All posts by blaservations

American Architectural Historian

The Man Mound: A Transformative National Historic Landmark


Aerial View of the Man Mound after the spring “burnoff” of dead prairie grass, 2014.  Image via Sauk County Eagle.

Deep in the rolling hills of the northern flanks of the Baraboo Range, and about two miles northeast of Baraboo, Wisconsin, lies an ancient and mysterious earthen figure, cut off at the shins. An amputee.

The Man Mound of Greenfield is the only surviving anthropomorphic effigy mound in North America.  It was formed of earth between 700 and 1000 AD by the Late Woodland effigy mound builders, who constructed both humanoid and zoomorphic mounds across the eastern and middle western portions of what is now the United States.  Until the turn of the 20th century, Sauk County had as many as twelve humanoid mounds, with hundreds of others depicting birds, snakes and other animals.  Despite early recognition by surveyors of these earthworks as special monuments, almost 75% of the mounds previously identified have disappeared.

Looking north towards Man Mound’s “horns.”  Despite the snow cover, the rise above grade is clearly visible.  Mowing of the mound ceased in 2008, attributing to an array of prairie grasses and flora seeding from it, including ferns not native to Wisconsin.

Not long after measurements of the Man Mound were taken and the mound was brought to wider public attention by civil engineer and naturalist Increase A. Lapham, an east-west road was cut below the figure’s knees, detaching the body from the feet, an unmistakably adverse effect that would be inconceivable today, and illegal in terms of federal and state laws regarding the mound’s historic and cultural status.  But this was the Midwest in the 1860s, less than a lifetime after the Indian Removal Act, and the center of a century where transportation routes and the opening of government lands pushed non-native people westward.  Immigrants of German and Irish decent were coming by ship, steamboat, railroad and then in wagons through the Baraboo Valley.  Thirty years prior to the construction of Man Mound Road, Native Americans were the primary inhabitants of Wisconsin.  The name of the road has a deeply disquieting effect, as if the mistake was acknowledged as soon as the road was laid.

The Man Mound is a transformative being, a curiosity of the Lower World, a primordial deity, a water spirit, a bear, or a rabbit, or any of these things.  And to native peoples like the Ho-Chunk Nation, who lay claim to the Late Woodland effigy mound builders as parent stock, a symbol of renewal.  In 1908, the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, along with the Federation of Women’s Clubs and The Sauk County Historical Society moved to acquire the Man Mound Site, establishing it as one of the first archaeological sites preserved specifically for preservation purposes.  This purchase occurred in the nick of time, as the previous land owner had disclosed that he was looking into cultivating the site.  Man Mound Park was dedicated on August 8th, 1908.

Historical marker erected by the Sauk County Historical Committee, 1969, alongside the Wisconsin Historical Societies’ plaque from the 1908 park dedication.  The Man Mound’s torso and right arm are visible in the background.

While the dedication of the park did include an invocation of indigenous peoples, accounts of that day paint a woefully misguided picture of appropriation as appreciation, showing a version of the disconnection between Americans and native peoples that we see today, from feathered headdresses at Coachella to the Washington Redskins to referring to a work meeting as a pow-wow.  Native Americans were not considered a part of the 20th century narrative of the Man Mound, and were instead relegated to a cultural footnote during the celebration-tipis, wampum and all.

Detached from the rest of the body, the feet were now located in a cow pasture on the other side of Man Mound Road, and would over time get trampled down to grade. Even without legs, which is certainly an integrity problem for the ages, Man Mound was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

Rob Nurre is a landscape historian and longtime steward of the Man Mound who has come to live “seventeen man mound-sized steps away from the park.”  With the 100th anniversary of the park looming, Nurre began thinking about the Man Mound’s amputated legs and feet, along with ways to raise public awareness for the site.  Using measured drawings from the 1850s and a can of white paint, Nurre gave Man Mound new prosthetic limbs stretching across the road, and worked with the land owners north of the road to mark off the area where the feet once stood.

The Man Mound’s “ghost legs” stretch across Man Mound Road.

“How do we best care for these sites,” asked Nurre. “When they are such a reference point in terms of how we see the world?” Perhaps the Man Mound’s painted legs are an arbitration between a careless past and a conscious, deliberate future.  They also “get in your face” Nurre said, as they clearly do not relate to roadway safety, and you’ve got to drive over them in order to get west of the mound.  Rebuilding the missing extremities from grade wouldn’t be appropriate mitigation, as it would serve to erase the lessons in stewardship and our cultural dialog with the past that the flattened legs and feet force us to interface with directly.

The location of Man Mound’s trampled feet, fenced off from a cow pasture.

In 2016, the Man Mound was designated as a National Historic Landmark, a distinction only given to historic places that have a profound national significance, and are already listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Only 2,500 of our nations historic landmarks meet this criteria.  The boundary of the Man Mound National Historic Landmark was extended beyond the boundary of the National Register of Historic Places listing to include the area of the road containing the “legs” as well as the section of pasture where the feet once were.  The creative mitigation of modern interference is now a part of the Man Mound’s official story.

William H. Canfield’s map of the Man Mound, 1859.  Canfield shared Man Mound’s discovery with Increase A. Lapham, and Lapham publicized the find.  Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-77567.

In 1859, Increase A. Lapham wrote that the Man Mound “is in the act of walking, and with an expression of boldness and decision which cannot be mistaken.” At over 214 feet tall, Man Mound is striking when viewed from the ground, but aerial views are truly mystifying, and beg some serious questions.  Was the Man Mound meant to be viewed from the sky?  Where is it walking to?  What is the true meaning of the iconography?  We as a modern people know so little about the purpose of effigy mounds, and almost as little about their contents.  As many as 87% of effigy mounds that have been subject to archaeological investigation were used to mark or contain human burials, with most contained near a figures’ heart or inside the head.  While archaeological digs have occurred in the area where the feet once were, yielding nothing of interest, there is no record of disturbance for the rest of the body.  Digging into a cultural monument that is over a thousand years old would be a selfish, obscene choice, and would produce nothing of value.

The Man Mound will continue to yield information on our collective reference point, but by way of our understanding of what has occurred above ground, and how we weigh our current decisions against the established effects of the past and the unknown future.  So what is the best practice in terms of an effigy mound without legs, when there are no other effigy mounds with legs to compare it to?  Perhaps this is the Man Mound’s true character as a transformative being.  One that continues to learn from us as we learn from it.

The author would like to thank Rob Nurre for his generous contributions to this article.

Blaservations + Emily Speed

Louise Freer Hall, University of Illinois (Charles A. Platt, 1930)

This fall, I had the pleasure of writing text for UK-based artist Emily Speed’s superb exhibition at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts in Fort Worth, Texas.  Ms. Speed’s work tackles a micro and macro sense of place, from a perspective that addresses the body as a house for the mind, and architecture as a personal matter.

Body Builders is a tongue in cheek film with both sculptural elements and paintings that looks at the recreation and duplication of Roman and Classical architectural around the world, with a focus on campus architecture.  Below is an excerpt of the exhibition text:

It’s the fall of 1986, and college freshman Thornton Melon is strolling through the campus of Grand Lakes University.  It’s a bucolic setting, with vividly hued-leaves falling to the ground around beautifully authoritative academic architecture.  Ornate pediments top columns of the highest order with Ionic capitals between, like blooming stone mushrooms.  Tweeded students await fellow classmates underneath deeply recessed porticos, textbooks in hand.  Egg and dart moldings dash around corners.  Windows are so carefully arranged within fields of red brick that they almost look mathematical.  Fresh pledges scurry up dramatic staircases and into grand temples of learning.  “When I used to dream about going to college this is the way I always pictured it,” remarks Melon, “When I used to fall asleep in high school.”

Thornton Melon isn’t a real college student, and Grand Lakes University is a fictional institution.  What’s described above is a memorable scene from the 1986 American comedy Back to School, starring the delightfully bug-eyed Rodney Dangerfield as a pension-age freshman.  Back to School centers on Melon’s attempts to survive his first year of college, with his lovably crude personality and eye-roll inducing one-liners (“Remember, the best thing about having kids is making them”) as an accelerant for the various atypical university hijinks he seems to innocently fall into.  If the comedic films of the 1980s have shown us anything, it’s that we will always be fascinated by watching an element of the past (i.e. Rodney Dangerfield) flop around in our kooky contemporary world like a fish out of water.  See films like Big (1988) 18 Again! (1988) or any of the three movies in the Back to the Future cannon (1985, 1989, 1990) as examples.  As Thornton Melon himself quips, “Read.  Who has time?  I see the movie.  I’m in and out in two hours.”

The sense of place that Dangerfield dreamed about and also experienced, however, is spot on.  Grand Lakes University (or in the real world, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Back to School was filmed) is the built environment one dreams about when one dreams about–thinks about—going to college.  While it’s difficult to peg whether this dream is one minted via popular culture or the experience of actually attending a university, it’s reality.  Columns, fanlights, triglyphs and dental patterns abound.  Entablature sandwiches so layered they are almost difficult to look at.  Order and symmetry rule, as well as proportion.  Cue Pomp and Circumstance, if it hasn’t already become an earworm since you began reading this.

Much like a senior citizen aged college freshman, the Classical design language of caryatids and columns was recontextualized from the ancient temples and churches of Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Palladio and all the Greeks, and smacked down into late 19th and early 20th century college campuses across America.  Classical revival buildings connect us to our ideas, history and culture, but also reflect them.  It’s a powerful visual statement for an educational setting.  College is often a person’s first taste of adulthood-be it a slightly simulated one; when we leave the protective cocoon of our parent’s house for the larger body of the college campus.  Unless you were one of the lucky kids to grow up in a historic house, the White House, the Neutra House or This Old House, chances are you spent your formative years within the architectural indifference of the suburbs, where the only thing we ask of buildings is that they have enough bathrooms and convenient parking.  The transition from this underwhelming built environment to the grandeur of the college campus is one of many shocking readjustments.

The student gathers their shower caddies, desk lamps, folders and highlighters and packs them tightly into giant Tupperware bins in preparation for the epic move into the dorm room, a 12-foot by 9-foot space, all of 200 square feet that they will share with a complete stranger.  There are classes to register for, the dining hall and library to find, and an abundance of exciting new faces.  The campus is sprawling and old; it feels like it’s been around forever.  It’s likely less than a hundred years old, but the constant ebb of students and the continuous creation of significant memories within the context of the authority of the built environment makes everything feel very ancient.  The architecture couldn’t be more intimidating, with its clearly formal tendencies a constant reminder that this time is just as serious as the surroundings.  This abundance of “old” forms in a new context for eighteen year olds is a salient visual to students of the importance of the decisions they make right now, and not just whether you’re going to get the townie outside the convenience store to buy you Natural Light or Keystone.  Perhaps it is the extreme order and traditionalism of the Classical architecture of the college campus, the strictness of it, that pushes some students to transgress and break rules.  College is an important time, but it’s also a silly trial and error time where we test who we are against who we want to become.  College is a life event where we are almost authorized make odd or bad informal decisions, like rolling the cuffs of our jeans up to mid-calf, or hanging a Phish poster on the back of our dorm room door.  All the while, the formal campus architecture keeps its arrangement, and keeps watching us change, like it’s watching us from high above, a cultural acroterion.  Four years of experience-based memory in terms of place is an incredibly short time.  The classical revival architecture of the college campus sees it all, and somehow absorbs all the secondhand embarrassment on our behalf.  Perhaps this is why a part of the perception of higher education is forever connected to high architecture, and we will be forever passing out on the steps of timeless, archaic temples of learning donated by alumni (“I hereby dedicate this building to…myself”) and Collegiate Gothic will not only be an architectural style, but the font used to emblazon the most iconic piece of university apparel ever, a sweatshirt screen printed “COLLEGE.”

Rodney Dangerfield

Blaservations + Pizza Hut

A recent conversation with a friend went something like this:

E: I love Mansard Roofs.

M: What’s a Mansard Roof?

E: Think “Pizza Hut.”

Pizza Hut, Louisville, Kentucky.

Pizza Hut took a highfalutin Beaux Arts decorative feature and used it to jazz up the physical environment of almost every suburban sprawl with a hunger for pizza and a salad bar.  This is an architectural minutiae that almost everyone can understand.  Make the building look cool so people will be attracted to what’s inside (breadsticks).

Francois Mansart (1598-1666) is the father of the Pizza Hut, or Mansard, roof.  This became his specialty (toppings are extra) and years later was used to outfit Nepolian III’s Second Empire Paris, which sent the Victorians in America swooning wildly over their fainting couches in the late 19th century.

Unfortunately, the use of the Mansard as of late has left me a bit light-headed.  Paris on the Prairie or a Claes Oldenburg work entited “Sharpie Marker”?

Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Chicago, Illinois.

Old Buildings, New Tricks: Permastoned

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Perma-Stone, Formstone, faux stone, Rostone.  John Waters once called this ubiquitous simulated masonry the “polyester of brick.”  From the 1930s through the 1950s, companies all over the United States were pitching faux stone siding to homeowners as a modern update to the exteriors of late 19th century buildings.  Made of shale, lime and water, the unbaked permastone slurry would be pressed into stone shaped molds and heated, creating a stone-like “cracker” that could be applied to the exterior of a building.  Permastone came in an array of colors, textures and stone types, and sometimes mica would be added for extra sparkle.  Widely toted as maintainance free, permastone could be easily adhered anywhere on your building by anchoring it with chicken wire lath, or simply adhering the permastone panels with cement directly to the façade.

permaston 2

The 3400 and 3500 blocks of Le Moyne Street, between Homan and Central Park Avenue in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, have some superior examples of permastone in nearly every color and texture, from taupe roman bricks to rusticated course stone so red it resembles raw meat.  Here is a windshield survey of permastone types seen within these two blocks:

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Historic Preservation is Dead

“Some people say it’s bold. Some people say I’m saying what they wanna say.  Some people don’t agree.  Some people are outraged.  To me, hip-hop’s been dead for years.  We all should know that, come on.”-Nas, 2006.


Pour out a little liquor, because historic preservation is dead.  Even our folkloric martyr Richard Nickel, gone 44 years now, would agree, but then Richard never really liked historic preservation in the first place.  In 2016, historic preservation as we know it, has reached a point of biological aging.  Like the buildings we fail to save, deterioration and neglect has allowed historic preservation an opportunity to return to the earth.  Announcing the figurative death of historic preservation is tendentious, for sure, but the main purpose of this declaration is to accept that times have changed and we desperately need to readjust ourselves.  Give it a good jazz funeral and cut the body loose.  Historic preservation is dead!

In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, William J. Murtaugh writes, “The first thing anyone interested in preservation must know is how to talk about the subject.  Certain terminology has been established by use and common consent, even though confusion and differences of opinion over exact meaning still tend to persist in the public mind.”  This statement, located in one of the first pages of Keeping Time, a seminal textbook in any historic preservation graduate curriculum, sums up one of the first teachable moments for students as the following: historic preservation is for Historic Preservationists, and we are not going to bother with how unclear what we do is to the public.  The term “historic preservation” carries a specific meaning, yet historic preservation, or simply preservation, has a general meaning, as in the Historic Preservation Movement (you will find that many use historic preservation and preservation intermittently, including here in this essay.) Historic preservation seeks to preserve buildings of historical significance, but it also serves as an umbrella term, covering the acts of restoring, preserving, conserving and reconstructing buildings.  There are also Historic Preservationists, as in the people that make historic preservation happen.  Are you confused yet?  You should be.

Historic preservation’s core values are far more impactful than its shitty nomenclature lets on, leaving us extremely stifled by “historic preservation” as an umbrella term. We desperately need to change the words we use when we interface with the public.  In the simplest sense-we save buildings that have value-yet the words we use to describe this make no reference to saving buildings, or architecture at all, just a vague yet formal sounding notion of preserving the past that sounds more like the Queen’s English than a planning endeavor.  In talking to the public about saving buildings that have human value, we should be using more descriptive adjectives, like cultural, and better nouns, like heritage.  Perhaps preservation is a better term to describe fruit canned for long-term storage, or arranging dead butterflies than it is for buildings.

We serve the public’s interest through how they relate to architecture, because buildings do not relate to themselves.  Architectural significance is worth nothing without understanding that buildings are built for people to work, shit, fuck and love in them; with love being the most important noun.  We cannot make a true case to save a building or buildings if the community cannot ultimately see the value in our fight.

What if, instead of using professionals to establish what is and isn’t “historic,” we allowed living resources (i.e., the public) to decide?  The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “This Place Matters” campaign has encouraged people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them, but what if we took this concept further and removed the federal, state and local governments, non-profits and neighborhood preservation organizations from making this decision?  This is a terrifying thought, not because we are giving the public full reign, but that these results may be dramatically different from our current ones.

How do we process our failures?  Bold and innovative architecture along with an aggressive campaign by historic preservationists couldn’t save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital from demolition.  A star-studded array of professionals and architects spoke about the buildings shape, the engineering techniques, and its unique provenance, yet there were almost no voices celebrating the building as a place where thousands of babies were born, or where families began, or where relationships flourished or friends were made.  These narratives were missing from the case made to save Prentice.  It is unknown as to whether the addition of this type of public support would have tilted the scales, but it is worth considering.  The answer to the question “why is this building important?” can’t be because preservationists or historians say so.  We can no longer live in a world where good architecture is the only thing.

Historic preservation chooses to dodge the subject that seeing a significant building at its ugliest has an effect beyond the decay of the physical fabric, and that this ignorance erodes how communities see what we do. “Preservation by neglect,” is a term used to describe the way an old building is preserved by disrepair, thus the building’s original or historic features aren’t marred by a building owner that looks to make changes to an old building that are perceived as insensitive.  We have created a culture where seeing a building we like with condition and safety issues is far better than seeing a building with changes that relate to livability or modernization.  Taking an “us” (the individuals that wish to see a historic building being properly stewarded) versus “them” (building owners that do not respect historic buildings) approach is too black and white, yet we continue to allow the use of the same old tired cliché both internally and externally that “they should do something about that.”  Who establishes what the “they” “something” and “that” are?  These pronouns are vague, and are part of a useless declarative statement.

Use of the term “blight”, whether it’s used to describe a singular building or a community, is complex and nuanced.  Blight is a visual manifestation of failure, and to be absolutely clear once and for all, ruin porn is hedonistic pleasure, not historic preservation.  There is no place for the exploitation of dilapidated buildings when it yields no results.  In most cases, the psychological and physical distance that an individual may have from these buildings makes these buildings artful and poetic, but how do people feel about vacant or blighted buildings when they are right next door?  Vacant buildings are more prevalent in communities with higher numbers of drug, property and violent crimes.  A physical environment that communicates a less watchful eye encourages delinquency.  Imagine being a child walking to school every day past the same vacant building, or maintaining your yard up to the lot line of a decrepit structure.

It is unfair to ask, or in the worst cases, have a historic preservation organization “tell” a community that they must accept a decrepit building because it has architectural significance. They don’t see a building with great architecture, or “good old bones” or great potential.  They see a piece of shit.

Perhaps the most famous piece of shit historic building is the Michigan Central Station in Detroit. Built in 1913, the building’s life as a train station ended in 1988 with the termination of both passenger and freight service.  That’s a 75-year history of use, and a 28-year history of uncertainty; a lifetime.  The Michigan Central Station isn’t known as a mystic Midwest twin to New York’s Grand Central Terminal, or for its soaring vaults, resembling a Roman bathhouse, or as a testament to what we built in relation to how we traveled in the early 20th century.  Michigan Central Station is known as a salient example of how Detroit went awry.  Restoration projects have been proposed as far back as 1992, but none have materialized, leading to decades of disappointment that this building may have a second life.  Meanwhile, the building continues to be oversexed in its ruinous state by photographers, urban spelunkers, and as a place for apocalyptic showdowns between superheroes and anthropomorphic semi-trailer trucks.

Whether in or out of a historic district, preservationists are lightning quick to become incensed by what they consider to be insensitive changes to neighborhood buildings by homeowners. A recent hashtag campaign to “Stop the Pop” has been implemented by the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association and centers on discouraging the practice of removing the sloped roof of a bungalow and adding a squared off second floor.  Words like “hideous” and “ugly” are used to describe these rehabs, and while it’s difficult not to agree when you are familiar with a bungalow’s design elements, we are treating people with mortgage payments, families and barbeque grills with the same overzealous vehemence we use to treat multi-million dollar commercial developers.  We encourage being seen as elitists because we approach our challenges from the same aggressive vantage point every time.

Choosing where to buy a home is a nuanced process and unless you are a preservationist, you’re not going to have “contributing to a historic district” as a line item that factors in to where you decide to make that investment. What you may consider is the beauty of existing buildings, the degree to which your potential new neighbors are keeping up their properties, the potential resale value, and the safety and aesthetics of the streetscape.  All of these items are tangible, and have a symbiotic relationship to being inside a historic district.  We already know this, preservation.  We’ve known this since forever, really.  So please, please, stop paying the same professionals thousands of dollars to come to conferences and to write about historic district designations increasing property values, or that historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.  We are wasting our money to tell ourselves what we already fucking know.

In order to be considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a building generally needs to reach 50 before we can property access it’s significance. Historic preservation as a culture follows these same unspoken age requirements within it.  The value of our thought leaders comes solely from their seniority.  We allow the bulk of our voices and ideas to come from professionals at the absolute brink of retirement.  Many historic preservationists would be hard pressed to identify a building built recently that they would fight for in thirty years, establishing that there is nothing left to save.  If we are not identifying who the thought leaders in historic preservation are right now, or identifying and encouraging new potential, we aren’t accepting the dictum that “Preservation is Dead” in order to work on our postscript with it, we are killing it off ourselves!

We base the worth and knowledge of others on their gray hairs, not the quality of their work or the inertia of their ideas. Young people don’t have careers or jobs in historic preservation, they grow their lives around it.  Youth brings in an understanding of the relationship between the built environment and culture, and an understanding of technology as both a supportive tool and as a meaningful way to communicate.  We have fallen into a rut where introducing anything new threatens the importance of the old, and we are missing out.

Historic preservation is no longer charged with just saving places where George Washington pissed or slept.  As our story has become more culturally complex, the landmarks we have designated as important have begun to reflect who we were and who we wish to be.  The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, The Stonewall Inn in New York City and the Moslem Temple, also known as the Mother Mosque of America, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa have all become officially designated historic landmarks, but this is only a small sliver of buildings, less than 10%, that chronical our nation’s diverse history.  There is a deficit of younger people as arbiters or tastemakers for sure, but the greater issue is the overwhelming number of white, and predominantly male authorities in the field that unfortunately reflect the large portion of recognized historic resources that reflect a white and predominately male built history.

Now that historic preservation is dead, we no longer feel beholden to how we interpreted or related to the past in the past. We are free to forge a more meaningful relationship with the built environment by collaborating with other disciplines, and most importantly genuinely listening to the people that we serve, and why buildings are important to them.  This is how we ensure our successes are bigger, increase our allies, and ensure our cultural relevance beyond our obituary.  RIP, historic preservation.  You won’t be missed.

The Division Street Newsstand


For a few hours each weekday morning, Ronan cracks open the padlock on his forest green wooden newsstand on Division Street between Milwaukee and Ashland, maintaining an urban tradition that has almost completely disappeared.  Hailing from a family that made their living off of newsstands, Ronan now operates the newsstand for pleasure, as he makes the argument that “what else is an old blind Polack to do?”  Ronan is in fact, blind.  He has lost his central vision, but is still able to see people and objects peripherally.  This handicap is completely undetectable, as Ronan maintains eye contact as he speaks.  His eyes are a shocking neon blue.  He’s been operating the newsstand for twenty years, but the newsstand itself has been around for fifty, if not longer.  Ronan sells the New York Times, Crain’s, and Barron’s Investment News, but not much else.  A rack of Chicago Readers and New York Times Magazines hang off the door of the newsstand, all free items meticulously organized beside a broom and a cart.  Every aspect of the newsstand has a reactionary feel.  The reflective strips on the door seem to suggest that at some point during the newsstand’s existence, a driver veered too close to the newsstand, knocking the door off.  An analog clock, a long ago freebee from USA Today, hangs above an air conditioning unit covered in reflective orange tape.  Locks in various conditions suggest multiple lifetimes of securing.  Observing the newsstand closed, it resembles a ramshackle stronghold.

The interior of the newsstand is full of Ronan’s personal effects, Beanie Babies, a nest of tangled electrical cords and packages of Rice Crispy Treats.  The Rice Crispy Treats are not for Ronan to eat, but to feed the pigeons that come up to window when Ronan is alone in the newsstand.  They hold court vigilantly atop the tarred roof when customers approach.  There are so few things to buy that the concept of customer seems odd here, as every bus driver, construction worker and Busha seem to know Ronan, but no one is buying anything.  They ask how he is.  They bring him Makowiec and Perogi.  They chat about the weather.  These casual relationships at the newsstand are small, but critical.  This is why Ronan is here.

It is estimated that the City of Chicago Department of Transportation regulates fewer than 40 independent free standing newsstands like Ronan’s.  They have disappeared without advocates, being of a pale vernacular that modern life has hushed, like a lost language.


The Mysterious Architecture of Fraternal Organizations

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Masonic Lodge #272, Camp Douglas, Wisconsin

Knights of Pythias, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Knights of the Maccabees, the Fraternal Order of the Free and Accepted Masons.  These American fraternal organizations, many with unfamiliar and almost Medieval sounding names, had memberships in the millions at the beginning of the 20th century, and had a ubiquitous presence in the social life of people across the country.  In urban areas, they served as an anchor for neighborhoods, and in small American towns, they operated as community centers for families and business owners, as well as gathering places along Main Street, hosting fish frys, rummage sales and bingo nights.  Membership in a fraternal organization was the original social network.

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Tripoli Shrine Temple, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The architecture of American fraternal organizations is one of classicism, mystery and allegory, with an occasional splash of Revivalism that brings a Mughal influence to Milwaukee and the rustic features of a Mayan temple to Aurora, Illinois.  The buildings themselves are covered in symbols and emblems, but many are meant to symbols themselves, a testament to the morality, timelessness, and brotherhood that membership in these organizations represented.  Their dedication to the intellectual development of members is obvious in their inspiration from high classical architecture, in the same way that houses of worship use the design language and iconography of antiquity to inspire the praise of a higher power.  Complex rituals and rites dictated the interior design of these buildings, and many are filled with ante-rooms and chambers for confidential communication.  In Masonic lodges, rooms had entrances for different degrees of membership, whether one was an apprentice or Master Mason, with spaces designated specifically for business, ritual or committee.

Plan for an entered apprenticeship, from Duncan’s Ritual and Monitor of Freemasonry, 1866.

In communities where vernacular buildings were the norm, fraternal organization buildings were the true stunners.  Even some of the simplest temples, housed in common two-story buildings may feature decorative columns flanking the entrance, or a hand-painted annunciator lamp covered in depictions of squares and compasses, five-pointed stars or the letter “G”, representing the role that every act is governed by geometry as well as the “Great Architect of the Universe.”

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Annunciator Lamp, Masonic Temple, Pekin, Illinois


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Aurora Elks Lodge No. 705, Aurora, Illinois
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Louisville Scottish Rite Temple, Louisville, Illinois
Knights of Pythias Grand Lodge 191, Jackson, Ohio

Many temples, shrines and lodges of fraternal organizations have experienced the same problems that have befallen houses of worship in the mid and late 20th century.  With membership declining and stewardship the responsibility of an aging population, large-scale temples, like the South Side Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, no longer made sense for the Masons to continue to operate.  Constructed in 1921 and designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the South Side Masonic Temple was used as an auditorium and clubhouse through the 1950s until its ownership was transferred to the Department of Human Services.  The temple’s second life continued to serve the community until the 1980s, when the Department of Human Services relocated.  While redevelopment plans have been presented, the South Side Masonic Temple has slowly deteriorated over its thirty year period of uncertainty, leaving the physical fabric exposed to the elements and leading to numerous building code violations.  The South Side Masonic Temple was featured on Landmarks Illinois statewide endangered list in 2015 and Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago 7” most threatened buildings in 2004.

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South Side Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois

While the current state of the South Side Masonic Temple is a worse case scenario, the Logan Square Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has fared far better.  Constructed in 1923 and also designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the Logan Square Masonic Temple was sold and converted to a house of worship in the 1960s.  The Armitage Baptist Church purchased the building in 1982 and has remained there ever since.

Former Logan Square Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, (Armitage Baptist Church)

Large urban areas have a greater percentage of adaptively reused temples and shrines, while many fraternal organizations in rural areas and small towns are still running out of buildings constructed for their exclusive use.  The role that these organizations play within a cultural landscape is largely determined by the size of the population that it serves.

The exclusivity of these organizations has made a sweeping contribution to their decreasing impact.  Women are not permitted to join most Masonic lodges, and until the 1970s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles required all members to be Caucasian.  While the architectural character of the buildings that fraternal organizations built gives them a reason to be celebrated, their legacy of selectivity and discrimination decreases the emotional significance of these buildings as they were originally intended.  A second life as a residential development, event space or house of worship allows them to serve a greater percentage of people in a community, and in many cases makes them not only viable, but neutral.

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Former Knights Templar Hall, Chicago, Illinois, now operating as a mixed-use event space.


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Former Masonic Temple, East Lansing Michigan, converted to a residential development.


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The former Eagles Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, now a concert venue.