Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another church, another story

It's not uncommon for churches to front on parks, the open space gives plenty of room to take in the architecture of what is often the most imposing building in the neighborhood. Congregations obviously like to build their houses of worship on these prominent spots, and from a planning standpoint, parkside churches give their neighborhood a focus and a sense of stability. It's Chicago's version of a town square.

Ever since I made this picture at the southern tip of the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the South Side in 1995, I've thought of this as one of the loveliest spots in Chicago. It is the view of beautiful Sherman Park, terminating with the twin towers of Henry Schlack's St. John of God Church.

Sherman Park is one of the city's finest parks. The grand church formed a memorable ensemble with the architectural features of the park, the splendid fieldhouse, barely visible to the left in the photo, the pergola connecting the fieldhouse and swimming pool, and the four bridges that span the lagoon. The park is the work of the Olmsted Brothers, sons of the great Frederick Law Olmsted. Sherman Park and the neighborhood in which it resides have gone through some rough times, but as is the case with many of Chicago's parks, much love and care has gone into it in recent years. Today it retains much of its original glory, admittedly with some rough spots here and there.

I'm sad to say however that St. John of God Church is slowly disappearing.

The view in the photograph above is gone forever.

This is how the church looked last month. In this case there is a silver lining of sorts. The exterior of St. John of God is being dismantled stone by stone, and being carted up to a town by the name of Old Mill Creek, Illinois, just south of the Wisconsin border. There it will be re-assembled and become St. Raphael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church. The interior of the new church will be made up of much of what remains of another shuttered Chicago church, St. Peter Canisius in the Austin neighborhood on the west side. In addition, the new church will get the organ that was removed from Medina Temple when it was turned into a department store. The reaction over the dismantlement of St. John of God has been mixed in the preservation community. One comment from an anonymous source went like this:

"The churches that are closed and the most endangered are those in the poorest city neighborhoods. Do we now remove these buildings from the area and original context, rather than keep them there and find a way to reuse them as assets to the community?"

And what a context it was. The church was built several years after the park, and it was clearly designed with the park in mind. Its departure leaves a void in the park landscape that will likely never be filled.

If you may recall, I've written in this space before about another church fronting a park that was closed in the early nineties. St. Boniface Church in Eckhart Park, was also designed by Henry Schlacks. Like St. John of God, St. Boniface has been vacant for twenty years. Unlike SJG, there was interest from the outside in purchasing that shuttered church and re-developing it into another use. It appears at this writing that St. Boniface will be saved in tact and turned into a facility for the housing of senior citizens. Unfortunately there was no such interest in keeping St. John of God in the community.

Moving the church is by no means the perfect solution. A dwindling congregation could no longer support the church. It would have been ideal if another congregation could have moved into SJG as was the case with Little Flower Parish, also on the South Side. Unfortunately, like the Eckhart Park neighborhood, Back of the Yards is saturated with beautiful old churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, many of whom have already been purchased by other congregations. Reusing the church in some other function, like the solution found at St. Boniface, would have at least kept the building in the neighborhood along with its distinctive profile.

Not apparent in the photograph at the top of this post, is the fact that St. John of God was already closed at the time the picture was taken. While still beautiful from within the park, from directly across the street you could see that the windows that were not boarded up were broken, and pigeons were roosting inside of them. Despite its magnificent silhouette, the shuttered church only emphasized the neighborhood's decrepitude. I have not heard of any neighborhood objections to the re-location of St. John of God. An abandoned building with no hope of revival sucks the life out of a neighborhood, and at some point you have to defer to the neighbors who have to live next to it.

Still, these pictures break my heart.

Think of all the the baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals that took place within that church, all the hope and prayer through the good times and bad, all the memories that lie inside those crumbling walls. But this final picture testifies that as the workers carefully pile up the bricks in stacks for shipment, out of old life comes new life, which is really what faith is all about.

Or to put it into a strictly secular context, moving St. John of God to the suburbs is better than the whole building ending up in a landfill.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Something out of nothing

The saga of St. Boniface in the neighborhood of Eckhart Park on the near northwest side of Chicago continues. I have been a little out of the loop with this building and was pleasantly surprised yesterday when I learned from the posted signs shown here in the picture, that the property has been sold and the church building will remain, to be re-developed into senior housing. Here is an article from the Sun Times from way back in December of last year.

St. Boniface has stood empty since 1990 when the Archdiocese of Chicago closed it and several other struggling parishes within its domain. Many church buildings have since been sold to other denominations and continue to serve as places of worship. Some have been torn down. One church, St. John of God in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, has been dismantled and will be reconstructed in another location in the suburbs. Others like St. Boniface have remained empty, awaiting definitive decisions on their fate. The old church has fallen to the ravages of the elements without the benefit of maintenance and despite its being architecturally significant, has come very close to a date with the wrecker's ball because of its dangerous state of repair.

Sadly I have to admit that I all but wrote off the beautiful church a couple of years ago.

Last October the church and property were sold to a developer who agreed to save at least part of St. Boniface. The original plan was to gut the interior of the church, what's left of it that is, and demolish most of the exterior walls, but leave the distinctive towers and front elevation intact. A new building would then be woven in between the towers and facade. Studies however showed that the partial exterior demolition would not be structurally feasible, and a new plan keeps the church intact and constructing an entirely new building on the adjacent lot to the east, once the site of the parish school, which is even better news from the preservation angle. You can read out it here.

This was all made possible through a complicated land swap deal that involved the city, the Archdiocese of Chicago and private interests. If it all comes to pass, and hopefully it will, this will be a major victory for the Coalition to Save St. Boniface, the members of the Eckhart Park community, and Preservation Chicago, among others, who worked tirelessly to save the building against tremendous odds. They deserve to be commended.

It would be nice of course if the building had remained in its original capacity as a functioning church. St. Boniface, the work of the Archdiocese's preeminent architect, Henry Schlacks, was a jewel both inside and out. But the neighborhood despite being populated by many Catholics as I wrote before, is saturated with Catholic churches, and simply could not support this one.

The lovely structure of St. Boniface has been a landmark in the community for over a century, bordering the neighborhood's eponymous park, with its own distinguished pedigree. Eckhart Park, a small community park at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Noble Street, is the work of the great landscape architect Jens Jensen. The Prairie Style fieldhouse, one of the best in the city, and a natatorium were designed by W.C. Zimmerman. All three have seen better days and hopefully the proposed saving of the church will inspire a new day for the park and the field house as well.

The church building if all goes well, will become not only a monument to the people who struggled to build it, but also to those who saved it.

Some good news indeed.

Friday, August 26, 2011

His unfulfilled legacy

On the day the Martin Luther King National Memorial opened to the public, an unprecedented earthquake shook Washington D.C. If that were not enough, as we speak, Hurricane Irene is descending upon the East Coast, postponing the monument's official unveiling indefinitely. It seems the struggles that Martin Luther King endured during his short life have not eluded him in death.

Like the man it commemorates, the memorial has its detractors. The biggest gripe seems to be the choice of artist to conceive and realize the monument. Finding an explanation for why an American artist wasn't chosen to portray a great American hero isn't so difficult. The fact is, unless they specialize in kitsch, American artists don't do monumental very well anymore. We can make monumental pieces about trivial subjects, or understated works centered on larger than life themes. We're terrific with irony, but we haven't a clue these days on how to make a serious, monumental piece about a genuine hero. Perhaps it's simply because we don't believe in ourselves anymore.

When you need a monument to a larger than life figure, where better to go than China? Enter Lei Yixin, who cut his teeth creating massive likenesses of Mao Zedong in stone. To Lei's credit, with the exception of its impressive size, this memorial is no Chairman Martin. Lei's Dr. King stands defiant, yet contemplative, not as a demigod, but as a man who appears to have the weight of the world, or at least his people, upon his shoulders. I haven't seen it in person but from photographs the new monument seems to get the idea of the man and appears to be a powerful tribute.

Still it is not without bitter irony that the man who devoted his life to justice and economic equality for African American people, should have his memorial outsourced to China.

Regardless, the new monument brings Dr. King back into the public imagination where he belongs.

National tragedies normally have a way of bringing the public together. Not so with Martin Luther King's assassination, which ripped this country apart limb from limb. I don't think it is unreasonable to say that when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, with him all hope of racial harmony and equality in this country, at least during my lifetime, was lost.

As I became re-acquainted last week with the "I Have a Dream" speech, one line particularly spoke out to me. Dr. King said early in the speech:

"One hundred years later...", (after the Emancipation Proclamation), "...the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land."

Perhaps for the first time in my life I put myself in the shoes of the people in the African American community who rioted in cities all over the country after King's murder. No longer do I feel that the violence, regrettable as it was, was not justified. With the image of people exiled in their own land in mind, I could understand why folks threw up their hands believing that this country had nothing left to offer. Martin Luther King preached non-violence in order to bring about justice for his people, and where did it get him? Dr. King did nothing more than confirm the rights guaranteed in our constitution. The only difference was he added the "for all" part that American children recite in school every day, preceded by the words liberty and justice. For that he went to jail in Birmingham. For that bricks were thrown at him in Chicago. For that he was killed in Memphis.

As a result, instead of an outpouring of love and sympathy, hearts were hardened all over America after April 4th, 1968.

On that terrible evening and in the days to follow, fires fueled by suffering, frustration, desperation and rage lit up the nighttime skies in cities all over America. Perhaps the more militant leaders of the black community were right, if there was ever going to be justice in this country, Dr. King's pacifist tactics would not work. All hope that the struggle for freedom and justice could be fought without violence, was over. The new leaders of the movement would no longer feel compelled to work with or appease white people. Why bother? Who could blame them?

For their part, white folks were scared. They saw the violence of those nights as the signal to leave town. Cities were hemorrhaging white people for years but this was the final straw. The whites who respected and heeded Dr. King's message while he was alive, and there were more of them that you'd imagine, would follow the lead of those that didn't, off to the suburbs and beyond.

The racial divide that Dr. King tried to close, was blown wide open, and has remained that way ever since.

But the greatest tragedy of Dr. King's death in my opinion, was the loss of hope and faith, the loss of the Dream.

It's our faith that teaches us to treat others as we would be treated. Hope for the future makes children understand that in order to make something of themselves they have to respect education and stay in school. Dr. King's Dream encouraged us to accept the fact that in order to build a better tomorrow, we need to sacrifice today.

Martin Luther King's death, the other assassinations of the era, the Vietnam War, Watergate, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the current economic morass, have worn us down in ways we can't even comprehend. One thing is certain, they have filled us with doubt about ourselves and our institutions and have turned us into cynics.

Oscar Wilde told us that "a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Since dreams, hope and faith are not commodities we can put a price tag on, they have little value for us in today's society. That is, until they're gone.

I alluded above to the notion that we don't believe much in ourselves anymore. In fact, many of our brothers and sisters unfortunately believe in nothing at all. The recent riots in England clearly illustrate this, young kids not much older than my ten year old son, in the streets, breaking windows, setting fires and looting, for no apparent reason other than boredom. This doesn't portend well for our future.

If anything good comes of the Martin Luther King Memorial maybe it will be this, perhaps the attention it will receive will spread this message around the world:

Don't be afraid to dream.


I was walking on State Street yesterday when I noticed that the wonderful art-moderne storefront of Baker's shoe store on State Street is gone.

Strangely enough, the wonky clapboard facade of the Beef and Brandy restaurant next door lives at least for another day.

Wyatt Earp would be pleased.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Monumental City

It should surprise no one that Washington DC is a city filled to the brim with monuments. Any government city is bound to contain reflections of its nation's past and Washington is certainly no exception, it is the repository of our nation's collective consciousness.

Washington is a remarkable place to visit, especially for anyone wishing to know what the United States is all about. Every child in this country I believe should visit the city at some point during his or her school career.

There are the great attractions to be sure, the White House, the Capitol, and Supreme Court Buildings, The National Archives, one of the best collections of museums in the world, the zoo, the arboretum, etc. But the real draw for me, like Berlin, is the emotional impact of history being spilled out from every nook and cranny of an incredible city.

Monuments come in all shapes and sizes, but essentially they either commemorate their subjects from a great distance of time and space, or they play an integral role in whatever story they have to tell. As our nation's capital for the past 211 years, Washington DC has its share of stories to tell.

To me the most compelling story to be found there is its role during the time of the greatest anguish in this country's history, the Civil War.

By 1790 there were already disputes between the North and the South, both wanted to claim the nation's capital for their own. New Yorker Alexander Hamilton and Virginian Thomas Jefferson, bitter political rivals, came to a compromise, over dinner nonetheless. The federal government would take on the Revolutionary War debts of the northern states in exchange for moving the capital south, to somewhere along the banks of the Potomac. George Washington chose the site for his namesake city, a piece of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers between the already developed towns of Georgetown, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia.

After the South seceded from the Union in 1861, Washington found itself in hostile territory. The Confederate Army never made it to the Union capital proper, but they came mighty close, so close in fact that some Civil War battlefields are today only a short Metro ride from Downtown Washington. The Commonwealth of Virginia, (whose capital city Richmond was also the capital of the Confederacy), is an easy walk across the river.

Arlington Memorial Bridge, the work of the firm McKim Mead and White, opened in 1932. It connects Washington DC to its Northern Virginia suburbs and is crossed by tens of thousands of commuters every day. One can only guess how many of them are aware of the significance of that bridge, a great symbol of healing. It connects the North and the South and two icons of each, the Lincoln Memorial, and Arlington House, once the home of Robert E. Lee. His home and property were confiscated by the Union Army and turned into a military burial ground in 1864 just to spite the great Confederate general. Today, Arlington National Cemetery is hallowed ground, our nation's most important monument to the men and women who gave their lives in the service their country, some 300,000 of them lie within its confines.

One looking for a living monument to the Civil War needn't go further than the U.S. Capitol Building. Here is a photograph of it during the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. In addition to its duties as the home of two of the three branches of government at the time, the Capitol was pressed into service as a military hospital during the war. Washington was a much sought after prize for the Confederates and the defense of it was of the utmost importance to the Union. All construction was halted on the Capitol Building with the exception of the work on the dome, whose completion was seen by President Lincoln as a symbol of hope for the people of Washington, despite its tragic situation. The dome was completed when the Statue of Freedom was hoisted into place, crowning the dome on December 2, 1863.

Ironically, many of those who built the Capitol Building, including one of the chief artisans of the Statue of Freedom, were slaves. Phillip Reid presided over the final stages of the casting of the 20 foot high statue. He did not become a free man until November of 1864, when the State of Maryland in which he resided approved their new constitution which abolished slavery. (As a border state that sided with the Union, Maryland was not subject to the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation which only applied to the Confederate States.)

With the dome complete and the war nearing its end, on March 4, 1865, President Lincoln delivered perhaps his greatest speech, his Second Inaugural Address, from the Capitol steps. One month later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. In six weeks the president would be dead, shot about a mile away at Ford's Theater. His body lay in state in the Rotunda under the great dome until it was carried down those same steps to begin its long journey home to Illinois.

Three miles away, at the other end of the National Mall, stands the most recognizable and poignant memorial to the Civil War, and so much more.

So ingrained in our national consciousness, it's easy to forget that the Lincoln Memorial wasn't built until 1922, generations after the death of the 16th president. That would place Henry Bacon's temple to Abraham Lincoln within the realm of monuments well removed in time from their subjects. Yet the Lincoln Memorial has been at the center of so many important public events in our nation's history that it has taken on a life of its own as a significant historical site in its own right, and along with the stretch of the National Mall in front of it, the country's most profound monument to freedom.

In the year 1939, and in the most pig-headed fashion, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the renowned American contralto Marion Anderson, because of her race, to perform in recital in their Constitution Hall. As a response, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt (who resigned from the DAR in protest), a concert was arranged for Easter Sunday of that year in a much larger venue, the National Mall. The steps of the Lincoln Memorial would serve as the stage with the magnificent Daniel Chester French likeness of the president as the backdrop. “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free" were the words of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes when he introduced Miss Anderson.

In 1963, an even greater event was held on exactly the same spot:

A plaque commemorating one of the greatest speeches of American history can be found on the top step of the Memorial.

As I write this, in a little over one week, a new monument will be unveiled in Washington. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial promises to be a massive, jaw dropping commemoration of this great American leader, placed not very far from the Lincoln Memorial. Here is the official web site which includes a virtual tour. Quite something isn't it?

Perhaps it's because I can actually remember Dr. King that I simply can't imagine a more spine tingling experience than standing in his footsteps on the stairs in front of Abraham Lincoln and gazing out at that great expanse as he did nearly fifty years ago. Without that personal connection, I suppose that future generations who only know him as a distant historical figure will have a closer connection to the new memorial.

The King Memorial is only the latest in what has been a building boom for monuments in Washington in recent years. Of the soon to be ten National Memorials in the District of Columbia, half of them, including the King Monument, were built since 1982. This current trend began with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

After the deplorable reaction from their countrymen to servicemen and women upon their return home from the unpopular Vietnam War, a memorial was proposed to honor them on the National Mall, steps away from the Lincoln Memorial. A competition was held to select the design of the monument.

Maya Lin was then an undergraduate student of architecture at Yale who entered a class assignment, (which incidentally earned her a B), into the competition and gained instant notoriety when she was selected the winner. Her design was conceptual and minimal, two highly reflective polished black stone walls bearing the inscribed names of 58,175 American dead. The slabs were dug into the earth, as if a giant wound. Her creation which became known simply as The Wall, was a departure from the heroic designs of Washington's existing assortment of monuments. This was to be a statement about war, not merely a monument to those who participated.

There was immediate criticism of the design, much of it bombast from politicians who objected to the unconventional nature of proposed monument. In the midst of the feeding frenzy, there were some valid concerns. Some veterans felt that the monument only paid tribute to the dead, not to those who returned. Others objected to the fact that an American flag was not a part of the design. The debate about whether or not to build The Wall dragged on for several months.

In the end, Lin's design was built with minor concessions. The third place winner in the competition, an established Washington area sculptor by the name of Frederick Hart, was commissioned to create a representational sculpture to be added to the Memorial. His piece added faces to the overwhelming sea of names. Titled, The Three Soldiers, Hart's work was created with Lin's creation in mind, the soldiers gaze in the direction of the Wall, perhaps looking for their own names on the monument. Hart took great pains to place his statue at a respectful distance from Lin's work, in no way does it detract from the Wall.

Still, Lin objected and displayed no small amount of arrogance when she refused to attend the dedication of Hart's work, apparently forgetting that the memorial was meant to be a monument to the veterans and not to her.

Despite the objections, Lin's work proved to be an unqualified success and has gained iconic stature. As was the case with the Lincoln Memorial, the monument was revered not simply for its design, but for the way that visitors have interacted with it. From the start, friends, relatives and comrades of the dead sought out the names and left mementos in honor of their loved ones. I've seen everything from a pack of cigarettes to a purple heart medal left at the base of the Wall. At the end of every day, park rangers collect the items and deposit them in the National Park Service Museum and Resource Center. The daily maintenance ritual also includes cleaning the polished surface of the monument as the hand prints of visitors reaching up to touch the names of the soldiers, poignantly mark their grief and devotion.

A third sculpture has since been added to the ensemble honoring women, specifically the nurses who served in Vietnam. Regardless, it is the Wall that everybody associates with the Memorial, The Three Soliders and The Women's Memorial sculptures, despite their relative merits, are merely bit players.

For better or worse, the Wall has become the standard by which monuments are judged, and it inspired a title wave of plans for the creation of new memorials on the National Mall.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial opened in 1995 and in many ways mirrors the Vietnam Memorial just across the Reflecting Pool to the north. It too contains a reflective wall. Instead of names, this wall contains images of the faces of people who participated in the war, sandblasted into the surface. The Pool of Remembrance at the center of the monument, is a somber black reflecting pool lined with granite blocks inscribed with statistics; the number of American and United Nations forces dead (54,246, and 628,833 respectively), captured (7,140 and 92,970) and missing in action (8,177 and 470,267). The dominant feature of this monument, scattered on evergreen shrubs between the wall and a walkway are 19 larger than life sculptures representing a squadron of troops on patrol.

Perhaps because of the lack of personal connection given by names on the wall, or possibly because the event it commemorates is farther removed from us in time, the Korean War memorial doesn't evoke the same kind of emotional response as its neighbor to the north, But it is a reflective and quite beautiful tribute to those who served in what has become a truly forgotten war.

Were it not for the creation of these two stirring war memorials, it's unlikely that anyone would have come up with the idea of a World War II monument for the National Mall. After all, the veterans of that war were never treated with open hostility, nor have they and the epic struggle in which they participated, ever been forgotten. Besides, a heroic and supremely iconic memorial already exists right across the river in Arlington. OK so technically it's a monument dedicated to the Marine Corps, but the event depicted in the sculpture, taken from an image by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, is so emblematic of World War II, that hardly a soul looking at the Iwo Jima Memorial would not immediately associate it with the veterans of that war, regardless of their branch of service.

The seeds of the National World War II Memorial were sewn not long after the dedication of the Korean War Memorial. The sentiment was essentially this: "the Korea and Vietnam vets got their monuments, why don't the WWII vets have theirs?" It was a no-brainer to go ahead with a project that would seem to be something no one could possibly quarrel with. Being Washington however, nothing is simple and there were detractors. The biggest complaint was the choice of location on the axis of the National Mall, right in the shadow of the Washington Monument. By contrast, the two previous war memorials were placed discreetly to the sides of the Mall and are not visible until you are right on top of them. The placement of anything on the site proposed for the WWII monument would obscure the previously unobstructed view between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments and the reflecting pool (at this writing currently being rebuilt), that spans almost that entire distance. That view was an integral part of the March on Washington and Dr. King's speech in 1963. Since then, the western section of the Mall has become sacrosanct to the members of the Civil Rights movement and anyone who values freedom of speech and the right to dissent. Any construction altering that space would be seen as a desecration.

Since the supporters of the monument were steadfast in their selection of that specific prominent site despite the objections, as a result they ended up with a monument that was destined to be constrained by severe design limitations. The monument that we now have has been well received by veterans and their families, much less so from critics. A visitor at the dedication responding to the critics of the monument made an astute comment, he said: "As long as it's a memorial, it could be a hole in the ground with a plaque on it and it wouldn't matter, it's in the heart."

With that I agree.

That after all is exactly what the Vietnam Wall is, but before it was built it was excoriated by veterans groups who said its lack of monumentality showed them disrespect. It's unlikely that the even more conservative WWII vets would have accepted an unobtrusive plaque in a hole in the ground to commemorate their war.

What they got was much worse. What they got was a compromise, a design that was hampered because of its site by so many restrictions that it has been rendered insignificant. The choice of architectural style is a throwback to a time when in Washington if you were going to build anything, you could use any style you liked as long as it was neo-Classical. Contextualism there is so rampant that two of my favorite buildings in town, the Richardsonian-Romanesque Old Post Office building and the neo-Renaissance Pension Fund Building (now the home of the National Building Museum), were threatened many times with demolition simply because they didn't fit in. Fortunately the community lightened up and those two buildings are now landmarks. That's not to say that neo-Classicism ever went away or that it is bad thing in itself. Think of the Lincoln Memorial. But the WWII Memorial is a monument to our role in the the greatest tragedy the world has ever known, and in the end it was designed to merely "fit in" so as to please as many and offend as few people as possible, which is political correctness at its worst.

The veterans of World War II deserved better. Six years after the Memorial opened, on any given day you may see a few of them at the monument, reliving memories of the past. Or you may see a handful of folks, reading the inscriptions on the walls from the familiar quotes of politicians of the day, or even fewer gazing at the small relief sculptures that depict in a nutshell, the war from an American perspective. You might even find one or two paying homage to the dead by the bronze stars, each one representing 100 lives lost.

What you're more likely to see are bus loads of school kids on field trips disembarking at yet another stop on their tour of the capital, to find a wading pool that you can't wade in, and tempting ramps that you can't skateboard down. You wouldn't know you couldn't do any of this were it not for the signs posted everywhere telling you not to. There are lots of good vantages to have your picture taken however, and any time day of night you'll see folks standing by the pool, primping and posing for their souvenir picture, taken against either the Washington Monument to the east or the Lincoln Monument to the west.

Granted, the task of designing a memorial to commemorate an event as enormous and heartbreaking as World War II, of creating something that all who were personally involved in the event as well as everyone else would approve, and building it in the middle of an already emotionally charged national treasure, had to be, well pardon the pun, monumental.

The way I see it, a successful monument needs to be a few things. It needs to be a place for contemplation, it needs to revere its subject and respect its visitors. There should be at least a modicum of beauty to the place. And while I certainly don't expect a memorial to be first and foremost an educational experience, I do believe that it should at the very least, inspire.

The World War II Memorial fails on all counts in my opinion. The design is stiff and passionless, it misses the point in so many ways. The monument is divided state by state, yet WWII probably brought the nation together more than any other. There is no invitation to connect with it, you can look at a distance, but you mustn't touch. Worst of all, it only pays lip service to those who lost their lives, the 100 dead per star system is more like a demographic map than a tribute. The monument was not built for the ages, its purpose seems to be that it exists, nothing else. It's almost as if a bureaucrat said to the vets: "Well you wanted a memorial, now here it is."

We recently lost the last American veteran of World War I and it won't be very long before all those who participated in World War II will be gone. All who will be left will be those kids who couldn't wade in the fountain or skateboard down those ramps. That is what they will remember of World War II.

In his actions and speeches, Martin Luther King did nothing but confirm the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the rights guaranteed by our constitution, those that we Americans claim to espouse. The March on Washington which featured his unforgettable speech forever marked the National Mall as the place where Americans go to openly speak their mind, whether it conforms to government policy or not, without fear of official retribution. As such that place embodies the core values of what this nation supposedly holds dearest, liberty and justice for all. For that reason alone all Americans whatever their political bent should view that particular patch of ground as our nation's most profound monument to freedom and democracy.

Which brings to mind an almost sacrilegious question: "Would it be better to have no memorial at all than one that is ill conceived and poorly designed?"

It may come as a surprise that there is no National Memorial in Washington, DC to the deadliest war in American history, the Civil War. Yet as we've seen, all of Washington and its environs is a monument to that war.

Perhaps the question was best answered by the columnist George Will several years ago. In essence he said in defense of NOT building the WWII memorial, that all Americans should go to Washington, DC, look around at the National Mall and all the other symbols of our democracy, then remember that none of it would be there today without the unselfish acts and sacrifice of the veterans of World War II.

Memorial or not, that is their real monument.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Our nation's Capitol

Jefferson Smith arrived in Washington D.C. to be met at Union Station by an entourage of handlers dispatched by his mentor, Senator Joseph Paine. Immediately drawn to the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building a few blocks beyond the front door of the great railway station, Mr. Smith ditched his attendants and hopped aboard a tour bus to explore the sights of the Federal City.
Capitol Building from the entrance of Union Station
This is a scene early on in Frank Capra's classic 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Mr. Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a young, idealistic scout leader who is chosen for his naiveté (and presumed willingness to follow orders), to replace a recently deceased senator by the corrupt governor of his un-named state.

In the scene that follows, Mr. Smith visits the icons of our democracy, the Declaration of Independence, the Capitol Building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Washington Monument. The soon to be Senator Smith is swept away with patriotic fervor and raw emotion as are we, (at least those of us above the Mason Dixon Line), when the scene culminates with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial.

Being a Capra movie, not a stop goes un-pulled in extracting every bit of emotional energy from us as Mr. Smith gazes upon the Daniel Chester French likeness of our fallen president. Not a dry eye in the house when he looks to his right to read the words; "with malice toward none and charity toward all" from the Second Inaugural Address, then to his left as a boy with the help of his immigrant grandfather reads from the Gettysburg Address, inscribed on the walls of the monument. As if that were not enough, cut in between are shots of an elderly African American gentleman who removes his hat as he enters the building and reverently directs his focus upon the massive sculpture.

This montage is contrasted by subsequent scenes involving the cynicism that Mr. Smith encounters from the press, his colleagues in the Senate, and his secretary played by the great Jean Arthur.

All that merely sets the table for what's to come, the classic Capra struggle between the ordinary man and all that is wrong with America, personified by "The Man." In this case, the man is a media magnate by the name of Jim Taylor who has Governor Hubert "Happy" Hopper and the more dignified Senator Paine, played by Claude Rains, wrapped around his little finger. The two elected officials are merely pawns to do Taylor's evil bidding.

By the third reel, Jeff Smith gets wise to the depth of the conspiracy around him and with a little help from a few loyal scouts and the vice president, he commandeers the Senate by means of a filibuster and defeats the evildoers.

Hokey as it may seem today, the film was quite subversive in its time. It is a stern indictment, not of the ideals of American government in the least, but in the people who implement them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The message of the film, if not its improbable ending, is just as relevant today as it was 72 years ago.

I bring this up because I just returned from Washington, D.C., my second trip in a year. Now I'm just as cynical as the next guy when it comes to politics and politicians. I've been to Washington more times than I can count, yet like Jeff Smith, the great dome and many of the other symbols of our nation in that town still move me beyond words.

The U.S. Capitol Building, the house of the people, not the president, would become the most important building in the United States. Pierre L'Enfant, the man who laid out the original plan for the city of Washington understood this and chose the most significant spot in the region, an area known as Jenkins Heights, for the future Capitol Building. That spot would form the geographic center of L'Enfant's city and the Capitol Building would be visible from all over the city and beyond, as it still is today.

The dome, the building's second, was begun in the 1850s and completed during the Civil War as a symbol of the continuity of the Union during the time of its greatest tragedy. As such, more than one hundred fifty years later, that dome continues to be a symbol of our country and our government (both the good and the bad) all over the world. Small wonder it was one of the prime targets of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. As abominable as the loss of life at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were, the symbolic loss of the Capitol Building to this country would have been unimaginable. The attacks of that dreadful day almost ten years ago did take their toll on the building. Before that day the Capitol Building was accessible to the public, anyone could just walk in through the front door. Today you have to enter through the subterranean bunker of the Visitor Center a block away and be led around in a tour group. The Capitol is now a little less of the house of the people.

By all matters of judgment, the dome of our Capitol Building, the work of Thomas U. Walter, the Capitol's fifth architect, is a spectacular piece of architecture, it ranks along with those of the Pantheon and St. Peter's in Rome, the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Paul's Cathedral in London as one of the great domes of the world. The interior of the dome forming the great rotunda, is of equal or even greater merit. As architecture does matter, it would be interesting to imagine what symbolic power the Capitol Building would have if it still looked as it did in say, 1846. As stately as the original Charles Bulfinch dome was, I'd say it is very unlikely that it would have the same sway over us .

Now imagine if it looked like this, the notorious Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest.

There may be better, more beautiful government buildings in the world, but I can't think of another that has the power to sum up its nation and its ideals as our Capitol Building, I dare say, great as they are, not even the Houses of Parliament in London.

My own Mr. Smith experience was made complete on this past trip as my expressions of admiration for the building were met with cynicism by my Washington colleagues who saw the Capitol, just a stone's throw away, as the symbol of our recalcitrant Congress and their pathetic attempts to deal with the latest budget crisis.

Undaunted by the slings and arrows of their outrageous (but not unwarranted) cynicism, I trudged ahead with my own personal pilgrimage which I follow every time I visit Washington.

More on that later...

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Great Fire

Back in the days before stringent fire codes and modern fire fighting technology, catastrophic urban fires were not uncommon. That's perhaps how Mark Twain in his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi, could get away with this flip remark, commenting on the quality of the architecture of New Orleans:

New Orleans, I believe, has had the good luck--and in a sense the bad luck-- to have had no great fire in late years. It must be so. If the opposite had been the case, I think one would be able to tell the 'burnt district' by the radical improvement in its architecture over the old forms. One can do this in Boston and Chicago.

I've been doing some research at work on a multiple frame photographic panorama (not pictured here) made shortly after the Great Chicago Fire, perhaps made by one of the most important nineteenth century American photographers, George Barnard. It's difficult to find any "good luck" in the devastation pictured in any image made shortly after the fire. The hard facts are these: 300 people died in the Great Fire that began on the evening of October 8, 1871, 100,000 were left homeless, and roughly four square miles, including the entire central business district were leveled in the conflagration.

General view of the ruins from Tribune Building, Booksellers Row in the centre, by Lovejoy & Foster

Chicago had been a city for 34 years at the time of the fire. In that time, it had grown from a settlement of 4,000 mostly rough hewn scraggly settlers, to a metropolis of 300,000, the most important city in the Midwest. The canal that joined the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River System at the Chicago River, and the railways that connected the city first with the East Coast, then the West Coast, meant that all roads led to, and through Chicago. Industries followed, along with the people to work in them. It was a boomtown the likes of which had never been seen before, or possibly since.

Out of necessity, Chicago was constructed hastily. The balloon frame was invented here, a method of framing a house using readily available wood for the beams and joists that would form the structure. Then more wood was slapped on top of the frame to form the skin. It was quick and cheap, you could build a house in a few days, entire neighborhoods sprung up in weeks providing much needed shelter for the new arrivals who flooded into the city.

Even the more substantial "fireproof" buildings downtown, the ones with the magnificent stone facades, still had plenty of wood in them. The industries that provided the inflammable materials that went into those buildings, lumber mills, paint factories, turpentine factories, lined the river. Add to that all the other industries that used wood and other inflammable materials to manufacture their products, as well as one of their chief by-products, sawdust.

Back then heating fuel, wood again, was stored in the home. Many folks kept livestock in barns behind their homes to supplement their incomes, the most famous of which of course would be the one belonging to the O'Leary family of DeKoven Street. Those of greater means had horses at their disposal. All those animals required feed and bedding stored in the barns and stables which were themselves made of wood and highly inflammable.

Oh did I mention that Chicago's sidewalks, and the streets that were actually paved at the time, were also made of wood?

Topping it all off was a summer of record drought. Barely one inch of rain fell between July and October. In early October, the western half of the United States was in the midst of an enormous cyclonic storm capable of producing winds of up to 80mph.

Chicago the great tinderbox, and the rest of the Midwest in the fall of 1871, was a disaster waiting to happen.

On Saturday October 7th, a massive fire broke out on the city's West Side. It would be the worst fire in the city's history, a distinction that would last exactly one day. The city's over-worked, under-manned fire department was able to bring that fire under control, but not before it consumed four square blocks, and left the firefighters exhausted.

The evening of following day, the fire that was to claim more lives than any other in United States history took place.

It happened in a town and the surrounding forests in northeast Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Peshtigo Fire claimed between 1,500 and 2,500 lives. It consumed an area roughly the size of Rhode Island. That same day, Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron, all sizable Michigan towns, also burned.

And of course, so did Chicago.

In all the details about Chicago Fire, certainly the least significant was how it started. Given the circumstances, a great fire was practically inevitable. Yet at the time, the media was obsessed with finding a scapegoat, or in this case a scapecow. That the fire started in or very near the barn behind Patrick and Catherine O'Leary's home in the near west side is indisputable. The story of the cow kicking over a kerosene lantern carelessly placed in the way by its owner, the lady of the house, unlikely as it turned out to be, became a legend, fueled largely by the anti-Irish sentiments of the time. Mrs. O'Leary would unfortunately become the symbol of the lazy, drunken, good-for-nothing immigrant portrayed by the media and the native born public. She would not live it down for the rest of her life.

However it started, the fire spread quickly, feeding on all that dried out wood, straw and sawdust of the barns, shanties and businesses of the west side. A series of tragic mishaps involving mis-communication, led to wrong directions being sent to the first responding firemen, wasting critical moments early in the blaze. Soon the fire easily leaped over the river which itself burned due to all the grease and garbage in it. The gale force winds, greatly exacerbated by terrific winds produced by the firestorm, blew toward the northeast, sending burning embers in that direction high into the night time sky, depositing them on the wooden roofs of the fancy downtown buildings, marking their doom.

One of the most enduring images of the fire is that of the great bell atop of the courthouse. It rang continuously warning Chicago of the fire, until the tower containing it succumbed to the flames, sending the bell crashing to the basement that only moments before, housed the city's prisoners.

That evil wind became even crueler as it fanned the blaze in a straight line right toward the Waterworks at Chicago Avenue and Pine Street (now Michigan Avenue). Like most of the buildings downtown, the pumping station, the walls of which still stand today, was attacked from above by flaming embers carried by the wind, landing on their wooden roofs. It was the first building in the area to go. With it, all hope of controlling the fire was lost as it was the only pumping station in town. When it went, the fate of the entire north section of the city, as well as downtown was sealed.

Given free reign, the fire would indiscriminately take the homes of the rich and poor alike, turning working stiffs as well industrial titans like Cyrus McCormick into refugees. The fire did not destroy all of downtown at once. Employees at the Tribune on Madison and Dearborn worked feverishly to get out an edition of the paper, in the end unsuccessfully, while the flames were consuming buildings only a block away.

Palmer House, by Lovejoy & Foster 4

Guests at the Palmer House on State Street breakfasted at the luxury hotel on Monday morning before being forced to evacuate shortly thereafter. Hours later, all that was left of downtown were a scant few surviving buildings, and some very impressive ruins. By Tuesday there was little left to burn and a welcome rain finally put an end to what was left of the fire.

But the rumors of Chicago's demise, this time to paraphrase Samuel Clemmons, were greatly exaggerated. The fire it turned out, was merely a temporary setback. Resolve and energy soon replaced grief and despair. Before the dying embers cooled down, plans for the "second city" (the origin of Chicago's famous moniker) began. The panorama photograph I've been studying was made perhaps one month after the fire. In it you can see that makeshift businesses and shelters have already appeared along with telegraph poles and streetcar tracks. Perhaps most indicative of the life goes on spirit, a beer hall is seen in the foreground of the picture.

Within three years, the city was virtually rebuilt. That's not to say all was right. The temporary equanimity that came out of the common plight of the homeless quickly eroded. The haves, with their wealth of resources, recovered quickly while those of lesser means struggled for years, if ever, to return to normal. Fearing that chaos among the have-nots would break out after the fire, Mayor Roswell Mason with the support of the leaders of the business community, called for marshal law in the streets. General Phillip Sheridan was happy to oblige. Those measures were strongly opposed by Illinois Governor John M. Palmer who saw the act as a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution. The governor's protests turned prophetic when a volunteer sentry in Sheridan's militia ironically shot a member of the establishment, one Colonel Grosvenor, the public prosecutor. He was questioned by the sentry who tried to stop him late one night as he was walking home from a party. Having had possibly one too many, the prosecutor gave the sentry some lip and kept walking. For that brief indiscretion, Grosvenor paid with his life. In the end it turned out that most of the mayhem that occurred in the city according to an official report, was "committed by soldiers of General Sheridan's command."

The class struggle that inspired martial law and the vitriol leveled against foreign born Chicagoans escalated after the Fire and would have world wide consequences in the subsequent decade. The right for workers to organize that we take for granted today was born during those heady days at the plants of McCormick, and George Pullman, in Haymarket Square and on the gallows of the basement of the new courthouse built on the north side of the river.

Through the struggle, Chicago continued to grow in prominence. With its selection to host the World's Fair of 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, (later pushed back to 1893), Chicago announced to the world that it had finally arrived. The sky was the limit, between the Fire and the end of the nineteenth century, its population would increase tenfold. Only New York City stood in the way of Chicago's claiming the title of pre-eminent city of the United States.

It's difficult to say what would be different had there been no fire. Despite a depression starting in 1873, the boom that occurred after the fire equaled or eclipsed the original boom. Certainly the opportunities to rebuild Chicago attracted even more people to the city, including the architect Louis Sullivan. But it would be a mistake to assume that the great architecture that this city is known for would not have been possible were it not for the fire. With the exception of Sullivan, most of the architects who would create the movement known as the "Chicago School" were already in town at the time of the fire. Besides, the city was pretty much rebuilt in the old style by 1874, several years before Burnham and Root built the Montauk Block, considered the first Chicago School building.

One significant change in the landscape was the new zoning law that prevented frame construction in the commercial district. Gone would be the homes and churches that once were sprinkled through that part of town. Downtown Chicago would remain exclusively commercial until very recently when commercial buildings were converted to residential use.

While the Chicago Fire ranks as the fifth worst disaster (in terms of loss of life) in Chicago, it is the defining moment in this city's history. Our Great Fire wasn't even the worst tragedy on the day it occurred. The Peshtigo Fire claimed at the very least five times the number of people. Yet the Peshitgo Fire and the other Chicago disasters are merely footnotes in history while volumes continue to be written on Great Chicago Fire. It can't simply be the tragedy that captures our imagination.

No, it was the total devastation of a great city, then the recovery and rebuilding, the phoenix rising from the ashes, that symbol of indefatigable human spirit that turns destruction and misery into hope, opportunity, and progress that so indelibly attracts us to the story. After some tragedies, we pick up the pieces, mourn our dead, then move on. Other tragedies are transcendent.

Fire survivor and real-estate man William Kerfoot put it all into perspective better than most. Shortly after the fire he put up a temporary office in the midst of the rubble of the South Side. A sign in front of his new place of business simply read:

All gone but wife, children and energy.

Inspiring words indeed that we should take to heart in our own troubling times.

Post script:

Here is a list of some of the sources for this post.