Sunday, April 30, 2017

Photographs of the Month

Montgomery ward Building from Millennium Park, April 6

Reliance Building, April 6

Loop Reflections, April 6

Jackson Street, between State and Wabash, April 11

From North Harbor Tower, April 16

Shoes, Jackson Red Line Stop, April 17

Sears/Willis Tower, April 19 

Adams and Wabash, April 20

Sullivanesque ornament with Googie style reflections, April 28

Garden, Rogers Park, April 28

Public transit portrait, Red Line, April 28

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Are You a Skyscraper?

As you may recall, my last post began with a chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago since 1854. As with most second cities, Chicago suffers from a notorious inferiority complex, and is particularly obsessed with the size of its buildings. Look at any description of this town written by a promoter, and you will no doubt read that Chicago is "the birthplace of the skyscraper." Now that claim either is true or not, depending upon your definition of the very non-technical term, skyscraper. However, regardless of the accuracy of that claim, any serious study of the history of tall buildings, has to go through Chicago.

I originally intended to publish the list of the tallest buildings in Chicago over the years along with photographs of the buildings. But then some curious issues came up. First, I found a couple discrepancies between two published lists. Then while searching for photographs of the old Church of the Holy Name which counting its spire, both lists agreed was the tallest Chicago building between 1854 and 1869, I could not find a single photograph of it with its spire coming anywhere close to the advertised 254 feet. A little research revealed that the while the church was built in 1854, construction on its steeple was not begun until the late 1860s and was still going on when the building was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Therefore it cannot have been the tallest building in Chicago from 1854 until at least 1870, and given the state of its completion at the time of its destruction, its status as ever having been the tallest building in the city is doubtful. Another church sited on one list, St. Michael's in Old Town, may or may not have had a 290 foot spire before 1871, 36 feet taller than Holy Name's. The walls of the church survived but whatever spire existed was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1871, and not rebuilt in 1888.

Here I've taken the liberty to make my own list, slightly different from the other two, which reflects my modest research. The two caveats I have are the exact date of the topping off of the doomed Holy Name spire, and my current uncertainty about the height, and even the existence of the pre-fire St. Michael's spire, which could have been taller than Holy Name's.

BuildingDates as tallest buildingft (m)Stories
Church of the Holy Name1870(?)-1871254 (75)1
Chicago Water Tower1871–1874154 (47)1
Holy Family Church1874–1885266 (81)1
Chicago Board of Trade Building1885-1895322 (98)10
Masonic Temple Building1895–1899302 (92)21
Montgomery Ward Building1899–1922394 (120)19
Wrigley Building1922–1924398 (134)29
Chicago Temple Building1924–1930568 (173)21
Chicago Board of Trade Building1930–1965605 (184)44
Richard J. Daley Center1965–1969648 (198)31
John Hancock Center1969–19731,127 (344)100
Aon Center1973–19741,136 (346)83
Willis Tower    1974–present1,450 (442)108

One of these days I may attempt to compile an accurate list of the tallest buildings in Chicago before the Great Fire. In the last post I mentioned a photographic panorama of the city made shortly before the fire which was published in the book Chicago, Growth of a Metropolis, made from the tower of the old City Hall/Courthouse Building. The pictures do not line up perfectly as the panorama was assembled for the book from a series of photographs made at different times by different photographers. That vantage point for the photographs was most likely the highest point in the city at the time where it would be possible for a photographer to set up a camera on a tripod, Back in the day before electric fire alarm systems, that tower served as the lookout point where spotters would be posted to report fires in the city. This was how the Great Fire of October 8, 1871 was first reported to the fire department. The inefficiency of this system resulted in firefighters being originally sent to the wrong location, costing several precious minutes that could have spared much of the city from destruction.

In my book, the highest accessible floor would be the most important criterion for determining a building's height. But that's not how the big boys do it. The official arbiter of building heights, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, goes strictly by highest architectural element, meaning that the tops of church steeples and other purely decorative spires mark the official top of a building. In the photographs of the Chicago panorama, it appears that there are indeed church steeples that exceed the height of the camera, but just barely, so to accurately determine the highest point in the city at a given point in time, one would have to identify each church, and find a reputable source for the height, and the date of its steeple's construction, not as easy a task as it may seem.

Looking at the chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago, with the exception of one, every building on the list until the Richard J. Daley Center, was the tallest building by virtue of a decorative appendage stuck atop the structure.

As you can see in this rendering of the Board of Trade Building, the immediate predecessor of the current iteration of that venerable Chicago institution built to replace it on the same site, nearly fifty percent of its total height is represented by its tower which topped off at 322 ft:

To illustrate the confusion about building heights, the Home Federal Insurance Building, the first tall building supported entirely by an interior iron/steel skeleton, (hence in some schools of thought, the first skyscraper) was built the following year, two blocks north of the old Board of Trade. That building topped off at a mere 138 feet. The picture below was made after two additional floors were added in 1890 bringing its total height to 180 feet, still 122 ft shorter in total height than its neighbor two blocks to the south, the Old Board of Trade:

But if you go to this Wikipedia entry on the history of the world's tallest buildings, you will find a chronology of the world's tallest skyscrapers, defined strictly as buildings supported by an interior skeleton. Indeed, the Home Insurance Building tops the list of "the buildings that were the tallest skyscrapers (in the world)– but still shorter than the tallest church or cathedral" from 1884 to 1890. 

This is a strange distinction since the tallest "churches or cathedrals" would certainly have had load bearing walls, that is to say, external walls not supported by an internal skeleton, just as was the case with the Old Board of Trade, or the Rookery Building across the street, exactly one foot taller than the final height of the Home Insurance Building. 

Below is a photograph I found mistakenly residing on a website devoted to pre-fire Chicago, erroneously labeled with the date of 1870. The tower on the left dominating the skyline is clearly the old Board of Trade, and dead center in the top third of the photograph is the Rookery Building. Barely visible, the building just to the right or north of the Rookery, is the Home Insurance Building, clearly several feet shorter than the Rookery. Since Home Insurance added two stories in 1890 bringing it to within a foot of the Rookery Building, which itself was built in 1888, we can safely pin down the date of this photograph to somewhere between those two years. 

According to the Wikipedia list sited above, the Home Insurance Building, which is hardly visible in the photograph, was the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time the picture taken, even though it was not even the tallest building on its own street.

Clearly lists such as these need to be taken with a grain of salt.

About four years after this picture was taken, a Chicago building surpassed the Old Board of Trade Building in every aspect with the exception of ground to pinnacle height. It would eventually succeed the Board of Trade as unequivocally the tallest building in its city when the latter lost its tower in 1895.

The building that succeeded the Old Board of Trade as the tallest buildings in its city was one of the most magnificent buildings to have ever been built in Chicago, the late, great Masonic Temple designed by the architectural firm of Burnham and Root.

Masonic Temple

The Masonic Temple deserves its own post which will follow shortly. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Phantom Tower

Here's a good Chicago trivia question for you.
It's a picture clue:

In this view looking up Michigan Avenue from Monroe Street, three of the buildings pictured were at the time of their construction, the tallest building in Chicago. Name them.

I bet you can't. Well at least I couldn't name all three a week ago, as at least one of my picks would have been wrong. That in itself might be a clue, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Years ago, the syndicated columnist Sydney J. Harris used to have a regular feature called "Things I Learned on my Way to Looking up Other Things." That was back in the day before the internet when you'd look through a general interest reference book, perhaps an encyclopedia, and come across information that might catch your eye that had absolutely nothing to do with what you were looking for. Internet searches are more focused, so if the web is your primary source of information, you're less likely to be looking up say, gestation periods of mice, and find yourself engrossed in an article about the Gettysburg Address.

But I digress. As I was looking up information for an earlier post on the Sears/Willis Tower on the Emporis website, I came across a link that listed the chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago, beginning in 1854.

It turns out the same list can be found on Wikipedia, which is what I copied here:
Building Dates as tallest building
in Chicago
ft (m) Stories
First Holy Name Cathedral 1854–1869 245 (75) 1
Saint Michael's Church 1869–1885 290 (88) 1
Chicago Board of Trade Building1885–1895 322 (98) 10
Masonic Temple Building 1895–1899 302 (92) 21
Montgomery Ward Building 1899–1922 394 (120) 22
Wrigley Building 1922–1924 438 (134) 30
Chicago Temple Building 1924–1930 568 (173) 23
Chicago Board of Trade Building 1930–1965 605 (184) 44
Richard J. Daley Center 1965–1969 648 (198) 32
John Hancock Center 1969–1973 1,127 (344) 100
Aon Center 1973–1974 1,136 (346) 83
Willis Tower     1974–present 1,451 (442) 108

Now if you know your Chicago buildings, you'll realize that the three buildings in my picture on the list of one time tallest buildings in the city are the Aon Center, (formerly the Standard Oil Building, the tower on the extreme right), the Wrigley Building, (the bright white building which you can see off in the distance in the lower left quadrant of the picture), and the Montgomery Ward Building, (also known as the Tower Building, the third building from the left).

The list contains a few surprises in its omissions. If you're an old time Chicagoan like me, you might be surprised that the Prudential Building, (or One Prudential Plaza as it's now called, the Mid-century Modern building with the huge antenna), is not on the list.  Between the time it was built, 1955, until the construction of the John Hancock Building on North Michigan Avenue in 1969, most people in town assumed the Prudential was the tallest building in the city because it featured an observation deck, and pretty much billed itself as such. Mea culpa, I declared it as Chicago's one time tallest in my appreciation of the building in this blog post. There I called it "the tallest building in the city and the most prominent building in the skyline." Well at least the second part was true. The first part was partially true, as the Prudential did once have the tallest roof and highest occupied floor in the city. But if you count the statue of the goddess Ceres atop the Chicago Board of Trade Building on La Salle Street, as the folks who compile building height stats do, that 1930 building is taller, by all of four feet! It became a moot point when the Richard J. Daley Civic Center was built in 1965, a full 47 feet taller than the Prudential. Still the top of that building is devoted to mechanical equipment so the Prudential still could claim the highest occupied floor in Chicago until 1969.

These may seem trivial distinctions until you consider the brouhaha over One World Trade Center in New York City, which was completed in 2014. The roof of that building is 1,368 feet above the ground. The roof of Sears/Willis Tower in Chicago is 1,450 ft. The difference is that One World Trade has a decorative mast on top of the building, which looks very much like an antenna, bringing the total package from ground to pinnacle, to 1,776 feet, an easy number to remember (no coincidence there). There was a huge debate at the time between backers of the two cities over which town's building was taller. The official arbiter of such things, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, determined that the thing on top of the New York building was indeed an architectural element, as opposed to a an antenna, which meant it counted toward the building's official height, making it by decree, taller than the Chicago building. Here, on their site you can read about their criteria, which is in agreement with the Chicago list which takes into account architectural elements like church spires and statues atop buildings, but not antennas and other purely functional elements.

Another surprising omission from the list is William LeBaron Jenny's Home Insurance Building. Topping off at 138 feet, the ten, later twelve story 1884 building was dwarfed by the 290 foot steeple of St. Michael's Church. Yet the significance of Jenny's building is far greater than the church steeple as it was the first tall building to have been supported both inside and out, by an interior fireproof metal frame. Ask any dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan and he or she will proudly tell you that Jenny's building was the "world's first skyscraper." Given the term, one would assume that distinction alone would make it, upon its construction, the city's if not the world's tallest building. It wasn't even close. However "skyscraper" is not a technical term describing a particular construction technique, but a relative term that describes any tall building in relation to its surroundings. In Chicago, a city with today, perhaps 100 buildings with more than 50 stories, no one would call a new ten story building a skyscraper, regardless of how it is constructed.

Beyond their usefulness for providing esoteric facts and trivia game answers, if you actually put some thought into them, lists like these can be useful tools in the study of the history of a city. One might reasonably assume for example, that the tallest building in a city at a given time is an indication of the relative importance of the institution that built it. For example, if you look at the list of the chronology of the tallest buildings in Chicago, you'll notice that in the early years, the tallest buildings were churches. You might conclude that Chicagoans at the time were more concerned about building temples to God than to Mammon. This in fact is an interesting topic which has no simple answer, it is the jumping off point for such disparate topics as19th Century religion and building technology.

There is a practical reason why commercial buildings were not as tall as church steeples in the mid-nineteenth century; the first passenger elevator wouldn't appear in Chicago until the mid 1860s. Before that, it was simply unfeasible to build "walkup" buildings above a certain height as no tenant would rent a space where they'd have to climb more than six or seven flights of stairs to get to their office or home. Church steeples on the other hand, could be built at the discretion of their congregations, to great heights, some of them exceeding the height of a present day twenty story building. The taller the steeple, the greater the prestige of the congregation, and also the neighborhood in which it stood. While religion certainly wasn't the centerpiece of early Chicagoans ' lives, the presence of churches in a community gave at least the appearance of cultivation, that contrasted with the get-rich-quick, no-holds-barred, boom town mentality of Chicago, the necessary yin to the young city's yang, so to speak. In the 1860s, the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted cynically wrote in his journal:
A church steeple will be built higher than it otherwise would be because the neighboring lot holders regard it as an advertisement of their property. There is nothing done in Chicago that is not regarded as an advertisement of Chicago.

Spire of St. Michael's, Old Town
The tallest of tis kind in Chicago
 With the introduction of the elevator and William LeBaron Jenny's technical innovations, multi-story buildings could now be as tall as the economic conditions of the time permitted. As commercial buildings grew taller, church steeples did not. With the exception of the 1924 Chicago Temple Building which features a church steeple placed atop an office building, (a unique temple to both God and Mammon), the tallest stand-alone church steeple in Chicago is still St. Michael's in Old Town (not to be confused with St. Michael the Archangel Church, another landmark church with an enormous steeple that defines its community, South Chicago). After the destruction of the Church of the Holy Name in the Great Fire, the steeple of its successor, Holy Name Cathedral, would be several feet shorter than it predecessor's. Rather than compete for height with the new skyscrapers, church congregations in Chicago found new ways to distinguish their houses of worship, such as placing them adjacent to parks and other open spaces.

When I first conceived this post, my idea was to simply print the Emporis/Wikipedia chronology list
accompanied by some comments and contemporary photographs of the nine extant buildings, and historical photographs of the three that have been lost. In doing a little background research, I opened up my copy of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, to their entry on skyscrapers. That article included the book's own chronological list of the city's tallest buildings. To my surprise, their list doesn't quite match the Emporis/Wikipedia List. Here is the Encyclopedia of Chicago list, as borrowed from their web site:

Building Date ft Stories Address
First Holy Name Cathedral 1854 254 1 733 N. State Street
Water Tower 1869 154 1 800 N. Michigan Avenue
Holy Family Church 1874 266 1 1080 W. Roosevelt Road
Masonic Temple 1892 302 21 State and Randolph, NE corner
The Tower Building 1899 394 19 6 N. Michigan Avenue
Wrigley Building 1922 398 29 400 N. Michigan Avenue
Chicago Temple 1923 568 21 77 W. Washington Street
Chicago Board of Trade 1930 605 44 141 W. Jackson Boulevard
Richard J. Daley Center 1965 648 31 50 W. Washington Street
John Hancock Tower 1969 1,127 100 875 N. Michigan Avenue
Aon Center 1973 1,136 83 200 E. Randolph Street
Sears Tower     1974 1,450 110 233 S. Wacker Drive

Two buildings on the Encyclopedia of Chicago's list are not on the Emporis list, the Water Tower, in place of St. Michael's Church, and Holy Family Church, rather than the old Board of Trade. Now if you look closely at this second list, there is something curious about the inclusion of the Water Tower. Built in 1869, the Water Tower's height of 154 feet is exactly 100 feet shorter than the building it succeeds, the old Church of the Holy Name. That church was destroyed in the Great Fire while the Water Tower stands to this day, so it makes sense that as the tallest building left standing intact, the Water Tower would have succeeded the church as the tallest building in the devastated city. But the fire took place in 1871, so I can only conclude that the 1869 date is a mistake.

Holy Family Church
Prevailing SW winds on the night of
October 8, 1871 prevented this
great west side church from being
consumed by the Great Fire which
started only one half mile away.
Holy Family Church, built in 1860, also survived the Fire, apparently in answer to Father Arnold Damen's prayers that the church he built to serve Chicago's burgeoning immigrant Irish population of Chicago's west side, be spared. Whether it was divine providence or merely the strong southwesterly winds that steered the flames away from his church, less than a half mile from the source of the fire, to this day lights are lit at the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help inside the sanctuary of Holy Family in eternal gratitude that the church was saved. The reason why the the Encyclopedia of Chicago's date for Holy Family succeeding the Water Tower is 1874, rather than its construction date, was answered for me by Father George Lane and his seminal book on the subject, Chicago Churches and Synagogues: An Architectural Pilgrimage, which points out that the spire of Holy Family wasn't completed until 1874.

But what about the spire of St. Michael's, which is 24 feet higher than Holy Family's? Unlike Holy Family, St. Michael's was directly in the path of the fire. As this stereo-photograph of the devastation of St. Mike's shows, had there been a 290 foot tower at the time of the fire, it did not survive.

Confirming what's visible in the stereograph, in his book, Father Lane notes in his book that the fire, "... gutted St. Michael's leaving only the walls and part of the tower standing." According to Lane, the great spire and landmark of the near north side of the city wasn't completed until 1888. I haven't been able to ascertain whether the pre-fire tower was the same height as the one we see today, but it simply cannot be true that the church could claim title of city's tallest structure between October, 1871 and 1885 as the Emporis list claims.

I have no answer at the moment why the Encyclopedia of Chicago omits the old Board of Trade Building from its list. Here is a photograph of it standing on the same site as its Art Deco successor, where LaSalle Street meets Jackson, with the estimable Rookery Building visible on the left. Again it is the tower which puts this building over the top. The old Board of Trade lost its distinction as tallest building in the city in 1895 when its (in my opinion) inelegant clock tower was removed. The opulent building designed by W.W. Boyington, the architect of the Water Tower and many other mid-nineteenth century Chicago buildings, was demolished in 1929 to make way for its successor.

The real mystery surfaced when I began to assemble historic photographs of the buildings on these lists. Although its great size encouraged the Archdiocese of Chicago to use it for official diocesan ceremonies, the Church of the Holy Name, built in 1854, was, contrary to what it is called on both lists, never Chicago's official Roman Catholic cathedral. That distinction went to St. Mary's Cathedral in the Central Business District, what today we call the Loop. Holy Name was built in conjunction with the original St. Mary of the Lake University, Chicago's first university. Continually plagued with debt, both the university and the church struggled to keep afloat, and the university closed its doors in 1866. (The university re-opened in 1926 as St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in the Chicago suburb of Mundelein, IL). The photographs I found of old Holy Name Church were few and far between, but I was unable to find a single photograph with a tower anywhere close to the advertised 240 feet. I don't have the dates on these first two pictures but based upon what I learned, more on that later, I'd say the first photograph was made around 1862, give or take a couple of years.

You can clearly see the base for what would be the tower, hadn't yet reached much beyond the roof line of the church. The next picture shows the second stage of construction of the tower complete. I'm guessing it had to have been made not more than a couple years after the first, judging by the height of the tree on the right:

The date of the next picture is certain, the fall of 1871, shortly after most of the church was destroyed by the Chicago Fire. In this picture you can see the third stage in the development of the tower, and two beams protruding from the top, suggesting that there was indeed some kind of structure above:

Granted it's true that the documentation of the buildings of pre-fire Chicago is inconsistent, but the idea that I couldn't find one photograph of the completed spire perplexed me, especially if it was indeed the tallest structure in Chicago at the time. Unfortunately Father Lane in this case was no help. In his entry on the current cathedral which replaced old Holy Name, he only devotes one sentence to the lost church.

Another book I had on my shelves, Constructing Chicago, by Daniel Bluestone, devotes an entire detailed chapter to the construction of pre-fire churches in Chicago, but was also of no help regarding the specifics of the tower at old Holy Name.  

I also managed to find an old souvenir book on my shelves, published in 1949 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Holy Name parish. I got the book at the cathedral at the re-opening ceremony after the church was closed because of damage due to a fire in its roof, I think they were giving copies of the book away just to clean house. Anyway, that book contains a very detailed history of the city of Chicago, told of course from a very Catholic point of view. Turns out the very first cathedral of Chicago was actually the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in Baltimore, designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1821. Back in frontier days when Chicago was just a backwater settlement, the territory covered by the archdiocese of Baltimore extended all the way to the Mississippi River. The Chicago diocese was founded in 1843. This book didn't go into great detail about the church building either, but it did give a detailed account of the parishioners who donated the money to build it and how much they gave. It also provided an eye-witness account of its destruction which describes the steeple catching fire, then collapsing onto the roof of the church, setting it on fire. That account was my first evidence that the spire actually existed.

Then I remembered a photographic panorama of Chicago made from the tower of the old Court House Building in the center of town. The panorama was published in the book Chicago, Growth of a Metropolis by Harold B, Mayer and Richard C. Wade. In the section of the panorama pointing northeast, three towers are clearly visible. One is the Water Tower, which had yet to receive its distinctive cupola, the tower of St. James Episcopal Cathedral, which also survived the fire and the subsequent 146 years, and low and behold, the base of the tower of Holy Name Church, looking very much like it did in the second photograph, with no spire. Although the photo does not show the towers clearly as they are at least one mile from the camera, it does appear there is work taking place, probably the construction of the third stage of the tower. As the Water Tower was built in 1869, the date of this photograph has to be between 1869 and 1871. Since the city at the time was filled with many 200 ft spires, the assertion that Holy Name was the tallest building in Chicago since 1854, has to be incorrect.

I asked myself, was there ever a tower? True, there was the account of the burning tower crashing onto the roof of the doomed church, but that was a scene repeated over and over again during those dreadful two days of the fire. It occurred to me that perhaps the eye-witness, in all the stress of a huge city burning before his eyes, could have mistakenly been recounting the story of the destruction of another church.

I was prepared to leave the question open until I decided to trudge through the tedious prose of the souvenir book. Reading through the histories of a succession of Chicago bishops with delicate constitutions who met their maker many years before their time, I discovered that in 1863, under the episcopate of one of those unfortunate men, Bishop James Duggan, the pastor of Holy Name, Father Joseph P. Roles:
...undertook with the permission of Bishop Duggan to add to the interior decorations which others had left incomplete. He installed the main altar and two side chapels with their screens, the altar railing and the pulpit, all in hand carved walnut. He also started to build the steeple which was originally planned. This was still in progress when the Church of the Holy Name was burned to the ground in 1871.
So there you have it. My guess is that the process of adding segments to the tower began in 1863 and continued, probably sporadically since those were war years, at least through 1869 or 1870, when work on the steeple above its supporting tower began. The first photograph was probably made just before 1863 and the second, sometime not long after 1865. From the information I have, at the time of the fire, the steeple may or may not have reached its planned 240 foot height, but the account of the destruction of the church mentioned above is most likely true.

Given all that, the Church of the Holy Name could not have been the tallest building in Chicago before 1869, and given that the steeple was not completed at the time of its destruction, its status as tallest building in Chicago at any time is doubtful.

Coming across that information the other day was a little bit of a letdown, I had anticipated doing some more legwork tracking down the story of the phantom tower of the Church of the Holy Name, and learning more about the history of the city along the way. As with many research projects, the journey is more satisfying than the destination. There's no real joy in debunking the notion that the Church of the Holy Name once had the distinction of being the tallest building in Chicago. Had it not been for the Great Fire, it very well may have been, for a little while anyway.

I don't know why but trivial as it may be, knowing that fact makes me a little sad.

The good news is if the spirit moves me, I can now embark on a project to discover the actual tallest buildings in Chicago before the Great Fire.

If I ever get the time.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Last Schnitzel

For many years on this blog I have sung the praises of my favorite restaurant in the world, Karl Ratzsch in Milwaukee. It wasn't necessarily my favorite cuisine, although the food was always extremely good, in my biased opinion. You see, my father was from Czechoslovakia and my surrogate grandfather was from Germany, and together they introduced me to the delights of roast duck, liver dumpling soup, red cabbage, wiener schnitzel and other Central European delicacies. They took me to dozens of Czech and German eateries in Chicago and Milwaukee, including Karl Ratzsch, which was, without question, the best of them all.

The decor at Ratzsch, as most of the restaurants of its type, was a bit on the wonky side. Prominently displayed there was a painting of Mrs. Ratzsch (I presume), resplendent in a jacket with a fur collar. In the portrait, she imperiously glares at the viewer with a steely expression, looking as if she could have been the wicked mother of the Claude Rains character in Hitchcock's Notorious. Then there was the framed magazine ad for Blatz beer, featuring the king of kitsch, Liberace, holding up a glass of suds. The copy of the ad read: "It's Milwaukee's favorite beer, I'm from Milwaukee I ought to know."

The split-timber barrel-vaulted ceiling, reminiscent of Bavarian architecture, the year-round Christmas decorations, the white table linens, wood paneling, dirndl clad waitresses, and alcove stage where at dinnertime, musicians would play Strauss waltzes and other light classical fare, evoked a timelessness that defied contemporary styles of taste, and relevance. There was certainly nothing hip or trendy about the place, after all, it had been around for 113 years.

That is, until this week.

Here's the photograph that brokenhearted Karl Ratzsch fans discovered, the few of us left that is, after it was posted last Sunday on the restaurant's Facebook page:

I first saw the notice Monday morning on my way to work. When I received the news, my heart was filled with both sadness and resignation. As I re-posted the notice on my own feed, I remarked that I had been anticipating this sad news for at least thirty years.

The funny thing I noticed as the years went by was that the older I got, the more it became obvious that (with the exception of my wife and kids) I was still always the youngest person in the restaurant. As the hair color of the typical patron turned gray, then blue, the more convinced I was that my favorite restaurant on the planet's days were numbered.

A year ago, I was encouraged as there was a serious attempt to allow Karl Ratzsch to survive for at least another generation. Thomas Hauck, a well regarded local chef bought the restaurant from the previous owners, former employees who themselves bought the place from the Ratzsch family in 2003. Hauck closed the restaurant down for three months to remodel, removing some of the tired, old decor, including the table cloths and the kitschy artwork, and updated the menu, inventing creative new dishes inspired by German cuisine. Unfortunately as the New York Times reported the other day, "it was a hard sell." The old timers balked at the changes while the younger crowd just didn't care.

Hauck's noble attempt to save the Milwaukee institution sadly failed.

The last schnitzel was served and the final stein of lager was raised last Saturday night. Then, Hauck closed the doors to Karl Ratzsch presumably forever, without any warning.

The comments on the Ratzsch Facebook page ranged from sorrow to abject anger, much of it directed at Hauck. Without mentioning the new owner by name, this woman speaks for much of the latter group, the emphasis is hers:
I am sickened that Karl Ratzsch's is shutting down. How dare you let this iconic restaurant go under!!!! There are people who have many pleasant memories at your restaurant and have gone to you restaurant as a long, family tradition! I don't know WHO made this decision to close Karl Ratzsch's, but I can tell you, IT WAS A BIG MISTAKE!!! Thank God Maders is still operating! John Ernst Cafe was bad enough but Karl Ratzsch's??? People came to eat there when they visit Milwaukee!!! Shame on whoever made the decision to close. I am very upset about this.
No kidding.

It's hard to argue with her point that institutions such as Ratzsch play a vital role in their cities' economies. Personally I've made the ninety mile trek up to Milwaukee several times for the sole purpose of dining at Karl Ratzsch. While there, my family and I went on to spend money at other local establishments, This letter proves I am not alone. There is also the less tangible but equally damaging psychological effect that the ending of a 113 year old tradition has on a city and its residents. It is not exaggerating in the least to say that with the closing of Karl Ratzsch, part of the identity of Milwaukee has been lost. It is a void that can never be filled.

That having been said, what the writer of the comment and so many others fail to realize is that, beloved local tradition or not, restaurants, retailers and other businesses catering to the general public, are owned and operated by private individuals who must put a considerable amount of time and risk their own capital into businesses just to keep them afloat, let alone make a profit. As you can see in the photograph above, made during Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, a time when the restaurant should have been hopping, there are only a handful of diners. If all the fans of Karl Ratzsch, myself included, had put more of our money where our mouths were and supported the restaurant better, it might have lived to see another day.

Above, I mentioned the many Central European restaurants my dad and grandpa took me to as a child. Let's see, there was Old Prague and Moravia on Cermak Road in Cicero, Little Czechoslovakia, on 26th Street, Cafe Bohemia in the West Loop, William Tell on North Avenue, The Golden Ox on Clybourn, The Black Forest, and Held's Brown Bear on Clark Street, Schwaben Stube, and Gluntz's on Lincoln Avenue, Matt Igler (Home of the Singing Waiters) on Melrose, just off Lincoln, and Zum Deutschen Eck on Southport, just to name a few. I spent many happy hours in all of them. They're all gone. The Berghoff in the Loop is a mere shadow of its former self and just a couple weeks ago, the Chicago Brauhaus in Lincoln Square, one of the last remaining German restaurants in Chicago, announced it will close its doors soon.

In both Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities with very strong Germanic identities, it is easier to find Ethiopian food than German food. It's probably not too hard to figure out why.

The fact is that for the last several decades, restaurants serving heaping helpings of carbohydrate-laden food, where you have to be helped out of your seat after a meal, have lost their popularity. What can I say, people are more health and weight conscious these days. Even for food lovers who don't obsess over everything they put into their mouths for health reasons, the trend is to discover new and, for them anyway, unusual cuisines, rather than paying top dollar for the tried and true, simple, old fashioned comfort food, their parents and grandparents ate.

Diners are a fickle crowd and the restaurant business is particularly tough. I heard the other day that the five year survival rate for a new restaurant is ridiculously low, somewhere in the single digits. Given that, 113 years in any business is a remarkable accomplishment. Those of us who loved Karl Ratzsch should thank our lucky stars that its owners and employees over those last lean years, who committed themselves to keeping the restaurant open despite all the odds and heartbreak, deserve our commendation and eternal gratitude.

The memory of all the wonderful meals and Gem├╝tlichkeit I experienced at my favorite restaurant in the world, with the people whom I loved the most in my life, will stay with me as long as I live.

Vielen herzlichen Dank to you all. You will be missed.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Put Me In Coach

There are lots of songs intrinsically tied to the game of baseball.

Legend has it that the tradition of playing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games began on September 6, 1918, during the first game of the World Series right here in Chicago. The National League Champs the Cubs, were playing the Red Sox in Comiskey Park rather than Wrigley Field because of the greater capacity of the home of the Cubs' crosstown rival the White Sox. Turned out they didn't need those extra seats as just under 20,000 fans showed up, the lowest turnout for the annual fall classic for as long as anybody could remember. The country was at war and there was a general consensus that the ballplayers were shirking their duty by not doing their part for the war effort. Nevertheless, the baseball season was shortened by about thirty games so that the players who were committed to the armed services could report for duty.

Unannounced during the seventh inning stretch, the band on hand broke into the strains of the Star Spangled Banner, which would not become the country's official national anthem for another thirteen years. Of course those were the days before public address systems so it took a little while before everyone in the ballpark recognized the tune the band was playing. By the time they got to the "rockets red glare", just about everyone in the ballpark was doffing their caps and singing along. As the band wrapped up the song, there was a huge ovation from the stands. (In case you're wondering, the Red Sox won that game on a brilliant shut-out from their young pitcher, Babe Ruth. The Red Sox won that World Series four games to two. They would not win another one for 86 years).

So impressive was the patriotic fervor that moment generated at Comiskey Park, theater impresario Harry Frazee who moonlighted as the owner of the Red Sox, "borrowed" the idea for his own ballpark as the series shifted to Boston. The only difference was in Boston, they played the song at the beginning of the game. The tradition of playing the National Anthem at every ballpark before every game didn't begin in earnest until World War II.

The late-great Comiskey Park, c. 1959, where no fewer than two long-standing traditions of singing songs at baseball games began.
Another tradition of playing a particular song at a particular moment during a ballgame also began in Comiskey Park when White Sox announcer Harry Caray who frequently bantered with fans within earshot of his broadcast booth at the old ballpark, started leading those fans in a cheerful, beer induced rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, during the seventh inning stretch. Bill Veeck went to his grave insisting that when he bought the team in 1976, he asked Caray to sing the song over the ballpark's PA system so everyone could hear, but Caray refused. So one day the puckish Veeck, unbeknownst to Caray, hooked him up to the system anyway and a tradition was born. Hard to believe that Caray would have shied away from the extra attention but it's a good story and I'm sticking to it.

There is probably not a single American who does not know all the words to Take Me Out to the Ballgame  or to be more exact, the words of the refrain, which is heard at the seventh inning stretch at virtually every ballgame coast to coast. The lesser known verses tell the story of a young lady named Katie Casey. Here's her story:
Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show, but Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:

Refrain : Take me out to the ballgame...

Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:
The story of the song goes something like this: Jack Norworth was a 28 year old Tin Pan Alley composer who was ever on the prowl for inspirations for new songs. One day he found his inspiration on a subway billboard. The billboard read simply: "Baseball Today - Polo Grounds". He scribbled the lyrics to the song you see above on a napkin and delivered them to his partner Albert von Tilzer who promptly put the words to music. Norworth gave his song to his wife, a singer on the Vaudeville circuit. It became an instant hit when Edward Meeker recorded the song, in fact, Take me out to the Ballgame was top of the charts for the year 1908. (That year their home town Giants lost the NL pennant to the Cubs largely on account of a baserunning mistake made at the Polo Grounds, by their rookie first baseman Fred Merkle which has gone down in history as Merkle's Boner. The Cubs won the World Series that year. It would be 108 years until they would win another).

It turned out that neither Norworth nor von Tilzer had ever attended a ballgame when they wrote the game's unofficial anthem.  

The same can't be said for John Fogerty, the former leader of the band Creedence Clearwater Revivalwho wrote what is perhaps the alternate unofficial anthem of baseball. Fogerty who grew up in California in the late forties and fifties didn't have a home town major league team to root for as a child, so he adopted the New York Yankees. That team's two great centerfielders, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were his personal heroes. Describing the inspiration of the song's title, he told the New York Times in a 2010 interview:
Basically, I was reconnecting with that very special feeling I had about center field as a kid. People didn’t know what it meant, but it was important to me. It took me a while to remember about center field and how I felt about it, but once it came into my mind, I thought: ‘Oh, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want to say.'
The song's title of course is Centerfield, and you are bound to hear it in one form or another, either before, during, or after any professional ballgame.

It's a catchy song, well suited to put people into a cheerful mood before or during a game. While the incessant, rhythmic hand-clapping in its refrain can be a little grating after numerous listenings,  Fogerty's lyrics manage to cover all the bases (so to speak) of our national pastime, especially the child-like exuberance that anybody who has ever played, dreamed of playing, or just intently watched the game has experienced in his or her life, most especially on days like today, opening day:


Practically every line of the song has special relevance for me, the father of a son, currently a high school ballplayer who is mad about the game. For better or worse, he got that love from his old man.

Here are some examples:
Well, a-beat the drum and hold the phone
The sun came out today...
My son's team's season hasn't gotten off to an auspicious start this year as the sun in fact has not come out on game days. In fact as of today, about ten games have been rained out, with the outlook not good for this week.
Well, I spent some time in the Mudville Nine
Watching it from the bench...
The Mudville Nine is the home team featured in the poem Casey at the Bat, which I often read to my son when he was a small child. Unfortunately today, he can well relate to watching the game from the bench, which leads to the following plea:
Oh, put me in coach, I'm ready to play today Put me in coach, I'm ready to play today Look at me, I can be, centerfield
Yes indeed, my son plays centerfield.

And finally, the last beautiful verse is one that anybody who has ever cared about the game can relate to:
Got a beat-up glove, a home-made bat
And a brand new pair of shoes
You know I think it's time to give this game a ride
Just to hit the ball, and touch 'em all
A moment in the sun
It's a-gone and you can tell that one good-bye.
Then there are the references to some of the great centerfielders of all time, Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and of course, Joe DiMaggio. In the wonderful accompanying video, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snyder, Henry Aaron, (as a Milwaukee Brave) and Stan Musial (an occasional centerfielder) are also featured.

There's even a pointed reference to the late Chuck Berry, lifting a line from one of his songs:
A-roundin' third and headed for home
It's a brown-eyed handsome man...
Which is followed by a Berryesque guitar riff.

Fogerty has said the image in his mind when he sang about the "Brown eyed handsome man" was none other than Jackie Robinson.

Every human emotion can be found in the game of baseball, usually magnified ten times. It's a game designed to break your heart as A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote. But not today. It's all hope and optimism on Opening Day.

As we saw last year, anything can happen in baseball, heck, the Chicago Cubs could even win the World Series.

On this day, there is no better song to play than the alternate/unofficial anthem of baseball, John Fogerty's Centerfield, because its sums up the game to a tee, except for the sad, melancholy stuff. That will come later.

Unless you consider the official National Anthem of the country AND the game of baseball, whose unofficial last words every red blooded American knows are the happiest words in the English language. No they're not "the land of the free and the home of the brave", they come just after that.

The words are "play ball".