Tag Archives: #midwest

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

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

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

Rauner had this to say:

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

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

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  It’s an outdated bill of fare.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

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

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

Thompson 6

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

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

Thompson interior big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.