Da Buildings

It is sort of odd that two weeks into this blog I have not yet written about Chicago, where I am, but here is the perfect opportunity: Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois’ 2005 Chicagoland Watch List, a collection of threatened buildings and districts that LPCI is trying to save. The dire dozen includes buildings as far away as Joliet and Aurora, a superb collection of modern ranch houses in Glencoe on the preservation-challenged North Shore, and buildings throughout Chicago, from the Loop to the North, West and South sides. You can see them at http://www.landmarks.org.

The one they chose to highlight was the one they held the press conference at: The Cermak Road Bridge District. This is a collection of century-old industrial buildings along the Chicago River at Cermak Road (22nd Street), an old riverfront industrial area between Chinatown and Pilsen. It was a smart choice because these are real Chicago buildings, wonderfully muscular brick dreadnoughts grasping the river like a firm handshake or a clap on the shoulder. Da Buildings.

The four buildings date from 1901 to 1924 and include designs by significant local architects that bear the mark of the innovative Prairie School, especially Nimmons & Fellows 1909 Hoyt Building. They epitomize the stereotypical Chicago of the early 20th century, a rough-and-ready can do town. The brick is arranged in piers and set off my ornament but it is thick, abstracted Prairie ornament, capping brick piers that read like ribs. It is the opposite of effete and ornate and it is a Chicago architecture that has simply not been saved enough.

Then there is the bridge. Chicago has 52 movable bridges, more than anywhere else in the U.S., and this is the grandaddy, the 1906 Scherzer rolling life bridge, the most muscular of them all, its racks of cubic counterweights squatting naked above the roadway, exposed for the world to see. This was the last time a bridge showed its muscles – within a decade they had hidden the counterweights beneath the roadway, invisible, and covered the rest with the trappings of culture, Beaux-Arts bridge houses and graceful balustrades. That gave us Michigan Avenue in the 1920s, the first inklings of our latter day status as a refined destination. This was a working bridge with its shirt off.

Cermak Road was Chicago “in every chitlin’ and sparerib” as Nelson Algren said, and we are in danger of losing that as much as we lost the legacy of Louis Sullivan. Sullivan touched many buildings and many more architects worldwide. But we don’t just save buildings because of who they touched or who their architect was. We save them because of who touched them, and the industrial buildings of Chicago were touched by millions. If those bricks could talk they would talk in 50 languages and five generations.

Plus they are good looking, solid and serviceable, with riverside views and the Loop skyline in the distance. Losing a Loop building is a facial scar but losing Cermak Road would be a kick in the guts.

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3 Responses to “Da Buildings”

  1. Makeorbreak Says:

    It’s interesting how city is personified through it’s buildings. I’d never thought about that before until I read this blog. I mean the conciousness of the people who live in a place is directly affected by how they perceive their surroundings. perhaps stong ‘muscular’ buildings could inspire strength of thought and action.

  2. katey Says:

    hi vince– bridges are the coolest.

  3. bigmac Says:

    Vince,
    It was one of your students (the esteemed Hans) who showed me how to think of a building in terms of its “embodied energy”–the basis of a green argument for preservation. It seems to me that Chicago’s more “muscular” buildings speak to the idea of Hans’ embodied energy: not only do they represent the resources that went into their building, but their potential for imaginative re-use. So the argument is not what we stand to lose by their demolition, but what we stand to gain…

    And who’s the guy in the sunglasses?

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