MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Architecture & art

Skyscraper city

For architecture fans, Chicago is the place to walk and gawk.

In Chicago, there’s great people-watching — but the building-watching is even better.

The city is best known for humongous buildings — the Willis (Sears) Tower, 875 N. Michigan Ave. (the Hancock Center), the Aon Center. But clustered around their knees are others that attract tourists from all over the world, buildings with so much flair it’s tempting to give them personalities.

There’s Helmut Jahn’s Thompson Center, the brassy showgirl with the heart of gold, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Plaza, the geek with the thick black glasses.

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Road trip: Mural towns

In some places, colorful local characters are literally larger than life.

If you want to see colors, you don't have to wait for fall.

Artists are splashing every color of the spectrum across the sides of buildings, in murals that celebrate colorful local characters.

In the northern Wisconsin town of Ashland, murals pay tribute to lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks, pilots and jazz musicians. They've made Ashland such a destination that the Minnesota Iron Range town of Virginia has put their creators to work creating murals there, too.

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Artistic Grand Marais

On Minnesota's North Shore, this once-rugged village is a cultural outpost.

A hundred years ago, Grand Marais was a wind-buffeted outpost at the tip of the North Shore, stomping grounds of trappers, loggers and fishermen.

The dirt road connecting the village to Duluth often was impassable, and winter provisions had to be brought in by steamer before Lake Superior iced over.

But amid the hardship, there was always art.

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Following the photographers: Lake Superior's south shore

Wish you were there? For people who love the Upper Peninsula and northwoods Wisconsin, online images are the next best thing.

Along the shores of Lake Superior, winter makes professional photographers really happy.

If they're lucky, they get weeks of northern lights. Then, perhaps an irruption of snowy owls swept down from the Arctic. And if it's cold and calm enough, the mainland ice caves of the Apostles not only will be accessible but magnificently frozen by subzero temperatures.

Amid so much natural beauty, photographers are like kids in a candy store. And they share their booty on Facebook pages and online galleries.

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Drawn to Spring Green

Creative urges converge in Frank Lloyd Wright's hometown.

There's a story behind everything in Spring Green.

Frank Lloyd Wright's story begins in the 1860s, when his unconventional grandparents and their 10 children emigrated from Wales to settle this dramatic valley of the Wisconsin River, which came to be known as "the valley of the God-almighty Joneses.''

The story of Alex Jordan's House on the Rock, atop a limestone spire that overlooks the valley and Wright's beloved home, is rooted in spite. After his father traveled from Madison to show Wright blueprints for a rooming house, and was harshly snubbed, Jordan vowed to get even and "put a Japanese house up out there.''

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Wright in Mason City

An Iowa town that embraced the famous architect has reopened his last hotel.

Brilliant men have been very good to Mason City, Iowa.

Frank Lloyd Wright built a bank, hotel and house there in 1908-09, and the locals loved his Prairie style so much it commissioned houses from four of his associates. Today, it's one of the best collections in the nation.

Wright became persona non grata in Mason City after he abruptly left for Europe with his married lover. But a musical virtuoso was growing up nearby. Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," inspired by Mason City and its band, became a Broadway smash in 1957.

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Fountain City oddities

A Wisconsin village on the Mississippi River is the capital of the offbeat and unexpected.

It's easy to speed right through the river town of Fountain City, on the way to someplace else, but that would be a mistake.

In Fountain City, all is not as it seems. A Hindu temple sits amid hay fields. One of the world's largest collections of toy pedal cars occupies five barns on a bluff. Dreamlike Santas ride fish in a riverfront studio, models for copies sold around the nation.

On this seemingly ordinary stretch of the Mississippi, people have been inspired by . . . something. Perhaps it's the dramatic bluffs that loom above town.

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Tales of the dead

At Chicago's famous Graceland Cemetery, the graves have a lot to say.

It isn't true that dead men tell no tales.

Actually, they can be quite chatty. At Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, their stories keep up to seven tour guides busy, especially during Halloween season.

Graceland's residents are a Who's Who of Chicago society: retailer Marshall Field, meat-packer Philip Armour, hotelier Potter Palmer, piano maker William Kimball.

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Road trip: Wisconsin's concrete art

Love goofy roadside attractions? Here's where to find them, from Snow White to Sacagawea.

In the early days of highway travel, some very ordinary folks toiled to enliven Wisconsin's roadsides.

Concrete dinosaurs appeared, and a muskie pulled by horses. King Neptune held court next to Snow White and her dwarves.

There was an ocean liner encrusted with glass, a  Hindu temple and mythic figures from the American frontier — Sacagawea, Paul Bunyan, Kit Carson.

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Wright in Oak Park

After more than 125 years, the architect's first works still seem stunningly original.

Around Frank Lloyd Wright's old stomping grounds in Oak Park, Ill., 2014 was a big year.

Of course, every year is a big year at the architect's first home and studio, which draws crowds of people from around the world even when it's not celebrating its 125th anniversary.

People come to Oak Park for the sensational stories as well as the architecture. Wright was notoriously ill-behaved, breaking promises and scoffing at rules. He was a genius, and he knew it.

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Following the photographers: Lake Superior in Minnesota

Wish you were there? For people who love the North Shore, online images are the next best thing.

Do you love to see gorgeous photos of your favorite landscapes, especially when you're sitting in an office cubicle?

Facebook makes it easy to see when giant waves are crashing along shorelines, when northern lights appear in the winter sky and when full moons frame lighthouses. Online galleries and blogs offer photography tips as well as images.

One place especially blessed with photographers who share their work is Minnesota's dramatic North Shore of Lake Superior, where world-class scenery stretches from Duluth to the Canadian border.

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Street of dreams

On St. Paul's Summit Avenue, imposing mansions are remnants of the Gilded Age.

Even tourists from the great European capitals are impressed by Summit Avenue.

It's not just one mansion, but one after another, all the way from the Mississippi River to the massive Cathedral of St. Paul, overlooking downtown and the state Capitol.

This five-mile stretch is one of the most splendid, best-preserved Victorian streets in the United States. The oldest are at the east end, on the lip of the bluff overlooking downtown and the Mississippi River.

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Loving Frank Lloyd Wright

Fans can tour or even stay overnight in buildings designed by the famous architect.

More than half a century after his death, Frank Lloyd Wright is as notorious and admired as ever.

June is a good time to connect with the architect, who was born June 8, 1867.

His eventful life still provides material for bestsellers, including the 2007 novel "Loving Frank,'' about his relationship with the ill-fated Mamah Borthwick Cheney, and T.C. Boyle's 2009 novel "The Women,'' about Wright, Mamah and Wright's three wives. 

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Wright in Racine

In southeast Wisconsin, a wax magnate's decision to hire 'the greatest architect in the world' had stunning results.

Wherever he worked, Frank Lloyd Wright was good for a story.

In Racine, Wis., the staff of global manufacturer SC Johnson has plenty of them to tell.

In 1936, the grandson of the company's founder hired the flamboyant architect to design an Administration Building. "Don't make it too unconventional,'' H.F. Johnson Jr. told Wright.

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Magnificent obsessions

In the Wisconsin countryside, self-taught visionaries left caches of concrete art.

In Wisconsin, nonconformity is cast in concrete.

In the middle of the last century, a motley collection of ordinary folk — a dairy farmer, a car dealer, a tavern owner, a factory worker — took a sharp turn away from the ordinary.

Out of the blue, they began to fashion fairy-tale characters, castles, temples and historical figures out of concrete, adorning them with bits of glass, crockery, porcelain and seashells and toiling until their yards overflowed with figures.

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