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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chicago with Love

Yes, there's a book called Chicago with Love, by novelist Arthur Meeker--and it happens to be one of my favorites, with gossipy stories about the larger-than-life personalities of the city's social & cultural muckety-mucks, back in the first half of the last century--but that book, while fascinating, is not what I'm talking about today. I just borrowed its title.

This is mostly about Chicago landmarks of one sort or another, landmarks that we loved--and lostHere's the thing: any time you get two or three Chicago designers or architects together, it's only a matter of time before somebdy brings up a lost masterpiece or building or one that's currently endangered. At the moment, it's Bertrand Goldberg's iconic Prentice Women's Hospital, and the outcome doesn't look rosy.  Any time you go to court to present your evidence and the judge shows up with the decision against you already written, it's not a good sign, even if he grants you a token hearing, for, you know, appearances sake. Unfortuntely, that approach is an old Chicago tradition, like dyeing the river green: bulldoze first, ask questions later. 

In his classic 1975 book Lost Chicago—now in its umpteenth printing—my friend David Garrard Lowe achieves the perfect tone between celebration of our city’s great architecture and elegy for the masterpieces that we’ve lost, and are continuing to lose.  

Lowe especially mourns the loss of Holabird & Root's elegant Michigan Square building of 1929, with its fabled Diana Court. In this large semicircular room, cream & brown  marble columns rose between carved glass panels of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, the "hunt", presumably, being for the kind of expensive clothing and fine jewelry on offer in the tony shops lining the curved balcony.
Those  carved glass panels--sidelit for extra sparkle--were the work of Chicago sculptor Edgar Miller, and next to the stairs stood a fifteen-foot-high fountain with a nude bronze statue of the goddess by Carl Milles. It was surely the most glamourous room in town--and back then, Chicago had a lot of glamourous rooms. 

Another iconic shot by Hedrich-Blessing, the greatest architectural photographers Chicago has ever seen

Unfortunately, by the time I saw Diana Court, the place was already closed and awaiting demolition. In fact, I only managed to see it at all because a salesman at the old Dunhill Store—as I remember, the last tenant left in the Michigan Avenue storefronts—was nice enough to unlock the shop’s lobby entrance so that I could take a look. I came prepared to bribe him, but as I said, he was a nice guy and he wouldn’t take my money. Then again, maybe he declined the cash because he needed the deniability: in case I got caught trespassing, he could claim he didn't know anything about it. If those concerns were why he turned down my crisp new twenty, he probably wasn't born here. A real Chicagoan, back then, would have taken the money, then denied doing it. That used to be the the Chicago way, although, judging by the article in this morning's Chicago Tribune about our former congressman, for some people, it's still the Chicago way. 

 At any rate, the Dunhill salesman let me in. And even dark & dusty, and already stripped of some of its elements, what had been Diana Court still gave off a powerful whiff of glamour. Well, that and a bit of damp, abandoned-building smell. The  heat had probably been turned off. Soon after, most of the place was bulldozed.   
These days, poor naked Diana is shivering her nubile butt off on an outside terrace down in Central Illinois, and what’s left of the temple-like space she used to reign over is a garishly decorated hotel lobby. If, to avoid future problems, a developer asked a designer to come up with a decor guaranteed not to elicit even a whimper of protest when it got ripped out, it would probably look like this.    
                                Same space, same view, different clientele

But it’s not only high-style landmarks that I miss. The other night our Grand Avenue neighborsUrban Remains opened their new showroom, so after I closed the shop, I walked over to check out the place. Eric, the owner, has lots of cool stuff, and I ended up talking with a guy about old signs. He brought up the old Magikist signs, which, for anybody who grew up in the area, used to be the unofficial welcome signs to downtown Chicago. Most of the major freeways had one and it killed me to see the last of them torn down a few years back. I always thought the city should designate them as official landmarks--even if the company they represented was defunct--as well as the more distant giant spinning neon atom sign that used to mark the halfway point into the city from the western suburbs.  But they’re gone, too, now--all of them.


Well, OK, not quite gone. Somebody here in town rescued one of the smaller versions of the Magikist sign, maybe the one that used to flash on & off high up above glitzy Randolph Street which, back in the day was Chicago’s own version of Times Square, complete with miles of neon, blinking chaser lights, hookers, porno shops and all-night greasy spoons. All that stuff's gone, too, now, but the sign, somehow, survived--sort of. That is, it's still around, but its fragile neon tubing is long gone. The thing needs a ton of work.  But for those who loved the signs, all is not lost.

No, the big red lips don't welcome drivers to downtown Chicago anymore, but they're not completely gone--not as long as there are memories. And, more importantly, computers.  Then again, I spent a few frustrating days online trying to track down a decent video of the Magikist lips, and I still came up empty: twelve gazillion pages and not one video of one of Chicago's iconic images. Who has time for that? Sometimes, it's just easier to do it yourself.  So I did. Anyway, so that's my own rendition of the sign at the top of the page.  And here is, again. It's like having to look at a dozen identical cellphone pictures of somebody's new grandbaby--which I hate doing. The difference, of course, is that this baby is mine. 

I  had no idea what I was doing when I began, but it wasn't difficult. In fact, it took me less than two hours to create the individual frames in plain old MS Paint and then upload them. Why no one else  had ever bothered to do this before now, I don't know. My prediction is that, given Chicagoans' affection for the lost touchstones of their childhood, this little GIF file may well outlive me. 

Then again, I'm hardly the only one inspired by low art. A few years ago, artist Derek Eerdman, who, like the signs, formerly worked in Chicago, appropriated the Magikist sign to make his own statement. That is, he flat-out copied the sign--in the same deadpan way that Andy Warhol copied soup cans and Brillo boxes. The advantage that Derek's version has over Magikist's original signs, of course, is that this one, at only four feet wide, will fit in the average living room while the real deal would not, and the advantage over a Warhol original is that to own an Erdman, you don't need to sell your house. The guy's still around, and he's still busy cranking out the art. The only bad part is that Derek's just not in Chicago, anymore, which, as far as I'm concerned is another loss for our city, because he's also a funny guy. What can I say? The hits just keep coming.  


Speaking of hits, though--and to end this up on an upbeat note, not one of regrets over what we've lost--here's a great little Youtube video that just happens to combine today's two other themes: goddesses & lips. It's a fan video by et7waage1--whoever that is--celebrating the movies' Film Goddess of All Time, featuring The New Vaudeville Band playing their catchy 1967 mega-hit Dear Rita Hayworth.  OK, the term 'mega-hit' is, I admit, a bit of stretch--the song was 45 years old before I ever even heard it--but I instantly fell in love with it, and at this time of year, its innocent yearning seems just about perfect.


  1. Bart, when I first saw blinking on MY BLOG LIST, I thought it might be the beginnings of a stroke. Fortunately, it was just your brilliantly created lead image. Congratulations on your technical expertise, as advanced as your aesthetic sensibilities. I had not realized the tragic extent of Chicago's architectural losses (and what replaced them). I would have thought the 1973 tune was about 5 years older, but it's catchy.

    1. Don't be deceived, John: I have NO technical expertise. That's why I had to use MSPaint in the first place. Everything else is too complicated. And while I knew that big image would blink on my blog--that was the main idea--I didn't realize that even the links to it would blink. I didn't even know that was possible. Live and learn.

  2. Haha! Love what TDC ^^^^ said!

    Good on ya for reproducing that flashing sign... in MS paint, no less!


    1. I didn't watch all those MacGyver reruns for nothing, you know. I can also play a Baroque concerto--on the harmonica.

  3. Whenever I'm in Chicago, I love to look for glimpses of its early architecture, although, as with my home city of Cleveland, so many of the best buildings have been recklessly destroyed.

    A copy of Lost Chicago made it to Taiwan with me, and in honor of this post, I took it down and will read it next.
    --Road to Parnassus

  4. a week ago, while heading home late at night from the shop, i wondered to myself "where did the magikist sign used to be?

    perhaps we were channeling each other as that would have timed with this post of which i am just seeing now.
    there are so many loses to this lovely city but that kitschy sign warmed my heart as a child knowing that once in sight grandma's house was not far away
    enjoyed the memories bart!

  5. This blinking summons is so moveable Gatsby! Yes about feelings of an imminent stoke or a torn retina! At 63, I fear the metaphors are starting to get so physical! Glad you are standing watch over Chicago's skyline.

  6. Speaking of moveable Gatsby & skylines, HBD, do you know the dreamily dizzy video for Caravan Palace's "Suzy"? The neon-lit cityscape that speeds past as the band tours the skyscrapers of Manhattan in a steampunk 1920s open tourning car is wonderful. So's the whole thing, for that matter.

    Here's the address:

  7. Well that was fun dancing with stars!