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Intent on seeing the Figge Art Museum and whatever else struck them as being noteworthy, the Getaway Guys descended on Davenport, Iowa on a chilly Saturday morning. A month earlier on the way to explore Rock Island-Moline and Nauvoo, Ill., they had passed through Davenport to take U.S. 61 to Fort Madison, re-crossed Ole Man River and headed to Nauvoo. With Davenport the primary target a month later, we crossed the Mississippi at Dubuque (having spent the day before in Galena, Ill.) and followed U.S. 61 south again.
As is frequently the case when the Guys go exploring, Mr. Midwest (Alan) had been in and out and around the Hawkeye State many times. Regardless of whether it was Iowa or maybe Nebraska that Neil drove across when heading to California at some time during the past 50 years , he had little knowledge of Iowa’s history before he and Alan journeyed from Dubuque to Fort Madison while researching articles for the Evanston RoundTable and their getaway-chicago.com website.
Compared to many Iowa communities, Davenport is fairly large and, not unlike other major river ports along the Mississippi, it probably has an interesting story to tell. It seems, though, to lack a distinctive, preserved historic district. The Guys did find a cluster of riverside warehouses converted to restaurants and bars, and on Saturday morning they investigated its “old town,” which proved to be somewhat paltry and less than exciting. As Neil said to Alan, “maybe under the cover of darkness and jammed with young revelers this joint really jives.” The Guys did not wait until dark to find out.
After getting lost, we finally found the Vander Veer Botanical Garden. Not expecting a Chicago Botanic Garden, we discovered a nice park with a wide variety of trees and other plant life, plus a smallish facility devoted to exotic plants in a glass enclosed environment which proved to be rewarding and welcome.
Leaving the Vander Veer Botanical Garden, we Guys ventured south across Davenport to the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, where the natural science exhibits fascinated Alan. Natural science is a subject Neil is lukewarm about, drawn more to local-history exhibits. The Putnam has an abundance of artifacts and ephemera dug out of local attics, garages and basements. The Getaway Guys have seen a zillion exhibits of historic local artifacts over the years that are never uninformative or uninteresting. There are always Victrolas, early radios and dresses worn by matrons of local society, but also unique items that tell about local history.
Overlooking Davenport’s riverfront, the Figge Museum of Art was designed by the English architect Sir David Chipperfield and completed in 2005. It is the successor to the Davenport Art Museum and presently houses a number of works from the University of Iowa’s art collection. In recognition of the need for substantial seed money to build a state-of-the art facility in a more prominent location, the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Foundation gave a large contribution. The name of this surprising museum was changed in recognition of the Foundation’s support. Architecturally, The Figge Museum of Art is not a typical ego-maniacal, celebrity-architect edifice. It is a somewhat plain rectangular structure with an interesting, yet unobtrusive, exterior being of glass well-suited to support its mission as a repository of important works of art. It is user-friendly and easy to navigate.
Alan is the unjaded art observer of the Getaway Guys duo. His non-judgmental insights are often uncanny and right on the mark. Neil is the more critical partner, but the size and location of the Figge collection proved to him once again that significant works of art can be found in the least likely places. In addition to a temporary NASA exhibition featuring technical inventions for space exploration, the permanent collection includes showstopper works by Robert Motherwell, Fernand Leger, Max Beckman, Lyonel Feininger, Marsden Hartley and Thomas Hart Benton (to name a few). The Guys also saw an edition of a perennial American favorite, “Coming Through the Rye” by the American sculptor Frederick Remington. Close by was a stunning moonlit landscape by the somewhat mysterious American painter, Ralph Albert Blakelock, one of Neil’s favorite mid-19th-century artists. Last, but not least, a selection of furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a surprising assemblage of African artifacts and a unique gathering of Haitian works were also fascinating.
Just maybe, a journey dedicated to solely to Davenport may not be the ticket for a getaway adventure. Missing is the nostalgia of a Milwaukee or Kalamazoo, but it isn’t uninteresting either, especially the Figge Art Museum, a delicious “pudding” of great art.
Editor’s Note: The authors maintain a free website, www.getaway-chicago.com, which offers recommended outings to nearby destinations that are often overlooked, but of genuine interest and delight.