Monday, February 21, 2011

Photo of the Week: Thompson Building at 350 North Clark

(JWB Photo, 2008)

Walk north of Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center on Clark Street, cross the river and you'll come face to face with another building that carries the Thompson name, this one a real beauty with a creamy terra cotta skin and an understated ornamentation at the base of its classic Chicago school organization.  

The building at 350 North Clark Street is named after a different Thompson -- not James R., but John R., a restauranteur who rocked the lunchroom business in a big way from the latter part of the 19th century to the 1950's.  If you've got some time on your hands, here's a cool website for you --  Some great information about John R. and a bunch of other stuff, too.

Turns out that Mr. Thompson (the dead one, not the one still with us) began his career running a general store in rural Illinois.  In 1891 he came to Chicago and opened a restaurant on State Street.  Thirty years later the Thompson empire included a chain of groceries and 109 restaurants, including 49 in Chicago and 11 in New York City.  The company's commissary was moved to the brand new building at 350 North Clark in 1912, and the company went public in 1914.  Mr. Thompson died in 1927.  

Thompson's restaurants stressed efficiency and hygiene, attributes that work well in restaurants and in buildings.  So it is that the Thompson building has a glazed exterior of white terra cotta, emphasizing the cleanliness of the operation.  The modest terra cotta ornament presents garlands of fruit, vegetables and grain, a visual clue as to what the original purpose of the building was.  The strong geometric grid of the eight-story facade may well suggest the efficiency of Thompson's "scientific" approach to his enterprise.

The building has a great pedigree -- the designer was Alfred Alschuler, a prolific architect during the first quarter of the 20th century, whose accomplishments include the 360 North Michigan Avenue Building, the oldest synagogue in the city (KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park), and a number of factories and showrooms.  

The Thompson building's terra cotta was manufactured by the great Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, which produced the cladding for the Wrigley Building and which had its offices in the Santa Fe Building. Northwestern's main plant was at the corner of Wright and Clybourn and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Down They Forgot as Up They Grew: Woods Theater

The Woods Theater at the corner of Dearborn and Randolph
with about ten years of life remaining (Photo Courtesy of
My favorite poem, the poem I taught every class every year for 33 years, is anyone lived in a pretty how town by e. e. cummings.  Nearly impossible to figure out at first reading, it speaks, I think, to the unfortunate loss of innocence that humans experience as they grow older and are initiated into the responsibilities of adulthood.  

The poem applies to great cities as well, and it fits especially well with the rise of Chicago as a world-class city.  In "growing up" cities many times leave behind the buildings of their early years, tearing down innovative structures and then forgetting about them as progress sweeps the population into the future.  So once in awhile I intend to blog about the great buildings that down may be forgotten as up the city has grown.

The Borden Block
Courtesy of chuckmanchicagonostalgia
At the the corner of Randolph and Dearborn, Chicago has seen two such buildings disappear.  The first at this location was the Borden Block, the first project on which many architectural historians believe that Dankmar Adler and the young Louis Sullivan worked together.  It was a building notable for the "elegant balance between load bearing structure and ornamentation." [Manieri-Elia. Louis Henry Sullivan. Princeton Architectural Press, 1996] The Borden Block was completed in the early 1880's, one of the leaders in the first generation of skyscrapers that would change the way every city built tall commercial structures.  

The Borden Block was demolished in 1916 to make way for the Woods Theater, which survived for 74 years until it, too, was razed in 1990.  The last two films shown in the theater before it closed in January of 1989 show how bad things had gotten in the theater district.  I'm Gonna Get You Sucka and Hellraiser II entertained a scattering of moviegoers before the screen of the Woods finally went dark.

The Chicago Tribune of January 8, 1989 lamented the loss, not just of the Woods, but of all the Loop's movie palaces.  "The demise of the theater where Gone with the Wind premiered on a reserved-seat basis in 1940, beginning an engagement that lasted an entire year, will make Monday the first day in more than three-quarters of a century that the city's Loop will be without a movie theater," wrote Rudolph Unger in The Trib.

According to the Cinema Treasures website The Woods was named after Colonel J. H. Wood who ran Wood's Museum at Randolph and Clark Streets until it was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.

What was left of Wood's Museum after the fire
(Courtesy of
Marshall and Fox, architects who gave the city such lasting gems as the Drake Hotel, the Blackstone Hotel, the theater next to the Blackstone (now the Merle Reskin) and the South Shore Cultural Center, designed The Woods, which was decorated in a Venetian style on the exterior.  The interior combined Middle Eastern and Oriental styles.

The Woods was far from the biggest movie palace in the Loop; it seated just over 1,100 customers.  The United Artists Theater, for example, just across Randolph Street had seating for over 1,700.  The Rialto Theater, also designed by Marshall and Fox, had seating for over 1,500 at 336 South State Street, just north of what is now the Harold Washington Library. 

When the Woods opened in 1917, sound films were still nearly a decade away from production.  The first primitive introduction of "talkies" occurred just as the Oriental Theater opened its doors in 1926.  Back in those day folks came to the theaters for entertainment, but they also came to escape the dirty, grimy and hectic city, entering into elaborate palaces that were air-conditioned in the summertime, a particular draw since air conditioning was rarely used anywhere else.
Imagine . . . over ten thousand seats in a four-block square, all of them sold out on the weekends and nearly filled on the weekdays right up into the 1950's.  People back in those days dressed up "to go to the show."  It was a big deal, and anyone could look like a big spender in a nice suit or a pretty dress once he or she entered the gilded interiors of those theaters. 

Then it all fell apart, fell apart in the space of a decade, maybe a little more for some of the lucky ones.  There were lots of reasons.  Theaters with multiple screens out in the suburbs.  Mayor Byrne's malling of State Street.  The movement of high-end retailers to the north side of the river.  The natural flow of dollars away from the Loop as the money shifted west and north to the shiny new towers along the river, the vacuum that was left drawing in action-seekers from the projects to the south where the planners hadn't thought much of providing entertainment or even any shopping of significance.  There was the conversion of Block 37 into an urban gravel pit in 1989, the same year that The Woods came tumbling down.

We've kept a few of the old palaces.  The Harris and the Selwyn, just around the corner from the old Woods, have been gutted and are now part of the new Goodman Theatre complex.  The Chicago on State Street was completely restored with help from the city and even got an opening serenade from Frank Sinatra in 1986 when its nine-month restoration by Daniel P. Coffey & Associates was completed.

There are a few others.  But, of course, it will never be the same as it was in the middle of the last century when Chicago had its own version of Times Square.  In 1989 Paul Gapp, the architectural critic for The Tribune at the time, wrote:  "Today, people dressed in the surreally chic, factory-faded sport clothes . . . pay upwards of $10 to sit in a tiny contemporary movie theater while devouring bulimia-size containers of popcorn and soft drinks and watching screen fare heavy on dismemberment and sexual coupling.  When architectural splendor once compensated for the silence of films, food now fills the vacuum crated by the sterility of the theaters.  The downtown dinosaurs are dead, and those who personally remember the glory days of picture palaces are fading away as well."  [Chicago Tribune Magazine, July 2, 1989]

Petterino's, on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph, is a classy joint with good food and an efficient waitstaff.  It's rooted in nostalgia to the point of taking its name from Arturo Petterino, the long-time maitre d' of the famed Pump Room.  But somehow the appearance of a steaming plate of Pappardelle Bolognese can't make up for the loss of the grand movie house that once stood in this place.

One last word, three years before it bit the dust, The Woods made an appearance in the most memorable movie of the 1980's, Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Fast forward to 1:09 in the following cut; The Woods is on the right side of the cop, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City is on the left.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Photo of the Week: Sunrise

JWB Photo, 2010
There are advantages to living in a city that shares its boundary with a large body of water, not the least of which is the thrill, for early risers, of watching the beginning of a new day.  You don't get to see it all the time, and in the winter weeks may pass before you see the reflection of the rising sun in the waters of Lake Michigan.

But when you DO see it, you have to think about what a great gift the new day is and how fortunate you are to be in this particular patch at this particular time.

Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door . . . that's the way Emily Dickinson put it.  

And maybe that's a good way to think about it . . . not knowing when one of these fantastic Chicago sunrises will insinuate itself into our little lives, we best open ourselves up to the possibility of a day of surprises, with or without the sunrise.

It's the way we live out here in the midwest, out on the open prairie, the field of dreams.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Illinois Centennial Monument at Logan Square (Part Two)

My February 5, 2011 blog gave the background information on Logan Square, the section of Chicago in which the city erected the monument that marked a century of Illinois statehood.  The community was part of the grand system of parks and boulevards worked out late in the nineteenth century, a forward-looking plan that shaped the green spaces that the city has today.
General John A. Logan

Logan Park, annexed by the city in 1889, was named after the civil war general John A. Logan.  Logan was another one of those huge figures that populated Chicago as it grew to prominence in the middle of the 19th century.  He served in the United States Congress before and after the Civil War, before the war as a Democrat in the House of Representatives, after as a Republican in the Senate. Promoted to Major General in 1864, Logan commanded the Army of the Tennessee during the Battle of Atlanta in July of that year.   

In addition to the honors given him in Logan Square, there is a statue of Logan in Grant Park and another equestrian statue stands in Logan Square in Washington, D. C.  Logan's name is one of only three mentioned in the Illinois state song.

On the record of thy years
Abraham Lincoln's name appears.
Grant and Logan, and our tears,
Illinois, Illinois . . .
Grant and Logan, and our tears,

Henry Bacon

The Illinois Centennial Column, dedicated in 1918, was the work of Henry Bacon, the Illinois-born architect whose most famous commission was the Lincoln Memorial of 1922, perhaps the most cherished memorial in the nation's capital. 

According to Logan Square Preservation, the column is of the same proportion and scale as the columns that make up the colonnade of the Parthenon in Athens.  An understandable decision since it links the one-hundredth anniversary of statehood to the first great democracy in history.

Thirteen solid marble segments of Tennessee pink marble make up the Illinois Centennial column as it rises 42 and-a-half feet.  It stands atop a 15' 3" base, carved in bas relief.  Atop the column, seated on a statified prairie bolder, sits and eagle with wings spread.  The symbol of Illinois and the United States, it measure ten feet in height.  the eagle, along with the bas reliefs of the base, are the work of Evelyn Beatrice Longman, the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Design in 1919. 

Evelyn Longman
Longman was inspired to begin a career in sculpture and decoration at the age of 19 when she visited 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  She studied under Lorado Taft at the Art Institute of Chicago, earning her four-year degree in two years.  "What distinguished Longman," wrote Margaret Samu, a Longman scholar,"was her commitment to monumental sculpture, an arena usually occupied by men.  Although some women of Longman's generation created large scale works, she was the first who built her career on that basis." [Smithsonian Institution]

Longman's bas reliefs surrounding the base of the column depict allegorical figures representing Agriculture, Transportation, Labor and Fine Arts. The explorers Pere Marquette, Robert de LaSalle and William Clark, along with Native Americans provide a panorama of the state's first one hundred years of existence and its link to the ideals of freedom and democracy.

The inscription on the north side of the base reads:  "To commemorate the centenary of the admission of Illinois as a sovereign state of the American Union December Third MDCCCSVIII."  Underneath that inscription is another that reads, "Erected by the Trustees of the B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund MCMXVIII."  

Benjamin Franklin Ferguson was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania in 1839 and was among that generation of adventurers who came to Chicago just prior to the fire and made their fortune.  Ferguson worked exclusively in lumber and made a fortune doing so . . . enough so that after traveling in Europe where he was impressed with the public sculpture, he vowed to bring to Chicago that same sensitivity to public art.

When he died in 1905 he left one million dollars in trust to the Art Institute of Chicago, and that B. F. Ferguson fund was to be used "entirely and exclusively . . . under the direction of its Board of Trustees in the erection and maintenance of enduring statuary and monuments, in the whole or in the part of stone, granite, or bronze, in the parks, along the boulevards or in other public places, within the city of Chicago, Illinois, commemorating worthy men or women of America or important events in American history." [Garvey. Public Sculptor:  Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. University of Illinois Press, 1988.]

Mestrovic's Spearman, a Ferguson fund sculpture
(JWB photo, 2009)
Some 20 sculptures in Chicago have been funded by the Ferguson fund.  The first was Lorado Taft's "Fountain of Time," that sits on a pedestal designed by Henry Bacon in front of the Morton wing, the southwest section of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Taft's allegorical sculpture was dedicated on September 9, 1913.   

The Ferguson fund has provided such works as the sculptures on the south pylons (Defense and Regeneration) of the DuSable Bridge carrying Michigan Avenue across the Chicago River, Ivan Mestrovic's Bowman and Spearman, just east of Michigan Avenue on Congress, and Henry Moore's Nuclear Energy at the University of Chicago. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Photo of the Week: Trump Jump

The July 20, 2010 jump from the top of Trump Tower (JWB Photo, 2010)
One of the commercials that ran during last night's Super Bowl game announced the premiere of Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, set to be released in the United States on July 1.

As I watched the trailer of this futuristic bust-em-up and saw the carnage taking place on the north side of the DuSable Bridge, two thoughts came to me.  The first was that the July 1 release would be in the middle of the summer, and warm weather would be once again a part of the Chicago lifestyle.  The snow will melt, the lake will thaw, and Chicago's new mayor will preside over what once again will be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Right after that I thought about the hot morning last summer when on July 20 at about 8:30 in the morning, five parachutists hurled themselves off the top of Trump Tower, landing a minute or two later on a waiting barge moored just northeast of the DuSable Bridge.  Those of you who lived through it will remember when the film crews blew up Michigan Avenue, 35 East Wacker lay in ruins on Wacker Drive, and the helicopters roared so loudly that you couldn't hold a conversation.

So warm yourself with the knowledge that when you sit in an air conditioned theater, watching the Autobots struggle desperately to learn the secret of the Decepticons' lethal moon craft, it will be high times and green grass in the City of the Big Shoulders and all will be right with the world.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Illinois Centennial Monument at Logan Square (Part One)

Illinois Centennial Monument (JWB Photo, 2010)
Even as war was breaking out in Europe in 1914, Chicagoans looked four years ahead, trying to decide on the appropriate way to celebrate the centennial of Illinois statehood.  President James Monroe signed the Statehood Enabling Act on April 18, 1818, and Illinois' first governor, Shadrach Bond, was inaugurated on Otober 6, 1818.  The state's first constitution was adopted on August 26, 1818, the date that appears on the State Seal.

So the Riverdale Pointer announced on October 2, 1914, "Illinois' one-hundredth birthday will be commemorated by a monument of imposing design to be erected in Logan Square.  A model of the monument, the work of Henry Bacon, sculptor, has been accepted by the West Chicago park commissioners.  The site is one which was selected by Frederick Law Olmstead, and is a commanding location where many streets converge.  The design shows a column seventy feet high, surmounted by an eagle. This addition to the city's commemorative shafts will be provided by the Ferguson fund."

There, in just a few sentences, we find three great names (Bacon, Olmstead and Ferguson), a plan of parks and boulevards that continues to make Chicago one of the most beautiful settings on the planet (especially in the warmer months), and a great monument (now nearly forgotten).

Notce Morris B. Sach's, Chicago's own Flatiron Building
The "square" where the monument stands is now a circle, but the concept for the space has a distinguished pedigree.  Plans for a system of boulevards and parks within the city was proposed as early as 1849 when an early resident, John S. Wright, proposed, "I foresee a time, not very distant, when Chicago will need for its fast increasing population a park or parks in each division.  Of these parks I have a vision.  They are all improved and connected with a wide avenue extending to and along the Lake shore on the north and south and so surrounding the city with a magnificent chain of parks and parkways that have not their equal in the World." []

The Chicago Tribune endorsed Wright's idea in 1866 and in 1869 the state legislature  established the North, South and West park districts, giving each body the power to levy taxes and to regulate all land use within 400 feet of the boulevards that were also created as part of the legislation.  Building setbacks were set at 50 feet and the districts were even given the power to review all building designs that fronted the boulevard system.

In 1870 architect William LeBaron Jenney, the father of the metal-framed commercial building, entered into a contract to design the West parks system, a system that today includes Garfield, Humboldt and Douglas Parks.  The boulevards in Jenney's plan were given a formal treatment and lined with trees while the parks were treated more informally.  Also part of Jenney's plan were five impressive squares, one of which is Logan Square, at the turning points of the boulevards.

The Chicago Park District was created in 1933 and was given charge of maintaining
 both the parks and the boulevards in the system all the way to 1959, when the city took over responsibility for the boulevards.  Such a huge resource has proven difficult to maintain, and it is in better shape in some places than in others.  Logan Square has fared better than most, primarily because the citizens living in that area took charge, creating Logan Square Preservation in 1980, a move that eventually led to Logan Square receiving both National and Chicago Landmark status, the first in 1985, the second just five years ago.

The landmarked district includes Humboldt Boulevard north of Cortland Street, Kedzie Boulevard, Logan Square and the Illinois Centennial Monument, Logan Boulevard to the Kennedy Expressway and 330 buildings facing these boulevards.

That sets the stage for the monument, which sits proudly atop a sloping circle of grass at Milwaukee Avenue and Logan Boulevard.  Information about the statue itself comes in the next blog.