Living walls of art

Go to the 3100 block of W. 36th Place – between Kedzie and Albany – and you’ll find a display of public art unlike any other in the city.
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This elaborately detailed, fantastically complex composition is one of dozens – perhaps hundreds or thousands – that, over the last decade,  have graced Chicago’s Aerosoul Walls – home of Chicago’s biggest and best collection of graffiti art.

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Standing at the corner of 36th Place and Albany – a dreary industrial zone south of the Ship & Sanitary Canal – the otherwise undistinguished Crawford Steel Building is Ground Zero for the Chicago graffiti community. Here, aspiring and prominent taggers practice their art, devising and executing larger-than-life works in the open air.

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The display is ever-changing; new works are constantly underway, layered over the old.  Quite a few works had vanished between my first visit, in May, and my second, in early July. Photos posted a few years ago on local discussion boards show works that have all since vanished.

Each wall is “owned” by a group of particular artists, whose works are not to be painted over; violators will find their own work quickly painted over.

The most common subject of a tag is the artist’s own adopted name, often stylized beyond legibility. The message can be difficult or impossible to decipher. No matter – the art is in the craftsmanship and the creativity. Cartoon figures often augment designs, such as an appearance by Dragon Ball‘s Kami…

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…and a rabid Ewok from Return of the Jedi nearby in the same composition.
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The influence of the Aerosoul Walls extends well beyond the Crawford Steel property. One rule of thumb about graffiti artists – they have no interest in staying inside the lines. Give them an officially designated canvas and they will inevitably fill it up and move beyond it, as St. Louis learned when it invited taggers to decorate its industrial floodwalls some years back, and got tags on vacant historic buildings downtown.

So it is here – except that instead of damaging historic architecture, here taggers have bombed a group of run-of-the-mill industrial buildings. Several anonymous buildings on the same block, facing the  emptiness of the railroad tracks, are heavily slathered with layers of tags. These solid walls of graffiti are highly visible from passing Amtrak trains, which is how I first became aware of the place.

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These more obscure locations tend to invite works of lower quality, as well as somewhat diminished respect for the better paintings that are done there.  A piece may last for several years, or only a few months or weeks. Technical craftsmanship and artistic originality are no guarantee of survival, though they sometimes help. More useful is getting your tag into a spot that’s harder to reach – above the nine-foot reach of the typical tagger, for example.

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There are elements of gang activity to some of the tags – though most gang tags lack the artistic quality of dedicated taggers’ work.

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I will make a half-hearted concession that this work is illegal and, essentially, is vandalism. Certainly, Crawford Steel is furiously vigilant in their efforts to prevent this lawless scourge from infecting our fair land:

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Notice to Spray Painters: The City of Chicago has made it illegal to spray paint any walls with or without the permission of the property owners. In order to adhere to this law, please do not spray paint anywhere on Crawford Steel’s property. Thank you for your cooperation. March 2002

But I can’t say it really bothers me much. Truthfully, about the worst outcome I can see here is that this area acts as a prepping ground for writers to tag other walls elsewhere, with perhaps less harmless results.

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I have seen works of far lesser craft and quality enshrined in museums. The Crawford Steel building looks much better with its ever-shifting array of artworks than it would without them. The adjacent buildings cannot be said to have any artistic merit – why shouldn’t they be used as a giant canvas? In my opinion, the city should have places like this – designated tagging grounds, places where artists can express themselves and stretch their creativity unencumbered. In this depressingly drab industrial section of town, it is a breath of fresh air and one of the few sources of beauty.

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For good or ill, the graffiti valley on either side of the railroad tracks represents an outpouring of the community’s voice – a chorus of souls striving to be heard. Perhaps I’m putting a benign spin on a malevolent force – but in the aggregate, I find this collection of tags to be overpoweringly wonderful.

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Emil Frei in Chicago

Before you read this post: if you have not gone through my Emil Frei stained glass tour at Built St. Louis, stop reading and do so right now. It is essentially this post, but 30 times as big and way better.

Once that’s out of the way –

Over the past hundred years or so, the St. Louis-based Emil Frei Stained Glass studio has designed and built windows for thousands of churches around the US. Dozens upon dozens of their Mid-Century works dot the St. Louis area, and they are common throughout the Midwest – but the company never made major inroads to the Chicago market. The Chicago area work of the Frei company is simply not enough to represent their styles well, but it does make an interesting side note to their work in St. Louis.

I would speculate that strong competition from local companies like the Willet Studio kept them from gaining a strong foothold here. Stylistic tastes may also have played a role. The Frei atelier produced Art Deco- and Surrealist-influenced flat glass windows of great subtlety and abstraction; the Chicago market tended to prefer a bolder, brawnier and more literal approach, best seen in the prolific faceted glass windows of Chicagoland churches. The Frei studio was actually instrumental in the development of the faceted glass window style (aka “chunk glass”), and carried out a number of commissions in the medium, but it was something of a side note for the studio, compared to their flat glass output.

I know of only two major Frei commissions in the area – the sisters’  chapel at the  Wheaton Franciscan Sisters Motherhouse, and the Oak Park Temple Synagogue on Harlem Avenue. So far I have not managed to photograph either one, though I remain hopeful that will change.

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The windows at Oak Park Temple were designed by Rodney Winfield, and appear to share similarities with his contemporary design for Shaare Zedek Synagogue in suburban St. Louis.

I have photographed three other commissions, however:

St. Xavier University Library
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“The Spirit Will Teach You All Things” is a (relatively) rare faceted glass installation by the Frei company. The design was done by Robert Frei and installed in 1957, as  a gift from then-mayor Richard J. Daley.  The design symbolizes a bird in flight – the Holy Dove, and the spirit of learning.
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St. Rita of Cascia Church

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St. Rita Catholic Church was designed by architect Arthur F. Moratz of Bloomington, a prolific church architect. St. Rita’s was begun in 1948 and finished in 1950. Standing on 63rd Street, the building was built around an existing church on the site, so services could continue uninterrupted.  The church sanctuary is a high, huge space, with Romanesque vaulting and clean, crisp detailing.

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The Rose windows (three total) feature abstract detailing and symbols which typify the Frei company’s work:
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Details in other windows include wheat sprouts representing the bread portion of the Eucharist:
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The offset lettering pictured below is another Frei device; artists like Robert Harmon frequently used stylized and highly decorative fonts as part of their compositions:

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The style used on St. Rita’s entry doors is unique. On white frosted glass, black silhouettes are painted and baked on, representing “the mysteries of the Rosary”. Curiously, the paint appears red from the outside.
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The triangular grape bunches were my first clue that this might be a Frei church – they are an extremely common device.

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St. Clare of Montefalco

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St. Clare is a modest little Catholic church on 53rd Street, with a cornerstone dating it to 1954. Its windows are humble and not especially distinguished, but still bear some of the Frei studio’s hallmarks – including a recurrence of the black-etched silhouette designs from St. Rita.

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The primary figures are done in a traditional literal style, but the lettering and the multi-shaded background glass hints at the window’s more contemporary vintage.

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The antiqued glass features bubbles and irregularities included to add texture. As with St. Rita’s, the wheat and grapes symbolize the Eucharist.

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The lovely rowhouses of Evanston

The rowhouse form never caught on in Chicago. With limitless room for expansion and an endless supply of timber from the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan, the city that sent the wood balloon frame upward to fame had little use for conjoined party wall housing. Older East Coast cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston packed their houses cheek to jowl (the former two in particular are completely dominated by red brick rowhouses).

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Instead, Chicago’s landscape is dominated by free-standing brick two- and three-flats, brick apartments, and wooden balloon-frame single family cottages – closely packed, but never touching. New, teeming Chicago offered the working man a chance at his own house and perhaps a break from the ingrained, stratified ways of the older cities. The scattered rowhouses  that were built, therefore, exist more as curiosities and experiments, rather than shapers of the urban landscape. Those experiments took a particularly interesting form in the inner-ring suburban town of Evanston.

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1401-1407 Elmwood Avenue – Stephen A.  Jennings, Architect; 1890

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1209-1217 Maple Avenue – Holabird & Roche, Architects;  1892

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1101-1113 Maple at Greenleaf – Seth  H.  Warner, Architect; 1892

South of downtown Evanston, these three sets of rowhouses are standouts on streets already notable for their lovely houses. These were not the mass-produced meatgrinder products that local builders churned out in the industrial East Coast cities. These were high-class, high-design buildings meant to integrate with their tony suburban neighborhoods, without the neighbors batting an eyelash. The 1890 building is almost pure Shingle Style; the 1209 Maple building is predominantly Queen Anne; the third building splits the difference, with turrets alongside shingle-clad hipped gables.

As the National Register form notes, they achieved this by striving for the appearance of single-family homes. The two Maple Avenue examples are particularly successful in this regard, using Queen Anne elements of bay windows, projecting turrets, and generous entry porches, as well as gabled roof ends, to break down their massing to a single-family scale.

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The Shingle Style building at 1401 Elmwood is a bit more anomalous, as its massing is in tension with itself. The massive hipped gable roof suggests a single large building, while the small corner arched entrances and scattered bays and gables suggest the smaller scale of a single family home.

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In addition to their compelling beauty, these three rowhome groups suggest the possibilities of dense suburbanism – that it need not be unattractive or stifling; that we can use land intelligently and rationally as well as attractively.

1×1 Tile Mosaics

I love finding convergent architectural elements scattered about the city. Geometric glass block, Midcentury 2-flats, green-on-white glazed brick storefronts – whenever I see something popping up in a variety of places all over town, I’m hooked.

My latest find in this vein – 1960s-era 1×1 tile mosaics. Using common construction materials, which could be installed by commonly-skilled workers, 1×1 tiles allowed an artist to create colorful additions to a building’s exterior. For curves and added levels of detail, the titles could be cut in half with a 90-degree angle.

I have found about half a dozen examples of note scattered around Chicagoland:

169 Grove Avenue, Oak Park

An apartment building from circa 1960 turned condo, with wonderful projecting balconies on two of the corners, trimmed out with blue metal spandrel panels.  Inside, the lobby features  a wonderful abstract mosaic along one side. The mosaic extends through the glass front wall into the vestibule.

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1040-1044 Ontario Street,  Oak Park

A curious little courtyard apartment building from around 1963, with 4-Plus-1 style parking under one wing, and the other wing at ground level. On the street facades, two tile mosaics reflect Native American or Aztec themes. Unfortunately, the eastern mosaic was mostly covered by climbing vines when I photographed it.
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El Lago

A residential highrise at 6157 N. Sheridan, by architect Irving M. Karlin Associates (J.J. & I.M. Karlin). Planned in 1957, El Lago broke ground in Sept. 1958, built on the site of the George Leahy home, president of Republic Coal and Coke.  The structure was built utilizing federal housing insurance that covered mortgages. 22 stories, 268 apartments.

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The El Lago tower was built with a “Mexican motif” meant to convey a warmth missing from contemporary buildings. The primary result seems to be the two tile mosaics flanking the entrance, portraying a man and a woman of Mexican heritage.
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5850 Lincoln Avenue, the Simgreen building

This multipurpose commercial building was built for real estate developers  M. Suson & Associates, circa 1959. Inside the curvaceous lobby, a tile mosaic depicts the building trades at work, reflecting the primary tenant’s occupation. Other offices located here over the years include  Vacations Enterprises in 1959  and Simgreen Jewelers by 1989. Today it houses an alderman’s office and a gold shop.

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2411 W. Fargo / 7420-7428 N. Western

A mixed-use building with commercial spaces facing Western Avenue, and access to the upper-floor residences on the side street. The apartment entry is marked by an abstract design in 1×1 tiles.

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1809 N. Harlem Apartments

his  pair of 6-flat apartments is  part of a long row on Harlem Avenue of the same vintage and scale. These two  feature an abstract pattern of colored tiles, with a minor echo of the motif around the entrance.
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West Leyden High School

1000 Wolf Road, Northlake. A 1957 building with somewhat workmanlike mosaics decorating its wings, portraying the various areas of academics, learning, athletics and high school life.
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Chicago’s Coal Fired Power Plants

Chicagoland’s biggest power plants  – particularly Fisk, Crawford and State Line – are fascinating behemoths. They are madcap assemblages of machinery and ad hoc construction, as tall as a skyscraper, with additions and alterations accumulated over many decades of operation. All three started from a core of massive, pre-Depression, low-rise masonry buildings, embellished with varying degrees of architectural detail; all three exploded upwards as part of LBJ-era expansion programs.

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Today, all three are facing closure due to their outdated coal-burning systems, which – despite improved burning techniques and pollution controls – make them the largest point sources of air pollution in and around Chicago. But for me the single uniting factor for them all is something far more mundane – the red-painted metal cladding, with International Style ribbon windows, that distinguishes their Mid-Century additions.

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Those additions are mostly built as vertical additions to existing older buildings; they accommodate huge multi-story boilers and burners that used innovative technology to wring more value out of every pound of coal.

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There are other stations of similar styling in Joliet (above) and Waukegan, and even a smaller one by the lake in Winnetka, of all places – but for now we’ll stick with the big three, so prominent to travelers on the Skyway and the Stevenson.


Fisk Generating Station

The Fisk power plant is seen by many as the bane of Pilsen. Located between Cermak Road and the Ship & Sanitary Canal, it closely abuts the thriving Mexican-American neighborhood to its north.

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A tiny sliver of the original Fisk buildings can be seen from Cermak:
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But for the most part, they are buried under layers of additional buildings, additional machinery, and later remodelings.

Fisk was built by Commonwealth Edison beginning in 1902. Named for an obscure, now-vanished side street, the new power house was one of the largest in the world at the time, and was expected to cost $6 million. Expected to serve electric-powered railroads as well as homes and businesses, the plant marked the Edison Company’s move to become the area’s premier provider of electricity, under the leadership of celebrated mogul Samuel Insull. It was hailed as a wonder of the world upon its opening a year later, with its 14 massive turbines attracting the attention of visiting engineers. It was also hailed as a boon to the community’s air quality, concentrating energy production in a single location with “smokeless smokestacks”.

Coal originally arrived by train; it was mechanically unloaded and fed to the boilers; the ash was automatically removed in similar fashion. The degree of efficiency and automation was a marvel of the age. The massive turbines powered generators featuring nearly-frictionless shafts supported on a bed of high-pressure oil.

The original buildings, of red pressed brick, featured a turbine hall of “white enamel brick and white ornamental tile”, with a “floor of imported tiles”, all brightly lit.

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Over the following decades, Fisk steadily expanded (its original buildings were built with temporary walls allowing further linear expansion.) A major expansion project was undertaken in the late 1930s, including a new switchhouse to govern how the plant’s output was distributed.

A new turbo-generator was installed in 1950, generating steam at almost twice the temperature of the older units, at a cost of $20 million, along with two 110-foot high boilers; its 150,000 kilowatt output dwarfed the original turbine’s output of 5,000 kW.

In 1959, another new turbine surpassed that one, with an output of 305,000 kilowatts, powered by 16-story high boilers.  The new boilers included electro-static precipitators, intended to remove 98% of the ash from the boiler output before it ever left the plant. Known as Unit 19, this is essentially the same system operating in the plant today.

The red-clad portion of the Fisk plant was almost certainly built to accommodate these gargantuan boilers; either 1950 or 1959 would be a plausible match stylistically. Similar projects were underway at the other stations around the area.

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Today, Fisk and its sister Crawford are owned by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International. Since the early 2000s, Fisk and its fellow coal-fired plants have come under attack from community activists and environmentalists, with government studies identifying them as major sources of pollution and health risks to the communities around them. The state of Illinois ruled that the plants must be cleaned up or shut down by 2013; both Fisk and Crawford will suffer the latter fate, with closings planned for the end of this summer.

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Crawford Generating Station

If the sight of Crawford power plant rising up over S. Pulaski Road doesn’t impress you, I can’t fathom what would. Crawford’s bulk rises some thirteen stories above the street, in an area dominated by single-story construction and low-rise industrial.

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Like Fisk, it is located along the Ship & Sanitary Canal, giving it an easy source of water and a convenient means of obtaining coal. The site has no external rail service; coal arrives entirely by barge, and is carried by a series of conveyors into the plant for burning.

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Crawford began construction in 1923 and opened in 1925, taking its name from Crawford Avenue (the street, but not the plant, was later renamed Pulaski Avenue.) Its initial capacity was for 500,000 kW, provided by three gargantuan Westinghouse turbines (two built in Pittsburgh, one in Scotland.)

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One of the units was replaced in 1958 by a 205,000 kW generator, powered by a 14-story boiler, necessitating the vertical expansion of the plant.  The new stories were capped by two massive electrostatic precipitators, still prominently in place today. Work began in 1956 and was capped by a 375-foot smokestack. A second expansion began before the first was even finished, with a 305,000 kW generator going into service in 1961 and replacing the last of the older generators. These two generators remain in service today. A 1990 switch house fire at the plant caused a blackout of considerable size, leading to sporadic looting in some poorer parts of the city.

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The Crawford power house is viewed by its Little Village neighbors with much the same enmity as Pilsen feels toward the Fisk plant. Its 1960s technology is unquestionably a major point source of air pollution (though in fairness, the nearby Stevenson expressway can’t be much better for air quality.) And like its sister plant, it is scheduled for closure later in 2012 in the face of a State mandate to clean up or clear out.

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State Line Generating Station

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The State Line power plant is named for its peculiar location, just over the Indiana state border in Hammond, Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Initial plans for the plant began around 1921, with the purchase of 15 acres of land – the Eggers estate, owned by a German immigrant since the 1860s – by electric power magnate Samual Insull.  Additional dumping and dredging expanded the holding to 90 acres. The plant was formally announced in 1926, to be built by its own dedicated company, which would then sell its power to various Insull-related companies such as Commonwealth Edision.

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State Line Generating Station opened on the very eve of the Great Depression, in September 1929; its three Unit I turbines whose combined output totaled 208,000 kW – surpassing every plant in the country apart from Fisk and Crawford. Its handsome original buildings were designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, in a stock brick factory style, sited on artificially created land.

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The plant’s coal fuel supply arrives entirely by rail; in the 1960s, a dedicated 100+ car train began running from the Lynnville coal mine in southern Indiana to State Line. The lakeside site is used solely for its access to the large amounts of water needed by the boilers – up to 700 tons of water were needed for each ton of coal that was burned, and plants of this scale could consume a ton of coal every minute.

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State Line Generating Station

Unit 2 was constructed in 1931. The plant expanded in 1955 (mostly likely when the red-clad Intenational Style highrise portion was added) and again in 1962 with a new 340,000 kW generating unit, bringing the plant’s total capacity up to 900,000 kW. At its peak the plant had 6 massive stacks; only the two newer ones remain today.

State Line Generating Station

State Line is famous for a number of things – its odd location and name, its prominent visibility from the Chicago Skyway, its beautiful main gate. It is a designated National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for its original Unit I turbine group, from 1929 until 1954 the largest in the world, and still in service until the late 1970s, when it and Unit 2 were retired.

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Commonwealth Edision sold State Line in 1997 to Southern Co. of Atlanta; a year later the plant was in the news for a massive explosion in the coal-handling area that injured 17 workers.

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It later passed to Mirant Corporation, then more recently to Virginia-based Dominion Resources in 2002.

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Faced with dropping energy prices and stringent environmental regulations from the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rules, State Line shut down in early 2012, with shutdown work continuing through the end of June. On June 26, a completed sale of the plant to BTU Solutions of Texas was announced – a firm specializing in refurbishing and demolishing old power plants. An article in the NW Indiana Times states that “the deal was structured to ensure demolition of the former plant.”

State Line remains the most architecturally significant of the three, with the least amount of alteration to its original buildings. Its 1950s expansion was built alongside the original buildings, rather than on top of them as at Crawford, and it contains the most considered detailing of the three. The move to demolition is both rash and unfortunate – a building this size must surely have other uses in such a heavily industrialized area.


Power plants, like large hospitals, tend to acquire layers and layers of complex history, changing and evolving radically to keep pace with time and technology. The result is an aggregate that is is fascinatingly complex – and far more than the sum of its parts. The complexity is the very thing worth preserving.

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I have yet to see a closed hospital complex be treated in a way that recognizes this fact. St. Louis’s City Hospital was stripped of over half its buildings, leaving the remainder feeling naked and exposed. Even the most generous of the farcical plans for Chicago’s Michael Reese had it stripped down to just two isolated buildings; today the one survivor is a bizarre anomaly, a single link from a vanished chain.

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If it is so hard to see the preservation value of old hospital buildings – generally built with some eye toward aesthetics – then I fear deeply for these venerable but prosaic complexes. Even if they are not hazardous waste sites – even some unlikely savior sees their massive interior spaces as a potential benefit – it is almost certain that they would be stripped of their layers of history and alteration. The functional machinery, layered and piled on, will be demolished, leaving only a few selected buildings, returned to a pristine state of faux history.

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But that is a best case scenario. More likely they will simply be demolished, top to bottom, and Chicago’s once-mighty industrial landscape will be all the more diminished.