Next stop: History

U. of C. grad navigates 'L' car into the Smithsonian


By Michael Kilian
Washington Bureau

Date of Publication: January 6, 2004
Source: Chicago Tribune


WASHINGTON -- A year ago, Chicago Transit Authority elevated train car No. 6719 was a nearly half-century-old relic sitting on the scrap line at the CTA's Skokie yards awaiting reduction to a $1,200 pile of junk metal.

Instead, it now sits in a place of honor at the Smithsonian Institution as a symbol of an important part of American history -- one of the centerpieces of a huge new permanent exhibition hall. How this came about can be explained in just two words.

"Some of the people looked at me as though I was a little bit nuts," she the Smithsonian's Bonnie Lilienfeld, shown inside the museum's "L" car. "But I'd done so much research -- I have this tendency to overwhelm people with information -- so I overwhelmed them with information about CTA history and how important this was and how central Chicago was during the 1950s." For a larger view, click here. (Tribune photo by Pete Souza)

"Bonnie Lilienfeld," said Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where the new "America on the Move" transportation hall is located.

As the world's largest museum and research complex, the Smithsonian can draw upon myriad sophisticated resources. What counted for most in this regard, though, is that it has on its curatorial staff a University of Chicago graduate who is absolutely nuts about Chicago's "L."

"I love Chicago," said Lilienfeld, who lived in the city from 1978 to 1987. "I love the 'L.' I loved taking the Howard line [from Hyde Park] because it was elevated and ran through the South Side. It's changing now, but it was this really urban landscape. Coming from a small town in western New York as I did, to me it was just like magic being on the train with the noises and just watching the people."

In fact, she used to ride the "L" as a principal form of recreation.

"I did. I'd just ride downtown and, go around the Loop, get off and walk around and look at the buildings. I didn't even have a driver's license."

The new $22 million, 26,000 square foot exhibition hall embraces the history of American transportation from post-Civil War Western narrow gauge railroads to New York harbor in the glory days of steamships to the modern freeway, complete with a monumental traffic jam.

But a very large section of it is devoted to Chicago and the enormous role transit played in maintaining the city's vitality and viability in the post-World War II era that saw the flight of hundreds of thousands of people to the suburbs.

The sprawling display includes not only "L" car No. 6719 but a facsimile of the Wabash and Madison station and platform, the front section of a 1950s vintage CTA bus and a representation of a suburban Park Forest house and an actual 1955 Ford Country Squire station wagon.

A lifelike, life-size polyurethane figure behind the wheel of the bus tells, by means of a recording, the actual story of a now retired CTA bus driver.

But a much more amazing verisimilitude is achieved within the "L" car, where visitors will be able to experience a ride around the Loop. The car rumbles and seems to sway, wheels screech, lights flicker and the shadows of buildings darken the foggy windows.

At the rear of the car, a computerized screen projection shows videotaped 1959 vintage passengers (played by actors) getting on and off the train at various stops, talking about things of import in 1959, reading vintage newspapers and carrying vintage Marshall Field shopping bags.

"Bonnie did a terrific job," said Glass. "I have to believe this is going to be the hit of the show."

When the museum embarked on the new transportation hall project four years ago, it made detailed plans for many aspects of the exhibition, but had nothing in mind for Chicago except the notion that something about it ought to be included.

Lilienfeld, then as now the museum's curator of ceramics and glass, rushed to fill the void.

"I saw this big diagram of the exhibition, and it just had a big circle in the middle labeled 'Chicago,'" she said. "So I went to [project director Steve] Lubar, who's another University of Chicago person, and said, 'I'd love to work on this. I know a lot about Chicago history. I have a big library of Chicago books, and I'm really interested in Chicago transit."

They agreed -- and then some.

"I would sometimes ask for guidance, so I wouldn't have to be fully responsible for everything," she said, "and he'd say, 'No, this is your project; you take care of it.'"

She considered the 1920s and 1940s, but finally settled on the 1950s -- a time when Chicago was undergoing a tremendous resurgence.


Decade of change

"The '50s were a really dynamic period in Chicago," she said. "You had Mayor [Richard J.] Daley coming in, which was a huge deal. You had urban renewal, for good and bad. You had a lot of demographic and social changes going on in the city and suburbs. They were building the expressways. In the 1950s, Chicago pioneered the use of expressway medians for rapid transit trains."

She found the 1950s vintage bus in a junkyard 45 miles outside of Omaha, Neb., and tracked down a driver from that time who was retired in Florida.

"I was looking for an African-American bus driver because I wanted to talk about transit as an opportunity for work for African-Americans at a time when there weren't a lot of other opportunities."

She had hoped to get actual pieces of the Wabash and Madison station but that proved impossible. "We're using that old station as an office," said CTA planning manager and historian Bruce Moffat.


Dream comes true

Her dream of acquiring an actual 1950s "L" car came true only in the nick of time.

"There were only two cars from that series left," said CTA Vice President for Planning and Development Michael Shiffer, who used to ride the 'L' as a boy growing up in Rogers Park. "We sold it to Bonnie for the scrap price -- $1,200 -- though I think it cost more than that to ship it to Washington."

He said it contained a double load of history because some of the 720 "L" cars in that series were made from recycled metal and parts of Chicago's old "Green Hornet" streamlined streetcars that were discontinued in the 1950s.

Shiffer, previously a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois and M.I.T., said Lilienfeld was correct to pick the 1950s as an important period.


Impact on downtown

A 1950s Chicago "L" car, similar to those on this train, has a place of honor in the new $22 million exhibition hall at the Smithsonian Institution. For a larger view, click here. (Tribune file photo)

"Rapid transit had a significant impact in making downtown Chicago what it is today despite the trend to the suburbs," he said. "A single elevated train can carry a thousand passengers. When you think of one coming along every few minutes, that's a lot of people being brought into the area."

Some at the Smithsonian were opposed to bringing the "L" car into the exhibition because it is 48 feet long. There was talk of cutting it in half, an act Lilienfeld viewed as akin to homicide.

"Some of the people looked at me as though I was a little bit nuts," she said, "but I'd done so much research -- I have this tendency to overwhelm people with information -- so I overwhelmed them with information about CTA history and how important this was and how central Chicago was during the 1950s. I wore them down [about the car] and then I wore them down about cutting the car in half."

She did have to agree to removing the car's wheels to accommodate the level of the replicated platform.

The car has now been installed, repainted its original Colorado green, cream and orange, and decorated with authentic period decals from the Illinois Railway Museum in McHenry County.

"She presented us with some real research challenges," said Moffat, "such as, what color were the original window sills?"

"Bonnie is one of my favorite people," said Shiffer. "She has tremendous enthusiasm. She's very good at really [being] able to get what she needs. Museums are very fortunate to have people like her."


New York state native

The daughter of an Episcopal priest, Lilienfeld, 43, grew up in Jamestown, N.Y. -- also home, she proudly notes, to Lucille Ball and the rock band 10,000 Maniacs.

She went to U. of C. to become an Egyptologist, switched to urban history, and then to English, and finally graduated with a degree in music history.

"I call myself eclectic to avoid being called scatterbrained," she said.

She then got an administrative job in the U. of C. Hospital's gastrointestinal clinic, and thought of seeking a doctorate in American history.

"But what I mostly did was ride around Chicago on the 'L,'" she said.

Then married, she moved to Washington when her husband got a government job. She phoned the Smithsonian to inquire about employment and told them she had gone to U. of C. "'I got my master's and PhD there,'" said the curator she talked to. "'You must be OK.'"

The "L" cars of that vintage came in what are called "married pairs," and Lilienfeld yearned to buy No. 6719's mate -- No. 6720. The price was right, but she had no place to put it and the car is now scrap.

But she's found consolation.

"I moved into a condo that's about 25 feet away from the end of the [Washington Metro transit system's] Yellow Line, so I could be near the trains," she said. "I hear them at night."


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