Last year, I had the pleasure of serving as Midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. Here is a selection of pieces I wrote for the publication:
Last year, I had the pleasure of serving as Midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. Here is a selection of pieces I wrote for the publication:
Once upon a time, American monuments felt innocuous. They sat quietly in parks and squares, repositories for bird droppings and cans of cheap beer. Their stone bases worn from the sandblasting of cheapjack graffiti and chipped from years of nicks from riding lawnmowers. Noses of erstwhile political figures were playfully burnished. That time of unknowledgeable innocence is gone.
Like ideas and people, monuments too, can be radicalized. It is expected that the meaning behind symbols changes with the times, yet it is easy to forget when our lives have been lived among them, whether in blissful ignorance or somber reverence. Many Americans view monuments as parts of history we should not and can not change, particularly in terms of altering or removing statues and memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers, battles, or military generals and political leaders. Monuments of architectural significance have been venerated locally and nationally, as well as celebrated culturally, yet it took a series of catastrophic tragedies to put into focus that their context was always incorrect.
The General Robert Edward Lee Statue is located in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park), bounded by Market Street, Jefferson Street, 1st Street and 2nd Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The statue is one of four works commissioned from members of the National Sculpture Society by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire, located on parks McIntire gave to the City of Charlottesville during the years 1919 to 1924. According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the monument, McIntire “wished to make a place worthy of the likeness of the most distinguished Confederate general.”
The monument, cast in bronze, was conceived by American sculptor Henry Shrady and executed by Leo Lentelli after Shrady’s death. It depicts Lee astride on his horse Traveller. The National Register of Historic Places nomination, written in 1996, depicts the statue as such:
“Lentelli has made a large and important Traveller. The horse is depicted at a brisk walk with his proper left front leg extended forward and his proper right hind leg elevated. His regal tail is arched out behind his body to show his impatience while Lee reins him in. Lee has Traveller well in hand, but the horses neck is overbent and his mouth is open as he pulls against the bit.”
A small number of living confederate veterans as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were present for the May 21st, 1924 unveiling of the statue. Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, the great-granddaughter of General Lee, pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, triggering cheers from the crowd. The National Register nomination continues:
“Thus, the Robert Edward Lee sculpture remains undisturbed in its original location. Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all and an outstanding example of the figurative outdoor sculpture of the late City Beautiful movement.”
The Robert E. Lee sculpture was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 after its addition to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1996. The narrative presented in the National Register nomination gives scant information on Lee, but it does tilt towards the idea that the Confederate cause was a noble one.
Most historical descriptions of Confederate monuments in official documents, like a National Register nomination, present their significance in neutral terms, as art works by significant sculptors or components of a landscape or planning movement, having no interaction with the cultural context the monument was constructed in or the cultural context that existed when the monument was written. Narratives keep in line with the established period of significance of a historic resource, but this timeline will never be finite. Context changes over time as cultural changes occur, and as we learn.
That noble cause in 1861, at the succession of the Confederacy from the rest of the United States, included the unlawful abolition of slavery and the prohibition of voting rights for anyone born outside of the Confederacy. How do these provisions, taken directly from the Confederate Constitution, relate to a contemporary perspective to keep Confederate culture intact? How do organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the Friends of Charlottesville Monuments, who are at the center of a court case fighting against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue with the City of Charlottesville, balance a culture with a core of oppression against the realities of a future of inclusion?
The majority of monuments to the Confederate cause were not erected during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but well after, into the 20th century, when even the oldest, healthiest Confederate veterans were rare. Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties. These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.
In an attempt to stave off the impending threat of equal rights, work was done to control the historical interpretation of the Civil War and present it as a noble cause and to push the Confederacy as a cultural concept while presenting Confederate icons as an honorable ideal.
Out of these eras of recognition of the bravery of the Southern cause came monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others as celebrations of valor and faith. Confederate generals were exalted as intellectuals and sages, depicted nobly atop their horses and at parade rest, cast in bronze beside compassionate angels. These monuments were placed in town squares and city parks, and presented as objects of remembrance towards a cause that was lost, but also noble. Those that nostalgized the old days of Dixie now had the iconography to remind them that while the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights had politically stifled their ideas of a single race state, it could never be culturally stifled. Black people were not so subtly reminded that they had their place.
Although a public park, the landscape surrounding the Lee sculpture retained a reputation as segregated for decades, consistent with Paul Goodloe McIntire’s terms of deed for other racially segregated parks he donated to Charlottesville. Along with their support for the Lee statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned to build a monument to the myth of the nurturing, benevolent Southern mammy. The monument was authorized by the U.S. Senate in 1923 but died in Congress after months of protests, including the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main Union veteran’s organization, which called it a “sickly sentimental proposition.”
Confederate monuments were never innocent, never static and never simply material objects. They were always symbols of intimidation, manipulated as cultural heritage and works of art, and silently used to perpetuate the myth that 20th and 21st century Confederalism is cultural and familial, and not innately discriminatory. They are propaganda, not cultural heritage, and they have served, for decades, to provide something to hide behind that has more decorum than a white robe.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
A few cottages are derelict, 1301 South Heath in particular appears as if the last inhabitants left decades ago.
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.
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.
On April 17th 2014, The City of Chicago announced that it would create a task force to look into the best potential location in Chicago for The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, alighting rumors that after being rejected by the Presidio Trust in San Francisco, Filmmaker George Lucas had set his sights on Chicago as a potential location for what Lucas has referred to as “an anthropologocial museum of visual storytelling.”
At the Presidio, the creator of “Star Wars,” and “Indiana Jones” offered to build and self-endow a $700 million, 95,000 square foot museum to house his nearly $1 billion collection of artwork, ranging from paintings by Norman Rockwell, comics from Mad magazine, and digital stills from the movie Shrek. Lucas has loosely argued that the museum will draw young people to the area that would otherwise not be interested in the park, located just steps away from the Golden Gate Bridge. Lucas also offered this statement about the Bay Area on the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum website:
“The Bay Area has always been home to forward-thinkers and artistic innovators-people who push to do things that haven’t been done before. Men like Eadweard Muybridge, Philo Farnsworth and Steve Jobs. Companies like Pixar, Adobe, and Facebook. There’s a history of invention here that’s as exciting as it is infectious. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here, why I raised my family here, and why I chose to start my own business here. It’s also why I chose this remarkable region for a new museum.”
The Presidio was once the epicenter of military operations in the American West during World War II, but its history began as a military garrison in the 18th century. Many of the 800 some historic buildings, scenic vistas and wooded areas contribute to its’ status as a National Historic Landmark, a unique designation given to only 2,500 historic resources on the National Register of Historic Places. This idyllic location, bordering the shores of both San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, represents a unique partnership between the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust. The Presidio Trust Act calls for “preservation of the cultural and historic integrity of the Presidio for public use,” and since the park was spared from the auction block in 1996 many buildings have been restored, and brownfields sites cleared to make this a financially independent, desirable mixed use area with ample public space. The Presidio is also the home to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic and Lucasfilm’s online offices. So why was Lucas’s plan rejected if he already has a presence there?
The seven member board of the Presidio Trust shot down Lucas’s proposal in February, claiming that it just wasn’t right for the site, an eight-acre parcel known as Chrissy Field, an open space with waterfront access now used as a public recreation area. Similar proposals were also shot down, echoing the commitment of the Trust in terms of the Presidio’s integrity and sensitive development. Lucas isn’t done working on his plan to build a museum in his beloved California. An alternate location has been suggested by the Presidio Trust, and his hometown of Modesto has also expressed interest.
So why does Chicago care about bringing the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum Here? It shouldn’t. But we are coming up with dumb ideas anyways. Let’s discuss two of the worst ideas.
In true Chicago form, no discussion about the significance of the museum is able to happen without establishing a connection between George Lucas, the creative empire that is Lucasfilm, and Chicago. George Lucas’ wife is a native of Chicago. That’s it. There is no other connection. A sketchy Mexican bar in Pilsen didn’t inspire the Mos Eisley Cantina. He didn’t see Ewoks in the trees in Lincoln Park. The campus of Wilber Wright College didn’t inspire the interior design of the Death Star. Sorry.
Some have suggested that Grant Park would make a good location. There are some major problems with this. In 1836, public officials overseeing construction of the Illinois and Michigan Shipping Canal parcelled out the lakefront property that would eventually become Grant Park, legally designating it as “Public Ground — A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or other Obstruction Whatever.” This ordinance is perhaps one of the most well-known in Chicago, and while it has served to protect Chicago’s lakefront in the face of decades’ worth of development challenges there have been some narrow misses, the most recent one being the controversy surrounding the Chicago Children’s Museum’s interest in relocating to Grant Park in 2007. Public outcry created a public relations nightmare for the museum, and the plan was scrapped in favor of a new site on Navy Pier. Grant Park’s proximity to the Loop, the Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier might make this site an attractive but poor option for a museum once again, and any museum with a $700 million dollar budget behind it has ample room to navigate the legal tangles of Grant Park. This is not outside the realm of possibility considering Richard J. Daley was a supporter of the Children’s Museum Plan, and it might already have been suggested by the task force. The price could very easily be right if Lucas was to offer additional philanthropic funds that the City of Chicago could capitalize on.
The Uptown Theater, located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, was designed by architects C.W and George Rapp for the Balaban and Katz theatre chain. The Uptown Theatre, built in 1925, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a notable Chicago Landmark. In what could possibly be one of the most unfortunate stories of long-term preservation by neglect, the Uptown has been dark since the J. Geils Band played a concert there in 1981. No immediate plans for demolition have ever faced the Uptown Theatre, but decades of deferred maintenance and its seemingly constant flux in ownership have kept the building under the radar of organizations like Landmarks Illinois. As recently as January, the Uptown Theatre had its heat turned off, and a 30-foot icicle had formed in the basement. This area of Uptown is a well-known TIF district, and with other smaller scale entertainment venues like the Rivera Theatre and the Green Mill located steps away, bringing the Uptown Theatre back as an entertainment venue similar or congruent to its original use seems like the ideal option. Mayor Emanuel himself even made comments after being elected regarding how he would like to see Uptown as Chicago’s newest entertainment district, but it never happened.
Friends of the Uptown have been lobbying hard via social media to bring the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum to the Uptown Theatre. Perhaps a former theatre housing a collection of artwork that has inspired and contributed to film culture is an alternate take on adaptive re-use, but that argument is a loose one. In Presidio, Lucas proposed a 95,000 square foot museum on what is essentially a raw land sight. How will the Uptown, at a paltry 46,000 square feet ever house that without extensive (and insensitive) renovations? Did we forget what we learned just a decade ago, when we turned Soldier Field into a spaceship? Uptown is a densely developed urban neighborhood, with little room for the infrastructural changes that will affect it once a $700 million, privately funded, nationally recognized museum comes to the area.
And what about parking? This museum will require acres of it, which means that the site chosen will haven an Atom bomb effect in terms of parking in the area. From a preservationist/planner/Urbanist standpoint, this means that buildings that may contribute to the scale or overall sense of place in an area, but aren’t technically or legally architecturally significant might be more financially viable as surface parking lots to their owners. This is a particular concern that should be put in sharp focus for those that believe the Uptown Theatre might make an ideal spot.
Despite already having Lucasfilm as their neighbor, the Presidio made the right choice in turning down Lucas’s plans for a museum in their backyard, and there are even fewer reasons for Chicago to say yes to a large-scale, high-traffic project that doesn’t relate to our existing culture here. The task force in Chicago will report to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May on their ideal sites for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. Perhaps the “force will be with them” and the findings will conclude that the ideal site is somewhere on the planet Tattooine. Or California.
The City of Chicago has created a website where residents can submit ideas and recommend sites for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. You can access it here.
In the spring of 2010, the Chicago City Council unveiled an ambitious $15.4 million plan for the 1930 Morris B. Sachs building, a Logan Square icon and the architectural anchor of the six-corner intersection of Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball. With the assistance of Brinshore Development L.L.C. as well as the Chicago Department of Community Development the Sachs building (also known as the Hump building or ‘that other flatiron building on Milwaukee’) will be transformed into the Logan Square Community Arts Center, complete with affordable housing for artists as well as performance space.
The building, located at 2800 North Milwaukee was built in 1930 by Leichenko & Esser for entrepreneur Sol Goldberg, who redesigned the ubiquitous hairpin to include a ‘hump’ and a third arm in the center to better secure strands of hair. Goldberg’s invention is celebrated almost everywhere on the exterior of the building by way of a curious camel in low relief, surrounded in a deco-esque emanation of rays and waves. The building housed a variety of retail stores, and after the Morris B. Sachs department store opened in 1947 the name stuck for good.
Work on the Sachs building-ahem, the ‘Hairpin Lofts’ is well underway. The building has new double-hung windows, a reconstructed cornice and the whimsical camel reliefs have been given the proper treatment, too. All of this happening after two decades of vacancy, except for a Payless Shoe Source on the first floor.
This is all good and lovely in a “Save the Hill Valley Clocktower” sort of way. I like a good art deco structure for sure, but I can’t help but wonder how this radical transformation will affect the surrounding area, for better or for worse.
The Sachs Building is a contributing structure within the Milwaukee-Diversey-Kimball Landmark District, designated by the City of Chicago on February 9th, 2005. History aficionados can breathe a sign of relief; many of the architecturally outstanding gems residing from roughly Spaulding Avenue just past Diversey are relatively safe from the bulldozing effects of redevelopment.
All seven of the contributing buildings in the district are characteristic of commercial thoroughfares within a neighborhood setting. Built between the 1920’s and 1930s, these structures currently house shoe stores, clothing boutiques and discount outlets, with larger chain stores anchoring the smaller ones to the south.
During the 1930s and 1940s, these three structures housed some of Chicago’s most important and well-known chain stores. The expansive windows and classical ornamentation of the Gap Outlet once housed a Goldblatt’s. The clean Deco lines of what is currently a Foot Locker once housed a F.W. Woolworth. And there is also the districts’ main attraction: The former Morris B. Sachs building.
In the past as well as today, this area is a lively commercial strip of shops, supermarkets and other businesses that fulfill the needs of those in the community.
There have always been lots of reasons to move to Logan Square. The picturesque boulevards are a welcome visual and recreational respite. The mixed-bag of cultural heritage is represented everywhere in Logan Square, from its’ Cuban cafeterias and Mexican taquerias to the elegant turn of the century greystones, inspired by the architectural styles of Germany, Poland and Scandanavia. Signs read in English, Spanish and in Polish, and in 2011 one can still go see a recently run film at the Logan Theatre for three dollars. There is also Johnny’s Grill on Kedzie, a neighborhood diner with counter service straight out of a Norman Rockwell pipe dream.
But put this in your pipe and smoke it: What is attractive to new residents of Logan Square is the non-existence of American Apparel stores, ALDO outlets and Forever Yogurts. Are we looking at images of the structures that in ten years will house American Apparels, ALDO outlets and Forever Yogurts? Will the Payless still remain relevant sitting beneath a community arts center?
So what’s the right thing to do? There isn’t a clear-cut answer. Should developers stop looking into changing the cultural architecture of a community? Should cool kids and artists simply stay put where they are? Should those that live in historic, older neighborhoods simply not expect to have clean, pleasant streetscapes and city services? Community development always seems to be at odds with itself, and ultimately someone’s going to get their feelings hurt. Put your gloves up, Logan Square. You are facing some fierce competition.