Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Line Storm at the Point

I like to mark the great cycles of the Earth by going out to where land and rock meet sky and the inland sea. The space is engineered, but the horizon is real. It is the subtle tilt of the axis and the slight wobble in the rotation of the Earth that creates the narrow window that allows life to be, so I like to celebrate this miracle. This year I went out on the vernal equinox to welcome back the sun.

My mother used to say that every fall and spring you could count on a line storm--a particularly strong blow either on the equinox or just after as the sun crosses the line of the Equator. This year the line storm came on the day itself and hung around much of the week. The wind was whipping sleet horizontally, coating the trunks of trees and my camera lens. The city sounds, even the constant muted background roar that passes as silence in the city, were drowned out in the wind and the crash of the waves. It's exhilarating to be out there when the weather is rough--though a friend told me that the exhilaration is just the result of negative ions created when water molecules are smashed on rocks. Whatever.

I love being alone with the wind and water, even in the heart of the city, though the gulls did keep me company. At the entrance, a family got out of a minivan from Minnesota to take their pictures with the Museum of Science and Industry in the background before running back under the tunnel and out of the wind. Two blocks away, on 57th Street Beach, there was a person huddled on the concrete, watching their crazy friend trying to surf on the big waves--but the lake water was too treacherous and unpredictable for him to ride the board.

On the north side of the Point, the full force of the wind and waves racing down from the U.P. collided with the rock wall of the Point, sending spray up 15 feet above the surface of the water. The shadows of the Powhatan Building and Regents Park were barely discernible. 

On a nice day, the Loop floats on the water--like a Hiroshige print (though I know that the Floating World refers to evanescent beauty of the world of kabuki and courtesans, I still think of blue water). Here it is on a sunny day with a big wind in 1987--my most Ukiyo-e photo. 

I went out to the Point again yesterday during Earth Hour to commune with the estimated billion people on the Earth who turned off their lights for an hour. It's just a reminder that our cocoon of technology does not make us immune from nature, it merely muffles our senses. From the Point during Earth Hour the bright towers of the Loop become dark ghosts above the streetlights, with only the red beacon lights on top to indicate where the skyline should be.

This year when I went out to the Point, however, I wasn't alone. Nine police cars, a fire truck, an ambulance and a blaze of search lights were aimed down on the tangle of half submerged rocks on the north shore. The big winds of the line storm had washed a badly decomposed body onto the rocks. 

Updated: Since there was no video, it doesn't exist? It seems to have disappeared from the news altogether. I thought I'd write more when I knew what drama of life and death had occurred there, but now I suspect I'll never know. There was apparently one person with a camera or it wouldn't be news at all:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Legacies Part II

From Nora Erickson's house (see Legacies Part I) , I hurried to get over to the Hyde Park Historical Society lecture and tour about Irving Pond,  architect. David Swan, the architect, had discovered Irving Pond's handwritten autobiography in an archive and realized that here was a legacy that needed to be preserved. The Ponds didn't fit into neat categories, so their work had been ignored.  I was particularly interested in their design for the Studebaker Building--which became the Fine Arts Building downtown, one of my favorites.

 The autobiography is available at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore and you can read about the book here 

Irving Pond was also civic minded--he too thought a lot about community centers and civic spaces 50 years before the Ericksons. His great good friend was Jane Addams and many of his clients came about through connections at Hull House. One of these connections commissioned this house at 5747 S. Blackstone in 1899. James Westfall Thompson, 1869-1941, a professor of History at the U of C and his wife lived there until his wife divorced him and married Harold Ickes (according to the tour). This image is from the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, Archival Photographic Files, [apf2-03920]. It shows the entrance tucked away on the side, which I didn't capture in my photos, but it doesn't give the sense of how ornamental the masonry is--playing with textures of brick and limestone and shadows and tiers.
The interior had wonderful details and welcoming spaces. It felt eclectic and comfortable and beautifully restored and loved. 

The next Pond & Pond house, Lillie House at 5801 S. Kenwood, though a National Landmark, has not  been loved. It's been shamefully neglected. The window sills have long ago lost their paint and rotted. The downspout is missing pieces, hinting at water damage. Not even basic maintenance has been done for it.

It's a National Landmark because of Frank Rattray Lillie (1870 – 1947), another connection for Pond through Hull House and the embryologist of his day and founder of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The original nomination  as a landmark is  available online  It was also for awhile where the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had their offices and published their Doomsday Clock. 

But aside from its historic associations, its radical design, which shines through the neglect, is astounding for 1902. I can see why a cutting edge scientist wanted the simplicity of what Pond called "builded beauty"--a building that forthrightly expressed its construction. From the other angle it's got gables. From this angle, it's down to the bare bones of  streamlined simplicity and the play of brick across the surface. I hope it can find its defender. I shudder to think what's become of the interior after decades of high school students.

The last building I saw on the tour was the American School of Correspondence at 850 East 58th Street. The HPHS just gave the University an award for its restoration and it does look beautiful from the outside. It's a Chicago Landmark. The entry  interior has the original lovely wood and the ironwork in the doors, but a long low hallway leads off where I remembered a staircase. 

Though in the early 1980s the building sighed with the neglect of the decades, and motes of dust from the eons hovered in the air like an office out of Dickens or Bartleby the Scrivener, it was all intact. The offices were light and airy and open and light came even into the interior through the glass office walls. I suspect, given the narrow hall with the modern drop ceiling I could see, that may not be the case anymore. Pond had brought in all the light he could for the people peering over the exams they were grading--bringing professional training or just a high school degree to those without access to an education. It was another example of Pond's high mindedness. 

He hollowed out the masonry walls as much as he dared and bolstered the rest with masonry piers in patterned tiers of brick. It reminded me of the Elizabethan shock over "Hardwick Hall--more glass than wall" with the same problem to solve.

Pond sounded like quite a character. He was a founder of  nearly every club or civic organization in the city in the early 20th century. My favorite photos were of him doing circus tricks!!, and I can't wait to read his autobiography. Thank you, David Swan, for bringing it to light!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Legacies Part I

Last Sunday, I got hit with enough material for at least six blogs. 

I got a call from a friend of mine to go to Norah Erickson's house to see if there were things that should be saved for the various Hyde Park archives in the Regenstein. I was looking particularly for the Garden Fair items, since that's how I knew her. The others were looking for items for the Hyde Park Historical Society archives. In her honor as one of the founders, here's the Garden Fair from 30 years ago (when it and the Hyde Park Shopping Center looked quite different). I like to think of this as her legacy instead of what we found.

The house was in chaos after a series of public estate sales. The public had been through like a tornado of locusts. Old photos, thousands of slides, books, Life magazines, in stacks--the geological strata of a lifetime of saving too many things in too little space, all overturned and strewn about.

She'd used a walker for years. I was suspicious that it had been at least that long since she'd been up or down her stairs. Among the debris I found posters from the early campaigns of Leon Despres, an ad for the public bonds that financed Harper Court where she and her husband had a store, Art Directions, for 20 years, and hand printed posters from their campaign to save the trees of Burnham Park from the chainsaws, during which famously Bill Erickson was arrested for civil disobedience. Yes, people even chained themselves to the trees. It's hard to imagine that in Hyde Park now.

There's a plan for developing Spruce Park that Bill had sketched out as they fought to create green space in the city during urban renewal. I found posters for the Garden Walks that she had organized as a founding member of the Garden Fair. The Garden Fair itself was an effort to bring beauty to the urban landscape by getting everyone to plant their patch of ground. It's a legacy that should not be lost. But the smell of decaying paper and damp basement left us sneezing. All of us in the house had the same reaction. We were all going to go home and throw something out, anything, to stave off  the chaos.