Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chicago c. 1948

Here are a couple of splendid travelogues featuring Chicago of the late forties, courtesy of my friend Francis Morrone:

It's interesting how much of post war Chicago remains recognizable sixty years later. The wall of buildings on Michigan Avenue from the Stevens (now the Hilton Towers) Hotel north to the Wrigley Building remains virtually unchanged. Most of the skyscrapers visible in the film stand to this day, less prominently to be sure as they have been dwarfed by newer buildings. The most startling change is the Palmolive Building which was unquestionably the most prominent building of Chicago's skyline from the north. Today you have to strain to see it through a forest of giants built after 1969 when the John Hancock Building forever changed the profile of North Michigan Avenue.

The 1940's views of State Street are also familiar today as many buildings from the early 20th Century still line that street. But that resemblance is purely superficial as State Street in the words the film's writer and narrator James A. Fitzpatrick was at the time, "the world's most concentrated shopping center." Today it is merely a shadow of its former self.

Less than a shadow of its past is Randolph Street which was the center of nightlife in the Chicago. One by one, live theaters became movie theaters which began closing their doors in the 1950's. The most unfortunate loss was that of the Schiller (later the Garrick) Theater, a Louis Sullivan masterpiece that was demolished despite resistance from preservationists, in 1960.

Urban renewal projects cleared entire blocks, dooming restaurants and nightclubs. The construction of the (now demolished) Greyhound bus station in the fifties, and two government buildings, the Civic (now Richard J. Daley) Center in the sixties and the State of Illinois Building (now the James R. Thomson Center) in the eighties, and the wholesale demolition of Block 37 in the nineties, put the kabosh on the "Rialto of Chicago."

Curiously one of the few extant Randolph Street features seen in the film is the kitschy facade of the Old Heidelberg restaurant just west of State Street.

In recent years Randolph Street has regained some steam as a theater district with the revival of the Oriental (now the Ford) Theater, the Bismark (now the Cadillac Palace) Theater, and the re-location of the Goodman Theater. But the essential character of the street of the past is gone forever as the entertainment districts of the city have moved north, out of the Loop.

And speaking of entertainment:

How much of this looks familiar? Chicago in the days before Mayor Daley the First was certainly a different place. The Sherman House which housed the College Inn stood at the site now occupied by the Thompson Center. The Bismark Hotel is now the Hotel Allegro and I hear the famous cape dancers no longer perform at the Walnut Room. Likewise, Don the Beachcomber, the Chez Paree, and the great Edgewater Beach Hotel with its boardwalk alas have all closed their doors for good.

Of all the establishments mentioned in this film, only the Empire Room at the Palmer House and the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel remain, albeit without the "dramatic formality" of their heyday.

Lest you think that entertainment in Chicago consisted only of cape dancers, show girls and dancing horses, at any given time around town you could also have seen the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and countless other legendary performers.

Of course so much has changed in sixty years. The Stock Yards are gone along with most of the steel mills and other large factories that formed the industrial backbone of the city. Most of the traffic along the Chicago River these days consists of pleasure and tour boats, although every once in a while you may still see a barge hauling material of one sort or other. Passenger trains still arrive and depart from Union Station, but under the banner of the national passenger railway Amtrak. The glory days of traveling by rail are long gone.

And as we look upon our concluding scene of the pale moon shining beside the dimly lit tower of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, we bid a fond adieu to what certainly must be considered a Golden Age in Chicago history.

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