9.29.2014

Living the Dream

I’m pulling an O.J. Simpson (the airport running version, not the stabby version), doing my best to net get left in Detroit. After sprinting through the concourse, whisking past the gate, and skipping through the jetway, I was aboard and shuffling through first class. The first face I see is none other than my childhood hero, the Human Highlight Film, Dominique Wilkins. The extent to which I idolized the man in my adolescent years cannot be overstated. I stammered some nonsense, shook his hand, and headed back to my seat. After claiming my spot with the unwashed masses back in coach, I posted a quick, exclamatory tweet and settled in for the flight.

While the Summer of Sullivan is over as far as you are concerned, I am still finishing up a couple of obscure biographies of the man. I whipped out one such book to help pass the time, and dug back in. That’s when I saw it, a most extraordinary and implausible thing. I saw a drawing…of a hotel…by Louis Sullivan…that was to be located in the city of CHATTANOOGA! It was dated 1891, the height of the Adler & Sullivan years. In fact, that was the same year as the Wainwright Building, the first truly originally conceived skyscraper.  Obviously, the Chattanooga project was never built, but oh what could have been. The hope is unspeakable, but the institution that commissioned this work is still in existence...might there by some long lost Sullivan drawings in town?

A Louis Sullivan Design for Chattanooga! Imagine the
composition with a cornice more in league with Wainwright.

The flight landed, and a quick check of my email showed that Dominique Wilkins himself had seen my tweet and responded for the world to see. How sweet is this life. Truth be told, however, this was the second time that I’ve met Dominique.  The first was a random encounter at the finish line of a half-Ironman race I did in Orlando back in 2000. Speaking of triathlon...

My wedding day, the births of my children, and
the day that Dominique Wilkins retweeted me...
The first time 'Nique had the pleasure of meeting me.

And if you thought I would let this Ironman weekend pass without a casual reference to my own Ironman race in 2002, you were mistaken. When the Chattanooga race was announced, I was actually pissed off in a petty, jealous sort of way. Upon further reflection, however, I think the locals that compete in a race miss out on the richness of travel and change of routine that can make an event special. Either way, my congratulations to all of the athletes and volunteers, and apologies for the tacks, oil, and dead bodies (wasn't me). Speaking of traveling for sporting events...

Yes, I did shave my legs for this.
I wasn’t able to catch much of the Chattanooga Ironman as the oldest was playing a soccer tourney in exotic East Ridge. He and his CFC U-10 teammates played up in the U-11 age bracket this week and managed to make the finals. Their opponent was none other than the CFC U-11 squad. It was an exciting and hard fought match that culminated in a penalty shoot-out. Despite an up and down tournament, young Rushing stepped up and coolly scored the deciding spot kick to help secure the upset. It was an exciting and apt conclusion to another week of living the dream.

9.22.2014

All Aboard

As the Summer of Sullivan gives way to the first day of fall, the pace of life is speeding up. In addition to my “real job” and related travels, I’m back to teaching (two sections of) Architecture History at UTC, college football is now in full bloom, and at home my two boys are playing four fall sports. I’m also working on a project with some potential- stay tuned. The speeding train that is life continues to barrel down the track. For these reasons, this week, I will be brief.

Speaking of trains, I’m very excited about the potential inherent in the TIGER grant that the city just received. The initial process and potential project are important for a couple of reasons. First, Chattanooga is forever linked to the railroad. Regardless of what role the railroads play in modern Chattanooga, we are forever linked to the rail in the collective memory of the country (and indeed the world). We have all spoken with visitors who want to know if they can ride the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. How sad for them that there is no regularly scheduled train to take if only for nostalgia’s sake. This process certainly has the potential to provide another level of patina for the city, and to provide a connection to our past. 

More importantly, this is an unsurpassed opportunity for reinvesting in our existing urban neighborhoods. The crucial questions are how transit stops are located and how the land around them is developed. This has the potential to be a truly transformative moment for the city. It is a new way to connect employers and employees. It is also a catalyst for the infill of vacant and underutilized property.

So when you read about the TIGER grant, yes it’s about train riding, yes it’s about reclaiming our rail heritage, and yes it carries the baggage of a federal transportation project. It is the underlying potential, however, that is most important.

This potential rail project is not simply about moving people on a train, but it would provide is another choice for getting around town. The promise in this process is not in shunning auto culture in favor of mass transit, but it does represent another didactic example for how to build a healthy city. Indeed this is a transformative economic development opportunity on a grand scale and with it comes the promise of connecting the disadvantaged with opportunity.

9.08.2014

Epilogue

I've left it late this week. More travel, more excuses (Seaside this time). I didn't really have time for this trip, but I’m certainly not complaining. Anyway, when mamma calls I pretty much have to show up. How about a follow-up to the Summer of Sullivan post from last week? No profound observations, just a tough question. 

Not conducive to blog writing.
Epilogue:

After leaving the graveyard it was back to the Red Line and a trip downtown. I was a bit ahead of schedule and figured that I would go soak up some atmosphere before heading back out to ORD. I was definitely in a Chicago School frame of mind- the Marquette, the Rookery, the Monadnock, The Reliance, Carson Pirie Scott (again). Situated between Root’s Monadnock and Holabird & Roche’s Marquette is a composition by Mies. His two skyscrapers and postal station are organized around a plaza and Dearborn Street.  Y'all know that I love Mies- in fact I paid respects to him at Graceland as well. After soaking up Sullivan all summer, however, I couldn’t help but feel that the space Mies created is bankrupt (in spite of Calder’s flamingo that almost brings life to the space). Perhaps Venturi best summed up my thoughts at the time when he wrote, "less is a bore". Not to worry, I'm sure I'll be back to modernist self in no time.

I've still got love for Mies...
...on this day, however, his space did not move me.

So, naturally, it was off to the pub.  After a murderous day of walking (and it was still only 3:30), the London Pride hit the spot.  At the bottom of the pint glass I decided that I was not going back to Chattanooga. Why in the world would I leave Chicago? The place has the best architecture in America, superb public transit, excellent public spaces, and arguably the best food in the country. It is a city, a friendly and accessible city.

Reliance Building by Burnham & Root.
Nice, but no Sullivan.
The Rookery by Burham & Root.
Nice, but no Sullivan.

After the second pint, I admitted that I couldn't really stay in Chicago. I had class to teach the next day, and I was dying to see the family. As for the bigger question, I'm not sure I could actually live in Chicago. My excuses are numerous: I'm basically unemployable outside of Chattanooga, I abhor cold weather, there is no college football there, and it's not The South. But this does raise another question, one that I have no answer to...

The Marquette by Holabird & Roche.
Mies' plaza in foreground.

The Monadnock by Burham & Root.
Root, a Southerner, checked out at 41.
Way too early, what potential.
If there are things that I value in a city- density, design, activity, transit, food, nightlife- why would I not live in a place with those characteristics? Perhaps more pointedly- should we spend our lives trying to make a place conform to our desires, or should we move to a place that already exhibits those traits? Discuss…

9.01.2014

Summer’s Lease Hath All Too Short a Date

Waking up at 5:30 a.m. is not particularly fun. A long day of travel and a late hotel check-in the night before exacerbated the situation. Fortunately, I was in the central time zone, and my biological clock blunted the edge of the early hour. This was to be another long day, but one that I was eagerly anticipating. This was the last day of The Summer of Sullivan.

In early June, I declared this The Summer of Sullivan. In addition to re-reading his excellent books, I embarked on a quest to visit each of his eight “Jewel Boxes”. These were small but exquisite banks that he designed late in his career. These jewels are not easy to come by, however, as they are scattered about in tiny towns in the Midwest. Prior to this day, I had visited seven of them: Cedar Rapids, Grinnell, Algona, Owatonna, West Lafayette, Sidney and Newark.  My journey would be complete with a trip to Columbus, WI.

The drive from Madison to Columbus was easy, and Farmers and Merchants Union Bank did not disappoint. It was very much a variation on the theme, and is definitely cut from the same cloth as the others. It will forever have the distinction of being the last Jewel Box I got to see for the first time. I felt no small sense of accomplishment as I drove away.




Was this the end of The Summer of Sullivan? Not by a long shot. If one drives 3 hours south and east from Columbus, they might find themselves in…

Chicago! Chicago was Louis’ home for most of his career, and home of his most renowned work. To do The Summer justice, I had to go. The drive to ORD was fun and uneventful (less the morning rush as I approached Chicago). I dropped the rental off at the airport, hopped on the Blue Line and rolled in to Monroe Station. From there, a number of Louis’ great works were within walking distance.

The Auditorium Building was the thunderbolt of a project that thrust Louis onto the world architectural scene. The building was commissioned by a wealthy Chicagoan with the premise that a grand auditorium, open and accessible to all, would be just the thing to calm tensions created by the growing wealth disparity that characterized the city in the late nineteenth century. Whether the building was successful in that regard is debatable. What is not debatable is the fact that Dankmar Adler designed an acoustically perfect space, and that his young associate Mr. Sullivan gave the building life and beauty. I arrived at the building in-between tours, and did not have time to wait for the next one. I did the next best thing- I saw the space “Chicago-Style”. I slipped the docent a few bills and moments later found myself on an unofficial, self-guided tour of the building. It was a remarkable space, but obviously not designed for the single visitor. I suspect that it really comes into its own during a performance, and maybe some day I’ll catch one. I paid my respects and hit Michigan Ave.


Frank Lloyd Wright described this as "The greatest room
for music and opera in the world- bar none."

A few blocks north of the Auditorium on Michigan Avenue is the Gage building. It is tall and handsome, and the detail most definitely of Mr. Sullivan. The architects of record were actually Holabird and Roche, but Sullivan did the fa├žade. I snapped a few photos, turned around, gawked at the Millennium Park fountains, and was on my way.

A couple of blocks to the north and west is a mature Sullivan building. The Carson Pirie Scott Building (now occupied by Target of all things) is the last big really big commission that Sullivan got before his life went south. The building represents a quantum leap in American architecture and in Modernism. He is clearly exploiting the structural qualities of the steel in order to open the wall to windows. The building somehow accentuates the vertical and horizontal simultaneously.  What most people notice, however, is the remarkable cast iron detail of the corner and ground floor. Evoking the bounty of harvest, the ornament is a celebration of commerce and the consumer. It is around this time that Henry Desmond wrote for Architectural Record that “Mr. Sullivan occupies today something of the usually isolated position of the prophet, the forerunner, the intensely personal force . . . For let it be understood, Mr. Sullivan is really our only Modernist . . . He has his precedents no doubt, but his mature work . . . is not to be dated from elsewhere either as to time or place. Mr. Sullivan himself is the center of it. He is his own inspiration, and in this sense may be saluted as the first American architect.” After a borderline indecent fondling of the cast-iron, I was off to Jackson Station and the Red Line- destination Clark/Division Station.

I want to hate on the target logo, but can't. From the beginning
this building was about commerce and consumerism.

 

A fifteen-minute train ride and a half-mile walk landed me on the doorstep of the Charnley House. The house is notable as a leap forward in modern residential architecture. The building is also notable because while Sullivan is the architect of record, an apprentice of his was responsible for much of the design. Young Frank Lloyd Wright would go on to do pretty well for himself. Unfortunately, the building was not open to the public this day, owing to a recent freak flood. Please consider chipping in a few bucks for the effort. I paid my respects, snapped a few pictures, and walked the half-mile back to the station.


I could live here.

From Clark/Division, I continued on the red line, past Wrigley Field, and arrived at Sheridan Station. I had another mile to walk, but stopped to fortify myself at Byron’s. I could go on for days about culinary philosophy as it relates to the hot dog, but in the interest of time I will simply state that Chicago-style hot dogs are the highest form of the art (sorry NY dirty water dogs).

The highest form of the art.

After polishing off a couple of Byron’s finest, I proceeded west along Irving Park Road. Shortly thereafter I arrived at the gates of Graceland Cemetery. I could think of no more fitting end to The Summer than to pay my respects to the man. Before that moment arrived, however, he had a couple of final treats for me.

It’s another half-mile walk from the entry gates to the northeast corner of the cemetery. The long walk past the thousand of souls laid to rest put me in another frame of mind. The grave markers and mausoleums are large and largely well designed. It is Sullivan who designed two of the most impressive. The first I encountered was the Getty Tomb. This is probably to most significant piece of architecture in the cemetery. It is a study in scale, proportion and originality. Completed in 1890, relatively early in his career, this is an indication of what he aspired to do with his life’s work. This is a glimpse of an American architectural future that never was.




A few dozen yards away is the Ryerson Tomb. I’m still trying to figure out how to file this one in my catalog of Sullivan. It has very clear Egyptian allusions (wholly appropriate given their architectural fixation on death and the afterlife) but reinterpreted for this place. It is powerful and striking- unlike anything else in the cemetery. The polished black granite reflects the surrounding landscape, giving it a richness of literal and figurative depth.


The last step in my journey was to find Louis. I knew he was near, but I didn’t have a map. So I started walking. Plot after plot, grave after grave, soul after soul. And there it was.  A large stone block, inscribed with a moving tribute. I knew, however, that this was not his grave but a memorial erected five years after his death. I looked down, and at my feet was a simple headstone, largely obscured by the grass: Louis Henri Sullivan 1858-1924. I cleared back the overgrown grass and dirt, and made a rubbing of his headstone. I told him about my journey, thanked him for his work, and left him my prismacolors. He died broke and alone as his modest grave attests. It was only some years later that the larger monument to the man was created. I returned my attention to the monument and walked around to the side opposite the inscription. On this face of the stone is a bronze plaque of Sullivanesque detail and a bust in profile. It is tradition for visitors to wedge pennies in the plaque in remembrance of the man who died penniless. I added my penny to the others and took one last pause. Yes, I shed a few tears. Not necessarily mourning for Mr. Sullivan (who died almost fifty years before I was born), but for myself. I experienced the same melancholy that one encounters after finishing a great book. My life is richer for The Summer of Sullivan, but I know that I will never again be able to experience these things for the first time.



I have worked hard on my writing skills over the past four years, and I’m getting better. My attempts to adequately describe Mr. Sullivan and this wonderful summer, however, ended in failure. I find that there are no more appropriate words to close this chapter than those inscribed on his monument:

By his buildings great in influence and power; his drawings unsurpassed in originality and beauty; his writings rich in poetry and prophesy; his teachings persuasive and eloquent; his philosophy wherein "form follows function", he summed up all truth in art. Sullivan has earned his place as one of the greatest architectural forces in America. In testimony of this, his professional and other friends have built this monument.

And with that the Summer of Sullivan ended. I turned and went home to Chattanooga.