Art


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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Art and Ghost Signs and Signs and The Hidden20 Mar 2013 04:58 am

Wish I could remember where I saw this. I was visiting Prairie School Style homes with a friend last January and came across it. This requires research!

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Art and Chicago and Columbian Exposition and Crime and Statues04 Mar 2013 01:20 am

As an addendum to my piece on statue desecration/destruction, I visited the Garfield Park Conservatory and snapped a few pictures of the restored bull and Native American goddess of grain statues (originally, in plaster form, on display at the Columbian Exposition). Welcome back!

Architecture and Art and George Grant Elmslie and Louis Sullivan and Outside Chicago and Preservation07 Oct 2012 10:40 pm
Art and Chicago and Crime and History and Humboldt Park and Lincoln Park and Statues31 Aug 2012 06:24 pm

Why does Chicago hate statues?

Not all of them, of course. The Picasso in Daley Plaza (dedicated August 15, 1967, to hoots and howls of derision) stuck around and endeared itself into becoming a city symbol. Eastwards, the branding scheme that is “The Bean” (aka Clod Bait) is bucking for its job. But many, smaller Chicago idols have been less-blessed, drawing neither tourists nor public sympathy when either defiled, dumped, or disappeared.

Trib writer Donald Yabushi wrote an August 17, 1972 piece about the louts, thieves, and vandals who’d destroyed the Park District’s priceless collection of statuary through the previous century. The article, noting that the PD’s collection totaled about 79 pieces at the time, included a seething quote from Chicago city architect Charles H. Dornbusch:

“It’s a damn shame that these morons and goons can’t find anything better to do than mutilate statues.”

While I completely agree, it should be specified that the morons and goons’ motivations have varied.

Chicago hasn’t always mistreated its statuary. The city experienced a monument boom during the 1890s and 1930s, placing bronzed portrayals of various personages in its parks, on its streets, and elsewhere. Statues tended to be raised through the efforts of four different groups:

  1. Rich benefactors wanting to give something back to the community (along with their names, usually listed somewhere on the monument);
  2. Childrens’ groups who saved their pennies;
  3. Social societies, most often from particular European backgrounds who wanted to display a little ethnic pride; and
  4. Veteran’s groups, who presented the usual men of war.

With such respectable civic pedigrees, you’d think there’d be greater sympathy toward Chicago’s marble and metal citizens. But, as in any urban environment, if it stands for too long in one place, it’ll be either tagged, damaged, or otherwise vanished by the city’s louts. Yet, the reasoning—if you can call it that—behind such acts differs, running from kicks to politics to profit, and in one case to an act of God.

I’ll just say it: Chicago hates statues. Consider the following as evidence.

*****

 

The Haymarket Police Memorial is the granddaddy of Chicago statue damage. Certainly, it’s its biggest survivor. Targeted for destruction by the actual forces of anarchy since its 1889 dedication, where other idols have fallen, the bronze cop remains standing like a bronze Rasputin.

The Haymarket Affair remains an open sore in Chicago history, offering a chance to wave the bloody shirt for both left and right, Labor and Capital. On May 4, 1886, 1,000 protesters (mostly workers from the McCormick Harvester plant) gathered in Haymarket Square (on South Desplaines Street, between Lake and Randolph) to demand an eight-hour work day. Someone in the crowd had a different idea, as well as a bomb.

Several speakers addressed the crowd from a wagon set up at the corner, including labor activist and anarchist Samuel Fielden. As he finished the police arrived—180 cops in all, headed by Captain William Ward and Police Inspector “Black Jack” John Bonfield. Ward reportedly held up his hand and said:

“In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.”

Though another account claims he declared:

“I command you [Fielden] in the name of the law to desist and you [the crowd] to disperse.”

However, the cap’n might possibly have said:

“In the name of the people of the State of Illinois, quietly and peaceably disperse.” 

Who knows? Accounts vary, and anyway his words were soon drowned out.

As Fielden stepped off the wagon, someone threw a dynamite-filled, lead bomb at the police. The bomb exploded, fragging Officer Mathias Degnan with the initial blast, and peppering several others who died later. The cops began shooting. Some reports claim the protesters instigated a gun battle, while others said no, that wasn’t the case. As it stood, Degnan died on the scene, six other cops died of their injuries later, 60 policemen were injured, and an estimated 76 civilians were wounded (Fielden himself took a shot). It’s unclear how many civilians died during the shooting.

 

The trial quickly followed, and several anarchists (including Fielden)—some present at Haymarket Square, others not—were found guilty of conspiracy and murder. All were sentenced to hang, though two had their  sentences commuted to life by Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby. One other, Louis Lingg, literally blew his head off with a blasting cap smuggled into his cell the night before his execution. The four remaining men (Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel) were hanged at the Cook County Jail on November 11, 1887. Frustratingly, the bomber’s identity remains unknown. The entire story of the Haymarket Affair is too large and fractious to be adequately covered here, so I advise a visit to the Chicago Historical Society’s site for greater detail.

Shortly thereafter, it was decided that it was necessary to commemorate the events at Haymarket. Before it even existed, the statue brewed controversy when the Chicago Tribune held a contest to design it. A committee of 25 local businessmen—cleverly called the Committee of Twenty-Five—was established to determine how to best consecrate the shadowed ground. No anarchists or laborers, we may assume, were consulted.

Danish-American artist Johannes Sophus Gelert got the commission. Mr. Gelert is perhaps best-known for sculpting the Herald statue that crowned the now-demolished Herald Building at 165 W. Washington St. (the statue is now located in St. Ignatius College Prep’s architectural fragment garden at 1076 W. Roosevelt Rd.) and the large medallions bearing the heads of Wagner, Haydn, Shakespeare, and Demosthenes hanging in the theater of Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building.

On April 14, 1888, Gelert showed off his model to the 25 in his Art Institute studio. It was scarcely a good gig for Gelert. He had to cover all materials, transportation, casting, and remaining expenses with no more than $4,000 in his budget.

As explained in the article, the statue was designed to feature “a forum, a pedestal and the statue of the officer in full uniform with helmet hat.” Being a product of the reliably conservative Tribune, the article snippily states:

“The forum is so constructed that it can be used as a place for public speaking, therein giving a complete answer to the charge of the Anarchists that free speech is forbidden.”

The irony that the statue’s “right hand is raised to enjoin obedience” was lost on the writer, as was the presence of a billy club at the police officer’s side. “Black Jack” John Bonfield earned his nickname, you see, by keeping the peace with his nightstick—particularly striking strikers..

Not so with the editorialist who wrote a later op-ed piece suggesting the statue established the officer not as the law’s agent, but rather its enforcer—a “monarch” towering over the people he was meant to protect. Feeling saucy, the writer sarcastically asked if the copper-based cop shouldn’t be more of an action figure:

“Shall the action be hitting a head? Shall it be running after a thief? Shall it be handing ladies over a crossing? Shall his sugar scoop helmet be on his head according to regulations?”

More seriously and succinctly, the writer demanded the statue show “that it is law, not the hickory club that is sovereign in Chicago.”

The unveiling took place May 4, 1889, the third anniversary of the riot. A parade of cops, bands, and singers were present. Mr. R. T. Crane of the Committee of Twenty Five presented the statue to Mayor DeWitt Clinton Cregier, while the Hon. Leonard Swett—Abe Lincoln pal, attorney to the Haymarket defendants, and a participant in the commitment of Mary Todd Lincoln to the insane asylum—gave a speech. Chiseled beneath the statue was Captain Ward’s default phrase: “In the name of the people of the state of Illinois, I command peace.”

Anarchists, workers, and citizens injured or otherwise affected by the bombing and shoot-out were perturbed by the highlighting of cops over non-cops, and emotions over the executions of Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Engel remained raw for the next hundred years.

In seven short years the statue looked shabby. The iron fence surrounding it was “bent and twisted” from constant side-swiping by passing wagons. Public works took half-assed action, placing granite blocks around the base, which interfered even more with  traffic (many wondered why the statue was placed, among all possible locations, in the middle of the intersection; the cop’s outstretched hand did nothing to stem traffic). Mud, fruits, vegetables, bricks, and tin cans, spattered and surrounded the pedestal, heaved not by hecklers, but instead escaped from the carts of the costermongers who set up their wagons nearby. The statue was relocated to Union Park, near the elbow of Ogden and Randolph.

Despite the move the bronze cop continued to be brutalized. May 4, 1927, on the 41st anniversary of the riot, a street car carrying 20 passengers hopped the tracks and smashed into the statue. Motorman William Schultz broke his ankle and several passengers were treated for slighter injuries. Luckily, it was the first year since 1886 that the surviving cops (only 23 left by that point) hadn’t assembled to commemorate the event. Local lore claims that Schultz was sick of seeing the Haymarket policemen standing there day in and day out as he trolleyed by, but this seems apocryphal. Per the papers, the trolley’s air brakes  failed. The cop was none the worse for wear—and resting comfortably on the ground—but while his pedestal required repair, he was otherwise undamaged and soon restored.

Across the 20th Century, the Haymarket cop was moved thrice, from Haymarket Square to Randolph and Ogden; then to Warren and Ogden in Union Park; then back to Haymarket Square near Randolph and Des Plaines, though 200 feet west of original site. He was also given a brand-new pedestal. On June 2, 1957, the cop was relocated to its original site at the northeast corner of Randolph and Union Streets. Speeches were made, but by this time most of the original participants in the Haymarket Affair were deceased. The last cop standing, Police Captain Frank P. Tyrrell, died 10 years before, but was represented by his son. The rededication couldn’t keep the bronze cop on his new beat though. A year later he was removed to the Randolph Street overpass, commanding peace over the newly built Kennedy Expressway. Later, in 1965, it was designated an historical landmark, but the quiet days (save the occasional tomato or trolley-jostling) were over.

Former statue location over the Kennedy.

 

Dynamite exploded between the cop’s legs on October 5, 1969, toppling it from its pedestal, shattering  100 nearby windows, and showering the Kennedy with debris. History repeated itself, and the new Haymarket bomber remained unknown. Unlike the original bombing, however, no one died.

A year later, to the day, the statue was again dynamited from its pedestal, but this time an individual identifying himself as “Mr. Weatherman” called the papers, and claimed credit for the Weather Underground. Mr. Weatherman declared that the statue was blown into two large chunks “to show allegiance to our brothers in the New York prisons and our black brothers everywhere.” Days later, another story emerged when an unidentified woman wrote to the Chicago Free Press, claiming she’d participated in the bombing, intending it to be a signal for further explosions. “Blowing up the pig statue was easy,” she said, stating that months before a Weatherman cut his hair and took a job in southern Illinois as a construction company watchman to pilfer the required dynamite.

Original recipe Mayor Richard Daley was livid, and ordered 24/7 police protection for the cop. This prompted a peculiar letter to the Trib from one “S.J. Mirecki.” Mirecki calculated that the round-the-clock guardianship of the Haymarket cop was running about 50 grand a year (the Tribune says it was $68 grand), and suggested instead that the natural bronze police be covered by a plastic bubble, “television replay cameras,” and “bulletproof floodlights” (Mr./Ms. Mirecki apparently didn’t calculate what such hi-tech surveillance/containment might run). The idea went unheard, and the statue was once again moved elsewhere.

Deciding the best defense was a building of cops, the peace-commanding officer received a transfer to Police HQ. After a thorough cleaning, it was briefly stored before the move. But he wasn’t done moving yet. Four years later, the Haymarket cop went undercover after being moved to the Chicago Police Academy’s courtyard (1300 W. Jackson), away from public view.

"In the name of the people of Illinois... I SAID, 'IN THE NAME OF THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS...'"

 

In 2007, the statue was re-rededicated at its current location, the newish police headquarters building at 3510 S. Michigan. The statue is once more on public display, in that you can see it if you stand on the 35th Street sidewalk. I wasn’t feeling courageous enough to ask the nice officer in the booth if I could approach the statue. The “Police Access Only” sign on the parking lot gate seemed to answer my question.

By the way, the police-commemorating Haymarket Monument isn’t the sole memorial to the tragedy. A semi-abstract, labor-friendlier monument bearing faceless Playmobil-like figures propped around and atop a wagon has stood at the original site since 2004. And way back in 1893, a monument to the anarchists was set up in Forest Park’s German Waldheim Cemetery. Standing above Lingg, Spies, Fischer, Engel, and Parsons’ graves is an heroic Albert Weinert statue of Lady Justice—laying a laurel on a dead worker’s head while drawing her sword.

General John A. Logan’s monument in Grant Park has seen considerably less abuse, though it may be more recognizable to outsiders. The general was a Civil War hero and politician, and was instrumental in the creation of Memorial Day. His monument, however, is best known for being infested by yippies during the 1968 Democratic Convention. When not being crawled upon by young revolutionaries, however, the General regularly had his sword snapped off by souvenir-seeking idiots. By 1972 the General had been symbolically castrated no less than four times, each sword costing 400 bucks (1970s money) to replace.

DN-0050248, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

 

While most statue damage can be attributed to kicks-seeking idiots, some statue defilers  apparently consider themselves art and social critics. The Weathermen editorialized with dynamite, but some vandals prefer mixed media. Naturally, taggers and other graffiti-scribbling doofuses have always been with us (a photo from Yabushi’s article shows the base of Lincoln Park’s Lincoln monument scrawled with the peculiar graffito “MICKEY MOUSE”), but their defilement, motivated by brainless self-promotion, is rarely directed at the work itself. Art-hating vandals, however, have presented their criticisms via color-coded commentary.

The Goethe statue, in Lincoln Park took its share of anti-Germanic sentiment during WWI. The fact that German immigrants loyal to the US had helped build (and rebuild) Chicago in the previous century, and dedicated other, less-attacked monuments across the city (including ones for Beethoven, Schiller, Alexander Von Humboldt, and others, was irrelevant. Sculpted by Herman Hahn and dedicated in 1913, the not-the-least-bit-homoerotic statue can be found saucily thrusting out his hip and derriere while proudly showing off his pet eagle at N. Sheridan Rd. and W. Diversey Pkwy. The statue doesn’t depict Goethe himself—in his later years he somewhat resembled Geoffrey Rush—but instead represents his art, ideals, and status as (per the inscription) “The Master Mind of the German People.”

On the evening of May 7, 1918, two bravely anonymous individuals splattered the statue with yellow paint. Individuals unpossessed of climbing or hurling ability, it appeared, since the statue was only yellow from the knees down. They left a note explaining their art action and revealing the country had a more literate brand of jingo back then.

I'm too sexy for this pedestal.

 

“An empathic protest from a free people against the retention of what has always been an offense against art, and now is a challenge to loyalty. Shall this park, named for the illustrious Lincoln, continue to harbor such an enormity or will the people of Chicago insist on its immediate removal? [signed] TWO AMERICANS”

Very likely the statue’s massiveness and the comparatively small stature of the two Americans led to nothing more than spattered shins and a sticky paint puddle near the statue’s base. The US flag’s colors may not run, but the anonymous paint-vandals and their pigment did.

Per the papers of the day, other anonymous threats were made to toss the “enormity” into Lake Michigan. Such individuals were likely unaware that the statue weighs several tons. Admittedly, witnessing an angry mob hoisting and toting it lakeside would have been something to see.

The Goethe statue’s fiercest critic was Mother Nature. On the rainy morning of September 14, 1951, local residents were shaken awake by an enormous thunderclap. After the storm the Goethe and its base were found ridden with cracks and “twisted.” The nastiest spot of damage, however, was its left foot, now splayed wide open. In all likelihood, the statue was smote with a lightning bolt, which exited through its body and out the furthest limb.

The police cordoned off the area, and the Goethe statue was left to stand on its sore foot for two years before being removed for repairs. Chicago sculptor Fred Torrey cast a new bronze foot from the original model. Torrey’s other local work includes the bas-reliefs adorning 333 N. Michigan Avenue, and the memorial plaque of the capture of the U-505 Submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry. By July 14, 1954, the Goethe was reshod, cleaned, polished, and set aright on its pedestal.

333 N. Michigan Avenue

Decades later, Joan Miró’s sculpture Chicago (originally titled The Sun, the Moon, and One Star) had been nestled between the Cook County Administration Building and the Chicago Temple—stuck in an eternal face-off with the Picasso across the way—for a few bare days. Then on May 1, 1981, art student Crister Nyholm beheld it, frowned, and returned home to pour red paint into an orange juice container. Returning to the Miró, he hurled paint at it, then sat down and waited for the police, telling the officer he did it because…he didn’t like the statue. In a later TV interview, Nyholm presented a better, if more bizarre, art statement, claiming that 20th Century art “disgusted” him, and the statue reminded him of a “dead body,” Conservators from the Art Insititute used a “paraffin-based solvent” to strip the paint without harming the monument’s porous concrete. Meanwhile, the judge sentenced Nyholm to 30 months felony probation, the cleaning bill ($17,037.21), and perhaps anonymity, since I have yet to turn up anything else about his post-Miró molestation life.

And the paint keeps flying. Last year the dreadfully irrelevant and thankfully now-absent statue of Marilyn Monroe that stood in Pioneer Court was splashed up to her bloomers with red paint (just a month after having her legs tagged). It seemed to be the capper after months of complaints by local art critics and aficionados, and a parade of unimaginative tourists snapping shots of themselves looking up her skirt.

For rampant statue carnage, nothing beats the forgotten American Bronze Works fire of 1901. Located at 73rd and Woodlawn, the plant cast historical figures and other monuments for Chicago’s parks and elsewhere. Previous examples of their artistry include the Haymarket Square cop and the Art Institute Lions. On the morning of February 10, a fire broke out, doing $5,000 in damage and melting and scorching several statues in progress. A sketch accompanying the article shows the resulting rubble, with girders and machinery sticking out of piles of bricks, interspersed with busts, swords, and the odd horse leg. Fallen idols included a group of “Battle Creek soldiers,” and a bronze statue of Speaker of the Indianan House of Representatives William H. English. But, seriously, the hell with that guy and his statue. Look upon his works and despair.

*****

Vandalism is, of course, costly, offensive, and unsightly, but there is the tiny blessing of having a statue to repair. Not so with several statues that vanished some dark evening. The crime was usually covered up for days (or more) by the invisibility of familiarity, until someone stopped, looked, and said, “Something’s missing here.”

Historically, statue-erecting takes place during periods of prosperity, when discretionary income can satisfy the urge to immortalize (it’s surprising how many children’s groups could afford to pay for statues, stained glass widows, and similar fripperies throughout the 1880s and 1920s). Likewise, statue theft occurs during leaner years. Motivated by metallurgy rather than aesthetics, the thieves topple idols and cart them off for scrap. Statues costing thousands of dollars ended up melted down for a pocketful of bills. For example, up in Lincolnwood last January, the scrap collectors showed they don’t care a fig about dead autistic children, so long as they could clear a few bucks in the sale of the bronze—which the statue wasn’t made of anyway.

 

Not many people know a bust of Beethoven once occupied a spot in Lincoln Park’s Grandmother’s Garden near (Stockton and Webster), not far from the Schiller statue’s gaze. Schiller remains, but Ludwig is long gone. The bust, another work by Johannes Gelert, was dedicated on June 19, 1897, and donated by Chicago concert pianist and early, ardent CSO supporter Carl Wolfsohn—lover of lovely, lovely Ludwig Van. Asked to say a few words, Wolfsohn trumpeted the the deaf composer’s legacy:

“…when the hundreds and thousands that seek rest and recreation in our park pass this beautiful spot, standing before this monument, ask who is this, let the answer be given: ‘Ludwig Von Beethoven, the greatest musician and greatest benefactor of mankind.’”

Perhaps many did—the bust sat there for 74 years—though no media mention is made about it until 65 years passed when complaints were lodged about the bust’s increasingly shabby appearance. Park District officials investigated and declared that Beethoven was supposed to look greenish, because that’s what bronze does outdoors. However, vandals had slathered the composer’s face with a “black substance.” Easily fixed, the offending ink/paint was buffed away without disturbing the aforementioned patina. Eight more years passed before the bust was heard from, or rather not heard from, again.

Sometime before April 26, 1971, some rube with a truck pulled down the composer of the “Moonlight Sonata” and Ninth Symphony, and likely toted him off to be sold for scrap. Police found no clues other than the abandoned rope. A part of the base remains in Grandmother’s Garden, easily overlooked by passersby.

The original inspiration for this article came from a reference in the WPA Guide to Illinois, created by the Federal Writers’ Project. One itinerary advised that tourists visit the Emanuel Swedenborg bust on Simmons Island. Never having heard of either monument or island (though I was partially familiar with Swedenborg the man), I looked up both, only to discover that while the island remained, the bust did not.

Emanuel Swedenborg is an intriguing figure; certainly one unexpected to show up in bronze form in Chicago. The man was a scientist turned theologian/Christian mystic, and his religious notions (achieved through visions) served as the seeds for a branch of Christianity appropriately named Swedenborgianism. As a scientist, he was a true man of the Enlightenment, studying mathematics, metallurgy, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and other disciplines. As an example of what his big 18th Century brain was capable of, he developed interesting theories about the operation of the nervous system and pituitary gland.

As a mystic, well… the man claimed to talk to angels and pay visits to heaven, hell, and all the planets (yet-to-be-discovered Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were somehow omitted) to speak with the spirits living there. The man’s legend is also borne anecdotally by stories of supposed psychic talents: predicting fires, reading minds, and whatnot. Don’t be hasty to judge: Swedenborg may or may not have been nuttier than a granola bar, but he wasn’t a bad guy. He preached (strictly through his writings; he had a speech impediment and never started a church himself) the usual messages of peace, love, understanding, and a theory of “usefulness,” and he inspired people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and city planner/architect Daniel Burnham (who was a Swedenborgian), Back then and today, he has his share of admirers and supporters.

Mr. and Mrs. L. Bracken Bishop donated the bust, finding it in Upsala, Sweden, and paying a grand to cast it in bronze. The Bishops considered giving it to the city of Washington, DC, but Mrs. Bishop preferred Chicago and its sizable Swedish population (more on Chicago Scandinavians can be found here). Sculpted by Swedish artist Adolph Jonsson, an early press kit notes he was a stickler for details, employing “studies of Swedenborg’s skull” to achieve the perfect likeness. Incidentally, while rich folk money bought the bust, the pedestal was purchased with pennies, nickels, and dimes donated by hordes of Swedish kidlings.

The statue was unveiled and dedicated on June 28, 1924, with several thousand Swedes, Chicagoans, and Swedish-Chicagoans in attendance. A “white-capped” chorus of 1,200 Swedish singers (coincidentally, in town for convention) and a Viking ship float crewed by ladies dressed as Valkyries sang that stirring old Viking battle hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Mayor William Dever accepted the bust on behalf of the city; a congratulatory letter from President Calvin Coolidge was read; and for extra Svenska goodness, Swedish Minister to the US Axel Wallenberg gave a speech. To Chicago’s Swedes, the bust was a big deal—though Swedenborg wasn’t alone. Other Scandinavians immortalized in bronze around town include Leif Ericson in Humboldt Park, and, as a neighbor to Emanuel, the botanist/zoologist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’ statue, before being moved to its current Hyde Park location, had its own problems, when, in 1972, its arms were snapped off. Coolidge’s letter and other encomiums praised Swedenborg the scientist but skirted Swedenborg the astronaut ghost whisperer, save for professor C. G. Wallenius, who described his predecessor as first “a great investigator and scientist,” and later “the picture of a supernatural prophet and seer.”

 

Swedenborg’s bust remained on Simmons Island for the next 52 years, quietly mulling the secrets of the universe and making mental day trips to Alpha Centauri. Easily overlooked, thousands of people drove past it on Lake Shore Drive for years, either never taking notice or wondering what Benjamin Franklin was doing there.

And one unknown day, in January/February of 1976, it vanished—just like that. Made of bronze and weighing several hundred pounds, the only logical explanation for its disappearance was that it ascended into the heavens…or perhaps some goon and his jackass buddy pulled it down and loaded it into their van. The metallurgist’s bust fell victim to scrap collectors. The cops put the value of the metal at around 10 grand, which seems a bit high, though the country was experiencing a recession. For the next 34 years, Swedenborg’s bust was replaced by a squat pyramid, and in 2009 the pedestal was struck by a car and badly damaged, though later repaired. Finally, in 2010, a new bust was recast and the site was rededicated to the erstwhile religious rocketeer. Godspeed you to Venus, Commander Swedenborg.

In another utterly tacky case of statue abduction, on October 1, 1941, Chicago Postmaster Ernest Kruetgen reported that the bronze statue decorating his family mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery was missing (conveniently, here’s a picture of it on eBay). Kruetgen imported the statue from Germany in 1918; weighing in excess of 750 pounds, it cost the former postmaster about $1,500. It stood at the mausoleum’s door for decades, until Mssrs. Alexander Stazhurski and Theodore Brzozowski drove into Graceland one morning and threw it into their car. Yes, in the morning. Statue snatchers are rarely criminal masterminds, getting away with it mostly by plying their trade at night and finding places to cash in that won’t lead the cops to their door.

 

But Alexander and Theodore were neither careful nor connoisseurs. Plainly, they hadn’t thought things through. No scrap or junk dealer would touch an obviously hot statue. Not one that was intact anyway. So the Philistines armed themselves with hammers and went to work on it, shattering it into unrecognizable chunks and paying some ragamuffin a dollar to sell it at a North Avenue junkyard. For all their work, they netted just $31.50. Or rather $30.50 after they paid aforementioned ragamuffin. But the chunks weren’t unrecognizable enough, and the dealer called the cops. Once nicked, Stazhurski and Brzozowski confessed to everything. Kruetgen, as a recent visit to Graceland showed, never bothered to replace the statue. Its base remains bare.

Like Kruetgen’s grave babe, some statuary is more stolen than others. An original Paul Gauguin statuette titled “Woman with Parasol” was snatched from the Main Street Bookstore formerly at 742 N. Michigan. The nine inch knickknack had a sale price of $1,500, and apparently was never recovered. Across town, on October 17, 1957, catering hall owner Mario Conti had five statues stolen from him during his new hall’s construction (located at 5609 North Ave., the building was the former Ferrara Manor Theater. The lot is currently occupied by a Walgreens). The purloined statues were itemized as four “females” and a fountain topped by Roman ocean god Neptune. Newly arrived from Italy, the statues were five feet tall, 250 pounds each, and coincidentally priced at $1,500 apiece. The account is sparse, and the record remains silent on their eventual fate, making me envision a yet-to-be-discovered secret apartment or home decorated in a Neptunian theme.

 

Luckily, not all statues stolen in Chicago are destined for oblivion. On January 8, 1978, a Thai Buddhist church official (no name available) spent his Sunday at the old Maxwell Street Market. Amid the blues and bric-a-brac were several Buddhas—one large and two small—sitting amidst peddler Cornelius Coleman’s wares. The Thai gentleman recognized the statues’ exquisite antiquity—500 years old and valued at $50,000—and status as contraband, having been stolen en route from Thailand to Denver months earlier. The official informed the police. As it turned out, Mr. Coleman worked as a ramp man for Flying Tigers Airfreight Worldwide. Coleman was charged with theft of stolen or mislaid property. He’d priced the statues at $500. A true steal.

Nothing was sacred for Old St. Patrick’s Church either. On December 26, 1970, 18 of the statues in its 40-year-old creche were snatched. The Trib listed the abducted: three wise men, three shepherds, one camel, one lamb, and Mary, Joseph, and Lil’ Baby Jesus. I’m not sure about the frequency of crèche theft (holy cradle robbing?) before 1970, but the story seemed uncommon enough to report on. Mr. Willie Brown, 31, was arrested, the police’s suspicions raised as he sauntered down Adams Street with a holy parent under each arm. The rest were discovered later on by local printer Roy Hobby, stuffed in a pile of crates in a parking lot near Lou Mitchell’s.

Daniel Chester French is probably the most recognizable sculptor in this essay—by reputation if not name. Roundabout March 15, 1986, French and his student Edward Potter’s “Bulls World’s Fair Models”—a pair of, yes, bulls, attended by two maidens: togaed Ceres, Roman goddess of commerce and grain, and a “Native American goddess of corn”—stood guard in Garfield Park since 1909, before thieves filched the bull and his Native American lady friend.

As a matter of trivia, French made the goddesses while Potter sculpted the bulls. French is best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln—the great big one in Washington, DC—the Concord, MA Minute Man statue; and the Pulitzer Prize Medal. Potter, by the way, made the lions standing guard outside the New York Public Library. The Indian maid and her bull weren’t masterpieces, but they were remnants of the Columbian Exposition, and thus precious to a city enamored of its first moment in the world’s spotlight. Originally, the statues were plaster, and stood at the World Fair’s livestock exhibit. Afterward they were transported to Garfield Park, where they proved popular, were eventually cast in bronze, and placed outside the Conservatory.

Bolted to two-foot-high granite slabs and weighing at least a ton, the bull and maiden couldn’t have been easy to steal. A crane and truck were probably used, and according to a September 12, 2010 article by Mary Schmich, rumor was it was an inside job—though there’s no way to prove it. The thieves attempted to take Ceres and her bovine pal as well it seems, since the Roman god-maiden was missing an arm and the bull its tail. The case of the bulls suggests the thieves were men of taste, rather than just greed, anarchy, or excessive doobage. Though one wonders why the arm and tail of the other pair were snatched as well. Perhaps the initial intent was to sell the statues for scrap, but the dealer had a good eye and the right connections to find a nice rich person to sell it to. The CPD posted an award for $1,000, but no one claimed it, and the statue was designated missing/assumed melted. In 2003, the CPD hired art restorer Andrzej Dajnowski to repair Ceres and her bull and to replicate the other statue, which is currently on display. Previously, Dajnowski restored Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time in Hyde Park

Then in February 2010, Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach received an e-mail from a New York auction house. They’d come across a certain statue, found on the estate of a recently deceased Virginian. Were they missing any bulls or maidens? Little more information was revealed as to the statue’s provenance (the Virginian’s name was suppressed, per a legal agreement with his family, though they said he was only the third owner). Plans are afoot to restore the original bull and Indian maiden, though they are currently in storage.

In a June 18, 1976 article, Trib writer Paul Gapp interviewed Friends of the Parks president and former Chicago Park District commissioner Cindy Mitchell about the abuse and neglect of our town’s statues. The piece makes intriguing mention of several long-missing figures that seemingly went poof, temporarily or permanently. Such as the massive 20-foot, 14-ton statue of Christopher Columbus, set up in Grant park in the 1890s (the current Columbus statue in Grant Park went up in 1933). Accounts state that the previous Columbus was removed owing to the prevalence of “loiterers” in the area—use your imagination as to why they were loitering, I guess—and stored away. Mitchell learned that in 1903 it was melted down and remade into a monument to America’s third assassinated president William McKinley—now standing in  McKinley Park at 38th and Western. Ms. Mitchell also found out that Chicago was down two Minutemen—one in Lincoln Park and one in Garfield Park—and a sylphic young miss named Fountain Girl (aka, The Little Cold Fountain Girl).

DN-0056947, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

 

Another idol built with urchin allowances ($3,000 paid to sculptor George Wade in 1893), Fountain Girl was the brain child of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The ladies wanted to provide an alternative to hootch on the street. Originally stationed near the WCTU’s booth at the Columbian Exposition, FG was later moved to LaSalle and Monroe, near the Women’s Temple (built by Burnham and Root in 1891-92; demolished in 1926; look closely at the postcards here—I think you can just make out the statue at right). She ended up in Lincoln Park near Lake Shore Drive and North Avenue, until LSD construction led to her being put in storage. In the 1940s she was placed near the W. LaSalle Dr. underpass before being snatched sometime in the 1950s. But 21st Century enemies of Demon Rum can take heart. Turns out there were at least three copies made of the statue, placed in the cities of London, Detroit, and Portland, ME. According to the parks site, a new casting is being made of Portland’s Fountain Girl, and she may well end up back on her empty stone perch before long.

The missing Fountain Girl and bull-maidens raise one other interesting point. Chicago has few to no statues of actual women. In Ver Meulen’s aforementioned article, there is brief mention of one of Chicago’s very few statues of an historical woman (that is, a real woman, rather than an abstract concept like the Picasso (possibly inspired by artist’s model Sylvette David/Lydia Corbett) or a mythological babe like the creepily faceless statue of Ceres atop the Chicago Board of Trade). Once upon a time, a Joan of Arc bust rested at 5801 N. Natoma Ave. in Norwood Park. Eventually it didn’t. It remains unknown if it was lost, stolen, or stored away and forgotten. One hopes it wasn’t subjected to the smelter’s scorching heat. Considering its namesake’s fate, that would be entirely too weird.

*****

Why does Chicago hate statues? Perhaps it doesn’t, as shown by current efforts to replace many of the busts, monuments, and other idols lost and fallen over the years. But the true proof rests in whether the city’s citizens are willing to make a greater effort to appreciate its statuary.

Consider visiting some of the overlooked monuments in your neighborhood and elsewhere. Enjoy the history and grandeur of these idealized metal men and women. Concentrate on the details: from the iguana resting at William Humboldt’s feet (Humboldt Park); to the box of cigars resting behind Sam Gompers (Gompers Park); to the impressive bronzed boobs on Joseph Rosenberg’s fountain for thirsty newsboys (Grant Park). Ponder how General Logan might have avoided hippie infestation by being located in Logan Square, and wonder why General Grant guards Lincoln Park instead. Above all, take notice of them today, because the evidence bears out they might not be there—in whole, in part, or even unmarked—tomorrow.

—Dan Kelly

Architecture and Art and Chicago and Churches and Crime and Disaster and Film and History and Irving Park and Mayfair and Portage Park and The Hidden and Theaters and Why!?!30 Mar 2012 06:46 pm

Cross-posted from my Gentleman Unafraid blog.

Note: I’m currently working on a Gapers Block piece about the Portage Theater (4050 N. Milwaukee) and efforts to prevent its purchase by the Chicago Tabernacle Church. Some passages and sentiments may carry over to that article, but the GB article will be more history-heavy. Just FYI.

Monday night I attended the Save the Portage Theater rally. Appropriately, it was held at the theater itself. I’ve visited the Portage twice, first to take my son to a mini-comicon (where we took a picture with chubby, purplish Batman—a photo I hope he cherishes in his later years), and the second time to see Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with my friend Pat. Both experiences were a tad cheesy, yes, but rare and sweetly enjoyable owing to their surroundings: a classic, old-school movie palace. But experiences like will be harder to come by, if a certain church buys the place, modifies it, and declares an end to the variety of programming the Portage offers to the community.

The Portage has been around in one form or another since 1920, starting out as a transitional theater (between the small vaudeville/silent film theaters and the later movie palaces) before being purchased and modified by the Balaban and Katz theater chain in the forties. Originally designed to reflect the poufy Beaux Arts/Neoclassical design favored at the time, Balaban and Katz brought a sleek, spare Art Moderne influence to the marquee and interior. Palatial doesn’t begin to describe it. Dream-like comes closer.

I arrived early, signed in at the reception tables, and—after bumping into my father in law, a transplanted Irving Parker—walked into the auditorium. As before, and despite what the potential owners might think, the place is glorious. The auditorium is dark and cavernous, but also lush, golden, and warm. As with most buildings its age and older, you can practically touch the history and life of the place. I could easily imagine the audiences filling the seats for everything from early silent movies to 70s Kung-fu flicks to modern art-house fare.

The evening was pleasant, informative, and ably led by Old Irving Park Association Vice President Anna Sobor. I believe I met Ms. Sobor a couple of years ago, when I conducted tours of my church during the annual Old Irving Park House Walk. But before she walked onstage and got things rolling, we enjoyed the organ-playing of Mr. Dennis Wolkowicz, motivating force behind the theater’s restoration. As he ran through a familiar (and not so familiar) back catalog of songs on the theater’s original Kimball organ—placed on mechanical riser to awesomely cool effect—the place filled up with hipsters, senior citizens, Chicago neighborhood types, and members of the local cultural aristocracy. A lot of bearded guys with big guts were present too. I think I recognized them from the comic show and horror fests. In the dimness and darkness I could see a hundred blogs, tweets, and updates being typed out as one.

Not every seat was filled, but at least half were. For a 1,300-seat theater that’s not bad. Illuminated thank-yous were projected on the screen, especially to preservationist ringleaders like alderman John Arena, the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, the Six Corners Association, and others. Digital cameras flashed every which way, and, appropriately, amateur and professional cinematographers shot electronic footage of the proceedings with their cameras and iPhones.

In closing, Mr. Wolkowicz led the audience in a muted version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I got the feeling not everyone learned the lyrics in Boy Scouts, like I did. Still, all respectfully rose up, and made a game effort to be melodically patriotic. After all, that was the reason why we were there. We’re Americans, dammit, and we’re mad as hell someone’s trying to take our stuff. Rise up, my darlings, rise up. You have nothing to lose but your theater chains.

Mr. Wolkowicz concluded his set, but was informed that folks were still signing up outside. So, he returned to the keys, and vamped out a little “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” On the northwest side, the audience clearly root-root-roots for the Cubs.

A little perspective on the size of the stage and screen.

At last, Ms. Sobor took the stage, and thanked Mr. Wolkowicz and all dignitaries present. Alderman John Arena—prime instigator of the Portage campaign—was present, looking casually fashionable in a windbreaker and “SAVE THE PORTAGE” t-shirt. His colleague Alderman Tim Cullerton of the 38th ward sat nearby, appearing firmly entrenched in his suit and tie.

Ms. Sobor wasted no time, asking the audience to keep a civil tongue, and stressing that the biggest goal of the campaign was to support local businesses and let them know they’re being “patronized” by Portage supporters. As I later learned, the Chicago Tabernacle folks have given similar instructions to their throng—as a tax-free group I assume they’re attempting to sound financially lucrative. Sobor then introduced Arena, who, if the applause was any indication, needn’t worry about several hundred votes in 2016.


The man is a decent speaker, and he reminded me that one of the reasons I voted for him is his approach to pragmatic preservation. Protecting pretty buildings is fine, but they need a reason to exist and a healthy local economy to persist. The folks behind the Portage’s restoration have done as much, and the theater is viewed as an anchor for the Six Corners shopping district. Once upon a time, this was the greatest and busiest place to shop, eat, drink, and see a flick outside the Loop. For the past several years, before he was even an alderman, Arena and others have tried to give the slightly shabby Six Corners a economic shot in the arm. Thus far things have been looking up.

Then the Chicago Tabernacle Church approached him last September, asking for his support as they sought to buy the theater and convert it into a church. Arena asked for a write-up of their intentions for the property, and what they presented to the zoning board was (in my words) horrifying.

CTC’s plans included removing the snazzy marquee outside (not sure if this includes the original terra cotta PORTAGE PARK THEATER marquee out front as well as the flashy electric one; I hope not), get rid of the businesses currently occupying the storefronts, and convert the auditorium and apartments inside into classrooms. Arena said um, no thank you, but welcomed them to the area and suggested several local properties that would better suit their and the community’s purposes. The church’s subsequent lack of response showed they weren’t interested, and have proceeded to push for ownership of the building and their proposed changes.

Despite public outcry, the CTC folks are displaying a, in my opinion, weird obsessiveness about purchasing the building, and a predictable disinterest in allowing the place to be used for the silent, classic, and (naturally) horror film festivals already taking place there. Speaking in a Tribune article about the Portage kerfuffle, church leader Al Toledo offered the following bit of aesthetic blindness:

“We happen to have a choir that people come listen to. We do a number of dramatic presentations. We have an Easter presentation coming up. So we have art that we bring forth as well, and I don’t think that should be minimized.”

Minimized? Not really. More like irrelevant. Chicago is surfeit with churches, religious choirs, and Easter presentations, but lacking in classic movie palaces and independent film venues. Eleven churches of varying sizes are within walking distance of the Six Corners district; but only two movie theaters (including the newly restored Patio Theater, which continues to exist by the skin of its teeth) currently operate thereabouts. Whether the 11 churches (not to mention the nearby Islamic center and Buddhist temple) are the right kind of churches according to Mr. Toledo… Well, let’s not touch that point just yet. Fans of the theater have been called on to grit their teeth and echo alderman Arena’s point that the church is welcome to the community (because, sure, we could always use more tax-free soul-winners who believe the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could come galloping down Milwaukee Ave. at any moment), and thus far everyone’s played nice. Thus far.

Back to the rally… Arena made the solid point that preserving the Portage is all about economic recovery. Four restaurant proposals have been made for the area, but not a one would be able to get a liquor license if the church opened shop at the theater. So, it’s not just a matter of keeping the nerd cinephiles from their celluloid fantasies, or even about protecting an, admittedly, gaudy old queen of a theater from being ravished and violated. It’s about money. A short-term windfall for the theater’s current owners won’t translate into income for Portage Park, the surrounding neighborhoods, or Chicago in general. Church folks have promised to buy stuff at the local businesses, but that remains to be seen. Will the church-goers bussed in to the church really be picking up their groceries at Jewel and their steel-toed boots at Rasenicks? Hmmmm…

When Arena finished speaking, Ms. Sobor took over again. Prepared to deliver a PowerPoint presentation, equipment failure spared the audience from the sight of hastily created pie charts. Thinking on her feet, Sobor provided all the necessary URLs and procedures for making your voice heard. Why, here’s that very information:

The Save the Portage Theater site.

Save the Portage Theater Facebook page.

Alderman Arena’ post on Everyblock.

Arena’s site.

Periodically, a few of the burly bearded fellows emitted approving howls of “Wooooooooo!” whenever they found favor with Ms. Sobor’s statements, and one seeming non sequitur about “No Brooklyn theaters!” This was answered by Ms. Sobor with another curious statement about Irving Park being founded by four New York carpetbaggers. Hah? No illumination was provided, but I later discovered that the Tabernacle folks have done this before, to the former Lowes Metropolitan in Brooklyn, NY. Before and after restoration photos on the net aren’t heartening:


Our next to last speaker was Mike Edwards, creator of the Save the Portage Facebook page, who provided the quote of the night: “Where else can you see West Side Story one week and Dawn of the Dead the next?” Edwards led the gathering in a mass cell phone contact list updating, providing the number for the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals: (312) 744-5822

Again, that’s (312) 744-5822.


Dennis Wolkowicz, the organist and one of the prime movers on the restoration of the theater several years ago, closed the meeting, dubbing it a “community explosion.” He shared a bit of Portage trivia, explaining that back in the 80s the theater was sliced down the middle by a wall that’s since been removed. The seats reflected a curious and unwitting division of political proportions by having red seats on one side and blue ones on the other. This was rectified when director Michael Mann shot Public Enemies with Johnny Depp there in 2008, using the theater as a stand-in for the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Ave. Red and blue seats wouldn’t do, so the film company sprang for blue cushions across the board. No comment.

The meeting closed with reminders that letters to the ZBA could be returned in the lobby, and that various spokespersons would be available for interviews. I needed to get home, and after running into a workmate and my church’s pastor, I headed out to spread the word. I hope you do likewise, dear reader. Check out the above links and take action.

Come on. I’ve got kids who need to see Frankenstein on the big screen!

Architecture and Art and Chicago and George Grant Elmslie and Hegewisch and History and Louis Sullivan and The Hidden19 Mar 2012 07:06 pm

Hegewisch has the distinction of being Chicago’s southeastern terminus. Once you reach the neighborhood, that’s it. You’ve run out of Chicago.

Words fail when describing Hegewisch itself. It feels like a quintessential Chicago working-class neighborhood, with a hint of small-town America. Then again, it’s neither. Pinning down any sort of local character is refreshingly impossible.

If their site is any indication, the people seem to like living there. Founded in 1883, the area was intended to be a company town (ala the Pullman District) for Mr. Adolph Hegewisch’s United States Rolling Stock Company, builders of railroad cars. Pullman eventually blew Mr. Hegewisch out of the water, and by the 1910s US Rolling Stock Co. became the Western Steel Car & Foundry. In 1889 Chicago annexed the town, and the Hegewischians became Chicagoans.

No offense to the residents, but at first glance Hegewisch doesn’t have much to recommend for the casual visitor. However, it earns points for two things. First, its snazzy signs, which are more visually interesting than the average neighborhood lamppost banner. Secondly, it was once home to a interesting slice of architectural history.

Occasionally, I use the “The Hidden” tag in my posts. I’m not referring to the 80s Kyle Maclachlan scifi/thriller (enjoyable cinematic cheese, by the way). Rather I mean those little bits of history and ornamentation that linger in the city’s blind spots. Few people have probably made the northwestern trek to view the memorial to the Old Treaty Elm, for example. I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t made a wrong turn in Sauganash.

A variation on the Hidden involves the appropriation of ornamentation from demolished buildings for use in others. I wouldn’t call it cannibalism—more like headhunting—though it would be pleasant to imagine a demolition expert with a heart of gold deciding, “You know, that part is just too pretty to bust up. Let’s recycle it instead.” Whether it’s more moral to pry off a piece of ornament and stick it on another building (Pro: it remains on public display; Con: it’s viewed out of context and is subject to everyday wear and tear) versus displaying it on a museum wall (Pro: public display and protection; Con: still out of context, perpetuating the idea that decoration can represent a lost building in its gestalt), I leave to the comments section.

Travel to 13310 Baltimore Ave. in Hegewisch, stand across the street, and look up. You’ll see a familiar hand in the building’s ornamentation. Sullivanesque? Very nearly.


The address is the former location of architect Parker Noble Berry’s Interstate National Bank, and the ornament is all that remains of that edifice. Even if you’ve never heard of Mr. Berry, you likely know his boss. Louis Henri Sullivan hired Berry as a draftsman from 1909 to 1918. While not as seasoned as Sullivan’s former chief draftsman George Grant Elmslie, Berry was a bright, talented young man—one of those individuals presumably destined for greatness.

And such promise he showed. Mr. Berry assisted Sullivan with projects like the Henry C. Adams building in Algona, IA, one of Sullivan’s famed “jewel box” banks. Interestingly, Mr. Berry may have had a greater hand in designing that particular structure, if Berry’s 1915 First State Bank building in Manlius, IL, (still standing and currently being restored by the Manlius Historical Society after being used as a storage space for many years) is any indication. Side note: the First State Bank of Manlius, IL, was built by Berry’s father, a Princeton, IL, contractor.

In 1917, Berry was approached by Lawrence Cox, president of Hegewisch’s Interstate National Bank, and asked to create a new building on Baltimore Ave. Contemporary photos show a smart-looking structure that built on the ideas of the First State Bank and Henry C. Adams building. Shots of the interior show a simple elegance, and all the ways Berry communicated and mused upon his former mentor’s philosophy. Sadly, the bank failed and was torn down in the 30s. For better or worse, the facade’s ornamentation was chipped off and slapped onto the front of the store taking its place.

Previously printed in The Prairie School Review

Sullivan, already struggling during his final decade, couldn’t pay Berry enough, and so the young architect supplemented his income with jobs in Manlius and his hometown of Princeton, IL. Years before, Sullivan had sacked another former employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, for designing homes on the side, but he apparently looked the other way on Berry’s commissions. At least until Berry built the Adeline Prouty Old Ladies Home (yes, that was the name; it was a more politically incorrect time) in 1917. According to Berry’s brother Roger, that was the last straw. Sullivan let Berry go. Despite various health problems, Berry probably would have done well enough afterward, and perhaps might have made a name for himself. He’d gotten married and was courted by the architectural firm of Purcell and Elmslie for years—though he’d turned them down for the opportunity to learn from Sullivan and advance in the trade. Opening an office down in Hyde Park, he began work on commissions for another bank and a hospital.

But Parker Noble Berry wasn’t long for this world. Already sickly, in December 1918, he traveled from Chicago to Princeton to attend his father-in-law’s funeral. Contracting what he imagined was just a bad cold, he refused medical attention. Soon after, Parker Berry became another young victim of the 1918 flu pandemic (aka: “Spanish Flu”). He suffered for eight days before succumbing on December 16, all of 30 years old.

—Dan Kelly

[Writer’s Note: I am currently at work on a long-form essay about Parker Berry. If any relatives of his (or anyone with information to share about him) read this, please contact me at dan [at] mrdankelly [dot] com!]

Art and Chicago and Fraternal Orders and Irving Park29 Feb 2012 02:37 pm

The nice people at the Latvian Folk Art Museum and Latvian Community Center—discussed in this previous entry about the former Independent Order of Vikings Ivar Temple—shared the following picture of a “Viking” drinking horn with a decorative dragon they discovered in the basement. The Latvian Museum folks graciously donated this and several other rediscovered IOV items to Chicago’s Swedish American Museum. Sounds like a good place for a future visit.

Architecture and Art and George Grant Elmslie and Irving Park and Louis Sullivan08 Nov 2011 05:04 pm

Last Friday, I took my kids out to visit the park, a church off Western where my great uncle served as assistant pastor, and two buildings connected with Louis Sullivan’s former chief draftsman, George Grant Elmslie. As a father I am slightly unusual, I know.

Mr. Elmslie stuck with Mr. Sullivan through the Lieber Meister’s exceedingly lean final years. Sadly, Sullivan was unable to afford to keep him on staff and had to let him go. Elmslie landed on his feet by partnering with William Purcell, forming the firm of Purcell & Elmslie in 1909. After turning out several lovely Prairie School style buildings across the Midwest  together, personal problems, including his wife’s tragic death at age 31, took their toll on Elmslie. Despite being a full partner, he chose to move back to Chicago to live with his sisters, while Purcell ran the firm from Minneapolis. Steeped in misery, Elmslie nonetheless pressed on, producing several more works—including his masterpiece, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, IA—before financial matters eventually caused the firm to dissolve.

If his work seems “Sullivanesque,” it’s because Elmslie is responsible for much of Sullivan’s fancier ornamentation. He’s probably best known for  his designs on such large scale structures as the Carson Pirie Scott facade and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna, MN. Luckily for the city, Elmslie created smaller structures as well, lending a bit of Sullivanesque charm to our neighborhoods. My favorite would have to be the Peoples Gas Irving Park Neighborhood Store at 4839 W. Irving Park Road. Peoples Gas Stores were actual stores selling only products employing the full benefits of that exciting new energy source, natural gas. Check out the 1920s ads below.

If you ever drive or walk by the building (which appears to be a church or similar religious institution now) be sure to look up, otherwise you’ll miss its delightful decorations and windows. Wish I could have had either a clearer day for taking photographs or direct sunlight. I’ll go back and try again some day.

Looks like one of the ads features the addresses of every store in Chicago. There’s a field trip for you!

Art and Murals12 Jul 2011 02:41 am

Every morning on my way to work, I pass a series of large, faded paintings on the Metra train embankment that runs along Hubbard Street. One panel proclaims it “The Chicago Gallery 1973.” The paintings are mostly of animals, and so weathered and vine-covered that they seem more like the ruins of a lost civilization that something that’s only been around since I was six years old.

The original murals were a project of Ricardo Alonzo, an Art Institute of Chicago graduate. Over an eight-year period, Alonzo and volunteers from the West Town Community Art Center painted murals along a mile-long stretch of Hubbard Street, from Des Plaines to Ogden, until their funding ran out in 1979.

In 2000, the Union Pacific Railroad did some rehab and repair work on a segment of the embankment, so a new group of volunteers came together (with support from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, among others) to create new murals on Hubbard between Carpenter and Ogden. Again, wildlife images dominate, but there are also some panels that reference Chicago-related themes, like the blues, Pullman porters, and the Imagists art movement.

It’s such a shame that these beautiful paintings exist in a place where hardly anyone will ever see them. There’s very little foot traffic in the area. Unless you have a specfic reason for going over there (dinner at Mart Anthony’s, a beer at Aberdeen Tap, or if you happen to live in one of the newly-built townhouses), you’re never going to just run across them by accident. And there’s no sidewalk on the side of the road where the murals are, so you either have to view them from the sidewalk across the street, or pick your way through the trees and shrubs in front of the murals to get a closer look.

But they’re worth a walk out of your way, in my opinion. The new ones for the bright color and sense of whimsy that many of them have, and the old ones for their sad, faded beauty.

You can find more photos of the murals at my Flickr page.

-Kathy Moseley