peart (b. 1948, American), Wildflower, Sinnissippi Gardens, Rockford, Illinois, in July 2017. The 20-foot painted aluminum sculpture in a fountain setting stands near the entrance of the Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens along the Rock River. The Conservatory, which opened in October 2011, offers a main exhibition house, greenhouses, classrooms, a roof garden, a lagoon, walking trails, outdoor gardens, and more. Peart, a Chicago-based artist who has created over 35 large-scale public sculptures according to his website https://www.sedgwickstudiochicago.com/jerry-peart, created Wildflower in part because he was inspired by this place in the Midwest dedicated to all things clean and green.
Bob Mangold (b. 1930, American), Anemotive Kinetic, Sinnissippi Gardens, Rockford, Illinois, in July 2017. As a kinetic (movement) artist, Mangold’s sculptures explore concepts of space and motion. In 1962, Mangold began his Anemotive series of spherical, wind-propelled kinetic sculptures. As with this work, the anemotives are characterized by cup-like shapes mounted on arms which allow for motion.
Chicago Harbor Lighthouse (1893), Chicago, Illinois, 2017.
Known as the “Chicago Light,” the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse is an active automated lighthouse dating from 1893.
About one-half mile beyond Navy Pier, the lighthouse stands at the north of the main entrance of the Chicago Harbor in Lake Michigan. The lighthouse has had a significant role in the development of Chicago and the American Midwest and remains an active aid to nautical navigation today.
For more than a century, the U.S. Coast Guard has staffed this lighthouse at the breakwater outside the Chicago Harbor Lock. The lock separates Lake Michigan from the mouth of the Chicago River.
The lock was built in the mid-1930’s and is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lock is one of the entrances into the Illinois Waterway system at the Great Lakes. The waterway system is a commercial and recreational shipping connection to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.
The “Chicago Light” is at that waterway system’s headwaters as it stands in the outer harbor constructed in 1880. The Chicago Light’s conical tower dates from 1893. Twenty-five years later, in 1918, the tower was reconstructed and the base building which contains a fog-signal room and boathouse was added. The architects are not identified.
Through its breakwaters, the main entrance into Chicago Harbor is 580 feet wide. The Chicago Harbor Lighthouse was designated a Chicago Landmark on April 9, 2003. It is the only surviving lighthouse in Chicago and one of two remaining examples in the state of Illinois.
The mouth of the Chicago River at Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. About one mile ahead, the Chicago Harbor Lock, built in the 1930’s, provides the entrance/exit of the Illinois Waterway system at the Great Lakes. The waterway system is a commercial and recreational shipping connection from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.
Built in 1914 by Ketler-Elliot Erection Company of Chicago, the Chicago Avenue Bridge was one of the oldest pony truss bascule bridges in Chicago. Connecting River North and River West, the steel bridge was, after 104 years, demolished in 2018 and replaced, in 2019, by a temporary bridge. A new, permanent immovable concrete bridge is expected to open over the Chicago River in this location in 2021.
The expanse of the Chicago Avenue Bridge over the North Branch of the Chicago River near Goose Island. The bridge with its steel beam pony truss was built in 1914 and demolished in 2018. The bridge was replaced by a temporary crossing in 2019.
A pony truss bridge is a steel truss bridge that allows traffic over and through the truss, but with no cross brace across the top connecting its two sides. The truss bridge assembly of the Chicago Avenue Bridge was made of riveted steel beams—a witness to the early 20th century industrial manufacturing might of Chicago. In addition to being “Hog Butcher For The World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler” as Carl Sandberg wrote in his 1914 poem, “Chicago,” published in the then-new (1912) Poetry magazine the same year the Chicago Avenue Bridge was built, Chicago was also at that time a world leader in steel production and bridge design.
In 1914 when the Chicago Avenue Bridge was first opened, Chicago was a world leader in steel production and bridge design, among many other industries that built America and the world. Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison, Jr. (1860-1953) served for five terms as a Democrat from 1897 to 1905 and again from 1911 to 1915, the years when the Chicago Avenue Bridge began operation.
The basic design of any bascule bridge is similar to a medieval castle drawbridge—a leaf or span that rises and descends so to permit traffic upon it—and, in the case of the Chicago Avenue Bridge, traffic also below it on the navigable—and today mainly recreational—Chicago River.
There are more than 50 movable bridges in Chicago. Single-leaf (truss) bascule bridges were constructed where the river was not very wide and often used for train traffic (Chicago is the railroad capital of the U.S.) where a single bridge deck goes up and down between abutments.
The more common double-leaf (truss) bascule bridge, which included the Chicago Avenue Bridge, consists of two leaves or spans which meet in the middle over the river. Counterweights on each side of the bridge beneath it in a river pit (or pits) balances, stabilizes and fortifies the vertical movement of the bridge deck. If the bridge deck is one leaf, the “Chicago Style” bridge rises in a piece vertically to one side of the river; if two leaves, each rise to their side of the river and descend to close again by meeting in the middle of the bridge deck.
Bascule bridges are the most commonly found moveable bridges in the world because they operate quickly and efficiently. The Chicago Avenue Bridge was operated from a companion pitched-roof bridge house with rounded corners and rows of windows clad in decorative (today oxidized green) copper. The bridge house portion of the structure was not demolished in 2018.
Looking east, a portion of the pony truss bascule Chicago Avenue Bridge before its demolition with its partially obscured bridge house in May 2016. Photograph by author.
The Chicago Avenue Bridge’s pitched-roof bridge house with its design of rounded corners and rows of windows clad in decorative (and today green oxidized) copper.
There are numerous variations and designs of the bascule bridge which in Chicago includes the trunnion (“pivot point”) bascule (“seesaw’) bridge. The nation’s first such bridge started operation in Chicago in 1902 over the north branch of the Chicago River at Cortland Street which can still be seen in operation today. The bridge design became known as the “Chicago Style” as its leaf or leaves, suspended on axles (trunnions) with massive concrete counterweights located below the bridge in the riverbank pit, opens and lifts a single or dual bridge deck to clear the river for traffic without blocking the waterway with a central pier.
Chicago’s bascule bridges—and the Chicago Avenue Bridge was one of them—were designed to its specific location. Each was designed to take on heavy loads and the attendant vibration which also included the ice and snow pack of Chicago’s winters. The design and construction into bedrock took into account wind resistance, whether the bridge leaves were open or closed, and to wind speeds of 100 miles per hour in any and all directions.
By 1920, improvements in bascule bridge design allowed for the construction of a double deck trunnion bascule bridge where car, truck and foot traffic could be carried simultaneously on its upper and lower decks. The first such double deck trunnion bascule bridge in Chicago was near the site of the old Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue—today’s busy Michigan Avenue Bridge. In October 2010, the bridge was renamed DuSable Bridge in honor of Haitian-born Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (c.1750-1818), Chicago’s first permanent resident who established a trading settlement nearby.
Looking east from the Chicago Avenue Bridge to Chicago’s Downtown and Magnificent Mile along Lake Michigan.
Looking west from the old Chicago Avenue Bridge. A pony truss bridge is a steel truss bridge that allows traffic over and through the truss, but with no cross brace across the top connecting its two sides.
Solzman, David M., The Chicago River: An Illustrated History and Guide to the River and Its Waterways, Wild Onion Books, Chicago, 1998.
Temporary replacement bridge, Chicago Avenue at the Chicago River, 2019. The temporary bridge was installed after the Chicago Avenue Bridge, built in 1914, was demolished in 2018 after 104 years of service.
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-Itzáand 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-Itzáwere built
Close to Chichén-Itzá Thompson discovered pits with quarried veins oflime 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.
The Logan Theatre, Chicago, illinois, February 2013.
Lakefront, East Chicago, Indiana, July 2016.
Chicago (The Loop), November 2017.
Downers Grove, Illinois, July 2018.
Chicago (Michigan Avenue), August 2015.
Chicago (Michigan Avenue), May 2014.
Chicago, July 2016.
Chicago, July 2016.
Chicago, July 2016.
Chicago, September 2015.
Chicago (Navy Pier), September 2016.
Chicago, August 2015.
Chicago (West Loop/East Garfield Park), October 2016.
Chicago (Millennium Monument), September 2016.
Chicago, Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, 4600 S. King Drive, October 2016. Originally a synagogue founded in 1861 by German Jewish immigrants, the neo-Classical building was home to Chicago Sinai Congregation from 1912 until the 1940s. In 1961, Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church moved into the building. The church community brought a strong commitment to social justice and played an instrumental role in bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Chicago. Since the late 1960’s the church has provided a neighborhood food bank.
Chicago (Navy Pier), September 2015.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, June 2018.
Chicago (Edgewater), 2014.
Oakbrook, Illinois, summer 2019.
Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago (1975) in late 2017. The 28-story building is a right triangle shape. Architect Harry Weese (1915-1998) designed each cell with a floor-to-ceiling slit window, 7 feet (2.1 m) long by 5 inches (130 mm) wide. The windows were narrow enough that they did not require bars and beveled out to allow natural light to pass inside.
Chicago, August 2017.
Magnificent Mile, Chicago, May 2016.
skyline (artist), September 2015.
Crown Fountain (Millennium Park), Chicago, September 2016.
Chicago, August 2017.
Concert, October 2014.
Chicago, (Wabash Avenue near Adams Street), August 2017.
Chicago, (Wabash Avenue and Jackson Street), August 2017.
Chicago (Wabash Avenue near Congress Parkway, renamed Ida B. Wells Drive in 2018), September 2015.