Archive for September, 2012

California and Chicago: Beauty and the Beast

September 2, 2012

California is a fiction and a romance, indeed it takes its name from a novel of an exotic utopia, and since the earliest European encounter, it has been a place where dreams come real, from the dreams of missionaries and miners to the visions of moviemakers and microcomputer mavens that continue to radiate around the world.


traffic is a drag in both places, but here you get this to look at

Chicago is a fiction too, but it is less wish-fulfillment and more film noir, captured pretty persuasively in Call Northside 777 with the great Jimmy Stewart. Titans of industry fulfilled their dreams of filthy lucre there, as did the gangsters. Today it is an international destination as well known for art food and music as it once was for smokestacks and blind pigs, but it will never be confused with the sun-kissed valleys and tree-bedecked mountains of the Golden State.

35 years ago I rode the train, one of the last with the domed observation cars for my first visit to the Bay Area and I
passed through again a decade later following ten months of backpacking through Asia and I decided I wanted to live here.

It took another quarter century, but here I am still preserving landmarks and giving bus tours and reflecting on the connections between Chicago and California, which have special significance to one who has spent a career in history and the conservation of the built environment.


Frank Lloyd Wright in downtown San Francisco

That California architecture and city planning have a strong connection to Chicago is perhaps obvious, because almost every place has a connection to Chicago in this regard: it is a root source of modern architecture and city planning.

Daniel Burnham, who unlike many of the great 19th century Chicago architects was actually born in the city, is known here best for his pioneering city plan for San Francisco, delivered moments before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Willis Polk, who trained in Burnham’s office, is credited with rebuilding the City By The Bay. The Civic Center in San Francisco is perhaps the clearest evidence of Burnham’s influence, although one of the Golden State’s prized scientific landmarks also has a Burnham connection.

In 1890 Burnham designed this handsome Romanesque home for William Ellery Hale. Appended thereon was an observatory for the younger Hale to experiment with his interest in astronomy. He later went to California (I can see why – stars fill the clear skies above my mountain home) and Mount Palomar to build the much larger telescopes of the famed Hale Observatory.

Burnham’s contemporary “Chicago School” architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright also had a deep influence on California, training Myron Hunt, who helped build Pasadena with the Greene Brothers and designed the Rose Bowl as well as other notable structures statewide. Another Sullivan protégé, Irving Gill, went to California for his health in 1893 and developed perhaps the most prescient examples of austere Modernism in Southern California in the 1910s.


Myron Hunt’s house in Pasadena

Gill’s Christian Science church. 1909!

Gill’s buildings had a strong influence on Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice Barry Byrne (my book is coming out next year by University of Illinois Press), during a sojourn in Los Angeles following four years in Seattle. While Byrne built no buildings there, he did meet his lifelong collaborator Alfonso Iannelli there while rooming with Wright’s two sons. Lloyd Wright went on to be one of Southern California’s most important architects. Austrian expatriate Richard Neutra helped revolutionize modern architecture in Southern California following a stint with Wright in Oak Park.


Byrne on left, Lloyd Wright second from right.

For almost two decades I did Literary tours of Chicago which featured the Frank Norris novel “The Pit: A Story of Chicago” with its descriptions of the pure venality of commodity trading. Born in Chicago, Norris moved to San Francisco as a teenager and was as wowed by the amber waves of the Central Valley as he was of the bare-knuckle trading in the Pit, and first wrote a book about that source of grain The Octopus, a Story of California. A planned trilogy that would have described the arrival of the brokered grain in famine-stricken Europe (to be called The Wolf) was halted by Norris’ death at age 32.


Another Literary Chicago stalwart was of course Upton Sinclair, whose famed 1906 novel The Jungle helped reform the meat packing industries in Chicago. A tireless reformer, Sinclair followed the trail to California in 1915 where he ran for governor three times, in 1926 and 1930 as a Socialist and made an epic run of it in 1934 as a Democrat, all while writing nearly 90 books.

I read a California history by Kevin Starr which claims that organized labor’s effort to legislate the 8-hour workday began in the Golden State in the 1860s but of course I always thought it was in Chicago during that same decade. More certain is the founding of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) in Chicago in 1905, the first group to attempt to unionize the migrant farm workers that remain a political issue today.

Even the starlet of California’s industrial and cultural production – Hollywood – had Chicago roots in the film studios of William Selig and Essanay (George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson). They had chosen Chicago to avoid the zealous attorneys of Thomas Edison, who was trying to corner the film market Pit-style, and soon decided California was even farther from the process servers. Plus you could film outside all of the time and it didn’t get cold, a fact that made Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 Chicago relocation chillingly brief.

All of this occurred to me as I strolled the lovely campus of Stanford University with Yi David Wang, who did his undergraduate work at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. I noted Stanford was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson’s successor firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in a Romanesque style inflected by the Mission vernacular of California. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed much of the Gothic University of Chicago, as well as the Classical Beaux Arts Art Institute and Cultural Center.

So here I am in Silicon Valley where dreams get engineered into reality, bouyed by money that bears no relationship to rational economics. We are trying to tap into this dream engine to help transform communities in the developing world by conserving their heritage, heritage that has outstanding universal value but also real tangible, social and economic value. It is the gritty practicality of Chicago and the visionary reality of California, broadcast for an overseas market just like pork bellies and motion pictures.

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