Sunday, January 10, 2010

DANIEL BURNHAM. Rhonda Fleming. Arthur Rosenbloom. Lucien LaGrange. 208 South LaSalle

When we speak to one another, the words we use have specific personal meanings. They incorporate personal experiences in their broader definitions. It is in the shared experience of words that we are allowed to communicate richly, completely. On the same page. We know together that red is not just a color. It is a Christmas color. A Valentine heart.


In the summer of 1964 I was a plan file clerk for JM Foster  at the  Bethlehem Steel facility under construction near the southern tip of Lake Michigan. While heavy equipment leveled the dunes and filled inter-dunal lagoons that Henry Cowles had hiked less than 40 years previous, I folded bluepints in a construction trailer, counted myself lucky to have a job and looked forward to penny Hearts at lunch time. Four of us were regulars. My boss Arnold, Frank McCarty, who had worked on the caissons at Outer Drive East, myself, and on top of the heap, Arthur Rosenbloom, from Administration, who lovingly referred to himself as "Rosie-Rosie-you-stupid-shit" when he drew when he should have discarded. (Or vice versa).

The lunch hour talk was always good. But no story was better than Rosie's description of his secretary's love letter, copied on the new office xerox and mailed to her boyfriend, up north at Great Lakes. Rosie showed us all a copy. Rhonda Fleming could have, should have been a model for the Rigid Tool Calendar that was taped to the trailer wall. And as the story unfolds (and Rosie unfolds it very slowly) we all figure out that Rhonda sat on the Xerox glass. Rosie held her hand to keep her steady and he pushed the "copy" button. Rhonda surely didn't know about the extra copy or that Rosie had used it to ante up.

That shared experience has forever colored the words "xerox glass" and the "transmittals" (which were copied on that self-same machine shortly thereafter). There is no doubt that should I ever run into Frank McCarty we would break into immediate and uncontrolled laughter at the mention of "xerox glass".


The word "LaSalle Street" has personal meanings for me too. Though none quite so rich as "Bethlehem Steel." My images include the Board of Trade and the Fraternal Twins. They also include the Midwest Stock Exchange and the week-end that Richard Nickel went missing. The LaSalle Hotel. The Otis Elevator Building. The Corn Exchange. And a closeness to the late 1930's made more intense by a lack of intervening construction. The new Marriot Hotel renovation at 208 is not included in these images. When I say LaSalle Street my meaning is now different than, perhaps, yours. Different too, from George Reynolds'.
It would be convenient if the same words referred to the same images.  A little Historic Preservation would be just the ticket to bridge the gap. Grandparents and grand children might communicate. At least on LaSalle Street. But as long as the Miesian Revelationists find a Deco interpretation of Apollo acceptable but tsk tsk the more literal neo-classicism of Hering or Saint Gaudens or even Milles, Preservation will continue to be an accident of fashion, circumstance, and finance. We will, at best, preserve a random patchwork of history, art, and commonality. Shame on us.


Over the past weeks I've given some thought to the renovations proceeding at 208 South LaSalle Street. There are no easy answers to the questions of Historic Preservation.


The societal shifts that have taken place since the construction of the Continental and Commercial Bank in 1914 have been remarkable. The changes of the last ten years alone are changing the face of architecture. Who could say that any building owner should bear the burden of restoration and Historic Preservation when use, circulation and spatial patterns are no longer functional? Especially when that building contains nearly a million square feet. Who could not applaud the adaptive re-use that is reshaping 208 South LaSalle?



In this process of considerations I found Lucien LaGrange's website describing his renovations at the Continental and Commercial. It contains the remarkable photos below that I had not seen. And they are remarkable.

A special respect is due the Architect who can credit the work of his predecessor. And here's hoping that that the masonry facade restorations are as successful here as his work at the Insurance Exchange. And that these photos along with others can find their way to a "permanent" home at the Marriot that will preserve the memory of the architectural contributions of Daniel Burnham and Peirce Anderson to the words  "bank",  "LaSalle Street", and "Chicago".

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