Monday, October 29, 2012

Throw in a little pixie dust

One of my favorite movie lines of all time comes toward the end of the John Ford Western: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the story, as legend had it, the eponymous "man" of the film's title was the beloved Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart). Years before he was challenged to a gun duel by the notorious outlaw and town menace Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). At the appointed hour, the vastly out-matched Stoddard fired his gun and the gunslinger Valance fell dead, much to Stoddard's surprise. As he and the audience would find out later, the real killer of Valance was Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), who was hiding across the street in the dark. He shot Valance for the sake of the woman both he and Stoddard loved, but that's another story. Anyway, neither Doniphon nor Stoddard ever let on to anybody else about the true identity of Valance's killer. Stoddard went on to great success and got the girl, all based upon his being the "man who shot Liberty Valance." Doniphon, brokenhearted, slipped off into obscurity. Late in life the guilt-ridden Stoddard, in an interview with a newspaperman, fessed up to the true story.

At the end of the interview the newspaperman burned up his notes telling Stoddard:
This is the West sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Imagine a reporter today being spoon fed a scoop like that and letting it go up in smoke.

Despite the fact that nine out of ten Americans according to a 2011 Gallup poll, claim to believe in a God of whose existence they presumably have no rational proof, we seem to have an insatiable thirst for proof of everything else. No stone goes unturned to get the "real story", no matter how many people get hurt in the process. Hope, acceptance and faith (except apparently in God), seem to be rare commodities these days, at least in this country.

We live in a fabulous late twenties apartment building on the north side of Chicago. For the past two years our building has been one of the several hundred buildings featured in a wonderful event called "Open House Chicago", sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It has been my privilege to have been one of the tour guides for the building. As you can imagine, a big old building like ours has lots of stories, many of them involving sprits of former residents haunting the building.

Now I can't say truthfully whether I believe in ghosts or not, all I'll say is I have no proof they do not exist. Besides, I like a good ghost story as much as the next guy. Our building's engineer told us the story of a teenager, Johnny Gidwitz (I'm making up the name), who many years ago drowned in our swimming pool after hitting his head on the ceiling while trying to show off on the diving board for his friends. According to our engineer, his spirit has been hanging around the pool area since. Again, I don't know as I've haven't seen hide nor hair of him.

Our neighbor, one of my fellow tour guides who herself has no time for such foolishness, told me that on one of her tours, while walking though the pool area one of her guests asked her completely out of the blue: "Are there any ghosts in this building?" "Why?" our neighbor asked. "Because I can sense one right now", said the woman.

I'm presuming it was Johnny Gidwitz but of course, I can't prove it.

The story gets more interesting. On my first tour this year, a gentleman told me he grew up in the neighborhood and one day back in the fifties, his sister and her friend snuck into the building and went for a dip in the pool. The two girls entered the shallow end and eventually worked their way into the deep end. Unfortunately neither girl could swim and both found themselves in a state of panic, struggling for their lives. All of a sudden the girls felt themselves being grabbed by the backs of their swimsuits,  pulled out of the water, and placed on the edge of the pool. Standing in front of them was an enormous man with a shaved head, dressed in a white tee shirt.  The man they said bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Clean. He asked if they were OK then calmly walked away. The girls ran home and told the girl's mother the story. She immediately went over to our building to thank the man who had just saved the girls' lives. She found several people from the building and asked them about the man who looked like Mr. Clean. To a person including the building's engineer at the time, no one had any clue who the man was, as no one fitting that very distinctive description either lived or worked in the building. To this day his identity remains a mystery.

From the gleam in the storyteller's eye I could tell where he was going: "So you think he was an angel?" I asked the man. He shrugged his shoulders and said sheepishly: "Well you never know."

That story was too good to pass up and I told it, along with the story of Johnny Gidwidtz to the rest of my tour groups that day. Perhaps because I didn't have just the right the gleam in my eye when I told the story, nobody bit as I did. "Hmmm... maybe he was an outside contractor or a guest" they'd say or, "maybe he was someone who snuck into the building himself."

Probably. Those are perfectly reasonable, plausible explanations.

But I think I'll just go with the legend.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Climbing off the fence

We've been through this before.

In 1960, protestors showed up at the the Garrick Theater in Chicago's Loop to challenge its imminent destruction. Although the building was granted landmark status, its owners felt the site could be put to more profitable use as a parking garage. So they applied for a demolition permit and after a court battle, got their way. In reality, few people cared about saving the great Louis Sullivan building that had seen better days and in the subsequent years, dozens of other important Chicago buildings were lost, with barely a peep from the general public. A few more protestors showed up in 1972 at the corner of LaSalle and Washington as the scaffolding marking its doom consumed the old Stock Exchange Building, another Sullivan gem, perhaps his finest. The relative few who expressed their concern and outrage over the destruction of our architectural heritage were voices crying out in a desert of indifference; the fact is, hardly anyone noticed those buildings back then, let alone cared about them. To the general public, they were just grimy old buildings that had outlived their usefulness.

Then something terrible happened during the destruction of the Stock Exchange Building. The de facto leader of the small band of brothers and sisters who fought for the buildings was killed as he was trying to salvage fragments from inside the old Sullivan building as it collapsed around him. His name was Richard Nickel, and his life's work was documenting the entire body of work of Louis Sullivan as it disappeared before his eyes.

In the end, Nickel's tragic death and the loss of the Garrick and Stock Exchange Buildings, galvanized Chicago's architectural preservation community. After the Stock Exchange Building came down, people in this city woke up and realized that architecture did in fact matter. Today, Chicagoans, the haughty and meek alike boast about their city's architecture and the city's official boosters use it as a selling point to lure potential residents and visitors.

Chicago is best known for its innovative commercial buildings from the turn of the last century whose form clearly expresses their structure, a style that slavishly adhered to Louis Sullivan's famous dictum: "form ever follows function." Much of "Modern" architecture in the fifties and sixties, especially the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his followers, can trace its roots back to the architects of "Chicago School." It would be heresy today to suggest knocking down any of these buildings.

But Chicago is an architecturally diverse city and unfortunately, the buildings that don't trace their roots back to Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Root, William Holabird and Martin Roche, are fair game.

The former Prentice Women's Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg,
awaiting its uncertain fate, October 20,  2012
One of this city's important architects who marched to the beat of his own drummer was Bertrand Goldberg whose work broke free of the constraints of the traditional Chicago style box. Goldberg's most famous works are the iconic corn cob towers of Marina City which typify his work, radiating around a central core, from the inside out rather than outside in. His egalitarian spirit let him to be a radical pioneer in the design of space, which in turn out of necessity led him to be an innovator in materials, predominantly reinforced concrete. His other residential works in Chicago run the gamut from the Astor Tower in the city's tony Gold Coast, to the Raymond Hilliard Homes on the near south side, Goldberg's attempt to humanize low income housing.

Goldberg, like his predecessors Frank Lloyd Wright and the French architect and planner Le Corbusier, was a utopian. He believed that architecture could be re-invented in order to change society for the betterment of people's lives. River City, built on the former approach to the long gone Grand Central railway station, was Goldberg's scaled down dream of building a city within a city, a mixed use complex of homes, shops, venues for entertainment and more.

Bud Goldberg applied his concepts of radial space in other areas, especially buildings devoted to health-care. Prentice Women's Hospital of 1975 was a ground breaking approach to hospital design. In the words of Michael Kimmelman, the architectural critic for the New York Times, Prentice:
...translated new ideas about hospital “villages” of care into unobstructed floors around a central nurses’ station.
The hand responsible for the design of Prentice is unmistakable; four cylindrical concrete towers containing the patients' rooms are bundled clover-like around a central core. The towers with their signature elliptical porthole windows, death defyingly cantilever over a more conventional steel and glass base which housed the hospital's other functions. It was a bold design for the era, stunningly different from anything else at the time, except other Goldberg buildings.

Northwestern University which owns Prentice, built a new women's hospital, closed the old one and plans to demolish it to make way for a research facility.

Again we're faced with the aspect of losing another architectural landmark, an important building that may have outlived its original intent, but could easily be adapted for any number of uses. Apparently however, not the use that Northwestern has in mind. The institution vehemently opposes any proposal to retrofit the thirty seven year old building to fit into their plans, including an 11th hour submission from the distinguished Chicago architect Jeanne Gang who, (at the suggestion of Michael Kimmelman) has proposed to build a tower above Goldberg's building.

Earlier in this space I stated the opinion that Prentice was no slam dunk for landmark status. But I have since come around to believe that the destruction of Prentice would be a tremendous loss, possibly rivaling that of the Garrick. Why the change of heart? Well I've listened to both sides of the argument and frankly, it's the "let's demolish Prentice" argument that has swayed me the most, negatively of course.

Ample land surrounding Prentice and its environs
Take the university hospital and their disingenuous campaign to convince the public that preservationists are hijacking the creation of thousands of new jobs, millions of dollars of revenue into the city and life saving treatments, all to save an old building. The truth is the hospital has no immediate plans to build the new facility; it wants to level the Goldberg building and leave the site empty until the time when and if ground is broken for the new building. In other words, Northwestern wants to replace a perfectly good building with a vacant lot. If you've visited the neighborhood in which old Prentice resides, you know that it is filled with many empty lots. I'd compare it to the East Berlin I visited just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the way, since there are all those empty lots in the the vicinity, most of which owned by Northwestern, why is it not possible to build their research facility somewhere else, directly across the street for example?

Even more compelling are the voices of people whom I know to be passionate about all things Chicago and its history, including its architecture. They are unmoved by the proposed demolition saying things such as: "We have other examples of Bertrand Goldberg architecture in town that are not in any danger of coming down." Or: "The building's only thirty odd years old, it hasn't been around long enough to have earned the distinction of being a landmark." Or this catch-all phrase: "We need to be more concerned about people than buildings."

I'll give you that Goldberg's Prentice is not an eminently lovable building; it's too old to be modern and too new to be charming. It hasn't aged all that well and it's been partially altered so the arches that lead dramatically up to its towers have been obscured by the extension of the glass and steel base.

It dawned on me this morning as I listened to more arguments in favor of demolishing Prentice, that those same arguments were leveled in favor of demolishing some of Chicago's greatest buildings forty and fifty years ago. The Garrick and Stock Exchange were not the only Sullivan buildings in town when they came down. They hadn't aged very well either, were disrespectfully altered, not maintained properly, and covered with a patina of grime. Mostly they seemed irrelevant, memories of a bygone era for which we had little use. Like Prentice today, there was a contingent of folks back then who thought the old Sullivan buildings were eyesores. The comment I heard this morning: "let's tear it down and put up something new" has a familiar ring to it. Yet many of the folks who don't care about the fate of Prentice would no doubt look upon the loss of those earlier buildings as nothing less than wanton destruction.

Despite years of neglect, old Prentice still has
 a dramatic presence in the Streeterville neighborhood
The handful of buildings that survived the dark era of wholesale destruction of our architectural legacy, have been lovingly restored and in some cases today are as beautiful as the day they were built, in some cases even more. It breaks my heart to think how much greater this city would be if some of the buildings we destroyed over the course of about fifteen years, had been allowed to stand, restored to their original splendor.

No I don't believe we should save everything. A city that does not build and grow, dies. Not all old buildings are great or even good for that matter; not everything deserves landmark status. Nor are all new buildings bad, (I'm old enough to still consider old Prentice a new building). In general, we have a bad taste in our mouths about the seventies, especially its architecture and design. Much of that derision is unfortunately deserved, virtually all of the great buildings lost during that time were replaced by unadulterated crap.

Prentice is an important perhaps even great building that was designed by an architect who cut through all that crap. Bertrand Goldberg was an innovator, an experimenter committed to the idea that through the practice of his art and craft, he could benefit humanity. Although many of his utopian ideas have long been discounted (as have Le Corbusier's and Wright's), we can't blame him for trying. Plus he built some pretty wonderful buildings to boot, and Prentice may very well be one of his best.

Let's keep it around until we can begin to appreciate it again, just as we appreciate Sullivan today in ways we could not comprehend fifty years ago.

Do I believe the philistines are knocking at the door? Hardly. Just the short sighted and the indifferent, a much more formidable adversary.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Debates

Obama - 1
Romney - 1

The rubber match will take place next Monday. Stay tuned.
In other news:

Tigers - 3
Yankees - 0

Giants - 1
Cardinals - 1

I love this time of year, the nip of fall in the air, the leaves crunching underfoot, football, hockey, (the AHL at least), and the World Series. Yes I even love the quadrennial election season, up to a point.

But I don't love the debates. My feeling is this: we're electing our president, not the captain of our debate club. Yes, the debates give us all an idea how each of the candidates perform under scrutiny and pressure. And they make for terrific water cooler conversation. I suppose those points alone are valid reasons to keep them around.

Still, ever since the televised Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960, presidential debates have been about appearance, performance and strategy, more than about ideas and substance.

Mitt Romney clearly won the first debate because he was well rehearsed and he appeared likable and comfortable. In contrast, the president looked tired and irritable, as if he had just spent the last four years of his life being President of the United States. It appeared his strategy was to be congenial and inoffensive. Every time it was his turn to speak he reminded me of Chicago White Sox sluggers Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn who every time they were up at the end of this season, down by a few runs, came to bat with the bases loaded, nobody out, and either struck out or hit into a double play. They like Obama might have driven in a lone run, but it was far less than expected of them.

Obama supporters were aghast and anyone who's been paying attention knew that tonight he would come out spirited and take the offensive, which is precisely what he did. Romney on the other hand kept going over the same rehearsed points he used during the first debate and came out flat, uninspired, and on the defensive. Neither candidate answered the questions presented them by the chosen individuals from the New York town hall audience, they just used the questions as spring boards to go off on their own tangents. No surprise there.

The best part came toward the beginning when the two men who were free to walk around the stage, came uncomfortably within striking distance. My son said it looked as if they were about to drop the gloves and start a good hockey brawl. Now that would have been something to see.

If you find it trite to compare the campaign to sporting events, well all I can say is you must not be watching.

Tonight I made the conscious decision to watch the debate rather than the Yankees-Tigers playoff game.

Given the relative quality of the performances of the two events, I'm not sure I made the right choice.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Corner

The mere mention of the intersections "35th and Shields" or "Clark and Addison" to any true Chicagoan, will induce at the very least a smile of recognition. In the same fashion, to the people of Michigan, who in my experience identify themselves much more with their home state than do the people of Illinois, the words "the corner of Michigan and Trumbull" have the same kind of magic. So intrinsically tied are the intersection and what stood there in the minds of the people of Michigan, that the building that occupied the site for nearly 100 years bore the nickname: "The Corner"

The building and that corner in the neighborhood of Corktown, not far from downtown Detroit, in the words of one person: "brought more people together... in the State of Michigan" than any other.

The building was Tiger Stadium, for 87 years the home of the Detroit Tigers.

There's something about an old ballpark that evokes the kind of reverence that few other buildings could. Even the site of a long lost baseball field as I pointed out a few posts ago, has the kind of emotional pull that could be matched only by sites of a famous battlefields, or perhaps one's first kiss.

Here's a beautiful aerial view of Tiger Stadium I pulled off the web as it looked in happier days, perhaps in the eighties:

No one could accuse Tiger Stadium as having been particularly beautiful, let alone architecturally significant. Yet the significance of buildings is based upon so much more than that. I was never inside the ballpark but from every report I ever heard or read, it was one of the best ballparks ever in the major leagues to watch or play the game. Consistently it was rated among the top five ballparks in which big leaguers preferred to play. Its most distinctive feature was the upper deck that hung over the playing field providing a uniquely intimate experience for fans. Not to mention the history of the game of baseball, and occasionally football, written inside the walls of the joint. Consider this:
  • Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run there on July 13th, 1934.
  • Thirteen years earlier the Babe hit a home run to dead center field, the ball clearing the bleachers (single deck at the time) and landing on the fly across the street from the ballpark. The spot where it landed would be just beyond the right edge of the above photograph. It is considered one of if not the longest home run ever hit during a major league game.
  • Due to the debilitating disease named after him, Lou Gehrig benched himself there in May 2, 1939 which would end his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. That would be the last game of his storied career.
  • Hall of famers who called Tiger Stadium their primary place of business included Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline and George Kell, among many others.
  • Tiger Stadium, originally Navin, later Briggs Field, was the second ballpark built on the site at Michigan and Trumbull. It opened on exactly the same day as Fenway Park in Boston, April 12, 1912. 
  • That site hosted nine World Series, the Tigers won four of them, all in the second stadium.
  • In the 1971 All Star game, in a blast that rivaled Babe Ruth's 1921 homer, Reggie Jackson hit a home run that hit the light transformer above the right field roof.
  • On September 27,1999, Tiger journeyman catcher Robert Fick hit a rooftop grand slam off of Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeff Montgomery, marking the 11,111th home run at Tiger Stadium, and the ballpark's final home run, final run, and final hit.
In the year 2000 the Tigers moved out of their old home for a beautiful new stadium downtown. For almost ten years the venerable old park remained, crumbling as a result of benign neglect, while its fate rested in the hands of the City of Detroit, and a number of groups who hoped to save it in some form. Despite being virtually bankrupt, the city pumped four million dollars into keeping the abandoned Tiger Stadium standing. They reached the breaking point in 2008 and finally made an ultimatum with the preservation groups, telling them to either come up with the money, or the landmark would come down. From the photograph below you can see the results.

Here's how the site looks today, from an image grabbed off GoogleMaps:

Despite being declared a State of Michigan Historic Site in 1975 and residing on the list of the National Resister of Historic Places, since 1989, Tiger Stadium was demolished partially in 2008 when there was still hope that a diminished plan to save the original part of the stadium surrounding the infield could still be worked out. When that fell through, the coup de grace was delivered the following year. Here is a link to a sequence of heartbreaking photographs of the demolition. As you can see, the demolition crew was careful not to destroy the actual playing field. Also remaining is the flag pole that stood in center field, in play no less, one of the endearing idiosyncrasies of the ballpark.

Now that the stadium is gone, believe it or not there is yet another bone of contention between the city and some folks who want to preserve what's left of the field. The city government wants to develop the site for commercial purposes, most likely a Walmart, and have fenced off the nine and one half acre site. Meanwhile a group of wildcat preservationists is defying the city, trespassing on city property and passionately taking care of the field with the intent of using it for of all things, playing baseball. Here is a link to a lovely little film posted on the Detroit Free Press site about these folks.

Here is an NPR story about the group known unofficially as the "Navin Field Grounds Crew" and the reaction from City Hall who is giving the folks a tough time, no doubt relating to liability issues. In a quote of classic bureaucratese,  a city official made this incredible remark about the site: cannot be a space for playing baseball. That space is not meant for that.
As a preservation issue, an abandoned stadium is a tough sell. There are few adaptive reuse opportunities for such buildings. With seating capacities well into the tens of thousands, their use as a venue for events that would draw a tiny percentage of that would be ridiculous. They take up a lot of space that could in most cases, be put to more productive use, and it simply costs a fortune to maintain them. The most important thing in my mind as a proponent of preservation, is that once you remove every practical function from a building, what's the point? True there is the historical and sentimental value of keeping an old building as an old friend. But in reality, buildings like people, have life spans. If a building no longer has any purposeful use, it's like having your old friend lying in the hospital on life support, technically alive but clinically dead. Unfortunately Detroit is filled with many such buildings, one of whom, the Michigan Central Station, can be seen in the background of a few shots of the video linked above. That building has stood abandoned since 1988 and continues to await its fate. Until something is done in either direction, it will remain Detroit's most spectacular ruin.

As far as Tiger Stadium is concerned, sorry as I am to say this, I don't have a quarrel with the decision to knock it down. In its ten year period of disintegration, it served as a constant reminder to all who saw it of the decrepitude of the neighborhood. In my opinion, without any hope of funds to restore it properly, it's better that it was allowed to die a natural death.

With the building gone, a new opportunity has arisen for the community. The field is still there, pretty much as it was when Robert Fick hit his grand slam in September, 1999. The site should by all means be made accessible to the public. The folks featured in the film and NPR piece are a dedicated group, who should be given the opportunity to bring the site back to life. I have no doubt that with a little help from the city, (mostly by leaving them alone), the state and yes the Tigers organization and other private groups, that empty lot at Michigan and Trumbull might be turned into a public park where visitors could walk the ground trodden by so many baseball legends of the past. By itself, such a park may not generate much revenue for the city. But considering all the people around the country who are passionate about baseball, done right, that park could draw folks from all over who would chomp at the bit to swing a bat in the batter's boxes where every American League batter between 1901 and 1999 did the same, or pitch a ball from the very mound, or catch a fly ball from the very spot where...

As they are divisional rivals of my team the White Sox, I was never a Tiger fan. Still I have many fond memories of my cross country trips to New York, passing through Detroit radio air space where I would always look forward to hearing the late, great Ernie Harwell calling games from his beloved Tiger Stadium.

Here are his final words from the last Tiger game ever played at "The Corner":
The tradition built here shall endure along with the permanence of the Olde English D. But tonight we must say good-bye. Farewell, old friend Tiger Stadium. We will remember.
If they built a park at Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Street that preserved the old field, I would certainly consider taking a trip to Detroit with my son. We'd go to The Corner and maybe join in on a pickup game there on that hallowed spot. Then perhaps we'd take in a Tigers game at Comerica Park, or a Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena depending on the time of year. We'd buy some souvenirs, have dinner and maybe spend the night. Then the next day we'd check out Belle Isle, the DIA and some of the other sights of that long neglected city. Heck maybe we'd even stop in the new Walmart built somewhere in old Corktown and buy some stuff. I'm sure lots of others would do exactly the same.

As for the idea of building a Walmart on the site of old Tiger Stadium, all I can say to city officials is this: go to Google Maps, type in "Michigan and Trumbull, Detroit", click on "Satellite View" and try to find another empty spot in the vicinity where you could build it.

It won't be hard.

The point is that contrary to Daniel Burnham's famous quote, not all the great ideas are big ones; some great ideas start out small and grow bigger and bigger.

This may very well be one of them.