A journey of 2,448 miles begins with a single block. In the case of Route 66, it is Block 0 of East Adams Street at Michigan Avenue, where the “Begin Historic Route 66” shield faces the Art Institute of Chicago.
For a thoroughfare so associated with the Americana of a time before highways homogenized travel across the country, Route 66 has no promising starting point. There’s a Walgreens on one corner, a Starbucks on the other. It’s getting more interesting, even here in Chicago. Although we are mentioned in the song “Road 66,” Chicago doesn’t value Route 66 as much as Pontiac, Illinois, or Kingman, Arizona, both of which have Route 66 museums. We have other tourist attractions.
Saturday was the 96th anniversary of the designation of Route 66 as a freeway, an event commemorated with this google animation. We celebrated by riding the eight-mile stretch of Route 66 from Chicago, even going beyond the city limits, to Cicero. There are still pieces of the American past to be found there.
After passing through two vintage restaurants – Miller’s Pub and Berghoff – our first stop was the Marquette Building, at 140 S. Dearborn St., built in 1895. Go through the door labeled “Marquette”, under a bas-relief of the French priest -explorer brandishing a pipe to repel an attack by Native Americans, and enters the most fabulous hall in Chicago. The first floor is surrounded by an octagon of shimmering mosaics depicting Marquette’s adventures, beginning with her first Native encounter and ending with her death on the shores of Lake Michigan near present-day Ludington. Above each elevator door is a bronze bust of a star from this early period of Great Lakes exploration: Tonty, Big Snake, Black Hawk, LaSalle, Waubonsie.
A few blocks down Route 66 is Chicago’s second most fabulous lobby, inside the Rookery Building, 209 S. LaSalle St. The Rookery was designed by Daniel Burnham and John Welborn Root in 1888, but its lobby was redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright. Like everything else the master put his stamp on, it bears nods to Wright’s Prairie style, especially the square light fixtures suspended from long chains.
“Wright removed much of the iron and terracotta detailing on the central staircases, balconies, and walls, and replaced them with strong geometric patterns based on the railings of Root’s oriel window stairs,” reads -on in the history of the building. “He covered the iron columns with gilded white marble and incised with the Arabic pattern of Root found at the entrance to LaSalle. The fanciful electrolyzers that once flanked the central staircase were removed and Wright added bronze chandeliers with prismatic glass that still hang there today.
In almost every town on Route 66, there is a restaurant announcing its association with the Mother Road. Chicago has Lou Mitchell’s, 565 W. Jackson Blvd., – the only local institution that participates fully in Route 66 kitsch. When Route 66 opened in 1926, the three-year-old restaurant was on the freeway, which ran along Jackson until 1955, when the boulevard became a one-way eastbound street. Lou Mitchell’s is so dedicated to its mid-20th-century image that it sports a half-burnt neon sign advertising “the best coffee in the world” — even though the restaurant closes at 2 p.m. The coffee, when sipped on a counter Formica stool, is smooth enough, but for a traveler the real attraction is the pride of the small towns of Route 66: clocks, a framed Life magazine cover, a t-shirt inviting diners to “Get Your Kicks at Lou’s” and a Route 66 cookbook by Lou Mitchell.
After crossing the West Loop, past Old St. Patrick’s Church, Route 66 begins its journey southwest toward Santa Monica when it turns left onto Ogden Avenue. The road passes the 1914 Beaux-Arts Cook County Hospital, now a Hyatt House hotel, then crosses Douglass Park. The park was originally named for Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who brought railroads to Chicago and debated Lincoln in the 1858 Senate race. Recently, however , an “s” was added, to honor abolitionist Frederick Douglass instead. However, carved into the facade of the 1928 pavilion, which contains an ornate ballroom, are the words DOVGLAS PARK RECREATION BVILDING. So they can’t take that away from the Little Giant. Douglass Park also acknowledges its connection to Route 66, in a way that is fading. On a building south of Ogden is a peeling wooden mural depicting local roadside landmarks, lions from the Art Institute at the Skyline Motel, down the street in McCook.
Past Douglass Park, Ogden Avenue is a light industrial corridor of tire shops, car washes, liquor stores, churches and low rise brick warehouses with rows of crossword puzzle windows and “For Rent” signs. The next landmark is the long-closed Castle Car Wash, 3801 W. Ogden Ave. A small stone building with a crenellated turret, it was built as a petrol station in 1925, just in time to catch motorists heading out of town. Supposedly, it was also a hideout for Al Capone, although if Al Capone was hiding in all the places that make this claim, there would have been six Al Capones.
This is the end of Route 66 from Chicago, but worth continuing to Cicero. The Cindy Lyn Motel, 5029 W. Ogden Ave., was built in 1960 “to attract travelers to Chicago. We were originally known and marketed as the last motel before town. Decades after Interstate 55 replaced Route 66 as the fastest way to get to St. Louis, the Cindy Lyn is still around and has even added hot tub suites. Henry’s Drive-In, 6031 Ogden Ave., is Cicero’s last Route 66 diner. Opened in 1950, when hot dogs cost a quarter, it serves hot dogs, pepper and egg sandwiches, and now, bottles of Mother Road Route 66 Root Beer. Henry’s once had a competitor across the street: Bunyon’s, which was famous for its 20-foot-tall fiberglass Muffler Man holding a hot dog. The Hot Dog Muffler Man was such a symbol of Route 66 that after Bunyon closed, it was relocated to Atlanta, Illinois, giving this bypassed village an attraction to lure travelers off the I- 55. If you ever drive the 2,000+ miles from Chicago to Los Angeles, instead of stopping just outside the city limits, you should pull over and see it.