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Friday, June 22, 2012


                                           Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michgan Avenue, by Moodygoat @ Flickriver 

In my list of favorite seasons, summer ranks dead last. Summer in the city ranks even lower. No free movies in the park, no Taste of Chicago, no fireworks can possibly compensate for the heat, the glare, the scorching pavements, the parks full of dead grass sharp enough to cut your feet. Not that complaining does any good. At least, this year (unlike last year) we're ready for the season--right out of the gate, on the very first day of

summer, meaning that even though it's hotter than blazes on treeless Grand Avenue, it's cool & dim & green here in the shop. The key to survival--for me--is having a fountain a few feet from my desk.

Sad to say, last summer's "fountain" was a pretty sad affair, cobbled together MacGyver- style on a moment's notice out of odds & ends--a terra cotta vase that I had knocked over & busted a perfect hole the size of a ping-pong ball out of, some plastic tubing, and a galvanized steel bricklayer's tool box that caught the water that poured--just barely--out of the vase. If you enlarge the picture above about 500%, you might actually be able to spot the stream of water. Fortunately--and it wasn't, I'm sorry to say, cleverness on my part--the thin-gauge metal box acted as a resonator to make the meager stream of water sound a lot bigger than it really was, but it still wasn't much. Not long after I got the thing running, a friend of mine happened to stop in, and when he saw my dubious expression, he stared at the setup for a minute, then gave me few words of encouragement: "Well, it's better than nothing." Now, there's a recommendation for you. But he was right, and that's all that could be said about it. Anyway, that was all last year.

This year, however, we've got the real thing: a handsome cast-stone fountain that's nearly as tall as I am, with four copper spouts that shoot streams of water into an octagaonal stone basin. It's got the heft & the overall look I was after, but even more important, it's got a good, full-throated splash. None of that trickly, gurgly, undersized nail-salon fountain nonsense--basically, that is, what I had last year. This year, it's all good. We aren't called SG Grand for nothing. Thank you, Debra.

The sound of constant splashing is refreshing on brutal days like we've had this week, and when you combine that with the sound of birds making a racket in the mulberry trees out back & the drone of the neighbor's lawnmower cruising past every once in a while and the barking of the dog down the block, well, the result is a very soothing environment, and a pretty convincing one, too even though it's all fake, produced entirely by robots. But that part's irrelevant. What matters is that the sound overrides your critical left brain trying to remind you that none of it's real, so much so that if you close your eyes, you'd swear you were out in the country, not in the middle of a former industrial district with hot winds blowing street grit around right outside the door. 

Not, of course, that I came up with the whole concept entirely on my own.  In fact, I borrowed it. OK, OK,  I stole it, and not just the general idea of a cool green sanctuary with a fountain, right in the middle of the city's noise & dirt, but also the fountain's specific form--the pillar, the multi-sided basin, the four jets of water, the whole thing--from another Chicago fountain a few miles away, but hey, it's all right. As Picasso said, All art is copying. A least I admit it.

At any rate, the beautiful photo at the top of the page shows another, prettier view of my model, the idyllic courtyard of Fourth Presbyterian Church, a century-old Chicago landmark that's located on a noisy stretch of Michigan Avenue, right across the street  from those other famous Chicago landmarks, Best Buy & The Cheesecake Factory, and sandwiched in between two retailers of women's fashions: Store A, where prices for dresses begin at $7, and Store B, where a single dress likely costs more than everything on the main floor of Store A, all put together.

But the church's physical proximity to those temples of Mammon is irrelevant. The serenity of the courtyard is what's important, and it feels a million miles--and a few centuries--away from all the hurly-burly.

Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw created a convincing pastiche of the enclosed garth of an ancient cathedral, with the carved limestone walls, steep-pitched slate roof & Tudor-style lead casements of the Manse on the south & west sides of the quadrangle, and to the north, the stained glass windows of the main sanctuary, designed by that master of the Gothic, Ralph Adams Cram.
A hundred years ago, when the church was built, the main function of the cloister's Gothic arches was aesthetic, because Michigan Avenue still stopped south of Chicago River and there was no such thing as "traffic" on what was then called Pine Street. Today, Shaw's arches serve a thoroughly practical purpose: they help block the steady whoosh of tires on hot asphalt. So, of course, does the sound of splashing water from the fountain.

And when the wind rustles the ivy on the walls & the leaves of the trees, it's almost like being in the cathedral close. One morning a few weeks ago--back before the weather turned beastly hot--I stopped in to take a few pictures, and there, in a shady corner of the courtyard, was a young woman quietly reading to a little kid in a stroller. Up a few steps, under the groined arches of the cloister, was a guy playing the flute. The place was like The Garden of Earthly Delights. But the spell didn't last long, When two girls in flips-flops shuffled in, chattering away on their cell phones, I knew it was time for me to go back to work. Even so--and even riding the Grand Avenue bus to the shop--the feeling stuck with me.


Anyway, so that atmosphere of calm-amid-chaos was what I was hoping to re-create and what I tried to focus on, the morning that we wrangled the shop's new fountain into its spot for summer. By the way, it took four guys to load this beast onto the truck, but --somehow--Steve & I managed to unload it and put it together all by ourselves. And just in time, too: in this, the first official week of Summer, we've already had near-record temperatures.  Do come in and check it out if you happen to be A) in the neighborhood--and B) hot.
Fortunately--for Chicago, anyway--the miserably hot weather of the last few days broke last night and headed out east, where Charlotte Moss demonstrates The Best Way to Stay Cool: let other people take care of the actual installation, then show up in a cool outfit and play in the water.  Works for me. There are, of course, other ways of staying cool, some of which involve alcohol. Those ways also work for me, and they have the added advantage of not causing smashed fingers, which I cannot say of the fountain. 

What's your way to stay cool?

Aubrey Beardsley