Rebecca and Hebe

Never forget how much you can learn about a thing just by poking around it, inspecting it, examining it up close from every angle. You might even find the solution to a mystery.

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So it was when I decided to take a close-up look at some of those weird statues that recently intrigued me. Out near Elston and Montrose, two of the water carrier statues bore the crumbling inscription of Henri Studio, Chicago. Ah hah! Perhaps some trace of this obscure, forgotten studio might yet be found amid the vast informational detritus of the Internet.

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Yes, some faint footprints remain!

Henri Studio is, by their own account, a large and very busy cast statuary company, a notion reinforced by their 200+ page catalog. The company was founded 60 years ago by an Italian immigrant from the Tuscany region – just in time to start supplying statuary for the mid-century building boom.

And our lovely lady here with the jug on her back, it turns out, is the Biblical Rebecca, offering water to Abraham’s servant. Rebecca at the Well is a subject of statuary and painting with a long, long history.

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There doesn’t appear to be any precise precedent for the statue’s design; as far as I can tell, it’s an original work. Furthermore, the statue is far from a clone. Details vary from statue to statue, such as the position of the right arm, or the nature of the vessel in her left hand.

Rebecca’s most frequent competitor is Hebe the Cupbearer, a minor Greek goddess whose popularity as a garden statue extends far beyond Chicago.

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Just what these two have to do with modern apartment living remains a bit unclear to me, though it’s certainly further evidence that Modernism was never some monolith force stamping out all traces of historicism. Heretics remained at large amongst the population, and they were in the garden!

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Friday Photo Special: Greek Statues again

Wouldn’t you know it? The very day the post on Midcentury Grecian statues goes up, I happen to make it back out to the O’Hare neighborhood, where the whole thing started. Here’s a few closeups of the strange and intriguing chunks of statuary that inhabit the courtyards of this 1960s neighborhood.

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Some are weathered, and some are well-loved and even decorated with flowers. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was realizing that some of them had been painted.

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Not all of these things are centrally placed. Some of them look like they were just stuck any old place.

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But THIS one, by contrast… it not only occupies the focal point of its courtyard, but it was also meant to be lit up in blue, red, green and yellow beams of light. Brilliant! Brilliantly tacky, actually, but still brilliant. I simply must come back after dark.

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Greece in a Box

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While photographing the northeast corner of my much-beloved O’Hare neighborhood, I started to noticed something funny. An inordinate number of the 1960s apartment buildings prominently featured a Classical-styled sculpture hanging out in front of them. It was one of those shocking little moments when you realize that you’ve somehow not seen something even though it was right in front of you the whole time.

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(That last photo, by the way, is a building I didn’t share earlier, a Midcentury courtyard apartment with a bizarre Frankenstein mish-mash of parts, including a Classical pediment next to a two-story asphalt-shingled mansard roof, wood siding, brick siding, picture windows and tacked-on balconies. Yikes!)

A skim through my considerable photo archive turned up quite a few more of these lawn sculptures scattered around the city.

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W. Gunnison

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The garden statues don’t appear to be recent add-ons. Sometimes, the building itself is designed to accomodate some kind of decoration. And a couple of designs (the water-carrier with a vase on her shoulder, and another water carrier holding a single smaller jug) show up in front of multiple buildings, making it more likely to be of the same vintage as the buildings themselves.

The question remains, then: What the hell?? Were Chicago builders trying to convince their clients that they were actually living in some sort of new American acropolis by dropping a bit of Greek lawn art in front of it?

Well, maybe. Mid-Century builders were not at all hesitant to slap on anything that they felt created a resonant image with home buyers and renters. The western frontier and the colonial era are both well-represented in Chicago’s 1960s style. So why not add in some Grecian statuary? Was America not the modern living embodiment of Greek ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality?

And a statue, unlike a fountain, doesn’t require any messy, expensive pipes.

Still, it’s another one of those strange convergences. How was it that so many buildings wound up with the same statues?

Don’t Fight It

I am perpetually amused by buildings whose owners fight against the building’s basic nature. When it happens to great and significant buildings, it’s a tragedy, but when it happens to ordinary and common structures, it can be a bemusing commentary on tastes and desires.

It's an Olde Weste garage

Here we have a suburban Midcentury garage rendered in wood. The car door is a grid of squares. The side screens are a grid of squares. To this simple, clean composition has been appended Olde West “shutters” and a wood flower box. It apparently wasn’t enough to be living in the inner suburbs; the trappings of a frontier existence were needed.

I BELIEVE I AM LOOKING AT THE PARTHENON

Out on Touhy at the highway, Studio 41’s interior design store apparently couldn’t be seen in a MidCentury commercial building. So, a little Greek Classical makeup was applied, apparently in the hopes that four columns and an architrave would hide the grid of recessed brick, the polished granite panels, the massive storefront windows, and the total lack of any other applied ornament.

Is that a Greek Classical commercial awning I see? Perhaps a Greek Classical internally lit plastic sign, as well?

We're living in the country!

Fan that I am of Chicago’s MidCentury builder vernacular, I was a bit flabbergasted by this one. Three sculptural panels have been applied over the stock triple glass block openings by the front door. They could be original, especially given how neatly they fit into the openings, but it seems to run counter to the aesthetic. What’s definitely not original is that thin little wreath, attempting to bring rustic flavor to a Modernist stew.

Home Depot special

This is a form of abuse endured by many MidCentury buildings in Chicago. The original wood doors age, get damaged, or just wear out. Rather than repair or refinish them, owners find it easier (or cheaper) to pitch them out and install a low-cost door from Home Depot. Unfortunately, those doors are made for contemporary starter castles out in the far suburbs. They look very out of place alongside the geometric details and clean lines of MidCentury Chicago. Many of the original doors aren’t terribly special — just a square or diamond opening in a flat wood door — but it damages the building’s look, and probably a few spectacular doors have been thrown out because of this trend.

Um

And then there’s this. I don’t know what it is, where it came from, or what its creators were thinking, but it’s certainly unique. It’s a suburban-scaled micro-mansion, with two-story columns flanking its miniscule entry porch, but that’s just the start of the story. It’s got floral wrought metal scrollwork, images of birds and horses and eagles, and (not pictured) a Victorian greenhouse appended to one side. It’s got decorative brick patterns around the windows, and quoins at the corners. Quoins!! Round-topped faux-dormers break the roofline, there are flattened-arch-topped windows below, and on the far right (again not pictured) is a full-blown Palladian window.

It seems to be a mish-mash grab bag of about fifty architectural ideas, all thrown in together in the fervent belief that an assembly of beautiful parts would surely result in a beautiful whole. I can’t say I agree myself, but it sure is interesting to look at!