Reese in the Reader

The Chicago Reader’s cover story this week is an excellent article by Lynn Becker, detailing the absurdity of demolishing the Michael Reese Hospital complex:

The Rush to Raze

Michael Reese Main

Point for point, it’s pretty hard to disagree with anything Becker says. He deftly covers all the bases: the propensity for tearing down buildings when they hit the fifty year mark, the vested energy in existing buildings, the sheer volume of landfill that would result from demolition, the architectural merits and pedigree of the complex.

Baumgarten Pavilion

Of particular interest is the notion of bridging the railyards to the east as an alternative site, an option that was inexplicably discarded. If the air rights are available, that should be a no-brainer. Such construction would constitute an expansion of the city’s usable urban space, as well as providing Bronzeville with a much-needed connection to the lakefront. We would have Michael Reese (its buildings renovated and repurposed) sitting next to a second complex of brand new buildings, a chain of urban development leading to the lakefront. Tearing down Reese, by contrast, means destroying a dense development only to replace it with another one, while leaving the complex and the adjoining neighborhood disconnected from the nearby lake.

Michael Reese Service League Power Plant

And beyond that wasted opportunity, the insanity of tearing down a group of buildings that still look like brand new should be patently obvious to… well, anyone. The whole thing smacks of politicians craving the photo-ops of ribbon cuttings and ceremonial first swings of the wrecking ball. Don’t believe the hype. Michael Reese should be renovated, not obliterated.

Through the archway

Additional Links:

  • The Campaign to Save Michael Reese Hospital
  • More photos of Michael Reese Hospital at my Flickr space.
  • Additional info and photos from Lee Bey: City Issues RFQ to Demo Michael Reese
  • Michael Reese at Forgotten Chicago

  • A sign vanishes

    Clark at Hollywood/Ridge

    This painted sign, for “The Piano Gallerie”, is on a building at the huge and busy intersection of Clark and Hollywood. It was one of those things I didn’t quite know what to think of, till it vanished. Only a few weeks after these photos, the sign was painted over in solid white.

    The Piano Gallerie

    I rather miss it. There was a charm to its homespun, minimal budget attempt at elegance.

    Clark Furniture

    Another distinctive sign may be in danger next door, as Clark Furniture has gigantic “Going Out of Business” signs in the windows. (I’ve heard reports that they’ve been “going out of business” for months or years.)

    Edit, 7 June 2007: They did indeed close this week, and the sign has been painted over. Bugger all!

    "The Shame of it All…"

    Oh, the shame of it all!

    I never saw what was here before; it was gone by mid-2005 when I first saw the sign. Whatever it was, it was nice enough to inspire this protest from the neighbors:

    The shame of it all…

    1830 West Lunt was an 1890s single family farmhouse SOLD and DEMOLISHED to be replaced with TWO houses

    “May those who love us, love us
    And those that don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.
    If he doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles,
    so we will know them by their limping.” — an old Irish saying

    Pleaes let us know if you see any developers, realtors, solicitors, or profiteers limping about.

    Contact Alderman Joe Moore at the 49th Ward Office…with your opinions about zoning that allows this type of development to continue.

    Neighbors for Responsible Zoning (“The Zoners”)

    Oh, the shame of it all!

    The new houses aren’t much to write home about, at least from the outside. They’ve got stagefront brick facades, with vinyl siding behind (because no one can see the side of the house. It’s invisible, don’tchaknow.) Why brick? I don’t know!! None of the houses around them have brick. I guess brick automatically equates to “quality”, and who can argue with quality?

    They’re not out of scale with the neighborhood or anything; in fact they’re a bit too small to stand comfortably alongside the three-story older houses that surround them.

    What makes the whole thing even more darkly hilarious is that the two new houses have sat empty for over two years now. One isn’t even finished — it only recently got its front porch, which still hasn’t been painted. One of the houses finally sold a month or two back, and the builder’s sign now reads “Only one left!” Yeah, better hurry there, folks.

    The larger issue, of course, is how one should handle the eternal flux of city neighborhoods. This particular block is immensely valuable, because it’s right next to a Metra stop. 20 minute access to downtown? That’s an irresistible pull for developers. It’s amazing this hasn’t happened to the rest of the block.

    Cities are always changing. Sometimes it happens slowly, in small bits and pieces like this. I don’t always like the results, but I have my doubts about the alternatives. Can you really constrain a city, tell it where to grow and where not to? Should the city remain physically stagnant? Where should growth be allowed? At what point does a building have enough architectural and historical merit to be worth curbing that growth?

    All are questions with no fixed answer, but as I see endless protests and complaints about the supposed scourge of condominiums (people with money are moving into the city?! OH NOEZ!!), I find myself wondering just what people do want to happen in their city. Should it remain the same forever?

    On Kedzie, another one bites the dust

    Kedzie at the Brown Line

    This was, until recently, the charming vista where the Brown Line L crosses Kedzie Avenue — a typical neighborhood commercial center, with stores at the sidewalk and apartments above. This particular building seems to have held a local Hispanic-run grocer, La Esperanza Food Store.

    La Esperanza ornamental details

    Sadly, it was torn down in the fall, and the site is now an empty lot. I can only assume that something new will go up to replace the old brick and limestone building, but will it match the destroyed building’s scale, detail and charm?

    La Esperanza Food Store

    This city’s tearing itself apart far faster than one mere mortal like myself can document.

    Kedzie at the Brown Line

    Lawrence Avenue demolition

    Okay, Chicago architecture fans, it’s time for a quiz! The question:

    Which of the following is most likely to keep a building from being demolished?

    A) Lavish, beautiful terra cotta ornament and decorative brick patterns
    B) A series of occupied storefronts bringing in rental income
    C) A location on a major thoroughfare, ensuring those businesses will continue to thrive
    D) Easy access to a major public transportation service like the Brown Line L
    E) A total lack of any obvious structural or facade problems
    F) All of the above

    Picked your answer? Good. If you answered “G), none of the above”, congratulations! You truly know how Chicago works!

    Meet the former Metro Theatre building, 3308 W. Lawrence Avenue:

    Metro Theatre Building

    Built in 1925 as the Terminal Theatre, it’s integral to the wonderful commercial row facing the Brown Line terminus station across Lawrence…. though it won’t be for much longer.

    Lawrence Avenue

    The theater closed long ago, its lobby converted to retail space. Those businesses seem to have been doing quite well, judging from the remnants they left behind. Every storefront was occupied — the upstairs too. In 2006, the auditorium suffered a collapse and was demolished. The commercial portion of the building, which wrapped around it, appears to have soldiered on regardless.

    Metro Theatre Building, before

    Metro Theatre Building, after

    Nevertheless, the siren call of money-grabbing condos was apparently too much, and the beautiful building is being destroyed, slicing a gash into the previously unbroken string of ornate early 20th Century buildings on these blocks.

    Ornamental lintel

    The tenant spaces appear to have been evacuated in a big hurry. Displays, ad posters, neon signs, and even some merchandise remain behind.


    This is a beautiful and richly ornamented building. It features a two-tone brick pattern alternating thin and thick bricks in running bond. It is lavishly endowed with cream-colored glazed terra cotta ornament, none of which has been salvaged from the remaining portion of the building.

    The demolition is a diminution of the public realm, and a real loss for Lawrence Avenue and Chicago at large. What a shame, what a shame.

    The Metro Theatre at Cinema Treasures

    Ornamental dude

    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

    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?)