I'm No Elvis (I Hope)

Competition is in the air. The Premier League kicks off today, select soccer has kicked off for my oldest, the youngest starts soon, and of course Alabama kicks of in 336 hours. As for me, my writing time this week has been consumed by a design competition. I’ve heard ample grousing amongst the natives about this particular contest: Are the requirements for this competition excessive and onerous? Does the challenging site beg the question of whether or not it should even be developed? Is opening a competition for a small site in North Chattanooga to designers in (effectively) all of the major cities in the South (as opposed to showcasing and cultivating local talent) good for Chattanooga? The questions are moot.

When there is a competition in one’s own town (and in my case, immediately next to one’s own project), one must respond. Would I like to win? Sure. But more than that, I don’t want someone from Atlanta, Nashville, or Birmingham to come steal our biscuit. So, this week I’m sending out positive vibes to all of my brother and sister designers in Chattanoogan- play up ya’ll! We must protect this house!

On a more macabre note, I just read something rather unsettling. Elvis died on this day in 1977. That summer he played his last four shows in Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis before returning to Tennessee to die aged 42. As fate would have it, this summer I've been to Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, and turned 42… Note to self: steer clear of  codeine, Valium, and morphine in the bathroom.


I Need a Vacation

To get the cliché out of the way: after having been on vacation last week, I now need a vacation. In fairness, international travel with the boys was easier than I thought it would be. Blog ideas have always come easily during vacations over the past few years. Not so this year. In fact, during my stay I was moved by the feeling that urban design doesn’t really matter. That impression was alternately influenced by sand and sun, Imperial and cachaca, city and slum.

Call it a sign when the local beer has your initials on it.

Costa Rica is an exceedingly beautiful place. The friendliness and hospitality of the Ticos rivals that of the South. Compared to many of their Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is a fairly prosperous place. That said, it is clear that life is tough for many of the people who live there. I spent some time with one of the locals in Quepos. It is dense, walkable, full of stores, and served by many transit options. We rightfully tout density, walkability, transit, and local economy as things we should aspire to. Based on what I saw there however, these things alone do not necessarily make a prosperous place (an opinion shared by my Costa Rican friend). If these aspirations do not always produce desired results, why do we cling to them as gospel? What’s the point?

I will stop short of calling this crisis in confidence in my chosen profession. The experience did, however, serve as a reminder that it easy to slip into a blind embrace of dogma. It is good to continually question what we do and why we do it. There is, no doubt, a deeper and more profound post that can be drawn from my trip, but it will have to wait. I’m knackered and my brain hasn’t fully reengaged. With August upon us, the Summer of Sullivan is drawing to a close, and we have much ground to cover yet…

That pretty well sums it up.

A Tale of Two Cities

As I mentioned last week, the Jewel Boxes are like siblings. As such, comparisons between them are unfair and difficult. This week, however, I will do just such a thing (but the comparison is more about the communities than the buildings). In one case, the building has been recognized as a jewel, and new life has been breathed into it. In the other, the building languishes in a purgatory of obscurity.

I wasn’t particularly keen on visiting The Peoples Savings Bank in Cedar Rapids. It doesn’t follow the formal recipe of the other banks, and none of the photos I came across moved me. The building was severely damaged in a flood a few years ago, and my understanding was that its future was uncertain. All of this is to say that I did not have high hopes. 

I was delighted to find that the building has been lovingly restored, and is now occupied by a serviceable restaurant. Would I have done the interior different than the restaurant has? Definitely. The space is now active, animated, and loved, however, so I won’t quibble over details. The main takeaway is that the building is valued, cherished and is actively used. Bravo and thank you to the people of Cedar Rapids.

The signage on the building makes me wince, but could be worse.
(Flying donuts? JK- no hate mail)

I did not have a preconceived opinion about the Purdue State Bank building. At first glance, it was another beautiful work by our genius. A bit of scrutiny, however, shows that the people of West Lafayette have been naughty indeed. The building is on a triangular site, and the original entrance was at the acute angle. At some point, the entry was removed, and an ATM machine now occupies the position of privilege at the corner of State and South streets. After navigating my way through security guards and desk jockeys to get to the interior, I found that it has been expertly disguised as a sterile 1960’s office cubicle (albeit one used purely for storage with nary a human to be found). This is an example of a community that has abdicated its responsibility as steward of their built environment. I have a hard time believing that the callous treatment of such a thing can stand. On the bright side, the building is still standing, and awaits a bit of TLC in the future. As all things in life eventually boil down to college football- I am now a fervent foe of the Purdue Boilermakers (almost to the point of hoping that Michigan beats them…almost).

ATM in place of entry. Terrible. Awful. Terribly awful.

The stained glass has been scavenged.

Words fail me.


The Old Home

…which is why I rarely leave the house after 5:30...

So, where were we? Ah, yes, the Summer of Sullivan rolls on. As you may know, this summer I am on a pilgrimage to see all of Louis Sullivan’s Jewel Boxes (and other works as proximity permits). The JB’s are like 8 siblings- each special in their own way. Each building has a personality, some are overachievers, others problem children; some are muscular and athletic, others more cerebral. This week, I offer the “black sheep” of the JB family.

The Home Building Association Bank was started in 1914- the same year as two other Jewel Boxes (Grinnell and West Lafayette). At first glance, the differences between the HBAB and the others are apparent. This building is clad in grey terra cotta, while all of the others are brick. This building operates on two floors, while the others are all one-story. Despite the differences, there is no denying that the building is special. Oh, the quality of the detail, and the beauty of the proportion.

Unfortunately, a single glance betrays the fact the building has been ridden hard and put away wet. After the bank left, a meat shop butchered the entry by taking out a wall and chamfering the corner (leaving a dumb steel pipe to carry the load). Other owners welded canvas awnings over the south windows, jacked up the delicate lion's mouth drainage system, and added dropped ceilings to cover the intricate stencil work on the interior.

Of all the Jewel Boxes, this is the only one I dreaded seeing in person. I did not want to see such a thing in such a condition. I was still in the fog from out night in Columbus and not totally prepared for what we saw upon arrival. To my amazement and delight, the building has recently been donated to the Licking County Foundation.  (If any of you C.Rushing readers happen to know anyone at LCF, please give me a shout!) They have cleaned it up a bit, cleared out the interior, and appear to be poised to bring the black sheep back into the fold.

The bank as originally built. pay attention to the windows and entry.
Oh, the indignity of that silly steel pole. Note the
telltale rust stains showing that this maneuver
allowed water to get behind the terra cotta.

Check out what those sumbitches did with the lower windows.
On the right (Sidney, OH), a Sullivan drainage
detail with a downspout subtly located inside a
lion's mouth. On the left (Newark, OH), what can
only be described as a lion fellating a downspout.

Fortunately, some of the character of the interior survives.