Monday, April 26, 2010

Balbo's Pillar (Continued)

If you look back a couple of days to my last blog, you will see what a HUGE event the arrival of the Balbo aerial armada was in 1933.  A crowd of a million people lined the lakefront from Navy Pier to what is now McCormick Place to watch the arrival of 24 Italian seaplanes, led by Italian Minister of the Air Force Italo Balbo.

The group took a little over two weeks to fly from Orbitello, Italy to Chicago, which was in the first few weeks of the Century of Progress World's Fair.  It was a daring venture, and Chicagoans turned out to show their awe and appreciation.

Photo Courtesy of

Balbo was treated like royalty after he landed, given a 19-gun salute, piped aboard the U.S.S. Wilmette in front of a cheering throng at Navy Pier, ferried by boat to the site of the fairgrounds, and then cheered by thousands more as his 50-car motorcade traveled slowly through the fairgrounds to Soldiers' Field, where he addressed a cheering crowd of 60,000.

The mayor of Chicago, Ed Kelly, even named a street in his honor, a street that is familiar to all Chicago Marathon runners and anyone who remembers the 1968 Democratic convention.

But the hoopla continued.  

Balbo in Chicago -- Note Furniture Mart (now 680 Lake Shore Drive) left, behind plane (Photo Courtesy of

The next day, July 16, "an illustrious day, radiant with sunshine, animated by eager cheering throngs, and crowned with a golden midnight moon," [Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1933], 40,000 people surrounded Holy Name Cathedral in anticipation of Balbo's arrival for a noon service of celebration.  Five hundred policemen, mounted and on foot, were stationed around the cathedral.

At noon Mayor Ed Kelly and his wife entered the cathedral.  There they  waited with the crowd for another half-hour.  According to The Tribune, the mayor whispered, "This is the first time in my experience that the church waited for anybody.  But I am told that the flyers are so dog tired after the completion of the six thousand mile flight that the clergy are being patient."

Then the weary pilots arrived, halting "in triple ranks three paces from the sanctuary stairs."  Balbo's flyers wore uniforms of "white linen, white caps, white shoes, white kid gloves . . . The white uniforms of the flyers were heavily loaded with gold--massive gold cordons; gold shoulder straps crested with the crown of Savoy.  Across their breasts were wide ribbons of heavy, deeply ribbed bluish-green silk.  All wore black scarves and all carried golden hilted swords of ornate design."

Photo Couresty of

The men stood at attention as a Papal benediction addressed to Chicago's Cardinal Mundelein was read, "Please extend to Gen. Balbo and his companions, together with the congratulations of the Holy Father, also his blessing.  He prays that the divine help invoked by them at the beginning of their journey may be continued for the happy return of the heroic trans-Atlantic flyers."

The two-hour service was conducted by the Bishop Bernard Shell of the Chicago archdiocese and Father Aristo V. Simoni, the Catholic chaplain at Fort Sheridan, who wore his service uniform and translated the Mass into Italian.

Italo Balbo and Father Artisto V. Simoni (Photo Courtesy of

As the service reached its end Bishop Shell came down the chancel steps and spoke directly to Balbo and his men, " . . . You have taught us even a larger lesson, for you have shown us what the citizens of a unified and an energetic nation can do by effacement of themselves and by unfaltering allegiance to a high ideal."

That unfaltering allegiance to a high ideal thing would become a little dicey as the decade wore on, but it sounded good in church when the padre brought the golden words forth on that sunny July Sunday in 1933.

Upon completion of the service, a nonstop round of activities kept the Air Minister hopping until the small hours of the next morning.   Balbo moved from Holy Name to dedicate the Columbus statue in Grant Park where it still stands today.  He then visited the World's Fair where, among other things, he was made a chief of the Sioux tribe, complete with headdress and ceremonial name, Chief Flying Eagle.

 Photo courtesy of

Then there was a dinner given by United States Commissioner Harry S. New at the Congress Hotel, followed at 10:30 p.m. by a Grand Ball at the Casino Club on East Delaware Place, given by Prince Potenziani, the royal Italian commissioner to the Fair.

At about one o'clock in the morning of July 17, according to The Tribune, the Air Minister had a hankering to go visit the fair.  So a Major Landis gathered up a small party, which was very heavy on those of the female persuasion, Balbo changed into a dark business suit and slouch hat, and off they went -- off to the 14th Street entrance to the fair.

"Thereupon Gen. Balbo became a playboy," The Tribune reported, "indistinguishable from Hiram Jones from Poduck Center."  His first stop was the auto scooter concession where he laughed as the members of the group smashed their electric cars into one another.

The next stop was the "African Dodger" concession where "Negroes were dropped into a tub of water by hitting spring bull's eyes with a baseball."  On his third throw, Balbo was successful and "toppled a Negro into the water."  He "laughed gleefully."

He moved to the shooting gallery where he ultimately "fired six shots in succession and hit five bull's eyes."  Thirsty, the party retired to the Manhattan beer garden and listened to the music of Ernie Young's orchestra.

"Soon after," the report concludes, "Gen. Balbo was back in his hotel, all smiles, as happy as a boy who had played hookey from school."

Then he was gone, off to New York City, along with the fliers and mechanics who had accompanied him.  Balbo still had one gesture of good will left for the city that had treated him to such an amazing and heartfelt weekend. 

The Balbo Column (Bartholomew photo)

In June of 1934 it was announced that Chicago would commemorate the first anniversary of Balbo's visit by dedicating and unveiling a marble shaft, a personal gift of Premier Benito Mussolini, which was moved from the ruins of the forum at Ostia, the ancient seaport of Rome.

So it was that on July 15, 1934 a crowd of 108,560 visitors made their way to the fairgrounds.  A parade opened the ceremonies, led by army and navy bands and sailors from Camp Roosevelt, along with the members of 150 Italian societies, dressed in national costumes.  The formal program began at 3:00 p.m. at the Italian pavilion, where 3,000 persons listened as Italo Balbo spoke over short wave radio. 

The Balbo column still stands just off the bike path between Soldiers' Field and Burnham Harbor, the site of the Italian pavilion at the Century of Progress, perhaps the only physical object left from the two-year World's Fair in Chicago, an event so big that it is symbolized by the fourth red star on Chicago's flag. 

Bartholomew Photo

Inscribed on the south side of the base of the column in English and Italian are these words:  


The Fascist era would claim Balbo soon enough.  Under suspicious circumstances his plane was shot down on June 28, 1940 upon his return to the Italian airfield at Tobruk following a British attack. Fire was directed at his plane from the Italian cruiser San Georgio and the anti-aircraft guns of the airfield itself.  Friends and family members believed that it was an assassination although the government denied this, attributing it to an unfortunate incident of friendly fire.

Spiralling toward certain death, I'm wondering if Balbo thought of those three heady days in Chicago a half-dozen years before.  I think oabout what those days must have been like every time I pass by that silent, ancient column out by Burnham Harbor.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Italo Balbo, Pillar of the Community

The Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago
Image from Chuckman's Collection of Chicago Postcards 

In July of 1933 the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chciago was a little more than six weeks old.  It was the heart of the Depression, but the city had embraced the fair, an exhibition that would go on to extend its original run by a year and draw more than 39 million people to its future-related exhibits.

Excitement had been building for two weeks at the impending arrival of an armada of 24 Italian seaplanes and 96 airmen, led by Italian Minister of the Air Force Italo Balbo.  The flight had begun in Orbitello, Italy on June 30, and Chicagoans had watched as the air fleet slowly made its way toward the city.  Bad weather delayed the group in Reykjavik, Iceland for nearly a week and served to heighten the anticipation of the big event.

Poster for Italo Balbo's Transatlantic Flight to the Century of Progress
Image from Wikipedia

This was a VERY BIG DEAL.  It had been front page news ever since the announcement of the flight's itinerary, and the mission had captured the imagination of thousands of Chicagoans.  The lakefront was lined with a million onlookers, who had waited all afternoon on July 15 for the arrival of the seaplanes, which finally began to touch down at 6:00 after a six and a-half hour flight from Montreal.

"As the two 'stormi' of 12 planes came out of the southeast to the towers of A Century of Progress and settled slowly down over the water," The Chicago Tribune wrote, "the people gathered to witness this arrival were aware of the beauty and its daring, but only aviators knew of the long preparation that had gone into it, the years of experiment and hard work.  For this was a task of lifting 264 tons above the Alps, flying as high as 12,000 feet, and navigating for hours through fog and storm in the most dangerous part of the world."

The Italian squadron, led by Balbo, was escorted to the city by the 17th and 27th pursuit squadrons of the United States army from Selfridge Field, Detroit.  The U.S.S. Wilmette, moored at the end of Navy Pier, was the official reception vessel.  It must have been quite an evening.

The Tribune wrote, "The skyline was set in the colors of the evening, blue-black clouds massed in the southwest, but all the rest clear and shining.  Grant park was black with people.  Navy pier held a crowd that massed perilously close to the edge."  A 19-gun salute was fired as Balbo moved up the gangway of the Wilmette.

An interesting historical back story . . . the Wilmette was the new name for the S. S. Eastland, the vessel that capsized on the Chicago River in 1915, killing 844 passengers, after the Eastland was refloated and sold to the Navy for use as a gunboat.

 The U.S.S. Wilmette
Image from Wikipedia

After waving to the crowd at the pier, Balbo boarded a launch with Mayor Ed Kelly and Governor Henry Horner and cruised to the dock of the Hall of Sciences at the 23rd Street entrance to the fair, where people were lined up for a mile to greet the hero.  From there a parade of 50 automobiles slowly moved to Soldiers' field, where 60,000 men and women waited.

Mayor Kelly, in words he probably wished he could take back a half-dozen years later, proclaimed, "Chicago realizes the honor conferred upon her as the goal of this flight.  The city council has decreed that a thoroughfare [7th street] leading to the Fair grounds from our downtown streets shall be called Balbo avenue.  The city council by resolution has expressed the thanks of the city to the Italian nation, to its illustrious premier, Benito Mussolini, and to its representatives for this flight."

So . . . to all who have ever wondered about the strangely named street that runs three blocks from Lake Shore Drive to State Street, it dates from that summer night in 1933.  

After all the speeches were over, General Balbo was escorted to the Drake Hotel, where a message from Mussolini was waiting for him.

"Now that you have finished in a very brilliant way the first part of your mission," it read.  "I send to you my brotherly greeting and to all your officers and men.  The announcement of your arrival thrilled the whole population of Italy.  I am glad that you are faithful to the Fascist rule I gave you before leaving, that is, sternest discipline in the air and conservation of strength on land.

Air Marshall Italo Balbo 
Image from Wikipedia 

It had been a big day for Balbo, for Italy and for Chicago, but there was more to come.  Watch for that in my next blog.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hidden Treasure

Glorious day . . . glorious time of year.  So I got on my bike with the intention of leaving the north side and the Cubs far behind and doing a little exploring down south.  My destination was Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, where I wanted to take some pictures with the trees in blossom. On the way, though, I got sidetracked.

That happens a lot in this city, a place that constantly presents something unexpected.

I got off the bike path at 57th Street and headed south behind the Museum of Science and Industry toward Midway Plaisance.  Riding across the bridge over the inlet that separates Columbia Basin, the reflecting pool behind the museum, from the East and West Lagoons, I saw a small sign pointing the direction to Osaka Garden.

I turned to the left and headed south over a modest bridge and in about a hundred yards or so I was in one of the prettiest places in the city, completely by accident.

Osaka Garden.  If you are planning a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in warm weather, you have to see this place.  

The bonus is that you will find a garden of tranquility that has a rich history as well.

Just like the museum to the north the garden was a part of one of the REALLY big events in Chicago's short history -- the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

The Japanese Ho-o-den at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
Photo 0033060,  Paul T. Galvin Digital History Collection, Illinois Institute of Technology 

As a gift to Chicago and the fair-goers, the Japanese government constructed an island and built a temple or "ho-o-den," a "house made like the Phoenix," just west of the present garden.  The fair's famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead was reluctant to accept the gift, preferring a natural setting away from the hustle and bustle of the fair.  But the free gift appealed to the business side of Head of Works Daniel Burnham, and the Japanese garden and temple were built, along with a tea house across the east lagoon.

The Paul V. Galvin Digital History Collection at the Illinois Institute of Technology provides this description of the temple's construction:  "While a dozen Japanese were working their little wooden pile-driver, which struck a blow of one hundred pounds, a company of men not larger across the lagoon was raising iron arches with a span of nearly four hundred feet, two hundred and twenty feet high"

Today the Osaka Garden still has that charming sense of simplicity in the midst of the sprawling city.

After the six months of the fair's run were over, the island was allowed to return to a more natural setting, and so things remained until 1933 when the next big fair came to the city,  The Century of Progress, centered on the lakefront between the Planetarium and the Field Museum.  

The Japanese government built a traditional tea house in the downtown section of the fair, but it also created a garden on Wooded Island, the site of the 1893 ho-o-den, and also restored the original temple. When the Century of Progress completed its run, much of the Japanese exhibit was brought south and the garden on Wooded Island was restored, complete with a cascading waterfall, stone walkways, traditional stone lanterns, and a series of small islands.

Unfortunately, the site suffered from neglect and vandalism and the war years were not kind to a visible reminder of Japan's former friendship to the city.  Wooded Island lived up to its name as it returned to a brushy and thickly wooded place, a haven for migratory birds.  In 1977 it became part of the Paul H. Douglas Nature Sanctuary.

In the early eighties the garden was restored and rededicated.  Japanese experts supervised the rebirth of the garden, directing the planting of flowering trees, evergreens and flowers and the placement of a new bridge, waterfall and traditional lanterns.

That was a beginning, and it was helped along by a partnership established in the 1970's between Chicago and Osaka.  In 1993 the 20-year celebration of this relationship brought a gift of $400,000 from Osaka, funds that provided for a new front gate and fence that invited all who pass to come inside the garden.  

Hence, the present name of the site -- Osaka Garden.

Much of the information contained here comes from the excellent website of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference.  Its treatment of Osaka Garden is far more extensive than the brief history contained here, and I recommend it highly.

The site's discussion of the garden ends with an observation taken from the Osaka Garden Committee of Sister Cities International, "A garden develops over time . . . it is lasting.  The same is true of the relationships between people, nations and cultures.  Every gardener knows that quiet observation and attention to nature facilitate the success of a garden.  Likewise, peace and understanding facilitate our future." 

I started out my ride this morning with the magnificence of Rockefeller Chapel as my objective.  On the say I found the simple pleasure of a stunning setting in a city full of surprises.  

It was a good day.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bleeping Golden

According to the affidavit that the United States Justice Department has filed against former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, it took just two days for Big Hair to put the squeeze on various individuals and organizations for 650,000 big ones.  Two days of work -- from October 6 to 8 in 2008.  And he claims he was a hard worker.  How much does that add up to after nearly two terms of work?

"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing," is the way we'll remember him.  Elected by the people, for the people, to serve -- himself.

Let's turn now to a different time, back to 1895 and a different governor -- John Peter Altgeld.  Things weren't going very well for the governor in his first term.  His health was failing . . . the clerk of the State Assembly had to finish his inauguration speech for him as he sat, pale and shivering in the stifling Senate chamber.

He had, only six months into his term, pardoned the three remaining defendants in the Haymarket riots, a decision that directed a typhoon of fury toward him.  At the same time, as the Pullman Strike of 1894 flared into violence, he steadfastly refused to ask for the assistance of federal troops.

He was close to being broken.  And he was broke.  He had invested almost everything he had in a 16-story skyscraper at 127 North Dearborn Street (the present site of Block 37) called the Unity Building.  The Depression of 1893 had temporarily finished the building as a source of rental income.
The Unity Building (Art Institute of Chicago Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection)

So when former jailbird and traction tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes showed up with an offer, Altgeld sat down and listened.

"Our friends stand ready to set aside in your name enough gas certificates to insure, on the bases I have figured, a profit of at least $1,000,000, and more if necessary," Yerkes wrote Altgeld.  "They will make the profit likely to accrue to $2,000,000 if necessary."  All Altgeld had to do to earn enough money to guarantee wealth for the rest of his life was to approve Senate Bills 137 and 138.  One gave city councils the right to grant traction franchises for up to 99 years.  The other had the effect of eliminating further competition among Chicago's existing elevated railroads.

This was bleeping golden. 

So what did Altgeld do?

He vetoed the bills.  "I love Chicago," Altgeld wrote in his explanation for his action, "and am not willing to help forge a chain which would bind her people hand and foot for all time to the wheels of monopoly and leave them no chance of escape."  In an intense session that nearly ended in a riot, the Senate failed to override the governor's veto.

"God knows what's to come of my wife and my children," one poor senator from southern Illinois said.  "I am going home to them tomorrow and Monday I'm going to hunt me a job in the harvest-field; I reckon I'll die in the poorhouse.  Yes, I'm going home . . . but I'm going home an honest man." [Franch, John.  Robber Baron:  The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes]

All of this happened in the State of Illinois.  Honest to God.

It may not have been an entire upside down fishbowl of a government building like Big JimThompson got down there on Randolph Street a century later, but they did decide to get up a statue for Governor Altgeld.  A competition with a prize of $25,000 was put together, and in 1914 Gutzon Borglum was selected as the winner.

A member of the selection committee, Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post, said, "I looked upon it as if St. Gaudens himself were living and had consented to do the work.  I feel certain the statue at the north end of Lincoln Park will be no unworthy mate to St
Gaudens' Lincoln at the south end.

 Gutzon Borblum

"You may recognize the sculptor's name.  His most famous works are monumental.  The busts of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Stone Mountain, Georgia, which Borglum began in 1923.   And, of course, Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota, executed between 1927 and 1941.

 Gutzon Borglum, Illinois Governor Dunne and Clarence Darrow at the statue's unveling
Chicago Daily News Negative Collection, ichicdn n065142, Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Dedication of the statue occurred on Labor Day of 1915.  It was a cold, damp ceremony.  Notable dignitaries in attendance were Governor Edward F. Dunne, Gutzon Borglum, himself, and Clarence Darrow.  Darrow had saved Altgeld, the one-term governor, from complete financial ruin by taking him into his firm and it was in Joliet, representing Darrow's office, that Altgeld died in March of 1902 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

In the early days Altgeld's statue enjoyed good company. The Goethe statue by German professor Heinrich Hahn had been installed just two years earlier.  It would have pleased Altgeld to know that the huge bronzed believer in international brotherhood was just to the west.

Today if you weren't looking for the Altgeld statue, you would pass it right by.  It sits about 50 yards to the south of Diversey in the middle of the triangle formed by Lake Shore Drive and Stockton.  

Altgeld is looking a little weary these days.  Grass grows through the cracks in the granite pedestal, and the pedestal itself is heaving, slowly breaking itself apart as the freezes and thaws of winter do their damage and the roots of the surrounding trees help the process along.  

The honest governor seems to make a good drinking companion.  Many days there are empty beer cans scattered about.  It's a good place to get mellow in the moonlight, dark, quiet, well-hidden.

And there he stands, arms outstretched to protect the three disenfranchised citizens crouching next to and behind him, a posture of resolute strength and defiance.

His hands are extended, palms down.

There is no money in either one of them.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Look through Any Window

Hitchcock's Vertigo . . . now there's a thriller for you.  People falling all over the place, right from the first two minutes of the film when Scottie Ferguson hangs to the sagging gutter for dear life while the poor copper reaching out to help him falls to his death.  Vertigo!  Scottie retires from the force and never gets a minute of peace as he dreams of falling while generally falling to pieces.

Until the end of the movie when he gets himself together while the femme fatale gets it.

Watch the movie once all the way through and you'll think twice about stepping out onto that one-and-a-half inch glass ledge that hangs from the Willis Tower's observation deck.

Ever have one of those dreams about falling?  Not good.  The experts say that such dreams indicate a loss of emotional equilibrium or self-control, a fear of "letting go" in real life.

Good news, though, it's a myth that if you hit the ground before you wake up, you're dead.  

Of course, you knew that already because you're still alive and the forsythia are in bloom and Sarah Palin's $75,000 contract to speak at Cal State somehow ended up suspiciously in a dumpster and controversy and the sweet floral smell of spring are in the air.

Really . . it's not a dream. 

 Window washers at work 31 stories up -- 9:30 a.m.

So, this falling thing.  Imagine getting up every morning of your working life and falling off a building to make a living. That's what the window washers of Chicago do for $40,000 to $60,000 bucks a year.

I thought of that this morning as the ropes appeared outside our 31st floor window while I was working my Sudoku.   Twenty minutes or so after the ropes came down, the actual human beings levitated themselves for a half-minute or so, brandishing long brushes and squeegees, and then were gone.  It's an amazing process to watch.

 20 feet of windows in less than 45 seconds

The business was dominated in the olden days by the Poles.  Now about 95% of the 250 union window washers in the city are Hispanic.

And that fact began, apparently, with one single immigrant.  According to the Chicago Tribune (July 4, 2007), Refugio Ramirez, who came to Chicago from Garcia de la Cadena in Mexico, was working as a dishwasher at the Congress Plaza Hotel, down on Michigan and Congress, when he joined a crew at the last minute to wash hotel windows 14 stories up.

That was 40 years ago.  Ramirez soon helped a few of his cousins and all three of his sons get jobs on the windows.  Today the largest union window washing company in Chicago, Corporate Cleaning Services, says that about 80 percent of its 66 workers come from Garcia de la Cadena, a sleepy little town of about 600 souls. []

 Rope, seat, bucket, squeegee . . . Have a Nice Day

It's a job almost none of the rest of us would consider.  It's hard work even if you overlook the fact that you're hanging by a couple of ropes 50 or 70  stories up in the air.  The wind blows fiercely around tall buildings, and when the weather is bad enough to keep the rest of us indoors, the window washers are out there.

But it's a ticket to a better life.  It's a way to help the folks back home.  And it's a way to make dreams come true, to do what we have always valued in this country of freedom and opportunity -- to work hard and make your own way . . . to open a window on the future -- a cleaner window on a brighter future.

Window washer at work in the Loop
Window washer at River Place on the Park,
Erie Street at the Chicago River 

Window washers at Commonwealth Plaza, 
Mies's creation at Diversey and Sheridan  

Going over the top at St. Joseph's Hospital
in really cold weather 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chicago's Meeker Mansion

If you look back to my March 24 blog entitled The Fountain and the University, you will see the connection of New York architect Charles A. Platt to the planning of the University of Illinois.  

I first learned of Platt when I did some research on a fountain in the southwest corner of Bryant Park in New York City.  In the process I learned that Platt designed the master plan for the University of Illinois along with nine buildings that line the campus "quad."

Not bad for a guy who started his career as a landscape artist.  The connections continue.

Today, I began to research a building in my neighborhood that I love -- the Meeker Mansion at 3030 Lake Shore Drive.  The elder Meeker, Arthur Sr., doesn't radiate a lot of information.  Like the meatpacking and feed grain industries he controlled for Philip Danforth Armour, he lived, he prospered, and he died.

The Meeker Mansion at 3030 Lake Shore Drive 
between Barry and Wellington
Architect Charles A Platt (1913) 

Meeker was another one of those great turn-of-the-century capitalists who started life with little and ended wealthy enough to own a mansion in Chicago and a nice spread called Arcady up in Lake Forest.  F. Scott Fitzgerald might have described him as being part of the horse set

You get references here and there in newspaper accounts.  The New York Times of August 24, 1899 refers to an impending effort by the butchers of New York to fight the "beef trust," a reference to the reaction of east coast butchers, still fiery after over ten years of protest, to the "impure" and cut-rate dressed beef sent from Chicago in refrigerated railroad cars. 

Meeker reacted, "It strikes me that the butchers are trying to make water run up hill . . . What can the butchers, or anybody else for that matter, do against the workings of nature?"

"The workings of nature," of course, being code for unregulated capitalism, a system that made Meeker and scores of men like him richer than they could have ever dreamed.

Another reference comes after a general strike in the meatpacking industry was broken in August of 1904.  "The old employees' places have been filled so promptly," Meeker stated, "that very few of the strikers will ever be able to get back their old places and those who do will come back as individuals."

Then came the day in February of 1912 when one Charles Pratt, former assistant to Meeker, appeared in federal court to testify against his former employer and Armour and Company in a trial concerning the meatpacking giant's attempts to fix prices and shut out its competition.

The trial didn't set Meeker back for too long, for in 1913 he moved his family from Prairie Avenue into the country, just off Lake Shore Drive a few blocks north of Lincoln Park.  He led a parade that brought other industrial giants of Chicago -- men like Oscar Mayer, Lester Armour (Philip's son), banker Lester Apfel, and piano magnate Philip Starck to the same area.

 The Oscar Mayer Residences at 333 and 335 West Wellington
Architects Rissman & Hirschfeld (1926)

 The Lester Armour House at 325 West Wellington
Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw (1915)

 The Arthur H. Apfel House at 341 West Wellington
Architect E. H. Frommann (1925)

 The Philip T. Starck House at 330 West Wellington
Architect:  Mayo & Mayo (1925)

The Meeker mansion, a place that I have passed a hundred times, a brick and limestone gem, was designed by  -- Charles A. Platt.

That's right . . . the same Charles A. Platt who did the fountain and the university.

Now in its third life, the Meeker mansion is looking good these days. 

Front entrance to the Meeker mansion

Details of front entrance to the Meeker mansion

In 1945 the Helpers of the Holy Souls acquired the property and converted the mansion and coach house into living quarters while adding a chapel and a dormitory.  Then in 1993 the sisters invited AIDSCare, a residential facility for folks suffering from AIDS, to move in with them.

"We needed housing," said AIDSCare founder Jim Flosi, "and they had room . . . They only asked that we pay the utilities--gas, electricity, water." [Chicago Reader, July 8, 2005]

Then in April of 2005 the sisters sold the mansion to LR Development Co. for $21 million.  The chapel that the sisters added when they acquired the property along with an addition of the same vintage was torn down. [Chicago Tribune, August 14, 2005]

The mansion sits on a beautiful piece of property, removed from the hustle and bustle of the lakefront path, located on the other side of an underpass just across the street.  

The danger was that this block-wide piece of prime lakefront real estate would explode into another high rise property or a series of rowhouses and upscale single family homes.

That didn't happen, thankfully.  The mansion has been divided into  four and five-bedroom condominiums with 3.5 to 5.5 bathrooms in each of the four units.  It looks as good today as it must have looked when the Meekers moved in close to a hundred years ago.

Wrought iron detailing at second floor level above front entrance

Arthur Meeker's son, Arthur Meeker, Jr., was a writer whose most famous book, Prairie Avenue, was published in 1949.  He ended the book with these words, "Chicago was still there, though the strong old roosters had disappeared, leaving little to show for their efforts but their businesses, which, like Frankenstein's monsters, seemed to have achieved a ruthless life of their own, quite independent of their founders' undistinguished descendants."

The strong old roosters have disappeared.  Disappeared long ago.  But in many places throughout the city, their homes still proudly stand.  The Meeker mansion is one of them.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On Free Soil Among a People Free

When the world went to war in 1914, the population of Chicago was about 2.5 million people.  Of that total only 752,111 citizens were second generation Americans.  Germans were by far the largest ethnic group in the city, comprising 399,977 first and second-generation residents.  That was over a quarter million more people than the next largest ethnic group, the Irish.

So it is hardly surprising that a statue to honor the greatest German of the nineteenth century – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – would be proposed for the city.  The first such proposal came before the turn of the century. 

The Chicago Tribune reported on March 14, 1896, “The Lincoln Park Commissioners had granted permission to the North German society, ‘Schwaben-Vereins,’ to place in the park this summer a statue of Goethe.  The place selected is the north end of the park, on the lake-front, north of Fullerton avenue, and at the foot of Lake Shore drive.”

For almost twenty years nothing was done to move the project along, despite the fact that the 1896 article mentions that over half the cost of the $12,000 statue had already been raised. 

The park commissioners felt that far more money was necessary for the project than the original proposal set aside, and it took more than a decade to raise the amount.  Finally, in September of 1910 it was announced that Professor Herman Hahn, a young Munich sculptor, had won the competition for the Lincoln Park statue.

Karl Bitter, a member of the selection committee from New York, said of the choice, “It is equal to the best products of Saint Gaudens.”

The conditions of the competition specifically prohibited a “portrait statue.”  Speaking of this, Harry Rubens of Chicago, a representative of the Goethe Monument association and a jury member in the competition, said, “. . . the sculptors have given rein to their imaginations in  the forms of fountains, temples, and allegorical and symbolical fantasies of all conceivable kinds.”  [Chicago Tribune, September 10, 1910]

 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 
in front of Mies van der Rohe's Commonwealth Plaza

It didn’t take long for criticism to roll in.  Harriet Monroe, writing in the Chicago Tribune on February 12, 1911, said, “The model accepted by the committee in charge of the proposed Goethe monument in Lincoln park looks like another sad infliction upon a long suffering community.  Why the poet should be shown poised insecurely with one leg at a right angle with his body, and with a singularly wooden bird – is it a decoy duck? –perched squarely on his knee, is one of those mysteries which will puzzle the wiser heads as long as the threatened statue stands, and bronze is sometimes too durable.”

The Tribune reported on September 22, 1913 that an advanced unveiling of the statue would take place the following week in Munich.  The article promised, “Chicago art lovers who admired the graceful lines of the youthful figure of the creator of Faust when the cast was exhibited at the Art Institute in 1910 will be delighted with the finished product in enduring bronze.”

Bronze . . . sometimes too durable or enduring?  The Chicago unveiling would be the true test.

 Goethe's Buns of Bronze

The big day came on June 13, 1914.  On the night before the womens's auxiliary of the Goethe Monument association held a gala attended by 2,000 people at the Auditorium theater, with speakers representing the German republic, the state and the city.

 Goethe:  A Rainy Day

Unfortunately, the following day brought an all-day drizzle.  Still, a crowd of 20,000 people showed up for the unveiling of the statue in Lincoln Park.  Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States spoke at the unveiling, pleading for mutual understanding between the United States and his nation.  Governor Edward F. Dunne and Mayor Carter H. Harrison also attended.

Mayor Harrison said, “I have been asked especially to speak of a German race as it has affected the life, the progress, the development of Chicago.  Enough to say that none of the many people which have contributed their quota to the making of the twentieth century Americanism in this representative city has given more bountifully than the Germans.” [Chicago Tribune, June 14, 1914]

The fanfare had hardly died down when, two weeks later Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, and war was on.  In short order Germany invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and France. 

Almost immediately Chicago took sides.  By August 3 seven hundred reservists had reported to the ninth floor offices of the German consulate in the People’s Gas Building, volunteering to fight for Germany.  Business leaders – among them brewer Charles Wacker and meat packer Oscar F. Meyer, helped raise money for the German Red Cross.
[Pacyga, Dominic A.  Chicago:  A Biography]

Even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was divided. The majority of the orchestra was made up of musicians of German descent, and at a Ravinia concert in August, at which several nationalist songs were part of the program, their French, Belgian and Russian associates rebelled against playing “The Watch on the Rhine.”  In retaliation the German musicians played sour notes during the French anthem “Le Marseillaise”.  [Pacyga]

With the United States entry into the war in 1917, tension grew even greater.

Little wonder, then, that Goethe got dragged into the mix.  On the night of May 17, 1918 the statue was attacked by “Two Americans”.  Yellow paint was spread from the knees to the base of the statue, and a placard was left against it.  

The placard read, “An emphatic protest from a free people against the retention of what always has been an offense against art, and now is a challenge to loyalty.  Shall this park, named for the illustrious Lincoln, continue to harbor such an enormity or will the people of Chicago insist on its immediate removal!”  [Chicago Tribune, May 8, 1918]

 Goethe as seen through a pair of Mies's pilotis

Goethe made it through that war untroubled by further abuse – and another war after that one.  Then, in September of 1951, lightning struck the statue and the great artist’s foot was shattered.  Three years passed before the damage was repaired with $6,000 collected for that purpose from the German-American Monument association.

The re-dedication of the monument took place on August 29, 1954, the 205th anniversary of Goethe’s birth.  A male chorus of 25 different German-American singing societies in the city took part in the program. 

On the monument are written lines from Goethe’s Faust:

The last result of wisdom stamps it true
He only earns his freedom and existence
Who daily conquers them anew.
Thus here, by dangers girt, shall glide away
And childhood, manhood, age, the vigorous day
And such a throng I fain would see --
Stand on free soil, among a people free. 

Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft remarked in 1921 that "One pair of bronze trousers is not very much more interesting than another pair."  His comment was really a plea for sculpture to memorialize more of the natural wonders of the world than the dead heroes who had left it.  

 Goethe wears no trousers.  Just a skimpy classical robe, some great abs, the calves of a weight lifter, and an impossibly large eagle, its talons resting lightly on his bulging thigh.  He looks very much like The Mastermind of the German People.