For the first time in almost four years I am teaching a Research Studio in the First Year Program at the School called If These Streets Could Talk where we deal with history in the streets. We did a mini-tour during orientation Monday along the Chicago River, which is overloaded with plaques and historical markers and such. We saw the Chicago Vietnam memorial, which follows the nearly obligatory black-slab-incised-with-names format established by Maya Lin with her epochal memorial on the Mall in Washington. This design has not only been copied in nearly every city, state and county in the nation, it has also impacted memorials to other conflicts. Funny thing is that I can remember when the design was so controversial and reviled that they had to add a realistic figure sculpture of soldiers in Vietnam to the memorial, and then another. People couldn’t get past the typical narrative sculpture, the general on the horse or whatever. But then the reality of the place sunk in much as the design sinks into the Mall, an amazing, haptic experience of the nation’s most visible wound. For two decades it has basically been the best, most beloved, most interactive war memorial ever.
The Chicago version on the riverwalk is a quiet echo at best.
We then followed that with a 1941 memorial to tolerance, the Morris-Washington-Solomon Memorial to the two financiers of the American Revolution, as I recall a project of Chicago politico Jake Arvey forging a connection to the nation’s Jewish roots. Of course the financiers lost their shirts, in the first and last time the nation failed to make good on its debts, LOL. The next memorial illustrated the problem of narrative in the ever-evolving city. A huge bronze Irv Kupcinet – (much more elegant than those of Harry Caray or Jack Brickhouse) – gestures across the river to his longtime office in the Sun-Times building. Ooops! The Sun-Times Building is gone and now Kup has become yet another shill for the new Trump Tower. (I guess it is a mark that Chicago has arrived – we finally have an outlet of the nation’s biggest skyscraper franchise). In the coming weeks students will unravel some more examples of how the changing city has squeezed or squashed the context of its historical markers.
This is the third anniversary of the start of this blog (go on, you can go back and read all 170 old posts in the archive) and we again have a hurricane heading to New Orleans, so some things don’t change. On the other hand, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball and a black American is on the brink of the presidency, two huge changes from the way things were for the entirety of my life.
School starts again and we have a baker’s dozen new historic preservation graduate students. September is going to be chiropteraguano insane for me – major lecture for Know Your Chicago, the Traditional Building Show, the Tri-Cities preservation symposium in the Fox Valley, a major symposium on the history of Chicago preservation on September 20, and a hearing at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on that excellent little modern bank across from the Chicago History Museum. And then Overbooktober, with the National Preservation Conference in Tulsa. In between we will host a number of our Master’s program alumni, run a LOT of walking and bus tours with both my Master’s students and the First Year Program, and try to keep on bloggin’.