Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Garrick, Birth and Death -- February 21, 1950

The Schiller Theater in 1895 -- Note the Masonic
Temple Building in background (Ryerson-Burnham Archives)
On September 29, 1892 a grand new theater opened in Chicago, a playhouse dedicated exclusively to German drama and opera.  It was called the Schiller, the masterpiece of architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, with an auditorium that seated 1,300 people and an accompanying office tower.  The Chicago Tribune described the new playhouse as “the Auditorium on a small scale, but even more striking in magnificence of decorative detail.”  [Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1892] 

As Mendelssohn’s Fest Song to the Artists faded away on that evening, influential German newspaperman A. C. Heising rose to give an address in which he stressed the importance of the new theater to Chicagoans of German origin. 

During that address Heising stated, “According to all human calculation this structure will outlast us all.  We owe thanks to the precautions taken by the builders, Messrs. Adler & Sullivan, that it cannot be shaken in its foundation, even should danger arise from either right or left.  The foundation is strong, and mighty stone walls supported by steel posts and beams from the building which must resist the ravages of the strongest elements, no post nor column hems the view nor disturbs those moments in which we often wish to forget that we are in a confined or space or inclosure.”

Over half a century later it seemed as if Heising’s words were prophetic.  In fact on this day, February 21, in 1950 The Tribune ran an editorial in which it praised the decision of the Balaban & Katz corporation, an entity that owned over 50 theaters in Chicago, to remodel and enlarge the theater, which had been called the Garrick since the turn of the century.

“There is a moral in this,” wrote the paper.  “and it reads as follows: When you build a building, it pays to hire a good architect.  The architect of the Garrick was Louis Sullivan.  It was not his best job by long odds, but it has been good enough to survive for nearly 60 years and apparently it is going to stand for a long time to come.”

Well . . . that depends on how one defines “a long time to come.”

On its way out in 1961 (UrbanRemainsChicago)
The grand old theater was razed in 1961 and replaced with an eight-story parking garage.  As the process unfolded a 15-year-old sophomore at Notre Dame High School, Robert M. O’Connell, wrote a letter to The Tribune decrying the destruction of the Garrick.

“The Greeks fought for tradition at Thermopylae,” he wrote.  “The men of 1776 rebelled for the right to possess, and build on tradition.  And we in Chicagoland replace heritage, custom, and tradition with parking lots.”   [Chicago Tribune, March 5, 1961]

That summed it up pretty well, and the Garrick’s death and the outcry that it provoked forced the citizens of Chicago and its overseers to develop a new attitude toward the heritage that the city’s older buildings represented.  One could say that the preservation effort in Chicago began on Randolph Street in 1961. 

We lost a great cultural palace designed by one of Chicago’s greatest and most influential architects.  But the city gained a conscience.

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