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 historicaerials.com.)
1953 Aerial View (via historicaerials.com.)

1973 Aerial View (via historicaerials.com.)"
1973 Aerial View (via historicaerials.com.)

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 historicaerials.com)
2002 Aerial (image via historicaerials.com)

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.

Chicago’s Temple of Doom: Some Bad Ideas for the George Lucas Museum

Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2014
Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2014
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.”
One version of the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposed for Chrissy Field, The Presidio of San Francisco.  I'm hoping the caryatids are all Jar Jar Binks.
One version of the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposed for Chrissy Field, The Presidio of San Francisco. I’m hoping the caryatids are all Jar Jar Binks. Image via the San Francisco Gate.

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?

Capture dar dar

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.

Uptown Theatre, 2012.  Image via @blaservations

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.

Hip hop and Historic Preservation (did I studder?)

Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of Bebop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles
Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael
Its all expected, things are for the looking
If you got the money, Quest is for the booking

The beginning lines to “Excursions” by Tribe Called Quest are certainly one of the most awesome album openers in hip hop. Over an aggressive upright bass line ripped directly from Art Blakey, Q-Tip gives a micro and macro history of rap; it’s self-referential relationship with other music, and the observation from ‘pops’ that Bebop and hip hop have more in common than just being words that rhyme. As you get a sense that Q-Tip is standing on a precipice of sorts; looking back at the genre, observing the present, seeing that “things go in cycles (the) Way that Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael”, the beat drops. And the future is here!

Like hip hop, historic preservation is a famous plunderer of themes; two disciplines that are constantly referencing the olden days, but have managed to become their own entities by using historical content as a base of original thinking, communicating, and even arguing. Neither has any original notes, a hallmark of what makes both hip hop and preservation so distinctly Postmodern. Hip hop has its roots in existing forms of music, just like preservation has roots in existing architecture. Both are hard to dissect, but really easy to like. Both have low ends and high ends, and multiple access points. Remember wishing you were a “little bit taller, wish I was a baller” along with Skee-lo? How excited were you as a first grader to take the bus from your school to your hometown historic village on a field trip? Do you remember hearing 808’s & Heartbreak for the first time, and understanding that like it or not, hip hop had changed since you began listening to Skee-Lo? What about preservationist’s impassioned but miscarried struggle to convince the whole world that the curvy, cast concrete 1976 Prentice Women’s Hospital, the same age as Aesop Rock, was the future of architectural heritage? You don’t need to know every member of Wu-Tang Clan’s birthday to like rap, and you don’t need to be a member of your local historical society to be into old buildings.

Easy to like, hard to dissect. No opportunity to criticize the body politic of hip hop is ever refused, and like historic preservation, it hasn’t been able to shake some of the negative aspects of its image. Hip hop’s physical foundation is not one of comfort or stability. It may be easy to like, but it certainly doesn’t need you to like it. Part of hip hop’s authentic voice comes from communicating that there are parts of the world that are harsh and unfriendly-guns, drugs, poverty, social problems, gangs…these topics either make for compelling stories or an all-too identifiable reality. However, the perception that violence is the principle theme in hip hop is like saying Frank Lloyd Wright is the only architect that matters. Action Bronson’s raps might as well be an audio book of the Joy of Cooking. Stalley’s “Intelligent Trunk Music” provides a Midwest perspective of American car culture. Earl Sweatshirt’s music is chock full of moody double entendres and rhymes that place Earl high above emcees twice his age.

There is also the concept of the rapper as a blowhard braggadocio, claiming to be the illest/dopest/richest/hardest/realest/trillest when it comes to rhyming/women/partying/money (as far as being the trillest architect, the award goes to Denise Scott Brown.) But for each claim made for hip hops’ materialism, violence and self-referentialism, a claim can also be made for its style, power and individuality. On “Picasso Baby” Jay Z spits: “I just want a Picasso/in my Casa/no my Castle/I’m a Hassa/no I’m an Asshole/I’m never Satisfied/Can’t Knock the Hustle.” On a surface level, Jay’s talking about his reality; enjoying the trappings of being ridiculously, ridiculously rich and having great taste to match that enormous wealth. But the Picasso in question isn’t really a painting or a work of art at all; it’s ‘Marcy to Madison Square’ Hov, wanting more for himself. It’s Jay Z urging you to dream big, no wait-BIGGER! I just want a Picasso! What do you want? Perhaps it’s a promotion. Perhaps it’s running that last mile on the treadmill with gusto. Perhaps it’s saving up for a new car. Perhaps it’s being the Baddest Bitch, the Trina of Historic Preservation (@blaservations!) Hip hop is so good at getting the listener to dig deeply into what seems like simple, literal context. You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop.

Historic Preservation’s most notorious nuisance was best depicted in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” In the shadow of the Hill Valley Clock Tower, Marty McFly leans in to kiss the beautiful young Jennifer, only to be cock-blocked by a canister full of change being shaken by a blowsy old biddy from the Hill Valley Preservation Society, screeching that the imperiled clock tower be preserved “Exactly as it is as a part of our history and heritage!” Marty drops a quarter in the canister to get the lady to beat it. Preservation has often been panned for cock-blocking progress in the exact same way that Marty got cock-blocked. Preservation has a tendency to come off as a desperate plea to preserve everything at all costs. Many have a ‘Save it All’ approach; tying ourselves to buildings, arguing for the preservation of non-economically viable architectural dinosaurs, preserving really hideous buildings that only have esoteric academic importance, disliking any notion of the future and perhaps the worst accusation of all, not caring about rights of ownership. This is not a fair depiction, but a misunderstanding; both in terms of how preservationists carry out the work of preserving buildings and how we communicate a historic buildings’ value. Preservationese is a language understood by a small percentage of people, but issues like scale, walkability, affordability and sustainability can be expressed in almost any language, and these things can happen through the good work of historic preservation. With the legal teeth and review process put in action because of federal laws, historic preservation can make a bonafide, card-carrying impact on communities, but without public approval and support, it becomes an elite club of academics with their priorities askew.

Preservation is valuable tool in making where we work, where we play and where we sleep able to satisfy our ever-changing social, economic and cultural needs. Keeping the old versus building new means fewer bricks, scraps of metal and wood end up filling landfills, and less energy is produced in preparing raw materials like trees into two-by-fours, or transporting these materials to the building site. Old buildings can be a treasure trove of tangible information on communities and how they develop, from how a building has changed over time to who has used it over its life. On an intangible level, preservation gives people a way to understand the past by developing their own personal connection to place. In order to survive, preservation needs to be constantly predicting the future, and most importantly; our concept of the past of the future, because the past changes daily.

Just prior to the Civil War, the home of the first President of the United States, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, found itself under threat of demolition. While the preservation of such an important American landmark seems like a no-brainer today, Mount Vernon in the 1850s was a dilapidated plantation crapshack, in the way of progress. An ambitious group of women, giving themselves the name the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, saw that a future without Mount Vernon was a future of missing pieces, and organized nationally to raise awareness and save the imperiled landmark. As architects and planners were throwing up buildings with cantilevers, ‘Space-Race’ and transportation-inspired aesthetics and all sorts of zigs and zags in the middle of the 20th century, buildings with decorative finials, ionic columns, or Mansard roofs were being demolished left and right. Taste is very tricky to legislate, and it’s changing constantly. So how do we make choices as far as what is worthy of sticking around? It’s never easy. Like the battles preservationists fought, won and lost in the 1960s when progress plowed through irreplaceable 18th and 19th century architectural treasures, there is a new struggle to keep the inertia of a midcentury modern preservation movement going, despite the enormous setbacks.

This constant review and re-review of what is ‘historic architecture’ is like hip hop’s constant revisiting of its past. 1983’s “Between the Sheets” by the Isley Brothers has been touched by almost every important emcee or producer in the last two decades. The Notorious B.I.G. rhymed over a seminal sample of it on “Big Poppa,” in 1994. By the time the sample got to Jay Z and Beanie Sigel in 2007 on “Ignorant Shit,” it had grown to something bigger than just an Isley Brothers sample, taking on all of the heavy residuals of Christopher Wallace’s life and death, like the use of the sample itself was making an unequevical comment on the state of hip hop for the lucky few that study it. 2012’s “Juke Juke” by Chance the Rapper couldn’t be more hyper-aware or self-referential.

Both preservation and hip hop are young and developing, and perhaps it’s the absence of critical thinking on the movements themselves, and not just what inspired them, that makes each so hungry and fresh for experimentation, new technology and healthy discourse. Who didn’t hate Brutalism ten years ago? With each look back, you find something new. Bobby Brown is just amping like Michael.

Skyline Timeline: Using Image to Explain the Historical Impact of the World Trade Center Tragedy

On September 10th, 2001, The World Trade Center was a seven building complex in New York Cities’ Financial District, anchored by two 110 foot square steel towers on a 16 acre urban Superblock.  Designed by American architect Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1972, the Twin Towers made an immediate and almost unequivocal mark on the New York skyline.

Manhattan, like many skylines across America, hadn’t changed much since the 1920s. Factors like economic depression, World Wars, and the dramatic shift from the city to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s had put a major hault on building in urban areas. As towers of steel and glass rose to take over the overall elevations of cities all accross the nation, skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building and the Empire State Building began to look like poorly-aged grandparents. This was the beginning of the era of the Supertall Building, where the race for the loftiest is sometimes determined only by one or two feet, or a radio tower. Things were changing in a big way, with really, really big buildings.

1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973.  Image via Feedreader.
1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, Circa 1973. Image via Feedreader.

Great skylines are like logos for the cities that they serve. Desplayed as a silhouette, the skylines of New York, Seattle, and Chicago look more like great fonts than elevations of urban areas. We are excited by them, particularly when we come from places that lack architectural verticality. Visiting cities in person, there is nothing like heading Downtown and seeing a wall of tall buildings before you; first defined by only a few jagged shapes, and then becoming a busy puzzle of stone, brick, iron, glass and steel. A city skyline stirs the imagination. It represents hope, possibility, and success. It doesn’t matter if you’ve left your home swamp in Wisconsin for a vacation or perminantly. The thrill is the same. You’ve made it here! So you can make it anywhere! It’s up to you, New York, New York!

The World Trade Center was Modernism to a tee. An emphasis on straight lines, shining aluminum alloy on the facade and a nod to Gothic Architecture in the presence of the three pronged forms that rose from the street level, easing the hard lines above. To those that romanticized The Big Apple, the towers of the World Trade Center became the most salient representative of the lightning fast pace of city life, the powerful company and corporation, and the sheer dominance of something made by man being that impossibly tall. Buildings like this can easily command your attention, creating that slack-jawed, bug-eyed effect that Supertalls have on the person looking up at them.

Kermit the Frog, looking up at the World Trade Center Towers in the 'Muppets Take Manhattan'
Kermit the Frog, experiencing architecture in ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’

A visit to the World Trade Center was a part of the standard tourist tour of New York. Visit the statue of Liberty and ponder the importance of our freedom (or perhaps just jam out on how Peter Venkman was a genius for thinking to use Lady Liberty to defeat Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II.) Check out Rockefeller Center and marvel at how it looks bigger on TV. Bathe in the wattage of Times Square. Try and find the Central Perk. Perhaps dine at a Hard Rock Cafe? The World Trade Center became the most ubiquitous buildings in New York, and the image of the Twin Towers taking command over the skyline seemed to come to represent something greater within popular culture, more so than any other American Building during its lifetime.

Buildings make a great garnish.
Buildings make a great garnish.

The deplorable events of September 11th don't need to be rehashed here, but there was a sudden and viceral public reaction to each and every element that was contributing, or thought to be contributing. Islam was a threat. Airports were a threat. Tall buildings were a threat. And now the World Trade Center was gone, along with the lives of thousands of innocent people at the hands of a scary new household word: Terrorism.

Those Al-Qaeda jerks made their point. There was a sudden change to the most famous and important skyline in the world. The effect was visual and tangable. The World Trade Center immediately became a burdened American image. It was cut from movies and VHS covers. It represented our naivete in thinking that we were the center of the universe, and it had to be removed from existance. The Pre-September 11th skyline of New York became difficult to digest and shameful to view. Post-9/11, the absence of such a substantial piece of the dense fabric of place; both in New York and across the country, became a visual representation for the tangable emptyness that was felt everywhere. The World Trade Center had been reduced to a graveyard of rubble and twisted steel surrounded by dust and smoke. And then when the air cleared, this happened:

And this:

And then this:

The image of the Pre-September 11th World Trade Center became a potent symbol of Americana, screenprinted on t-shirts and floated over images of the American flag. The twin towers were no longer the object of Kermit the Frog’s gaze, or Carrie Bradshaw’s wanton urban optimism. They were like two muscled arms, with two clenched fists, poised defensively in front of America’s face, ready to fight.

No building that tall had ever failed before, let alone by human hands. A piece of architecture had been used as a weapon of mass destruction against American ideals. Well-designed buildings shelter us, they make us think, they inspire us. But immediately after 9/11, anything tall, significant, historic or influential in the United States was considered a potential target, leaving people all over the country looking up and thinking that every architectural landmark was a potential loaded gun. What if the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles was hijacked? What if the Sears Tower in Chicago was hijacked? The Rennissance Building in Detroit? The Bank of America Plaza in Dallas? The Palazzo in Las Vegas?

Security measures at observation decks and revolving restaurants were tightned. Architectural Engineers began planning Supertalls not to withstand changes in temperature or wind resistance, but to withstand the impact of a Boeing 747. Fireproofing standards within stairwells and elevators were thrown out and completely reworked to preserve human life against floor space. At the former site of the Twin Towers, this challenge was amplified by the need for any new structure to carry the tremendous weight of what happened through supurb, world-class design.

One World Trade Center, formerly the Freedom Tower, is slated to open sometime in 2014. Perhaps the message of building on the site where a horrible American tragedy took place will be best articulated in the symbolic 1,776 feet of the 104 story tower, or the mangled artifacts in the museum. Put simply, the clearest message is the fact that people will continue to do exactly what they did at this site on September 10th, 2001; work in an office in Lower Manhattan and be American as fuck.

We not only began to think about seeing tall buildings differently, we began to design them differently. But what do we do with the past? From architectural fragments to firetrucks, important physical artifacts have been preserved. Ideas as far as how to commemorate tragic events in history have been evolving and improving for decades, and the World Trade Center is histories’ newest and most important challenge.

World Trade Center souvenier coffee cups, pressed pennies with an embossed image of the Twin Towers, Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, Yamasaki renderings, Architectural Digest images of the gleaming lobby in 1973; they all tell a story of a past that was very real, and very abruptly interrupted by a heartbreaking event. This material, the pre 9-11 skyline view and all of the ephemera has a significant role in documenting September 11th in a way that is holistic, teachable and tangable. History is a conversation over time, and and twelve years later, this conversation is beginning. So what will we say?

The Inexplicable Intertwinglement of Architectural Theory

Imagine my surprise in hearing that during Thanksgiving, out of all the outrageous topics that are typically covered and conjectured by the Blasius Family, the entirety of my dinky little blog was read aloud by my cousin Caroline. I’m sure I would have felt my ears burning from the other side of Metro Detroit if I hadn’t been eating myself to near death levels. So this post is dedicated to Blanche, Bob, Cheryl, Keith and Larry and all of their respective spouses and children. Thanks for reading guys.

“I have been a circus-horse rider between architecture and urbanism most of my life. But reigning together beasts that have been tugging apart over five decades has made for a bumpy ride.”- Denise Scott Brown, 2012

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing a living piece of architectural history. Denise Scott Brown is the principal collaborator of Robert Venturi, one of the most important architects of the 20th century. This husband and wife duo did something rare in architecture; they talked about it, wrote about it and built buildings that people actually want to use. In an act of Preservationly defiance, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi met on the pastoral campus of the University of Pennsylvania in 1960 over the proposed demolition of Frank Furness’s library. They joined forces soon after, teaching at UPENN, visiting America’s best and worst, oldest and newest cities, and eventually falling in love.

Denise Scott Brown, Las Vegas, 1972. Image courtesy of The Graham Foundation.

Born in South Africa in 1931, Denise attended architecture school in London in the 1950s and traveled extensively throughout Europe with her first husband, Robert Scott Brown, who would die tragically in 1959. Upon her arrival in Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Planning in 1958, Denise immediately began seeing America as a whole pie; a conglomeration of ideas from the old world and the vanguardist spirit of a former colony that had yet to hit two hundred. Denise recognized that America’s past, present and future were of equal importance to the success of cities here. Pop that pie in the oven with a couple of other ingredients, and you’ve got the makings of a great Urban Planner.

Cities are living, breathing systems, and architects, designers and planners have to deal with a stellar combination of old stuff that’s important, medium-old stuff that’s useful, and new stuff that’s obtrusive but vital. Few luck out and are able to start with a blank slate, and those that do end up with crap like Kapolei, Hawaii. Don’t think for a minute that because it’s in Hawaii it’s not a god-awful place.

During our conversation, Denise stated that the “movement of people equals a city” and that movement and land use are “inexplicably intertwingled” with each other. (‘Intertwingled’ isn’t a word to be found in Webster’s Dictionary, but she’s Denise Scott Brown. Denise Scott Brown can create words.) In this way, it’s easy to see how the good ol’ ant farm analogy applies. I also thought about Chicago’s wonderful underground Pedway System, and how it allows city dwellers to move with ease from one part of the Loop to another, a savior if you’re caught without an umbrella. Inhabitants of a city have limited power over what the built environment looks like, but infinite possibilities as far as how to use it through movement.

As much as I love run-on sentences full of big, wordy words; my favorite architectural concepts are quite simple. Like ‘Duck versus Decorated Shed,’ a Venturi Scott Brown Favorite.

Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.
Duck vs. Decorated Shed, Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, 1977.

The fact that the ‘duck’ is a duck is pretty inconsequential. The duck could be any number of buildings, say a coffee cup-shaped coffee house, or an engagement ring store shaped like an engagement ring. These buildings are what they are, and were designed to be what they are. You could even go the high-falutin’ route with this concept.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959.  Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1959. Image courtesy Guggenheim Museum.

Frank Lloyd Wrong designed the Guggenheim Museum as an art museum. That is what it is. It’s construction, as well as the theory of design and use, explain to us why it is the way it is. Architects are pigheaded, and they often use their own writing and theories to justify the rigidity of their own work.

The ‘decorated shed’, on the other hand, uses signage to tell you what its use is. Think of any number of buildings that have an undefined shape that have words or ornament on them that tell you what you can find there. You know what the Golden Arches are, even if they are stuck on a high-rise in Tokyo. Seeing “Chase” emblazoned on the side of a building tells me that if I wanted to, I could overdraw my account and spend a couple of stacks on something Marc Jacobs-ey. Who’s to say the duck is better? Or the decorated shed? This is an easy game to play because you, as the user dictate how you use and see your environment. Try it sometime. It’s fun.

The most delicious decorated shed ever.  Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.
The most delicious decorated shed ever. Panama City Beach, Florida, 2012.

After speaking with Denise, I began to ‘reign together my own beasts’ and commit some of my own theories to paper. Why not, right? Some nerd might want to interview me someday.

Preservation and Neglect

Poor Blaservations!  I’ve neglected you horribly in the last few months, even after vowing to keep a regular schedule of updating you.

But here’s the honest truth; I’ve been too busy working in preservation to update in a timely manner.  Here is a brief summary of ‘Blaservations 2012’ thus far:

-Generating original research on the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition for use in a 3D animated Bollywood musical about Swami Vivekananda.

-Launching into historical research of Highland Park, Michigan for eventual publication.

-Working with a writer to develop a narrative around the history of 999 Lake Shore Drive, designed by Benjamin Marshall in 1911.

-Managing a survey of over 1,300 Postwar houses in East Oahu for the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division.

-Researching and writing a National Register Nomination for Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Franklin Court Complex for the National Park Service in Philadelphia.

Woa dude.  That’s a whole lot, and I’m not even counting the little week long projects I’ve done between the larger ones.  And the year isn’t even over yet.

St. Elizabeth the Brutal

Do you like Brutalism?

Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. In search of an answer, I went to the hospital.

Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center is a doozy of a Brutal building. Located just east of Western Avenue on Division in Chicago, it’s easily the tallest structure in a half-mile radius, and quite out of scale with the rest of Ukrainian Village (and out of context if one considers its famous neighbors, like Louis Sullivan’s iconic Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral) With its vertical concrete bastions, tiny punched-out windows and huge hoods looming uneasily, this building is so austere and so brutal it almost makes you want to question the sanity of the architect. Was this person intent on building a structure for health and healing, or was the architect inspired by his laundry hamper turned over an air-conditioning unit?

Brutalism is a design language that came about by rejecting the straightforward glass boxes of Modernist architecture by using materials such as poured concrete and coarse aggregate to express a type of crudeness, or even vulgarity. Brutalism tells it like it is; buildings are a mess of materials and complex systems. Rather than tucking ventilation units in the basement or behind decorative elements, the building becomes a visual expression for the way it actually works. Some of your least favorite buildings are likely in the Brutal style. Take the pugnacious Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan for example, which looks like it straight up hates itself. Wouldn’t you hate yourself if you looked like a Stair Stepper?

Or a pile of used air filters?

University Hall, Chicago, Il. Designed by Walter Nesch, 1963-1968

Or the blade of a Ped Egg?

Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium, Kagawa, Japan, 1962-64

Or a Satanic meat tenderizer throwing up gang signs?

The Former Cathedral of Christ the King, Kalamazoo, Mi. Designed by Irving W. Colburn, 1966.

Back to St. Elizabeth, the Brutal exterior gives way to a spectacularly similar interior, where the strong, solid lines and emphasis on material continue.

The Chapel inside was pleasant surprise, with vivid dalle de verre a dramatic contrast to the stark poured concrete, which seems to be the only concession of “pretty” here.

But is my knowledge of architecture clouding my judgment? Brutalism was never meant to compete with the Taj Mahal or your Grandpappy’s favorite old Queen Anne cottage, but it’s certainly distinctive, evenly if it’s distinctively disgusting. These buildings aren’t pretty, but then I couldn’t run speed intervals on the treadmill listening to Peggy Lee. That’s what Skrillex is for.

So the answer is yes, I suppose. I like Brutalism. I like that by serving materials and structure rather than a visually appealing aesthetic, Brutalism developed its own aesthetic that is true to the spirit of really great designs and designers. As Modern architectural heritage begins its journey into the realm of historic significance after years of falling victim to the wrecking ball because it wasn’t pretty or well-liked or Frank Lloyd Wright I can’t help but wonder; will I be the only spinster wacky enough to stand in front of the Chicago Landmarks Commission in 2030 in defense of St. Elizabeth?

Old buildings, New tricks