Archive for the ‘Chicago’ category

Angelo Testa’s final work

29 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

I know nothing about Angelo Testa.

I am a railfan and historian, and as such I’m fascinated by the forgotten and defunct rail lines of Chicago. One of these is the Lakewood Branch, a fragment of an old line that runs north from Goose Island. At right is a shot of the Lakewood’s current terminus as it fades out into a pair of cracks in the asphalt of Diversey Parkway. Until recently, the sole remaining customer along this branch was the Peerless Confection Company, manufacturer of a wide assortment of hard candies.

Via this rail line, once or twice a week, Peerless took deliveries of sugar and corn syrup to feed its large, shiny copper kettles. Here is an excellent photo essay describing a delivery in 1999. The travail of running trains through rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods is illustrative of how far rail-supplied industry has declined in Chicago.

Chicago was once one of the nation’s biggest candymakers, but decades of ill-advised tariffs designed to protect the American sugar farmer have made it utterly untenable to be a large-scale American confectioner. Peerless was one of Chicago’s last surviving confectioners, but it finally gave up the fight earlier this year.

A few days ago I took a camera to the Peerless factory to see what was left and maybe catch a few interesting shots. I was unprepared for its sheer size. The factory is an entire city block long, running along the east side of Lakewood Avenue south of Diversey. The buildings at the south end, along Schubert Avenue, are the oldest part of the factory, a seemingly random assortment of common-brick boxes, painted white, with simple corbeling at the cornices. To the north are a pair of much newer precast-concrete behemoths, utterly nondescript and indistinguishable from each other at ground level.

The land where it stands, at the boundary between Lincoln Park and Lakeview, is prime territory for Chicago’s continuing, go-go, mindlessly unstoppable condo-building boom, so what I found that day was no surprise. The entire factory was surrounded by Jersey barriers, and the walls were spray-painted with fluorescent orange No Parking warnings. A similarly coloured sticker on the main entrance showed that the city Department of Water Management stopped by on Christmas Eve to remove the building’s fire meter “before demolition,” but found no one home. Across Lakewood to the west, the site of a former baking company building was already a moonscape of brick and concrete rubble. The Peerless factory is doomed. It may already be gone.

Yet what’s this object mounted on the northwest corner of the building? A jumble of red and black square aluminum tubing, perhaps meant to symbolize the crystallization of sugar, with a name in jaunty lowercase cursive displayed below: angelotesta. Surely it’s artwork. Abstract, modern, minimalist, and totally not my style. But artwork none the less.

Who was Angelo Testa? I’d never heard of him. The web has plenty of listings of his works for sale, so I guess he was fairly prolific, but it’s kind of thin in the biographical department. According to the one decent article I found online—notably, available only via Google cache—this sculpture was Testa’s last. In response to a commission from Peerless, Testa designed five different maquettes in the late 1970s before succumbing to cancer in 1984; another artist completed this work and it was installed in 1986. One of the other maquettes, for a design that was not chosen, is up for auction and expected to garner four or five thousand dollars. This implies that, despite my ignorance of him, Angelo Testa was apparently not an unimportant artist. In addition, it seems that most of Testa’s work was in textiles—so a giant metal sculpture is fairly unique in his portfolio.

The wall on which it is mounted is going away—so what’s to happen to Angelo Testa’s final work?


[Follow-up for August 2011: Thanks to a niece of Angelo Testa, I have learned that the Elmhurst Art Museum was able to acquire the Peerless artwork. However, the work remains in storage pending an expansion of the museum which would require a substantial fund-raising effort. According to curator Aaron Ott, the museum is amenable to speaking with any “individuals or companies that may be interested in installing the work on their location.”]


Watching the beer wars

16 December 2007
Categories: Chicago

Larry Bell has big, big hops.

Last year, as described in this excellent Chicago Reader article, the Illinois distribution rights to the Bell’s Brewery brands were sold from one distributor to another. This was a perfectly legal transaction made possible by an outmoded but fully active law that protects distributors’ rights over those of the breweries, a law that made sense when all breweries were gigantic megalopolies, but which is utterly skewed when it comes to microbreweries and small craft brewers such as Bell’s.

In meeting with his new distributor, Larry Bell became concerned that his wide variety of brands would not be adequately marketed in Illinois, and that they would get lost among the Very-Big-Name Brands the distributor also carried. Rather than (as he saw it) suffer under this new regime, Bell chose to exit the Illinois market entirely, effectively killing around 10% of his total business (most of it in Chicago) for the sake of principle.

As a Michigander I’m a fan of Bell’s beers. Now an expat living in Chicago, I was saddened by the loss of the opportunity to purchase Bell’s here—a choice I had long taken for granted—but respected Bell for his stand against the distributors, who in my opinion have grown to be as all-powerful as the breweries were back when the Beer Industry Fair Dealing Act was written. In solidarity, I tried to remember to pick up some Bell’s whenever I returned to the Great Lakes State.

Now, a year later, Bell’s has returned to Chicago—sort of. Larry Bell (and his legal team) found a loophole in the law, one that implies new brands—not merely extensions of existing brands, as Heineken found when it tried to bring Heineken Premium Light here under a different distributor—are not subject to prior distribution deals. With that in mind, Bell’s Brewery has created three new brands under a “Kalamazoo” name: Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale, Kalamazoo Porter, and Kalamazoo IPA. By leaving the Bell’s logo as well as the Bell’s name off the label (except for the “Brewed and bottled by Bell’s Brewery, Inc.” at the bottom), and by using new brewing recipes, they have followed the letter (and perhaps the spirit) of the law and have managed, so far, to bring the Amber Ale into the city via a new distributor.

Of course, the former Bell’s distributor has threatened not only to sue, but to make the legal battle as protracted and expensive for Bell as they can.

This evening we stopped at one of the dozen or so purveyors of Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale and sampled a couple of pints. It’s very tasty. Heavy on the hops, like most Bell’s creations, making for a somewhat bitter finish that’s close to an IPA. But leading into that is a rich, creamy smoothness that I think is superior to Bell’s standard-issue Amber Ale. It is well worth seeking out. I’m looking forward to Kalamazoo Porter—and especially Kalamazoo IPA—coming to town.

What impresses me most about Larry Bell is not his fearless stance against the distribution syndicates, nor his audacity in creating new brews specifically for the Illinois market.

It’s the fact that the new label for Kalamazoo Royal Amber Ale depicts a close-up shot of the classic 1887 Michigan Central Railroad depot in downtown Kalamazoo. Clearly visible in the shot is the sign over the depot’s main platform which reads, in part, “Kalamazoo—Chicago, 138 miles.”

Big hops.

Lament for a landmark, tragically lost to misguided preservationism

27 October 2006
Categories: Chicago

This week another devastating fire cost Chicago an important piece of its legacy. The Wirt Dexter Building, built in 1887, stood at 630 S. Wabash until Tuesday, 24 October 2006. A modest six-story commercial block, it was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan—making it the second Adler & Sullivan structure to be lost in 2006, after the Pilgrim Baptist Church in January.

When the city put the Dexter Building on the Chicago Landmarks list ten years ago, it was unequivocal about the Dexter’s significance:

[T]his building represents an irreplaceable link in the chain of work of one of the nation’s most important architectural partnerships, that of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. The building’s unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building, and the use of a cast-iron structural system permits larger window openings than would have been possible through the use of masonry alone. The distinctive, perforated, cast-iron beams on the rear facade, for example, anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later. (Chicago Landmarks page, emphasis added)

And now it’s gone, destroyed in a fire carelessly started by workers using acetylene torches to cut up an old boiler in the basement. That both fires were caused by contractor fuck-ups is deplorable. The reason why they were doing this work only makes the story all the more tragic.

The Dexter’s owner, 76-year-old Lorraine Phillips, saw the building as “her retirement.” She was “widely known in preservationist circles” (Chicago Tribune, 10/26/06) for her repeated pleas for funding to restore the well-worn building to its former glory. Failing this, she was in the process of selling the boiler for scrap to generate a little cash flow.

Phillips was seriously misguided when it came to the Dexter, because her two goals for it—restoration and retirement fund—were mutually exclusive.

First and foremost, an old landmark structure like this is unlikely ever to be a money-maker. If Phillips had truly wanted to retire on it, her best bet would have been to sell it for a chunk of cash and re-invest that in something with a steady income—like a mutual fund, not a landmark.

Second, it’s clear that her vision for the restoration was both prosaic and out of touch. To quote from that same Trib article:

She had long dreamed of restoring the building and George Diamond’s Steakhouse, once a classic upscale Chicago restaurant and celebrity rendezvous.

When it opened in the 1950s, George Diamond’s trademark was its flaming red carpet and velvet paintings in a dining room that seated 600.

Under her tenure, the restaurant was closed, then briefly opened again in 2000 before closing without recapturing its former grandeur.

Her nostalgia for a joint that had its heyday around the time the Rat Pack was still a fivesome completely clouded her judgment of what was right for this particular building in this day and age. The South Loop has been booming lately, and she should have handed the Dexter off to a developer who could have put in condominium loft apartments above a retail space to house, say, a hip new restaurant without a trace of painted velvet in sight. Or perhaps she could have sold it to nearby Columbia College, which could have put it to good use.

Instead, Lorraine Phillips had it all wrong. Holding title to a landmark structure like the Dexter is not ownership—it’s stewardship. Everything done to it must be in the building’s best interest, not the owner’s—because its historic value is something all Chicagoans share. Now this legacy of one of Chicago’s greatest architectural duos, Adler & Sullivan, is gone forever, and it’s a loss the city can ill afford. Once the home of so many of their works—the Stock Exchange, the Victoria Building, the Garrick Theater, among others—the list of Chicago’s major surviving Adler & Sullivan designs can now be counted on one hand.

Meanwhile, where is city hall when it comes to performing its watchdog duties? How are these often unlicensed, uninsured, and/or ill-trained workers allowed to ply their questionable trade within the Chicago city limits? The answer seems to be that the city chooses to fatten its coffers with property taxes and hand out TIF zones to its most-favoured aldermen, rather than strive to safeguard its own architectural heritage, the inheritance of the people of Chicago.

A final irony: I heard on the radio that this year the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Louis H. Sullivan’s birth. If so, this is the first I’d heard of it, and the city seems as effectual at promoting this commemoration as it is at protecting its priceless landmarks.