Chicago Events Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan at 150

by Michael R. Allen

Louis Sullivan was born in Boston on September 3, 1856. Admirers have launched Louis Sullivan at 150, a series of tours, lectures and other events that celebrate the Sullivan sesquicentennial. The festivities happen in Chicago, although there is no stopping folks in cities with other Sullivan buildings of some importance of coordinating celebrations.

Part of the Sullivan at 150 program is a three-day symposium October 13-15; a tour of the interior of the Charnley-Persky House led by John Vinci, who oversaw the home’s restoration; and, most impressive although mostly coincidental, the completion of the replication of the cornice on Sullivan’s 1899 Schlesinger & Meyer Department Store Building (now the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building).

Chicago Downtown

Macy’s Letters Go Up, A Legacy Comes Down

by Michael R. Allen

Yesterday, crews arrived to downtown’s Railway Exchange Building to begin installation of the giant Macy’s sign that will replace the already-removed Famous-Barr sign atop the building. (Famous-Barr’s midtown warehouse already sports new lighted Macy’s signs, although at night the old signs show behind them and read “M–Y’s and “MA—S” instead of a confident “MACY’S.”) This passage of signage is the fulfillment of a year-long transition that ends the lifespan of St. Louis’ last local department store chain. Famous-Barr was an original tenant of the Railway Exchange, built in 1913.

While the May Company had long allowed the downtown flagship to diminish in quality and allure, the store was a reminder that St. Louis was once a vibrant metropolitan city that had developed fine examples of the modern downtown department store. After the other downtown department stores — notable Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney in 1967 and Stix, Baer and Fuller in 1984 — closed, the downtown Famous-Barr remained open and seemed like it would be open forever. Its hours cut back over the years, and its patrons were a small group toward the end. Yet the cultural value of its presence showed that downtown St. Louis still kept one tradition alive, and not in a second-rate fashion but in a particularly local way.

Now the downtown space will be occupied by one of the hundreds of Macy’s stores, a fact that insults both St. Louis and New York. Both cities have lost the uniqueness of the brand identity, albeit slowly: the stores had long become chains, changed ownership and standardized merchandise long before Federated bought both Macy’s and Famous-Barr. Now, the slump hastens and only the most culturally deprived shoppers will be enthusiastic to shop at Macy’s, a name that now denotes only a department store rather than a certain sort of store.

Of course, the downtown department store itself is an endangered species, and has been close to extinction since the late 1960’s. Now that downtown St. Louis real estate is highly valued again, perhaps the downtown store here is about to go extinct. The value of the Railway Exchange Building to Federated Department Stores exceeds the value of the store inside. With their move to cut jobs downtown, there will be empty office floors to remodel. The company is also planning to consolidate the store on the five lower levels of the building, vacating two floors used by Famous-Barr. Could it be only a matter of time before the store is liquidated and the building converted to condominiums? The crews working on converting the store have not been remodeling the space as much as putting a new coat of paint on surfaces. The work looks tentative, as does Federated’s commitment to downtown.

Whatever happens to the downtown Macy’s store, the period of the urban department store is effectively over in St. Louis. We have lost our last downtown department store, a passing that even forty years ago would have attracted more attention than it does today. With the combined factors of population dispersal, market dominance by discount and specialty retailers, the retail downtown centered on the Galleria shopping mall and the May Company’s own treatment of the store, the downtown Famous-Barr is mourned by few. Contrast that with Chicago, where Federated is stamping the meaningless Macy’s brand on the meaningful and loved downtown Marshall Field’s store. This move provoked anger and a petition campaign, neither of which prevented the destruction there because neither caused any economic consequence to Federated’s decision.

The cultural consequences of the loss of downtown department stores and of downtown commercial culture are pretty big, though. Still, as long as few people recognize those consequences (and people have had fifty years to recognize them), what difference does closing the the last local downtown department store make to all but a handful of people?

Chicago Louis Sullivan

Chicago May Lose Another Adler & Sullivan Building

by Michael R. Allen

Just in case anyone thought that Chicago learned anything from the Chicago Stock Exchange debacle in 1972 (or the Pilgrim Baptist Church fire earlier this year), Lynn Becker brings us news of yet another threatened Adler & Sullivan building. In an article in the latest Reader (ah, if St. Louis could have a weekly so fine!), Becker writes that the owner of the George Harvey House — probably the sole surving frame building by the firm — wants to tear it down for a condominium building.

Chicago Documentation Louis Sullivan People Salvage

Anniversary of Richard Nickel’s Death Passes

by Michael R. Allen

Thirty-four years ago day, Chicago photographer, historian and salvager Richard Nickel was killed when several thousand pounds of the steel and concrete guts of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building fell on him. Nickel was inside of the building — designed by Louis Sullivan — on the first floor, having come to the building to rescue a stair stringer and a few other items after repeated warnings from wreckers to stay away. Nickel stepped forward a few years too far ahead of the preservation game to have had things easy. He saw destruction around him, especially of the works of the now-lauded Sullivan, and set out to at least document condemned buildings through photographs. Then he made the fatal discovery that he could recover parts of these buildings that would otherwise never be seen again. Motivated only by a love for preserving knowledge, and often privately very bitter, Nickel took over 11,000 photographs and saved countless pieces of architectural ornament, most of which now belongs to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. Nickel rarely made a dime from his efforts, and never held a steady job except for the one that he assigned himself. He was somehat reclusive and shunned public attention, instead exerting influence through relationships with writers, architects and historians whom he thought were sympathetic to his lonely cause.

Nickel’s work demonstrated that systematic efforts for photographic documentation and architectural ornament recovery were as important to architectural history as theory and research. While his amateur salvage efforts pale in comparison to those of St. Louis’ own Larry Giles, at the time Nickel started saving parts of Sullivan buildings in the 1950s scholarly interest in architectural salvage was non-existent. Nickel blazed his own path, and influenced architectural historians and preservationists that have come since his departure. Without Nickel, so much that I hold as certain may not even exist at all — buildings and ideas both.

Chicago Fire Louis Sullivan

Rebuilding Pilgrim Baptist Church

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Rob Powers.

Preservationists, politicians, church members and neighborhood residents are contemplating what to do with the burned Pilgrim Baptist Church (originally Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue), design by Louis Sullivan.

The options seem to be:

a.) A total rebuilding of the church according to Adler & Sullivan’s original plans. If the walls need to be rebuilt, this will cost tens of millions of dollars, and the results may be underwhelming. In 2006, we have lost some of the building techniques and materials that Adler and Sullivan had at their disposal in 1891. (This fact should make all of us pause to think about the viability of our society.) As the renowned architect Wilbert Hasbrouck says in the article, a full rebuilding would not recreate the building but instead leave the world with a replica in lesser materials.

Photograph by Rob Powers.

b.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church but creating a modern space inside.

c.) Rebuilding the structure and exterior of the church and creating a somewhat “Sullivanesque” space inside that would not be a replica but would attempt to convey some sense of how the interior originally appeared.

d.) Stabilizing the ruins and leaving them stand as they have been left by the fire. This is what Gary, Indiana has contemplated doing with the City Methodist Church, a massive 1925 Gothic structure struck by a devastating 1997 fire. No one has mentioned this possibility in the press yet, but it bears consideration.

e.) Total demolition with salvage of some elements. I don’t think that anyone wants this to happen — even Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is interested in helping preserve the building, although the City of Chicago is taking a typically non-committal approach.

Whatever happens will be interesting to watch. While the fire is tragic, I share some of the optimism that architect John Vinci expresses in the article. This is likely the only chance most people will have to see an Adler and Sullivan building completely rebuilt in some manner. I wonder what Richard Nickel, that dogged and devoted purist, would think.

Chicago Demolition Fire Louis Sullivan

Sullivan Synagogue Gutted by Fire

by Michael R. Allen

In his lifetime, Louis Sullivan designed many buildings. Of his designs, 238 were built. As of Friday, only 50 still stood — and one of them, Kehilath Anshe Ma’ ariv Synagogue (Later Pilgrim Baptist Church burned on that same day.

The interior and unique roof was totally lost, and the limestone exterior walls are left unstable.

The historic synagogue was one of the most formative designs in the collaboration of Dankmar Adler and Sullivan, demonstrating Adler’s deft structural mind and the maturation of Sullivan’s patterns of ornament.

The Place Where We Live has more information: Adler & Sullivan Historic Church Destroyed by Fire

Hopefully, the walls can be stabilized even if the interior spaces and roof structure are lost forever. The city of Chicago and the world cannot afford to lose the last traces of a Louis Sullivan building. By now, the callous city that tore down so many before may realize just how valuable Sullivan’s work really is.

Or not.

Chicago continues to drain its heritage: CTA platform expansion has claimed both the 1929 Hays-Healy Gymnasium at DePaul University as well as the Co-Operative Temperance Society Building (lately housing the Bottom Lounge) at Wilton and Belmont; Marshall Field’s will become Macy’s in September; the landmark Berghoff restaurant will close February 28; yet another turreted corner building is threatened; and so forth.

Chicago Demolition

Cooperative Temperance Cafe

by Michael R. Allen

The building at 3206 N. Wilton Avenue housing Chicago all-ages venue the Bottom Lounge was demolished by early 2006 to make way for an expansion of the Belmont El station. At the time, the main story was that Chicago was sadly losing another all-ages venue due to technicalities in laws assisting the relocation of businesses. No one seemed to remember the history behind the building, despite the inexplicable painted-over sign reading “Cooperative Temperance Cafe – Idrott” that appeared above its storefront openings.

The building during demolition on December 31, 2005.

The design alone inspired intrigue. The basic form as the average early twentieth century flat-roofed Chicago Arts & Crafts commercial building. Yet the details were odd: yellow brick above a storefront ribbon trimmed with intricate terra cotta pieces that pleasantly clashed with the upper level even after being subjected to later painting schemes. (Demolition robbed us of the chance to see if the terra cotta was polychromatic.) The storefront ornament was part Spanish Revival, part Moorish and part Renaissance Revival and contained a lovely arcade entrance (see photograph).

Detail of the entrance arcade.

Through this entrance passed many young people headed to a show, including the editors of Ecology of Absence. (This is where we saw Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies as well as Weird War perform on the day after Ronald Reagan’s death.) But long before that phase, the building was built for an idealistic experiment that also was an important part of the social fabric of Lakeview: the Cooperative Temperance Society Cafe, also known as Idrott.

The local society had its roots in the Cooperative Movement, an almost socialist consumers’ movement. The center of the movement was the Cooperative League, based in New York and founded in 1916, which aimed to promote a world “whereby the people, in voluntary association, produce and distribute for their own use the things they need.”

In 1913, a Chicago group composed of 75 young Swedish people, elected to open a cafe and club known as “Idrott” (Swedish for “sport”) on Wilton Avenue just north of Belmont Avenue. The organization existed to promote temperance and athletics as well as to provide a place for Swedish immigrants to speak and read in the native language while in a new country. The principles of the club were based on self-sufficiency, thrift and sharing. The goal of the cafe was to provide good food at good prices with fair ages paid to staff. The society decided to limit membership to ten new members each year. Later, the group became an important part of the Cooperative Movement although never an official affiliate of the Cooperative League. The society built a new building at the Wilton Avenue location, adding a bakery, meat department, library, game room, overnight rooms and mail delivery for members. The operation was renamed the Cooperative Temperance Cafe, with the old name noted on the exterior. By 1926, there were 200 members and the organization opened a branch cafe at 5248 N. Clark Street. All surplus funds raised by the club were used for expansion and educational efforts, so that there was no profit to any member or to the club.

The Cooperative League became the National Cooperative Business Association and still exists. The Chicago group eventually folded, and the building became home to Lakeview Links, later the Bottom Lounge, in 1991. More information about the history of the Cooperative Movement and the Cooperative Temperance Society can be found in the archives of Co-Op Magazine, where I gleaned some of my information.

Chicago Demolition

Living on Leavitt

by Michael R. Allen

In June 2005, we received an email from John Merchant about 1423 N. Leavitt (see “Lost on Leavitt in Wicker Park”, November 6, 2004):

“I used to live in the quaint building you describe on your website (1423 N. Leavitt). I lived their for five years, finally leaving in the spring of 1999. I no longer live in Chicago, but on a recent visit a friend who still lives in the area asked me if I had seen the old place and upon driving by I could not believe what I saw. Those have to be some of the ugliest condos I have ever seen.

“It is hard to describe in an e-mail, but the swath of destruction that ended with the annihilation of my old building was owned by my landlord. Behind my place was a slightly rickety but really nice coach house. Next to my building was a long, nicely tended yard. And then my landlord had 2-3 empty lots’ worth of space for a yard, all of which was cared for and decorated with funky artwork. Her building was on the corner, a former storefront from the looks of it with two apartments upstairs. One entire wall of her building was glass brick and the ceiling was one of those beautiful tin jobs. Janet, landlord, was an artist who had bought all of that land in 1980s, when the neighborhood was neglected, run down, and rather sketchy. She received offers to sell all the time, but refused. I don’t know what happened that made her change her mind and all her compound to go under the bulldozer…”

He added in a later email:

“The one thing I was thinking might still be there is a plaque remembering this old Polish man, Michal, who lived in the upstairs apartment in my landlord’s building overlooking Leavitt. She planted a pear tree, I think, and put in a memorial to him… maybe even his ashes, I can’t recall. It is sad to think that those hideous condos will loom over him for eternity. He lived the Nelson Algren age of Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village, playing accordian in the bars, etc.”

Fortunately, John sent us the following photographs so that we could see what the buildings and yard looked like under Janet’s care. With his permission, we are sharing them here.

Chicago Louis Sullivan People Salvage

The Legacy of Richard Nickel

by Michael R. Allen

Today at the Chicago Cultural Center I attended a slide-show presentation of Richard Nickel‘s photographs of the buildings of Adler and Sullivan, given by Ward Miller of the Richard Nickel Committee. The slide-show included lesser-known color photographs of such notable buildings by the firm, including the Auditorium Building, the Ann Halstead Flats and the Jewelers Building. I was awed once again by the sensitivity to architectural detail that Nickel imparted in each of his images. He articulated buildings in another language than architecture, and thus made them greater than they were when he found them.

As a fitting summation of the day’s introspection, I found this essay online tonight: Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground by Dan Kelly. Kelly traces minor buildings and fragments of Chicago buildings by Adler and Sullivan — the ones Frank Lloyd Wright discouraged Nickel from including in his unpublished Complete Works of Adler and Sullivan — and concludes:

“…the most minor buildings that construct the city’s neighborhoods are always “missed” when they’re gone, most often because no one bothered to notice them when they were still here. It follows that preservation isn’t just about landmark status or collecting museum-quality ornamental scraps; it’s about noticing what builds a neighborhood into a neighborhood. The city’s blandest buildings can possess rich histories.”

Indeed. This insight had to be what drove Nickel to keep working, and it’s what drives this blog. Hopefully, we will help people avoid the “missing” of buildings and, with more effort, the losses themselves.

Abandonment Chicago Midtown Theaters

Two Theaters That Closed in 1981

New to Ecology of Absence today are pages on two theaters on two different scales in two different cities that closed in the same year, 1981. Neither has reopened and both are deteriorating badly. Yet the future looks brighter than ever for both.

They are:

  • Chicago’s Uptown Theatre
  • Saint Louis’s Sun Theatre

    (For perspective on the timeframe of the vacancies, consider that I was born on December 31, 1980.)