Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Water Tank Take-Off: April 22, 1901

Empty Now . . . The Brewster Water Tank in July of 2013 (chicago.cbslocal.com)
You may remember back in the middle of July when the water tank at the top of the Brewster became airborne on Diversey Parkway, langing in the parking lot below the building.  In the resulting tidal wave a man and woman getting into their car were injured. 

With well over a hundred of these big tubs still hanging around the city, accidents continue to happen.  Just a couple of months ago, an 18,000 gallon water tank ruptured at the top of a five-story office building at 409 West Huron Street, sending office workers out into the cold at 2:00 In the afternoon and closing streets.

Today it’s easy to attribute the problems to the age of the structures, which were originally intended to provide fire protection, quickly and efficiently.  But on this date, April 22, in 1901 a brand new tank took off, falling through every floor of the five-story Galbraith building on Madison Street.  Fortunately, it was a Sunday, and, for the most part, the building was empty.

The tank had been finished about a month earlier and had a capacity of 1,500 gallons.  Fully loaded the thing weighed five tons.  You can imagine what would happen if you lifted an armored car above the roof of the building you owned and then dropped it.  That gives you some idea of the mean-spirited descent of this bad boy.

The final inspection by the fire department was due on that Sunday, April 22.  The fire department showed up . . . but it was not to inspect the tank that lay in ruins in the basement of the building.

Poor Richard O’Brien . . . waiting for customers on a Sunday at his shoe-polishing stand in the Madison Street entrance of the building.  “He had just dismissed a patron when the falling mass of timber, bricks, machinery, and steel caught him in its descent and buried him in the basement.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1901]  Rescue workers found the poor guy in the basement, a piece of glass driven into his scalp, “pinned beneath the debris so tightly that he could not move.”

And poor Mrs. Nathan Slotkin, attending to the needs of the birds and animals in her husband’s pet store.  She was knocked down behind the counter of the store when a heavy showcase feel on top of that same counter, protecting her from the falling debris.  Of the animals in Mr. Slotikin’s shop only two crows survived.  It figures.

The second through the sixth floors of the building all contained firms that manufactured clothing.  If the tank had fallen on any other day than Sunday, we might very well be talking about the Madison Street Water Tank Tragedy of 1901 today.

Dr. Arnold P. Gilmore, the building’s agent and also a part owner, stated that there was some flaw in the erection of the tank.  “The sprinkling apparatus was put up three weeks ago by the Manufacturers’ Sprinkler Company of New York, and the third and final payment was to have been made tomorrow.  Immediately after my inspection of the wreck I telegraphed an order that the payment be withheld.”

Clearly, Dr. Gilmore had his priorities in order.

Harry Solomon, who somehow managed to escape his office, said, “The thing was over before we could realize our peril.  A deluge of water and wreckage poured on us as we stood gazing into the great gap that had been cut through the floor not three feet from where we stood . . . I thought there was not hope for us, but we rushed to the fire-escape to avoid going down with the floors.  We clung there until the arrival of the Fire department, not daring to reenter the place until the men assured us it was safe.”

Monday, April 21, 2014

Board of Trade -- Madelyn FioRito

Madelyn FioRito (interactivewtttw.com)
Anyone ever hear of Madelyn FioRito?

Me either . . . until I found an article in The Tribune that ran on this day, April 21, in 1954.

Anytime you are walking around the Chicago Loop in the vicinity of La Salle Street, you see Ms. FioRito or she sees you – at least it seems like she does.

Just 14-years-old, the young Madelyn, the daughter of bandleader Ted FioRito, was on her way to a job interview at the Fine Arts building when “a man stared at her intently.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1954]  The Tribune described the subject of the stranger’s admiration as “statuesque as she is today and built like a Greek goddess.”


The bad news is that Miss FioRito did not get the job.  The good news was that on her way out of the building the elevator operator (they’re still manually operated at the Fine Arts Building today) handed her a note.  The man who had admired her on the elevator ride up had written, “Please come up to my studio.  I have spent a year looking for a model for the statue of Ceres, goddess of grain, which I have been commissioned to do for the top of the Board of Trade building.  You are the model for whom I have searched.”

The man was John Storrs.

John Storrs was born in Chicago in 1885, and at the age of 20 travelled to Europe, originally to study singing but ultimately to make the decision to pursue sculpture.  He returned to Chicago where he studied under Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago.  He also attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before returning to Paris in 1911,  studying in that city with Auguste Rodin.

An article from the Grey Art Gallery in New York City states, “In 1923 Storr’s solo exhibition at Katherine Dreier’s Société Anonyme in New York established him as a member of the international avant-garde.  While in New York he met Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Joseph Stella, artists he remained friendly with into the early 1930’s . . . Stors’s ‘Studies in Architectural Forms,’ as he dubbed many of his works, are exhilarating embodiments of the built environment and machine-age culture . . . Storrs created an art which melds old and new world concerns, and which convincingly attests to a society enraptured with the sleek aesthetic embodied in early skyscrapers.”  [https://www.nyu. edu.greyart/ exhibits/storrs/storrshome.html]

Enough of a resume, I suppose, to be able to select a beautiful 14-year-old model during a brief elevator ride and to use her form as inspiration for one of the great Art Deco sculptures of the age.

JWB Photo, 2009
Back to the article in The Tribune . . . it took six months for the studies that would lead to the sculpture that stands at the top of the Board of Trade.  During those months “Madelyn listened as he poured into her receptive ears stories of the world of art, music, literature that he loved so well – instilling in her the reverence that was his for the richness of learning.”

Everybody has read at some point the great love poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.  I love the last sestet . . . remember it?

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Forget for a moment that the poem is as much (or maybe a little bit more) about the poet as the subject.  It’s fundamentally true.  Miss FioRito eloped at the age of 18 and spent much of her life moving from relationship to relationship between Europe and the United States.  But she remains with us in a 6,500 pound aluminum sculpture, assembled from 40 separate pieces, standing 31 feet high at the very top of the signature building on La Salle Street.

She holds a sheaf of wheat in her left hand and a bag of corn in her right, prompting the late Mike Royko to name her as the perfect symbol of Chicago, along with the Latin phrase Ubi Est Mea – Where Is Mine?

John Storrs got his model, and we in Chicago have our Ceres.  For that we owe a debt of gratitude to the 14-year-old girl on the elevator at the Fine Arts Building.

So long lives this . . . and this gives life to thee.

JWB Photo, 2010

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Walter Gropius in Chicago -- April 17, 1950

Walter Gropius
Speaking in the Crystal Room of the Blackstone Hotel the Director of the School of Architecture at Harvard University, Walter Gropius, addressed a large crowd on this date, April 17, of 1950.  According to the account of the address in The Chicago Tribune Mr. Gropius stated that “The recent wedding of art and industry in the United States has opened a doorway upon a new era.” [Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1950]

The occasion featured the formal announcement that the Institute of Design would be added as a degree-granting department within the engineering division of the Illinois Institute of Technology.  The Institute of Design was a direct descendant of the “New Bauhaus school” that was established in Chicago in 1937 by Mr. Gropius and László Naholy Nagy.  Both men, along with the Director of Architecture at I.I.T., Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, were instrumental figures in the German Bauhaus school. 

“When I came to this country in 1928, I remember that a highly honorable trade mark for products designated for cultural distinction was ‘Imported from Europe,’” said Mr. Gropius.  “Our industrial products will not only excel by good quality of their materials and manufacturing processed used, but also by the inherent beauty of their indigenous design.”

“The artist,” he continued, “is coming back into the fold of the community.  From his ivory tower he will move closer to the latest laboratory and to the factory; he will become a legitimate brother of the scientist, the engineer, and the business man.”

Do you suppose, somewhere along the line, Steve Jobs got hold of that address?

Haber Corporation Fire -- April 17, 1953

North Avenue, looking east (Google image)
Every year as the holidays approach Jill and I like to hit the Land of Nod store and scoop up a few things for our two little granddaughters.  Nice store, just off North Avenue, plenty of parking, a big Crate and Barrel store right next door, handy if the candle or patio place setting supply is running low.

If we hadn’t turned off busy North Avenue, we could easily picture ourselves n the sunny parking lot of any good-sized strip mall in the suburbs.  Yet, on this date, April 17, in 1953 exhausted Chicago fire fighters were digging through the smoldering remains of the Haber corporation factory, looking for victims of the worst fire in the city since a streetcar and gasoline tanker met at Sixty-Second and State Streets between a streetcar and gasoline tanker in 1950, killing 32 people.

Sixty-two employees punched the time clock that morning, but construction was taking place inside the building and estimates put 100 persons inside the structure when the explosion and subsequent fire began.  After that initial explosion on the first floor of the three-story factory, the fire spread so quickly that witnesses said the whole building was in flames within five minutes.

The first alarm was turned in at 8:47 a.m.  The firemen of the Third Battalion arrived less than three minutes later.  The battalion chief, Frank Thielman, described what he saw upon arrival, “A sheet of flame was shooting out each of the 14 second floor windows.  The sight was awful.  It was fury.  We couldn’t get in to fight the fire.  People were running wildly out of the building, saying more were inside.  Others were jumping down from the third floor windows onto the roof of the one story building adjoining on the east.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1953]

By 9:00 a.m. a 5-11 alarm was sounded, bringing 59 pieces of fire equipment to the scene.  Ambulances, police squadrols, even police cars, were pressed into service to carry victims to five different hospitals.  Electricity was turned off in a 20-square block area surrounding the scene.  Ventilating fans were placed on their highest setting in the subway because of the smoke.

A mechanic, Ted Mechnek, had just left his parked car on the way to work at a local business when the initial explosion occurred.  “Glass flew all over the street,” he said.  In just a second it seemed fire burst out all of the second floor windows.  In another second a woman jumped from a third floor window to the roof of the one and a half story receiving department.  Then a man jumped and turned to catch others as they jumped.  Ten or 15 must have jumped that way, but the smoke was so dense it was hard to tell the exact number.  A man appeared at a third story window, his clothing either burned or blown off.”

An inspector on the third floor assembly line, Florence Haislip, said from her hospital bed at Augustana Hospital, “We heard a tremendous explosion which shook the whole building.  I ran with about 60 other women for the fire escape.  Some of the women were screaming in panic.  I saw I wasn’t going to be able to reach the fire escape, so I climbed thru a window, hung by my hands and dropped.”

Even as the recovery effort was continuing, Coroner Walter E. McCarron appointed a jury of a dozen men that held its first meeting on April 17. Within a week it became apparent that the loss of 35 lives might have been prevented if regulations had been properly followed and appropriate precautions taken.

A building of this size, the Assistant City Fire Commissioner, Anthony J. Mullaney, testified, should have had three means of egress.  There were only two – an inner stairway that was unusable after the explosion and a fire escape. City Building Commissioner Roy T. Christiansen testified that the Haber company had failed to obtain building permits for part of its remodeling work (some of which required the boarding up of an additional stairway), and that a company executive had admitted that company officials “winked at” employees who smoked illegally in Haber plants.  [Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1953]

By April 29 the hearings began to move toward a conclusion.  Arvid M. Tienson, the chief supervising engineer of the Illinois Department of Labor’s factory inspection division told the jury that he and an assistant found two pieces of a duct from the building’s ventilation system that had been blown away by the initial explosion.  There was no evidence of fire in the two pieces but each had “aluminum dust fine enough to explode.” [Chicago Tribune, April 29, 1953]. 

Mr. Tienson said, “There had to be a power failure or blocking of the duct, and something to trigger the explosion.”  Witnesses had testified earlier that a flash fire at one of the first floor buffing machines had occurred.

In the end the coroner’s jury declared the horrific event that killed 35 people and sent 32 others to the hospital an accident.  The Tribune reported, “The jurors reported unanimous agreement that there was negligence on the part of owners of the property, the Hager corporation, and two companies – Ragnar Benson, Inc. and Wipf Welding company – which were engaged in extensive remodeling of the building at the time of the fire.  But the jury was unable to agree as to the degree of negligence in each case.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1953]

The owners of the building, former Forty-Third Alderman Titus Haffa and members of his family, were not mentioned in the jury’s findings although Coroner Walter E. McCarron said, “If I were a member of the jury I personally would have held the owners of the property and the companies to the grand jury for criminal negligence.  However, this is your verdict and I accept it.”

Separately, in testimony before a committee set up by Alderman Cullerton of the Thirty-Eighty ward to investigate the tragedy, Assistant Fire Commissioner Anthony J. Mullaney said, “If existing ordinances had been followed, no one would have died in the fire.  The ordinances are adequate to have covered the situation.  If they had followed the code in obtaining necessary permits for remodeling, this wouldn’t have happened.  There was no direct means out of the building from the upper floors.”

Chicago lives by the slogan “We Will,” but many times that attitude, which is future-oriented, of course, throws the past into darkness.  That’s true of this location at North and Clybourn.  Next time you head for Steppenwolf Theater or the Crate and Barrel or stop in for a bite at Uncle Julio’s, you might think about the lives that were changed on that block back in those mid-April days of 1953.

North Avenue, looking east (www.fireseenes.net]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Missing Mayo Monkey Means Mayhem -- April 15, 1955

Bushman, the Gorilla
Have you seen this one . . .

When you pay too much for cable you feel down.
When you feel down you stay in bed.
When you stay in bed they give your job to someone new.
When they give your job to someone new he has a lot to learn.
When he has a lot to learn mistakes are made.
(Insert scene of lowland gorilla escaping cage while new keeper’s back is turned.)
And when mistakes are made you get body slammed by a lowland Gorilla.

That commercial might have been filmed, for real, 59 years ago on this date, April 15, in the middle of the Chicago Loop.  Here’s what happened, according to The Tribune.

A monkey (okay, so it wasn’t a lowland gorilla), one of six being shipped from Tappan, New York to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, got loose after a La Salle Street Station attendant (when he has a lot to learn he makes mistakes) opened the cage door for a clean-up.  Leaving his five simian companions huddled in the back of the cage (the monkey, not the attendant), “the adventurous one dashed out and leaped east across the tracks, followed by six Railway Express employees, a porter, and a fireman.”

Here it might be fun to insert a clip of some random madcap scene from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).  In fact, I will . . .

The little guy began to monkey around on La Salle Street (sorry).  At that point pedestrians joined in the chase, which ended at 536 South La Salle at which point the monkey climbed a pipe on the exterior of the building to the fire escape and took that route up to the roof.

By the time the elevator carried the agents, the porter, the fireman and all of the individuals picked up along the way to the roof, the little guy was gone.  Vanished.  The chimp was off the old block.

The building engineer at the ten-story government office building, Marvin Johnson, said, “Everybody in the building thinks they have seen the monkey.  They have got him p to the size of Bushman now.”

No details on whether the monkey was ever recovered although I would imagine that officials at the Federal Reserve on the corner of Jackson and La Salle hardly reassured the public when they reported that there was no monkey in the bank.

Thank you and good night.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Seward Johnson in Key West

Hey, Chicagoans . . . remember Forever Marilyn, the 34,000 pound Seward Johnson sculpture that gave us Marilyn Monroe in a 26-foot-tall depiction of the memorable scene from The Seven Year Itch?

Forever Marilyn (JWB, 2011)

Remember that?

Remember all those crazy folks in front of 401 North Michigan Avenue, posing under Ms. Monroe’s nether regions, mouths open, hands against their cheeks, gaping in faux shock at that pair of undies with the six-foot waistband?

Well, the governor of New Jersey, despite all his recent troubles, has reason to celebrate this week as the sculpture now resides in Hamilton, New Jersey, just inland from Atlantic City.

Or maybe you remember a year or so before Marilyn came to Chicago, at the same location, God Bless America, another Seward Johnson 30,000 pounder that gave us a towering depiction of the same couple we can find down the road at the Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

God Bless America (JWB, 2008)
Appropriately enough, God Bless America is now at the State Fairgrounds in Iowa . . . not that its most appropriate location is a provider of roasted corn on the cob and cheese fries, but rather because the house in the painting is modeled after one the painter saw in Iowa and the two subjects are his sister, Nan, and his dentist, Byron McKeeby, both Iowans.

Missing you, Miss Marilyn.  Missing you, too, American Gothic guys.

Until . . .

I found the mother lode of Seward Johnson sculpture surrounding the Custom House Museum in Key West, Florida.

In a New York Times interview Mr. Johnson has said, “I want my work to disappear into the landscape and then take a viewer by surprise.  After he gets over the shock of being fooled, it becomes an emotional discovery.  Then he owns the sculpture.  People often revisit their favorites.  They become friends.”  [New York Times, June 30, 2002]

You’re probably not going to be surprised by the pieces that we saw in Chicago.  They hardly disappeared into the landscape; you could have seen them from three blocks away.  But there is something that does give a little tingle of discovery about his smaller bronze works.  They may be what some folks label as kitsch, but on a lovely afternoon stroll following a couple Yuenglings, they are kind of fun to bump into.

Not quite as much fun as the Yuenglings, but worth a few minutes of wandering.

Here are a few new friends that I met . . .

Time for Fun (JWB, 2014)
Lunch Break (JWB, 2014)
Day Dream (JWB, 2014)
Monet Our Visiting Artist (JWB, 2014)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dever Traction Plan -- April 7, 1925

Streetcar in front of the Leiter Store on State Street, 1927
Chicago Daily News Archive
On October 1, 1947 the City of Chicago got into the public transportation business, assuming ownership of the assets of the Chicago Rapid Transit Company and the Chicago Surface Lines streetcar system.  It took another five years to negotiate the rights to the Chicago Motor Coach Company.  Today, of course, the system is known as the Chicago Transit Authority.  But what I didn’t know was that the same thing could have been done nearly two decades earlier by a simple vote.

Wiiliam Dever
Mayor William E. Dever, who served as Chicago’s mayor from 1923 to 1927, proposed a plan that could have accomplished virtually the same thing in 1925.  Described as a “municipal ownership project,” the proposal was the bedrock of Mayor Dever's campaign.  It provided for “the purchase of existing surface lines as well as for the purchase of the elevated lines, and also provided a vast scheme of street railway and elevated railroad extensions and subway construction, all to be financed through the issuance of the so-called ‘Schwartz certificates.’”  [Public Ownership League of American, 1926.  p. 84.]

These certificates would have been issued under the restriction of the municipal ownership law of 1913, outlined in a United States Supreme Court decision, Springfield Gas & Electric Co. v. City of Springfield.  The court stated,

The private corporation whatever its public duties is organized for private ends and may be presumed to intend to make whatever profit the business will allow. The municipal corporation is allowed to go into the business only on the theory that thereby the public welfare will be subserved. So far as gain is an object it is a gain to a public body and must be used for public ends. Those who manage the work cannot lawfully make private profit their aim, as the plaintiff's directors not only may but must . . . The municipalities can exercise their power to make all needful rules and regulations only by ordinances and resolutions as in other public action. [ulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/US/

In order to protect “the public welfare” the Dever plan placed operation of the public transportation system under a “Board of Control” in which banks holding the certificates that financed the operations would have equal representation with the city.  It got the plan paid for, but it also gave the financiers equal control in the system’s operation.  This meant, for example, that for a period of 40 years (at which time the certificates would expire) the banks would hold the power to go to court in order to fix fares at whatever rate was necessary to keep the whole thing from defaulting.  The lenders would receive equal voice in managing the system and in determining public transportation policy.

Two former mayors, Carter Harrison and William Thompson, opposed the plan while the utility czar Samuel Insull encouraged citizens to vote for it.  On this date in 1925 the ordinance was defeated by a three-to-one margin.

The next day The Tribune editorialized, “[The traction ordinance] offered Chicago, as we believe, a sound method of unifying and developing the existing transportation lines and of building subways at once.  The city is not likely to obtain a better bargain than was contained in the Dever ordinance.  Yesterday’s defeat may mean that a generation must pass before the city’s needs are met.  If that is true, the news on the front page this morning is bad news, indeed.”  [Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1925]

A fairly accurate assessment of the situation as it turned out.  Chicago’s first subway, along State Street, was completed on time in 1943.  The next link in the system, the Milwaukee-Dearborn line, would not be completed until 1951.