Five architects and designers selected items of the collection and discussed them in relationship to their practice, the discipline, and/or society. Nathaniel Parks, Tigerman McCurry Director of the Art Institute of Chicago Archives, provided some background on the archives.
The Ryerson & Burnham Art and Architecture Archives’ collections are notably strong in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century American architecture, with particular depth in midwestern architecture. Architects such as Edward Bennett, Daniel Burnham, Bruce Goff, Bertrand Goldberg, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright are represented in a broad range of papers. Major architectural events, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, The Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933–1934 in Chicago, and the World’s Fair of 1939 in New York, are also represented in an individual archive.
Patricia Saldaña Natke
I’ll start with the bid for the 2016 Olympic games. There were many architects in the city of Chicago involved in the Olympic bid process, and many were participating as a labor of love, giving free ideas. There was also a team of architects that were hired by the city: my office, UrbanWorks, was one of those team members, along with SOM, Populous (they are Olympic facility experts), and Ross Barney Architects.
I chose to discuss this project because of its relationship to society. When we think about Chicago, and big, grand plans, this project comes to mind as it was such a labor of love for so many years. It included an investigation of every single Chicago Park District park in order to determine where the facilities would go. And it was a project that really was about equity, with facilities located north and south.
As you may recall, there was 76% positive feedback from Chicago to go ahead with the bid, so it was a big push. The actual submission was over 700 pages. We had to answer over 200 questions posed to us by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). One reason that this bid is important to me is that we have so many beautiful public spaces throughout the city. Our office focused on many of the South Side parks: Washington Park, Garfield Park, and many others. We were looking at each of them to see how we could share those spaces with international audiences.
The investigation on the Olympic Village also helped us discover that the original Michael Reese Hospital was actually designed by Walter Gropius. Many, many things were discovered along the way. The project itself would have been an over $5 billion construction budget, and although that seems very large, the Beijing Olympics ended up costing over $40 billion and the Athens Olympics cost over $9 billion.
As you may recall, Chicago was up against Madrid, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro won. I don’t know if any of you were there, but our office was in the plaza when the decisions were made; the finalists were all there. And there was a gasp when Chicago was told that we were the first ones that were removed from the running. After two to three years of work, it was just very, very difficult.
Iker and I were just talking about how these kinds of projects teach us so much about the city, our public spaces, and our green spaces, and that they shouldn’t just be shelved. They shouldn’t be collecting dust. We should move forward and use them as a learning tool to keep our city at the forefront of what should be next.
One thing to note about the Olympic pins. The first logo design was the Olympic torch with the Chicago skyline up above it. Everyone loved the pin, but the IOC rejected it because the torch was their logo. The final logo was a redesign.
Because there were so many people involved in the project, I was very happy to see that there was so much documentation. In our own office, we have many drawings and maps, and because of this research on all the parks, our office has since been able to work on a few other projects. I hope that the interest in improving all the parks, from north to south, continues with the park district.
The second set I’d like to share is of the Stockyards. The Stockyards are near and dear to my heart because I was born and raised in Back of the Yards on the South Side of Chicago. Up until the 1950s it was the largest livestock yard/meat packing center in the country. What is interesting on the photograph below is that you can see that there are the elevated tracks, which have since been demolished.
When we lived in Back of the Yards, we had to take three buses to get downtown. My question goes back to the beginning of my presentation discussing the Olympic proposal when we were talking about overall city planning, transportation, and urban spaces. I don't know the reason why the elevated was removed from that area, but it could have been a very direct connection for many of the workers to head downtown and expand their opportunities. It’s one of those questions that are unanswered. This photo shows the livestock pens and also some of the cottage workhouses.
Back of the Yards, which is sometimes called New City, is a really great example of the succession of immigrants in Chicago. It started with the Irish and German butchers in the 1870s, followed by the Czechs. And by the 1970s it was almost all Latino. And that was the influx that included my own parents who came from Mexico City to work; my father worked in the Stockyards. We are a city of immigrants and by going through the history, you can clearly see the impression that the immigrants have left throughout the city.
It is also immortalized—as I’m sure you know—with books and literature. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is focused on the Stockyards, and reading it in high school and finding out much more about the origins of where I lived was really telling to me. Right now, it is called New City and it is still largely a Latino community, but it’s still very underserved by public transportation and many other things.
It was also a place for great social movements. It was the beginning of the workers’ unions, the beginning of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. It is still very much a very vibrant community, and a cohesive working-class community. It really started the industrial union movement in the city and community organizing was focused on that part of Chicago.
The other two photos are of Buckingham Fountain and the reason I selected these relates to the theme of public spaces and public monuments. Buckingham Fountain is obviously the center of Grant Park. And in Grant Park we have not only recently Maggie Daley Park and a few others, but all that landscaping history.
The fountain itself was donated by Kate Buckingham through an endowment fund. It is all pink marble, with 14,000 gallons of water ejected when the fountain is turned on. There have been many restorations of the fountain. Phase One was in 2009, and our office, UrbanWorks, worked on that renovation. The Chicago Park District moved forward with it because the city was hoping to get the Olympics. The renovation also included accessibility, which meant that all of the pavers were crushed into gravel and then poured back in to create a smooth surface for those who were disabled. It also included site furnishings and different demolition of some parts of the basin that needed to be replaced.
Fortunately, we were recently hired to do the next phase of the planning of the entire Grant Park, which is called the Grant Park Framework Plan. The Grant Park Framework Plan is going to move forward with over 300 acres of land, where we’ll look at what the next stage of what we should be doing to our city’s “Front Yard.” The previous framework plan added in the skate park, Millennium Park, and Maggie Daley Park.
What we are doing now as urbanists is thinking about things like, what does our city need for the next stage, for the city and for its newer demographics? How do we make sure that the park is for everyone while remaining historically intact? We have just started, and I hope that some of you attend some of the community meetings. It is a very large task, but also a very, very exciting one that we hope will bring some new ideas to the city.
Thanks for inviting me. I chose to look at the Crow Island School, which is an early Perkins&Will project on the National Register of Historic Places. We have recently been asked to do a very small addition to the project, so I thought it would be good to actually understand the project, where it came from, what its influences were, and how it was received at the time through publications like the Architectural Forum. And then I looked at some of the really creative things that other architects worked on, which came out of Crow Island’s ideas.
It started in 1919 in Winnetka. The School District of Winnetka was run by Carleton Washburne from 1919 to 1943. He was a follower of John Dewey’s school of thought on education; “Active Education,” he called it. That was the kind of kernel of where all these projects came from; he was obviously an important person in the school district.
Washburne worked with Dwight Perkins, who was Larry Perkins’s father, and who worked for the school district of Chicago from 1905 to 1910; he did forty schools. He got to know Carleton Washburne and Perkins did the Hubbard Woods School in 1915, which is still in operation now. At the beginning it had a lot of the characteristics of the Crow Island School. It had outdoor play areas. It had patios with doors and windows that opened up one story. And each classroom had its own skylights. It was beginning to be the idea of expressing the individual classroom as the major element of the school and scaling the building down to the single home of the child, which was the classroom, articulated within the mass.
In Hubbard Woods, it started out with clustering around common facilities. And then it changed again, and Crow Island happened. Around 1937 Washburne decided that he wanted to create an icon of his ideas. His ideas were really two different ways of learning, the “Common Essentials,” as he called them, and “Creative Group Activities.” Those were the two areas that he saw as part of his educational philosophy. And he wanted to have the ultimate realization of that.
At the time Dwight was already retired. I think Larry Perkins had only designed one house and they obviously couldn’t do the project themselves. They looked at the Saarinens, Eliel and later Eero, because obviously they were renowned. They thought they would be a good fit for the site and were selected as a team.
The first thing that Larry Perkins did was sit in existing schools for months, taking notes, seeing how children learn, seeing how teachers teach, and reinventing the classroom. He was building on the idea of the single cell classroom as a kind of self-contained unit. He was thinking about those two areas, the “active” area and the “essential” area and how that could be expressed. And, in turn, it became the L-shape classroom. Each classroom had the “active” area, the “essential” area (which is more of a traditional learning type environment), and then a “work” area, for making projects and things like that. One of the current principals calls it the first “maker space” ever done.
The Crow Island School is really composed of three wings. What you see on the drawing above is the original plan in 1940 with three wings. Each wing is separated by grade, and there are separate play fields, so everyone has their own world within the larger world of the school. There is another wing designed in 1955, so there are now four wings instead of three that frame of central space. And we will be looking at extending that fourth wing.
It’s fun to look at the reception of this building at the time. It’s great to have a copy of this Architectural Forum, which was very influential worldwide. The Crow Island School had thirteen pages of the publication, but it was done right before Pearl Harbor. There was a delay of six or seven years before its impact could be felt. But I thought it would be fun to start thinking about which projects were really influenced by the Crow Island School. I looked in the archives and discovered this project by Bertrand Goldberg (Brenneman School/Clarendon Avenue School, Chicago, 1960–1967), which I thought had a lot of interesting parallels.
One thing that Crow Island did, which was unique at the time, was to pull out the common areas. The common areas, the public areas, the teachers’ areas, and the auditoriums were a separate wing, so that it didn’t disturb the student areas. And you can see that same thing happening in the Goldberg project, although Crow Island was really a building in the woods with “fingers” going in the woods; it was a very large, forested site. The Goldberg project is approximately at Clarendon Avenue and Montrose Avenue in Chicago.
The Goldberg project drew from the principles that were in the Crow Island School. There were a lot of people trying to look like Crow Island, but they were not really understanding the basic idea. But I think the Goldberg project does take those ideas and applies them in a more urban context. The similarities are the separation of the child world and the adult world, which is still there. You see that in the architecture too: the child’s world has these concrete shells; the adult/teacher area has a more traditional curtain wall façade. You see that in his hospitals as well, a differentiation between the people’s space and the tech or administration spaces. I think it’s a little different than Crow Island, which melds the two a little more. Goldberg’s project really separates the two worlds. Each classroom had its own kind of shape. He couldn’t have courtyards because there wasn’t enough room on his site to do that. He made vertical space with these concrete shells as a way of providing differentiation. Here’s a quote from Goldberg in 1962:
There was a desire on my part to create a room shape and size which would disassociate the child from home. I wanted the space, the lighting, the acoustics, the room arrangement to represent not only workable area, which would create a focal point of interest for the child. I firmly believe the space which presents a unified spatial entity for a child rather than a six-sided experience of conventional rooms will promote better education visually and emotional.
It’s a slightly different take on the Crow Island School model. And it is an interesting construction process because you put the rebar up to make the shape and you use shotcrete, which is concrete. They didn’t need wooden form work at all. Very risky, but very interesting. Unfortunately, roof leaks happened, and if you go out there today, you’ll find that the school board decided to encase the whole thing. It’s still there so I believe there’s hope that it’ll come back.
It's been a good exercise for me because it shows Chicago as a kind of a laboratory for educational architecture that was evolving throughout that period of time, and how Crow Island fits in that trajectory. That is a good kick-off for our little project.
My practice has meandered through architecture and design, but I started out in fine arts making paintings and drawings, and dabbling in photography. I wanted to start the conversation by talking about an exhibition that I curated at the Driehaus Museum featuring Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi. It closed last year, but the planning process started in 2020. The opportunity was to rethink how exhibitions could play out in the Driehaus Museum’s space. It’s historic. It’s very decadent, opulent. It has this amazing history and has gone through multiple uses over the years. And now it functions as a museum where you can take tours and see the home and experience what life was like in the Gilded Age.
The museum currently houses the collection that Richard H. Driehaus amassed over the years. And it wanted to do this program that would build on the legacy of its history, but also connect to what the city is doing today. So how do you do that? A lot of organizations do that through contemporary art. My task was to connect that history to the city, but also to what people are doing today. And I really was connected to this idea of thinking of our heritage and our history as a platform to build upon.
This relates to what Elizabeth is talking about today. I think that oftentimes we see it as something that is either frozen in time or something that needs to be cleared for something new. I think—or I’ve learned this from people who come from Japan and I have worked with their histories and legacies there—that it’s something to be built upon.
That’s a model that I’ve been thinking about and was part of the foundation of what I was doing here. I invited these two artists, Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi, whose practice I knew would speak to the space in some way, whether that was through their attention to materiality, the kind of work that they were making, or their general approach to their own art practice. It was a really intentional pairing between these two artists. And what they did was they looked after the interiors of the space. They were very sensitive to the environment and integrated their works into that space almost seamlessly. Nate Young took a more interior, architectural furniture/object-inspired approach. He looked at the fireplaces. He looked at some of the ornamentation. He looked at the wood, even the species that were used, and made sculptures that blended into that space. For a lot of the viewers who came in, it was difficult to tell what was original to the home and what was his inserted artwork.
He also had other pieces that played within his practice. His own personal practice involves interrogating his family history and the journey that his father and his great-grandfather made, in terms of migrating from the south, in haste. He wove that narrative really well into this space, thinking about some of the migration that happened in Chicago of Black Americans. That was not typically a narrative you would see in a Guilded Age mansion, but it happened at the same time. Rather than focusing on the opulence and wealth in this space and what that’s telling us, we’re reading these other histories that were also present at the time, and maybe participated in the labor practices that led to the conception and construction of the space.
Mika Horibuchi’s approach pulled from art history, thinking about trompe l’oeil painting, which was something that was also heralded in the space. You’d see it on the walls, you’d see lot of these eighteen-century arts. And if you are thinking of the Pre-Raphaelites at that time and this return to romantic representation, her work was tapping into that kind of aesthetic. In a way, blended into that space, she recreated objects, paintings as objects. She painted a carpet that was on the ground and there were objects that were placed on top of it. By walking into it, you participated in the logic of many house museums where the furniture is in place, and you roam around it. It is blending into that space and really accepting and understanding that the space is in this limbo where it’s a house, a home, and a museum, a place that is trying to do a lot of different things at the same time.
Both of the artists chose to go in very different directions but blended into the kind of new programs that were available in that space. I really arrived at thinking about house museums this way through my thesis project that I did at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, during my graduate program in architecture, landing on house museums more as a model as to how we can think of existing spaces. I’m still trying to excavate why I had a particular fascination of house museums; I haven't arrived there yet. But as I was going into it, my thinking was, "Oh, this is an example of how we have lots of existing spaces that we're having these questions as to what do we do with it?"
Maybe too often we take an approach where we try to erase that space in some type of way. Create a white wall. Push all of its existing context out and pretend that it isn’t there and it’s this new thing. And I think that we are missing an opportunity there, right? To learn from the architecture. How can that lead into what we are doing here, to think about the programs that have historically happened in that space? If it’s a house, let it be that. If it’s a power plant, let it be that. Let it be what it was designed to be and how do we now pull those ideas and build in that direction into what we’re doing today? And let that that become a leader as opposed to something we need to detract, erase, or push away.
And I arrived at that, funnily enough, through maybe my second architecture project, which was too ambitious for, I think, us to deal with. We were working with the McCormick Place and the task was to think about what we could do. It is not a new project in Chicago, there have been many proposals for how we can rethink that space.
We came to the archive to look at these drawings. This has a little bit of a nostalgic feeling now for me. These are the first time I’ve seen these; this is actually the beginning of how I ended up at a place in a project like this. I was looking at a space that’s too big and we didn’t know what to do with it.
My proposal at that time was trying to jam pack as much stuff into it as possible. I wanted to have a museum in the basement. I was going to collect Chicago architectural fragments so there would be a space for these things to go. I was like, we could be the first. Chicago has this architectural history and legacy. Why not here? There is all this space, all this stuff needs a place, and that was part of the proposal.
The second proposal was to fill the second floor with sand and have this giant sand garden, a reflection of the beach we never really had. I wanted to somehow utilize the space frame, put shopping in there, and accept this incredible engineering feat and think of it as a structure or aesthetic that we should enjoy, as opposed to kind of push away. And then, of course, why not throw in a hotel and office space, and residential housing in there just to bring a lot of that density and activity into that space?
In that investigation we were thinking about bigness, we were thinking about preservation, we were thinking about building and unbuilding this space. That was really the beginning of me trying to think about, “Well, what can we do with all of this stuff that we have here?” There’s a kind of excess, but it’s also a kind of possibility. That is how I encountered the work of John Vinci, thinking about all of these different fragments and dovetailing it into both my artistic practice with the drawings, and thinking about the idea of the index and how this pattern could be something that finds a new life.
Of course, we have the Chicago Stock Exchange Arch, and I did my thesis in the Stock Exchange Trading Room, so that also has a different kind of connection to me. I did not even know the first time I arrived in the space that this had not always been there. I just accepted it as part of the Art Institute and only later realized that this was somewhere else and then brought here. But it had a really formative experience on me.
I’ve been thinking about, how can we maintain the energy of these spaces and the energy of the material and the ideas that went into them, and craft them as a new foundation for creative practice moving forward? In my quest to further understand these historic spaces, I focused on house museums, and did a survey visiting too many house museums in Chicago and the Chicagoland area.
The Schweikher House was one of the places I went. The Henry B. Clarke House was one of the places that I visited. Of course, it had both an emotional, creative dimension to it, trying to redefine this thing that I’m feeling. What is the opportunity here? A lot of house museums are not in a good place financially because once you have done the tour, there isn’t a reason to go back to that space. How do you bring people in and maintain these homes? Unless you have a famous architect or a famous owner that is tied to your institution, it really becomes difficult to bring audiences there.
In my tours, what I learned, is that different places did different things. Some were really stuck on trying to preserve everything as it was. I think those are the places that maybe were suffering the most. There were other places who were trying to think creatively, but maybe didn’t have the funding or the people who could make things work under a tight budget. That was this kind of in-between space. But the legacy that they had was beautiful.
And then there are places like the Driehaus Museum that were very secure in their funding, were able to imagine and do these things, and needed just the right kind of voices and minds to pull that forward. I think part of the reason why I wanted to bring the Schweikher House into play was because it still feels like home when you enter into it. It hasn’t fully gone to “house museum-itis” that you’ll get when you go into a place like the Driehaus Museum. The Schweikher House, to our modern eyes, feels familiar in ways that the Driehaus Museum’s Nickerson Mansion may not feel familiar to us.
At the time when I was talking to the staff at the Driehaus Museum, there were just lots of ideas as to how the community could be brought into that space. I think oftentimes that’s the tension that museum spaces sit in. It’s like we want to expand our programming, but people are the thing that also destroys our collection. But we also want people here because that is how we are going to sustain and keep these ideas flowing and keep the relevance not only of the archival collection, but also pass on the histories and the lessons that were learned to erect a space like that.
This is where I’m currently at, in my thinking and in my practice: how do we bring those two things together, and how do we have a conversation where building on something new doesn’t require an erasure of the past? So that we can see it as a kind of heritage that we have with us, just like in any other way that we carry our heritage. Something to be built upon and to be carried forward, and parts of it can change. Change isn’t always a scary or destructive, but instead it is a way that can help keep what’s important moving forward into the future.
I pulled some items related to the obfuscated history of the Henry B. Clarke House. It’s also known as Chicago’s oldest house. It was known as the Widow B. Clarke House for some years. And it will soon be known as the Clarke-Ford House. It was built in 1836 for Henry B. Clark, who was a hardware merchant and later Chicago City Clerk. It was built near 18th Street and Michigan Avenue, which is close to where the house is now, in the South Loop. It is currently a house museum owned by the City of Chicago, run by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). The museum collections are owned by the National Society of the Colonial Dames in America in Illinois. It’s a long, long organizational name.
It currently functions as a house museum. All these archival items are related to a history that the museum does not share with the public. They are only expressed via one portrait in the basement of the museum. The portrait is of Bishop Louis Henry Ford, who is a very important part of this history, and the central figure of this obfuscated history of the Clarke House.
In 1941, Bishop Louis Henry Ford purchased the Henry B. Clarke House from Lydia and Laura Walker, who were descendants of the second owner of the house, John Crimes. John Crimes purchased the house from Henry B. Clarke in the 1850s. Once the great Chicago Fire happened in 1871, the house was moved from right around 18th and Wabash Avenue, to 45th Street and Wabash Avenue. Basically, Chicago had grown around the prairie that the house was originally built around in the 1830s, then when the fire happened, the Crimes family was like, “Oh no, we’ve got to move this house away from any sort of potential fire.” It stayed at 45th Street and Wabash Avenue for a number of years, up until the 1940s.
Lydia and Laura Walker own the house. They are tired of taking care of it. There is sort of a known provenance that this is Chicago’s oldest house. It dates way back to the time when Chicago was sort of like the Wild West, the prairie. And the Walker sisters basically say, “This house doesn’t have a lot of value to us.” They wrote to the Chicago Sun-Times and said, “if we can’t find an owner for the house, we are probably going to have to demolish it.”
Then, in 1941, Bishop Ford approaches the Walker sisters and purchases Chicago’s oldest house. Bishop Ford was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was a pastor in the Churches of God in Christ. He was a product of the Great Migration and was looking for a place to grow his congregation. Chicago’s oldest house really spoke to him. There was something about the architecture and there was something about the age. He purchases the house from the Walker sisters in 1941 and makes history as Chicago’s first historic preservationist. This history predates our understanding of where preservation begins. We commonly understand it to begin with Richard Nickel, with the demolition of the Garrick Theater, with the establishment of the Chicago Landmarks Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. This all predates that by a good twenty years.
For $10,000, Bishop Ford purchases Chicago’s oldest house and begins to build a ministry around the house. He cares for the house using specialized Black labor. He is training folks in Bronzeville to care for the house, to care for its old bones, to figure out how to fix its existing wood windows.
You can see in this photo above the house being painted. It was brown for a number of years and Bishop Ford painted the house white. Not only to be godly and holy, but also to match the original painting; the one original image that we have from the 1830s has the house rendered in white. The paint was donated by the year’s congregation. Bishop Ford is doing all these grassroots preservation activities before anyone else was doing them.
He gets donations to care for the house. He has events to fundraise for the care of the house. He really uses the house as a point of pride for the congregation for the St. Paul Church of God in Christ. The house’s history is very well known. He amplifies the significance of the house through the Black press: through the Defender and through Jet magazine later. It seems every opportunity he has, he shares the house’s historic significance with both the public and the press.
Throughout this history of stewardship, Bishop Ford and the St. Paul Church of God and Christ were saying publicly that they were taking very good care of this house, but a better steward would be the City of Chicago. And that a better use would be a house museum, and a better place for the house would be closer to downtown.
The house was at 45th Street and Wabash Avenue when the St. Paul Church of God in Christ cared for it. It was Bishop Ford’s idea to create a house museum out of the Clarke House. Along with that idea, Bishop Ford really wished for the house to tell the story of Black Chicago, starting with Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, moving through this history of historic preservation that Bishop Ford himself was seeing in Bronzeville, and seeing these Black congregations and people in the community caring for this historic architecture. He really wanted the house to tell that story once it became a house museum. He was really lobbying many mayors, including mayor Richard J. Daley, to make this happen.
While these preservation activities were happening, there were also all these historic things that occurred in the house. It was in Chicago’s historic 3rd Ward. This is a congregation that helped Harold Washington get elected. Danny Davis walked through the house. Black Panthers walked through the house. Many politicians, many people that would come to shape our local and national politics.
The history gets to a point where the City of Chicago is finally interested in purchasing the house from Bishop Ford. They purchased it in 1977 and then moved the house from 45th Street and Wabash Avenue to 18th and Michigan Avenue. Then this huge groundbreaking historic preservation activity happens with all these important architects and important preservationists. The house museum opens in 1982 and the house is dressed to articulate this idea of what early Chicago life was like. The house is then filled with collection items donated to DCASE and the City of Chicago by the National Society of the Colonial Dames in America in Illinois.
The Dames—we’ll call them the Dames for short—filled the house with their collection. And they are telling this very particular story in the Clarke House about what life was like in 1830s Chicago. You walk into the house museum and there’s the rope. You walk in and here is the parlor; here is where the family would sit and they would have their tea; and here is the sick room where people in the house would like, have dysentery and try not to die. Upstairs there are bedrooms. Everything that we know about a classic house museum is expressed at the Clarke House. The one thing that is not expressed is any of this history here. There is one portrait of Bishop Ford, in a corner of the basement. All that history that Bishop Ford had asked for when talking to the City of Chicago about taking over the house had completely been erased. The St. Paul Church of God in Christ was not even invited to the museum opening. They had to go to the Black press to say, “can we please be invited to this thing that is happening because of us?” This history has been obfuscated for almost four decades.
After I graduated from the School of the Art Institute Historic Preservation Program, I got a job working at the Clarke House for DCASE. My job was to follow around these two very significant historians from Winterthur, look at all the collection items, and think about how they really expressed 1830s Chicago, early Chicago history. We marked some things for deaccession and we moved some things around. That sick room was moved around a little bit. But what really struck me and what really stayed with me was the history of Bishop Ford and the St. Paul Church of God in Christ’s stewardship of the house. Although I wasn’t hired by DCASE to explore any of this history, it really stayed with me, and it really guided my career. It guided my career in terms of ethics, and it also guided my career in terms of how there are these stories that are obfuscated and that we don’t know about. It’s important to bring those out. It’s one way that we build equity in preservation in Chicago.
In early 2021, I had the opportunity to write a piece for Block Club Chicago and I wanted to write it about Bishop Ford and the St. Paul Church of God and Christ. The first thing that I did was to contact the church and make an appointment to see Pastor Kevin Anthony Ford, who is Bishop Ford’s grandson. I interviewed Pastor Ford and we talked about the history of the old house and we took photos. It was very emotional for me because I had been hearing that for many years in my professional practice and then also in my heart. I did the research, the piece published, and the reception was really wonderful. People were just like, “Well, we’ve heard about this before, but it’s just a little footnote in a lot of the histories of Clarke House.”
It became very clear to Pastor Ford and me, and to the folks at the church, that there was more that needed to be done than just call out this obfuscation and writing about it. We started asking around. I started asking my colleagues in planning, “What can we do? Can we change the name? Can we change the programming? How do we start doing this?” Pastor Kevin Anthony Ford is a community organizer; he had worked on the water fee exemption for Chicago congregations during the Rahm Emanuel administration, wiping their water fee bills, which for some congregations were thousands of dollars. He was no stranger to activism. We talked to Alderman Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward. This is in her ward. It was originally in her ward at 45th Street and Wabash Avenue, and the church that Bishop Ford started is still at 45th Street and Wabash Avenue. We also talked to DCASE. We asked for support in terms of our colleagues in architecture and preservation. We had the support of the union trades. We got the union trades’ support because the care and stewardship of Chicago’s oldest house led directly to St. Paul Church of God in Christ beginning these union placement programs, which helped train skilled apprentices for the construction trades. It was very easy for us to convince the AFL-CIO to get behind this. The Cook County Building Trades Administration. Lots of organizations were behind this because the history of Chicago’s oldest house is also one of care, of maintenance, and of skilled labor.
Pastor Ford and I, and a small coalition of folks, worked with DCASE and we worked with Alderman Dowell. We wrote an ordinance to rename the Henry B. Clarke House to honor Bishop Louis Henry Ford. That ordinance is now moving through the Chicago City Council. It is going to be heard by the Committee on Special Events and Recreation, actually this Monday. Pastor Ford and I will be speaking to the committee, which is very exciting.
The items that I have all chosen are all related to this history. Some photos are taken by Barbara Crane, some photos are taken by Richard Nickel. There are photos circa 1950s with restoration happening. These specialized Black laborers working on painting and maintaining the house. Then, there are other various items. The photography is all from the Church’s stewardship of the house, including these photos of the interior, which made me absolutely lose my mind when I came over to the table and saw them. I had never seen photos of the interior during this time, although Pastor Ford has shared with me what it looked like. He also mentioned that it was rigorously clean, that the interior of the Clarke House during the St. Paul Church of God in Christ stewardship always smelled like Lysol. I am looking at these photos and subconsciously smelling Lysol.
It is a wonderful collection of photographs of the Clarke House that I certainly hadn’t seen. I imagine that a lot of folks who are familiar with the Clarke House as a house museum also haven’t seen them. The photos really show this loving use, this very clear care. That the Clarke House was a space for gathering, that the house had signage in front of it, “Chicago’s oldest house.” There is just wonderful signs of life and care in the interior and exterior photos.
There is also a letter that is just absolutely blowing my mind, to Richard Nickel from Bishop Louis Henry Ford, less than a year before Richard Nickel would be killed in the Stock Exchange ruins, asking for what I am assuming is these photos, which is really amazing. You have this continuity of who we consider to be Chicago’s first preservationist, talking to Chicago’s first grassroots preservationist, twenty years before. It’s a wonderful expression of continuity. I am really grateful because as the renaming of the programming of the Clarke House happens, and as I continue to be involved, I know that these things are here. This is just the beginning of telling that story to the public.
On November 16, 2022, the City Council approved an ordinance changing the Chicago landmark’s name from the Henry B. Clarke House to the Henry B. and Caroline Clarke/Bishop Louis Henry and Margaret Ford House (to be more commonly referred to as the “Clarke-Ford House”).
I chose to talk about this building, the Cairo Supper Club, out of my own curiosity. This is a building located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood called Buena Park. It is very close to the Brenneman School designed by Bertrand Goldberg and discussed by Ralph Johnson earlier. It sits on the intersection of Irving Park Road and Sheridan Road, close to the Sheridan Red Line CTA stop. I walk by this building often, as it’s on my way back home.
For the past ten years, this building’s storefront has been boarded up with a “For Rent” sign on it. But regardless of its vacant status, it’s intriguing and appears mysterious. The Cairo sign is completely boarded up. There is a storefront, the Cairo sign is not there, but everything else is there.
I was curious about this for a long time, and when I saw it in the archives, I took the opportunity to learn about the history of this building. I am sure my neighbors, walking by the building on their way home, are curious about it as well. They may wonder to themselves, “what an unassuming but strange building this is!” It’s an amusing building because of its façade, which has colorful Egyptian motifs that are surprising to see within the neighborhood, and are quite out of context next to the omnipresent brick elevations of the typical Chicago apartment buildings.
After some research, I realized that this building presents quite a few points for discussion. This building is about its location, architect, makers and builders, Egyptian revival, Hypnosis Sessions, Wizzo the Wizard, extravagant entertainment, fire bombing, ownership, city zoning, and preservation. It is also about cultural appropriation, opportunistic endeavors, and obviously undesirable connotations of the word “exotic.” It all comes together represented by one small façade, and in this case the façade—the architecture—provided an opportunity for its curious history and usage.
The Cairo Supper Club was designed by architect Paul Gerhardt Sr., a German immigrant who came to Chicago in the 1890s. He was a prolific architect taking on a range of residential, commercial, and industrial projects such as warehouses, hotels, and schools. I am sure you know some of his work, which includes the Bismarck Hotel, the recently renovated Cook County Hospital, and hard-to-miss school buildings such as Lane Tech High School, Van Steuben High School, and Du Sable High School. He also designed the Lindemann & Hoverson Company Showroom and Warehouse Building. He was clearly a powerful figure, designing large commissions. Gerhardt was commissioned to design the Cairo Supper Club Building in 1920 by real estate developer F. Hampden Winston. Winston appears to have built the building as a speculative commercial space. The first lease was granted to car sales companies, such as Overland-Phillips, Marmon, and Hupmobile. Cars were sold out of the building.
After World War II, the building was the location of the Cairo Supper Club. The club was active from 1949 until 1964 and combined high-end dining with nightclub entertainment. Its location is Uptown’s entertainment center, which fit perfectly into the nighttime scene of the time. The club’s name and interior decor was directly informed by the building’s exotic, Egyptian Revival-style exterior, and the interior resembled a Middle Eastern-inspired tent.
This commercial building is clad with multicolor terracotta. It is very colorful, still, with decorations based on Ancient Egyptian architecture. Columns flanking the storefront have lotus-inspired motifs, including lotus capitals. A concave “cavetto” cornice, a type of cornice associated with Egyptian architecture, extends across the length of the building’s parapet and is ornamented with closely spaced, colorful vertical striping. Centered in this cornice is a large medallion with a winged-scarab motif and other Egyptian-influenced decoration. Overall, the building’s ornamentation is bold and sharp-edged in a manner that signals the emergence of the Art Deco architectural style in the 1920s.
The use of this unusual architectural style reflects the interest in ancient Egyptian culture found in Chicago during the late 1910s and early 1920s. The University of Chicago, led by famous Egyptologist and university professor James Henry Breasted, became an internationally important center for the study of ancient Egyptian history with the opening of the Oriental Institute in 1919, a year before the construction of the Cairo Supper Club Building.
Aside from the Cairo Supper Club Building, there is an extremely small number of buildings in Chicago that are designed in the Egyptian Revival style, including the Reebie Storage Warehouse on Clark Street and the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Company Building located on Carroll Street, which happens to be next to a powder coater that I use quite often. It was another link, a personal link. Like the Reebie Storage Warehouse, it extended the metaphor beyond the exterior appearance. Its construction almost resembles a fortress or tomb and the company adopted an Egyptian name in 1892 when archeological explorations in Egypt revealed ancient artifacts preserved with lacquer-like coatings. It is a very opportunistic name.
Other examples are found in Graceland Cemetery in the form of tombs and monuments. In general, the Egyptian Revival architectural style has never been as popular as the classical revival or gothic revival styles. Instead, the style, based on Egyptian temples and other ceremonial and funerary buildings and monuments, became popular in two periods of US history: first in the mid-1800s, and later in the 1920s. The Egyptian Revival peaked in the 1840s and buildings built during the first period typically were prisons, churches, and structures associated with cemeteries, including gate houses and monuments.
One of the first Egyptian Revival-style buildings in the United States was the New York Hall of Justice and House of Detention, commonly known as “The Tombs.” Probably the most known structure in the United States from this period is the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., which took the form of an Egyptian obelisk. Egyptian Revival architectural style was little used in US architecture and was restricted mainly to cemetery monuments. However, the discovery of the Tomb of King Tut in 1922 brought back a fascination with Egyptian culture, and you could see a number of movie theaters throughout the country built in this style, especially in Los Angeles.
Another point of interest is that the façade was sculpted in terracotta by Northwestern Terra Cotta Company and probably was modeled by the chief modeler, Fritz Albert, who was knowledgeable in Egyptian art and architecture. He was a sculptor who left his native Germany to sculpt for the World’s Columbian Exposition and stayed in Chicago for the rest of his life.
Chicago was a leading US center for architectural terracotta design and manufacturing. Terracotta factories took advantage of Chicago’s vibrant and innovative architectural community, its strategic location at the center of the nation’s great railroad transportation network, and its proximity to clay deposits in nearby Indiana. Terracotta was a relatively inexpensive building material that could be molded, and it was fireproof.
Architectural designers had great leeway in architectural decoration using terracotta, with the ability to design buildings in a variety of styles. Of course, we can think about Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others. Plus, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was influential on the taste of Americans at the time and allowed for terracotta to become a widely used material.
Perhaps unrelated—but I have a feeling it is related—was an exhibition called Street in Cairo, which was one of the most popular attractions on the Midway Plaisance section of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Street in Cairo replicated examples of architecture from the heart of the medieval city, including a mosque and a mausoleum. Adjacent to the street was a recreation of part of the Luxor Temple with two soaring obelisks, one of which was inscribed with hieroglyphs with the name of President Grover Cleveland. Over two and a quarter million people flocked to the donkey and camel rides, drank mocha in the café, shopped for Egyptian handcrafts and trinkets in the many shops, and watched the exotic dancers in the Egyptian theater. The Street in Cairo was described as the liveliest, jolliest place on the Midway. Unfortunately, many of the attractions served only to reinforce stereotypes about the Middle East and its people.
Another factor of the success of the Cairo Supper Club was its location in Uptown, which has been known as an entertainment district of Chicago. The club closed suddenly in 1964 when a dozen witnesses claimed they saw a men throw a firebomb into the club, setting off a blaze that destroyed it. Mob involvement was suspected. It turned out combustible material had been planted in the club at four different places. The Cairo was one of thirty-three restaurant burnings and bombings that had occurred in the US at the time.
Later on, Cairo became Nick’s Uptown Bar; the marquee is still there. Nick’s was attended by local patrons, but closed about ten years ago when it was sold to the Thorek Hospital and closed overnight. Thorek is buying up all the land for, well, unspecified future development, but right now there is just a lot of empty space and parking lots. The Cairo is probably the only kind of distinctive building that Thorek now has in its possession.
The Cairo Supper Club Building’s façade, and really only the façade, has been designated as a landmark and is protected by the City of Chicago. The building’s historic integrity is preserved “in light of its location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and ability to express those values.” Most of the information I am providing right now is in fact quoted from the landmark designation report from the commission on Chicago Landmarks.
And lastly, I wanted to talk about what this building was used for at its prime, which also reinforces this story of entertainment and possibly reinforcing some stereotypes, but also gave Chicago talent a stage. As you can see on the photographs of the storefront, it was used for posters announcing regular acts, including the Mary Kay Trio and hypnotist performances.
One of the youngest performers was Marshall Brodien, a Chicago magician and hypnotist. Brodien recalls that the Cairo Supper Club was like a Las Vegas showroom: the decor was elegant with linen on the tables, candle lighting, and plush booth seating. At showtime, the bar moved forward making way for an extended stage.
The Cairo prided itself on fine dining, music for dancing, and comedy acts. But in fact, the Cairo Supper Club became synonymous with hypnotic shows. Word was out that young hypnotist Brodien was hip and doing miraculous things that you had to see to believe. Brodien entertained and hypnotized the audience in a few different acts, but the talk of the town was his final act when he hypnotized an attractive female volunteer from the audience to become stiff as a board, stretched between two chairs horizontally, and then he stood on her stomach. The marquee sign of the Cairo was changed to “Marshall Brodien, America's Most Entertaining Hypnotist.” Brodien stayed at the club until it closed and then went on to become Wizzo the Wizard. He designed a trick magic card deck known as T.V. Magic Cards. He also designed magic trick sets for children through a company called Cadaco Toys. The Magical Life of Marshall Brodien was published in 2007, and this information can be found in that book.
That is my take on the archives: that some things that first appear unassuming may actually uncover a rich, entertaining history of Chicago’s culture. This research took me closer to understanding an opportunistic spirit and endeavors as well as a cultural context that is complex: a product of its time, shaped by immigration, fascination, and appropriation as well as innovation.