Architecture and Disaster and History and Irving Park and Signs and The Hidden and Theaters24 Apr 2016 08:01 pm

I ran this on my regular blog, Gentleman Unafraid, a few years ago and realized it’s perfect Steppes of Chicago fodder. So, here it is.

Built in 1909, the Grayland Theater (3940 N. Cicero) was one of several small silent age movie houses in Chicago. Calledneighborhood theaters (according to the fascinating Jazz Age Chicago site), these tiny showplaces skimped on fripperies like balconies, pillars, and ornamentation, and were strictly built to hold a hundred (or fewer) people for an evening at the flicks. When the gloriously decorated, multi-seated movie palaces rose up not so long after, they drained away customers, leaving the neighborhood theaters to wither away. Eventually, most closed their doors. Yet, when compared to the palaces—which have, with the exception of a lucky restored few, been left to crumble or fall before the wrecking ball—an impressive number of neighborhood theaters survived—albeit in slightly mutilated form. Most, in fact, have been remodeled and re-purposed, usually serving as churches or stores.

The Grayland is one semi-survivor. Situated in Irving Park’s Six Corners shopping district, and currently housing Rasenick’s, a work and outdoor wear clothing store, the building doesn’t betray its cinematic past at first glance. Up close, the elements kind of come together. Notice the sedately ornate cornice (a familiar Chicago combo of egg and dart and dentil molding), the former marquee (I’m guessing), and some nice grillwork framing the front window and door. Well, that might not be original, but it still looks pretty cool). The building is, otherwise, in no way outstanding, but it has its Chicago working-class charm. It was built to serve a purpose, not win architectural awards. I came across an account stating that the building was designed by architect William Ohlhaber, who was also responsible for the insane Hermann Weinhardt house in Wicker Park, but that remains to be seen. The theater doesn’t show up on any notable building sites, but while Ohlhaber wasn’t in the league of Sullivan, Burnham, or Wright, he’s still interesting, designing a number of buildings and owning land in West Palm Beach, where he frequently summered.

A few Saturdays ago my friend Pat and I went to watch a Universal monster film festival at the Portage Theater (which, I’m guessing, didn’t help the Grayland’s business back in the day) a block north on Milwaukee. I asked Pat if he’d mind if we stopped by the Grayland. He had no problem with that and mentioned he might even be in the market for some work wear. Entering the store, we walked up an inclined entryway into a large room stuffed with coveralls, safety shoes, and various shades of plaid. As I figured, very little of the original interior remained. A drop ceiling had been installed, and the walls were (if I recollect) wood paneled. A fellow who had worked at the store since 1978 (I think his name was Rich), and who knew a bit about its past, told me the screen was most likely originally located at the front of the store, but the wall had long since been removed. He showed us around a bit, pointing out places where the drop ceiling panels had been removed, revealing a typical, charmingly patterned tin ceiling. I got the name of the store and building owners, so stay tuned for more information. Maybe they’ll let me crawl around a little.

Trolling through the Tribune’s archives, I turned up a few small but juicy chunks of history about the theater. The only record of a film shown at the theater I’ve come across are a series of ads for a whaling film called Down to the Sea in Ships. It starred a young Clara Bow and a little-known silent age honey named Marguerite Courtot. An early blockbuster, Down to the Sea in Ships was heavily promoted not only at the Grayland but also the Rivoli theater on Elston (currently the Muslim Community Center).

What I discovered next, however, is a perfect example of why I love research as much as I love writing. It’s the little surprises; the things that never occur to you; the unexpected tales that pop up during a humdrum review of microfilm or, in this case, online scans. While I’m positive I’m breaking a cardinal rule of journalism by extrapolating from a single article, I’m not sure what else I can do. An afternoon at the library might turn up more information, but I somehow doubt it. The local neighborhood newspaper has only been in business since the 40s, so no luck there either. Maybe I’ll try the store owner and a few local oldsters too, but… Well, heck, let’s get on with the story.

Albert Schmidt was unhappy with his recent purchase.

It was October 26, 1926, and he’d just called the previous owner of the Grayland Theater, Samuel Wertheimer, telling him to get over to the place as soon as possible that night. He was having a problem with the ventilation system, and he needed Wertheimer to come over and explain the cockamamie—or whatever expression they used back then—thing to him.

Wertheimer, we must assume, was wary. Schmidt purchased the Grayland only a week before for $4,000. While business was reportedly good—a film was showing when the two men met that day, shortly after 3 p.m.—it wasn’t paying off fast enough. Whether he truly thought he’d recoup the money in that short a timeframe is open to debate, but according to Wertheimer, Schmidt quickly got cold feet and had asked him twice already to back out of the deal. “Nuts to that banana oil, pally! 23 skidoo!” we can only assume Wertheimer said.

It seems Wertheimer cared enough to answer a few questions about the ventilation system’s operation, though. So maybe the bad blood flowed only on one side. Wertheimer showed up in the Grayland’s lobby, then followed Schmidt to the basement. Schmidt indicated the vents, which Wertheimer inspected closely before turning to see… Schmidt standing there with a revolver.

As Wertheimer tells it—and we only have his word for it—Schmidt drew a bead and shot him twice as he tried to run away. Maybe it was dark down there or maybe Schmidt was just a piss-poor shot, but the reluctant theater owner only managed to wing his target, putting a bullet apiece in Wertheimer’s arm and leg. An assumedly distraught, or at the least stressed, Schmidt shot himself, didn’t miss, and died.

Fueled by adrenalin and fear, Wertheimer ran up the stairs, out of the theater, down Cicero Ave. to a local doctor, who bandaged him up while he waited for the cops to arrive.

But that’s not where the story ends.

During the movie, a number of patrons heard the shots, and ran out of the theater (without running into Wertheimer, I suppose). One called the cops. As so often happens during stressful situations, the person making the call got the facts wrong, and instead of reporting a shooting/suicide, this nameless individual reported a riot. Two people had been shot by an unknown assailant, he or she said, and the gunman had barricaded himself in the basement. Seven squads of cops mounted up, armed for rioting bears with guns and “tear bombs,” piled into their cars and headed for Grayland. Some of the cops made it to the theater to discover the cooling corpse of Albert Schmidt.

Others did not.

One of the squads headed west on Addison, sirens howling and lights blazing. Meanwhile, Cecil Chapel, his wife, and and two kids were heading north on Lincoln, probably returning to their northwest side home on Kedvale. Both, according the article, got the yellow light, and both continued driving through the intersection. They collided, adding a bit more blood and broken bodies to the story. Officer Walter Riley, 28, was critically injured and died on his way to the hospital. Meanwhile Chapel and his family, as well as officers Thomas Alcock and George Hennesy were seriously injured. No further details on what became of them, though an accompanying photo made it clear things didn’t look good for Alcock (“AUTO VICTIM. Sergt. Tom Alcock, near death from injuries received in crash”). Ripples expanding outwards from a central pebble of violence cast by Albert Schmidt (listed in his obituary a few days later as having “died suddenly”).

Is anyone else thinking of the opening sequence in Magnolia?

Sadly, the Grayland’s basement was filled in during rehab back in the 50s—at least that’s what the Rasenick person told me. On a more amusing note, the aforementioned 1920s article referred to the theater as being built in “the old style.” Times change.

More info to come, if I come across it.

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Cemeteries and Chicago and History and Music and Outside Chicago and Southwest Suburbs/Chicago24 Apr 2016 07:10 pm

By Dan Kelly

Steve Salter praises forgotten men.

For some 20 years the Michigan resident has made a mission to provide headstones for deceased bluesmen with unmarked graves. Blazing a thin trail through the Midwest, the sixtyish blues fan has helped mark the last resting places of performers like Otis Spann, Big Maceo Merriweather, “Hound Dog Taylor“, Washboard Sam, Charley Jordan, and others. But for every one commemorated, more remain, still laying unknown in the earth. Salter wants to rectify that by leaving markers at all his musical heroes’ gravesites.

“I just want to see that they get proper recognition,” he explains by phone. “Lying in an unmarked grave is not proper recognition.”

*****

Death and the blues are inextricably linked. Within every blues musician’s repertoire—amidst the howls, growls, notes, and chords about wicked women, bad booze, life’s cruelty, and more—lurks the Grim Reaper. But no matter how bad a bluesman was (or how bad he claimed to be), many begged that their mortal remains be treated kindly. Supposed satanic soul-seller Robert Johnson pled to be buried by the highway, allowing his “old evil spirit” to catch a Greyhound bus. Blind Willie McTell’s rounder in “Dying Crap-Shooter’s Blues” requested that his grave be dug with the ace of spades, a deck of cards serving as his tombstone. Down in Texas, Blind Lemon Jefferson plaintively asked that his grave be kept clean. As it stands, Lemon’s and others’ pots have yet to be located, much less maintained. All the more reason why Salter and kindred spirits have made it their business to find and mark those we do know about.

Music looms large in Salter’s life. He shared one particularly sharp childhood memory of falling asleep while listening to his “grandfather’s old radio with the green eye.” First experiencing the blues the way most white Baby Boomers did—the British Invasion—he followed a liner note trail and discovered names like Willie Dixon, Sunnyland Slim, and Muddy Waters. Record store excavations led to new discoveries, and soon he was hooked. After years of  ollecting music and attending shows, Salter founded Killer Blues, selling CDs and t-shirts on the blues festival circuit, while maintaining his day job designing parts for an car factory in Whitehall, MI.

A 1997 road trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival inspired the gravestone project. Salter took the scenic route, stopping in Chicago to pay homage to his favorite performers who’d passed on. Visiting a pre-scandal Burr Oak Cemetery—last resting place of Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Dinah Washington, Emmet Till, and other African-Americans of note—he was shocked to discover Spann’s grave unmarked.

“I couldn’t understand how somebody who I thought was huge in the blues wouldn’t have a headstone,” Salter told me by phone. That same day he drove a short distance west to Restvale, another black cemetery housing the remains of Muddy Waters, “Hound Dog” Taylor, Magic Sam, and others. Waters’ modest gravestone—a simple granite marker bearing his real name, McKinley Morganfield, and a picture of a guitar—surprised him, but he was more disturbed at the absence of any memorial for Taylor, an idol of his. Salter made his way to New Orleans, pondering what he’d seen. After the festival, he returned home to Whitehall and fired off a letter to Blues Review magazine about Spann’s lack of a marker. Blues Review’s readers and editors agreed it was an onerous omission. Money flowed in from across the globe, and a stone was purchased, etched with a keyboard and sporting the epitaph:

“Otis played the deepest blues we ever heard

He’ll play forever in our hearts”

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They held a ceremony and a marker was laid, and for many of the participants that was that. But not for Salter:

“I couldn’t stop. I found too many guys who didn’t have markers, and so I vowed to do something.”

Salter’s next honoree was “Hound Dog” Taylor. A fixture on Maxwell Street and in West Side blues clubs during the 50s through the 70s, the Hound played slide on cheap Japanese electric guitars, and had an extra finger on his left hand to boot. He passed in 1975. While not a household name, he was one of Salter’s idols, and he called the guitarist’s label, Alligator Records, reaching owner Bruce Iglauer.

“[Iglauer] thought that there was a stone, and apparently it never got placed. And so we talked back and forth and Hound Dog eventually did get his headstone.” No ceremony was involved this time.

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The more contemporary a performer, the easier it is to find his last resting place. The Internet, of course, has simplified the lives of tombstone tourists—people who enjoy visiting cemeteries—through sites like Find a Grave and Dead Blues Guys. But not every blues performer has been located and marked. Records have been lost, memories have grown fuzzy, friends and family members have died themselves, and oftentimes a bluesman was simply planted in a potter’s field or old churchyard and forgotten. Word of mouth in the music community powers Salter’s searches. Salter cites Chicago piano player Erwin Helfer as a source. The two met some time ago when Salter sent him a letter asking about drummer Odie Payne.

“Whenever I meet any musician, especially in Chicago, the first thing I do is ask him, ‘Do you know where this guy is buried?’ Erwin doesn’t have an e-mail. He has a Web site but he doesn’t have an e-mail. So, the only way you can communicate with him is via snail mail. So I sent him one of my calendars and a short little letter saying who I was and [does he] know where any of these individuals are located?”

Three months later, Helfer wrote back. He wanted to help but didn’t know where any of Salter’s subjects were, though he did know Payne’s daughter. He passed along her phone number. Salter called over the course of a month, eventually reached her, and outlined his intentions to honor her father. She appreciated the gesture, but explained that Payne already had a headstone, and directed him to where it was located.

“That’s very rewarding too,” says Salter. “Here’s another guy that’s no longer lost. At least, to me he was lost, because there didn’t seem to be any information out there that I could get a hold of… I was there last week at the cemetery and took a photograph of the headstone.” Mr. Payne rests at Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side, in good musical company with Little Brother Montgomery, Junior Wells, and Georgia Tom Dorsey.

Big Maceo Merriweather’s grave was his first challenge. The WWII era singer and pianist passed away in 1953, seven years after a stroke ended his career at age 48. Salter located Merriweather in Detroit Memorial Cemetery in Warren, MI. Salter took a methodical approach that he sticks with to this day. On a cemetery expedition he’ll befriend the groundskeepers and office workers, asking if they’re aware of a performer’s location. Speaking with the Detroit Memorial Cemetery people about setting up a gravestone, but a new concern arose.

“It always can be a touchy thing because I’m not family… First we have to see if we can find family, and I have yet to find family for any of the ones that I’ve purchased stones for.”

Usually, he’s asked to sign a waiver stating that if a family member appears and objects to a marker, the stone has to go. “I’m fine with that,” said Salter, adding, “It hasn’t happened yet.”

After two years of work and negotiations, Salter was permitted to place Big Maceo’s headstone. During that time he searched and traveled further. More turned up. In Chicago there was Walter Vinson of the Mississippi Sheiks at Holy Sepulcher in Hillside, IL; Luther Tucker, back in Restvale Cemetery; and so on. The project continued to grow. Killer Blues switched from being a small-time business to a nonprofit foundation in 2005. Alongside getting familial and cemetery officials’ approval, the project faces another ongoing challenge: raising money. One way to raise dough is a yearly calendar featuring gravestone photos sold on the Killer Blues site. Salter also brings in cash by hosting blues shows in his hometown, starring local performers. The project has done well enough to place 53 markers in the past dozen years

Once permission is acquired, creating and placing the stone is a collaborative process with the cemetery personnel. With Washboard Sam, buried in Washington Memory Gardens Cemetery in Homewood, IL, followed the pattern. First, found it was best to buy locally.

“Most often the cemetery has a connection to someone who makes stones,” he explains. “I ask them who would they prefer that I use for this stone. And they’ll go, ‘Oh, we deal with this person,’ and I say, ‘Okay, then that’s who I will deal with.'”

The stones lack frills, sticking to a basic combination of name, birth and death dates, either a nickname or the designation “BLUESMAN,” and an appropriate graphic. Most get guitars or keyboards. Johnny “Daddy Stovepipe” Watson, and “Stagger Lee” inspiration/murderer “Stag”  Lee Shelton received their trademark chapeaus—Watson a top hat, and Shelton a Stetson. Robert “Washboard Sam” Brown got a washboard topped by…a round thing.

“Generally, I have a design in mind. With Washboard Sam—if you’ve seen any of the one or two pictures of him out there—he’s holding a washboard that has a circle on it. I don’t know if it’s some kind of a resonator or what, but I wanted that washboard on his headstone. So, I presented a hand drawing and said this is kind of what I want.”

He refers to the stones as “entry-level.” Flat, modest, granite, and a uniform size of 12 inches by 24 inches by 4 inches thick, Salter guesstimates a typical cost of about $800. Washboard Sam’s was $835.16. When the stones are placed, Salter does it with little fanfare. He’ll drive a stone to a cemetery, but usually doesn’t stay to see it placed. While celebrating performers, he has no interest in the limelight.

The first time we spoke, I asked Salter if he knew of anybody else doing this kind of work, and if he interacted with them. No. For many years it was just him, his wife, and a few friends.

“I did talk with people from the Detroit Blues Society, because there’s a number of blues artists in the Detroit area that don’t have headstones. One of them was Calvin Frazier. I’ve talked to them about that and they’ve taken it upon themselves to have a fundraiser to get a headstone for him.” (The stone has since been placed).

There are others. For example, Arlo Leach of Portland, OR, a website designer and jug band performer aficionado. Leach raised money with benefits at the Old Town School of Folk Music for gravestones for Will Shade (Shelby County Cemetery in Memphis, TN) and the McCoy brothers, Papa Charlie and Kansas Joe, (resting in Restvale Cemetery under their newly provided stones).

Like Salter, I had a mania for visiting blues graves 10 years ago, making a road trip to the Deep South for barbecue and blues graves. There I saw several stones arranged by the Mount Zion Memorial Fund. Formed by Skip Henderson in 1989 to prevent foreclosure on the Mount Zion Church in Morgan City, MS, and to raise a cenotaph to Robert Johnson (supposedly buried there, but no one knows for sure), the fund has gone on to provide markers for Charley Patton, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Tommy Johnson, and others. The fund isn’t just about grave markers. It’s about preserving southern African-American culture and history. Over the decades, black churches and their graveyards were slowly appropriated by surrounding white landowners, plucked of stones, then plowed under or paved over. On my own expedition through the Mississippi Delta, my favorite prewar  bluesmen required some roadwork to reach. With Charley Patton’s grave (kindly paid for with a donation from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty) I found myself standing in a dusty field, stripped of crops and wispy with red soil and dry grass. A few ordinary basic and homemade stones surrounded Patton’s taller one, which simply indicated he was buried around there…somewhere. The Mount Zion Memorial Fund and its gravestones make a sharp point on the cultural landscape as well, reminding people about what’s been lost and whose been ignored, even as the modern world profited from the music generated by the region.

*****

Compared with Salter’s honorees, Patton, Johnson, and the other original Delta bluesmen are untouchable historical wraiths floating through Greil Marcus’ Old, Weird America (a phrase I think I’m required by law to mention in an article like this—almost real-life, tall tale figures on par with Johnny Appleseed and John Henry. Salter’s subjects are different. He deals not with legendary revenants, but rather post-Great Migration performers. Semi-famous musicians’ musicians and respected sidemen who played night clubs and worked day jobs, with life stories noticeably lacking in satanic pacts.

With the exception of Burr Oak—one deeply hopes—urban and suburban blues performers’ graves, whether marked or unmarked, remain intact and undisturbed. Compared with the Delta, they’re more accessible too, concentrated on the city’s South Side and southwestern suburbs. Still, it’s doubtful that they’re tourist draws for anyone but the most devoted and/or geeky blues fan. My son and I made a trip to Washboard Sam’s grave several years ago on a chill bastard of a winter’s day when he was two years young. We arrived, I snapped my shots, and within a minute he asked in begging, broken toddler language, “Back in car now?” I agreed. Our tribute was brief, but it was something. Which seems to be Salter’s goal.

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Do the bluesmen appreciate Salter’s work and sacrifice? Don’t be ridiculous—they’re dead. Do their families appreciate it? The few living descendants Salter has encountered have been amenable, but most performers without markers invariably had no families to mourn and memorialize them, and probably lacked the funds. Salter’s work is for fans like himself. Gratitude motivates Salter, though he worries that he might be seen as putting on airs, or shaming those who might have provided stones, but didn’t.

“My goal’s not to embarrass anybody or to put anybody down for what they’re not doing. And somehow it calls attention, at least in my mind, that…there’s a lot of Chicago blues guys that don’t have stones. And there’s a lot of Chicago people making money off the blues that could easily do this. But…” He pauses. “I don’t try to judge why other people aren’t doing what they’re doing, or doing what they are, I’m just trying to do what I’m doing.”

“I’ve been pretty fortunate in my life and this is a way for me to give something back. It makes me feel good and I tell people that I do that and I suggest that they find a way to give something back in their life. Irregardless of what the purpose is, but find a way to give something back. Make the world a better place for all of us.”

Note: My apologies to Steve for the unconscionably long delay in writing this. I had some writer’s block issues these past few years. That’s an essay all by itself.

Ghost Signs and Portage Park and The Hidden31 Jan 2016 12:15 am

4800 N. Milwaukee (though it might be 4800 Irving Park). Interesting detail I never noticed before. Explanations? Some sort of union hall for fletchers? 🙂

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Chicago and Museums and Old Photos and Old Town05 Aug 2015 05:53 pm

One of my favorite parts of running this blog is hearing from folks with memories and, even better, photographs of the subjects I cover. I like the sites that pore over city records and architectural plans, but some forget that people make up a city too. In a strange parallel, I’m currently reading ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I won’t run the exact paragraph, but King makes the nice observation (in this case, for a tiny New Engand town overrun by vampires), that a city is made of three parts: the buildings, the people, and the land. Personally, I view the people as the best source of info, the buildings and the land being poor conversationalists.

Recently, I was contacted by two individuals, Page Townsley and John Mohr, who shared their memories of the museum. It’s heartening to know that bits of the original place still survive. As my original article indicated, many of the props were damaged and/or scattered hither and yon.

Hi Dan!

My name is Page Townsley and I lived at 1511 N. Wells Street in Chicago from 1969 (when I was born) until 1979. I was Googling for 70’s era photos of Old Town and stumbled across your 2013 article about the old Ripley’s Believe it Or Not museum. That place was directly across the street from the building I lived in (believe that or not!) and I went in there fairly often (once all by myself!) and had many of the same surreal experiences that you did. I remember being particularly creeped out by the pair of Chinese shoes that forced women’s toes into grow into a conical point!

It was great hearing the names of all the places that were there on Wells when I lived there. I remember well Piper’s Alley, the wax museum, the Fudge Pot, Crystal Pistol, Bizarre Bazaar, Granny Goodfox and many of the other places that were in Old Town. Sadly none of those things are there anymore (except the Fudge Pot). Our old building was torn down sometime between 1994 and 2003. Condos are there now.

Anyway. thanks you for the article and the memories!

Sincerely,

Page Townsley

 

Page might be able to provide another photo of the famous faucet illusion in the museum’s foyer. Stay tuned.

 

John Mohr sent two e-mails, which I’ve reproduced below:

Hi Dan,

I recently ran across your article on the Chicago Ripleys Believe it or Not museum. I just wanted to let you know that Chang Tung is alive and well on the northwest side. I was lucky enough to get him when they closed down and still have the Tribune article which pictures him at the sale. He was only 100 bucks, and I have had him ever since.

Thank you for writing a great piece on the museum, it was my favorite place to go when I was young.

John

 

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Follow-up letter:

Hi Dan,

I included a few more pics. The one shows the newspaper article, which shows Chang at the sale. Notice the price tag hanging from the candle. The other one shows the booklets you could buy at Ripley’s. That’s Chang above the shrunken head. And maybe a better pic of Chang plugged in, you can see the flickering light from the candle. Actually, it’s the same bulb.

The lettering on the marker is all hand done. I was at work in Elk Grove Village that day, and over the radio, I forget what station, they announced they were selling off the displays at Ripley’s. I grabbed my buddy and high tailed it down to Wells street. In my mind I was hoping to get the shrunken heads and the miniatures. Unfortunately those were headed to another museum. So I grabbed Chang Tung, the spider webs still attached, and now had to figure out how to get him to my car which was three blocks away. We carried him flat, straight down Wells and the media people were filming us. I asked them not to show photos of us as we had ditched work to pull this off. They agreed and used that inside photo in their story. That’s not me looking at the price tag in the newspaper photo, I snatched him up the second that guy walked away.

You certainly can use the photos or whatever as you wish. I just wanted a piece of Chicago history and Chang Tung was a no brainer. We went there as kids with the scouts and as we got older we took our girlfriends there on dates. Always will be my favorite Chicago museum. Let me know if you do do a follow up story.

Thanks Again,

John

 

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Architecture and Art and Columbian Exposition02 Mar 2015 07:52 pm

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My parents recently moved out of their southwest suburban home and into smaller digs nearby. While they’ve given away or moved most of their worldly possessions out of the old house, my dad’s den—a 30 x 30 foot room he created by bisecting our basement with a wall—has yet to be fully cleared out of his sizable collection of books, movies, and other things. Dad said I could take what I wanted, which I’ve been doing for the past two years (it’s a large collection), and we plan to donate the rest to whoever will take several hundred paperback cartoon strip collections, hard cover classics, coffee table books about war and art, and such like. It’s been a long, slow job,  but along the way I’ve made some fun discoveries.

One of these was a hardcover book, minus its dust jacket and slightly water-damaged, called Among the Folks in History. It’s a collection of single-panel comics created by cartoonist Gaar Williams. I didn’t recognize the name, but his style was reflective of cartooning in the 20s:

* Lots of detail—every stick of furniture, gas jet, and piece of horse tack is rendered.
* A dozen dialogue balloons often issuing from characters in every part of the panels.
* Archaic and impenetrable expressions and interjections popped up repeatedly (“If you want those skirts to grow longer, girl, you better stick some sugar in your shoes!”).
* And, of course, the occasional bit of racism or sexism history’s folks chortled over back then.

Among the Folks in History’s premise was simple. Williams illustrated his memories of the good old days in Gilded Age Richmond, IN. Men with handlebar mustaches, bowlers,  and sleeve garters, and bouffant-bearing women clenched into swan-bill corsets interacted with newfangled contrivances, played mandolins in the parlor, chewed the fat around pot-bellied stoves, rode horse-drawn wagons to sundry fetes, and fretted over now obsolete customs and manners. Williams had a very nice upbringing in affluent Richmond where everything in the house undoubtedly rested on a lace doily. Everyone in his strips is nattily dressed, hanging out in barber shops, noting the new milliner in town, or gathering on the porch in the late evening to watch the night crocuses bloom. The jokes are less corny than opaque for lack of modern context, but then again the strip is less comic and more a series of memory nuggets created to remind folks in the 20s and 30s about those less hectic days.

Williams himself was one of those individuals greatly celebrated in his time but mostly forgotten now. He attended the Cincinnati Art Academy and the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually, he became the staff artist for the Chicago Daily News and later the Indianapolis News as an editorial cartoonist. It seems he didn’t like the work too much—though sources indicated he most often took the side of the “common man” in his cartoons—and later moved to Chicago, finding a job at the Tribune.

Among the Folks in History became his new gig (though he was also the creator of the strips “A Strain On The Family Tie,” “Silky,” and “Zipper”…none of which you’ve probably heard of unless you’re a comic historian…which I am not). Williams’ work appeared in 39 newspapers, until his death at age 54, June 15, 1935, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in his car while  parked on Michigan Ave. His wife and a female friend rushed him to nearby Passavant Hospital (which eventually merged with Wesley Memorial to become Northwestern Memorial), but he passed away only hours later. Accounts indicated that his death came as a shock, and he was greatly missed by his family, friends, and peers.

His legacy, sadly, did not endure. While the work of colleagues like Martin Branner (Winnie Winkle), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Frank Willard (Moon Mullins), and his friend, the “Dean of American Cartoonists”, John T. McCutcheon (who wrote a nice foreword for the collection) has since become part of the American historical and cultural landscape, Williams’ name and strips can only be met with a puzzled “Who?” (Side note, check out this amazing Tribune promotional video of Williams and the above-mentioned Tribune cartoonists at work, presumably in the Tower. Also, prepare yourself for the unsettling vision of the real-life fellow who inspired Gasoline Alley’s Walt Wallet).

Too bad. the man did nice work. And for the purposes of this blog he provided a few interesting “outsider” views of the Windy City. The Columbian Exposition figures into several strips, though it’s mostly spoken about by the characters, either on their way to the fair or newly returned. However, Williams provided one nice view of the Statue of the Republic in the Court of Honor, while one of Daniel Chester French and Edward Potter’s bulls and goddesses stands by (more here on that). Click to enlarge.

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I do wonder which “castle” Williams’ referred to in the below strip. Most likely the digs of Mr. and Mrs. Potter and Bertha Palmer, formerly on 1350 N. Lake Shore Dr.? Or maybe Beverly’s Irish Castle, now the Beverly Unitarian Church? I may search for more comics by Mr. Williams to see what other city scenes he might have rendered.

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Architecture and Churches and Fraternal Orders and Loop and Old Photos20 Jul 2014 10:57 pm

Scans of photos from the Medinah Temple Magazine. I bought a bound edition of the Shrine’s newsletters at their auction in 2000. A few buildings are missing, and the ones that are still standing just look dirtier. Click to enlarge.

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Architecture and Chicago and Demolition and Loop11 Jul 2014 04:01 am

 

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Architecture and Art and Chicago and Logan Square and Loop and Louis Sullivan and The Hidden10 Jul 2014 06:03 pm

When not committing crimes against humanity, Hitler committed smaller ones against aesthetics. But while we owe him thanks for rendering toothbrush mustaches eternally unsavory, the man was a semiotic son of a bitch for taking the innocent swastika—a millennia-old symbol associated with power, energy, luck, divinity, and the life-giving sun—and turning it into a symbol of unfathomable evil. Argue all you want by citing which way the arms spin, Native American handicraft, and disconcerting/hilarious vintage photos, when most people see that crippled cross, their heads will fill with visions of jackboots and death camps. Naturally, that makes it all the more startling when the symbol turns up in our local architecture.

Until Hitler and his thugs reversed and dubbed it the Hakenkreuz (“hooked cross”) the swastika was a perfectly nice symbol. Historically and worldwide, it pops up in every culture. Deriving its name from the Sanskrit svastika—meaning “well-being” per Merriam-Webster—while modern folks immediately picture a cross with four branches bent at 90° angles, “turning” rightwards, the swastika comes in assorted shapes and sizes. You’ll find it in Buddhist and Hindu rites and temples; British heraldry; ancient Greek, Trojan, and Roman buildings and mosaics; native American arts and crafts (where it’s known as the “whirling log” among the Navajo); and, in its allegedly oldest incarnation, a 10,000 year old carving on a Ukrainian mammoth tusk. Sometime between the 1890s and 1920s, the symbol began to appear in company logos, clothing, medals, and elsewhere across North America. Architecture did not go unstamped.

There’s no hard and fast reason why the swastika became so popular back then. Contemporary archaeological digs may have had a hand in it, as 1890s and 1900s discoveries spurred revivals in decoration and forms. Explorations of the Pharaohs’ tombs in 1920s Egypt inspired Chicago’s Graceland and Rosehill Cemeteries’ obelisks, pyramids, and sphinx-attended mausoleums and tombs, and more eye-poppingly at the Reebie Storage Warehouse on North Clark Street. Swastikas were likewise carried over with the day’s humdrum obsession with neoclassicism/Italian renaissance revivalism. Rich folks requested their own (fingers crossed!) eternally standing Egyptian, Roman, and Greek edifices, so architects of the day carried over the conceits of the aforementioned styles. Others probably supported the symbol’s status as a good luck symbol—but why we don’t see horseshoes, four leaf clovers, and rabbit feet around town is unclear. Perhaps the swastika, like egg and dart patterns and dentils, was a simple yet striking way to decorate borders, friezes, and cornices. It may well be that people just thought the swastika looked awesome—though not in the way today’s racists do.

Tastes shifted. Sometime in the 20s, European nationalist groups adopted the symbol. Among these was the National Socialist Party, regrettably headed by a leader with art school background. Imagine the dismay of the world’s designers, companies, and architects, who’d placed swastikas every which way before Hitler came to power (though some showed feisty adherence to their brands). During the build-up to the war, materials with swastikas on them were often destroyed in shows of patriotism, while post-WWII the stigmatized swastika was obliterated or redesigned on many public and private buildings. Not everywhere. Cost, tradition, and a lack of angry protesters and the desire to deface public structures saved some swastikas—and it probably helped if they were the “good” left-rotating kind. Detroit’s Penobscot Building, for example, features a Native American tribute motif with legitimate, left-rotating swastikas.

In Chicago there aren’t many swastikas adorning public structures, but they’re there if you look for them. And you HAVE to look—usually up and out of the way.

Tessellating friezes are the most common way for the swastika to hide in plain sight in the Windy City. The proper term is the meander or Greek key design. Most often meanders appear in structures from the 10s and 20s, usually running the building’s perimeter a floor or three up amidst less memorable ornamentation. The middle building in the Gage Group (24 S. Michigan Ave.) features one, which most people probably miss while gazing at Louis Sullivan’s facade next door at 18 S. Michigan Ave. Evidence of Chicago architectural firm Holabird and Roche’s National Socialist sympathies? Not in the 1890s when they were built.

 

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Columbia College’s Congress-Wabash Building (33 E. Congress Building), designed by Alfred S. Alschuler (who turns up later in this article), not only has a stylized swastika pattern but a set of terra-cotta Roman fasces for good measure.

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Metropolitan Tower (formerly the Straus Building when constructed in 1924 by the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White) at 310 S. Michigan Ave. features another Greek key border, though these are broken up by squarish flower ornaments. The Tower is a swirl of symbology that would keep any conspiracy theorist awake at night. Aside from the swastikas, the building is capped by a pyramid topped by four bison statues holding a 20-foot glass ornament in the shape of a beehive on their backs. The “beehive, “symbolizing industry, is actually a multifaceted light fixture containing six 1,000 watt bulbs. Unless you have binoculars, none of this is viewable from the ground, but the beacon’s glow continues to burn blue each night.

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Meanwhile, in an opposite corner of the Loop, the Builder’s Building (222 N. LaSalle) bears markings similar to the Metropolitan Tower’s. Not surprising, since they shared a firm in Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Perhaps they bought in bulk.

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Elsewhere, at Navy Pier, Bubba Gump shrimp-seeking tourists may double-take at the meandering swastikas decorating the towers of the Charles Sumner Frost designed building (1914). Only a few are visible, the rest of the frieze covered by a shield ornament.

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Arguably, Greek key/meanders are swastika-inspired, perhaps, but not swastikas proper. Some meanders go without the distinctive broken cross shape (see the Marquette Building’s second floor for an alternate pattern).

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Those seeking singular swastikas, however, must crane their necks to see them. The Baha’i House of Worship up in Wilmette is one place. It features swastikas (closer to fylfots than Hakenkreuz) toward the tops of its nine pillars, representing both Buddhism and Hinduism and sharing each pillar with a Christian cross, Hebrew Star of David, Muslim star and crescent, and the Baha’i nine pointed star.

Back downtown, the Bank of America Building’s (230 S. Clark St.) meanders periodically turn into left-spinning swastikas, with two set off at each corner. Once again, another 20s building (1924) built by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.

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At the northeast edge of the Loop, we find an even more surprising swastika-decorated structure. Fans of Perfect Strangers—may God forgive you—will recognize Balki and Cousin Larry’s workplace the “Chicago Chronicle,” in Alfred S. Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building (360 N. Michigan Ave). Credit sequence footage and cutaway shots likely never showed the men gaping up with shock at the very distinct swastikas in the meander running across the building’s Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue sides. At the time of writing, most of the swastikas are covered by trellises, but if you stand beneath them on the Wacker Drive side you can see a few. Alshuler, interestingly, was a student of Dankmar Adler’s, and also designed several Chicago synagogues (among other buildings), including the sanctuary for Hyde Park’s ‪KAM Isaiah Israel‬ synagogue.

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If there’s a category for “lost” swastikas, Huehl and Schmidt’s 1912 Medinah Temple (600 N. Wabash Ave.) would head it. The Shriner clubhouse’s floors once featured good luck swastikas inlaid in the floor tiles before being carpeted over at some point. I recall visiting and seeing them in the late 80s. Photographic evidence has yet to turn up, but the swastikas have been noted elsewhere. I have no idea if Bloomingdale’s preserved them under the current flooring, and I doubt a phone call would garner further information.

Leaving downtown (and aside from the Baha’i House of Worship mentioned above) swastikas are scarce. Who’s to say how many were demolished, painted, or bricked over before and after the war? However, two surprising examples stand out in Logan Square. One house that likely continues to startle passers- and drivers-by is 2711 N. Kimball. A cheerful little red-bricked building with a charming peaked facade and not one but eight chipper little swastikas skipping above the lower cornice. The house was built in 1906, and while I’m no expert, owing to Logan Square’s formerly large Scandinavian population, I’d say it was designed by some jolly burgher to emulate architecture from the old country.

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A similar house turns up a few blocks away on Central Park Ave. Built in 1916 or 1920 (sources vary), it’s basically the same design, though it lacks 2711 N. Kimball’s panache. The peaked facade is absent, the bricks a duller shade, and the swastika in the southeast corner is weirdly muddled. A failed attempt to eliminate the symbol’s stigma? Not the first, and probably not the last, attempt to do so in this town or elsewhere.

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Architecture and Chicago and Irving Park and Jefferson Park and Mayfair26 Jun 2014 07:08 pm

Examples of lovely light green terracotta and/or brick around the Mayfair, Jefferson Park, and Old Irving park neighborhoods. Click to expand. I’ll try to dig for more information.

 

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Architecture and Aurora and George Grant Elmslie and Outside Chicago and Preservation11 Aug 2013 05:21 am

I’ve mentioned George Grant Elmslie, Louis Sullivan’s former draftsman, here and elsewhere before, particularly noting one of his smaller working buildings, the Peoples Gas Irving Park Neighborhood Store at 4839 W. Irving Park Road.

Elmslie is best-known as the man who festooned Adler and Sullivan’s buildings with fractalizing terra cotta and cast-iron explosions of leaves, flowers, and other elements, bringing rapturous glissandos and arpeggios to Sullivan’s architectural operas. After leaving Sullivan, Elmslie started a firm with William Gray Purcell (about which more here). When that partnership dissolved, Elmslie went on to collaborate with other architects, but also worked through his own company, George G. Elmslie & Associates. Aurora, IL, as it turns out, holds the largest number of Elmslie’s commercial buildings in one place. All were designed in the 1920s, and though most experienced some unfortunate alterations over the decades, they remain mostly intact and feature Elmslie’s later, more subdued, but no less lovely, ornamentation.

Included below are photos of Elmslie’s German-American National Bank, Old Second National Bank (particularly amazing), Keystone Building, William H. Graham Building, and Healey Chapel. I’ve thrown in a few photos of Leland Tower/Leland Hotel (I knew nothing about its impressive history as the former tallest building outside of Chicago and a recording studo location for such blues performers as Sonny Boy Williams I, Robert Nighthawk, Jazz Gillum, Big Joe Williams, Washboard Sam, Tampa Red, and Yank Rachell), and Aurora’s Paramount Theater for good measure. Who would have thought the location of Wayne’s World would be so culturally rich?

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