Thursday, March 30, 2017

You may, or may not, know...

...that the 1960s Chicago-based band the Buckinghams took its name in part from Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. But do you know where Buckingham Fountain got its name? It was with that question in mind that we set out last night on our weekly Urban Hike With Mike.

The five of us -- Alan, Jack, John, Michael and I -- left 1212 W. Flournoy at five o'clock sharp, as always, and walked east on Harrison toward the Loop. We zigzagged our way to Union Station and the old Chicago Mercantile Exchange (where I began working in 1981), past the Sears, er, Willis Tower, to Firehouse Subs at the corner of Jackson and Wells.

Founded in 1994 in Jacksonville, Florida by former firefighting brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen, Firehouse Subs is a restaurant chain with locations in 44 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and Mexico. Never been there? Neither had any of us, even though the one downtown has been open since summer, 2015. The sandwiches are tasty, by the way.

After dinner we continued down Jackson, past the old Chicago Board of Trade Building (now listed on Google Maps as "CME Group Inc.") at the foot of "Money Canyon." Although this particular structure was completed in 1930, the Board itself was established on April 3, 1848, prompting our trip. (We won't be meeting next week.)

For over thirty years, until 1965, the Board was the tallest building in Chicago and visible from my current neighborhood. I can just imagine what people in Little Italy used to say about it.

"You can see the Loop from here. There's the Board of Trade."

"What's the Board of Trade?"

"They trade grains there."

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know."

The Board of Trade Building is a great example of Art Deco style, of course, clad in gray Indiana limestone and topped with a copper pyramid roof. And on top of that is a 31-foot-tall statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The sculptor, John Storrs, left off its face, figuring no one would ever see the top of the forty-five story building anyway.

As you can see from the picture above (taken from the rear, juxtaposed with the postmodern Willis Tower), as with many skyscrapers of the era, the exterior was designed with multiple setbacks at increasing heights, which served to allow additional light into the ever-deepening concrete valleys in urban cores. At night, the setbacks are upwardly lit by floodlights, further emphasizing the structure's vertical elements. The night illumination design was a common contemporary Chicago architectural theme, seen also in the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower and others.

(On a personal note, my grandfather, great-grandfather and a couple of my great-uncles were all members of the Chicago Board of Trade. My father and one of his brothers also worked there as runners during their vacations from school. And even though I was a proud "Merc guy" for 25 years -- and gloated a little when the CME ended up buying the Board in 2006 -- I'll always consider this building to be the Board of Trade.)

A short detour around the Federal Building (the sidewalk was closed) took us serendipitously past the Flamingo, by Alexander Calder, where I snapped what I would modestly call the Photo of the Evening.

We then paused for a moment to consider the Monadnock Building, at Jackson and Dearborn. The structure, made up of two halves designed by different architects and built at different times, is the tallest load-bearing brick building ever constructed and was the world's largest office building when it was completed in 1893.

Beginning at the corner of Jackson and State we encountered DePaul University on both sides of the street (what a presence!).

The law school is housed in a high-rise building at the corner of Jackson and Wabash that I've always admired. (Tudor on a skyscraper in a downtown business district? Outstanding!)

Formerly the Finchley Building, it was designed in 1928 by local architect Alfred S. Alschuler and was acquired by DePaul in 1972. Originally home to the Finchley Co. Men's Store, it's described this way by my handy dandy AIA Guide to Chicago:

The Gothic style of the stone base changes incongruously to a Tudor half-timbered treatment at the top. 

I don't care if it's "incongruous"; I love it!

Alfred S. Alschuler (1876 - 1940) was one of Chicago's most prolific and versatile architects during the height of the city's architectural boom on the eve of the Great Depression.

A native Chicagoan, Alschuler's designs included warehouses, department stores, industrial buildings, synagogues and offices. Several of his works are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Coincidentally, Alschuler also designed the old, old Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building, which was in use from 1927 until 1972. (The "Green Box," over Union Station, was the Merc's home until 1983.) Despite a spirited set of protests organized by local preservation groups, the 17-story structure on the northwest corner of Franklin and Washington Streets was demolished in 2003. What a shame!

The old CME building was originally referred to as the "Butter and Egg" building, which I think must have been a mildly derisive term originating from the superior-minded but slightly insecure (and, let's face it, anti-Semitic) folks at the Board of Trade. (I remember my father, upon learning that I got a runner's job at the "Merc" -- established in 1919, the year of his birth -- sniffed, "Oh, year, the Butter and Egg Board.")

We then crossed Michigan Avenue, walking past the Art Institute, which was built in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition. Founded in 1879, it is one of the oldest and largest art museums in the United States. In fact, only the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is larger. (Damn you, Big Apple!)

After reaching Lake Shore Drive ("as far as this train goes") we turned south and walked up to the evening's destination, the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, answering that age-old trivia question at the beginning of this post.

The fountain was donated to the city by Kate Buckingham (whoever she was) in memory of her brother, Clarence, (whoever he was) in 1927. (Ever notice how much was built during the Roaring Twenties?) One of the largest fountains in the world, it was designed by beaux arts architect Edward H. Bennett in a rococo wedding cake style. Inspired by the Latona Fountain at the Palace of Versailles, it represents Lake Michigan, with four sets of sea horses (two per set) symbolizing the four states -- Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana -- that border the lake. (If I was really smart I would have waited until next month, when the water gets turned on. Oh, well.)

Speaking of water, the rain, which up until this point had been pretty light, began to fall a little harder as we headed toward the Blue Line Station at LaSalle and Congress. We passed one more architectural gem, however, the Auditorium Theatre (which John noted, correctly I think, is redundant) built in 1889 and almost torn down -- twice. (What's wrong with this town?)

In the early 1930s, estimates were taken to demolish this great example of Richardsonian Romanesque style, but the cost of the demolition was more than the land was worth. (Thank God!)

The theatre survived the Great Depression, somehow, only to go bankrupt and close in 1941. It was then taken over by the City of Chicago and used as a World War II servicemen’s center. The stage and front rows of the theatre were converted to a bowling alley (!) and much of the ornate stenciling, plasterwork and art glass was covered over. More than two million servicemen were housed, fed and entertained at the building between 1941 and 1945.

In 1946, Roosevelt University saved the venue from demolition a second time by acquiring it, but lacking the money required to renovate the theatre, kept it dormant for two decades. After extensive restoration, beginning in 1963, the Auditorium Theatre reopened in 1967.

The theatre, with almost 4,000 seats, is the second-largest concert hall in the country, after the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. (Second fiddle to Gotham again!)

We finally made it to the Blue Line stop at LaSalle and were home a little after seven. Next week I'll be in California for my son's wedding so the Hike won't resume until Wednesday, April 12. Where will we go? I have a few ideas, but I'm always open to suggestions.

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