All seen while passing through the Bridgeport area, mostly east of the old Stockyard grounds.
Monthly Archives: May 2008
55th Street oddity
Despite variable weather, I took a cross-city bike ride on Memorial Day, starting from my Rogers Park home and eventually arriving at the Midway Airport Orange Line station around sunset. In between, I beheld many wonders and made great discoveries. Oh, wait’ll you see this crazy Midcentury church I found!
But that will have to wait on better photographs; daylight was already fading by that point. Today, we have a somewhat more mundane discovery: some typical 1960s apartments, on Komensky Avenue at 55th Street. Ordinary stuff, right?
Wrong! Look at the stairwell facade, above the door. Normally this portion of the facade has a glass block window wall, usually with a couple of vents. More decorative/funky versions have my beloved colored glass block, or even colored plastic panels for a low-budget stained glass effect. But instead, this little row of buildings got…
…sculpture! Bas relief carvings, probably in limestone, on a background of stone panels.
We’ve got a nude, bald man playing a flute, and a running guy with a winged helmet. Some sort of mythological theme? That theory gets obliterated by the third relief, a butterfly.
And just to throw more confusion onto the fire…
…the fourth one isn’t an image at all, but a sort of compass points cross.
Nearby, I also found another pair of apartments with an extra-heavy dose of colored glass block. Lovely!
This mighty mountain of Skyscraper Gothic rises from the western Loop at Randolph and Wells; the Loop elevated runs right next to it. Built in 1929 as the Steuben Club Building, and also known as 188 W. Randolph Street, it’s among the very last of its breed, the historicist revival skyscraper. Already declining due to the rise of Art Deco, large-scale period revival would all but vanish in the face of the Great Depression. This would not be the last historicist design by architects Vitzthum & Burns, but it was nevertheless the end of an era.
The building consists of a 28 story base and a 17 story upper tower. The amount of intricate ornament is impressive; it becomes astonishing in light of its inaccessible location, 26 stories above the street. Many of the shields, arches, medallions, crockets and finials are essentially invisible without binoculars.
Lush with details, heavily weathered by decades of Chicago smoke and grime, this is a building that begs to be examined up close, and I’m only too happy to break out the zoom lens and deliver the goods.
That magnificent upper tower, sadly, has had some problems with its skin in the past. Metal straps have been wrapped around the curvaceous terra cotta flying buttresses that surround the tower base, presumably to keep them from falling apart. Pieces of terra cotta broke loose from the tower facade and fell in 2001, landing on the lower roof. Nothing fell all the way to the ground, but the city shut down the surrounding streets and the Loop lines until protective scaffolding could be erected around the building’s base and over the adjacent L station. The building subsequently went into foreclosure.
Today, this is the bizarre sight that greets travelers walking east from Ogilvie Transportation Center, as half of the tower’s west face has been wrapped in protective scaffolding. The building has sat idle for several years, deteriorating as redevelopment schemes have been formulated. Latest word: construction is to begin in 2008, converting the building to 288 apartments — including 15 floors of penthouses in the tower, and a $15 million facade restoration.
More detail photos may be seen at my Flickr space.
I saw a city in the clouds
Among the many tours offered last weekend as part of the Great Spaces program was a trip to City Hall’s green roof. I though it’d be interesting… it turned out to be awesome.
It’s not just some little patches of grass up there, folks; it’s a veritable garden — a little slice of prairie twelve stories above the street, planted with native grasses and flowers intended to survive the harsh conditions inherent to Chicago. Paths marked by concrete pavers wind through the garden and over its gentle rolls and rises. Magnificent buildings surround it on all sides, creating a dizzyingly grand space.
According to the city’s architect (our tour guide), the roof has been a smashing success. It’s saved the city money on heating and cooling costs. It’s only had one leak in the 8 years or so since its installation, and the vegetation cover actually protects the roof membrane from sunlight and other weathering. Necessary paraphernalia like vent stacks are simply extended up beyond the level of the soil and vegetation; most other HVAC equipment is out of the way in a central penthouse. A couple of trees are strategically located over structural columns to avoid loading issues. The entire building was designed with a mind toward adding more floors (though it never happened), so the structure in general is up to the extra loading.
“City Hall” is actually two structurally and functionally independent buildings behind a united facade. The eastern half is home to Cook County administration… and its roof never got the green treatment. It still retains its old black rubber roof, and looks sad and desolate by comparison. A chain-link fence separates the two roofs.
It’s truly a shame that this flabbergasting space is only open on rare occasions. If it had elevator access and two fire exits, it’d be the perfect setting for a garden cafe.
U. of C.’s Gothic wonderland
I am quite defensive about my alma mater’s campus. Washington University in St. Louis has a beautiful set of pre-war buildings and a lovely setting for them. It’s one of the finest college campuses I’ve seen, and I rank it equal to or greater than such notables as Yale and Princeton.
But I am a realist. I know when I’m beat. And it’s abundantly clear that the original portions of University of Chicago’s campus simply blows Wash. U, and nearly any other campus you care to name, out of the water. And that is not a slight against Wash. U in the least.
I found myself with a few hours to kill on the campus this week. With utterly perfect weather, the campus offered endless perfect snapshots.
U. of C. takes the advantage on three major counts: the scale of its buildings, their decorative flair, and the degree to which the original vision for the campus was carried out.
The original Gothic Revival academic buildings are huge, rising four to five stories high, with towers extending beyond that. They draw from a variety of inspirations, from chapels, cathedrals, chateaus and castles. Having mainly sprung from the pencil of architect Henry Ives Cobb, and later Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, they are remarkably unified. Cavernous spaces await within, some as elaborately ornamented as the buildings’ exteriors.
The older buildings are ranged around a superblock, four regular city blocks unbroken by through roads. An access drive brings one into a vast main quadrangle, defined on three sides and open to the east. Six smaller quads line the main one to the north and south, smaller and more intimate. An amazing total of three dozen buildings stands on the original campus, mostly constructed over a forty year period.
The completion of these quadrangles is a major coup for the University’s design (Wash U, by comparison, never finished any of its planned quads beyond the first one at the front of campus.) Each is filled with greenery, including towering old growth trees that complete the image of a genteel outdoor room. Each is lined with heavily ornate buildings, the ideal picture of academic life.
The map linked above shows the collapse of campus planning in the wake of World War II. The blocks surrounding the original campus show a total disregard for the shaping of outdoor space; the buildings sit in almost random non-relation to each other. The simple, easy, timeless lessons of the original campus were deliberately thrown to the winds, and chaos is the result.
But I’m here to praise, not critique. Within that one superblock, the University’s architects laid out a magnificent tribute to the power of unified design. Surrounding buildings continue the theme of magnificent Gothic, but none have the unified quadrangle configuration of the original campus core.
The campus core is so big that I never even made it to the northern half on this particular visit; instead I concentrated on finding my way into the enormous upper-floor rooms promised by the huge windows on the Harper Memorial Library (perhaps the centerpiece of the entire campus) and Stuart Hall. Numerous other major spaces remain for me to find: chapels, dining halls, reading rooms, lecture halls.
I could write a small book about the campus just based on my occasional visits over the years; the stunning Rockefeller Chapel alone is worth several blog entries.
The U. of C. campus was one of my formative images of Chicago, one of the first places in the city outside the Loop that truly blew my mind. Yet somehow I’ve never given the whole thing a thorough photographic documentation; my recent three hour visit barely scratched the surface. I’ll be back, for certain. I hope those who live, work and study amid the grandeur and beauty of the campus core appreciate it as much as it deserves.
A ride south on Metra
I recently had cause to take Metra all the way down to Joliet. The ride was a bit of an eye opener; on Saturday, a gray and cloudy day threatening rain, I took a second trip on part of the line with my camera.
I don’t know what historical forces shaped this train line, but what I do know is this: it rockets through the desolate neighborhoods of south Chicago at 60 miles an hour, not stopping for the first five or ten miles. When it finally does stop, it’s in the Beverly neighborhood, the last bit of Chicago before the inner-ring suburbs. And then, it stops every minute. I guessed that we made a dozen stops in half an hour, and that didn’t turn out to be far off the mark:
Now, I’m new to Chicago; I don’t know what went down however many years ago when these stops were established. But doesn’t this strike anybody else as absolute freaking overkill? This little ‘burb gets more Metra stops than the entire city of Chicago does on our Union Pacific North line!
A bit of digging online reveals that the line did indeed lose its city stops when the Red Line was extended south in 1969. Well, sucks for the south siders. I tell ya, Metra and the L are worlds apart in quality.
But no answers as to why there’s 15 stops in maybe two miles.
The first run, from Lasalle Street to the first station stop, was far and away the most interesting part of the trip. The train flew past houses, apartments, industry, scrap yards, and vacant lots.
A long, enormous stretch of vacant land alongside the tracks attests to where the former Robert Taylor Homes housing project stood just a few years ago. Clues to its past life remain: random streetlights and fire hydrants in the middle of huge grassy lots. Crumbling parking lots that serve nothing. Electrical boxes hundreds of yards from any building. Churches surrounded by empty blocks.
The ride also reveals a great deal of hidden infrastructure, particularly rail lines. As the two remaining tracks cross bridges, truss bridges for a half dozen more tracks remain, though their rails are long vanished and their decks covered with weeds. Abandoned embankments and even an entire elevated wye junction remain, rusting and crumbling away.
It’s a fascinating ride, which goes by all too quickly. I’d be happy to get stuck on a train with engine troubles that would tool along this route at 10 miles an hour.
Beverly’s an interesting little hamlet on the farthest fringes of the city’s south side. I took a short walk there yesterday before hopping on a return train. It’s got lots of large, beautiful period revival houses from the 1920s; it’s also the only place in the city of Chicago that has topography. When I return with my bicycle, I’ll give it a more lengthy exploration; for now, here’s the most attention-getting building that I saw, the Beverly Unitarian Church.
Another eternal question
It’s obvious I’ve got some savvy Chicago natives reading this blog, so maybe y’all can help me comprehend the incomprehensible, as my Google-fu has failed me:
How the heck do they switch the direction of the Interstate express lanes?
I understand they’ve got a series of gates at the entrances to the reversible lanes, which swing shut to keep traffic from pouring into them. But given the non-stop nature of Chicago highway traffic, how do they clear those entrance ramps long enough to shut the gates? At virtually any given moment, it seems like there’d be someone driving into the entrance, who’d unavoidably smash through one or more of the closing gates. How do they do it??