Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Devon Avenue in Danger?

Preservation Chicago has just announced its "Chicago 7 list, highlighting buildings and neighborhoods at risk throughout the city.

Of particular interest to me personally is Devon Avenue, the Indian/Pakistani/Jewish commercial street in the city's far northern reaches. It's not very far from where I live, and I pass through fairly frequently. The street's aged buildings, thick infrastructure, and frenetic, multilingual signs give it a charm and intensity unmatched anywhere else in the city. With its dense immigrant population, a visit to Devon Avenue is often like stepping into another country.

World Fresh Market

The street is also home to some fine architecture, including several unusual buildings that straddle the line between Streamline Deco and International Style. More traditionally styled buildings abound as well, in an array of styles. All of it's buried to some extent beneath the plethora of signs that festoon the various stores and restaurants, but it's certainly worth keeping.

Gandhi Electronics

The survey rather vaguely cites a proposal for new development, but says little in the way of specifics, aside from a rather gaudy new facade (building?) intended for 2552 W. Devon. Without knowing who's planning what, it's hard to say much of anything about the issue.

Video Ace - Pakistani-Indian Movies

More generally, though, I can say this: architects and planners love to sanitize things. Devon Avenue is the kind of jumbled, messy, and furiously successful commercial district that could easily be totally screwed up by some planner looking down, God-like, from his lofty paper perch. Devon Avenue isn't broken by any stretch of the imagination, so it begs the question: who on Earth thinks it needs fixing?

Pakistani Independence Day parade

St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church

A strange fusion of Deco, Modernism and tradition, this church stands on Augusta Boulevard at N. Oakley, in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood due west of downtown.

The sun never shines on the front of this building, so you'll have to settle for a detail shot of the exterior.
St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church

St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church

Inside, it's not the kind of unabashed 1950s Modern I was hoping for, but it's still of great interest -- a Modern floor plan, a ceiling decorated to draw all eyes to the altar, and slits of light washing the altar in an unearthly glow.

The stained glass is mostly geometric patterns in small fragments of bright, unfiltered colors.

St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church

St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church

St. Helen's Roman Catholic Church

A few small designs adorn the windows of the chapel in the lobby, including this Deco-influenced stained glass fish, somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s works of the Emil Frei company down in St. Louis.

I failed to note the date of construction, but I seem to recall a plaque mentioning 1963.

More photos may be seen at my Flickr account.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cook County Hospital

The name is legendary, but I'd never seen the place at all until a few weeks ago, and not till this weekend did I pay it a careful visit.

Cook County Hospital

Cook County Hospital's 1913 main building stretches for two city blocks, and is the preeminent example of Beaux Arts architecture in the city of Chicago. It has long been the centerpiece of a densely developed parcel of land, even as urban renewal, decay, parking lots, and freeway construction (all equal blights on society) have smashed the surrounding neighborhoods into oblivion.

Sadly, they're tearing down the building's rear wings, Children's Hospital and power plant, a complex of structures added in 1914, 1916 and 1926. It's a compromise -- for a long time, the County wanted to tear down the entire building, magnificent front facade and all.

Cook County Hospital

The rear pavilions aren't great works of art, but they have several merits -- a creative floor plan that brought natural light to many acres of floor area, and a dense complexity that makes the building look like a city unto itself (much akin to St. Louis's City Hospital, a likewise neutered complex).

Cook County Hospital

Demolition's nothing new to this neighborhood. For fifty years, the prevailing wisdom in this part of town has been the same lunacy that has driven so much of our so-called "urban renewal": in order to save it, we must destroy it. This was the view around the hospital some while before the freeway came through:

Cook County Hospital - old context

And here is the same area, showing the disastrous results of fifty years of "progress":

Cook County Hospital - context today

Cook County Hospital - context today

A dense, walkable urban environment has become a wasteland of vast parking lots and roaring limited-access lanes. Whatever happens to Cook County Hospital, the most vital battle was lost long ago.

(Also darkly hilarious is the formal park laid out in front of the hospital -- half of it has been stripped of its trees and turned into a helicopter landing pad. Tragic on the surface, but who's around to actually use the thing?)

Monday, January 7, 2008

They are Mohammedans in faith, polygamous in custom, and bandits by instinct

Something remarkable happened to me while in St. Louis last weekend. I mentioned -- just in passing -- that I lived in Chicago, and a fellow just gave me a book he'd gotten off of eBay. Just like that!

The book bears the unwieldy title of The Magic City: a Massive Portfolio of Original Photographic Views of the Great World's Fair and Its Treasures of Art, Including a Vivid Representation of the Famous Midway Plaisance, and it is, of course, a compilation of photographs from Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. It was published in 1894, the year after the fair's magnificent run. As might be expected from a free, 113-year-old book, the copy I got is in "poor" condition: the pages have some water damage around the edges, many have developed a purple discoloration, and the binding has pretty much come apart. But the photographs are still in fine shape and all the text is there.

The photos are mostly 8x10, so they have massive amounts of detail. They include overviews of the fair grounds, shots of each major building (including at least one view of Sullivan's Transportation Building that was new to me), and many shots of the exhibits -- including the many indigenous peoples shipped from around the world to be displayed at the fair.

It's an incredible document of an incredible event, and a window into a time whose mores and values were often quite different than our own. The sheer scope and scale of the fair is mind-blowing to behold. Architecturally, it was a time when people loved their buildings unabashedly:
As the Manufactures Building held the wondering interest of multitudes by the unexampled magnitude of its dimensions, so the Administration Building struck with amazement, and won the unstinted admiration of every World's Fair visitor by its incomparable beauty and artistic magnificence.

Culturally, Victorian society was equally sure of itself:
A typical Bedouin, with his main transportation dependence [a camel], stands before us in the photograph, nothing being omitted in the characterization of the roving bandit of the Asiatic Steppes, as he is seen in his own desert country. His tarboosh, bournouse and gibbeh, his trusty scimeter [sic], and a countenance reflective of the cruel instinct that he vainly seeks to hide beneath his richly colored robes, are conspicuous as they are typical. His patient beast of burden, demure, but equally treacherous...

Our illustration is one of two Sioux men, whose style of dress shows the result of contact with civilization. In earlier years their rainment was principally a breech-clout and blanket, but progress has effected changes, which, though gradual, will in a few years more eliminate every appearance of savagery in the dress and customs of the plains Indians.

....and amazingly odd:

Babies of strange peoples have a fascination for us grater even than have the customs which often excite our amazement. Indian mothers have always found large profit in exhibiting their papooses to overland travelers, and who is it that would not give a quarter for a peep at a real Chinese baby?

The exhibits were lavish beyond compare: sculpture, furniture and paintings from around the world. Machinery of all types. Native dwellings. Dioramas. Entire mock streets and villages. The world's first and still largest Ferris Wheel. Secondary buildings that are all but forgotten against the grandeur of the main buildings, but would be landmarks in their own right if they still stood today. Today, little remains of the fair besides the Museum of Science and Industry's grand building, and the Wooded Island that stands in a lagoon behind it.

It's nothing short of amazing that nobody has re-issued this remarkable document.