Saturday, April 30, 2016

Progress, 1963 Style

Courtesy of my Facebook friend Gregory Jenkins, a Chicago based architect, here is a link to a 2013 post on the blog "Historic"  that describes along with a heart rendering photo, the demolition of the French Second Empire Style Marion County Courthouse building in 1963. Behind the doomed building in the photo is the MCC's successor, the Indianapolis City County Building, The newer building is a typical example of the International Style or Mid-Century Modern, the style of design that would dominate commercial architecture all over the world for a generation.

The post doesn't tip the hand of its author's opinion over which building is better, or whether it was wrong to demolish the older building. Instead, it invites readers to decide in the comment section. In stark contrast to a couple social media groups on Chicago history I belong to, I was mildly surprised at the measured tone of the comments, which seem exclusively written by Indianapolites, (or whatever the proper term is for people from Indianapolis). For the most part, while regretting the loss of the old building, the comments were favorable to the newer building, One writer, a long time resident of the city wrote this:
I will preface this by saying that I, too regret that the old courthouse couldn’t have somehow been saved or adapted. In the late 1950s, my dad taught night school in another now long-demolished building across from the courthouse. His memories of the courthouse are not very nostalgic. He remembers it as a grimy, run-down building in a dangerous neighborhood. I don’t consider it’s demolition necessarily a crime or that the city planners were short-sighted as such. The new city-county building was simply a part of what was happening across the country at that time as cities expanded and modernized. My mom worked in the city-county building when I was a kid and I used to love going down there with dad to visit at lunch. Especially remember the great view from the observation deck. Like some of the other posters have mentioned, I have a spot in my heart for mid-century modern. It was part of the fabric of my background growing up. Much as I am sure people growing up in Indianapolis in the late 19th Century had a spot for the old courthouse in their hearts.
The writer has a very good point, being able to look at the situation from a 1963 rather than a 2016 perspective. My guess is that he and I are roughly the same age as both of us can remember a time when the general attitude toward architecture in this country was simple: the newer the better. That opinion changed drastically in the past half-century, but why?

Keep in mind that the folks running the show during the fifties and sixties lived through the hard times of the Great Depression and World War II. The mood of the general public of the time was to move forward rather than look backward. Furthermore, like all big cities in the US, here in Chicago, there were no sizable commercial building projects between 1934 and the construction of the Prudential Building, completed in 1955. The highly influential Mies van der Rohe 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings were built in 1951. Not only did the construction boom of the fifties and sixties stimulate the economy and create new jobs, but new architecture, which at the time meant steel and glass boxes built in the style that Mies and others pioneered, symbolized forward thinking and embodied that virtue that drove architects, planners and politicians alike, progress. The general public bought into the idea that progress in whatever form it took, was a good thing.

From a 1963 perspective, the photograph in the Indianapolis blog post would have symbolized welcome progress. I can guess that only a handful of people in Indy mourned the loss of the MCC at the time, just as few in Chicago mourned the loss of Louis Sullivan's Garrick Theater and Old Stock Exchange buildings.

Of course progress is a double edged sword. As Nelson Algren wrote in his book, Chicago, City on the Make:
Chicago lives like a drunken El-rider who cannot remember where he got on nor at what station he wants to get off. The sound of the wheels moving below satisfies him that he is making great progress.
It would take years of tearing down historic old buildings, and replacing them with mostly second rate, character-less, knock off Mies, Mid Century Modern piles of crap, before most people began to realize the mistake we were making. It took true visionaries like Richard Nickel and Jane Jacobs who were willing to swim upstream against the current of popular opinion to show us the folly of our ways. By the time folks were ready to listen to them, it was too late, and much of the charm, character and history of our cities was lost.

But not entirely. Jacobs fought, and won against New York's ultimate mover and shaker, Robert Moses, by stopping the construction of an expressway that would have cut Manhattan in half. Her books, most notably The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were the inspiration for the renaissance of the American central city. Nickel through his intrepid work documenting vanishing Chicago, and his untimely death in the wreckage of Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building, inspired the architectural preservation movement in this city that lives today.

On the right is an image of a cross section of Chicago architectural history. Here, Mid-Century Modern, represented by Mies van der Rohe's 1964 Everett Dircksen U.S. Courthouse, happily coexists with the 1890's in the form of the Italianate facade of the building that houses Chicago's venerable Berghoff restaurant. Like the Indianapolis City County Building, the complex the Dirksen Building is part of, replaced another glorious old building, Henry Ives Cobb's Chicago Federal Building.  It was one of those rare occasions in this city where a great building was replaced by arguably a greater one, in this case, three of them.

If you look closely, in the background, you'll see the eclectic Post-Modern, Harold Washington Library built in 1991, and behind that, a 2009, mixed use commercial, residential building called Library Tower. While this crazy quilt of styles might not be everybody's cup of tea, to me it represents a thriving city of infinite variety with a surprise around every corner. Wonderful as his work is, I couldn't bear living in a city filled with nothing but Mies van der Rohe buildings, or for that matter, nothing but any one of these particular styles.

It is not without a little irony that some of the mid-century works that supplanted earlier buildings, today themselves are threatened with defacement and destruction. Once again, the general public has little regard for these buildings; to many, steel and glass boxes have as much charm as a visit to the dentist's office. They are in that middle territory, too old to be up to date, and not old enough to be charming. And who should come to their defense but the preservation community who sees their rightful place in history, and yes, even their beauty.

The circle goes round and round; alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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