Sunday, July 31, 2022

All Gone

Now something from the day late and dollar short file:

Back in 2017, I wrote about the plans to build the Barack Obama Presidential Library smack dab in one of Chicago's most important treasures, Jackson Park. On a lovely summer day, I took my daughter to the proposed site and my heart broke as we encountered a lovely urban landscape filled with rolling berms and an extensive variety of mature trees, some well over a century old, all marked with little orange dots, signifying they were slated for destruction. 

I didn't realize it at the time, as there were no little orange dots present, but just to the north of the landscape, one of the loveliest formal settings in the park, the Perennial Garden, which featured a circular sunken lawn surrounded by flowering crab apple trees and the eponymous perennial plants, was also to be destroyed. 

The landscape, creation of the estimable landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who restored the site back to a park after the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Garden, the work of May E. McAdams in the 1930s, were not destroyed right away, as a lawsuit challenging the wanton destruction of public park land delayed the inevitable for a couple of years. 

In 2019 a judge threw out the suit and the Obamas, shovels in hand, ceremoniously broke ground in 2021, officially sealing the fate of this portion of Chicago history. 

According to this Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Sun Times, published in 2020, citing an inventory of the site, said the 640 trees on that site alone:

store 203.8 tons of carbon, remove 5.8 tons of carbon from the air per year, remove 341.5 pounds of air pollution per year,...and have an avoided rainwater runoff amount of 9,591 cubic feet per year...

In addition, according to the piece: 

The planned tree destruction and Obama Presidential Center construction will evict small wildlife, including resident birds. Its 23-story tower will occupy a currently building-free migratory bird flight path, which inevitably will become a new source of migratory bird deaths.

A magnificent White Oak that almost certainly was present during the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, dominates the landscape that stood in the way of the site of the future Barack Obama Presidential Library.
Everything in this photo has been destroyed. 

In my 2017 piece I quoted Barack Obama defending the construction of his monument in Jackson Park:

It's not just a building. It's not just a park. Hopefully it's a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side,

I have no qualms with the Obamas' claims for the value of the presidential library and all the potential good it will do for the city and especially for the South Side which has been neglected far too long. But I take strong issue with the former president's careless "not just a building, not just a park" remark. 

For God's sake Mr. President, you as a former Chicagoan of all people should know that landmarked buildings and parks are an important part of this city's cultural legacy. They were designed and built by some of the most significant artists this country has had to offer, and we have every right to be proud defenders of them. The loss of any of these should never be taken lightly as they are irreplaceable elements of our public, civic, and cultural landscape. 

Sometimes there may be no alternatives and serious choices must be made, even for ones on the National Register of Historic Places as Jackson Park is. 

But it is ridiculous to assume that there were no reasonable alternatives to the wholesale destruction of twenty contiguous acres of a landmark public park. Perhaps the designers could have worked with the existing landscape architecture of the park, or better yet, build somewhere else. It's a pretty hard sell to say there is simply no available land in that part of town. 

In both cases, perhaps scaling down the massive size of the project may have been necessary. I'm not sure but I don't think that idea would fly with the principal characters in this story, especially in a day and age where public monuments are becoming more and more imposing with each one trying to "one up" the previous one. Maybe we should be happy the Obamas didn't insist on having their monument occupy all of Jackson Park. 

Anyway, it's all water under the bridge now, the deed is done. A massive construction site today has replaced the landscape and perhaps the most beautiful formal garden that once graced the city.

It's all gone now and perhaps even worse than its loss is the dangerous precedent it sets. 

Our city's parks, a precious public trust, are no longer safe, even from people from whom we should expect much more.

What a shame. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Ghost Signs

I read an article yesterday about the frescoes of Ancient Rome. It turns out that the majority of the extant works of art of this type are to be found in the Campania region of Italy which includes the city of Naples, in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. That should be a clue as if you know anything about the history of that area, it should dawn on you that these frescoes must be in the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and smaller towns that were destroyed by the massive eruption of that famous volcano in the year 79AD (or CE if you prefer). 

What struck me was the somewhat indelicate way in which the writer of the article described the condition of the frescoes. She said rather matter-of-factly: "they were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius." This  is true, had those cities not been destroyed, buried by 20 feet of volcanic pumice and ash and left untouched for nearly two millennia, the frescoes would certainly have been destroyed over the ages by perhaps the greatest threat to historical preservation there is, both then and now, development. 

So it turns out the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius was very good news for the archaeologists and art historians, not to mention the tourist industry, but still very bad news for the roughly two thousand people who died in that catastrophe.

What made the excavations of the buried cities at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius so important, was that they uncovered a portion of an ancient civilization that had never been seen before. We knew scads about Roman politics, their religion, their art, language and literature (the rarified kind that is), their philosophy, and their rich and famous. But before the excavations which began in earnest in the 18th century, we knew very little about the vernacular, the lives of everyday people. 

This is understandable because in normal situations, civilizations preserve what they deem important enough to leave behind for future generations, and discard the trite, the banal, and the embarrassing. With the 79AD eruption, the poor people of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding region didn't get the chance to curate their legacy. Rather, time stood still and everything from the humblest graffiti, to the great temples, were preserved for eternity. Even their pornography survived, so much intact that today, minors need a permission form signed by their parents in order to see it.

Archaeology takes on many forms and isn't only applied to distant history. About one month ago there was an archaeological discovery of sorts in the city of Chicago. Granted it was not in any stretch of the imagination as momentous, profound nor dramatic as the discovery of Pompeii and its neighbors. But it did, as these things often do, crack open a window into our city's past.

On the north side of Chicago at the intersection of Addison and Ravenswood Streets to be exact, the siding of a late nineteenth century frame building was removed, revealing several signs painted on the original sides of the building. One of the signs, an ad for a brand of sliced bread, is in remarkable condition, a tad ironic since it is on the south elevation of the building meaning before the siding was installed, it would have been exposed to hours of direct sunlight every day. The signs on the north side of the building are much more faded, suggesting they were painted much earlier than the bread sign, that could have very well been covered up by the new siding shortly after it was painted. 

Partially covered by building in the foreground, an old ad for soft serve, sliced bread recently uncovered and a shout out to the archaeologists, er, masonry company that uncovered them.

The bread ad in all its glory from below. The best view no doubt would be from a drone, trying to convince my wife to let me buy one. 

A little context, the building that has been getting a lot of attention of late around town.

A particularly beautiful old sign for the Shell Oil Company. Judging from the design of the logo and the graphics, I'd guess it was painted in the 1920s.

A more humble treatment for a local concern.

Unlike the ruins of Pompeii, these ghost signs will not be visible for long as they are likely to be covered up again by new siding. The good news is the siding will preserve these relics of the past for the delight of a future generation when that siding in turn will be removed.  


That last sentence is both right and wrong. The signs are today no longer visible but not for the reason mentioned above. Last week I visited the site, as it is blocks from my mother's current residence, and sadly discovered that the signs were gone. Happily, the signs have been saved, the wood paneling having been removed from the building just in the nick of time before demolition of the building.

The gaps where the siding supporting the ghost signs were removed to be preserved.