Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Can't get too worked up about this...

Blair Kamin recently wrote this article about Alderman Brendan Reilly's proposal of an ordinance that would allow the construction of flashing billboards on Michigan Avenue, north of the river. The argument against the proposal is that the introduction of the signs would erode the elegance of the street which continues to be known as "The Magnificent Mile", turning Chicago's premier shopping venue into another Times Square. In the comments section, readers expressed fears that the light emanating from the signs would do everything from cause cancer, to prevent us from seeing the stars in the heart of the city.

Now I haven't read articles in medical journals about the cause/effect relationship between artificial lights and cancer, but it does seem that long term exposure to anything causes cancer, so I wouldn't lose too much sleep about that. As an avid star gazer however, I can definitively say that Michigan Avenue even without the proposed signs, is one of the worst places on earth to view the Big Dipper, let alone the Milky Way or the Andromeda Galaxy. Let's face it, you simply don't go to the heart of a big city to look at stars.

So how would the signs effect the atmosphere of North Michigan Avenue? Well in my humble opinion, not much. The platitudes describing Michigan Avenue: civilized, elegant, and beautiful, once applied to the street both inside and out, but have not for at least forty years. Michigan Avenue did not experience the wanton destruction of great masterpieces of architecture as did State Street. The transformation of the Mag Mile which began arguably with the construction of the John Hancock Building in 1969, brought with it financial success, but came at the price of losing its soul. The physical attribute that once defined Michigan Avenue was its scale which in comparison to its cousin the Loop to the south, was quite modest. The underlying current was that despite being a high rent district, the owners of the properties along Boul Mich did not need to build tall to maximize their profits, they were content to keep the street low key and yes to some extent, elite.

That's not to say there were no tall buildings on the Mag Mile. In order to enter from the south you had to pass as you still do, between the gateway of two of Chicago's premier skyscrapers, the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. Once there, the landscape was punctuated by modestly tall skyscrapers mixed with two and three story buildings. The view to the north terminated at the Water Tower and the Art Deco masterpiece Palmolive Building with its distinctive searchlight, "The Lindy Beacon." The view south was equally stunning as the aforementioned Trib and Wrigley Buildings were the prominent features of the skyline, before they were overshadowed by taller, less significant buildings.

The interiors of bygone Michigan Avenue were more impressive than the exteriors. The greatest of these was Diana Court, the centerpiece of the Michigan Square Building designed by Holabird and Root, the firm who also built the Palmolive Building. David Lowe who wrote the seminal book about lost Chicago titled appropriately enough: Lost Chicago, compared the experience of Diana Court to the great Art Deco ocean liners of the 20s and 30s, specifically the SS Normandie and the SS Ile de France. Diana Court was lost along with the building that housed it to make way for the hideous Marriott Hotel, a building so awful, it was denounced even by its architect, Harry Weese.

Michigan Avenue was always a shopping street but it was once so much more. There were crosscurrents of life that went on there, a mix between the dignified and the bohemian; fancy stores with New York pedigrees like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bonwit Teller coexisted with art studios and galleries whose clientele were not necessarily tourists, nor members of the Fortune 500.

Another word that could have been applied to Michigan Avenue BJH (before John Hancock) is charm.

900 North Michigan Avenue is the name and address of the soaring Kohn Pedersen Fox building that now houses the Four Seasons Hotel, luxury apartments and a shopping mall anchored by Bloomingdale's. The building it replaced, also known by that address, was a twenties era apartment building which epitomized the elegance and charm that once was North Michigan Avenue. That building featured a restaurant that opened in the 1930s with the highly original name of Jacques French Restaurant. While it may not have been particularly authentic, or even (to some tastes anyway) very good, Jacques was one of the lovliest settings for an eatery in Chicago or perhaps anyplace else. Here is a link to a site with postcards featuring the joint. As you can see, there were several rooms at Jacques, including the outdoor courtyard garden which eventually was glassed off and open year round. I remember going there for lunch with my mom and my artist uncle who had just immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1968. As a child, dining in the suave, sophisticated, continental restaurant in the courtyard of that beautiful building with undoubtably the coolest person I had ever met up to that point, was an experience I'll never forget. The building is long gone but apparently Jacques remains at 900 Michigan, undoubtably a shadow of its former self, with the exception of the mediocre food of course.

Nowhere was Michigan Avenue's BJH charm more evident than in a little passageway at Michigan and Ontario Street known as The Italian Court. Described by David Lowe as a "civilized little enclave", The Italian Court was carved out of existing "undistinguished" buildings in the early twenties to create a space for small shops and artist studios. It was the location of the restaurant Le Petit Gourmet, a local institution which was famous for its regularly scheduled poetry readings. The care free atmosphere of the Italian Court resembled Paris's Left Bank and could have easily been used as the setting of the second act of the opera La Boheme. This little bit of civilization was replaced by a truly undistinguished office building in 1969, wiping away any last vestiges of la vie boheme in that part of the city.

North Michigan Avenue was a once respite from the hustle and bustle of the Loop. It's openness connected it spiritually if not physically to Lake Michigan which one could actually taste and smell from the street, if the wind was blowing the right direction.

Today with its own hustle and bustle of continuous pedestrian and vehicular traffic, over sized buildings, and over priced shops, Michigan Avenue is all business. It is one of Chicago's premier tourist destinations, and as such, one of the major cogs in this city's economic engine. It is what State Street used to be, unfortunately without any of the quirkiness of that once great street. It could be argued that without the transformation of Michigan Avenue over the past forty odd years, Chicago today might very well suffer many of the doldrums that affect our sister cities in the Midwest. So it's foolish in a way to lament the changes that beset Boul Mich. How can one argue with success after all?

But we shouldn't fool ourselves; the attributes we'd like to apply to Michigan Avenue north of the Wrigley Building disappeared long ago along with the Italian Court, Diana Court and the old 900 Michigan Avenue Building. What we're left with is something that is not very special at all. It's Chicago's version of the Champs Élysées (without the Arc de Triomphe), Fifth Avenue (without Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building or St. Pat's Cathedral), the Kurfürstendamm (without the hookers), and Regent Street (without the beauty).

In the end, for me it hardly matters if they throw up a few bright signs on the old boulevard. Today the street is all about the money, and they may as well make as much of it as they can.

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