Chicago 2018 – Buildings of Art

After a leisurely morning of breakfast in bed and news on the telly, I set out for the 1926 Building, also known as the Fine Arts Building. It was built in 1895 as a showroom and repair shop for Studebaker carriages. It still has a human elevator operator, who took me up to the top floor of the 10 story building. I was surprised at the absence of a grate between me and the glass elevator doors, which gave me an unimpeded view of every floor as the elevator went up. (I had a similar experience at the Smith Tower in Seattle).

  • Travel note: take the elevator to the 10th floor and then take the stairs back down. Walk around on a few of the floors to get the full feel for this building.

It was here that the artists’s set up their studios because of the skylights. There are 2 ‘coves’ but only one cove has a staircase – the other cove was left open to allow light to penetrate the entire building.

The hallway on the 10th floor is lined with closed wooden doors marked by plexiglass placards. I didn’t enter these studios but it was inspiring to stand in front of the places where they worked. I learned later that Frank Lloyd Wright designed a bookshop in 1908 for Francis Browne, but the 7th floor shop has been dismantled.

The Monroe Building was locked when I got there last night, so I could only photograph the lobby through a glass door. Designed by Holabird & Roche in 1912, it’s described as “an eclectic mix of Gothic and Italian Romanesque.” The tile work is Rookwood Pottery, one of the largest woman-owned businesses in the country at the time. It remains among the largest commercial installations of Rookwood tile in the US.

The lobby has glass cases filled with artifacts, including tile samples and elevations.

Frank Lloyd Wright had a studio / office upstairs for a brief time. The second floor now houses the Pritzker Military Museum. It’s small but houses an interesting collection of artifacts carried by soldiers during several wars, as well as a great collection of wartime recruitment posters, and a military library for members.

Next stop is the Art Institute, with its pair of life size bronze lions guarding its doors, that hard as I try, I am unable to capture a selfie with them. Too big for frame!

  • Originally the Chicago Academy of Design, founded by 35 artists in 1866. It opened in 1870 but was destroyed by the Chicago fire a year later.
  • The current building dates from the World Expo 1893 although it was several miles away from the main fairgrounds. It hosted the World’s Congress Auxiliary, with daily conferences on medicine, arts, commerce and women’s rights. Susan B. Anthony, Clara Burton, and Burnham (Chicago’s chief architect and city planner) were among the 5,000 speakers who presented during the Expo.
  • The complex now covers eleven buildings, including artist residences.

I find the Textile Gallery closed (there’s always something I want to see that is closed). The Decorative Arts gallery has an interesting collection of furniture including an office desk and chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I later found out that he also designed bric-a-brac for his homes, and even some of the gowns his wife wore.

Downstairs I find a room of miniature rooms, built by Mrs. James Ward Thorne for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Mrs. Thorne started collecting miniatures at the age of five, and as an adult, thought miniatures could be an educational tool for students of architecture. The rooms are built to a scale of 1″=1′. You can see more of these miniature rooms here.

The Armor Room housed one of the best collections I’ve seen to date. I am closely watched by security guards as I contort to get shots of the horseshoes, stirrups and knight’s spurs on the tournament and war horses that are set up in the center of the room.

There are a few good Syrian mosaics but it was hard for me to look at Iznik tiles out of context, after having visited buildings awash with them in Istanbul. I was amused to find a small display of architectural sketches from the Gezi Park Protests, which I followed online with interest, after having been in that very spot in Istanbul two years earlier. You will find that collection here.

“Sunday in the Park With George” is much larger than I expected, covering most of a wall in a crowded gallery that was much too small for this work.

A very helpful docent escorted me to Hopper’s ‘Nighthawk” (1942) after I couldn’t find it on my own. That classic painting was half the size I was expecting, and much more subtle than the prints would have you believe.

Marc Chagall’s “American Windows” dating to 1975-77, commemorates the American Bicentennial. Each individual pane is about 2.5′ tall and the complete work covers an entire wall. It’s in a hallway of its own, and was not at all well attended the day I was there, which allowed me several minutes of uninterrupted face time with this piece.

The Trading Room for Chicago’s Stock Exchange, originally built in 1893, was moved and reconstructed as part of the Art Institute, using original salvage and duplicated elements based on photographs and descriptions.

I spent much of my day on Michigan Avenue, which was a residential district on the waterfront of Lake Michigan until it was destroyed during the Chicago Fire. As the city was being rebuilt, debris was dumped and built over, similar to how Seattle was extended out into the Puget Sound. Additional buildings of historic note are included on my blog at August Phoenix Hats.

The Santa Fe Center, also known as the Railway Exchange Building, was built in 1903 to house offices for the six railroads that fed Chicago in the 1900’s. David Burnham, who designed the plans for Chicago after the Great Fire, had an office on the second floor in 1909. The first and second floors have been restored to their original condition.

At some point today I went into Macy’s – Chicagoans still call it Marshal & Field’s – to find the Tiffany ceiling. It was built in 1892 and is pretty impressive, before you even get to the Tiffany atrium on the 5th floor…

  • The Tiffany mosaic was added to the building in 1907. It is the largest single piece of Tiffany mosaic in existence, and the first one ever built with iridescent glass. It covers 6,000 sq/ft and is comprised of over 1,600,000 glass tiles which took 50 workmen, 2 years to install.
  • Each of the oval lozenges, set with iridescent Favrile glass, is bounded by Byzantine style borders connected by crosses. Between the blue lozenges are arabesques executed in opalescent glass set into an iridescent background. The Favrile glass is specific to Tiffany, who patented the process in 1894. A description of that process will be detailed in my upcoming blog.
  • The light globes are also Tiffany, and are open at the top to help illuminate the ceiling as well as flood the floor below. They were electric, with bronze fittings.

A fun side note – John Lloyd Wright, whose father was Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the famous American toy “Lincoln Logs” and sold them here as fast as he could make them.

In planning this trip, I had carefully made day-by-day lists of the buildings I most wanted to see. Today I found about a third of the ones on my list, and could only enter about half of those because many are now restaurants and other businesses. I spent the evening paring down my ‘must-see’ list and reading up on The Rookery, the commercial building I would visit tomorrow morning.

So much to see …

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