The Good Old Daze

Sometime in the mid 90s, I gave my Dad, Keith Blasius, a pair of fuzzy dice to hang from the rear view mirror of his 1968 Ford Fairlane 500. In an act of kind, fatherly appreciation, he hung them up for a short time, then took them down. When I asked him why he had removed the fuzzy dice, he told me that they didn’t quite ‘fit with the period’ of the Fairlane. I didn’t understand. An old car is an old car, right?

On a late 60s muscle machine like the Fairlane, fluffy plush dice make about as much sense as a bunch of deceased celebrities loitering in front of a pretend diner, in front of a pretend turn of the century main street. So many things from the past seem to be helplessly lumped into a stew of information, and those of us that choose to blow the whistle are ruining the fun.

HABS IL-1029

Take for example, my beloved Reliance Building, a sumptuous terra cotta layer cake of a skyscraper that buzzed with public and academic interest even before construction was completed in 1896. The Reliance Building inspired Chicago photographer Richard Nickel in the 1960s and landmark architect Gunny Harboe in the 90s. Now, the Reliance Building’s greater purpose is as an adaptive re-use project that works, functioning seamlessly in 2011. I’m sure Daniel Burnham and Charles Atwood are looking down from that great drafting table in the sky right now, smiling as guests in the lavish Hotel Burnham use the free wi-fi to download Devil in the White City on their Kindles.

History sure is attractive, but I’ve heard quite a few tall tales regarding the Reliance Building recited as gospel. Here are a few from the cock-and-bull department:

-Al Capone had an office in the building.
-Al Capone killed someone on the roof.
-The first two floors were salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
-Everything in the interior is original.
-George Washington washed his hands in the sink of room 309.

As a historian, it is unethical for me to allow false information to be passed on to innocent fans of the past. But as the polite person I generally am, calling out trivial inaccuracies just reinforces the elitism of those that choose to study the past from an academic perspective; and history is for everyone. Is the devil really in the details, or are those pressed to always represent a completely accurate picture just getting too caught up in names, dates, and fuzzy dice?


Step right up, Folks!

Your local urban epicenter proudly presents a disgusting spectacle of unmarvled specticality. She’s big, bad, scary and oh boy, she’s been mad since White Flight! Drool at her blown out openings, her overgrown lawns, her burnt out ceilings. Gape and goggle at her missing pediments and copper piping. She’s the Nasty Queen of Newark, the Detroit Dead, the Chicago Crumbler, She is…

An abandoned, blighted building. And you can see her almost everywhere.

There is something oh-so-sexy about a derelict structure. Perhaps its’ inherent expressiveness makes you want to explore your art school kid side, taking brilliantly lit pictures using the rule of thirds. Perhaps it cries out to you to urgently document every aspect of it’s raw skeletal form, because it may not be there tomorrow. You can’t deny the visual merits of an abandoned building; the image is striking and powerful on film, and allows the photographer an easy way to make a statement that is almost always up to the viewer to interpret.

Or perhaps you don’t want to take pictures, but instead get all pronoun slaphappy; “They should restore that”. Who is this illusive “They” that seems to have so much power? Is there a Mr. They, international philanthropist able and willing to pump millions of dollars into “that”? Or a Republic of They? City of They? Theyville? How about National Trust of They? Why aren’t “they” taking responsibility? This unfocused blame leads absolutely nowhere.

Buildings cease to be used for a variety of reasons. A structure may have become physically obsolete, gone into foreclosure, or experienced fire or water damage. Building owners can die, be sued for virtually any reason, or be fined for permit violations, and all of these factors can cause a structure to be stuck in limbo for months or even years. Most municipalities have laws dictating that a building be reported by the property owner as vacant, and citizens can obtain information on abandoned properties via the Freedom of Information Act. Here in Chicago, information can be obtained primarily at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Perennial recessions such as the one we are currently experiencing do have a bright side to Preservationists, though. Securing a building is expensive, but demolition is even more costly. This gives direlict structures the priceless opportunity to be reviewed for rehabilitation by building owners and developers once resources are more secure. Some may argue that this itself is a type of ‘preservation’. So snap away, with both your judgments as well as your D90s.

But is the exploitation of abandoned buildings bad for their future? In the case of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, a 1913 Beaux Arts dinosaur that wouldn’t give in to the virtual eradication of passenger rail, adaptive re-use plans have ranged from the nonfunctional to completely wacky. Michigan Central has cast a bleak shadow on the City of Detroit since the last Amtrak train pulled out of the station in 1988. There is seemingly no end in sight, and like many abandoned buildings big and small, Michigan Central poses a substantial safety risk and physically manifests the worst qualities in a community.

The moral ground seems to be at the median of education, advocacy and realistic solutions for abandoned buildings of historic and architectural merit, because recognition and documentation are just a start. A fat lady can’t be a ‘fat lady’ forever. Sooner or later she’s going to want to make something of her life, like get a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation of Architecture.

Logan Square-off

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.

2778 North Milwaukee (Gap Outlet)

3401 West Diversey (Foot Locker)

2800 North Milwaukee (Payless Shoe Source)

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.

The Little House Redux

Once upon a time there was a little house.

Virgina Lee Burton, 1942

…and this little house

The Little House, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1942, is the sweet, sweet cradle song of Historic Preservation. The Little House is a perspective of a century of change from the viewpoint of a lovely little Victorian cottage. Originally built on a small hill in the countryside, the Little House views the bright lights of the city from afar and as the aggressive machine of progress pushes on, the Little House eventually finds itself decades later in the middle of the big, bad city. Neglected. Sad. A relic from the past that couldn’t possibly be needed or wanted.

Watch Walt Disney’s charming 1952 cartoon of the story featuring the ebullient voice of Sterling Holloway.

In Burton’s tale, the little house is saved by a familiar hero in preservation; a homeowner who won’t settle for something with a thin brick face, cinderblock sides and a rectangular floor plan. In the case of the real life ‘little house’, Chicago’s 1836 Henry B. Clarke House, the hero is an unlikely one, but endures as one of the most important unsung characters in Historic Preservation.

Image courtesy The Chicago Defender, 1976

Who’d believe, up on the north shore and such places, that here, in the heart of the ghetto, grass is growing all around, and flowers. So many people think the black community is supposed to destroy everything…Destroy everything? Here we have preserved the oldest house. This is our message.

Bishop Louis Henry Ford, Chicago Defender, August 26th, 1976.

Bishop Ford, a migrant from Clarksdale, Mississippi, came to Chicago in 1933 and began preaching on street corners. Bishop Ford founded the St. Paul Church of God in Christ three years later on Chicago’s South Side. He gained a reputation of compassion and community leadership and worked hard against poverty, violence and promoted racial tolerance. Bishop Ford served as a member of the executive committee of the N.A.A.C.P and moved thousands while delivering the eulogy at the funeral of Emmett Till at Roberts Temple C.O.G.I.C on September 3rd, 1955. He was also the proud owner of ‘Chicago’s Oldest House’ from 1941 to 1977. Bishop Ford understood the tremendous power of using history as a tool to inspire community pride, for both people within his congregation and in the surrounding neighborhood.

The Clarke House was the showpiece of the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. Bishop Ford and his congregation began to rehabilitate the house in 1943, and continued with regular improvements over the years, removing decayed lumber, repairing the cupola and providing the house with a fresh coat of paint each year. Bishop Ford threw annual teas for the Clarke House each August, and the donations from these teas played a substantial role in the upkeep of the building and grounds. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ proudly displayed the Clarke House on church newsletters and fliers, with images of the ‘little house’ printed under the assertive phrase, ‘Jesus Never Fails’.

As Chicago’s best surviving example of Greek Revival architecture, the 1836 Clarke House has endured almost as much turmoil and change as the city itself, and even holds boasting rights for being a year older. After watching Chicago grow exponentially over four decades, the Clarke House witnessed the catastrophic Great Fire in 1871, lying south of the infamous O’Leary barn and the conflagration that burned aggressively to the north. In 1872, the Clarke House was moved from 16th Street and Michigan to Wabash and 45th Street, by its second owner, John Chrimes, where it would quietly observe Chicago grow up around it into the 20th century.

After surviving past centenarian, the Clarke House found itself under the ownership of two retired schoolteachers, Lydia and Laura Walters. The Walters became owners of the house after the death of their father, William Walter, who purchased the home from John Chrimes in 1878. Tired of the houses’ upkeep, the Walters sisters urged the City of Chicago to purchase the house in 1940. The city declined, and the Walters considered demolition. Bishop Ford, in a savvy move for history, bought the house in 1941 for $7,000.

Uses for the Clarke House varied over the years it was owned by Bishop Ford, from housing Ford and his family to providing room and board to African-Americans who had recently migrated from the South. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ used the house as social space for various years, and a café was run by the Bishop’s wife, Margaret Ford in the basement of the house from around 1949 until 1953. The café served “soul food with flair” and Mrs. Ford’s famous strawberry shortcake. Bishop Ford also broadcast a weekly radio show from the Clarke House on WVON. The Clarke House was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1970, and was given National Register status in 1971, both under the watchful stewardship of Bishop Ford.

It was always Bishop Ford’s intention to find an owner for the Clarke House that would have the means to restore and maintain the building in perpetuity, and in 1977 the City of Chicago purchased the home. Plans were made to move the house from 45th and Wabash to its current location at 18th and Indiana. The house rolled slowly north until it hit the Englewood-Jackson Park ‘L’ tracks, where it was hoisted over the tracks using 27 feet of wooden cribs.

In an unfortunate stroke of weather-induced bad luck, the cold caused the hydraulic equipment required for lowering the cribs to freeze, and the ‘little house’ spent two weeks gazing at the cities’ skyline from beside the Green Line. Many Chicagoans fondly remember the sight of the house hovering in mid-air during that frigid December.

Once the Clarke House made it to the site, it was placed on a modern foundation and integrated into the newly created Prairie Avenue Historic District After five years of carefully conducted research and reconstruction, the Clarke House opened as a museum in 1982, reflecting the period of time in which Henry B. Clarke and his family lived in the home. The following year the St. Paul Church of God in Christ celebrated its 147th birthday with a commemorative tea on the grounds.

Bishop Louis Henry Ford passed away in 1995, and is remembered as a civil rights activist, educator and spiritual leader during his nearly fifty years as a minister. Bishop Ford was further commemorated by the dedication of the freeway that bears his name.

Much ado is made about the life and times of Henry Clarke and his family, middle-class migrants from New York State who came to Chicago for the promise of making a better life out on the prairie. But bookended between the house’s ‘period of significance’ and the contemporary throngs of tour-goers leaning eagerly over velvet ropes lies the story of an uphill struggle to acknowledge history and recognize its significance within a community.

Almost every Historic Preservation story has a Bishop Ford; someone that played a crucial role in identification or stewardship that has no direct link to the buildings’ most significant period, but nevertheless felt the need to assist in securing it for the future. Bishop Ford understood the importance of Chicago’s architectural heritage decades before any local or national landmarks laws were even a pipe dream in the minds of historians and lawmakers. Bishop Louis Henry Ford was a true pioneer and a champion of history.

It’s amazing what a little house can do.

‘The Yellowed Wallpaper’

Dear Friends,

After what seems like months of nail biting, deliberating font sizes, changing themes, agonizing over photos and vacillating between my audience as preservationists, colleagues, friends or simply no one at all, Blaservations is finally online.

I’ve created Blaservations as a place for me to share my fascination with buildings, research, history (no matter how big or small) and my environment. Like many people in preservation and most people in Detroit, I lead with my heart. I’d like to begin by sharing one of my favorite environments with you, gentle reader.

This is the east wall of the dining room of the home of my grandmother, Blanche Blasius, located in Highland Park, Michigan. She and her husband, Robert moved into the house with their four children, Bobby, Cheryl, Keith and Larry in 1965. Robert, or R.B. as he is affectionately referred to was a motorcycle officer in the Highland Park Police Department for over 38 years. R.B. passed away in 1991.

Highland Park is a tiny enclave of the City of Detroit that boomed during the heyday of the automotive industry. It encompasses less than three square miles, and for the majority of its history functioned as a community independent of Detroit (Highland Park is currently being provided city services by both Wayne County and the City of Detroit, but with its’ own independent police force, Mayor and city council) Most of the housing stock in Highland Park are reflective of its most affluent and prosperous time, from the turn of the century until the 1930s.

The first crumbs of interest for preservation were fed to me in Highland Park. By the time I was born, Highland Park had become a shacktown of neglect; abandoned churches, homes with their roofs caved in, buildings with missing doors and windows, entire apartment buildings without tenants managing to stand tall against seemingly endless odds. An all-too familiar urban story.

Blanche’s house, the closest thing that I can think of as far as an ancestral home, is located at Moss and Second, right smack dab in the middle of the Medbury’s-Grove Law Subdivisions Historic District It is a two-story four bedroom, craftsman style Bungalow. According to family anecdotes, the house was designed by famed Detroit Architect Albert Kahn for a wealthy Ford executive. Although many of the homes in the neighborhood were built for Ford executives in the nineteen-teens, twenties and thirties, I have yet to find evidence that confirms or denies weather Kahn did indeed design the home. You know how families are.

Digressing back to the dining room, I have always adored the wallpaper.

This whimsical scene, with its’ lushly printed trees and almost comically perfect Colonial buildings has served as a backdrop for decades of Blasius family gatherings. It’s likely a machine-made paper, probably from the 1950s, and could have possibly come from the home decor department of any one of Detroit’s famous department stores such as J.L. Hudson’s or Kerns. There is a spectacular amount of family snapshots documenting this wallpaper, too. Here is a photo of my Great Grandma Blasius, Grandma Blanche and Grandpa R.B. sitting in the dining room, dated November 28th, 1974.

There is something about a good roll of wallpaper that seems to coalesce a space like no family portrait, painting or flat screen can. Although the continual existence of this wallpaper doesn’t hold a candle to anything truly historic it has surely stood the test of time and bypassed decades’ worth of style changes. And let’s be honest: no one wallpapers anything anymore. Wallpaper takes time to hang, it takes hard work to remove and by the time you’ve got the images lined up on the wall pictorial papers are no longer en vogue.

For a historian like myself, it’s nice to have the trifold perspective of old documentation, recent documentation and personal memories. These elements drive preservationists and historians to do what they do, and are the key ingredients in the way that history works, no matter if you are talking about Highland Park or the Blasius family.

More on Highland Park soon.

Old buildings, New tricks