Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sears Tower

This post about the original Sears Tower, and the rest of the Sears Roebuck Complex in the neighborhood of North Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago, is from the excellent blog Blueprint Chicago, which I have just added to my list of go-to blogs.

My thanks to Gregory Jenkins for originally posting it.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Berlin has the Ku'damm, St. Petersberg has Nevsky Prospekt, and New York City has Broadway. Great cities are defined by their iconic streets. Think of them - Bourbon Street,  the Champs ÉlyséesRegent Street, the Via Veneto and La Rambla all evoke images of and are inexorably tied to their respective cities.

Chicago's iconic street is State Street.

Michigan Avenue is more glamorous, the money's on La Salle Street, and Dearborn is a veritable history lesson of American commercial architecture, but no street evokes this city more than State Street. It's been that way since before the Great Fire of 1871.

The view above, a 1907 hand-colored postcard published by the Detroit Publishing Company, looks south down State from Lake Street. The second building on the left is Burnham and Root's long lost Masonic Temple. Just to the south of that is the Marshall Field Building (now Macy's). Louis Sullivan's masterpiece, the Schlesinger & Mayer, (Carson Pirie Scott) Store barely visible, is two blocks south of Fields.

Below is how State and Madison, at one time called the world's busiest intersection, looked ten years earlier in 1897 footage shot, or at least credited to Thomas Edison:


In the clip we're looking north, the Masonic Temple towering over neighboring buildings, is visible in the distance.

State Street is one of the longest streets in Chicago, covering over thirty miles from its beginnings in Crete, Illinois to its northern boundary, Lincoln Park. It is the dividing line between east and west in Chicago's grid system. That significance is lost on North Siders as the Lake cuts into what would be the east side,  just north of North Avenue. It's a much different story on the South Side where State is one of the major thoroughfares.

But its the one mile stretch of State, between Congress Street and the River, that gives the street its fame.

The credit for making State the Main Street of Chicago belongs to one man, Potter Palmer. In the 1850s, all the fashionable shops and hotels had Lake Street addresses, while State Street was a festering swamp. Palmer, who himself owned a dry goods store on Lake Street, bought up much of the property along that swamp. At the same time George Pullman devised a system of raising up buildings and sidewalks from grade level. A short time later, the streets themselves were raised out of the muck. Once dry, Palmer sold some of his State Street property to two former retail partners, Levi Leiter and Marshall Field, and developed much of the rest of State Street himself, most famously the hotel that still bears his name, the Palmer House.

In 1871 the Great Fire destroyed everything in its path, but in a few years, most everything was back in place, and State Street, rather than Lake Street, would reign supreme. With it, the major axis of Chicago changed from east/west, to north/south, from perpendicular to the lake, to parallel, much to the benefit of the city.

Before there was a Michigan Avenue north of the River, State Street was the shopping and entertainment heart of Chicago. All the local department stores had their flagship stores on the street, Sears, Montgomery Wards, the Boston Store, the Fair Store, Goldblatts, Wieboldts, Carsons, and of course, Marshall Fields. Smaller specialty shops as well as restaurants, night clubs and movie palaces filled in the gaps between the great stores. From early morning to well past midnight, the street was teaming with life. To this day, the marquee of the Chicago Theater proudly advertises itself and its city as the focal point of the view up State. The terms Downtown Chicago, The Loop, and State Street, were at one time, synonymous.

State Street's heyday as the preeminent Chicago street lasted around 100 years. I've written about the decline of the street here. Suffice it to say its fortunes were tied to the rest of Chicago. When the population of the city began its outward expansion after WWII, suburban shopping malls lured customers with the convenience of free parking, the perceived lack of crime, and that all important virtue, they were something new. Combine that with the massive commercial re-development of North Michigan Avenue in the seventies and eighties and the fact that State Street, with the exception of the construction of a half hearted mall, didn't adapt to the times, left the former Main Street virtually in the dust.

Yet there was a silver lining in that inertia. Eventually the suburban malls became old and boring and cities became hip. Unlike other cities that transformed their aging downtowns into clones of suburban malls which themselves became obsolete and barren, State Street remained essentiaily the same, physically anyway, and needed little work to get back to its original form. While it's a shadow of its former self, (it still has Michigan Avenue to contend with), there have been signs that the city and businesses are willing to gamble that there might yet be hope for State Street:
  • The Reliance Building, one of Chicago's architectural gems, was gutted, returned to its original splendor, and turned into the Burnham Hotel.
  • Bucking the trend, after a long absence, Sears opened up a new department store on State Street, in the building that once housed the Boston Store.
  • A major development was built on Block 37 bounded by State, Washington, Dearborn and Randolph, which was cleared 20 years before to make way for another more ambitious development that fell through the cracks.
  • Target announced that it will occupy the old Carson's store, (which was also restored). 
  • The Hilton Corporation recently sunk 170 million dollars into a major renovation of the aforementioned Palmer House Hotel.
The restorations of Carsons and the Reliance Building in my book are unqualified successes.

Unfortunately as The Grateful Dead pointed out several years ago: "every silver lining's got a touch of gray." Architecturally, Sears is a welcome addition to State Street with its semi-circular awning that mirrors the curved entrance to Carsons sitting catty corner from it on State and Madison. But there's not much to say about the inside which is as lack luster as any suburban version of the store. Needless to say, because of its parent corporation Sears Holdings' interest in profits for its investors over that of its retail business, the future of the store is much in doubt.

Block 37 in my opinion is a wretched piece of architecture, perhaps the worst building in Chicago given its prominent site. As I've pointed out before, the empty lot that occupied the site after the wanton destruction of many fine buildings, was probably better than the building that replaced it.

Another disappointment is the Palmer House renovation. Granted this disappointment is not in the same league as the fiasco over at Block 37, it's just another project that could have been handled so much better. Last week I was involved in an exchange in the comment section of another blog. In a post, the author commented on how the replacement of a vintage Modernist storefront on the block (by the same developer that renovated the Palmer house) was justified. Here's the money quote:
While the old Bakers Shoes was a great piece of history, it was not preserved as such.  If it was kept in pristine condition, people might have appreciated it.  But the fact of the matter is that it was another dark, grungy, dirty storefront that didn’t fit into State Street’s increasingly squeaky clean image. 
I wrote a comment on the post expressing my feeling that restoration of the storefront was preferable to the renovation of Baker's, and added my concern about the developers diminishing the Palmer House's State Street entrance to little more than a service entrance.

Original 1940s storefront shortly before its demolition
Of the two unfortunate choices by the developer Thor Equities of New York, I'm having difficulty deciding which is the greater transgression. Until last year, the entrance to Baker's Shoes (originally Chandler's) was one of the last extant examples of a vintage Loop storefront. "Dark and grungy" as it may have been, it didn't take much imagination to conjure up how beautiful it once looked and how little it would have taken to return it to its former glory. It was an original work with its undulating lines, asymmetry, and open display area that, in the words of Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin: "sacrificed interior square footage for a visual drama meant to suck pedestrians in the door." "Drama" is not a word often used to describe the storefronts of Chicago, nor are the terms "abstract", or "work of art" for that matter. This storefront was all three, to me on closer inspection it evoked the whimsy of the Catalonian Surrealist painter, Joan Miró.

Baker's renovation, January 12, 2012
Well it's gone now, the space has been divided in two,  and even though it's a separate building, its public face will "fit in" with the Palmer House's new State Street arcade of storefronts. The photo on the right is how the building looked last week, still under construction, shortly after the barriers were removed. This is much the same view as the photograph taken in the late forties that opens Blair Kamin's article on the transformation of Baker's last February. From that sixty year old photo you see three Modern storefronts, Chandler's in the middle, the clothier Baskin in its own Modernist Building (by the same architectural firm) on the right, and another unidentified storefront on the left. The Baskin building was replaced about twenty years ago by the structure you see on the right of the contemporary photograph that houses a cooling unit that services much of the Loop. The storefront on the left was replaced I'm guessing in the sixties by the absurd clapboard facade of the Beef and Brandy restaurant. And while all traces of Modernist design are gone from this view, a replica of the old gaslight inspired lamp post, identical to the one in the old photograph, has made a triumphal return. The contrast between the the modern photograph and the one in Kamin's piece, clearly illustrates how little respect is given in this city to the Modern era.

Lynn Becker's post, on the subject, the inspiration for my original post about Baker's, includes a heartbreaking photograph of another long gone Modernist storefront on State Street, Alfred S. Alschuler's Benson Rixon store. See it and weep. *

Pictured on the left are some of the Palmer House storefronts that Baker's will soon fit in with. They're good enough I suppose, if not very interesting. Looking carefully at the photograph, click on it to enlarge if you have to, you'll notice that between the Aldo and Crocs shoe stores, is the new State Street entrance of the Palmer House. This is the current presence of the most iconic institution on the city's most iconic street, that I alluded to in my comment on the blog post.

The decision to re-configure the Baker's storefront was an economic and aesthetic one. The alteration of the Palmer House State Street entrance was a symbolic one. The hotel whose founder created what would become the most important street in the city, has turned its back on that street.

The author of the blog responded to my comment with a suggestion that did not occur to me. Perhaps the city may have cut a deal with the hotel to reduce its presence on State Street in order to discourage taxis from tying up traffic by dropping off, picking up passengers and queuing up in front of the hotel. The two major hotel entrances on Monroe Street and Wabash Avenue would serve that purpose (as they have for decades) and improve traffic on the major artery, State Street. It's a plausible theory.

Whatever the reason for diminishing the Palmer House's presence on State Street, it's a lousy idea as far as State Street is concerned. If the author's theory is correct and the city is responsible for the changes, it's clear that the city is more interested in improving vehicular traffic than in revitalizing State Street.

If the idea came from the hotel, then it's a clear message that State Street, with its mid to low level shops, (including the ones housed in the hotel building), predominantly targeted toward teenagers and young adults, is not worthy of the clientele the hotel hopes to attract. That point is even clearer from the interior of the hotel where before the renovation, there was a clear passageway between Wabash Avenue and State Street. Today you can still walk through the hotel between those two streets, but you do a double take as you approach State, where the passageway diminishes greatly and it's not altogether clear that the way to State is even publicly accessible. The Palmer House in no subtle way is directing its guests eastward, toward Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park, and away from State Street.

The streets I mentioned at the top of this post all owe their greatness to the fact that they attract people. When crowded, those streets are vital, they constitute the lifeblood of their respective cities. When they are empty, they're just collections of storefronts.

State Street is no exception.

Its life force is evident in the two pictures above from over one hundred years ago. That vitality was still very much evident in my childhood, it diminished throughout my teens, and all but died in my early adult years. In its heyday, State Street belonged to all of Chicago, its shops appealed to young and old, black and white, rich and poor. Goldblatts the workingman's emporium filled up its magnificent terra cotta building that stood only a few blocks from the upscale Marshall Fields. The street's culinary delights ranged from the continental Fritzels, to the lunch counter at Woolworths. Its entertainment ranged from live stage shows featuring Frank Sinatra and Count Basie at the Chicago Theater to live burlesque shows in the strip joints at the other end of the Loop.

State Street was the setting for all the great parades, most notably the St. Patrick's Day Parade, Chicago's version of the old May Day parade in Moscow's Red Square. Even when the holiday fell on a work day, it seemed that everyone in Chicago turned out for it. Never before in my life or since have I experienced the crush of humanity than at some of those parades, especially across from the reviewing stand at State and Madison. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Nowadays there's hardly ever a big crowd on State Street, let alone a crush. All but two of the big stores are gone as are most of the old theaters, and the interesting shops. Fritzels is long gone and so is Woolworth's. The parades are a thing of the past. Not that there aren't worthwhile bits and pieces to State Street. The much needed and pathetically underutilized Harold Washington Library forms an anchor for South State Street. DePaul University and the School of the Art Institute have a strong presence and bring a much needed infusion of young people (read, the future), to State Street. The Gene Siskel Film Center forms another cultural anchor on the north side of the Loop. Of course the Chicago Theater and its grand marquee still stand as a reminder of what once was and what could be.

While it's a bit of a mixed bag architecturally, State Street does boast some of the greatest buildings in Chicago. It has also lost more great buildings than any other street in the city.

I think the biggest loss on State Street today is its complexity, that incredible mix of the elegant, the tawdry, and everything in between that defined the street for over 100 years. Today everything is neat and respectable, nothing too out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing offensive. But with the exception of a handful of great buildings, there's nothing outstanding either. That goofy Beef and Brandy facade is looking better and better to me every day. Of course that'll be gone soon enough, replaced by another tasteful, bland storefront.

State Street today is a little like a pair of dull ice skates where the edges are gone and all that's left is the middle which just doesn't grip the ice very well.

Clearly, State Street's importance to this city isn't merely as a conduit for traffic. The recent steps to bring life back to the street are a good beginning for the most part. The old department stores aren't coming back and State Street won't ever be what it once was. But I believe the city could do a better job of mixing things up by encouraging small and big businesses alike to open up shop, and integrating the old street, turning it back into the premier thoroughfare it deserves to be.

One way they can start is to bring back the parades.

After all as Sinatra and Mayor Washington famously sang:
On State Street that great street I just want to say,
they do things they don't do on Broadway.
They have the time the time of their life,
I saw a man he danced with his wife,
in Chicago, Chicago my home town.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.

* The building that once housed the Benson Rixon store still exists in altered form but the storefront is gone. It is now a McDonald's.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Chicago primer

If you want to know something about Chicago, a good place to start is any local park on a spring, summer or early fall evening. There you will more than likely find a game that is practically unique to this city, 16" softball. The ball is ridiculously large meaning you can't hit it as far as a conventional 12" softball, although I've seen guys hit the thing far enough to clear the fence at a major league ballpark. Consequently you can fit two or three games into the same space you'd need for one conventional softball game, an important feature in a city with limited space for ballfields. The other unique aspect of the game is that it's played without gloves making it accessible to anyone willing to sacrifice their fingers.

If you want to know anything about Chicago, you have to know Mike Royko.

So I give you dear reader, Mike Royko, on softball, Chicago style:

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shepherd's Temple

Here's a link to Lee Bay's website and a post about a magnificent Chicago building that more than likely will soon be demolished. Douglas Boulevard on the West Side is filled with a collection of former synagogs, a testimony to the neighborhood's Jewish legacy. The former temple, Anshe Kenesseth Israel, is perhaps the most stunning of all. AKI, like the majority of temples in the neighborhood was converted to a Christian Church when the population of the neighborhood changed from predominantly Jewish to predominantly African American. Martin Luther King visited the church when he briefly moved into an apartment on the West Side to protest housing inequality in Chicago. This particular building went through different hands over the years and unfortunately the last congregation who knew the building as Shepherd's Temple Baptist Church, couldn't make the bills and shuttered the church several years ago.

Shepherd's Temple is in decrepit shape and the city has issued an emergency demolition order for safety reasons. There are on-going eleventh hour attempts to save the building but at this time it appears unlikey that yet another link to this city's illustrious past will be saved from the wrecker's ball.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My kind of town

Getting this blog back on track (at least the one spelled out in the banner), here is an interesting article on the urban experience, specifically on New York City, a place I have woefully neglected in the three years I've been writing this blog.

Ostensibly a piece focusing on her recommendation of five books on New York, author and talkshow guest, Fran Lebowitz provides an insight into the city, what it has been, and three recent events that changed it. New York has always been a refuge from the stifling mores and values of Anyotherplace, USA. The freedom it afforded its inhabitants inspired a cultural environment unparalleled in this country. The AIDS epidemic wiped out not only a significant proportion of the city's cultural elite, but also in Lebowitz's words, many of the consumers of that culture. In addition to the obvious horrors of 9/11, Lebowitz considers a lasting legacy to be the acceptance of New Yorkers (and the rest of America) of giving up their personal liberties in the name of security. And the administration of Mayor Bloomberg according to Lebowitz has gone to great lengths to turn the city into Anyotherplace, or at least a place that people from Anyotherplace would want to flock to.

It's hard for me to believe that the New York City of the 1990s (the decade where I spent the most time there), as portrayed in the novel Cheap Novelties by Ben Katchor, is now a bygone era.

Lebowitz is known for her mastery of the snappy one-liner and this article does not disappoint, here she channels the late Henny Youngman:
I said directly to Michael Bloomberg, “You know what sitting around in bars and restaurants, talking and smoking and drinking, is called, Mike?” He said, “What?” I said, “It’s called the history of art.”
One liner after another she hits the nail on the head about the urban experience, here she sounds a little like Jane Jacobs:
Density creates that (intellectual) dynamic. You don’t get that in Los Angeles, I don’t care who claims it. I don’t care how many rich people build museums in LA. To me, it’s not a city if people spend half their day in a car.
In the end, Lebowitz sees New York as tremendously resilient and the changes, temporary:
What is immutable about New York is that it’s always changing and it’s relatively hard to live here – relative to the places where people drive from mall to country club. It’s expensive, it’s not necessarily clean and you have to walk. So I think, in the end, the people who will be in New York are the people who deserve to be here – people like me.

The new Old Town

A nice article by Blair Kamin about the new home for the Old Town School of Folk Music can be found here. The first paragraph alone is a testimony to good old fashioned common sense:
The architectural world has been so obsessed with iconic buildings in recent years that we've lost sight of the virtues of good, solid design that strives to fit in rather than stand out — and to serve its users rather than sacrifice their needs on the altar of a flashy, attention-getting shape.
On the other hand, Kamin goes on to point out that this building transcends what has passed for contextualism in recent years, as it does not merely imitate its surroundings, but responds to them in an original way, in Kamin's words:
 a dialogue between past and present, not mindless mimicry.
Here's a link to an article I wrote a year ago in memory of a great proponent of conextualism done the right way.

I'll be spending a lot of time in the new Old Town School building as my wife works for that venerable Chicago institution and my children take music classes there.

I'll be sure to keep you posted...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Another year and another opportunity to write the wrong date on my checks. Only three days into the year and I've already taken that opportunity. As a child I could never understand why adults always talked about how quickly time passed, for me it moved at a snail's pace. No longer, now I wish that I could slow time down, if only just a little.

For the first time in a long time, I really celebrated the turn of the year, taking a deep breath and realizing all I have and how lucky I am for my loving family, for a roof over my head, food on the table, and for simply being alive. The older you get, the more you learn not to take those things for granted.

Another good thing about getting older is you learn to not worry so much about what other people think of you. My son is currently at the age where he would as soon die as be embarrassed. I remember those days well and completely sympathize with him. But at some point in life you begin to realize that other people are far more concerned about their own image than yours, and it's a very liberating feeling.

With that in mind, I give you a piece of music entirely appropriate for the New Year, a Central European tradition that for all its schmaltz and un-hipness, sends a chill up the Central European half of my spine. It brings me back to my grandparents and all those Germanic restaurants they took me to in Chicago and Milwaukee. It brings back the place where my parents met, a hole in the wall night club on North Avenue in Chicago called Stadt Wien, and the real Vienna, the charming city on the Danube that I visited with my half sister Eva almost twenty years ago. It does not evoke the dark, post war city Graham Greene and Carol Reed portrayed in their classic film  The Third Man, but rather memories of my father's wiener schnitzel, of sacher torte and the coffee with whipped cream they used to serve at Café Vienna in the old Bismarck Hotel in the Loop.

The only disclaimer is the title of the piece which is a bit misleading. The Danube is neither blue, nor is it particularly beautiful.

Enjoy if you dare:

Happy New Year!