That’s the Power of Love (Architecture) : The James R. Thompson Center

The James R. Thompson Center (formerly the State of Illinois Center), Helmut Jahn, 1985.
The James R. Thompson Center (formerly the State of Illinois Center), Helmut Jahn, 1985.

On October 13, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner held a news conference in Chicago, presenting an aggressive, but perhaps not surprising plan to sell the Helmut Jahn-designed James R. Thompson Center, constructed in 1985. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, it is proposed that the building be sold for cash at a public auction, the over 2,000 state workers moved elsewhere, and demolished, making way for the same-old same-old high-density, mixed use, regrettable architecture.

Rauner had this to say:

“This building is ineffective.  For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy.  It’s hard to meet with your colleagues.  It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices”

A lot of people hate this building, but not for its architecture. Taxpayers in Illinois famously hissed over its $172 million dollar price tag, nearly twice its original budget, and a part of history that rings in the ears of people across the state as Springfield continues its own budget deadlock.  Helmut Jahn, irresponsible Starchitect and GQ cover subject was so obsessed with the building’s aesthetics that he neglected to develop a way to cool the interior properly, leaving state employees sweating it out for years.

Historic architecture in Chicago’s Loop has been serving the same non-offensive menu year after year, expertly taste-tested by historians, tourists and Chicagoans. Daniel Burnham is clearly the meat course, with Louis Sullivan and his curvilinear forms the vegetables.  The starch course is the Rookery, the Railway Exchange Building, and the Reliance Building, with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe acting as dessert, which many pass on for the swags and acanthus patterns that remain snug and safe along with everything else we have spoiled our appetite with.  It’s an outdated bill of fare.  It comes as no surprise that the Thompson Center as great architecture was a hard sell as new architecture in 1985, and a hard sell thirty years later as we look forward.

Visit the Thompson Center at noon, and it’s easy to find another reason to hate it. It’s the food smell capital of the Loop.  Pizza, Dunkaccinos, Chinese food and Popeye’s all hotboxing inside the steel and glass rotunda.  It’s filled with the anxious energy of coworkers in khakis with key cards, camping out at tables downstairs and chewing on the last cubes of ice from their fountain drinks before heading back to their cubicles.  Businesses like GNC and the curiously placed Amerinka’s Native Arts & Craft feel as if they are just loitering, and there is certainly a lot of that.  People are everywhere, and they are their own system within the building.  It’s a frenzy of modern urban life.  Chicago is filing for licenses, paying fees, and getting off the train. Then there is the fatal attraction of the building’s spiraling marble floor, a target for nearly a half a dozen jumpers since the building opened thirty years ago.

There is no way to deny the psychological effect of having to go to the DMV, which is another reason the Thompson Center is lauded. Put people in a building where it is expected they will have to wait, experience terrible customer service and inevitably not have the correct form or piece of documentation and it’s impossible to get them to even notice the muted Post-modern color palate as anything more than “puke pink and ugly blue.”  It’s like hating U2 because Bono is a pompous ass, and not because every album they’ve put out since 2000 has been crappy.

Thompson 6

With a reported $100 million in deferred maintenance, the building has seen better days. The granite panels that served to provide drama to the pedestrian arcade surrounding the building, and as a corral for Jean Dubuffet’s striking Monument with Standing Beast (aka “Snoopy in a Blender”) have been removed.  Interior surfaces are rusty, HVAC grates have been kicked in, and there are multiple areas of water damage and spall.  But perhaps nothing is as blatantly obvious as the dinginess of the building’s exterior glass panels.  It looks dirty from across the street, from above, and from the sky.  It’s embarrassing.

This neglect, along with the sub-par tenants and failed driving tests, has given the building a messy reputation, and serves to toxify discussions about the building’s architectural merit. But the new school of cultural heritage preservationists are undaunted, and encouraged by the opportunity to sit on a precipice of sorts, both with the opportunity to preserve postmodern heritage, some of which is just as old as the people in the movement; and aligning that with new ways to talk about how to preserve the architecture of the places that matter.  As we move towards a future of cultural resources management where we look at time as more fluid in determining significance, and reject a traditional attitude towards what we consider historic, the sooner we will realize we can serve buildings better, be better stewards and most importantly; serve people by saving beautiful places.  And the James R. Thompson Center is a beautiful place.

Thompson interior big

It’s that magic formula of brains, beauty and fun that makes the Thompson Center a stone cold stunner.  Its overstated  rotunda is a winking reference to nearly every state capital or county building constructed in the 19th century.  Encompassing an entire city block, the primary entrance is set back and tilted towards Chicago City Hall and the Richard J. Daley Center, indicating that the building’s relationship with its surrounding area is a public one.

The colonnade hugging the buildings rounded primary façade is supersized Ancient Rome, and made a conscious decision to ignore all of the architecture afterword until Jahn hit the drawing board in the early 1980s.

Inside, the ceiling soars and the materials are glossy and reflective, while the buildings’ expressed structure focuses and projects.

Light standards are not on the sidewalk outside, but within.   And the stairways and escalators have been pulled out from the center core of the building, and placed on the walls of the soaring cavity of the atrium, like fully functioning organs pulled outside of the body.  It’s a living organism, a human sized, breathing ant farm.  The movement is constant.

The dusty cobalt and creamy tomato soup color palate is America Lite, a political statement that lives comfortably with the Thompson Center as a governmental building. The basic pleasure of the colors and their placement in strong geometric fields appeal to the LEGO builder in you.  This is not your father’s Modernism.  This is a world where we were imagining the future of buildings, the future of government, and the future of us.  On Hoverboards.  Even the idealized future is an authentic part of our past, and helps us determine what we build.

Like a song made better as a cover, perhaps the Thompson Center could be improved upon and reimagined using the same care applied to the restoration of other significant; but more mainline, historic Chicago buildings. The cost of repairing the building’s originally failed systems would pale in comparison to the millions of dollars spent to repair Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that were built without downspouts, because Wright didn’t like the way they looked on his vertical line-challenged designs.  While each restoration project is unique, Wright’s buildings are a dime a dozen, and Jahn’s is truly one of a kind.  Buildings with great stewards like the ones responsible for the brilliant restoration of the Chicago Athletic Association into the Loop’s most creative new/old hangout should be inspiration enough that the nearly impossible is possible (and profitable, too!)  Giving the James R. Thompson Center a more creative second life would have a substantial halo effect, both in terms of the preservation of Postmodern buildings, and in Chicago.  A significant building worthy of a future we curate and create.

Here Dwells No Sense of Guilt: Ideas on Reinterpreting Confederate Memorials

In 1877, New Orleanians recristened a traffic circle, known by locals as Place de Tivoli to honor Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In 1884, a 62 foot monument to Lee was constructed at the center of the circle, topped off with a double scaled statue of the general in bronze, arms crossed and facing north.

General Robert E. Lee Memorial, 2015.
General Robert E. Lee Memorial, 2015.

This monument was the result of a campaign by the Children of the Confederacy, one of many organizations of its type that had emerged out of the South nearing the turn of the 20th century. Confederate organizations, like the Robert E. Lee Monumental Association, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans were formed principally to create memorials to Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, but also to assist in preserving the cultural history of Dixie that Secession and Lee’s surrender had served to tarnish. They were also not so subtile in their push for segregation. These organizations commissioned statues and memorials, and held meetings and gatherings, and at their peek had thousands of members. Patriotism towards the Confederacy was the prevalent attitude in New Orleans and all over the South.  An 1884 editorial in the Daily Picayune echoes some of the sentiment of the time: “We cannot ignore the fact that the Secession has been stigmatized as treason and that the purest and bravest men in the South have been denounced as guilty of shameful crime.  By every appliance of literature and art, we must show to all coming ages that with us, at least, there dwells no sense of guilt.”

In 2015 it is guilt of a different kind that has compelled the call for the removal of monuments that memorialize Confederate culture in a public setting-within parks, squares and traffic circles. Civic and religious figures as well as politicians like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu have made bold suggestions on how to reinterpret this part of our heritage. Changes to the names of streets, schools, parishes and parks from Beauregard, Stephens, Forrest and Davis have been proposed in places like Houston and Little Rock, as far north as St. Louis, and as far west as California.  Governers in South Carolina and Alabama have removed the Confederate flag from their statehouses, with more states to surely follow.

This rapid reinterpretation of Confederate symbols is perhaps the most challenging and sensitive restructuring of how we as Americans see our past, and its a been a long time coming in former slave holding states and elsewhere. A memorial to Confederate soldiers in St. Louis became a canvas to express that “Black Lives Matter,” with the anonymous individuals being branded as vandals by some and activists by others. Support has come from some unexpected places, like South Carolina Republican Paul Thurmond, who has been a strong voice in acknowledging a misalignment with history. As the son of Strom Thurmond, America’s oldest running segregationist, Paul has called for both rolling back the Confederate flag and dismantling Confederate monuments.

These monuments are a significant part of our history, but their original message does not align with our national message. But how do we separate the stately Georgian columns of a historic plantation house, or the robust carving of a statue atop a towering obelisk with the negative acts that these parts of our built world embed? Can we find a way to commemorate the past, without celebrating its brutality?

The senseless killing of parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a tragedy of almost unthinkable proportions.  Dylan Roof’s hate was fueled by the powerful words of the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South. In a photo circulating the internet, Roof poses proudly behind a Confederate flag, and the power of the stars and bars as a symbol is undeniable and hard hitting. In a reported manifesto, Roof had this to say: “We are told to accept what is happening to us because of our ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations an myths.”  In a lot of ways, Dylan is right.  Much about how we look in America’s rear-view mirror in terms of our history of oppression is based on exaggerations and myths.

Enslavement in America began when America began, with the first slaves brought over in 1619. That’s a nearly 250 year history of bondage prior to abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1865. But the catch to freedom for African-Americans was a big one. Until 1964, Black people lived under the legalized oppression and institutional discrimination of Jim Crow laws in the south, and cultural oppression in places up north. Doing the math, the concept of a free America for everyone has only existed under the law for fifty years. Less than a lifetime ago, black people were told where they could live, where they could learn, where they could eat, and where they had to sit on the bus that took them there. Americans have created the myth within our culture that this is in our past, when we have left an obvious paper trail of this effect on the present. We are afraid to directly confront this history with the physical remains that represent a time where we were willing to accept that owning another human being was not only legal, but celebrated as a part of the culture. This has had a psychological impact on our thinking and behavior.

The Robert E. Lee Memorial, the Confederate flags hung in statehouses, the Antebellum tobacco plantations and the thousands of memorials throughout the country on public land that bare the names of Confederate societies are the physical remains that we have allowed to exist in an “as is” state for long enough. They are symbols of oppression, dressed with column capitals, urns and statues that we have allowed to linger under the vagaries of history, or impactful architecture. We have not reinterpreted the narratives of these objects to reflect who we are, or who we want to be. Would controlling the narrative of these physical remains have been a key in preventing the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney? Not directly, but they were not free, neither were the hundreds of minority arrestees in St. Louis County, or Americans across this country that have been affected by racism, in ways both large and small.

We are only a few generations removed from holding African-Americans in bondage, and a scant fifty years, and within recent past memory; of “Colored” and “White” drinking fountains. So what are we allowing these monuments to speak for us, when we should be telling them what to say?

Along with the calls to dismantle monuments, are numerous calls for retaining memorials. These need additional consideration, so let’s not pull Lee off his pedestal just yet.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is actively advocating for the preservation of the history and legacy of the citizen-soldiers that animated the Southern Cause, and they are working hard to keep monuments of the Confederate dead intact and the Confederate flag flying out of respect for their ancestors. For organizations such as the SCV, these symbols represent family, honor, sacrifice, and they are quick to distance themselves from the idea that these symbols are oppressive. They cite their connections with memorials as a familial or personal one. But how can these monuments continue to honor the sacrifice of dead Confederate relatives and simultaneously reminding us of our 300 year history of oppression? What is the next step? If one thing is clear, the existing story is a reminder of our folly. It has to change.

The first step in asserting our authority over the “as is” narrative of Confederate monuments might be to crowdsource ideas directly from communities, and asking questions that would lead to developing specific solutions. Who interfaces with these monuments? Do they reflect the culture of the community they are in? In many cases, public memorials and monuments become such a ubiquitous part of the urban environment that community members might not have ever the learned the full story. In 1972, the Lee Monument was the sight of clashes between the Black Panther Party and the Klu Klux Clan, among them New Orleans Segregationist mayor Addison Thompson, yet this event isn’t a part of the discussion on why the monument is significant.

The message of objects within our built world changes as the world around us changes, and the cultural fabric of a community has the ability to bring about new interpretations of older sites. Cities are dynamic. We retrofit buildings as we need them, and we have learned to adaptively re-use almost any structure. Perhaps in retrofitting the Lee Monument for 2015, a successful plan would include additional information on the Black Panther’s fight for fair housing in New Orleans in the 1970s, along with the usual discussion of Robert E. Lee. The Lee Memorial has also been the site of other recent events. On November 30, 2014, people rallied in support of Mike Brown and the community of Ferguson, Missouri at the Lee Memorial, marching peacefully from Lee Circle to Congo Square. This alternative history as a place of protest could be shared via a public rededication or with the construction of additional markers beside the memorial. The University of Texas at Austin, faced with the repeated vandalization of their statues of Confederate leaders created a task force to review options, including adding an explanatory plaque to each monument, and moving monuments outright.

Like many Confederate monuments across the country, the Lee Monument is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While physical integrity is a key factor in arguing for a historic resource’s significance, historians and preservationists will have to address this issue separately.

While the Children of the Confederacy no longer exists, other social and historical organizations are active, and might be interested in acquiring whole monuments or portions of a monument to keep in their private collections. Providing organizations with the opportunity to keep these monuments close to home to could serve to break their power down to a personal scale and allow them to be displayed away from public view.

Mayor Landrieu has suggested that the Lee Monument may be better served in a museum. Curation of these monuments off site might provide them with the space and the context to allow for a more organic reinterpretation. A collection of monuments in this type of setting would be groundbreaking in terms of a collection, but would also be a place of reflection and learning. Imagine an open air museum full of salvaged Confederate monuments as a possible solution.

Some memorials might be candidates for a complete physical reinterpretation. The statue of Lee could be removed from its pedestal and reinstalled at the plinth of the monument, bringing the statue and the outdated ideas it represents to dialogue directly with people and objects at street level.

Monuments have dense layers of meaning, and by nature those layers serve history in a dynamic way. They are designed to be beautiful, aspirational and educational. They drive our imagination, allow us solemn reflection, and give us places to lament the past. It is time that we take authority over our choices and tell them how they can serve our future.

Happy Birthday Richard Nickel!

May is National Historic Preservation Month. Preservation organizations at the neighborhood on up to the state level proclaimed “This Place Matters” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by holding up a printable sign emblazoned with the phrase and a train of hashtags after it. For many in the field here in Chicago and elsewhere, Preservation Month was business as usual. National Register nominations were drafted, letters to legislators were sent, buildings were researched and photographed, conferences were held and lectures were given. A whole month of work and public reflection that concluded on May 31st, the birthday of Chicago preservationist and photographer Richard Nickel. He would have been 87.

A cake was baked and decorated. Candles were lit. Happy Birthday was sung.

As a student at the Institute of Design in 1954, Richard Nickel was given an assignment in a photography class taught by Aaron Siskind to document works by Chicago School Architect Louis Sullivan. Nickel’s interest in Sullivan’s work metastasized to the point of obsession after the class concluded. Growing up in Logan Square, Nickel was smart but solitary, and had served as a paratrooper and photographer in the US Army but had no defined direction. As Richard J. Daley’s plans for slum clearance surged, demolishing over 6,000 buildings between 1957 and 1960, Richard Nickel was finding purpose in the overlooked work of Sullivan. Documenting and identifying extant buildings designed by Louis Sullivan became Richard Nickel’s life’s work. As wrecking crews approached and a building prepared to meet its fate, Nickel would intervene on behalf of Sullivan’s busy and organic ornament, salvaging what he could and using his parent’s garage in Park Ridge, Illinois to store bits of elaborate stonework and column capitals. Before the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, before the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Action, before Heartbombs, rightsizing and blexting, Richard Nickel was the only person in Chicago “doing” preservation. He had no language for it. He had no architectural history courses under his belt. He had a Chevrolet, a camera, and a whole lot of fucking soul.

Richard Nickel, undated photograph (image courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive)
Richard Nickel, undated photograph (image courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive)

This year, as Chicago’s snow melted and gave way to spring a surge of change began. Demolition permits were filed, and approved. Bulldozers lined up at the ready. Demolition Season has begun, and is surging forward in a way that seems to want to make up for lost time. Good and even great buildings long-mothballed and unoccupied; seemingly waiting for their next chapter since before the financial crisis have been knocked down flat, a blank canvas for new developments with names like “West Town Crossing,” “South Loop Station” or “The Lofts at Roosevelt Village.” Just as often, buildings are demolished without any plan. Coming Soon: Nothing! Chicago’s Landmark Ordinance and demolition delay process is showing its age, seemingly meant for historic architecture with a capital “H” and a capital “A”, and unable to forecast a future where cast iron storefronts had gone from being ubiquitous to rare.

May was also pocked with terror on the regulatory front in Chicagoland, as Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner pushed to dramatically restructure the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, jeopardizing programs such as the admistration of federal historic tax credits and regulatory compliance review. Promoting economic development while preserving the past is a slippery slope, and while the Illinois house approved a measure creating two state agencies for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, alleviating some pressure on the issue and allowing the IHPA to remain, it’s still pretty bad news. State Historic Preservation Offices across the country are struggling to maintain functionality under cuts and while this measure is a compromise (the Illinois Legislature will still have to vote) it leaves our SHPO vulnerable, and allows Governor Rauner to appoint a new historic preservation director with senate approval. The state of Illinois’s top job in preservation could be offered up to the gods of cronyism. Bozo the Clown could be the next head of the Illinois SHPO.

Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is now a sodded lot in Streeterville. The vernacular fabric of our neighborhoods are under attack, and the demand for newer, glassier, taller and denser jeopardizes what’s existing. Historic Preservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but a lot of practitioners seem to want to keep it in the hands of the gray-haired, bow-tied and time-tested academic, the public sector employee that clocks out of work and out of preservation at 3:30 p.m., or the historian that insists that architectural history stopped after Art Moderne. And we are all still kind of shaking our coffee cans, emblazoned with SAVE THE CLOCK TOWER in front of all those necking teenagers and wondering why no one drops a quarter in. In 2015, there seems to be a breach in connection between historic preservation, determination, appreciation of the works of art that great buildings are and most importantly, inclusion.

It shatters me that we tear down these obvious works of art. I’ll fight the goddamn system till the bitter end, like Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gently Into The Night”-Richard Nickel

It was not enough for Richard Nickel to take photographs. On June 8th, 1960, Nickel turned from salvager to activist, leading the charge on Randolph Street to save the 1892 Garrick Theatre from demolition. The outcome was a sadly familiar one in the 1960s as well as today, the Garrick was ultimately demolished for a parking garage.

Documenting a building and salvaging its ornament is always a sad sort of consolation prize, but, like Richard Nickel, we cannot let the bitterness over demolition affect our idealism. Like the rebar, wires and other types of building guts revealed as a building is dismantled, letting our determination falter exposes us to the elements and weakens us.

As Richard Nickel understood it, visiting and revisiting Sullivan buildings; watching as they went from being full of life, to becoming unoccupied, documentation was often the last line of defense, and the last chance for a building to ever be known.

Nickel’s work is eyes-straight ahead documentary photography. People are used for scale, and the presence of objects such as light standards and automobiles seem to have been framed so as to purposefully establish time. Architectural photography in Chicago carries the immense weight of this body of work within it. Natural curiousity and thoughtfulness governs each of Richard Nickel’s images. Like piece of double exposed film, almost every photo of an old building takes on a bit of this life.

Great Architecture has only two natural enemies, water and stupid men.- Richard Nickel

Richard Nickel, date unknown (Image via The Richard Nickel Archive)
Richard Nickel, date unknown (Image via The Richard Nickel Archive)

Ten years after the loss of the Garrick in a move that seems exponentially stupider then it did at the time, Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building was slated for demolition. Advocacy efforts to save the 1894 Stock Exchange proved ineffective, but would ultimately lead to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, now Landmarks Illinois. The City of Chicago recognized the importance of the building’s ornament, and paid to have much of it salvaged. The Art Institute of Chicago was to dismantle and recreate the entire Trading Room within one of the museum’s wings. All the while, Richard Nickel photographed the building’s deconstruction, and continued to pull ornament from the site. The Stock Exchange Building was so heavily salvaged and documented that the sum of its exalted existing pieces not so subtly negates the need for it to be demolished in the first place. And for what? Not a parking garage, but the building that replaced it has all the character of one.

When demolition to a building is eminent, it’s popular to state that “Preservationists have lost the battle.” In truth, when a great building is demolished, it’s a battle that we have lost collectively.

On Thursday, April 13th, 1972, Richard Nickel had left home early to salvage inside the Stock Exchange. He was working alone amidst the active demolition around him. It had been unseasonably warm in Chicago that month. Perhaps it was sunny, and the sunshine lit up the dust particles and debris in the air, making it sparkle. That old building smell; damp and warm and made of wood and metal and stone and carpet and everything else, filled the dismantled spaces. Polyester double-knit jacquard shorts were on sale at Carson Pirie Scott & Company, only blocks away. The Stanley Cup-bound Chicago Blackhawks were threatening to strike. US forces were still committed in South Vietnam. Nickel was in love, and recently engaged. It was Richard’s last day on earth.

Demolition halted after Richard Nickel didn’t return home, and friends and family searched frantically for him for a week. Almost a month after his briefcase and hardhat were found in the rubble and demolition resumed, a worker spotted what looked like a human shoulder, two floors beneath the Trading Room, in the Stock Exchange’s sub-basement. Richard Nickel had been crushed to death, but his body had remained intact. Debris and rubble, along with cold water seeping into the building had kept decomposition at bay. An autopsy later revealed that Richard Nickel had suffered from pulmonary emphysema and chronic bronchitis, a result of breathing in 20 years of dust and airborne debris from salvage sites and old buildings.

Demolition has a strange way of preserving a building forever, but in time only. The Chicago Stock Exchange never got the opportunity to work through the shift in technology of the 1980s. It never had its mortar joints filled inappropriately, and then lovingly corrected as the culture to physically restore a building continued to mature. It never had the opportunity for its coffee shop to turn into a Currency Exchange, and then to be re-imagined as an Intelligentsia. It will never be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or be given the opportunity for someone to stealth cellular antennas on the roof.

Richard Nickel is often called a martyr for historic preservation, his death somehow akin to the tragic fate of the source of his obsession, Louis Sullivan. But perhaps canonization throws the bar too far out for us to grasp back onto. Richard was determined and driven by an impetuous passion, remained intellectually curious, and understood the rapid pace of change. These are important characteristics for anyone that practices preservation. Nickel lived for old buildings, and he died for them; but the most important thing to remember is that he really lived, and for something he loved.

At 87, Richard Nickel would have had a wide view of what architectural heritage is today, and it’s doubtful after advocating for the work of Louis Sullivan 50 years after Sullivan’s time it wouldn’t be difficult for Nickel to understand that butterfly roofs are as radical as some of the Chicago School Architecture he was trying to save in the 1960s. He would have championed the shift in ideas of slum clearance and urban renewal to the assets of neighborhoods and Chicago’s vernacular architecture. Perhaps his most recent project would have been documenting the insensitive changes made to C.F. Murphy and Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, built in 1985.

Not gently into the night, but loudly expressing his convictions.

Happy Birthday, Richard!

Diner Waitress Heart

In the winter of 2001, I was a low-rung waitress at the Cambridge House on St. Clare and Ohio, just steps from Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. The Cambridge House had long hours and fold out laminated menus with the full gambit of diner fare. Offerings included Greek omelets, Frencheezies, chicken tenders, tuna melts and a beautifully lit square glass display case at the front of the restaurant full of cigarettes, which you could smoke anywhere you wanted inside, and ash directly into your half-eaten French toast. This display case also had Big Red and Double Mint gums, which were so stale they made you wish you had just bought cigarettes.

Golden House Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois
Golden House Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois

The Cambridge House wasn’t a diner in that it was located in an old railcar. It wasn’t prefabricated of steel. The Cambridge House was a casual American quick service restaurant, a representative of a very specific way of eating well and eating fast in midcentury America that reflected the way that we moved (quickly) and the way that we ate (also quickly) but still catered to our desire for human interaction during mealtimes, or perhaps the simple formality of sitting down and taking a moment, if only for long enough to drink a cup of coffee. Diner culture has a built in series of visual clues that almost always serve to let you know that you’ll be able to get a meatloaf dinner or eggs over easy anytime of the day. The hip red glow of a neon sign. Vinyl booths by the window with low hanging globe fixtures. Counter service. From rows of coffee cups to loaves of bread below an arsenal of toasters; the mathematics of everything being stored and prepared in front of you. A decent priced meal. An American meal.

Johnie's Coffee Shop, Los Angeles, California
Johnie’s Coffee Shop, Los Angeles, California

The establishment only accepted cash, with every transaction handled exclusively and inefficiently by a slow moving, grouchy cousin of the wife of the owner’s brother, Chicago-style nepotism at its absolute finest. This person’s management style consisted of falling asleep and then waking abruptly to yell at you. My uniform was a white blouse with black pants and a black apron in flammable polyester that took on the scent of anything fishy or fried. The blouses were just sheer enough that you could make out the lace of a bra if you looked long enough in the florescent light, and while I believe this was the intention, the Cambridge House was no Hooters. The waitresses were a world-weary, tired and incredibly mean bunch. These women were products of a time where women’s choices were not yet totally their own, and while many had proudly made it through personal strife just to come to work to fill jelly containers, they were shameless in their willingness to suck up to the management or drag each other under the bus. These women had an incredible tolerance for harassment and sexist jokes, and the restaurant dished it out like an All-Complete Dinner. Despite this, the waitresses set their hair, reapplied lipstick in the reflection of the chrome on the soda fountain, and dressed their aprons with jack-o’-lantern pins in October and American flag pins in July.

The Cambridge House had a long oval counter, and almost every surface was covered in pebbled pink Formica, worn at the counter from decades of elbows. The floors were dingy white and pink check, with every edge and corner from the tables to the display case for the pies and cantaloupes tipped in chrome. The wobbly stools were backless and low, and it was there at the counter that the true relics of Old Chicago would hold court. They would don their bowties and trench coats or their mink jackets and blue eye shadow, ride the elevators down from some of the most lavish midcentury condominiums; the Constellation on Dearborn, 227 East Walton Place, and the Astor Towers to make their way in walkers and canes across the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and into the Cambridge House of the 21st century, where a cup of coffee was a dollar and some change. Time at the Cambridge House was able to stand still for them, or at least slow to a comfortable pace. Compared to the Guess store and Burrito Beach, the Cambridge House was a strange, slightly slummy relic, and had barely changed a light bulb since opening in 1967.

Side work game weak AF.
Side work game weak AF!

Side work included wiping down the giant stainless steel reach-in, consolidating and covering French, Ranch and blue cheese dressings, and filling ketchup bottles from a contraption called the “Ketchup Cow” with funny looking udders that were constantly being fondled by greasy hands. Giant hotel bins held sugar packets, and I once saw a waitress smoke a whole cigarette while filling the sugars and talking to another waitress, ashing the smoke only with the movements of her mouth. Now that’s talent.

Amongst the valets, businessmen, doctors and foreign tourists who came for the Cambridge House’s Monte Christos and meatloaf dinners were guests of the Jerry Springer Show, which filmed nearby. Girlfriends with Shocking Confessions, Hillbilly Husbands and Reckless Pregnant Teens were given 25 dollar vouchers to eat at the restaurant. The vouchers couldn’t be used to purchase alcohol but could be used to buy cigarettes. The presence of a voucher usually meant that the You are Not The Fathers and Best Friend Love Triangles would order a pack of Camels, the ribeye with extra blue cheese crumbles and a baked potato; and everything else with an optional add on or mix in to max out the vouchers. Conflicts would erupt on a regular basis, and while I never figured out whether the guests were dining at the Cambridge House before or after the show, every night with them was a tacky dress rehearsal, me taking on the roll of a kind of short order Jerry Springer, interviewing guests about dressing choices and later on in the meal providing the results of a pregnancy test as well as a dish of orange sherbet. The intermission between the soup and the salad seemed like it was always the right time for someone to freak out, and these guests would ask for the remainder of their food be wrapped up to go, as if some internal alarm would ring, alerting them that they needed to fill their quota of wacky irrational behavior and disappear into the night.

Mickey's Dining Car, St. Paul, Minnesota
Mickey’s Dining Car, St. Paul, Minnesota

I quit the job without notice. I was suffering through another boring night making no money, mindlessly filling saltshakers when I looked over to find one of the bussers leering over me. “Do you like tequila?” he asked. I don’t remember how I responded, but my answer was followed by a request to suck tequila out of one of my body cavities, and lucky me; I would be able to pick which one! I ran for my backpack and jacket and left the Cambridge House without a word to anyone, my face red and swollen from the angry, teary eruption that I knew would happen as soon as I walked out the door. I was disgusted and embarrassed. I never went back again.

Johnny's Grill, Chicago, Illinois
Johnny’s Grill, Chicago, Illinois

The Cambridge House finally said uncle to the 21st century in 2006. Journalists and Chicagoans lamented the closing of the restaurant, perhaps the most well known being John Kass’s old fashioned choice of words in the Chicago Tribune that year, applauding the old fashioned prices, and the old fashioned waitresses for their observed lack of ambition and thus greater ability to do their jobs:

“The waitresses are waitresses, not “servers,” not actresses with attitude. They're grown women who work quickly and well for honest tips, in their crisp white blouses. There's no "theme" to the Cambridge House, unless the theme is that you can eat lunch for under $10, from a plate, like an adult, and the waitresses will ask if you want a warm-up on that coffee.”

I’ve never felt any direct empathy for the closing of the restaurant and remember feeling an odd sense of relief walking by to see the building a pile of concrete. The bad memories were now just bits of glass and rebar.

Despite my horrible time working in one, I am obsessed with diners. Seeing that flash of aluminum from the side of a road makes my palms sweat. A neon coffee cup swinging off the side of a building couldn’t be a more powerful suggestive sell. Vitrolite, Formica, vinyl, chrome; materials with that old fashioned slickness. Diners have the ability to track the passage of time, but then also freeze it. A counter spot for one allows a single diner to feel connected to the energy of an environment but still retain privacy. The diner is a subset of Americana that evokes a deep pleasure in me, but as the case with many situations where nostalgia is the driving factor, it’s often a letdown.

I’m gullibly romanced into eating at trapped-in-amber diners to find that the ambiance is the only thing that’s good. The waitress is covered in Taz tattoos, the omelets are flaccid, the coffee has no taste and Shania Twain is playing on the radio. The experience is terrible except for the aesthetics of the place. The food is bad, the staff is cranky, and the air vents are greasy. Then a week later the insides of the windows are covered in newspaper. Another crappy diner bites the dust.

Unknown diner, Clarks Hill, Indiana
Unknown diner, Clarks Hill, Indiana

My bad experience as a diner waitress left me feeling like I had been robbed of a part of Americanness that I would have otherwise relished participating in. Because of this, I am always willing to take a gamble on a good old diner, even if it’s a good old bad one.

Blasius Across America: Water Towers of the Midwest

Water towers are everywhere. You can find them overlooking a small riverfront town, like Savanna, Illinois. You can find them at the World’s Largest Truckstop in Walcott, Iowa, and sandwiched between the fire station and the public works office in suburban Ohio. You can find them atop buildings in neighborhoods all over Chicago. They serve as navigational tools, often proudly announcing their location in contrasting colors and active fonts. Painted graphics like houses or trees serve as further clues to the characteristics of a community, as does the presence of graffiti. They can be painted to look like fruit, or shaped to look like a ketchup bottle.

They also hold water! If you’re unsure about how this happens, let the City of Bloomington, Minnesota’s Public Works Department explain.

While the spheroid towers make a big impression, my favorite has to be multi-column elevated towers. The more legs one has, the more it looks like its alien inhabitants have decided to stay awhile.
Here is a sampling of water tower types from communities throughout the Midwest:

Multi-Column Elevated, Wauwatosa, WI.  Built 1928.
Multi-column elevated, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Built 1928.
Multi-column elevated, Sabula, Iowa.  Built circa 1930.
Multi-column elevated, Sabula, Iowa. Built circa 1930.
Multi-column elevated, St. Paul, Indiana.  Built circa 1920.
Multi-column elevated, St. Paul, Indiana. Built circa 1920.
Fluted Column, Alsip, Illinois.  Built circa 1965.
Fluted column, Alsip, Illinois. Built circa 1965.
Standpipe, Lena, Illinois.  Built 1986.
Standpipe, Lena, Illinois. Built 1896.
Standpipe, Alton, Ohio.  Built circa 1950.
Standpipe, Albany, Ohio. Built circa 1950.
Rooftop tank, Chicago, Illinois.  Date unknown.
Rooftop tank, Chicago, Illinois. Date unknown.
Multi-column elevated, Des Plaines, Illinois.  Built 1957.
Multi-column elevated, Des Plaines, Illinois. Built 1957.
Spheroid, Hazel Crest, Illinois.  Built Circa 1975.
Spheroid, Hazel Crest, Illinois. Built circa 1975.
Multi-column elevated, Machesney Park, Illinois.  Built 1956.
Multi-column elevated, Machesney Park, Illinois. Built 1956.
Rooftop tank, Chicago, Illinois.  Date unknown.
Rooftop tank, Chicago, Illinois. Date unknown.
Standpipe, Gary Indiana.  Built circa 1910.
Standpipe, Gary Indiana. Built circa 1910.
Multi-column elevated, Clark's Hill, Indiana.  Built circa 1940.
Multi-column elevated, Clark’s Hill, Indiana. Built circa 1940.
Fluted column, Broadview, Illinois.  Built 1967.
Fluted column, Broadview, Illinois. Built 1967.
Multi Column Elevated, Homewood, Illinois.  Built circa 1950.
Multi-column elevated, Homewood, Illinois. Built circa 1950.

Old Buildings, New Tricks: Workman’s Cottages on Claremont and Heath Avenues

1323 South Heath Avenue
1323 South Heath Avenue

Sandwiched between a rail embankment, Western Avenue and blocks worth of industrial storage in Chicago’s Near West Side are two small streets’ worth of fascinating 1880s Queen Anne workman’s cottages, on the 1300 blocks of South Claremont and South Heath Avenues. Widely attributed to be the work of architect Cicero Hine, and speculated to be an extension of an earlier development on Claremont Avenue , these cottages were added to Landmark’s Illinois Ten Most list of imperiled buildings in 2009 after two blighted cottages came up for the City of Chicago’s fast track demolition program, 1308 South Oakley Avenue and 1302 South Heath Avenue. With no plans for productive reuse and the potential for the cottage’s abandoned status to attract crime and illegal activities, both buildings were demolished in 2010.

With turned Aesthetic Movement decoration at corner eaves and near entryways, plaster ornamentation below rounded windows and playful variations on layout and decoration, these Victorian workman’s cottages are easy to like, and representative of a period where real estate developers worked with notable local architects, like Hine and his contemporary Normand S. Patton to design buildings that stylishly housed the laborers who would go on to build 20th century Chicago.

The two blocks of cottages have an odd secluded quality, a shuttered body shop protects their view from Ogden Avenue, and until ten years ago, the area to the north was comprised of industrial development, now a series of vacant lots with brick and concrete remnants still secured by chain link fences. Freight trains on the rail embankment produce a low, consistent hum. To the northwest is an all-too familiar, but eery site on Chicago’s south and west sides: an empty residential block completely devoid of houses that still retains its layout at ground level, including alleyways and concrete garage pads. In some areas the ground has settled to suggest the foundation of an atypical Chicago two flat.

Looking south on South Heath Avenue
Looking south on South Heath Avenue
North on South Claremont Avenue
North on Claremont Avenue
1317 South Claremont
1317 South Claremont

Every architectural investigation includes observing what’s not there as a key to understanding what is still present, and how to manage the remaining resources. Each of the extant cottages are located on tiny lots, and have little space between them, which makes the presence of the empty lots on South Claremont, South Heath and particularly South Oakley Avenue a stark contrast. Areas of loss here have been extreme, as historic aerial images of the area clearly show, in 1953, this area was three dense blocks of Queen Anne:

1953 aerial of Claremont, Heath and Oakley Avenue (via
1953 Aerial View (via
1973 Aerial View (via"
1973 Aerial View (via

Twenty years later, loss was still minimal, and the area remained dense. Between 1971 and 1975, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency surveyed cottages on Oakley, Heath and Claremont, and as the photographs of individual buildings show, many of them had made it out of midcentury madness retaining an incredible amount of integrity. The original building density and the historic character of the area, nearly a century old, had remained intact. So why not landmark the damn thing? It seems to have had all the right stuff for designation in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, buildings in Chicago’s loop with National significance were being demolished, an era preservationists wish to forget.

1300 North Oakley Avenue, demolished.
1300 South Oakley Avenue circa 1973, demolished (image via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency).
1327 South Oakley Avenue, circa 1973, demolished (image via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)
1327 South Oakley Avenue, circa 1973, demolished (image via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

The Near West Side found itself in the early aughts transitioning from an industrial area, into an area serving governmental organizations, the Illinois Medical District and further east, the University of Chicago. Surprisingly, it’s not until after 2000 that dramatic teardowns occurred. By 2002, the loss was substantial. Many of the buildings on South Heath Avenue had been demolished, with four to five lots in a row now devoid of buildings:

2002 Aerial (image via
2002 Aerial (image via
2013 Aerial
2013 Aerial (image via Google Earth)

In 2013, nearly all of the structures on Oakley Avenue had been leveled, and a boring three-story residential building had popped up in the middle of the block. One late 19th century building has remained, and over time it has developed a door to nowhere.

1340 South Oakley Avenue
1340 South Oakley Avenue

Perhaps the biggest loss here is that there was a time in history where these two to three blocks were at a confluence between integrity and recognition that was not capitalized upon by giving this area local or national designation. Many of the individual buildings were given an eligibility rating of “Orange” on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, conducted between 1983 and 1995. This ordinance provides the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development 90 days after the issuance of a building permit to explore preservation options, but in 2014; many of those identified have had their historic character compromised. So is this area eligible for landmark status in 2014? There are definitely better surviving examples of Queen Anne cottages throughout Chicago, with fewer teardowns and more integrity.

While it’s hard to make a convincing case for landmark designation now, the value in these two blocks may have an upswing. It’s a snapshot of what we do with old buildings. For over 130 years in Chicago, people have lived here and continuously changed these cottages to fit their needs. Through changes in the way we live, what we own, how we work and how we relax; these buildings have been altered over time to accommodate modern life. Working class people have been born, lived and died in these buildings. And they have hot rodded the hell out of them!

1307 South Claremont Avenue, midcentury faux stone cladding
1307 South Claremont Avenue, faux stone cladding
1333 South Heath, vinyl siding
1333 South Heath, vinyl siding
1315 South Heath, steel balcony, vinyl siding, window opening changes
1315 South Heath, steel balcony, vinyl siding, window opening changes
1339 South Heath Avenue
1339 Heath Avenue, steel balcony, vinyl siding, window opening changes (although that grill off of the 2nd bedroom is on point, in case you need to hook yourself up with a hot dog in the middle of the night.)

This area represents such a broad range of material and cladding changes, from wartlike faux midcentury stone on Heath Avenue, gratuitous late 20th century vinyl siding, and literally dozens of different fence types across decades. Perhaps the most interesting facade change is the addition of a balcony on the 2nd floor. Roofs are vinyl shingle, wood shingle and even hot tar. Leaded glass lights have been painted over, covered over, or in some places completely removed.

1321 and 1323 South Claremont Avenue
1321 and 1323 Claremont Avenue, various material changes
1301 South Heath Avenue
1301 Heath Avenue, lots of integrity, serious condition issues

A few cottages are derelict, 1301 South Heath in particular appears as if the last inhabitants left decades ago.

1301 South Heath, rear elevation
1301 Heath, rear elevation

In terms of integrity, many of these buildings original characteristics are cancelled out by the presence of an obtrusive modern element, leaving only a few with enough original elements to actually render them significant.

1302 Heath Avenue
1302 South Heath Avenue, vinyl siding, changes in window openings
1307, 1309 and 1311 Claremont Avenue
1307, 1309 and 1311 South Claremont Avenue, various material changes

It’s difficult to resolve this area’s once outstanding potential for preservation against its current condition, but perhaps there is a place within the study of architectural heritage that also includes the research and observance of vernacular, idiosyncratic changes that preservationists fight so hard to prevent building owners from actually living in the buildings they love, own and live in. Old buildings, new tricks indeed.

1330 Heath Avenue
1330 South Heath Avenue

Blasius Across America: The Reed Niland Corner in Colo, Iowa

Blaservations spent most of the past week driving through southeastern Iowa, traveling heavily on Interstate 80, looking for the Hartland’s best taquerias, and blasting the Marshall Tucker Band’s Greatest Hits. And looking at old buildings, of course.

Lincoln Highway, Colo, Iowa
Lincoln Highway, Colo, Iowa

In the nineteen-teens, Indiana entrepreneur (and perhaps the original “Car Guy”) Carl G. Fisher envisioned a highway that would carry Americans from Times Square to San Francisco. Fisher had made a fortune developing acetylene headlights, used on every make and model of automobile across brands for almost ten years, and would later go on to co-develop the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The wider use of the automobile brought the conditions of American roads to a contentious point, particularly in rural areas. While the Good Roads Movement had set the groundwork for private industry (bicycle manufacturers and enthusiasts’ groups) to invest in improving roads, the modern motorcar required a smooth, even traveling path or risk cracked axles or other damage to futuristic machinery. Using private funds from the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt, Fisher seeded the first stretch of the “Lincoln Highway” in 1913 and developed the Lincoln Highway Association to promote it, headquartered in Detroit. The Lincoln Highway Association is still in existence, and now serves as a watchdog organization for the preservation of the highway’s historic character.

America’s first transcontinental highway for automobiles would eventually bumble through thirteen states east to west; New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, helping develop nearly every community along the roadway. By the time the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 was enacted and national roadway standards were established, roadways were marked and numbered. By the time state and national highways were designated in the 1920s, service stations and roadside respites had popped up everywhere along the Lincoln Highway, including the Reed Niland Corner in Colo, Iowa.

The Reed Niland Corner, Colo, Iowa
The Reed Niland Corner, Colo, Iowa

In the 1920s, travelers along the Lincoln Highway (or the Jefferson Highway, which bisects the Lincoln Highway in Colo, and travels roughly from Winnipeg to New Orleans) could gas up the Ford, grab an egg salad sandwich or stop for the night at a one stop Mom-and-Pop known as the Reed Niland Corner, after the owner of the service station, Charlie Reed, and the family that ran the restaurant and the motel, the Niland’s. The service station operated as such until 1967, and the restaurant and hotel closed in 1995. The site was sold to the City of Colo by a Niland family member and was restored and reopened in 2008.

Reed's Standard Service Station, built circa 1925
Reed’s Standard Service Station, built circa 1925
Niland's Cafe, built circa 1925
Niland’s Cafe, built circa 1925
The Colo Motel, built circa 1925
The Colo Motel, built circa 1925

The Reed Niland Corner, a grouping of simple wood framed structures located in rural Iowa, is an exceptional and rare example of a building typology that was literally everywhere prior to the development of the modern freeway system. Sites like this seem to further emphasize the shift between travel by automobile in the 1920s and 30s, where roadside culture was built upon stops that would serve as a place to relax and refuel, and today, where convenience and speed is king. Unfortunately, most of our built heritage capturing this time in America has been lost. Small privatized rural highways often became a part of a larger highway system, and historic roadways that ran parallel to super highways found a limited need for a two pump service station, or a roadside diner. These factors, along with the holistic re-use of the Reed Niland Corner’s cafe and motel as just that, a cafe and motel, make the site even more special, and worthy of listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Looking, Learning, Explaining


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