Posts Tagged ‘Research Studio class’

Making the past visible

February 11, 2009

My Research Studio class is looking at historic sites and how we mark them. This has been an interest of mine over the last decade, brought on by my experiences writing tour guides, being a tour guide and most of all, trying to explain the history of place to people. My graduate seminar is looking at the same issue, and I will report on that later this semester, but yesterday my First Year students and I took a tour of Lincoln Park and found lots of signs worth looking at, including a new project by Pamela Bannos called “Hidden Truths” which focuses on the fact that the southernmost 60 acres or so of Lincoln Park was once the city cemetery.
They moved the cemetery and reinterred the bodies, mostly at Rosehill, but a few remained behind – like the Couch tomb behind the History Museum – and skulls and bones invariably turn up every time someone digs in the park or even the Gold Coast, a fact Bannos presents in maps on her website
The Hidden Truths project is interesting because it uses the oldest and least interactive form of interpretive signage – the bronze plaque. The bronze plaque has an enduring quality in every sense of the adjective, but its ubiquity as a mode of communication has made it a turn-off for many people.
I tend to like artistic interpretations like the project on the sidewalks of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. We found an example of that in the form of footprints and medallions in “Dad’s Park” in Mid-North, not far from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, which is unmarked.
We also wandered through the Zoo on this preternaturally warm day and were greeted by the granddaddy of “wayfinding,” the signage that gets you around to see Rhinos and giraffes and even CTA buses.
We also found a few memorials, like the incredible Eugene Field memorial, which is on Zoo grounds and is an exquisite riot of 19th century sentimentality even though it was crafted in 1922. A fairy putting children to sleep with poppies…
A memorial is a different idea than a monument or even than an historical marker, which I believe is about the interaction of person and place. Memorials and monuments have less of a relationship to place, hence we have war memorials all over the country even though we have not had wars all over the country.
But we use the words sort of interchangeably: memorial, monument, landmark, markers, etc. and I think this is another example of conceptual laziness. I thought the Germans did better by having Denkmal, Mahnmal, Ehrenmal and Gedenkstätte, which are pretty specific in concept but it seems in practice they do not hew closely to the distinctions.
You know, we also have a Grant memorial in Lincoln Park.
And Lincoln, who would turn 200 tomorrow if he hadn’t been shot.
august-abesWe also found markers indicating the historic shoreline, which is useful in Lincoln Park, since the majority of its acreage is landfill.
At the South Pond, there is a lovely memorial garden with a Shakespeare sonnet on a series of four stones along a winding path. The plaque on a boulder is again one of the oldest forms of memorial marking/interpretation, and it is remarkable that it has returned to us now, in a world with such technological possibility. Why aren’t there interactive sound installations?
Actually, we found one of those in the Conservatory.
But it is striking how older forms abide even as new ones appear. It seems there is only addition, not replacement, like this odd boulder that my grad student Noel Weidner reported on Monday – erected in 1902 to commemorate the death 50 years earlier of a man who claimed to be 115 and have survived the Boston Tea Party.
The original plaque succumbed to the only force it is vulnerable to – metal scavengers – and was replaced. Now there is a brand new olde style plaque, part of Bannos’ Hidden Truths, and the whole place has become a sort of memorial to a memorial, a real memory of an apparent falsehood and the enthusiasm of those who would commemorate it.


Three Years

August 30, 2008

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’.