Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Resurrection Mausoleum

One of the crowning Midcentury glories of Chicago's inner suburbs is 1969's Resurrection Mausoleum, in the small southwestern ville of Justice, Illinois.

Resurrection Mausoleum

The colonnaded arcade and white coloration mark it as a product of the New Formalism, a short-lived 1960s Modernist style that found inspiration in the forms and proportions of Classical antiquity. Its most famous practitioners included Edward Durrell Stone and (for a time) Phillip Johnson, but it could be found in watered-down form across the new suburban landscape. Given its solid grounding in 1960s elegance, I dubbed it "Onassis Modern" long before I learned its proper name.

Resurrection Mausoleum

The polished white facades of New Formalism often proved to be empty promises, but this is a building that delivers. Behind those simple white columns rises two stories of faceted stained glass, wrapping the considerable length of the building, and telling the story of the Bible in blazing color and light. At some 23,000 square feet and 600 feet in length, is purported to be the largest installation of stained glass in the world. The wall was designed by the Conrad Pickel Studios; four years after design work began, its installation was completed in 1971.

Resurrection Mausoleum

Resurrection Mausoleum

The familiar scenes are there -- Adam and Eve in the Garden with the dinosaurs, the flood, Moses smashing the tablets, the Crucifixtion, and many more.

...wait. Dinosaurs?

The figures are impressive in their sheer number alone, but they also have a hypnotic element of the surreal. By the time the story reaches the modern era and the prophesies of end times, the subject matter has become truly and wonderfully bizarre.

When, for example, was the last time you saw a radio antenna rendered in stained glass?

Resurrection Mausoleum

How 'bout a satellite dish?

Resurrection Mausoleum

And so it continues: jet airliners, rocket ships. The subject matter leaves behind the typical church fare long before it reaches the climactic nuclear mushroom cloud.

Resurrection Mausoleum

The remainder of the interior pales before the allegorical onslaught of the walls, but still provides little gems of design here and there.

Resurrection Mausoleum

Resurrection Mausoleum

Resurrection Mausoleum

Like all mausoleums, there's a certain surreality to it, with solemnical design vying with homey lamps and couches in a bid to dominate the mood. Ultimately, however, it all pales before the unfathomably huge stained glass walls.

Resurrection Mausoleum

The cemetery itself is sparse, rural and vast, perhaps most notable for the deer that roam freely through its grounds and are hardly phased by humans walking right up to them.

Too cute.

Link: Resurrection Mausoleum official site

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hardy Glass Block Company

Then and now

Standing at 711 W. 103rd Street, deep on the south side, the Hardy Glass Block Company's building is a weathered time capsule. With a couple of eager companions in tow, I paid a visit last weekend.

Hardy Glass Block

The exterior sign isn't quite as fabulous as it once was; it's lost a revolving clock, as well as flecks of colored filler block which have been replaced by clear blocks over the years. It is likely they were removed over time to act as replacements for customers.

Inside, however, a number of delights await the fan of Midcentury architecture.

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

The company's offices, though small and utilitarian, are of the same vintage as the exterior wall: unblemished 1960s. The president's office in particular is unfathomably perfect.

Hardy Glass Block

The wood desk is perfectly geometric, clean and precise. Three matching chairs sit across from it. The company's product forms a backdrop, between vintage false wood paneling. Even the carpet fits. Marvelous!

Not everything is untouched. In a conference room, a solid wall of wedge modules in "fire engine red" has been painted over with white; when new, it harmonized with bright red furniture and carpet to form a shocking Sixties composition.

The biggest treat, of course, is viewing that spectacular wall of glass block from the inside, amid aisles of loose glass block stacked on shelves.

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

As can be seen, the wall has taken some abuse over the years. A few of the leaf-design modules have been replaced by other designs or by standard blocks, either as replacements for customers or following damage. The wall as a whole has suffered from its proximity to the street, as buses and street work cause damaging vibrations over the years. Several of the modules are noticeably cracked. Its days are probably numbered, the company representative who ushered us in said that it will eventually be replaced with more current product lines. Understandable, but still saddening.

And of course, the culmination of our visit was actually purchasing a few of the blocks ourselves. I got the last two unused modules, a pyramid and a wedge in orange, as well as a pair of the blue leaf blocks shown here, salvaged from a church some years ago. My compatriots walked out with several modules and a pile of "filler" blocks in a rainbow of colors.

Hardy Glass Block

The prizes

They still have quite a few left, and they're cheap as cheap can get; the salvaged blocks cost us $2 each.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Louis Sullian bank threatened by flood control plan

You might recall that the Louis Sullivan-designed bank in Cedar Rapids suffered flood damage over the summer. Though it survived the floods, it is now threatened with demolition, as part of a flood control program that will also claim numerous other historic buildings in Cedar Rapids. The Chicago Tribune's Skyline blog has more details, as does Lynn Becker's blog.


The basic plan is: more walls. Build huge, expensive, land-devouring, building-obliterating levees, then hope and pray that they hold up as floods grow increasingly large and devastating, thanks primarily to these self-same levees which have hemmed in rivers from their natural flood plains.

The first commenter on the Skyline blog has it right: it is farmland, not cities, which should be sacrificed when the waters rise. It would be far easier to compensate farmers for crop loss (and preemptively provide them with the means to ensure their livestock, equipment and homes can survive such floods) than to repeatedly rebuild hundreds of flooded buildings in urban areas. The way to "control" floods is to allow them onto their natural flood plains, not to attempt to contain them within ever-higher walls which just pass the problem on downstream.

An online petition is collecting signatures from people opposed to the plan; you can view and sign it here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Grossinger Cadillac

Grossinger Cadillac

At 1233 N. Wells Street stands an old garage building, currently home to Grossinger City Toyota. It's a strange hybrid, mixing Gothic styling and with Art Deco ornamental detail freely.

Some of the ornament is emphatically Art Deco, with geometric stylization.

Grossinger Cadillac

This bear with a coat-of-arms shield suggests more traditional, historically-styled ornament.

Grossinger Cadillac

And the gargoyles at each corner are themselves hybrids, Gothic creatures with stylized Deco wings.

Grossinger Cadillac

A quick web search indicates that the building was designed by Roy France. CityNews Chicago claims it was built in 1911. That might explain the seemingly tacked-on nature of its Deco details -- Art Deco wouldn't come into vogue for another fifteen years.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Meet the Sculptured Glass Module

This alone was worth the trip.

It was a Flickr contact's photo that alerted me to the existence of the Imperial Glass Block Company, up in the inner-north suburb of Niles. Their storefront operation has wall panels displaying different makes of glass block, including a circa-1960s design I'd seen around town. Based on that, I figured they might be able to direct me further in my quest information on the colored geometric blocks I've been tracking all over town for the last year.

Dropping by for a visit last Sunday, I found them (unsurprisingly) closed, but peering in their windows, I beheld a miniature wonderland of glass block in all sizes, shapes and colors. And there, on a shelf, off in the distant corner, sat the golden prize: one of my blocks. I knew I had to come back. Today, I finally did.

4300 N.... someplace.

The current head of the business, son-in-law of its founder, was happy to spend a few minutes chatting about the company and its products. He was also happy to tell me what he knew about the blocks.

Their proper name is "sculptured glass module". They were made in the 1960s by Pittsburgh Corning (still a huge name in the glass block business today). They come in four designs: Leaf, Harlequin, Pyramid, and Wedge. Earlier versions came with the one-sided baked-on color coating, introduced in 1958; eventually that was discontinued in favor of clear one. A fibrous insert, a thin panel built into the center of the block, could render the clear colorless versions translucent. Neither kind has been manufactured for many years.

Answers, at last

Three companies sold them in Chicago: Imperial, the Fred Beyer Company (defunct some 15 years now, though a company selling glass block and windows remains in its original building), and the Hardy Corporation. Hardy's building is worth a post of its own, but unfortunately I managed to leave home today without a card in my camera. Whoops.

Their popularity in the 1960s stemmed at least in part from their size: at 12" x 12", they require substantially less labor and only 1/4th the number of blocks to fill the same square footage as more common 6" x 6" blocks.

Pittsburgh Corning made other designs in the 1960s that were also popular in Chicago. Among them is the Chiaro line, which came in two different patterns. The wall below is on Belmont, and features Chiaro II blocks.

Glass block in reverse

The blocks featured an hermetically sealed partial vacuum to increase their insulating value and decrease sound transmission. At 8" x 8", they are smaller than the sculptured blocks; they are partially covered with an opaque black fired finish.

Another popular option was the Intaglio Glass Wall Unit, with a recessed pattern surrounded by an opaque gray area.

Imperial Glass Block

The center design is made of "antiqued" glass, while the blank area is finished with "frit", fused into the glass. The two types above are Intaglio II (hourglass) and Intaglio III (circle). They also came in ovals, groups of four small circles, and blank "filler" panels with only the frit finish.

A competing design style was manufactured by Owens-Illinois about the same time, the Crescent Design block, sold in Royal Gray, and affectionately referred to by Hardy staff as the "toilet seat" design.

6400 W. Gunnison

Owens-Illinois seems to have gotten out of the glass block business today, focusing instead on glass packaging.

Why these designs were so popular exclusively in Chicago, while none are to be seen in Milwaukee or St. Louis, remains a mystery.

Wall of delight

It ties in to larger questions about Chicago's 1950s and 1960s development: with so many architects and builders working on it, why was it all so homogeneous? And more specifically, was there specific purpose in the glass block patterns seen on the fronts of so many single family homes? I have a suspicion that various pattern types may have served as a particular builder or designer's signature, but no evidence -- yet -- to back that up.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Schulze Baking Company

Here is a building I have longed to photograph for many months, maybe even years. Today, I finally got my chance.

Schulze Baking Company

Amid the houses, apartments, and low-grade commercial enterprises along Garfield Boulevard, this gleaming, towering industrial building stands out like a jewel. Seeing it for the first time is a take-your-breath-away, holy-crap-what's-that kind of moment.

German immigrant Paul Schulze founded his baking company around the turn of the century, and worked to promote sanitary conditions in industrial bakeries (or at least the perception thereof.) The building went up in 1914, designed by John Ahlschlager & Son.

Schulze Baking Company

Schulze Baking Company

Among the building's lavish ornament are some flagrant Louis Sullivan knockoffs, enhanced with sculpted ears of corn.

Behind the five story main building is a long, low industrial complex, still in operation today.

Schulze Baking Company

Schulze Baking Company

The building appears to be having some problems; a piece of the terra cotta cornice is missing, and this side wall has been propped up with wood beams. Walkway coverings ring the building, as if to protect passersby from further terra cotta loss. One of the stairwells, visible from the street, has been tagged with spray paint, hinting at an under-used if not outright abandoned building.

Schulze Baking Company

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What do they want from us?!

Stop!  Yield!  What!

The intersection of the lakefront bike trail and Lawrence Avenue bemuses me every time I pass it.

The cars have a stop sign. The bikes have a yield sign. But if the cars are stopped, what are we supposed to yield to? If we have to yield, shouldn't that grant the cars the right-of-way?

All this ignores the fact that most bikes hardly even slow down for these intersections.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Finkl Steel

Finkl Steel

As recently as two decades ago, Chicago was famously a steel mill town. Vast south side factories belched smoke and fire by day and night. Those days are gone now, for better or worse; the last of the city's great mills is in the final stages of demolition down on S. Torrence Avenue, leaving only the Gary mills further south to carry on.

But on the near north side, one last vestige of the steel industry remains within the city limits. A. Finkl & Sons Co. continues pouring steel, only a mile or two north of downtown, as they have for over a hundred years.

Finkl Steel

But what makes this comparatively small-scale operation so remarkable is not just its location amid the heavily gentrified near north side, but the proportion of its operation that remains visible from the street. Wander past on any weekday evening, and you're liable to see all sorts of heavy industrial equipment at work, up to and including molten steel being poured from vats the size of an automobile.

Finkl Steel

You're also likely to see folks with cameras, as this amazing sight naturally attracts attention. W. Cortland Avenue is a smallish but busy route to the west side of the Chicago River, so plenty of people pass by. The steel workers are grudgingly tolerant of the attention; if you're a sociable type, you might even be able to chat some of them up. If not, well, the factory alone is an incredible show.

Finkl Steel

The nonchalance of the workers is also amusing. Sparks are flying, huge pieces of metal are swinging on chains and rolling along on overhead gantry cranes, molten metal is being poured, blue-flame blowtorches are cutting at steel, and it's all just another day of work for these guys. Such dangerous, difficult, and intensive work is a rare thing in our post-industrial society.

Finkl Steel

In 2006, there was talk of the Clybourn corridor plant closing down to relocate to more spacious facilities elsewhere, on the city's south side perhaps. A quick Google search turns up no forward movement on this, but Finkl & Son's present operation is such a rarity in this day and age, it seems proper to treat it as an endangered species regardless.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A stormy day by the sea

Lakefront path indeed

This may not impress you if you live near the ocean.

But this Lake Michigan, and one thing I've learned in my eight years of living by Lake Michigan, is that Lake Michigan doesn't do this.

Lake Michigan does not rise up and send waves crashing over the sea wall and onto the bike path. Lake Michigan does not churn up waves that rise up higher than your head. Lake Michigan is not violent or dangerous!


Living by the placid shores of Lake Michigan, it's easy to forget that it is a lake in name only; in actuality it's a vast inland sea, large enough to affect local weather patterns, and large enough to do whatever the heck it feels like. Newcomers like me have only seen it at the low water levels of recent years, but in the early 1980s waves were actually crossing Lakeshore Drive and crashing against apartment buildings.