Archive | June, 2011

Working Classes, Working Architecture

28 Jun

Corner of Maxwell and Halsted Streets, Chicago, Illinois, 1930s. Photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

This past Saturday, I gave a talk on Chicago’s early twentieth century commercial recreation centers the 2011 Working Class Studies Association Conference at University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC)’s conference center. As I said a few posts ago, there was a certain fit about this year’s setting: the Hull House Museum, once the headquarters of Jane Addams’ vast Hull House settlement house complex, sits on Halsted right at the bony knee of UIC’s imposing Brutalist-style Student and Conference Center.

Maxwell Street today. Photo by the author.

Of course, there’s also a deep poignance (in the full “piercing” sense of the word) associated with the site of this year’s conference.   This year’s conference attendees on the third floor of UIC’s Conference Center were, knowingly or unknowingly, perched high above what was once one of the densest, most diverse, and eventually the most visible working class neighborhoods in the country.  Nearly all of this history is gone of course.  Not only is the majority of the Pond & Pond-designed Hull House complex gone, but so are large swaths of the surrounding Near West Side community, once home to tens of thousands of foreign-born Chicagoans (working Chicagoans making up the vast majority).  Several square miles of former Little Italy were demolished in the 1960s for UIC’s newest Skidmore Owings & Merrill-designed campus.   Nearby was the long-gone Maxwell Street market, a lively commercial avenue important not only to the neighborhood’s social and commercial life, but also a nesting  ground for what became Chicago’s own unique style of blues music; today, the old Maxwell Street and its vicinity have been vaporized, replaced with UIC’s new mixed-use development called “University Village” with shops and businesses at grade with dormitories and apartment living above.  It may be safer and cleaner than old Maxwell Street but it’s definitely not a must-see destination.  A “village” this sterile street of uninteresting streetscapes and sidewalk sports bars it is not.

Halsted Street's reimagined as "University Village." Photo by the author.

My “Architecture and Class” session at this weekend’s conference was shared by fellow speaker Joseph Bigott, author and historian from Purdue University-Calumet, and Ann Durkin Keating, author and historian at North Central College.  While the irony of the conference ‘s setting was not addressed in our architecture session, we did touch on the the ideas of historic preservation and the presence (or in many cases notable absence)  of working class sites, designers, builders, and dwellers from the academic conversation on preservation.

In his fascinating talk on early twentieth century Chicago public schools, Joseph Bigott called on architectural historians to look more closely at those and other important structures built by ordinary people for ordinary people for ordinary use; in other words, celebrate the everyday as much as so-called monuments of architecture.

From my perspective, I’ve found that designers and historians have been paying more attention to modern vernacular architecture for at least a generation or more.   Parallel movements in the last half of the twentieth century – preservation on one hand and the New History on the other – merged in America’s new state of multiculturalism to form more inclusive methods of researching, recording, and designation.  Not only have the stories of minority Americans been lent a more eager ear; the structures and stories of America’s laboring communities have moved maybe not to the fore but certainly much further into the limelight than ever before.  I would argue that no it may not be the star of the show, but working class architecture has certainly made it onto the stage and in some cases has had its voice heard in a big way.

Apartment houses in 1940s Washington, D.C. - photo by Russell Lee. Photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog .

Joe Bigott also spoke at length about the work of designer and theorist David Pye who in post-war Britain spoke to the necessity and value of the handmade craft of the “man-sized artist”  (an echo of the Arts & Crafts style ideal can be heard).  Joe read a passage of Pye’s written in his Nature and Aesthetics of Design:  “To be an artist of limited scope is not to be a mediocre artist.”   Isn’t that a great guiding philosophy, not only for those artists and architects among us, but also for those in the art and architectural history and preservation communities who survey, analyze, and designate these built works?

To paraphrase Joe, we should all be more open to telling the stories of those effective architects of everyday buildings, those everyday designers who built most of what we see as our cities but whose names are forgotten.  In future posts, I’ll be posting  examples of work by those”second-tier” architects I’ve uncovered.  Also, I will hopefully be continuing an attempt to work out the significance of those works of “limited scope” but not necessarily limited talent.


Chicago West Town’s Lost 132nd Regiment Armory

24 Jun

Looking east toward the Madison front of the 132nd Regiment Armory. Photo from Chicago Daily News Photo Archive

I’ve been doing a lot of research on early twentieth century Chicago sports architecture, in particular sites where bowlers and billiard players might be found playing a round (did I mention I’ve been studying bowling and billiards?). While purpose-built commercial recreation centers have been fascinating to uncover, I’ve also increasingly become a sucker for the city’s lost all-purpose sports venues, particularly the mammoth armories that once had an important place in Chicago’s architectural and social landscape.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, almost all of  Chicago’s neighborhoods would have had one of these sometimes foreboding structures, but despite their overwhelming size, armories served an important purpose in the growing city.  Not only did the buildings serve to train reserve troops; their pools and gymnasium facilities were often opened for public use and their large auditorium spaces were frequently used for large-scale events.

The Drill Hall of the 132nd Regiment Armory. Photo from Chicago Daily News Photo Archive

One of these great buildings was the 132nd Regiment Armory at 2643 W. Madison, an enormous , a brick and steel pile built in 1916 to serve as a training and recreation facility for fresh army recruits on Chicago’s West Side. With monumental multi-floor facades facing both Madison Street and Monroe Street one block south, the facility, which appeared more like a heavily-fortified palace than a gymnasium, dwarfed most buildings in its vicinity.

Recruits entering the facility under the main entrance arch on Madison found that the Armory was in reality more two structures than one. Just inside, they found a slim three-story structure densely packed with regiment functions: a gymnasium, “two or three big halls, with stages and dressing rooms for parties and entertainments, …fifty or more shower baths, more than thirty club and locker rooms, …revolver and rifle ranges,…and private offices.” But crossing south past the main entrance through a series of glass swinging doors, they entered the Armory’s Drill Hall, a five-story tall cavern of a space covered with a barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by oversized steel trusses. At the vault’s apex, a skylight ran the entire length of the room, allowing sunlight to pour down onto the drill floor, one full square acre of open space ringed by a second-floor spectators gallery that could seat hundreds.

The 1924 A.B.C. Tournament inside the 132nd Regiment Armory. Image from "Just Before the First Salvo in the A.B.C.," Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1924

One of the more well-known events held inside the 132nd Regiment Armory was the 1924 American Bowling Congress (A.B.C.) International Tournament.  To host this event — it was one of the largest A.B.C. tournaments to be assembled up to that time — a playing floor of twenty-eight temporary lanes was quickly constructed in the Armory’s Drill Hall.

With football, baseball, golf, and swimming occupying most sportsmen’s warmer summer and fall months, bowling and billiards were traditionally seen as wintertime sports.  Thus the 1924 A.B.C. Tournament was held in late winter at the end of the indoor sports season, all the better considering the intense heat that might have enveloped the 9,000 participants,  not to mention the unrecorded scores of bowling enthusiasts watching from the stands, had the event been held in a hot Chicago summer.   The tournament lasted five full weeks and saw over $100,000 awarded in prizes.  The excitement of five full weeks of play and the scale of the building that housed it made the twenty-fourth tournament “an epoch making affair in the tenpin world.”

Chicago’s armories were for the most part unlucky during the twentieth century transitions experienced by most Chicago neighborhoods.  Most of these important structures have been demolished, among them the 132nd Regiment Armory in West Town.


“A.B.C. Cuts Up its Alleys and Noisily Departs,” Chicago Tribune (March 20, 1924).

“A.B.C.’s Big Bowling Tourney Opens,”  Chicago Tribune (February 24, 1924).

“Gala Ceremony as Record A.B.C. Opens Tonight,” Chicago Tribune (February 13, 1924).

“New Armory of 2d Regiment Best in West,” Chicago Tribune (April 15, 1916).

Sanborn Map Company maps.

A Trip to Alton, IL

15 Jun

Photo by John Cramer

I was in Alton, Illinois, two weekends ago for the (semi) annual Illinois Statewide Preservation Conference. This year the conference was hosted by the Illinois Association of Historic Preservation Commissions, an organization that provides information and support to the municipal commissions that provide, in some cases, the only means of defending endangered local buildings.

There was lots of time to talk to commissioners from around Illinois. The major topic of conversation was a big downer: the slow leeching of funds and power away from these crucial governing bodies, a condition not atypical under normal circumstances but increasingly exacerbated by the relentlessly lagging economy. We did get a chance to see a few success

Photo by John Cramer

stories though: I especially enjoyed Lumenelle’s quick recounting of the restoration of the

massive chandelier – reverently named “The Duchess” – inside the lobby of Joliet’s Rialto Square Theatre. Also inspiring was Rock Island’s preservation commission’s landmarking of a rare early settlement house.

The weekend of the conference, held by the way at beautiful Lewis & Clark Community College, laid out one critical reality: local landmarking is an invaluable tool in the preservation of our historic heritage. By officially designating local historic structures as landmarks, municipalities gain more control over the changes made to these structures. In communities without preservation commissions granted the power of permit review, some structures are vulnerable to

Photo by John Cramer

devastating alterations or, even worse, demolition. If you don’t know if your town or county has a preservation commission, find out. If your town or county doesn’t have a commission, start one.

I’ve posted a few pictures of Alton, Illinois, which has a great downtown right on the banks of the Mississippi River. Traipsing around with our gang of preservation nerds, we found a great mid-century bank and an Eclectic style storefront rumored to have been originally been built at the site of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, only to be purchased after the fair, dismantled and rebuilt in Alton.