Thursday, July 31, 2014

Short Division

photograph: Bob Johnson (click images for larger view)
It stood for over a century, and was gone in an instant.
Constructed in 1903, the East Division Street Bridge over the North Branch Canal at Goose Island was the direct result of the investigations of Chicago City Engineer John Ericson to find an alternative to the city's traditional swing bridges, whose center piers had become navigational hazards as commercial traffic on the river intensified.   Inspired by London's Tower Bridge of 1894, Ericson and his team came up with what became known as the double-leaf bascule, with two movable segments raised and lowered by motorized equipment at each bank, leaving the center of the waterway unobstructed.
photograph: Library of Congress
The bridge at Division, designed and built by Jules E. Roemheld and John J. Gallery, was one of the first to follow this new design strategy, replacing a swing bridge that had been constructed in 1870.   240 feet in total length, each of the two leafs was supported by 101-foot-long steel trusses. (You can read more about the bridge's history on the indispensable  Historic Bridges website.) When fully opened, it freed up a clear channel 80 feet wide. Instead of the usual sharp-angled end structures, those on the Division Street were arched, resulting in the bridge being bookended at either end by graceful rounded curves.
photograph:Bob Johnson
The National Park Service's Historic American Engineering Record on the east Division Street Bridge noted how “since the movable leaves were counterbalanced, relatively little power was required to open and close the bridge . . . a single, direct-current, 75-horsepower motor mounted, along with the rest of the lifting machinery, on an inclined steel platform spanning the abutment and first pier beneath the approach roadway.”
photograph: Library of Congress
Work began on the bridge in June of 1900. Roemheld and Gallery had secured the right to build it with a $133,000 bid.  Problems with leakage resulted in the coffer dams having to be rebuilt, and additional excavation punctured a water tunnel under the canal.  The bridge was finally opened to traffic in February of 1903, at a final cost of over $194,000.
For much of its life, the area around the bridge was home to coal and lumber yards, and during World War II the bridge again proved its worth as river traffic boomed.  After the war, however, shipping entered a steep decline.  The coal and lumber yards closed down, leaving vacant land.  By the 1970's, the city called for closing many bascule bridges that were seldom lifted and expensive to maintain.  The East Division Street bridge rose for the last time in the 1990's.  $6 million has been budgeted to demolish the bridge and replace it with a “temporary” span.

I was at the bridge on the morning of May 16, 1992, when legendary Chicago author Studs Terkel was joined by Mayor Richard M. Daley, Mike Royko and others in dedicating the bridge to the author whose landmark book, Division Street: America chronicled the thoroughfare as a microcosm of Chicago history.  The bridge was re-dedicated in 2012, in what would have been Terkel's 100th year, and there's already a move afoot to make sure the replacement bridge also bears his name.
No one ever mistook the East Division Bridge for a romantic construction, but there was a surprising bit of ornament.  Along the steel of the bridge's overhead bracing, there were repeating punches of the Chicago “Municipal Device”, the Y-shaped civic symbol that represents the merging of the three branches of the Chicago River at Wolf Point.    Their use on the structure can be seen in Urban Remains Eric J. Nordstrom's documentation on the destruction of the bridge here, here, and here.
As has been a constant since the 19th century, funds for maintaining the city's infrastructure were often been sparse, and time had not treated the East Division Street Bridge kindly, with major renovations widely spaced in the early 30's, 1969, and then again in the 1980's. Recently, it's members had been painted pink.  In April of this year, trucks and buses were prohibited, and on June 30th, the bridge closed to traffic for the last time.
As can be seen at the photograph at the top of this post from our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson, the wreckers made quick work of it.  By the time I got there it little more than a week ago, the imposing metal structure that had dominated the view down the channel for 117 years had completely vanished.  You could almost imagine it had never existed, if it weren't for those giant concrete moorings on either bank, standing like some mysterious ancient ruin whose meaning still awaited deciphering.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Finding Jane's Place at Water Tower Park

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The official name - Jame M. Byrne Plaza - while appropriate to the office that brought her fame, is far too formal for the plaza around Chicago's Water Tower.   If the ending of her single term as mayor brought disappointment, it's beginning brought a total upending to Chicago's sclerotic political order. Yes, she was the first - and to date, only - female mayor of Chicago, but in the way she stormed through city government, at one point taking up residence in one of the high rises in the dreaded Cabrini Green complex to show solidarity with its residents, showed her to be a people's mayor.

So once they make the park's new name official, let's all make it personal.
Someone else came up with the idea, but “Jane's Place” it is, just as it was when she was able to see it from her kitchen window at One East Chestnut.  
Steeped in history as the greenspace around the 154-foot-tall 1869 Water Tower, the “castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it”, which began as a landmark and grew to a legend after it survived the Great Fire of 1871.  The park stood on watch as the sleepy neighborhood around it grew into the Gold Coast, the lake receding behind block after block of new landfill, and then, after 1980's death of the Loop as Chicago's main shopping drag, became the pulsing heart of the new center of the city.

This is the people's park, a place for just sitting and watching the throngs go by.  A place to celebrate the Christmas holiday . . .
. . .and a place just for flopping out . . .
 . . . and for protests . . .
. . . and for weddings . . .

. . . lots of weddings, that most optimistic of public rituals . . . 
The Chicago City Council to expected to ratify the renaming for the now 80-year-old Byrne today.   It will all be very dignified, encased in the formal prose of resolutions.  Well and good.  But there was a lot more to the person they honor.  Jane Byrne was ambitious, uncertain, decisive, rambunctious and passionate.  That's the personality of the public space that will now bear her name.  “Jane's Place” it is.

Monday, July 28, 2014

What's red and blue and on a mezzanine? CTA's new Division and LaSalle entrance debuts

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If you encounter it in the just the right place, you might feel you've fallen into the blood elevator scene from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The crisp red tiles of the new entrance mezzanine at Division and LaSalle - the first anywhere along the Red Line subway since it's opening seventy years ago - just have a way of burning their way into your retina, a strong navigational focus point that leads you to the escalator, stairs, and elevator to and from the platform.

The station's original entrance at Clark and Division is now temporarily closed as it also undergoes a major rehab for the first time since its opening in 1943.  Back then, it was more of a workaday neighborhood.  According to the station's history on the essential, there was even a direct mezzanine-level entry to the Mark Twain Hotel(!). As the surrounding neighborhood first sank and then went more and more upscale, the original crisp design of the station became increasingly derelict, leading Tribune transportation report Jon Hilkevitch to label it “among the tackiest and most dilapidated on the CTA system.”

A 1999 plan had a $15 million price tag, but the time the issue was revisited a few years later, the budget had exploded to $102.5 million.  A new design was completed in 2011, but $30 million in funds earmarked for Clark and Division were diverted to cover the $67 million cost of rehabbing the Red L stop at Grand. By the time the project was relaunched in 2012, the cost was cut almost in half, to $50.6 million, largely by not trying to keep streets open during construction, but shutting down Division for a year, simplifying the construction staging.
The new 8,800 square-foot mezzanine at Division and LaSalle actually opened two months ahead of schedule, at the end of June.  The worst part of it are those truly abominable giant sea slug street entrances to which the CTA seems addicted.    Lumbering, over-scaled, thick limbed and graceless, anything farther from the classic, spare elegance of Chicago design would be hard to imagine  At least on the northeast corner, there's the lightness of the Richard Haas to provide an ameliorating backdrop.
The mezzanine itself follows the new standard of being capacious and bright, with a light-reflective metal ceiling, and those now ubiquitous light-blue tiles with slightly darker tiles depicting a could-be-anywhere skyline.  (For this kind of money, couldn't we afford something less generic?)
Red appears again in thin banding tiles that makes the navigational signage pop.  
There are escalators and an elevator, which no doubt were cheaper to build here, than trying to insert them into the existing entrance at Clark Street.
At platform level, the previous concrete vaults are given the mosaic treatment to make the space seems appear brighter and more welcoming. 
The original and rehabbed and expanded station are both expressions of their respective times.  The 1940's stations were compact and utilitarian, but with a definite Moderne vibe that was allowed to tarnish and submerge under decades of neglect and hacked revisions.  Platforms, also, were spare, unashamed bare concrete outer walls of the tube or the long perimeter of steel columns that kept the whole thing standing.  Seventy years ago in Chicago, the very idea of a subway was a novelty and the frank design an object of delight, tying together the subway to the great retailers of State Street with dedicated mezzanine-level entrances.   In the midst of a time of war, an austere decor didn't really qualify as a privation.
Today, in contrast, we require everything to be flooded with light, surfaces bright, and spaces large. Where once red painted concrete was sufficient, we now have granite; spare concrete vaults are now covered in mosaic.   You only have to look at one of surviving L stations - such as at Chicago or Fullerton - to see how a commuter load as large - or larger - than today could be accomodated in tight, functional spaces that even had room for restrooms and a newsstand. 
Original Fullerton station.  Image courtesy of the Chuckman Collection
Today, we demand more, and the Clark and LaSalle mezzanine provides a sharp, attractive upgrade.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Firewood Mountain, and other Scenes from a Saturday walk through Chicago's Near Northwest side

Subway Aurora Borealis
Chinese Finger Trap, Claes Oldenberg style
(click images for larger view)
Goose Island geese
Submerged dock (more geese)

Blue Factory on North Dayton

Chicago Firewood on Halsted
Kendall College vegetable garden bunny

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer in the City: The Bride Wore White; the Bagpiper Plaid

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It's the kind of thing you encounter in a city big enough to serve as backdrop to the theater of life.  It began with the sighting of a bride and her groom walking past Quigley, in front of a bag-pied-piper leading the wedding party from an unknown church down Gold Coast streets.

 To a reception at the the Drake . . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mr. Trump, meet Mr. Loew

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And no, there is no Mr. Loews, but there was a Mr. Loew - Marcus Loew, to be exact - the source of all things Loews, co-founding in 1904 the theater chain which went on to create powerhouse movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  When the Tisch family acquired the company in 1969, they killed the possessive apostrophe and Loew's became just plain Loews, which Tisch brothers Laurence and Robert merged into their growing hotel business, forming the conglomerate still known today as Loews Corporation, which sold off the theaters in 1985.

Photographs taken on the evening of July 16th, 2014, the 10th anniversary of the opening of Millennium Park . . .

Gehry's Web - On its 10th Anniversary, How the visual music of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion binds together Millennium Park and the City around It.

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In the early 1930's, Chicago built a bandshell in Grant Park just north of the Field Museum.  Its scalloped shape was a direct crib of the new Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.  Unlike at The Bowl, set in nature, the curving form of the Grant Park bandshell was a visual counterpoint to the angularity of the skyscrapers in the background.
Grant Park bandsheel c. 1936 photograph by Fred Korth, courtesy Calumet 412
The Grant Park concerts proved enormously popular, but the original “temporary” bandshell endured into the 1970's.  As it literally began to fall apart, there were proposals for a new, more ambitious concert facility in Grant Park, including a spectacular design by Gene Summers that would have been constructed over the Monroe Street garage.  Advocates for an open Grant Park carried the day, however, and the depressingly desultory Petrillo Bandshell at Butler Field was the only thing to make its past the censorious protectors of the park. Another “temporary” facility, it would remain the home of Grant Park concerts for nearly three decades.

It's no small miracle that we didn't wind up with something similarly underwhelming at Millennium Park.  The master plan by Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill followed Chicago's accustomed Beaux Arts-styled park template, with a modest concert facility penci1led in near Randolph Street at the north end of the park.
But in 1997, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley enlisted John Bryan, the CEO of Sara Lee and the city's most effective philanthropic rainmaker, to raise the $30 million in private sector funds that was what Daley thought would be needed to realize his dream of a new park replacing the decrepit north end of Grant Park and gaping ditch of railroad tracks next to it.  Then all hell began to break loose.

Bryan started to go all millennial, seeing the beginning of a new 1,000 years as the perfect opportunity to create a Chicago institution that would be worthy of such an epochal transition.  Soon, in partnership with the Park District's Edward Uhlir, Bryan was dramatically upping the ante on the park's ambitions, and getting Chicago's philanthropic elite to buy into their vision.  Key among them was heiress Cindy Pritzker, who hated, hated, hated the modest, traditional design proposed for the bandshell.

In 1999, it was announced that the Pritzker Foundation would be contributing $15 million for a new Millennium Park concert pavilion to be designed by Frank Gehry.  Gehry's first attempt was a respectfully austere homage to the tradition of Mies van der Rohe  “We started off with a very simply cover which was a very functional shed,” recalled Gehry partner Craig Webb.

Gehry's Chicago patrons, however, were having none of it.  Just two years before, Gehry, pushing 70 and after decades of innovative work,  had exploded onto the world architecture scene with the opening of his Techno-Baroque Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  Chicago wanted its own version of Bilbao, and the Pritzker Pavilion was going to be it.  The final cost would be somewhere north of $60 million.
Pritzker Pavilion before the ribbon-cutting, opening day July 16, 2014
The design was not entirely new.  In Los Angeles, Gehry had proposed a new design for the deteriorating Hollywood Bowl bandshell, in which billowing metallic forms would envelop the stage like MGM's Leo the Lion's mane.  Transplanted to Chicago, the “mane” became “sails” or “ribbons” making up a “headdress” proscenium.  Its epic sweep of cool, shiny titanium both envelopes and provides counterpoint to its soft, chewy center, the tall stage area faced in warm Douglas fir.

At the time Millennium Park opened ten years ago, Tribune architecture crtic Blair Kamin compared the Pritzker Pavilion to the follies - faux classical ruins - with which the wealthy decorated their estates.  I talked about it as a non-functional “garnish.”  Now I've come to see it as something much more. 

I had written how the bottom half of the proscenium was functional - pushing the sound out over the seats - while the top was purely decorative.  In fact, that's how Uhlir and company got the thing past the height restrictions on buildings in the park.  The proscenium was simply classified a sculpture to circumvent the ban.
The design of the Pritzker Pavilion was Gehry's response to the monotony of the grid.  A modern glass box skyscraper seems less of an expression of the energies of the people working within it, as a cage containing that energy.  “That's how some modernism failed,” Gehry said in his book Gehry Talks.  “when it started getting used by the developers, it became faceless . . . what was missing was human scale.”  By breaking the Pritzker Pavilion into a maelstrom of swirling, interlocking forms, Gehry not only rebels against - and provides counterpoint to - the streetwall of modern skyscrapers along Randolph Street just to the north of the park, but the restless forms the the pavilion's proscenium appear to capture the energy of the music being made on stage and thrust it out into the park.
The Pavilion is also two-faced, delightfully so.  While the side surrounding the stage is all smoothly curving forms, the opposite side, along Randolph Street, is - literally - what's behind the curtain, expressing opening and proudly the structure that makes possible the beautiful forms.  “Some people have objected to the backside,” said Webb, ”but we always imagined it to be a structure with a face and a backside, and the pipe and structure that support the proscenium related in a way back to the trellis.”
The pavilion's back stair becomes a tour-de-force expression of falling into the belly of the great animal.
The Pritzker Pavilion is the visual anchor of Millennium Park.  Wherever you are in the park, it's form is almost always lurking somewhere in your field of vision.  While there's a second formal entrance to the park lining up with Madison Street, it just sort of peters out at the south end of the great lawn.  The great promenade to the north ends at the spectacular forms of the Pritzker Pavilion.  Unlike the park's other two great attractions - Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain, which are located mid-block - the massive proscenium and its support structure conclude a vista directly down Washington Street that's a calling card for the wonders of the park visible all the way west through the Loop.
To the south, it seems to float about the flowers of Millennium Park's Lurie Garden . . .
And to the east, from the site of Michael van Valkenburgh's under-construction Maggie Daley park, it almost seems an extension of the Gehry-designed BP bridge . . .
Even on the horizontal plane, the pavilion marks it territory as king of Millennium Park, both with the great swell of green lawn, and the almost endless sea of red seats that burn into the retina even in the the most frozen midst or winter.
The stage, hibernating behind the massive glass doors, seems almost to breathe in its sleep, a rough beast waiting to be reborn.
As materially dense as is the Pritzker's stage structure, its other half, the great trellis soaring over the seating and the lawn, is a Miesian “almost nothing”that nonetheless contains an entire world.  It  begins in Miesian utility, supporting the hundreds of speakers that make up the outstanding sound system designed by acoustical consultant Rick Talaske .  Gehry rejected the standard approach used at the Petrillo bandshell to unsatisfactory aural results - speakers perched like vultures on a sea of sightline-stealing supports.  “You would have had a yard full of vertical poles with speakers on them like lollipops,” is how Frank Gehry described it, “and that would have been kind of cheesy looking.”
Instead, Gehry drew again on his Hollywood Bowl proposal, for a “distributed sound system” that could recreate a natural soundstage throughout the pavilion and lawn.  Just as the speaker system defines an aural space, the spider's web structure of the trellis redefines a physical space, sprawling 600 feet from stage to back of the lawn, as a contained room, imparting an almost shocking sense of intimacy to what otherwise would appear to be bounded only by distant buildings and the sky.
To underscore the illusion, the slender curving tubes of the trellis terminate in thick, tall metal anchors like shimmering exclamation points.
The trellis not only defines the space in which the audience finds itself, but frames the city around it, most especially the Michigan Avenue streetwall to the east, a landmarked stretch of buildings including everything from the 1890's Chicago Cultural Center, to Art Deco 1920's setback skyscrapers to, in the distance, the tower of Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Building, the fire-engine red steel-and glass CNA Building and cool blue notched tower of VOA's new Roosevelt University dorm.  The infinite again becomes finite, the city a giant stained glass window leaded in the frame of the trellis.
Much has been written about the interactive aspects of Millennium Park's two great art pieces - the 1,000 faces of the Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, and infinitely changing reflections of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate - of how, unlike the unmoving traditional sculptures carved in stone, they are always changing.  Strangely enough, however, it's Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion that's the most dynamic of it all.  Immobile itself, it radiates an energy of movement that sets the all-too-solid city around it to dance.  Even with an empty stage, the emotions of its music sets ear and eye to delight.

Flashback: From Millennium Park's Opening . . .

Frank Gehry and his new Pritzker bandshell

Frank Gehry, Millenniun Park and the development the Techno-Baroque

Photo-Essay on the Construction of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion

 After the Hype:  A Millennium Park Post-Mortem