Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dhoom 3 in Chicago--September 30, 2012

Dhoom 3 films in Chicago, an exciting morning (JWB, 2012)

I was about 15 minutes from the end of the River Cruise I was leading this morning for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, just launching into my hymn of praise for the 1989 NBC Tower, when I, along with the 50 or so folks on the boat, found ourselves in the middle of a movie shoot.  I gave up trying to talk over the two helicopters that were swirling above us.  No one was going to pay attention to me anyway, even if they could hear me above the noise of the helicopters, one of which had a stuntman struggling for his life at the end of a rope.

The Bollywood shoot for Dhoom 3 has been going on in Chicago for over a month now and was halted briefly when the production company failed to get permission for filming during the week of the Air and Water Show.

At home I finally found the announcement for today’s shoot with the following understatement:   PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THERE WILL BE 2 LOW FLYING HELECOPTERS ON WACKER DR BETWEEN MICHIGAN AVE AND THE WACKER TURNAROUND BETWEEN 9AM – 1PM.

“Low flying” would be, in my estimation, an understatement.  We were in the rotor wash as the boat moved down the river, and it was an incredible sight to see how close the two copters came to the buildings in Illinois Center and to Wacker Drive.

According to the film site, ”The film is the latest in the popular Bollywood buddy cop series, starring Indian actor Aamir Khan as a thief who is a skilled acrobat able to elude the hero cop of the series and his sidekick, played by Abhishek Bachchan and Uday Chopra.”  You can find the thread about the film here.

The picture at the top is not great quality, but my IPhone was the only thing I had when the helicopters returned after my tour for a second go-round.  The photo does provide some idea, though, of how close we were to the action.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Powhatan - Happy Birthday

The Powhatan, begun this day in 1927 (JWB, 2012)

With the wind at my back I whipped along the Lakefront Trail this afternoon on a brisk late September afternoon to wish the Powhatan Apartments a very happy birthday.  It was on this day in 1927 that ground was broken on one of the more exuberant moments in Art Deco history.  Combining the sleek, geometric forms that characterized the movement with references to Native American culture, a product of the spirit of nationalism that the country embraced after World War I, this beautifully preserved tower is a gem at Forty-Ninth Street and the lake.

Front Entrance of The Powhatan, Native American motifs abounding (JWB, 2012)
In 1927 The Chicago Tribune described the proposed building as “characterized by the sweeping lines of the most up to the minute thought in American architecture,” adding that it would “present an imposing appearance from the parkland now being reclaimed from the lake, on which it will face.”  (In another one of the amazing number of public works projects that the city completed in the 1920’s, 568 acres of parkland were reclaimed from Lake Michigan between Twenty-Third and Fifty-Seventh Streets.)

Entrance detail (JWB, 2012)
As originally designed The Powhatan had 54 apartments, ranging in size form six to ten rooms.  Charles Morgan was responsible for the exterior design of the building with Robert De Golyer providing the design for the interior spaces.

The beauty and streamlined nature of the multi-hued spandrels (JWB, 2012)
Charles Morgan graduated from The University of Illinois in 1913, served as a professor of architecture at Kansas University and Florida Southern College.  He also was an associate architect with Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm.  Mr. Morgan’s Chicago office was appropriately located at 333 North Michigan Avenue, one of Chicago’s greatest Art Deco towers.  Unfortunately, Mr. Morgan died at the age of 56, drowning in the Coottee River off New Port Ritchey after taking a rowboat into the river to retrieve a ball for a group of children.

Spandrel (JWB, 2012)
Robert DeGolyer specialized in upscale apartment and co-op buildings on Lake Shore Drive.  In addition to The Powhatan, between 1925 and 1930 he designed 1120, 1242, 3500 and 3750 North Lake Shore Drive and the Worcester House on East Pearson.   He was born in Chicago in 1876 and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1898.  He worked in Los Angeles for three years before returning to Chicago and entering the firm of Marshall and Fox, at which he worked from 1906 to 1915.  Although noted for those upscale projects, he also was the lead architect in a group of 15 designers who drew the plans for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a 925 unit public housing project on the north branch of the Chicago River, bisected by Diversey Boulevard.  This project, in which only 17.6 percent of the land was covered with buildings, is in the news again.  Find the information here.

Representative Spandrel on the Upper Floors (JWB, 2012)
The principal materials used in the design of The Powhatan’s exterior are Indiana limestone and terra cotta.  At the base of the building the spandrels, or the ornamental pieces between the top of a window and the bottom of the window above it, are of a black terra cotta design that features Native American and wildlife motifs.

Minute detail from front canopy (JWB, 2012)
Above the third floor all of the spandrels are finished in terra cotta, each spandrel containing eight hues ranging from red to green.  A Tribune article of 1929 describes these spandrels as consisting of “wavy lines, giving impressionistic suggestions of Indian arrow heads, wigwams, the sun, moon, lightning and elements worshiped by the redskins..  At the bottom of each spandrel is a wavy effect to give the impression of the adjacent waters of the lake.”

Color Spandrel (Note waves at bottom and lightning bolts)  (JWB,2012)
Standing in front of this grand Art Deco lady under a blue September sky with the lake at my back, it was easy to ignore the Lake Shore Drive traffic speeding past a hundred yards or so away.  The Powhatan looks as good as she did back in the late 1920’s, and I’m glad I took some time a great Chicago September day to ride down and wish her a happy birthday.

Happy Birthday . . . you're looking better than ever (JWB, 2012)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Great Blue Heron: Urbs in Horto

Great Blue Heron (Ardea Harodias) surveying its domain (Photo by Jill Bartholomew)

In the prologue to his book Nature’s Metropolis:  Chicago and the Great West, author William Cronon wrote these words, “ However we draw the boundary between the abstraction called city and the abstraction called country, we must still understand that all people, rural or urban, share with each other and with all living and unloving things a single earthly home which we identify as the abstraction called nature.”

Good point. 

Much has been made for at least two hundred years of the blissful life that is led in the open leas, away from the city.  The closer we live to nature, it has been said, the closer we will be to discovering who we really are.

“To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

That’s how Wordsworth described this notion in the concluding lines of Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Immortality.

Jill and I spent most of our adult lives out there in the green pastures of the suburbs, in a house that sat on nearly an acre of ground.  And I tended to a lot of flowers and mowed the lawn and often had deep thoughts while trudging behind the mower.

But in all that time I never saw a Great Blue Heron.

But as she and I walked along the North Pond in Lincoln Park last weekend, we saw one, just sitting on a fallen branch just off the western shore.

Finally, she took off (the bird, not Jill), and T-H-A-T was an impressive sight.

Ardea Harodias has a wingspan of over six feet, longer by far than its height, which is on the average a few inches above four feet.

Watching that majestic bird sail on those wings to the farther shore reinforced something that I have come to see in the half-dozen years we have spent in this great city.  There is plenty of nature here, too. 

Unlike the suburbs, where I most often had to drive out to a forest preserve to find it, here it’s right outside the front door.

Another reason to love this place.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Madison Street (Lyric Opera) Bridge . . . Happy Birthday!

Madison Street (Lyric Opera) Bridge (Google Image)
Opened on September 17, 1922

Happy birthday, today, September 17, to the Madison Street (Lyric Opera) Bridge, opened on this day in 1922.

You know, it isn’t easy keeping the people of a big city happy . . . we’ve learned that once again in the past week.  Over a century ago, though, there were so many more ways that a person’s patience could be tried.  Combine smoke, horse manure, cobblestone streets, and a metropolis bound in by a lake on the east and split in two by a river flowing on the north and south . . . you would have had some pretty good reasons to feel a little moody once in awhile.

Back in the old days, one group of city employees who took more abuse than almost any other was the bridge tenders.  In September of 1872 The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial that began, “One would suppose that bridge-tenders were furnished the city on contract, so inferior in quality are they.  They are despotic, and exercise a tyranny over the travelling public in this city, but the people have risen against despotism and won’t have it displayed by bridge-tenders.”

With crowds like this, when the bridge was tied up, things could back up in a hurry (Google Image)
The condemnation came after an incident at the Madison Street Bridge, where on the previous night the bridge-tender had raised the bridge and kept it open for 22 minutes, causing traffic to back up all the way to Jefferson Street to the west along with “three blocks of profane language.”  Such an occurrence was commonplace in a city where the river made Chicago the busiest port in the United States.

One of the problems in the old days was the type of bridge that crossed the Chicago River.  Nearly all of these early bridges were swing bridges that had a locating pin and supporting ring around which the bridge rotated at its center of gravity, a location almost exactly in the middle of the channel.  In a modest river like the Chicago River, putting the mechanism for the movement of the bridge as well as the open bridge, itself, directly in the middle of the channel made for some interesting times. 

The Madison Street swing bridge of 1891 -- note the width of the river on each side (Google image)
In 1879 Mayor Carter Harrison, himself, intervened directly at the Madison Street Bridge.    On the evening of September 17 as folks were streaming across the river on their way to the theaters on the east side, the bridge was raised to allow the propeller ship Chicago to pass.  It was 45 minutes before the ship worked her way through and at some point during that time Mayor Harrison “bore down on the craft from the West Side approach, and stepped down the abutment and jumped aboard the propeller and went in search of the Captain . . .”  [Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1879]

By the time the Mayor and the Captain squeezed the boat through the draw, streetcars were lined up “from the river to Halsted Street.”

Things got pretty crowded back in the early 1900's -- the river at Rush Street (Google Image)
There were incidents more serious than just the delay of theatergoers.  On  May 9, 1890 the Coral, in tow of the D. S. Babcock, was demasted when the bridge lock would not work.  Anticipating an open bridge since the bridge bell had rung and the bridge had been cleared of horses and wagons, the Coral was unable to halt its progress and lost its foremast and superstructure.

By the early 1890’s the bridge at Madison Street was in desperate need of repair with the western approach shifting toward the river to such an extent that the city engineer thought that a heavy load would bring it down.

So in a practical move, literally, on March 12, 1891 the city loaded the old Madison Street Bridge, which had stood since 1876, onto two barges and moved it north a block to Washington Street.   There the 180-ton bridge was settled on new piers that had been completed a year earlier.

The Tribune wrote of the event, “Since 1876 the Madison street structure has stood in sunshine and storm, uncaring of conditions and ever the faithful servitor of a careless public.  It will be remembered as one public servant within the corporate limits of Chicago which executed its public office as a public trust.”

The new bridge at Madison Street was supposed to be completed within three months, which today looks like a colossal piece of optimism.  On September 13, 1891 The Tribune wrote, “Madison street for the distance of a block or more on each side of the river resembles the deserted main street of a Southern village during camp meeting time, so far as traffic or trade is concerned.  The stores are barren of customers and the few clerks who have been retained occupy themselves during the day in keeping up the circulation of their blood.”

Finally, by the middle of October of 1891 the new bridge was completed.

Chicago RIver at Madison Street, somewhere between 1910 and 1920 (Chicago Daily News Archive)
The new Madison Street bridge, bigger than the previous one, 197 feet long and able to accommodate four horse teams abreast, was finished later that year, but because it still held to the traditional swing bridge system of engineering, trouble was bound to continue.

On November 25, 1909 The Tribune reported, “Madison street bridge was wrecked yesterday by the bow of the iron freighter Bethlehem of the Lehigh Valley line.  The bridge was thrown off its axis, many of the rollers on which it rides were broken from their journals and the iron supports of the mechanism were broken and twisted.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

The vessel’s master, Captain W. J. Flanders saw as he approached the bridge that things were going to be close, and he called for a tug to assist.  Before the tug could get a line aboard the freighter, it crashed into the bridge.  One woman and 20 men were marooned on the bridge itself, and they were taken aboard the towboat Protection by means of a ladder and ferried to the west side of the river.

It was clear that a new bridge design was needed, a new system of engineering that would accommodate a huge amount of pedestrian and freight traffic, along with the city’s surface lines while, at the same time, allowing more room in the channel for the tremendous river traffic serving the city’s grain elevators, lumber yards, and warehouses.

The Cortland Street bridge, the first trunnion bascule bridge in the country (JWB, 2010)
By 1902 the answer to the problem was worked out and the first trunnion bascule bridge was built across the river at Cortland Street.  (For information on this bridge check out this blog.)  In this type of bridge a complex interworking of gears, counterweights, and motors lift the cantilevered roadway above and away from the channel.

Model of the new bridge, displayed in 1906 (Chicago Tribune)
By 1906 a large plaster model of the proposed Madison Street Bridge was placed on exhibit at the annual architectural exhibit of the Art Institute.  It was a sleek design, gussied up with some artistic flourishes, specifically proposed groups of statuary at the ends of the span to be executed by Chicago sculptors funded through the Ferguson fund.

Thirteen years later work on the substructure of the new bridge began on December 1, 1919 as, to the south, the new Roosevelt Road bridge was also being erected.  Things sailed along for a while with the Madison Street bridge’s superstructure completed by November of 1920 . . . and then the money dried up and construction ground to a halt.  With Madison Street and Roosevelt Road severely compromised at the river, voters had to decide in June whether or not to approve a $3,400,000 bond issue to finish the two projects.  Arguments were heated as both sides of the issue passionately argued their case.

In a June 4, 1922 editorial The Tribune proclaimed, “The Madison street bridge continues as a heroic monument of the agony of incompetence, the triumph of demos, shapeless, useless, and reaching steel arms into the heavens as if it were going down a third time and forever in the current of the river.  It is a mass of twisted, distorted, and convulsed, inchoate, but with a glimpse of some design thwarted before it could take form.”

Despite the language, the paper still urged the populace to approve the bonds.  “Great as the waste of money is, it is not so great a waste as that of these disordered thoroughfares.  The citizen may be as mad as he cares to be, but he needs the bridges and if he has to pay twice for them let him know in such fashion his affairs are run.”

Finally, on September 17, 1922 the bridge was ready for the public.  Its debut left only one swing bridge left in the loop district at Clark Street.  The new bridge’s sidewalks were spacious by contemporary standards – 13 feet, 6 inches wide (the old bridge had sidewalks measuring 5 feet, 6 inches).   According to the City Engineer Thomas Pihlfeldt, the new bridge contained 1,800 tons of steel and the machinery to move it weighed 250 tons.  There were 4,000 yards of concrete in its substructure.

Note the sidewalks on the old swing bridge (Chicago Daily News archive)
It was quite a difference from the first bridge crossing the river at Madison Street back in 1849, made of floating logs, and costing $1,000, which was paid by subscription from adjacent property owners.

A great description of the bridge can be found on the outstanding website  The writers point out that this was the first bascule bridge in the city where the trusses were arranged so that part of the truss was above the deck, creating a buffer between vehicular and pedestrian traffic while increasing clearance under the bridge since the trusses, which were raised to waist height above the deck, allowed more clearance under the bridge.

Bridge truss raised above roadbed, separating traffic from pedestrians.  Also note
design of railings and bridge houses. (
The website goes on to observe, “This bridge stands out among the bridges of Chicago as one of the most historically and technologically significant since it is the first example of a design that Chicago would use in construction on many bridges during a period of over 40 years.  It also retains ornate sidewalk railings that greatly contribute to the visual beauty of the bridge.” 

It is a beautiful, sleek span in a place that where its beauty and sleekness is an absolute necessity, just to the south of the exquisite Art Deco 1929 Civic Opera Building.