Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tom Skilling, the Fog, and Me

Belmont Harbor, Lake Michigan, and the fog that wouldn't leave (JWB Photo)

Lake fog continues to flirt with Chicago's shoreline. It's a fascinating phenomenon with effects which are highly localized. You can have dense slashing visibilities at the shoreline and travel 2 blocks inland and bathed in sunshine. James Bartholomew sends us this shot looking toward the lakefront from a high rise north of Diversey Harbor.

That was the caption beneath a photo of a fog-shrouded Belmont Harbor.  My first submission to the Tom Skilling Facebook page and to the WGN Weather Center was a winner.  Shucks, already I’m uncomfortable being this famous.

It has been a most unusual couple of days in Chicago.  I gave a River Tour for the Chicago Architectural Foundation and had to plead with the folks on the boat to believe that Willis Tower was arguably the tallest skyscraper in the United States since we could only see the first 70 floors or so.  This morning, riding my bike along the lake, there was no city to see at all.  I could barely make out the top third of the John Hancock building while the sun shone brightly four blocks to the west.

This afternoon the fog crept right up to the shoreline and that’s where it stayed.  It made an awesome image in which sky, cloud and lake merged into one fascinating mix.  The blog starts with the photo that captured the world’s attention.  The photo at the end is another shot of the same phenomenon. 

Belmont Harbor in the fog (JWB Photo)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Alexander Hamilton and Kate Buckingham -- the August 26, 1942 lawsuit

Not exactly what Kate B. had in mind (JWB Photo)

I hate to get started on this again because every time I look out my window, it’s a source of aggravation.  And in every trip I take on the old 151 I get a tad steamed up as we pass the junction of Stockton and Sheridan.  It is there that a forlorn Alexander Hamilton stands, peeling gold leaf, a sculpture that began with such great promise and which now stands atop a puny base of red granite, looking out on the sunbathers and leaping dogs.

If you want to know the whole sordid tale, you can find it here.

Kate Struges Buckingham
Art Institue of Chicago Image
It was on this day back in 1942 that the executors and trustees of the late Kate Sturges Buckingham’s $4,000,000 estate were charged with allowing a one million dollar trust fund that the benefactress had set up for the creation of a memorial to Alexander Hamilton to revert to the Art Institute rather than seeing that it got used for its original purpose.

The fund had been set up aspart of the Miss Buckingham's will.  Upon her death on December 14, 1937 that will stipulated that the memorial was to be built within ten years or the fund would revert to the Art Institute.   The 1942 suit, filed by the State’s Attorney because the memorial fund was a public charitable trust, alleged that the trustees of the fund, some of who were also executors of Miss Buckingham’s will and officers of the Art Institute “conspired and confederated . . . to the end that all or substantially all of the million dollar fund, together with the 10 years accumulated, be paid to the Art Institute for unrestricted use.”

The suit went on to demand that the trustees of the fund be made to carry out contracts made by Miss Buckingham before her death with Eliel Saarinen . . . and John Angel, the sculptor.  At this point, in fact, Mr. Angel's sculpture had already been cast.

If the suit had only worked . . . How cool would it be to look out my window and see Alexander Hamilton standing in an 80-foot tall architectural enclosure designed by Eliel Saarinen!

The Saarinen design commissioned by Kate Buckingham (JWB Photo taken at Art Institute of Chicago exhibit)
Architect Samuel Marx did design a tall polished granite setting for the sculpture that was dedicated in July of 1952.  It lasted 41 yeas before it was torn down in 1993. 

“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything,” Hamilton once observed.  It seems wrong to me, somehow, that a man who stood for so much, who many argue gave the young nation the financial footing and philosophical underpinning that allowed it to develop, has seen his memorial fall so far.    

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Urbs in Horto -- Sunflowers and Buckingham Fountain

August 24, 1925 -- Construction begins on Chicago's Buckingham Fountain
It was on this day back in 1925 that work began on one of Chicago’s great lakefront attractions, the fountain that serves as the central point of Grant Park -- Kate Buckingham’s gift in memory of her deceased brother, Clarence.  In relating the news of the fountain’s construction The Chicago Tribune called it “as large and as costly as any in the world . . . twice the size of that of Latona at Versailles.”

Stopping by the fountain is always a pleasure, even more today than in the 1920’s because we don’t have the smoke and cinders of the railroads separating the mist of the fountain’s jets from the majesty of the skyline two blocks to the west.

Spend a few minutes at the fountain today, and you’ll get a real treat because on the east side, running along Lake Shore Drive, are two big patches of sunflowers, just now coming into bloom.  Show me another city that displays this close a relationship between nature, art and architecture. 

It is eye-catching.  That was especially true on the morning that I stopped by as fire equipment and a paramedic van had southbound traffic on the drive at a near standstill, working an accident in which an S.U.V. had slammed into the rear of a cab, the accident probably the result of a driver being blinded by the sunflowers.

Here's a look at how great this scene is . . .

JWB Photo
JWB Photo
JWB Photo

Thursday, August 22, 2013

U.S.S. Wolverine commissioned: August 22, 1942

The U.S.S. Wolverine with Chicago's skyline in the background (

“Chicagoans will see the commissioning of the United States aircraft carrier Wolverine at 3 p.m. today, when the navy formally will take over the vessel off Madison Street,” The Chicago Tribune reported on this day in 1942.  It’s hard to believe today, but just eight months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a remarkable transformation had occurred as the nation turned its full attention to the war effort.  The U.S.S. Wolverine was a stunning example of the quickness of that turnaround.

At the beginning of World War II the Navy had a big problem.  The attack on Pearl Harbor had clearly shown the effectiveness of carrier-based airplanes, and the service figured that it needed to crank out 45,000 carrier pilots in short order if it had any chance of catching up to the Japanese.

But there were three problems in getting those pilots trained.  First, every available carrier that existed was urgently needed as part of the war effort.  The inventory of carriers wasn’t large enough to allow even one ship to be steaming back and forth, as new pilots tried to figure out how to land and take off on a pitching deck.

Secondly, even if there had been a carrier or two to spare, the coastal waters, especially those of the Atlantic coast, were patrolled by the unpredictable terror of enemy submarines.  It was rightly concluded that carrier training was a high-risk proposition under such conditions, and the decision was made to conduct the training in the protected inland waters of the Great Lakes.  It wouldn’t make taking off or landing any easier for prospective pilots, but at least they could count on a ship being there instead of a roiling patch of water left behind after a torpedo attack.

That brought on the third problem . . . even if there were a way to get a carrier detached from active duty, there was no way to get the vessel to the Great Lakes.  No  carrier was narrow enough to fit through the Welland Canal, the only passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.

There was no time to build a new carrier from scratch to meet the demand, so the decision was made to find a couple of suitable ships that could be rapidly converted into flat-tops for use in fresh water.  Two factors drove the selection process -- the ships had to be able to handle a 500-foot long flight deck and make 18 knots.

The launch of the Seeandbee in 1913 (Google image)
According to Paul M. Somers in his book Lake Michigan’s Aircraft Carriers, two ships made the final cut.  One was a car ferry owned by the Pere Marquette Railroad, the USS City of Midland.  The other was a 1913 Great Lakes excursion vessel, the Seeandbee (the ship’s original owner was the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company – C & B), a gilded queen with 24 ornate parlors and 62 staterooms.  Find a great old silent video of a Ford Motor Company Merit Club cruise aboard the Seeandbee here.

The Pere Marquette was slower than Seeandbee, and Seeandbee also had the advantage of being 500 feet long, the right length for the conversion.  So Seeandbee got the nod, and the conversion began.  The Navy laid out 756,000 dollars for the luxury ship, stripping her of amenities in Cleveland in the early months of 1942.  On the sixth of May of that year the Seeandbee was towed from Cleveland to Buffalo where 1,200 workers worked around the clock to convert the ship to a training carrier [].

The Seeandbee in Buffalo enroute to becoming the U.S.S. Wolverine (
 The flight deck was 550 feet long and extended well beyond the ship’s bow and stern.  There was no hangar deck and no elevators, no maintenance facilities, and no catapults since planes would not be kept on the ship.  Once a lucky pilot got a plane on the deck, he took off again. 

Two characteristics separated the Wolverine and her sister ship, the Sable, from every other ship in the fleet.  First, they were coal-powered and, secondly, they were propelled by side-wheel paddle wheels instead of propellers. 

In normal conditions the 18-knot maximum speed of the Wolverine was fast enough, when the carrier was sailing into the wind, to accommodate most aircraft of the time.  On calm days, though, the wind over the deck was insufficient to accommodate the faster planes being pressed into service.  During operation 120 planes were lost, but only eight pilots died, thanks in part to Coast Guard craft that trailed the carrier during operations.  135,000 landings took place on the Wolverine and the Sable, qualifying 17,820 Navy and Marine aviators.  Find a short video of the carrier during operations here.

Trainees would leave the Glenview Naval Air Station and rendezvous over the easily identified Bahai Temple in Wilmette before being directed to the carrier.  It wasn’t easy to face the bucking flight deck in the middle of winter.  Regulations required that the cockpit canopy be open during takeoffs and landings so that a pilot could more easily escape a sinking plane. With blasts of freezing air stinging their eyes, the prospective pilots approached a deck that was often clouded by the thick black smoke the carriers made when travelling at full speed. []

President George H. W. Bush recalled of his training flights out of Glenview, “I remember those Great Lakes flights very well in the open cockpit that winter.  Coldest I have ever been in my life.”

The U.S.S. Wolverine during operations (
Imagine what it must have been like back in the mid-1940’s, watching these two carriers receive and send off aircraft, sometimes a little less than a mile off the shore of the second largest city in the country!  It only lasted three years.   The USS Wolverine was decommissioned on November 7, 1945.  On November 28 of that year she was removed form the Naval Vessel Record.  In December of that year she was sold for scrap and subsequently broken up in Cleveland, Ohio.

Another first for Chicago 71 years ago today – a paddle wheel aircraft carrier, with a name that honored the state of Michigan began operations off the Windy City’s shores.