Tuesday, September 8, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS. The Missing Eagle

When a man in his forties or early fifties proposes a course of action, the proposal is debated on its merits. It then succeeds or fails. For a man in his later sixties, actions are more difficult. He must first prove, simply, that he is not just some old fart. And if this "old guy's" proposed course of action is accepted, he must accept the fact, despite any victory, that he will be judged "remarkable" for the ability to stay "in touch." Later successes will be accompanied by "tough old bird."

In his eighties, though, and especially early nineties, a remarkable change begins to take place: accumulated longevity allows wisdom and perspective. "Old" ceases to be equated with the out-dated. And instead becomes an honorific. Age (that was so recently a problem) now allows a rare but informed view of a time other than our own, and a remarkably candid perception of the present. Should anyone care to listen.

So with Buildings.

At the age of 99, the People's Gas Light and Coke Building is no longer "old fart", nor "tough old bird." It has become an extant piece of Chicago whose continued presence is a glimpse of time and place. Daniel Burnham's time and place. It is a statement of the best turn-of-the-century technology available. And an aesthetic that gives us a material example with which to compare our own. In exchange, it only requires care.

The Eagles were removed from the facade of People's Gas during some previous renovation. (Along with their purpose and story.) Only their claws remain on the spheres that supported them. Tough old fart claws that hung on during years when neither survival nor honor was quite so certain.

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