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Deco

I won’t say where, but I recently encountered one of the coolest security guards in the world.

I was visiting a lovely Art Deco edifice a while back, and I wanted to take a few pix of the sedately ornate lobby, which featured the inevitable slim, half-naked figures that decorated the era’s most fashionable elevator doors. My picture-taking finger itched madly, but I held off and approached the security guard’s desk first.

As I’ve learned over the years, asking permission to take photographs isn’t just polite, it’s pre-emptive. Some buildings have rules against snapping pix, and security personnel will shut you down the moment you pull out your camera or phone. Reasons vary. It might be a licensing issue, or for security purposes, or simply because they don’t like shutterbugs cluttering the hallways. Most building owners in the Loop don’t have a problem with tourists and architecture buffs looking around—at least in the buildings worth commemorating. On occasion the guards are into it. I’ve had rent-a-cops chat me up, gleefully pointing out particularly pretty features, and sharing historical factoids—some even let me know it was okay to walk up a flight or two for a better shot. These folks know that while they may be running a business, the structure is their public face. Why not show how damn pretty they are?

Others aren’t so welcoming, covering up their buildings like a wizened duenna shielding her charges with curtains and scowls. Some, to their credit, instruct the guards to let people know they can look, maybe even touch… but NO pictures. Usually though they’re not friendly about it. In one building I asked sweetly if I could take a few pictures of the breath-takingly ornate lobby. I was not only sternly told no way, the guard followed me around, ensuring I didn’t capture the elevators’ and mailbox’s souls with my black magic eye box.

Because I am secretly feisty, however, whenever I’m impolitely denied access, I get crafty. I equate buildings and their lobbies with public art—accessible and unavoidable should mean photographable. So suffer me a few snapshots, yes? If a guard is particularly snippy and not terribly observant—and I’m not talking about restricted government buildings, banks, or places where you have to be buzzed in—I come back later and take a few shots from the belt. Buildings, particularly old ones, were created to meld commerce with art, and were thus imagined and constructed to be seen and enjoyed by the public. I have a theory that modern business architecture of the mid- to late-20th century purposefully became boring and soulless to counteract this belief. At some point the corporate sphere said, “We don’t want people to like our buildings. We want to be able to tear them down whenever we wish. Above all, we want them to say, ‘Go away. You don’t belong here.'” Every day I look out my office’s window and see Trump’s blue glass phallus and Mies van der Rohe’s big ol’ domino, and I think, “You may be admired, but you will never be loved.” Of course, they snottily answer back, “What makes you think we give a damn?”

So, the coolest security guard in the world… I ask him, politely, if I can take a few pictures.

“No, I’m sorry, that’s not allowed,” he replied, nicely enough.

“Oh…” say, a touch dejected. “Thanks, anyway.”

“But, you know, maybe I’ll just walk around the corner over there.” and he gestured to a spot about 30 feet away. Then he took off for a few minutes.

“Aha!” I said, brightening.

He left, and I took a few quick pix for my files. The ornamentation was limited, but tasteful and lovely, and while the building isn’t one of the famous ones, it has that 20s Chicago charm lacking in the surrounding glass and steel beasts. Later research revealed that it was made to honor the ideas of Louis Sullivan and John Wellborn Root. I think I’ll make a few calls and see if I can get a tour. in fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to get into Chicago’s tallest pre-1930s structures.

The guard returned and I gave him a silent thank you. He nodded. Good man. Good man. Preservationists and architecture aficionados everywhere appreciate your discretion, sir.