Street Smart Chicago

In the Loop: Chicago Detours leads learning expeditions in the city

Architecture, Chicago History, Loop No Comments »

Photo: Kristine Sherred

Standing just inside the Dearborn Street entrance of Chase Tower, Amanda Scotese welcomes her Friday Chicago Detours group to “Explore the Loop without Freezing.” This morning brings only four curious people together, but Scotese caps the number of tickets at twenty anyway, creating what she characterizes as a unique, personal and immersive urban experience. The attendees give their names and hometowns before Scotese pulls out the multimedia component, an iPad, starting with a nineteenth-century clip of a Chicago intersection and a Studs Terkel snippet.

“It’s not just facts. This is about stories and a theme that binds them together,” says Scotese.

Her digital collection of archival footage, ephemera and images “you can’t piece together on the Internet” complement her mental reserve of “forgotten stories,” as she calls the fascinating history she shares at each stop. She encourages questions and conversation, fostering a collaborative educational environment unlike the talking head on run-of-the-mill tours.

“People love to learn!” she exclaims. “I don’t pretend to know everything, and I’m not into making up answers.” Anything she doesn’t know, she researches and posts answers to on the Chicago Detours blog. Read the rest of this entry »

Bertrand Goldberg’s legacy at risk

Architecture, Chicago History, Gold Coast/Near North No Comments »

The fight to save Prentice Hospital continues. Preservation Chicago has circulated this video, which covers the story. Newcity made Prentice the centerpiece of a cover story about the threat to Chicago’s mid-century modern architecture this summer.

Save Prentice! from Aaron Cahan on Vimeo.

Romancing the River: Falling in love with the underbelly of the city from the water taxi

Architecture, Essays & Commentary, Loop No Comments »

By Dina Elenbogen

I am floating in the underbelly of the city, the same way the summer my son was an infant, walking along the lake with him strapped to my body at dawn, I’d feel as if I were moving through the underbelly of the day. On this boat I take to work, floating under bridges and taking in new angles and facades of buildings, this city feels unfamiliar. It’s like looking into a face you’ve known for a long time and seeing an entirely new quality of beauty.

I used to envy friends who were able to walk only steps from the train to their buildings but now I realize that I am the lucky one. After a thirty-minute train ride on which I review for the writing class I’ll teach later in the morning, I arrive in the city, walk a few steps, and my boat is usually waiting for me. I step off the pier at Wacker and down a few steps into the yellow boat. I usually sit uncovered on a bench in the back. Some mornings I’ll commune with the red steel bridges that we pass between Madison (1922), and the Michigan Avenue Bridge (1920). Other times it will be the glass facades of the newer buildings next to the old stone and turrets of the Crain Communications Building and the Wrigley Building. If the boat didn’t hit the cement at Michigan Avenue to disembark, I’d probably drift away with my thoughts all morning. Read the rest of this entry »

In With the Old: Can Chicago turn the Spice Barrel District into a creative center?

Architecture, Chinatown, Pilsen 4 Comments »

By Jason Foumberg

Chicago needs this. A grouping of four huge old buildings on the Near South Side will become, hopefully, a new Creative Industries District. This district isn’t simply an art gallery stroll, nor is it merely a rehabbed warehouse for artist studios. The proposed redevelopment plan is so big and ambitious—perhaps bigger than any current mixed-use art space in Chicago, 800,000 square feet in total—that galleries and studios will be just a small fraction of the big picture, if at all.

You don’t need to see it to believe it—because there’s not much to look at yet—but the future will spurt from this dust-caked shell of salvage, a sun-baked hulk of hundred-year-old bricks and broken windows. A picturesque ruin, perhaps. This is what condominium developments look like before the granite countertops and cast-iron balconies roll in, but no dream condos will be constructed here, and anyway, the kitchen-table art economy hasn’t gotten us much further than the front room. We won’t be art-gallery squatting in the near future. The near future has a budget, a committee, actually several committees, licensing forms and tax forms and applications, and a dada poem of acronyms—ULI, NEA, LISC, DCA, TIF, CMAP—that sounds like government bureaucracy BS, the type that we like to knee-jerk kick in the nostrils, but this time we’re going to sit on the shoulders of Big Brother. This time he’s got our back. Read the rest of this entry »

Architecture Capital? What we’ll lose if we lose our mid-century modern buildings

Architecture, Chicago History 5 Comments »

Northwestern's Prentice Women's Hospital

By Ella Christoph

If archaeologists wanted to excavate Chicago to discover its history, they would quickly realize digging down is far less productive than just opening your eyes and looking at the panorama of a city block. The sediment of Chicago reaches left and right, not down, and it’s by noticing one building next to another that Chicago’s turbulent history jumps out at us. The city is a jumble of homes, storefronts and skyscrapers that bring us back to before the Great Chicago Fire, back to the golden age of railroads, back to the time when internationally acclaimed architects fled Europe for the safety and capitalist progressivism of the Second City.

For archaeologists in Pompeii, the volcano was a gold mine, freezing the city in time. But imagine a different kind of destructive force, with the accuracy of a pencil eraser, deleting just one moment of a city’s past at a time. A bulldozer, tearing down what we believe future generations won’t miss—the now-ubiquitous square glass boxes of Mies van der Rohe’s protégés, the harsh concrete of Brutalism, the strange contraptions of architects excited by new materials that became ordinary almost instantaneously. This isn’t a new eraser; its sights are just set on a new comma in the paragraph of our city’s history. Read the rest of this entry »

You Killed the Car: The Rose House is both mid-century modern landmark and a bit of pop-culture history

Architecture, Chicago History, Highland Park No Comments »

In the late eighties and early nineties, hip, affluent trendsetters rediscovered the aesthetic of mid-century modern homes and flocked to Palm Springs in search of homes designed by Albert Frey, Richard Neutra and their peers. It was a godsend for the homes, which were “somewhat disheveled-looking, and worn out,” says Joseph Rosa, director of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art. Read the rest of this entry »

Grain of Truth: Taking stock of the relics of Chicago’s era as the world’s “Stacker of Wheat”

Architecture, Chicago History 3 Comments »

By David Witter

Grain elevators were the city’s first skyscrapers, rising up as high as fifteen stories along the Chicago River and Sanitary and Ship Canal from downtown to the South Shore, supplying the nation’s bakeries much in the way that the stockyards of the Armours, Oscar Mayers and Swifts gave us steak, bacon and hot dogs. Along with being the “Hog Butcher for the World,” they gave rise to Carl Sandburg’s description of Chicago as the “Stacker of Wheat.” Poured from trains and barges, wheat, corn, barley and other crops were stored within before being sold at a “new” market called The Chicago Board of Trade. Today, only two grain facilities, the Archer Daniels Midland Plant, and the Illinois International Port Grain Elevators at the Port of Chicago, remain in operation within the city limits. Dozens have been demolished, while still more sit vacant. Too large and expensive to tear down, they are slowly deteriorating like Egyptian ruins in an urban desert, standing as a final reminder of Chicago’s agricultural past amid the modern skyscrapers, condos and highways that are now Chicago’s landscape. Read the rest of this entry »

411: The Right to Wright

Architecture, News etc. No Comments »

Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-renowned Unity Temple has been added to the 2009 America’s Most Endangered Historic Building’s List. Through not in jeopardy of being demolished, the Unity Temple is in need of massive renovations. The building has suffered water damage, which affects the roof and outer structure. “Water is our main enemy; over time water damage has built up,” says Emily Roth, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. “It has become critical to fix it now or else the roof will become unstable.” Since 1973, UTRF, a non-profit organization, has been making strides in preserving the National Historic Landmark. Yet the restoration costs have outpaced funding and has only been compounded by the recession. Thankfully, the organization has received federal funding from the Save America’s Treasures grant through the National Parks Services. The grant will match the group’s fundraising efforts up to $200,000 dollars.  The UTRF is “bound and determined to raise $200,000 dollars” this summer, according to Roth. As a result of the landmark’s status, Roth has seen an increase in support and donations. “We had a flurry of donations from all over the country,” she says. “Making a donation is a way of preserving our cultural heritage.”

Exploring the Googieverse: In search of Chicago’s vanishing architecture of the future

Architecture 1 Comment »

Layout 1By David Witter

It’s Frank Lloyd Wright meets George Jetson.

Born out of the same post-World War II energy that spawned the swirling, splayed chaos of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Googie architecture celebrated the ascension of America and the atomic age. No longer was great architecture limited to banks, opera houses, mansions and downtown structures. Instead, Googie, which is also known as RayGun Gothic, Populuxe and Doo-Wop, transformed buildings like coffee shops, motels, gas stations and dry cleaners from simple boxes to giant, saucer-shaped structures with oversized signs splashing bold, pastel colors. To anyone driving down a highway or city road, Googie transformed the bleak horizon with buildings sporting upswept roofs, boomerang and saucer shapes, neon and large, plate-glass windows. Googie especially celebrated science and space, as structures in the shapes of amoebae, atomic models, stars and planets, all advertised with neotype signage, typified Googie. Like Art Deco and Bauhaus, the influence of Googie was not confined to architecture. Cartoons like “The Jetsons” and later “The Incredibles” used the Googie motif. So did the beehive hairdo, cat-eye sunglasses and tailfins on fifties-era cars.

While Googie generally proliferated in the postwar boomtowns of Los Angeles and its neighboring Orange County and Las Vegas, Chicago does have its share of Googie structures. Many of these are on Chicago’s far Northwest Side, an area that was largely developed in the 1940s and 1950s. These include Trim N’ Tidy Cleaners near Austin and Higgins Avenues, Superdawg, at Milwaukee and Devon Avenues and the LP Motel at 4605 North Harlem Avenue. Other Chicago Googie structures include The Ohio House Motel at LaSalle and Ohio, and Pride Cleaners on E. 79th Street in the Chatham neighborhood. Chicago also has another link to Googie. Architect John Lautner, known as the “father of Googie,” spent six years under the tutelage of Frank Lloyd Wright and his protégés as the recipient of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship in the 1930s.

stars-3Like many artistic movements, there is no one place where Googie actually began. According to Spaceagecity.com however, the term itself originated as Yale Professor Douglas Haskell was driving through Los Angeles with architectural photographer Julius Shulman. When they drove by Googie’s Coffee Shop on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights he yelled, “Stop the car! This is Googie architecture.” He later used the term in an article in House and Home Magazine, and it stuck.

Googie’s Coffee Shop was designed by Lautner. The subject of the recent documentary, “Spirit of Architecture,” Lautner supervised the construction of two Wright buildings, Wingspread and the Sturges House. Many of the elements of Googie include Wright’s incorporation of nature.

“Man’s continuing link to nature was expressed in a number of ways, including the common use of rock and fake rock, [flagcrete] walls, lush landscaping, indoor gardens, and vast plate glass windows that broke down traditional barriers between inside and outside,” writes Chris Jepsen of spaceagecity.com. “In the world of Googie, it’s not uncommon to see UFO-shaped buildings with one rock wall, three glass walls and palm trees growing straight up through a cutout shape in an overhanging roof.”

Superdawg

Superdawg

Googie is far better known for its use of bold pastel colors and designs that reflected America’s fascination with space, atomic energy and the promise of the future. In the book “Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture,” author Alan Hess writes, “The public was captivated by rocket ships and atomic energy, so in order to draw their attention architects used these motifs for their work. Buildings have been used to catch the attention of motorists since the invention of the car, but the 1950s took it a step further and created a genre of architecture that was used exclusively for the roadside service industry.”

One reason why Googie architecture never really flourished in Chicago is the number of classic structures that had been designed between 1890-1929. Masters like Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, Wright and many others had already changed the face of modern architecture. Chicago was, in effect, a canvas that had already been painted.

“Chicago is known for its classic architecture, and a somewhat more conservative and serious tone,” Joan Gand of Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond, an organization dedicated to preserving mid-century architecture, says. “You did of course have Mies van der Rohe and the revolutionary modern architecture of his school, but Googie was still considered to be a little too radical, as well as “lightweight” or fun for the Chicago market. So even though Lautner was from Michigan and was influenced by Wright, he and many other Googie architects went out West where they had more choices.”

With its El trains and compact downtown area and old neighborhoods, the influence of the postwar car culture also had far less effect on Chicago. Nevertheless, if you look hard enough you can find a number of Googie structures in greater Chicago.

The Ohio House Motel

The Ohio House Motel

The Ohio House Motel, 600 North LaSalle
The Ohio House Motel was built in 1960 and features almost all of the elements associated with Googie. Most notable of these is the use of jagged flagstone rock on its South and West walls, and the floor-to-ceiling windows beneath it, illuminating the influences of Wright. The white diamond, triangular-shaped rooftop, made out of pressed aluminum, gives the building a space-age feel. This diamond/triangle theme is reinforced in the hotel’s sign. As Googie was named after a coffee shop in Los Angeles, the Ohio House Motel features its own, sixties-era coffee shop, one of the few places to have an inexpensive breakfast in River North the Loop. Note the lettering on the coffee-shop sign.

Trim N' Tidy Cleaners

Trim N' Tidy Cleaners

Trim N’ Tidy Cleaners, 5939 West Higgins
The sky blue, palette-shaped sign suspended from a steel post two stories above the ground gives this building its Googie props. The lettering on the sign, which uses stars to dot the eyes and the red arrow underneath are also vintage Googie. The building, comprised of three giant steel L-shaped arches over a wide drive-through area (remember cars baby, cars), seems like something straight out of Southern California. Behind this frame is floor-to-ceiling glass with thin, vertical white steel beams, giving it an airy, spaceship look.

Pride Cleaners, 558 East 79th

Spotlighted by architecture critic Lee Bey on WTTW and a later YouTube segment, Pride Cleaners is also textbook Googie. Built in 1959 and designed by Chicago architect Gerald Siegwart, the triangular-sloped roof juts out into the sky like a giant skateboard. Underneath is a floor-to-ceiling glass structure supported by aquamarine trim. The sign, which features lighted teardrop letters in lime green, avocado green, orange, pumpkin and baby blue is something the set designers of “Austin Powers” wished they would have stolen.

pride-signOther Googie buildings that can be found in Chicago and its outskirts include the BP Amoco Station at Clark and LaSalle, which boasts a spaceship-like overhang reminiscent of the LAX theme building; Superdawg, located at Milwaukee and Devon, combines classic Googie colored triangles with a blue neon roof that looks like a spaceship, lots of glass, the fiberglass hot dogs, Maurie and Florie, perched atop the roof, and brightly colored, triangular packaging that all of Superdawg’s food is served in; the Cindy Lyn Motel at 5029 West Ogden in Cicero, which boasts a funky semi-Googie sign and a long overhanging roof; and the LP Motel at 4605 North Harlem. Located just over the Chicago border in Harwood Heights, the LP Motel boasts a long white carport suspended by lithe, narrow columns, floor-to-ceiling windows, an overhanging sundeck and an orange, shield-like sign. All in all, the place has a definite early 1960s vibe like it was plucked off of Santa Monica’s oceanfront motel strip and transported to Chicago. Another odd but true-to-form example of Googie is a bus/train stop shelter located near Devon and Lehigh Avenues, about a half mile east of Superdawg. Complete with slanted overhanging roofs, large windows and a space-age feel, the choice of a bus shelter is a perfect example of Googie’s tradition of structures designed for use by everyday people.

googie-shelter“As for private homes, there are some other examples of Googie-influenced homes in the Budlong Woods area near Foster and California, as well as in West Rogers Park,” Gand says. “Also, buildings like IHOPs and Denny’s, especially the older ones, have a lot of Googie characteristics.”

Besides architecture, Googie also influenced the fashion and culture of the 1950s and early 1960s. Items like the Googie or Populuxe ashtray, which is basically an upside down satellite with the top cut off and the base raised by the antennae, were mass-produced by the Pal-Bell Company. Googie also had its effect on the world of fashion, furniture and the arts. Short, brightly colored dresses with atomic and other geometrical shapes, high, shiny boots and purses, and beehive hairdos (think Kate Pierson, the redhead from the B-52’s) exemplified Googie. Men’s shirts with high, semi-rounded collars and white shoes and belts made of vinyl or other materials (George Jetson), were the trademarks of men’s Googie. Although most of the Googie articles have long since vanished, retro and resale hunters can still find many of these 1950s gems at stores like Store B, at 1472 North Milwaukee.

pedianChicago has recently lost many of its great Googie structures, including The Stars Motel, at Lincoln and Jersey, where only the sign remains. The Seville Motel, 91st and Stony Island, and Pedian Carpets, at Lincoln north of Devon, vanished sometime during the fall. While it was not taken seriously until the 1970s, groups of Googie supporters on the West Coast have rallied to save many Googie buildings, including a Denny’s in Seattle. Googie lovers are hopeful that Chicago can retain structures like The Ohio House and Pride Cleaners, yet the preservation of Googie is up against a unique problem.

“For most buildings to be considered architecturally significant, they have to be at least fifty years old, an age which Googie is just starting to reach,” Gand, who also works in conjunction with organizations like the Chicago Architecture Foundation says. “Yet in recent years organizations have fought to preserve Googie architecture in Los Angeles, and things like the documentary on Lautner may raise awareness for Googie. Hopefully, Chicagoans can save some of their Googie structures, which show us that architecture can not only portray a new, bold vision, but have a sense of fun as well.”

Museum Review: Burnham 2.0: A Patchwork Plan

Architecture, Chicago History, Museums No Comments »

In 1909, Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett imagined the restructuring and beautification of a contemporary American city, “The Plan of Chicago.” A hundred years later, the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Architectural Club and the Chicago History Museum have composed “Burnham 2.0.” This competition and exhibit takes “The Plan of Chicago” to the next level: in the new century, what would a utopian, sustainable and pluralistic Chicago look like as the hub of a high-speed rail network? The gallery space is small and simplistic, but the ideas within are big, dense and complex. Though some of the entries approach the challenge analytically, the majority are far-fetched, science-fiction speculations about utopias, heavy on the metaphors and light on plausibility. Joliet, Cicero and the fragmented districts of the Loop and South Side are given super-duper green makeovers. Vacant lots and auto dealerships are replaced with multifaceted parks and civic centers. Notable entries include a comic-book-style walk-through of a high-speed railway station and the replacement of the Presidential Towers with a series of gothic, counter-culture artist bungalows. The most impressive entry belongs to the winners of an international design competition, an imaginative yet realistic re-envisioning of Union Station as an intermodal transportation hub. (Laura Hawbaker)

“Burnham 2.0: A Patchwork Plan” runs at Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark, (312)642-4600, through April 12.