Thursday, March 31, 2011

Let's play two

Let me tell you friends we've got trouble right here in River City and all over the world for that matter. So much to worry about, the natural and man made disasters in Japan, the crisis in Libya to name just two. Bad news back home as well with house prices continuing to drop, little confidence in the economy and a complete lack of political discourse which might pave the way to some kind of resolution.

But today despite the temperature, there is a glimpse of spring in the air. The birds are returning after their long winter's journey, the sun is shining when we leave work, the crocuses and daffodils are sprouting, and perhaps a bit prematurely, women (and a few men) are beginning to publicly display their expensive pedicures.

It's the time of the year for new beginnings. The holidays of re-birth, Passover and Easter are right around the corner. This time of year, all hope springs eternal, spring cleaning has us throwing out the unnecessary things in our lives. The slate is rubbed clear and we get a chance to start anew.

If you are of the right mind, it is the time in the year when all should seem right in the world.

In short, happy Opening Day folks!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Maybe Pier...

...was what our son used to call the Chicago tourist attraction that sits on a man made peninsula in the lake and is officially known as Navy Pier. Today as discussions are under way about the Pier's future, the term Maybe Pier may have more relevance than ever.

In the eighties, there were several plans afloat to re-develop Navy Pier which sat for the most part unused for decades. Back then in city after city, new developments were built in once moribund historic facilities such as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, South Street Seaport in New York, and Fanueil Hall in Boston. These projects, successful as they were, pretty much became glorified shopping malls, not all that different from what was found out in the suburbs, except with better views. In Chicago there was a strong movement to buck that trend and combine the requisite shopping-dining experience with cultural and recreational amenities.

That's pretty much what we got and Navy Pier quickly became Chicago's number one tourist destination as well as a very popular spot for locals as well. The Ferris Wheel which pays homage to the original one built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition has become a modern day Chicago icon as has the balloon ride which opened up for business a couple of years ago. Both attractions advertise a feeling of exuberance and joy to the Pier and at least as far as I'm concerned are very welcome additions to the skyline. Navy Pier also has the Shakespeare Theater, one of the city's premier cultural attractions as well as the Smith Museum of Stained Glass and the unfairly maligned Children's Museum.

Yet for all that's right with Navy Pier, something is missing. I can't quite put my finger on it exactly, other than to say that it simply could be so much better. There is a lack of cohesiveness to the place, a bric-a-brac feeling that makes Millennium Park look like the model of taste and restraint.

I'm not alone in this sentiment, a study commissioned by the authority that controls Navy Pier concluded that the Pier has several shortcomings including that it is "claustrophobic", "uninspired" and horror of horrors, "has a 1980s look."

In response to that study, a recent cover story in Time Out Chicago devoted several articles to the Pier and what could be done to improve it. The centerpiece article is titled; 15 ways we'd change Navy Pier. Some of the suggestions are audacious and impractical, Daniel Burnham would have been proud. Most of the suggestions I think would be pretty great if implemented:
  • First things first, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. The article points out the things we should keep, the Ferris Wheel, Shakespeare Theater of course, the Crystal Gardens and little touches like the "retro coin operated telescopes."
  • "Give the people something original to eat." The Pier is filled with chain food fare and encouraging local entrepreneurs to open up shop and create unique dining experiences would be most welcome.
  • "Open up a Soul [music] club." Here's an underrepresented legacy of this city that could be promoted at NP. Why not?
  • "Please local beer lovers with a brewery and tasting room." In one word, yes.
  • "Assemble a Columbian Exposition-themed amusement park." Not so sure about this one. Now let me get this straight, we blast the place for feeling like the 1980s, but it's OK for it to feel like the 1890s? In the illustration they have the Ferris Wheel surrounded by a lagoon complete with Venetian gondolas. That doesn't exactly evoke the Fair to me. Now if they could somehow bring back Little Egypt, I'm all ears.
  • "Dedicate a streetcar line to usher people to the Pier." Two complete thumbs up from me, transportation to Navy Pier is a huge issue. First it's out of the way, the walk, especially underneath LSD is a bit foreboding, and parking is available but expensive. There are buses that go directly to the front door but a first class transportation system would be absolutely fantastic. The best way to get there now unquestionably is by bike.
  • "Building a floating car silo." I'd have say no on this one, at least as it's conceived in the illustration, along with the "souped-up indoor-outdoor water park on the roof." Navy Pier sits on one of the most advantageous and conspicuous sites in the city. As I mentioned before, the Ferris Wheel and the balloon (when it is suspended in the air) are significant elements of Chicago's skyline. The illustrations in the article make Navy Pier look like a gigantic Habitrail.
  • "Wow kids with an underwater fish-viewing area." One minor silver lining in the ecological disaster of the introduction of zebra mussels into Lake Michigan is the fact that the lake water is now amazingly clear. The fish viewing area would provide a fantastic view of our next ecological disaster, the Asian carp.
  • "Bring in local indie shops." Along with the indie restaurants, absolutely. I do think that the re-development of Navy Pier could have been a little more directed towards retail and if designed well, interesting shops on the Pier, other than the endless chotchkie stands already there, would be a welcome addition.
To see all of TOC's suggestions, go here.

Navy Pier is truly a jewel in our city and designing it to live up to its potential should be on the city's agenda. I'd say that a cohesive design to make sense of all the elements of Navy Pier would go a long way toward improving it. Having engaging aspects throughout the Pier, little bits of the unexpected from beginning to end, choices that encourage people to explore, rather than the jumbled mess much of it is now would make for a far more enjoyable visit, in my humble opinion.

In this case, I seem to be attracted more to the little plans rather than the big ones.

Sorry Mr. Burnham.

The benefits of public transit...

...are enumerated here in an article from the Sierra Club of Wisconsin. Our favorite governor, Scott Walker put public transportation along with unions on his hit list during his campaign last November. Needless to say he's not high on the Sierra Club's list either.

The article's point is that public transportation is good for everyone, especially drivers. When I ride my bike I often take an informal survey on how many cars are occupied by only the driver. On average I'd say that I count about eight driver only cars for every car with one passenger or more.

Note the two photographs in the article of a street, one with forty individuals and forty cars, the other with the same forty people and one city bus capable of holding those forty folks.

Someone went to a lot of trouble to make a very good point. Pictures are sometimes worth a thousand words!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Portrait of a Genius

My son and I just finished reading Up Close: Frank Lloyd Wright, a Twentieth Century Life by Jan Adkins. The kids in his fourth grade class had to do a book report on a biography from the point of view of the subject, and who better for Theo to pick than his hero and favorite architect.

Despite catching a couple of glaring factual errors, the book was a terrific read. Its candor was surprising to me given that it is intended for a younger audience. None of the hero worship you hear in the sycophantic FLW tours of Oak Park or Taliesin East and West, much to its credit, Adkins' biography is a no holds barred exploration into the psyche of a complex, troubled genius.

Adkins describes Frank Lloyd Wright as an immoral scoundrel, a charlatan, a master manipulator, a feverishly driven, egotistic, selfish, ruthless, brilliant and visionary architect. Two anecdotes that illustrate the extremes of Frank Lloyd Wright's amazing life stick out in my mind:

Wright became acquainted with Stanley Marcus, the co-owner of the department store Neiman Marcus. When FLW visited Marcus at his home in Dallas, he was struck with the climate of the city in December. Marcus assured him that they were experiencing unusually mild conditions for that time of year. Marcus mentioned to Wright that he was having a new home built for his family. Wright told him that he could design a home for $10,000, a fraction of what he had planned. Thrilled, Marcus hired him. Typical for Wright, he completely overextended himself and the project dragged on and on. After much cajoling, he finally produced some drawings. Much to his amazement, Marcus discovered that there were no bedrooms in the plan. Frank Lloyd Wright told him that since the weather where the house was to be built was so mild, he and his wife should sleep outdoors. After Marcus convinced the architect that he and his wife preferred to sleep indoors, the next set of drawings had bedrooms but no closets. Wright told Marcus that he should just throw away all of his clothes. Marcus told him that as the purveyor of fine clothing, his job required that he wear a different set of clothes every day. Wright again reluctantly acquiesced but by now the cost of the project skyrocketed to $150,000. Wright blamed the problems on the contractors whom he insisted; "couldn't read my plans." Marcus wondered aloud; "whose fault is that, theirs or yours?" Not surprisingly, the project was eventually dropped and Marcus built his house, presumably complete with bedrooms and closets, with the help of another architect for $40,000. After learning this, FLW tersely wrote Marcus: "I'm surprised you settled for so little."

Wright was known for occasionally describing his creative process as "shaking a design out of my sleeve."

The architect was introduced to another department store mogul, Edgar J. Kaufmann, by Kaufmann's son who briefly apprenticed with Wright at the Taliesen Fellowship in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The elder Kaufmann asked Wright to design for his family a summer home on land they owned outside of their home in Pittsburgh. Running through the land was a stream called Bear Run which tumbled over several large boulders forming a waterfall where the family loved to gather, sunbathing and cooling themselves in the summer heat. In conversations about the project, Wright suggested the audacious idea of building the house directly on top of the waterfall. Taken aback at first, Kaufmann was eventually convinced by the persuasive architect. Again terribly overextended, the project moved along at a snail's pace. One day on business in Milwaukee, Kauffman phoned Wright in Spring Green asking him how the project was going. Not fazed in the least, Wright in a chipper mood said to Kaufmann; "Come Along E.J. we're ready for you." This came as a surprise to the Taliesin fellows who all knew that not a single line had yet been laid down on paper for this project. As Kaufmann drove from Milwaukee to Spring Green, Wright began to work. In Adkins' words:

His apprentices sharpened his pencils as he dulled them with his busy lines and cast them aside. He erased, brushed the dust away, redrew. A plan, a shape, a conception gradually appeared on the paper like a ghost emerging from a cloud. It was something whole and exciting. It came together as if it were a favorite scene drawn from memory, and yet it was like nothing Frank Lloyd Wright had ever designed in form or structure or engineering principle.

In the two and a half hours that it took Edgar J. Kaufmann to drive from Milwaukee to Spring Green, Frank Lloyd Wright would create what would become not only his best known and most beloved work, but also an icon of American architecture, the home that he would name, Fallingwater.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The 2011 Chicago Seven

Here is Preservation Chicago's 2011 list of the seven most endangered buildings and districts in Chicago. I am personally familiar with six of the seven sites, have very close personal ties to two of them, and walk by two of the buildings on the list almost every week day.

Preservation of buildings is a mixed bag, in a perfect world we'd like to be able to save every good building (not to mention the great ones), or buildings that have historical significance. In the real world however there are so many factors that can make preservation impractical or impossible. Usually it all comes down to economics, public safety, law, or a combination of all three.

Two of the buildings on the list are houses of worship which by their very nature automatically gives them historical significance. They also prove to be the most difficult buildings to save, as our laws prohibit government from meddling in church affairs, including their architecture. Even if the government had a say, it would be difficult to make the argument that a church should devote its resources toward saving a building rather than ministering to its people. Consequently we can't landmark a church as we would another type of building. This has come up previously in this space regarding the fate of the once magnificent St. Boniface Church on the near northwest side that continues to stand and decay as it awaits an uncertain future. St. Lawrence Church in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on the south side, the one building on the list I have never visited, has not been empty for as long as St. Boniface and it appears to be in fairly good shape. Preservation Chicago urges creative re-use for the building. I have mixed feelings about converting churches to secular use but I suppose that saving a church building as a community center, or anything else is preferable to not saving it at all.

In the case of Shepherd's Temple on Douglas Boulevard on the west side, the building is a testament to what was once a major center of Jewish life in Chicago. It is one of the most striking examples of synagogue architecture on a boulevard lined with many. Its loss would leave a tremendous void in the neighborhood. Here is a link to some photographs of the interior of the gutted Temple which later was converted to a Baptist church.

The Pullman Historic District is already a landmarked community, but as Preservation Chicago points out, the area north of 111th Street which includes a small residential neighborhood as well as the burned out remnants of Pullman Works, is suffering from terrible neglect. South of 111th you will find Hotel Florence and a community that is still very much intact. The charm of the neighborhood belies the turmoil of its past as a company town conceived and built by one of the greatest, and also perhaps most despised industrialists of 19th Century Chicago, George Pullman. Here is the Encyclopedia of Chicago's article on the neighborhood of Pullman.

The sites where I have the closest personal connection are two hospitals, Children's Memorial, which is moving its campus south to Streeterville, and the former Prentice Women's Hospital. Presntice was the site of the births of both our children, and many anxious moments have been spent with our kids at Children's Memorial. Of all the buildings mentioned in the list, Prentice is perhaps the most architecturally significant, designed by Bertrand Goldberg, employing his signature cylindrical motif. It's an innovative, unique design that would be a shame to lose, especially given the fact that it could be adapted to any number of alternate uses. It is also by far the newest building on the list, barely over thirty tears old. It has been replaced by a state of the art facility a block away and while it could be converted, its location in the midst of a hospital campus makes that scenario a little more complicated. It is showing its age, my wife pointed out that the concrete facade gives the building the perpetual appearance of being dirty. Yet for obvious reasons I would be brokenhearted to see it go.
The University of Chicago's purchase of the Chicago Theological Seminary along with its plans to convert it to the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics threatens three important Chicago interiors of the Gothic Revival style. Several magnificent stained glass windows have already been removed and more are to follow as the University deems them "inappropriate" for an Economics school. Preservation Chicago also expresses concern for the entire 5700 block of south Woodlawn, a residential block slowly being taken over by the rapacious University. This is truly one of the loveliest blocks in all of Chicago and the destruction of all or part of it would be a crime.

Finally, two skyscrapers on State Street that share one block, 202 and 220 S. State Street are threatened by an unlikely source, the Federal Government, who has expressed interest in demolishing them and redeveloping the block. This would be a sham as these buildings are significant as part of the fabric, albeit diminished of State Street. The 202 building, pictured at the top of this post, was designed by Holibird and Roche and is in fact one of my favorite buildings on State Street. You may recall last year I mentioned it in connection with the late great Republic Building designed by the same firm, that once stood directly across the street to the east. 220 South State is another fine, if not exceptional building whose loss would be a travesty.

Of all these unfortunate new members of the threatened architecture club, Preservation Chicago makes the strongest case for saving and rehabilitating these two wonderful buildings. Read it for yourself here on a PDF.

Goodness knows that State Street, once this city's premier thoroughfare, has suffered enough indignities over the past fifty years. One would only hope that the government will see the light and find a way to creatively adapt these fine buildings to their needs, or at the very least, let them stand until they find someone who can. A city that claims to be an major architectural capital can't afford to let go of any more significant buildings in the heart of the city.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Another St. Patrick's Day brings back fond memories of my Great Aunt Gertrude Hickey (nee Houlihan) who lived until the ripe old age of 101, sharp as a tack until the day she died.

Gert loved her highballs and with the exception of the occasional doctor's orders limiting her to one per day, she pretty much had free reign over the sauce. One of our favorite Gert stories had her at the doctor's office one day. After the medic examined her, he said: "Gert, you're the picture of health, you've outlived most of your friends and family. You're in better shape than most people half your age. Tell me, how do you do it?" Aunt Gertrude replied: "Well I never smoked, I get plenty of rest, and I've learned never to take anything too seriously. And I take plenty of Vitamin ET."

Now the doctor was too embarrassed at the time to admit he never heard of such a vitamin but on a follow up visit he said: "OK Gert, we searched through all our medical journals and came up empty, what the heck is Vitamin ET?"

With a devilish look on her face Gertrude told the doctor: "Early Times!"

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Into the 21st Century

Blogging from my cell phone.