Archive for December, 2010

Iannelli Studio, Park Ridge

December 29, 2010

There is a movement afoot to try and save the Alfonso Iannelli studio in Park Ridge. This blog covered the unfortunate demolition of one of the five Cedar Court houses designed in 1923 by Barry Byrne and Alfonso Iannelli in the suburb where Iannelli lived and worked for 50 years. His work with Byrne alone is phenomenal – I have just published an article in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians “Barry Byrne: Expressing the Modern” which details the highlights of their half-century partnership and details their 1924 visit to the modernists of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Here is one of the Felicity Rich photos from the article:

That is the John F. Kenna Apartments, a Chicago Landmark built in 1916. Yes, that’s right, 1916. This work anticipates the International Style a decade before it begins, as the inimitable Sam Guard told me more than once. Mostly they are known for their work on Catholic churches, like Christ the King in Cork, Ireland (1928-31), the only Prairie School building ever built in Europe. Another Felicity Rich photo:

The issue in Park Ridge now is the altered studio buildings Iannelli worked in, buildings that housed such incredible designers as Annette Cremin (Byrne), Edgar Miller (subject of a great new book by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams), Bruce Goff, Ruth Blackwell, Margaret Iannelli, and many more. The story is best told by those closest to it in this blog.
Park Ridge, like River Forest, is feeling the effects of not having a strong landmarks protection policy, and this issue adds to the weight of those irrevocable decisions which may lead to the creation of same. Here’s hoping.

Thanks to Pauline Saliga at Society of Architectural Historians for providing the link to my current article on Byrne and Iannelli in JSAH online!

JANUARY 22 UPDATE: Here is the letter I sent to the planners in Park Ridge opposing the zoning change, which is likely to be decided in early February:

I am writing in opposition to the proposed zoning (Map Amendment)change from B-1 to R-4 at this property being presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission this February. This change would allow for the demolition of the Iannelli Studios and the construction of multi-family residences.
Alfonso Iannelli’s contributions to Chicago from the Century of Progress through the Prudential Building make this site worth saving, but the story is much larger. The Iannelli Studios have cultural and historical significance that reaches worldwide.
I recently wrote an article on the 1924 trip to Europe undertaken by Alfonso Iannelli and his architect collaborator Barry Byrne. An on-line version of my article is available for free for a short time at
During that trip, Iannelli and Byrne developed lasting connections to the most important modernist artists and architects in Europe. If you do research at the Netherlands Architectural Institute in Rotterdam, or the Bauhaus Archiv in Germany, you find reference to Park Ridge, Illinois in the form of letters to and from the Iannelli Studios throughout the 1920s. There are few sites in Park Ridge that have this level of international significance,
Nationally, the Iannelli Studios hosted such important artists as Edgar Miller, Bruce Goff, John Lloyd Wright, Ruth Blackwell, R. Harold Zook, Annette Cremin Byrne, Oliver Rush and many others. I have lectured on Byrne and Iannelli’s important church designs in Racine, Kansas City, Tulsa and many other locations over the last decade. A revolution in the decorative and liturgical arts took place at this location, and despite some alteration over time, it retains this significance and grants Park Ridge a rare level of historic and cultural importance.


Vincent L. Michael, PhD


SIX YEARS LATER:  The Studios are preserved an a wonderful addition to Park Ridge.  They have Edgar Miller’s Madonna statue that Iannelli designed and once stood atop the doorway at Byrne’s 1919 Immaculata High School in Chicago.  I was there Sunday for Ricbard Cahan’s talk about his new Louis Sullivan book.



Authenticity, Ascetism and Christmas History

December 27, 2010

In Charlie Brown’s Christmas, the plot revolves around the commercialization of Christmas and the need to find its “true meaning,” which in that case and most others refers to the biblical story. We might see this 1960s vision of Christmas commercialization as a reaction to the deliberate and pervasive fostering of the consumer economy in post-World War II America, but the fact of the matter is that Christmas stories about its “true meaning” have been prevalent since at least the middle of the 19th century. BY the mid-20th we had “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the honest loving George Bailey contrasting with Mr. Potter as Mammon’s own archangel. It’s there in “Scrooged” again in 1988.

On the more “commercial Christmas” side we have Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a 1939 Chicago advertising gimmick that became a Johnny Mars song and eventually a 1964 animated special about misfits fitting in, and I suppose recycling (misfit toys), which sort of subverted its original commercialism. The 1980s A Christmas Story had a more clearly consumerist metanarrative in keeping with the “Let’s outspend the Soviets” ethos of the era, and even “Home Alone” leaned heavily of the “shopping spree” money shot montages so prevalent in every 90s vehicle from “Pretty Woman” on. I suppose only “Edward Scissorhands” – both misfit and misfit toy – held onto the anti-consumerist, let’s-get-back-to-true-meaning-of-Christmas tradition.

Our culture is studded and specked with attempts to return to true meanings, to original conditions. The past has an aura of authenticity and the present always seems sullied by base motivations. Distance makes the past look more ideal, but this is myopia, not an accurate perception. New England Puritans banned Christmas in the 17th century because it was too raucous and fun, and because it had elements of social turnabout (fool becomes king for a day, rich have to feed and serve the poor, trick or treat, that sort of thing) later transferred to Halloween, which disturbed their social/religious order. Any hand-wringing about the true meaning of Christmas is simply the latest iteration of a very deep cultural practice. Indeed, the true meaning of Christmas is really Easter, since the December holiday leans heavily on the Roman Saturnalia. Many of the European Christmas traditions we share, like Christmas trees and yule logs derive from Nordic animism. From the Puritan perspective, this holiday was compromised from its very inception.

Think about the Puritan bicycles you see everywhere nowadays. They look like racing bikes with their sleek frames and skinny tires, but they have no gears and more amazingly, no brakes. Fixies – fixed gear bikes are a trend among bicycle enthusiasts. Part of the trendy appeal of these bicycles is their authenticity – taking us back to the days when there were no brakes or gears.

Yes, the first velocipedes had no gears and no brakes. They also didn’t have pedals, so why don’t the enthusiasts go for the full monty? Screw the sprockets! The answer of course, is that this bicycle asceticism, like all puritanisms, only uses history as an excuse. It is not an historic enterprise – it is a political reaction to those of us who are retardaire or unhip or just plain old and thus cling to the wasteful and myopic world of brakes and gears. There is an element of cilice or hairshirt as well, where authenticity is measured by discomfort.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2007
Asceticism is always a political enterprise that insists it is more “real” than the others. “Real” in this case refers to a previous “original,” or more authentic condition. But this doesn’t work well in real history, because there is always a previous condition. To follow the cilice and hairshirt line, the traditional Latin Catholic mass is purportedly more “real,” but to a historian like myself it is simply a preference for a certain period of history, namely 1545-1965, about one-quarter the church’s timeline. Latin was not the original language of the church and the priest with his back to the congregation appears in the second millennium of the liturgy. Altars don’t move against the back wall until the 7th century at the earliest and they don’t generally have crucifixes or candles until the 11th century. Even the cult of Mary doesn’t appear until the 4th century. Liturgical reformers in the 20th century were inspired by the first millennia of Christian liturgy; their opponents by the second. We like this period of history and you like that one. It isn’t even an issue of conformity and orthodoxy. The Council of Trent was the first successful attempt at curbing regional liturgies and texts and Vatican II was the second – both were equally orthodox in that sense. “Real” or “original” or “authentic” aren’t going to answer this political argument. “Radical” means returning to the root, but history is a big old knotty mangrove with dozens of “real” roots.

The issue has plagued historic preservation since the beginning, when many of the 18th and 19th century restorers sought to bring a building back to a perfect condition that had never actually occurred in history. It plagues us still, when we are seduced by an original design or architectural rendering which represents not the reality of the building as built, but an artistic image of the perfect building. The Chicago Building by Holabird & Roche opened in 1905 and it had tacky (possibly illuminated) lettering stuck on the cornice. Preservation wanted to return it not to this original condition, but the more perfect conditions of its design. Notre Dame in Paris had an entire neighborhood cleared out from in front of it in order to turn it into a civic icon. Even my beloved Gaylord Building sacrificed some of its early 20th century history in a rehabilitation that resuscitated its latter 19th century glory. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio was rehabilitated to its 1909 appearance because that was an exciting time and how the site was going to be interpreted – as a studio – determined that original Wright designs from 1911, when he converted the studio to apartments, could be trashed in favor of a restoration.

Actually, our preservation/building conservation world has changed since the Gaylord Building and Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio were restored in the 1980s. Today we are less likely to follow Viollet-le-Duc in making Notre Dame brand new beautiful perfect 12th century. Today we embrace the messiness of real history and rehabilitate buildings with warts and all – the patina of age, not the purity of design or the clarity of a singular interpretive message. No longer Puritan, but catholic with a small “c” in the sense of encompassing everything. Building conservation today is much more ecumenical, and less evangelical than it was even when I started in the field. The 21st century world of building conservation, has in large part eschewed puritanical restoration for a community-values based enterprise that brings the past into the present and future.

That is the ultimate authenticity, and the true meaning of Christmas is the love within whatever you are doing right now, because every moment you are making history every bit as authentic as anything that has happened before.

What’s left of Michael Reese Hospital

December 11, 2010

Demolition has started on the old Main building at Michael Reese Hospital, the 1907 Schmidt Garden Martin building which was the ONLY one that the city was planning to preserve, despite the presence of 8 Walter Gropius designs on the hospital campus. Then in the last few months, the city admitted that the building – which it has owned for over a year, was in severe disrepair and further endangered by squatters, which is a hell of a stewardship model if you ask me. With ownership come basic responsibilities. Check out Lee Bey’s recent blog.

The whole saga has been tragic, because the original plan was to build the 2016 Olympic Village there, and that is not going to happen. Given the real estate market, this land will be dumb dead for the next generation. It took the city 19 years to build on Block 37, and that is right in the center of downtown.

But they went ahead and tore down the buildings which Grahm Balkany had proved were designed in significant part by the modern master Walter Gropius. This included the fabulous Kaplan pavilion with its sunshades, shades of every high modernist from Corbu on.

Interestingly, there is one Gropius building left on the campus, mothballed. The preservation community is a little burned out on this whole issue, and there seems little interest in expending the effort on one surviving example of the Gropius campus along the lake, a bookend to Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus a half-mile away. But upon reflection, I think we need to save this one. Not because it is the best – those were torn down under protest – but because it is still there and it has value – both design value, re-use value and last and least, commemorative value. See Lynn Becker’s take on the demolition here.

The Singer Building is now the only survivor, and it did win an AIA Award in 1951. I understand advocacy fatigue and have suffered it many times. But we can’t let this incredible architectural legacy – mostly lost – be completely lost. The Michael Reese Hospital saga is a failure of public policy and a failure of building conservation. It is a failure of sustainability, too, as Lynn detailed above in calculating how many millions of gallons of energy is wasted when we destroy this many buildings. But it isn’t over. Let’s save this one.

Rialto Square Theater, Joliet

December 6, 2010

I have long been a fan of the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet, a wondrous Rapp & Rapp vaudeville movie palace from 1926. I have brought tour groups to see its hall of mirrors, rotunda with oversized chandelier, and ornate and exuberant auditorium for more than a quarter of a century. When I left my first job in 1985, they actually threw a party for me in the rotunda, which amazes me in retrospect.

But theaters have always been a challenge economically, even in the best times. In the late 1980s I was involved, as a staffer at Landmarks Illinois, in the unsuccessful effort to save the Granada Theater in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. I had actually seen a show in the theater in 1980 (The Rocky Horror Show – the London-based stage show, not the movie) and it was another 1920s extravagance of architectural ornament. But it had no parking, no viable use for its large size, and as we looked into its history since its construction in 1929, it quickly became apparent that this building had NEVER been financially viable.

Granada Theater interior, Historic American Buildings Survey photo

Presentism biases our perspective in many areas, and economics is no exception. There has been a lot of discussion about the failure of the house museum model in recent decades, how the economics have changed. Similarly, in the world of theaters, movie economics changed in the 1970s and 1980s so that only multiplex theaters can survive economically. Thus, we see old house museums and old theaters as beautiful, wondrous reminders of a time when society in some respects was richer.

“Hall of mirrors” entrance lobby, Rialto Square Theatre, Joliet

And they are beautiful. And wondrous. And they epitomize a richness that society felt in that time that it arguably does not (can not?) feel today. And yes, the economics of movie consumption changed during my lifetime. But vaudeville movie palaces were not built for movies, as our friends at the Uptown Theater pointed out – they were built for shows, of which movies constituted a minority portion.

Ringling Theater, Baraboo Wisconsin

The real historical fact of the matter is this: the Granada Theater was built with a 1929 presentism and never made a dollar in its 60 year life. House museums that were saved in the 20th century never made sense economically unless they had an endowment. The Rialto Square Theater made the news yesterday because it is missing a $2.2 million renovations upgrade promised from the state of Illinois and the City of Joliet is questioning the $700,000 operating subsidy they provide the theater each year. The theater was saved in the 1970s through the creation of a county exposition authority which was effectively another unit of government that could raise the renovation funds through bonds. And the theater continually does fundraising, like public radio and television and all sorts of non-profits.

Rialto Square Theater, Rotunda

This does not mean the decision to save the Rialto – or the Uptown – is wrong, These buildings are worth the extra money, the extra effort, and thankfully they can be creatively programmed – the Uptown can be a profitable venue once the massive rehabilitation cost is complete. The Rialto has managed for 30 years now and it is truly a community center in a downtown which lost many of its historic buildings to parking structures, casinos and suspicious fires. Art galleries have cropped up in the storefronts that surround it – storefronts that were built in 1926 by developers who knew THEN that a theater by itself was an economically risky proposition. The same was true of many other such buildings of the period. These buildings of course have an enormous nostalgic sway over people, and as community places they witnessed significant social interactions over time. They are arguably among those sites – along with conservatories, parks, libraries and schools – that deserve a public subsidy in the increasingly diminished commons of American society. But don’t go into it with the illusion that the economics of viability are easily secured – or ever, ever were.