Thursday, March 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month

Not to complain but the two operative words for this month were sick and tired. I caught a tenacious cold three weeks ago which is still hanging around and work deadlines have had their way with me all month. But I still managed to crank out my picture of the day and then some, however less than I would have hoped. As a result of my general malaise, I didn't stray far off my beaten path, but I think it was Aaron Siskind who told his students that if you can't take a good picture in your own backyard, you're not much of a photographer. You be the judge: 

I made some of my best pictures this year between 5 and 6 in the morning while taking my son to his early morning batting practice. I titled this one, "good fences make good neighbors":

March 2, West Ridge

Never able to resist a nice foggy day, on this particular one, the sun broke through the clouds while the fog did its thing. What more could a photographer ask from the photo gods:

March 14, Symphony Center, Santa Fe Building and Metropolitan Tower in fog.

On a brief respite from work, I made this picture of a man emerging from the wall of the Art Institute:

March 17, The Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan Avenue entrance..

I find it hard to photograph when the light doesn't move me. After leaving work on this day completely uninspired, I threw all caution to the wind and got on the train hoping something good would happen. The best light for me is the most challenging, when the sun and clouds are fighting for dominance. Sometimes it's like walking a tightrope, especially when you have only a second or two to get your picture. This one came pretty close to that magic moment but didn't quite get there. Still it's pretty hard to miss from this vantage point:

March 18, Chicago River at Wells Street

One of my favorite stops in the Loop is the Harold Washington Library stop on Van Buren between State Street and Dearborn. The platform is surrounded by nothing but classic Chicago School buildings, this one is the Old Colony Building:

March 22, CTA State and Van Buren Stop, Old Colony Building.

After a long winter, one of the sure signs of spring is the sun's rays shining down the east-west streets of the Loop, here illuminating the entrance of Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott Building, or if you prefer, the Schlesinger and Mayer Store, or perhaps the insipid Sullivan Center. Whatever you choose to call it, for my money it is hands down, Chicago's greatest building:

March 29, Carson Pirie Scott Building, State Street.

I was enamored of the light when I turned around on the train and snapped this picture. The church in the background is St. Ita, the exquisite High Gothic church designed by Henry Schlacks who also designed the endangered St. Adalbert in Pilsen:

March 29, Brwn Mawr "L" stop.

Trying to take every advantage of my commute, even while standing on the subway, I took this panorama of riders completely engrossed in their devices. So was I needless to say. As soon as I took the picture, I grabbed the empty seat and joined the chorus line :
March 30, Red Line Subway, somewhere under State Street
Happy spring!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Richard Nickel: Dangerous Years

My friend Rich Cahan has done it again.  Along with Michael Williams he just compiled and published the third of (what his wife hopes to be) a trilogy on the life and work of the Chicago photographer Richard Nickel. Cahan's first Nickel book, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture, was a straight ahead biography which depicted his subject as a driven young man whose life's work began as a grad school project documenting the work of the architect Louis Sullivan. The project which Nickel made his own, to record and save everything he could of the architect's disappearing work, turned into an all consuming passion that ultimately cost him his life. In I972 Richard Nickel was crushed underneath the rubble of Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building while attempting to salvage artifacts of the building as it was being demolished.

The second book was called Richard Nickel's Chicago: Photographs of a Lost City, a book that allowed Nickel's camera speak for him. Beyond proof sheets, Nickel didn't make many publication or exhibition prints of his own work, so the lion's share of images in this exquisitely printed book had not been seen outside of a small circle. The book, not limited to the work of Louis Sullivan, or architecture for that matter, could be considered the definitive work on Richard Nickel the photographer, as it is to the best of my knowledge the most comprehensive collection of his photographic work to be found.

Richard Nickel was the Charles Marville of Chicago. Marville if you recall was the photographer who was commissioned to document the city of Paris as it existed before and during its mid-nineteenth century destruction and re-construction under the hand of Baron Haussmann in the reign of Napoleon III . Here is a link to a site describing a major exhibition of Marville's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art In New York.

Unlike Marville, Nickel's work documenting the destruction of his city was for the most part, self-commissioned. Richard Nickel's Chicago shows us the ways and means of a soon to be post-industrial city, rooftops with their smokestacks and water tanks, steel rails reflecting the sun, automobiles in motion, and the incessant building up and tearing down of a restless city.

Early on, Nickel photographed people. Many of his early pictures show the influence of his school, the Institute of Design, especially the work of Harry Callahan with whom Nickel studied. The very first picture in the book proper in the chapter titled, The Passing Scene, is a provocative image of a woman standing alone in front of the Tunnel of Love at Riverview amusement park. Her expression suggests concern or maybe disappointment. Perhaps she is waiting for a lover who has stood her up, or one that never existed at all. One can't help but think of this image as a metaphor for Richard Nickel and his first love, the City of Chicago. a love that was unrequited.

As Callahan taught Nickel how to construct a photograph, it would be his other major influence at the ID, Aaron Siskind, who would teach him how to tell a story. Siskind initiated the Sullivan project and the two worked closely on the project during Nickel's remaining time at the Institute and beyond.

Eventually Nickel became a one man band with the Sullivan project which remained incomplete at the time of his death. Were it not for the steadfast work of Nickel's close friend and accomplice in salvaging Sullivan's work, architect John Vinci, Nickel's project would have died along with him in the rubble of the Stock Exchange Building. Forty years after Nickel's death, Vinci managed to complete Nickel's project with the publication of the massive tome The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan.

Cajan's third Nickel book, Richard Nickel: Dangerous Years, What He Saw and What He Wrote, puts the photographer/preservationist's life, work and times into context. This time along with Nickel's photographs, his words speak for him. Nickel was a compulsive letter writer who kept carbon copies of all the letters he sent out as well as copies of letters he never sent. The current book reproduces in full color, selections of Nickel's letters to friends, collaborators, newspaper columnists, architects, landmarks commissioners, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the residents of buildings about to be demolished, and the owners of those buildings whose help he enlisted in gaining access before and during demolition, even though he openly opposed their intentions to destroy them. The book also reproduces Nickel's personal notes, sketches and detailed itineraries for photographic road trips in minute by minute detail.

Two of Nickel's struggles to save Chicago Landmarks are covered in great detail in the book, the Garrick Theater and the Stock Exchange Building, two of Louis Sullivan's greatest works.

Another great loss, and perhaps a bigger personal blow to Nickel was the demolition of Holibard and Roche's Republic Building on State at Adams. A self-portrait of Nickel on the roof of the Republic graces the cover of They All Fall Down. The new book includes two Nickel photographs of the Republic that I've never seen. The first is a stunning cityscape from about 30 stories up looking southeast. The stepped pyramid atop the Metropolitan Tower with its famous beehive beacon, dominates the picture. Grant Park and Lake Michigan can seen in the background. Virtually every building in the photograph still exists, save for the Republic Building, smack dab in the middle of the frame. The Republic stands out from its neighbors with its classic Chicago School facade, gleaming, (despite its grimy surface), in the hazy late afternoon light.

The other photograph, taken from the NW corner of State and Adams, shows the building toward the end of its demolition, with only the first two floors remaining. (the caption mistakenly identifies the picture taken at the start of the construction of the building that would replace it). Signs on the scaffolding proudly announce the coming of the new building, the Home Federal Savings Savings and Loan Building. Even the architects of the new building, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, shamelessly display their stylized logo, despite the fact that part of the ornament of the doomed building was still visible through the scaffolding. Talk about a lack of respect! In the photograph, passersby go about their business, causing me to wonder what must have been going through their minds as one of the best buildings to have ever graced this city turns to dust before their eyes, about to be replaced by a second rate building, despite the first class pedigree of its designers. My guess is that most of them, as was the popular opinion of the day, thought that new necessarily meant better.

Richard Nickel begged to differ. In one letter reprinted in Cahan's book addressed to a Chicago Daily News reporter he wrote:
I had a good look recently at that Home Federal S&L building which replaced the Republic several years ago. That looms in my mind now as one of the great tragedies... or rather as one of the most willful unnecessary destructive acts to Chicago School heritage. I'll  never forgive Hartmann (Bill Hartmann, then senior partner of Skidmore Owings and Merrill) and SOM for that. The Republic was a work of art, and the new building is nothing... maybe some tinsel!
Nickel wrote a much more scathing letter to the editor of a publication called The American City, responding to an article they wrote in praise of the Garrick Parking Garage which replaced the Garrick Theater, The article pointed out the design of an ornamental panel which consisted of 233 slabs of concrete that were cast from a molding of a detail from the Sullivan building, plus one of the original details, all stuck together. in a large mass. Nickel scoffed at the caption of a photograph of the garage that said: "Chicago's new Civic Center Parking Garage represents a growing awareness of Chicago's architectural heritage." In response Nickel wrote:
...what about the lines, "the building pays graceful tribute to the memory of "Louis Sullivan"? They wreck one of his masterpieces, and you conclude it is a tribute. How? Why? Would  you say that if someone wrecked St. Peter's Cathedral [sic] in Rome and erected a garage on the site,  using some statues and whatever, that that was a tribute to St. Peter???
Whoever wrote that article is soft in the head...
Nickel was one of the leading advocates for saving the Garrick Theater. It turns out that he was successful in convincing none other than Mayor Richard J. Daley that the building was worth saving. The city of Chicago filed an injunction in an attempt to halt the demolition of the Sullivan building, but were over-ruled by the courts.

Daley was not so moved to save the old Stock Exchange Building. In a letter to CBS News, praising their coverage of the fate of the building, Nickel wrote:
it doesn't surprise me at all that hizzoner Daley is the dumbhead who lacked the imagination to save this unquestionable work of art. ... 
The question now is, well, it obviously isn't even a question... why do we have a landmark commission (headed at the time by the aforementioned William Hartmann), which gets $100,000 a year (?) funding, and is getting nothing done, is working at odds with the City Council and the blankety-blank mayor?
Nickel goes on in the letter to lambaste the cultural elite of Chicago who turned a blind eye to the fate of the city's architecture, by failing to show up for demonstrations to save the building:
Where was the cultural leadership of Chicago?? The architects, the curators, the professors and historians, etc. So perhaps it boils down to our getting what we deserve... 
Cahan follows that letter with another, a bitter attack of the city fathers, perhaps written under the influence, a double scotch to be exact, to William Hartmann himself. What does the letter say? Well you'll just have to buy the book to find out.

What follows these two letters are a series of heartbreaking photographs of the construction of the scaffolding around the Old Stock Exchange Building, symbolizing the demise of both the building and the photographer. This time, passersby stop and look in dismay at the sight of impending doom for a marvelous building.

The book is a fascinating look into the psyche of Richard Nickel, into what drove him, and the conflicts he faced as the life's work of the artist he chose to devote a good portion of his life to, was crumbling all around him.

It's easy to imagine Nickel as a bitter, tragic figure, pursuing a quixotic mission, doomed to failure, much the way Cahan portrays him in his biography. But the correspondence in this book show another side to the man: funny, engaging, awkward and perhaps like any good artist, just a bit off.

One letter (presumably never sent), which Nickel put huge crosses through, is a comical, rambling, stream of consciousness rant to a potential collaborator, referencing everything from sailing, to the author's car troubles, to his frustration about the apparent sexual advances from a male art historian. As if it were necessary to point out which side of the fence he was on, Nickel writes: "I often do a lot of things I don't want to do just to accommodate people and then I get impossible and bitchy. And art history is so full of old ladies...and whilst I'm not married, that doesn't mean I like to travel with men, or associate with men much at all." then at the bottom of the typed page he writes out by hand: "I'm beginning to appreciate women more and more! Backlash?" There he closes the letter with "Regards, Dick", but he wasn't finished. On the flip side of the page he typed another half page explaining the tone of the letter by saying he was sitting listening to (the composer) Janacek while downing some Johnny Walker Black, a "real luxury." Once again he closes the letter, this time with "Drunken Dick."

Nickel did have one release valve and that was a sailboat which he kept moored in Burnham Harbor. He delighted in inviting friends to sail with him. One post card printed in the book was an invitation written to the daughter of the ID professor and photographer, Arthur Siegel. "Oh I love to have pretty girls aboard the boat..." he writes, "wear your bikini (or whatever the girls are not wearing nowadays)." At a recent lecture at the Art Institute promoting his book, Cahan flashed on the screen that postcard, not commenting on its content, when who should turn up but the recipient of that letter, Julie Siegel. Being perhaps the one person in the room who actually knew Nickel, she tried to assure the audience that while tragedy befell Richard Nickel, he was quite a lovely, engaging character, not at all the sullen, miserable wretch as he is often portrayed.

Having written three books on Richard Nickel, Richard Cahan must now be considered the world authority on the subject. His quest to document the man rates up there in tenacity with Nickel's pursuit of Louis Sullivan. Cahan said at his talk at the Art Institute that when you think about it, Richard Nickel was a failure in everything he did. He lived much of his life with his parents in Park Ridge, Illinois. He wasn't successful in preserving any of the Sullivan buildings he worked diligently to save. He never came close to finishing the Sullivan project. And he never finished the house he bought for himself in Bucktown.

This time I beg to differ. Cahan is certainly right in asserting that Nickel left this world with an unfinished legacy. But his work to save the most important Sullivan buildings did make a difference. The group that Nickel led, protesting the raising of the Garrick Theater in the early sixties was a ragtag bunch that managed to get the mayor's attention and his tacit support. By the time the Stock Exchange Building was about to turn to dust, there was a more significant presence of protesters opposed to the demolition. The ultimate loss of the building and the tragic death of Nickel inside it, galvanized the preservation movement in Chicago. It would be premature to say battle lost but war won, as the struggle to save Chicago's architectural heritage continues. Yet I'm convinced that Nickel both in life and in death was and is the driving force of the preservation movement in this town and for that we have much to be thankful, as well for the efforts of Messers Vinci and Cahan who have worked so diligently to care for and preserve the legacy and the work of Richard Nickel.

My heartfelt thanks to all of you.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Of all the celebrations in Christendom, Holy Week has the most significance as it defines the very essence of the faith, that is, God's love for his people. It also presents problems, confusions, and preposterous assumptions that make some people run away from the faith as fast as their legs can carry them.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, commemorating Jesus's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, where throngs of people welcomed him into that city as the chosen one of God, whom they hoped would free the people from the bondage of oppression. In the minds of the people of Judea, that bondage was political, and the hope was that legions of God's army would follow the Messiah and free them from the bondage of their oppressors, at that time the Roman Empire. Quickly it became apparent that Jesus's agenda was not the same as their own. The first thing he did was enter King Solomon's Temple, and smash the tables of the merchants who set up shop inside the most sacred place of the Jewish people, saying "this is the house of God but you have made it a den of thieves." If that weren't enough, he then said, "destroy this Temple, and I will rebuild it in three days." Iconoclastic talk to be sure, especially for the elders of the faith who were always skeptical of people with Messianic claims who in those days, were a dime a dozen. This Jesus character it seemed, was particularly dangerous, as by attacking the goings on of the Temple itself,  he threatened the very core of their most sacred tradition. Clearly he had to be dealt with. Meanwhile the people themselves became disillusioned with Jesus as it soon became clear that he had no intention of toppling the government; heck he even dined with the most reviled representatives of the State, the tax collectors.

Given all that, it should come as little surprise that when Pontius Pilate gave them a choice, the people chose to spare the life of Barabbas, a tried and true zealot willing to fight for liberation, rather than Jesus, whom by then they considered a fraud. Thusly, Pilate washed his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus as he cynically claimed he was carrying out the will of the people. According to the Gospel of Matthew he told them: "I am innocent of this man's blood. The responsibility is yours!" To which the people replied: "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Sadly, as a consequence of those three sentences, for two millennia in the eyes of some, the culpability for the death of Jesus, to Christians the Son of God, has been laid at the feet of the Jews.

This is the clearest, most painful, and egregious example of the destructive power of taking scripture out of context. It represents a complete misunderstanding, misrepresentation and perversion of the entire meaning of Christian thought. Yet there it is in black and white, "the people..." (in some translations, "the Jews") "...replied: His blood be on us and on our children."

In order to put those words into proper perspective, you have to go to the beginning, back to the Gospel passage we often see referenced in the end zones of football games when a kicker attempts a field goal, John 3:16. You probably know it:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
And the following verse:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
That message of hope, the promise of eternal life is what lies at the heart of Christianity. It is from the bondage of death, of eternal darkness, that Jesus promises to free us. This message applies to all who believe in him, no matter the race, gender, or ethnicity of the believer. But there is still trouble with those verses. What about the non-believer?  Is he or she condemned to the dreaded eternal darkness of death?

I have a very unsatisfying answer to that question, I don't know. The truth is, none of us know. You can check Christian scripture in its entirety and come up with an answer to justify any point of view. We've been debating that point among others for two thousand years. To support your POV you can quote passages from the bible until you are blue in the face and someone will counter it with another passage that will support their quite different POV.

The good news is that we mere mortals have no say over who gets the thumbs up and who doesn't, it's God's job to sort it all out, pure and simple. Our job as believers is to live our own lives on earth as best we can and hope for God's favor. Unfortunately, there are many believers on this planet who willfully take on the responsibility of being the judge and jury over the souls of others, something the Bible explicitly forbids.

To Christians who take their faith at all seriously, the culpability for Jesus's death lies at the feet of all humanity, not just the Jews. It is our collective sinfulness, yours, mine, and everyone else's that is the reason for his death and resurrection. From a particularly Catholic point of view, it is our continued sinfulness that necessitates re-living the Sacrifice of Christ at every Mass. 

In his remarks at the Temple, unknown to anyone at the time, Jesus was referring to himself, his death and resurrection when he told them to destroy the temple and he would rebuild it in three days.  From that point on, Jesus would become the true Temple of God, not an edifice of brick and stone. Indeed the Word of God, first proclaimed to the Jews, would now be proclaimed to all.

Simply put, to the Christian mind, Jesus's death and resurrection was the will of God, it was pre-ordained and there was nothing any living mortal soul could do to stop it, as his disciples found out in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Of all the readings during Holy Week, the one that stirs my soul more than any other is this one, read during Good Friday service. These are the beautiful words taken out of Hebrew scripture, from the book of the Prophet Isaiah:
See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred was his look beyond human semblance
and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man—
so shall he startle many nations,
because of him kings shall stand speechless;
for those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.
Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.
If he gives his life as an offering for sin,
he shall see his descendants in a long life,
and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
and he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.
These words were written hundreds of years before Jesus, and Christians the world over believe they prophesize the death and resurrection of Christ.

Despite his suffering during the Passion, shortly before he died on the Cross, Jesus looked up to heaven and said: "Father forgive them, they know not what they do."

If the entire meaning of the Easter season could be condensed into a few words, those words would suffice.

Anyone who finds the need to place the blame for Jesus's death on a particular group of people, misses the point entirely.

Easter of course is the most joyous of Christian holidays because it represents for us the ultimate victory of light over darkness, the eternal hope for ourselves, our family and our world. Yet it is impossible experience the joy of Easter without first experiencing the suffering of Good Friday.

Over the years, the absolute joy of Easter has somehow alluded me. Try as I might, often participating in the full litany of Holy Week services, including the extremely poignant (and equally perplexing for the uninitiated) tradition of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, my expectations of being swept away in Easter rapture, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, has always seemed to have fallen short.

This year was different. For reasons too complicated to go into, Good Friday, two days ago was a particularly painful day for my family and me.

Then on Saturday something wonderful happened. Easter joy this year blindsided me in the most unlikely of places, a Patti Smith concert. The legendary rock star/artist confessed her longtime love for the holiday of Easter. After the concert it occurred to me that the title of one of her early albums was in fact "Easter." She confessed that may sound unlikely, coming from someone who wrote the line: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." She went on to say she wrote those words back when she was 20, (she's now pushing 70), but that despite a distaste for organized religion, faith plays a big role in her life.

In honor of the holiday, much to the surprise of the crowd, between songs she read this story of Easter as found at the end of the Gospel of St. Matthew:
Now late on the sabbath day, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled away the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was as lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the watchers did quake, and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye; for I know that ye seek Jesus, who hath been crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, even as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples, He is risen from the dead; and lo, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you. And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word. And behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then saith Jesus unto them, Fear not: go tell my brethren that they depart into Galilee, and there shall they see me. 
The eleven disciples went into Galilee, unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
The experience of real suffering on Good Friday combined with hearing those words of healing in the least expected of places, gave me a sense of joy and solace I could not possibly have found in church.

He is risen, Hallelujah!

Happy Easter.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Luna Park

Luna Park, St. Kilda, Victoria
While we're on the subject of classic amusement parks, I'd like to bring up one that is very much alive, about 10,000 miles away in Australia.

I had the great privilege of visiting Melbourne a few years back and was struck by the similarities of the capital of the Australian state of Victoria, and my hometown of Chicago. The two are about the same age, Chicago having received its city charter in 1837, and Melbourne in 1847. Both are the traditional second cities of their respective countries, although only Melbourne can still legitimately claim that title. Both Melbourne and Chicago were boom towns in their early days because of their advantageous geographical locations as far as trade and commerce are concerned.

Walter Burley and Marion Mahony
Capitol Theater Building
One big difference between the two is that Chicago became a city sixty years after American independence from Great Britain while Melbourne was founded as an imperial city. Much of its Victorian era architecture reflects that fact. Locals like to joke that the city's main train station, the beloved over-the-top, Flinders Street Station, was designed back at the home office in London, but there was a mix-up and its plans were mistakenly sent to Melbourne instead of Bombay(Mumbai), where the station was intended to be built.

Manchester United Building
sporting a tower that should
look quite familiar to Chicagoans
Despite the large number of British inspired Victorian era buildings, there is a strong architectural bond between Melbourne and Chicago. Walter Burley Griffin who earned his chops in Chicago in the offices of Dwight Perkins and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then on his own with a successful practice, moved to Australia with his professional partner and wife Marion Mahony Griffin when they were commissioned to design the plan for the new Australian capital city of Canberra. The couple established an office in Melbourne as well where they made their presence known with some of that city's' finest buildings including the Capitol Theater pictured on the left, with a facade that would fit quite nicely in Chicago's Loop.

The adjacent building just visible in the left corner of the photograph is the Manchester United Building designed by Melbourne architect Marcus Barlow. That 1932 building is a neo-Gothic skyscraper, a genre which was in vogue in Chicago in the twenties. The tower of the Manchester United Building should look very familiar to anybody who has ever been to the Windy City with its strong resemblance, flying buttresses and all, to Raymond Hood's Tribune Tower.

Melbourne Mish Mosh
These two Chicago inspired skyscrapers reside in Melbourne's Downtown or as they call it, their Central Business District, CBD for short. The CBD like Chicago's Loop is like an architectural workshop displaying a wide range of styles from the aforementioned British Victorian, and Chicago Industrial, to almost every subsequent popular style of the era, neo-Gothic and Classical, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism, Brutalism, Deconstructivism, Post Modernism, virtually every kind of "ism" you can think of except for one. That one would be "contextualism", the idea that new buildings should be designed to fit in with at least the spirit of the extant buildings in the neighborhood. By and large the architectural landscape of Melbourne is far less conservative than Chicago's, and planners and architects of that city have more free reign to experiment with forms, styles and one particular trait, whimsy. All that would be frowned upon here. The result is a hodge-podge, crazy-quilt collection of buildings that don't appear to speak to each other as much as scream at each other.

Let's face it, this sort of thing would never fly in Chicago
The strange thing is that it works. Strolling the streets of the CBD is a journey of discovery; approaching each intersection, you never know what you'll find around the corner. What ties it all together is a system of arcades, elaborate ones from the 19th century, connected by more rough hewn ones from the last two decades, that create a system of walkways, some indoor, some outdoor, that break the monotony of the rigid street grid pattern. In a way this reminded me of the Chicago Loop of my childhood with its many subterranean haunts and multi storied buildings filled with a wide variety of mom and pop shops that invited visitors to explore businesses catering to every possible interest. A victim of its own success, today, Loop property values and rental costs are prohibitive for all but the most lucrative businesses, and what was once a place of endless variety, the Loop is now almost strictly the domain of chain restaurants and retailers, closed door offices, and residential units.

Alas, such is "progress".

Anyway, I experienced a real feeling of deja vu when I took the streetcar (another long vanished part of the Chicago landscape) out to the bordering suburb of St. Kilda, and visited Luna Park. There were many amusement parks all over the world with that name, some of which still exist, including the one at Coney Island. The St. Kilda Luna Park opened in 1912 and has enjoyed nearly continuous operation ever since, save for a period during World War I.

As soon as I stepped through the mouth of Mr. Moon and into the amusement park, I was transported back nearly fifty years to my childhood days at Riverview. I couldn't help be struck by Mr. Moon's resemblance to the face of Aladdin in front of his castle, the fun house of my old stomping grounds. Just like Aladdin's Castle, the first thing you encounter at Luna Park is this:

The roller coaster pictured below, called the "Scenic Railway" which completely encircles Luna Park, dates from the very beginning of the park and is the oldest continuously operating roller coaster in the world:

Like Riverview of old, admission is free so you can walk around Luna Park to your heart's content. The rides of course are not free. From what I can tell, even taking inflation and exchange rates into account, ticket prices are exponentially higher than Riverview's, but probably not out of line with comparable amusement parks these days. Case in point, a one minute and half ride on Coney Island's famous Cyclone roller coaster will set you back nine bucks.

Here are pictures of a few of the rides in St. Kilda:

Pharaoh's Curse

The Coney Drop, a replica of a ride at Luna Park's namesake amusement park in Coney Island

The Twin Dragon

The Scenic Railway

In case you're an old time Chicagoan jonesing for a Riverview fix, before you pack your bags and fly halfway around the world, let me just say you could probably take the entire Luna Park and place it inside the area once occupied by Riverview's Shoot the Chutes, and still have space for the Wild Mouse ride.

What's more, in these sensitive times, there are no collapsing stairways, dunk tanks, or guys who control air grates in the floor, opening them when unsuspecting ladies in skirts walk above. And for the life of me I couldn't find a freak show to save my life.

No, it's all good, clean, PC fun, even the roller coaster as you can see is so tame, park employees ride it standing up. In reality, given its size and the intensity of its rides, Luna Park, Melbourne could probably be better compared to another defunct Chicagoland amusement park, Kiddleland, which entertained families in west suburban Melrose Park for sixty years from 1950 until 2010.

This isn't meant to dis Luna Park in any way, it is a wonderful place that holds countless memories I would imagine for every Melburnian since 1912. Just like other amusement parks, it's had its ups and downs with sporadic threats over the years to close it down. But times change and what to one generation is tired and old, to another is warm and charming. Luna Park exists today because it survived through the bad times long enough to be cool again.

In light of that, it's tempting to wring our hands here in Chicago and wonder if only the owners of Riverview had not been so eager to sell back in the sixties, and instead had the foresight to carry on, maybe, just maybe, we'd now have a tremendous vintage amusement park that would be the pride of the Midwest as well as a huge money maker.

That's a nice fantasy but quite honestly I can't imagine a scenario where Riverview could have possibly survived to this day. First of all, in 1968, the year following Riverview's closing, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and much of Chicago burned. What followed was a mass exodus of people (who could afford it), from the city to the suburbs. Riverview already had a reputation, whether deserved or not, for being dangerous, and that reputation most certainly would have increased in the late sixties/early seventies, as the words "inner city" became synonymous in the minds of many, with crime and danger. The motivation to sell would have only increased in the ten years after Riverview closed.

Then in 1976, what almost certainly would have been the death knell for Riverview, had it not already been dead, was the opening of Great America Park in Gurnee, Illinois. The big attraction to Riverview was always its size (it was billed as the largest amusement park in the world), and the scariness of its rides. Great America was much bigger and its rides were scarier. On top of that, Great America was located way out in the distant suburbs, you neded a car to get there. Once there you needed a significant chunk of change just to get into the place, a trip there would cost a family of four well into the hundreds of dollars. You might think this would be a deterrent, which it certainly was for people without the time and the money to make the trip. That was exactly the point. For those who had the money, it was well spent as it kept out the riffraff, (i.e.: people like me, who never set foot in the joint), insuring a pleasurable and above all safe family outing, at least in the minds of its visitors.

Had Riverview survived into the mid-seventies, it would have been seen as the poor man's Great America, which certainly would have degraded it's by then, damaged reputation.

Now imagine it had stubbornly survived all that, and lasted into the era of the revival of the big American city in the eighties and nineties. Had that been the case, the property value, not for the development of industry as was the trend in the sixties, but for the development of mid to upper income housing, would have made the value of the land underneath Riverview skyrocket. Had the owners sat upon their property say twenty or thirty more years, the value would have increased perhaps tenfold, that after inflation is figured in. Looking back, it's kind of funny to think the Schmidt family sold the land under their amusement park, thus insuring its doom, for a mere six million dollars.

Could a dilapidated 1990s Riverview have survived the temptation for its owners to sell the land for perhaps several hundred million dollars? Most likely not.

You may be asking, given their similar circumstances, if the Luna Parks in Coney Island and Melbourne survived why couldn't Riverview? I would answer with two simple reasons, location and size. Those two parks were built in the middle of historic resort areas fronted by beaches. Their neighborhoods had amenities that catered to the beachcombers and other visitors, and the amusement parks served as merely one of many attractions. Think of Coney Island and you think of the Boardwalk, Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs and of course, the beach, along with the Wonderwheel and the Cyclone. While the neighborhood went to pot in the sixties and seventies, people still went to the beach. In a city where everybody rides the subway, at least half the New York City subway lines go to Coney Island. Likewise, St. Kilda is at the end of a tram line that runs through the heart of the CBD, making it easily accessible to visitors such as myself.

By contrast, Riverview was built in the middle of a residential and industrial neighborhood. Had it been located on the shores of Lake Michigan, it may have been a different story. Riverview's neighborhood never went through a drastic transformation as the neighborhood of Coney Island, but aside from the concentration of antique shops on Belmont Avenue, by itself there's not a whole lot there to attract visitors.

It's not particularly difficult to get to Riverview on public transportation, but it's not on an "L" line, you have to transfer to a bus. Unlike Great America, it's not right off the highway either, you have to navigate city streets. Riverview by itself was the destination of its neighborhood, and when it was the only game in town, it was well worth the effort to get there. If it had become no longer the only game in town, not so much.

Then there was its size. Riverview took up 47 acres of land. Compare that to just over three acres at the current Luna Park in Coney Island and about the same for St. Kilda. Back in the days when land and labor were cheap, it wasn't much of an expense to keep a big park going. Things change. Combine that with the cost of keeping order in the increasingly disorderly Riverview and it's not too hard to understand why the owners wanted to get while the getting was good.

Hard for me to say it but maybe it's a good thing that Riverview closed when it did. More than likely, it would have gone into a downhill trajectory for at least twenty years had it remained open. By the time things got better for the city, it might have been beyond repair. Had that been the case, our memories of it would be much less sweet. As it is, like the careers of the Beatles and Peyton Manning, despite showing its age, Riverview's days ended while it was still on top.

Perhaps there's something to be said for that.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Last Ride at Riverview

Inspired by the impending demolition of the 54 year old Western Avenue Overpass which began this week, I took the kids for one last ride up the old roadway for a final chance at a view of the city that will be gone forever. If you recall from two posts ago, that roadway's purpose if you don't know its history, may seem perplexing. It was built to bypass the tremendously popular Chicago icon, Riverview Amusement Park. Perhaps when the overpass was built in 1961, Riverview and its million and a half yearly visitors seemed like a fixture that would be around forever. Alas, six years later after the 1967 season, Riverview closed for good. Long after the Shoot-the-Chutes, the Bobs, the Parachute ride and Aladdin's Castle were turned to scrap and dust, the roadway remained until nature ran its course, and a few years ago a decision had to be made, either rebuild the dilapidated, out-of-date structure, or simply remove and replace it with a conventional roadway

Many motorists no doubt would have preferred the former solution but such is life. Sorry to say it, but as of March 1, 2016, the last ride of Riverview is no more.

The Western Avenue overpass as it looked during its last weekend of operation.
Here you see local traffic on the right, while on the left,
some of the final motorists to ever use it "fly" over Belmont Avenue.

After Riverview closed, from a practical standpoint, for drivers on Western the overpass was a nice, but relatively insignificant bonus as it enabled them to avoid only one stoplight. From the street level as you can see, the overpass is something of an eyesore, and as far as I can tell, there was little opposition to its demolition.

The intersection of Belmont, Western and Clybourn.

Of course nothing is ever perfect, and the demise of the overpass will no doubt result in more backups at the five way intersection of Belmont, Western and Clybourn Avenues. That's not counting the horrific congestion its demolition and reconfiguration will cause. The whole project is not scheduled to be completed until September, 2017.

A symbol of the pre-eminence of the automobile in the early sixties, the overpass like the expressways of this city, was built without any consideration of its surroundings. It obscured the main entrance to Riverview on Western Avenue, visually cutting it off from the other side of the street. Visitors arriving on foot from the east had to walk under the overpass whose diminishing ceiling under the north ramp had to have been a nuisance, especially for tall people:

The main entrance to Riverview on Western Avenue before the overpass was built.
The presence of the "Green Hornet" streetcar dates this historic photo (photographer unknown)
 to sometime before 1958.
The structure of the Silver Flash roller coaster is in the background.
This was shot from roughly the same spot as the photograph above,
showing how the overpass would have obscured the view of the entrance from the street.

For an eight year old like me however, walking under the overpass was a prelude to the fun house with its rooms of distorted proportions. But for grownups on foot, the cramped, unwelcoming, somewhat threatening confines of the space underneath the overpass certainly had to diminish the experience of entering the park:

My daughter demonstrating the experience I had at her age while under the overpass, feeling very tall.

I also wanted to show my kids the site of one of the happiest places of my childhood. Unless you have a thing for irony, you'd be hard pressed to apply Riverview's old slogan. "Laugh your troubles away" to the site today. The closest thing that resembles lost Riverview is the huge police radio tower that was built on almost the exact site of the Pair-O-Chutes ride. With a bit of squinting and a whole lot of imagination, you can almost see the old contraption that thrilled and terrified Riverview patrons at the same time:

A rendering of the Pair-O-Chutes at night (artist unknown)
If you use your imagination and squint really hard,
you may be able to conjure up this; but open them...

...and this is what you see, the police tower which sits upon the site of Riverview's Parachute ride.

Of course the functions of the two structures couldn't be more different, and opening your eyes to the reality of the place is like waking from a fantastic dream and finding yourself back within the confines of your old, bleak, hum drum world. If you recall the story of my mother's two delinquent classmates who ditched class one day only to find themselves stuck on top of the parachute ride back in the forties, how appropriate, or ironic it should be that the ride would be replaced by the ultimate symbol of authority. Perhaps that tower should be named for the two boys. Perhaps it already is.

It only gets stranger. As if it were a twisted joke, the police headquarters/courthouse proper sits upon the site of Aladdin's Castle, Riverview's fun house. Your sense of fun would really be tested here, especially if you found yourself checked in as a guest of the police station's iron hotel.

I'm only speculating but I suppose that given Riverview's dubious reputation in its later years for being crime ridden, a lot of folks applauded the fact that the first thing to be built on the old site would be a police headquarters. It was the late sixties after all, a time when the tension between those who loved authority and the police, and those that hated them was even stronger than it is today. That a facility representing the state's authority would be built upon a site that once represented joy, freedom,  and a little bit of controlled mayhem, is very powerful symbol indeed.

As a token effort to pay lip service the old amusement park as well as add a touch of color and levity to an otherwise dour environment, artist Jerry Peart was commissioned in 1980 to create a sculpture, titled, appropriately enough, "Riverview", intended to evoke the feeling of the long lost park. Did he succeed? Well, you be the judge...

Before (photographer unknown)


It may be a pleasant work of art of sorts, but there's no question where I'd rather hang out.

For many years, the vast majority of the old site of Riverview was taken up by acre upon acre of concrete, which served as parking spaces for the staff and students of DeVry University. Most of the time the parking spots were empty, making the area great for student drivers, skateboarders and roller bladers but not much else. Recently a few other schools replaced much of the concrete and now there is a little campus of schools that is an improvement:

A new campus has brought some more life to the site.
I shot the photograph above while standing near the site of the famous Bobs roller coaster which would have been to my left, just out of the picture frame. Here you're looking north, in the direction of the Shoot-the-Chutes and the Tunnel of Love, a ride I didn't get the point of until about eight years after Riverview closed. By the time I understood, it was too late...

Riverview Tunnel of Love, 1943 (photographer unknown)
Fortunately there is a small section of the Riverview site that retains some of the atmosphere of the old park. It fronts the river and could legitimately be called Riverview Park, even though that's not really its name. It's called Richard Clark Park and comprises a sliver of the west end of the old Riverview site. Now that the overpass is no more, Clark Park contains the only relics from Riverview that you will find on the site. For starters, I'm told there are cottonwood trees that were around at the time of the amusement park. I spent a good time photographing them about fifteen years ago while working on a photographic project documenting the Chicago River. If you look hard enough, you'll also find some remnants such as footings from the old Shoot-the-Chutes ride:

The Shoot-the-Chutes, the first ride ever built at Riverview,
and the cable railway called the Sky-Ride, the last, (photographer unknown)

My son standing upon what remains of the Shoot-the-Chutes.
Clark Park has a lovely river walk that is perfect for a stroll day or night. Even better, some of the devil-may-care spirit has returned to Riverview in the form of a bike dirt jump and pump track. Without any bikes, my kids still had a blast running up and down this crude but effective obstacle course that takes advantage of some of the remnants and topography of the old picnic grounds that surrounded the Shoot-the-Chutes:

A little bit of the spirit of Riverview lives on...

This looks like fun. If I were about ten years younger I'd try it out myself.
The bike course pictured above, maintained by an independent group, Chicago Area Mountain Bikers, has brought back a little of the fun and mayhem to the north side of Chicago, something it sorely needs.

Last Saturday we went for a final ride on the Western Avenue Overpass, the last ride at Riverview. I asked my children, one on the passenger side, the other on the driver side, to document the ride. Strap yourself in folks for a hair-raising, spine tingling, ride. Hold on for dear life...

Photographs by Rose and Theo Iska

Ok so maybe it wasn't  the Silver Flash, the Comet the Jetstream, the Flying Cars, Hades, the Rotor, the Chute-the-Chutes or even the Wild Mouse. It certainly didn't have the cache of the Bobs, or the Pair-O-Chutes. More than likely, most of the people who used the overpass everyday didn't think much about or even notice it, or the great views of Chicago it provided.

Like the old amusement park it was built around, it had its dark side to go along with the thrills (yes I mean thrills). Eventually the realities of economics, safety and practicality deemed it had to go. So be it. We've been through this before and will again and again. The city, ever growing, ever changing, stops for nothing, least of all memories of a long gone, but very sweet past.

The overpass on its last day of service, February 29,2016.

Goodbye old friend.