Posts Tagged ‘Louis Sullivan’

Great Chicago Churches

June 11, 2010

Twenty years ago when I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we did a survey and planning study of historic houses of worship in Chicago. This was one of many preservation responses to a crisis in church preservation spurred on by the 1987 closing of two huge Catholic churches that were imposing neighborhood landmarks, Holy Family Church (1857) on Roosevelt Road, and St. Mary of the Angels Church (1920) in Bucktown.

Both churches were ultimately saved, and restored, but a larger issue had been exposed to a wide public, and there were many responses to the crisis. A new church preservation group was formed, a state legislature panel inquired into the problem, and a lot of effort was sponsored by local groups like Landmarks Illinois, including the survey, which was called Spires In The Streets. We also led church tours in the 1980s and 1990s, so I got exposed to dozens upon dozens of historic houses of worship in Chicago. I have my favorites. About four dozen of them. Here are a couple I have visited recently.

Our Lady of Sorrows, West Washington Boulevard, East Garfield Park. This one (1890-1902, Englebert, Pope and Brinkmann) is a stunner. It is nice on the outside, but on the inside it is a revelation – like you are in St. Peter’s in Rome. They even have a replica of the Pieta, and altars running up and down the side aisles.

Last Thursday I was down at St. Thomas Apostle in Hyde Park, Barry Byrne’s 1922 attempt at the first modern Catholic church. I am actually there a lot, and our historic preservation graduate students did measured drawings of the building this past fall. It’s modernity lies in the unobstructed interior and thrust altar, while the exterior is a warm skin of brick that wraps around corners with delicate serrations and hand-modeled terra cotta ornament that sets off the roofline and windows. There is no steeple or side aisle in this resolute but not strident modernist statement by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I paired St. Thomas Apostle on a tour last year with Louis Sullivan’s amazing Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral of 1903, which is also being assiduously restored.

But these all are somewhat well known – there are many that are undiscovered, or at least little viewed by those outside of their congregations because they are off the beaten track.

Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1899 by Hugh Garden as Third Church of Christ Scientist, West Washington Boulevard.

First Baptist Congregational, built in 1869 by Gurdon Randall, on Union Park at Ashland.

Eighth Church of Christ Scientist, Leon Stanhope, 1910, on South Michigan Avenue

Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, originally built as 41st Street Presbyterian Church by John Long, on South King Drive.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E., built by and for the city’s first African-American congregation in 1891.

First Church of Deliverance, built by Walter T. Bailey in 1939 – an amazing Art Deco structure that pioneered gospel music radio broadcasts.

Kenwood United Church of Christ, William Boyington and Otis Wheelock, 1888, made of Maryland granite and a great example of Richardsonian Romanesque style.

And of course, one of the great Chicago treasures: Second Presbyterian Church on South Michigan Avenue, with its awe-inspiring Arts and Crafts interior featuring the city’s finest collection of stained glass, including a wealth of Tiffany windows.

Now, these last eight examples are all protected as Chicago Landmarks, and they all chose that status. All eight (and many others like them) were landmarked by largely African-American congregations in inner-city neighborhoods. Chicago Landmark status was a way to save their church. Most of the churches and other houses of worship in Chicago that are official Chicago Landmarks share these characteristics. Back in 1987 the city attempted to landmark Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue, a prosperous congregation in one of the city’s best locations. The resistance led to a change in the landmarks law that prevented houses of worship in active use from becoming landmarks unless they sought the status.

Of course, politically, few aldermen would landmark an active house of worship without the owner’s consent – it would be a bad move politically. So, in fact, most of the houses of worship landmarked before 1987 also actively sought the status.

This of course, is K.A.M.- Isaiah Israel synagogue, a Chicago Landmark built in 1922 by Alfred Alschuler. It is now the SAFEST place on earth to attend services, because it sits across the street from Barack Obama’s house.

The effort to preserve historic houses of worship received another boost last year when Chicago again became home to a preservation organization focused on this problem – Partners for Sacred Places, founded in Philadelphia in 1988, opened a Chicago office led by Gianfranco Grande. If I had a spare minute, I would help them out, because they are doing great work helping congregations learn how to preserve these often challenging, large buildings.

I have more favorites to show you, but it will take several more blogs to do so….

October 2011 Update:

Always liked St. Nicholas Ukrainian on Oakley – Worthmann & Steinbach, with 13 domes and great murals added for the millenial celebration in 1988.


Put Down the Torches!

November 13, 2006

How many buildings do we have to set on fire before the idiots put down the blowtorches? Now another building – on tony Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast – catches on fire thanks to another joker with a blowtorch in the basement! This fire was under control, but plenty of smoke and excitement, and a kid and an adult in hospital.

What do we need to do to get rid of idiocy? Another Chicago Fire?

Children With Matches

November 6, 2006

We don’t let children play with matches. Why do we let idiots play with blowtorches?

Idiocy is a long and storied element of the human condition, and we could hardly have a society without it, so anything that I might say about idiots and idiotic acts should be tempered by my strong belief that idiocy is a vital actor in, and indispensable element of human history. Merken sie sich z.B. unsere Regierung.

For many years I too, suffered fools gladly, but this constant burning down of Louis Sullivan buildings this year has savaged my natural tolerance, especially when both Pilgrim Baptist Church and The Wirt Dexter Building were felled by idiots with torches.

The latest fire – the Harvey House in Lakeview – does not have an official cause yet, so torches can’t be ruled out. It burned really fast and shot flames 50 feet into the air. Torches definitely can’t be ruled out.

Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois notes that the first two Sullivan buildings burned because someone was using open flames – unnecessary in both cases – inside buildings chock full of really dry timber. Roofers at Pilgrim Baptist and salvagers at Wirt Dexter. In both cases the idiot contractors phoned it in but it was already too late. You can set a hell of a fire with a blowtorch.

Blowtorches are essential for welding and a variety of metalworks. They are also handy for roofers and salvagers who want to get a job done quickly, just as leaf blowers are for those without the vigor or patience to rake. The more obvious analogy is the paint stripping gun, which has destroyed countless historic buildings during rehabilitation. These are all shortcuts – to disaster.

Sullivan buildings have been burning for a while. In 1989 the Brunswick Balke Collender Company warehouse burned down THE DAY AFTER one of the tenants took the owner to court for storing flammable liquids in open stairways – and lost. Flammable liquids in containers propping open stairwell doorways. Idiocy.

We should have seen Wirt Dexter coming too. Newspaper articles quoted the 76-year old owner as saying she saw it as her retirement. I am an idiot if I believe that. She owned this building for 24 years. Did she see it as her retirement when she was 52? She wanted to recreate the 1960s heyday of the George Diamond steakhouse. Romantic. Heart-in-the-right-place. Head-and-wallet-no-place. 24 years of swell intentions and a building getting crumblier and emptier by the day. It was not owned by the right person.

The case of the Harvey House is murkier. Earlier this year, it was not owned by the right person. She said she wanted to tear it down and develop the site. This raised an uproar (see old blogs below) so she decided to rehab it and live in it, thus becoming the right person. Now it burns down almost as conveniently as Christ Episcopal Church in Joliet, so we have to ask again whether this was the wrong person.

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago and Ward Miller of the Richard Nickel Committee both raised the call for rebuilding the Harvey House. At first I thought, what silly sentimentalism. But then I thought again: what a great way to ascertain the true intentions of the owner: does she go back to the “bad owner” that wanted to demolish and gorge on zoning or the “good owner” that wanted to live in the Harvey House? Does she let children play with matches or not?

Another Sullivan Burns

October 24, 2006

dexter burns

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

October 24, 2006 – Louis Sullivan’s 150th birthday celebrations have been marred again. In January, one of his greatest buildings, Pilgrim Baptist Church, burned down to the walls and its rebuilding is a very open question. A year ago his own home in Biloxi was destroyed by the hurricane (Katrina) that everyone but the federal government saw coming. Now I am watching one of his early highrises, the Wirt Dexter Building on Wabash south of the Loop, burn. The fire started an hour and a half ago and there is still smoke billowing out at 5:00 creating columnar cumulus skyscrapers. It is really disheartening.

It is too early to say what will be left of this simple but elegant early highrise – its back wall marked by long vertical perforated sheets of steel that stiffened its spine. This was during the days of the development of the skeletal steel frame that made skyscrapers possible. Wirt Dexter was an attorney and developer who worked with Sullivan on several projects.

What makes it all so terrible is how much Sullivan was torn down in the 1950s and 1960s – the Garrick and the Stock Exchange being the most significant, both replaced by guileless dreck. Beyond were all the great little neighborhood buildings – a dozen on the south side, others north and west. Sullivan was Chicago’s great innovator, a romantic and a master who made buildings into the kind of material poetry that it will take our digital friends another generation to even approximate. He fathered Frank Lloyd Wright and in a sense, the entire 20th century, not just in America but across the world. Gropius., Aalto and Saarinen and even the painter Le Corbusier are not possible without him.

We treated this legacy like crap – Rich Cahan has a new book out, following up on They All Fall Down, and it is hard to look at what we have lost. It is positively nauseating when you see what is in its place. Go to 30 N. LaSalle where the Stock Exchange used to be and see if your eye doesn’t fall right off of the 30 stories of black glass nothing they put there. It has no presence at all, only the absence of the brick and terra cotta lyrics that made that a corner in a city rather than a lacuna of memory. I have been in that building but I can’t remember it. I could go into it tomorrow and I would not remember it the next day. It is a bicycle shed.

Now the Wirt Dexter is burning badly and I am burning its face – and its back – deeper into my brain, because I fear that may be the only place to find them in the future.

Sullivan’s Travails

October 5, 2006

pilg bap burned

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Last night we had a panel on restoring Louis Sullivan buildings over at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, also sponsored by the Chicago History Museum and Graham Foundation. I was the moderator and our featured speakers were architects Gunny Harboe, who directed the restoration of the Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. cornice, and Mary Brush, who directed facade restoration at the Gage Building. Then to make everything wonderful, Tim Samuelson agreed to join us.

Tim is often said to know everything about Chicago and everything about Louis Sullivan. It would be impossible to disprove this.

We learned a lot about Sullivan’s ornament – how he played with figure and ground to eliminate those signifiers and make ornament one with the building. We learned about the challenges of replicating the incredibly detailed elements of the Carson’s cornice from a few bad photographs and a lot of comparable. We saw how his highrise ornament was designed to be seen from below (something the designers of the Parthenon’s Panathenaic procession knew, but has oft since been forgot) and we heard how Sullivan could think in three dimensions. I reminded everyone of how much of Sullivan’s architecture was lost over the last 40 years, which is really tragic.

Especially the Garrick Theater. Torn down in 1961 for a parking garage. Parking garage torn down in 1998 for – – a theater. Ouch.

And we talked about the challenge of Pilgrim Baptist Church – how the documentation exists to restore it like it was – or pretty close – but that there are delicate political realities, like a small congregation with limited resources, perhaps $2-$3 million in insurance money and a reconstruction budget ten times that.

What do you do? Lots of preservationists offer advice, but there is the question of ownership. You could create a non-profit to raise the money for reconstruction, but then the congregation would be ceding some aspect of their ownership. You could build a temporary structure within the walls and leave reconstruction to the next generation. It is a fascinating question of community too, since this neighborhood was once perceived as a ghetto and is now very gentrified, although the congregation is less so. Whose building is it?

This is a much more interesting and real question of property rights than the one brought up by whingeing speculators who want to treat buildings like pork bellies. For them, “property rights” has nothing to do with ownership, stewardship or identity like it does for Pilgrim Baptist.

Which reminds me – some whingeing property speculator sued the city’s landmarks ordinance claiming it was being used to downzone and thus impinging on “property rights.” Duh! That is like suing McDonald’s for selling breakfast at lunchtime. Zoning was invented to protect property rights, and landmarking was invented at the same time for basically the same reason. The difference is that zoning is a crude tool (that can also be used to encourage demolition) and landmarking is a precise one. Besides, the whole flippin’ city was upzoned in 1957, so “downzoning” is often just putting it back to the way it was – or way it is.

But don’t expect everyone to understand that. Besides, some people don’t like working for a living…

Sullivan at 150

July 11, 2006


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Louis Henri Sullivan, the architect who transformed the modern world with his prescient designs and philosophy of the skyscraper, who made Chicago the first city of American architecture and inspired the Chicago preservation movement, was born 150 years ago. How are we celebrating this most important of native sons?

By tearing down one of his few remaining houses, on Stratford Place on the North Side. For reasons inexplicable, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is not moving to designate the house, nor even to act on Marty Tangora’s very reasonable approach that would allow a builder to erect something on part of the lot in order to save the house. Even the Alderman, Helen Shiller, not known as a preservationist, is interested in saving it. Why would the Commission on Chicago Landmarks be the last one out of the gate?

Is this any way to celebrate a Sesquicentennial?

Granted, it is not the coolest or most innovative Sullivan design, and it has been altered. But for Louis’ sake, we tore down most of his earth-shattering skyscrapers and innovative houses decades ago. Richard Nickel literally gave his life for Sullivan’s architecture (see the book by Richard Cahan) and watched and collected as the 1950s and 1960s demolished more Sullivan than we have left.

Louis Sullivan almost got the Euripides treatment, only it took 50 years rather than 2500 to erase 80% of his output.

So, let’s blow out the candles and let one more go.