Jesus House Walks

Last week’s house walk was a success. I worked at St. John’s Church as a docent and gofer Saturday morning and afternoon, switching between explaining the Christian symbology topping the lancets on the Advent Window, and setting up canopies, tables, and chairs for the beans and brats feast the church laid out for all visitors. I truly enjoyed myself—it’s rare that I have a live audience, and rarer still when they actually want to hear what I have to say.

After weeks (well, days) worth of study and practice, I was ready to show every interesting item between the narthex and sacristy. As it turned out, I was put in charge of showing off just the sanctuary and chancel—stage three of the tour as I explained to the house walkers.

Sorry, permit me to provide a quick glossary. The narthex is the entrance; the sacristy is the back-stage area where the priests and servers prepare for the service; the sanctuary is at the front of the church, while the chancel is the area surrounding the altar. At least that’s what I was told. I always heard the sanctuary comprised the interior of the church, and while I’d never encountered the word chancel before, I’d heard of the apse—the recessed area occupied by the altar, the tabernacle, the reredos, and other furnishings. (Didn’t understand a single word in the previous paragraph? I completely understand. For me it all comes from a Catholic boyhood and a little Wikipedia skimming. I won’t commit the sin of pride though—the sanctuary and chancel were more than enough, and I had the pleasure of describing three of the church’s prize possessions.

St. John’s is a small church. The congregation numbers at, I think, around 120 or so parishioners, and the building is the size of a large house. While not as sprawlingly awesome and ostentatious as the Catholic Holy Name Cathedral or St. James’, the Chicago’s Epsicopalian cathedral, St. John’s seems large even in its smallness. It reminds me of a nautilus shell, compact and curving into itself.

Just missing the Gothic Revival, but no doubt heavily influenced by it, St. John’s was erected in 1888. For chronological perspective, that’s the same year Arthur Conan Doyle dreamed up Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper was murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel. Chicago’s Irving park—the northwest neighborhood St. John’s is situated in—was somewhat calmer back then. If memory serves, the area was originally called Grayland, because Sheriff John Gray (the first republican sheriff elected in Chicago) owed much farmland there. Gray announced that the tract of land located at Byron and Kostner was available to anyone who promised to build a church. The Episcopalians—who were currently meeting in  masonic halls and a room above a local pharmacy—took the challenge and constructed the current church.

Records state that the church was built by the Cookingham Co. My research turned up no such firm, though I did encounter another one named Cookingham and Clarke in a Trib article from 1886. Cookingham and Clarke announced that they were constructing “Chinese dwellings” (i.e., pagoda-inspired homes) in Ravenswood, another Chicago neighborhood. I haven’t looked into this yet, but I’m hoping that the “Chinese dwellings” were constructed and can be located (I doubt it).

Here’s where things get interesting, yet murky, so we must use a bit of conjecture. Cookingham of Cookingham and Clarke was a fellow named Peter. He had a brother named Theron who lived in Irving Park and worked as a contractor. The very helpful Mr. Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s redoubtable cultural historian, found a family photo of the Cookingham’s and posited (but admitted that this is not a certainty) that Theron very likely was the contractor, and Peter likely could have been St. John’s architect. My research turns up ads announcing applications for builder’s permits by a W.H Cookingham as well, leading me to think this was a family operation. Tim suggested the Britishness of their surname lends some credence to the Cookinghams being Episcopalians. Sounds like an excellent starting point for further research.

On enters St. John’s through the narthex on the west side, passing through two red doors. According to tradition, the doors are painted red to symbolize entering the church under the protection of the blood of Christ. Sounds like it’s more of an Episcopalian tradition, and an image search for “red doors Episcopalian church” seems to bear this out. Ascending the stairs and entering the nave—the area containing the pews and aisle—the visitor can note two gothic revival elements.

1. Take a broad view of the scene and you’ll notice that the aisle is eventually bisected by a horizontal stretch of area between the pews and the sanctuary, forming a cross—not by accident.

2. The hammerbeam roof, composed of several large pieces of timber that take the weight and thrust of the roof and transfer it to the church’s stone walls. The problem is that St. John’s doesn’t have stone walls, and 20 years ago they noticed the walls were pulling away from the sides under the roof’s weight. A photograph from the archives shows the beams were about 2 1/4″ out of plumb. Not good. Tie rods and support bars were installed and painted well enough to blend in with the wood. I sure do like that hammerbeam roof—gives the place a mead hall feel. Christ the Viking.

Most of the stained glass windows at St. John’s were installed during the 60s and 70s and have pretty but bland Renaissance-inspired appearances. With the exception of the 1988 window, which takes full advantage of that era’s love of jagged abstraction. The sanctuary, however, features Irving Park’s oldest, intact stained glass window known as the Advent Window. The Advent Widow is the gift of the Children League of the Holy Child, a group formed before the church existed by a Mrs. Florance (the church’s Tennessee marble baptismal font is dedicated to her). After reading the Apostles Creed together every Saturday, Mrs. Florance and the children would sew squares to be sewn in turn into quilts and sold. From 1888 to 1924, the Advent Window occupied the west wall, while the church entrance was set in the northwest corner. In 1924 they dug a basement, and the church was shifted two feet northwards. The narthex was constructed, and the Advent Window was reset in the sanctuary’s northeast wall.

Directly across from the Advent Window you’ll find the church’s 110-year-old Kimball pipe organ. The W. W. Kimball Company was mostly known for piano manufacturing and sales, but from 1890 to 1942 they also built pipe organs. St. John’s organ was dedicated in 1900 by local organist/fin de siecle rock star Harrison Wild—a gentleman of great talent and tremendous mustache. The organ was once operated by a bellows, operated by wee boys who sat behind the organ and pumped it during the service. Later on a pipe was run into the church and the organ was water-powered before eventually being converted to electric. Wild wasn’t the only individual who tickled the ivories at St. John’s. Herbert E. Hyde, a child prodigy, played it from age 13 to 16. Hyde later went on to play for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church up in Evanston. Hyde spread out into the theater as well, writing music for children’s musicals and plays, including one written by Lord Dunsany, proto-scifi/fantasy writer and figure of great inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft.

The final object of pride is the reredos against the chancel’s rear wall. Installed in 1944, the reredos features four paintings by painter and parishioner Theon Betts. Mr. Betts came from an artistic family, and I mean that in the strictest sense since every one of them, from Daddy on down was a brush-slinger. Theon’s brother Louis was likely the star of the family, though not a household name (he did, however, render an impressive portrait of lumber magnate Martin Ryerson, currently residing at the Art Institute of Chicago). Theon was no slacker, however, and turned out four subdued, dreamy paintings of St. Francis, Mary, St. John, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The tour passed through the sacristy, which once held a small chapel with a fancy, but now MIA, altar. The fun part came at the tour’s end in the back rooms. Once a much larger room, it was divided by drywall into several classrooms in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this covered up a sweeping ceiling and all traces of the former gymnasium—save for the very loud bell attached to the east wall, which once marked the rounds during the boxing matches they once held up there. OLD-FASHIONED EPISCOPALIAN BOXING MATCHES. Awesome.

I don’t have any especially whacky house walk stories. The crowd was attentive and well-behaved. The only true eccentric was a guy in a trenchcoat with fresh facial scabs, who first asked me if I was “the reverend” and then advised me that our kitchen fire extinguishers weren’t of the correct grade (he recommended K grade extinguishers). My fellow guides, especially Angela, the church historian, were all lovely people. One of them, Olive, was good enough to snap a picture of me. Behold, Mr. Dan Kelly: DOCENT.

Friends, They Are Jewels Pt. 1 West Lafayette, IN

From LiveJournal April 3, 2010

Mike, Nate, and I took a five-day trip down to the upper south this past week, our main destination Louisville, KY. Fortunately, Mike is a history teacher, I’m a devotee of obscure Americana, and  we both hold a special affection for Eisenhower-era road-tripping. The Midwest (aka the flyover zone to many of you) offers more history and mundane esoterica than you might think. Yes, prepare yourself for long hours of tooling down lesser expressways, passing field after field of corn, wheat, and sorghum–but the destination is often its own reward; that is if you care about 19th century architects, Lincolniana, and the biggest whatchamacallits in the world.

Our first stop, after passing a breathtakingly futuristic field of giant windmills along route 65 (an antiseptic agricultural environment  suited to 70s-era dystopic film fantasies), was West Lafayette, IN. The town is home to both Purdue University and one of Louis Sullivan’s eight jewel box banks. After several years on top of the world with his partner Dankmar Adler, during which he created gorgeous edifices like Chicago’s <a href=””>Auditorium Theater</a> and the <a href=””>Wainwright Building</a>, Sullivan fell on hard times, not helped at all by the fact that he was an arrogant bastard. Toward the end of his career he received smaller commissions, namely the “jewel boxes,” little bank buildings strewn across the Midwest. But like Chinese micro-calligraphy across a grain of rice, Sullivan transmitted large ideas across a small canvas.

Sullivan designed the Purdue State Bank in 1914, reportedly as part of a contest. He won, after a fashion, but costs ran to about $14,000 to build the bank, and the <i>Lieber Meister</i> made just a fraction of that, barely covering his expenses. More understated than the banks in <a href=””>Grinnell, IA, and Sidney, OH</a>, the building has a unique and elegant beauty. The bank will have its centennial in just four years, but it remains timeless; undoubtedly old, but unable to be pinioned to any particular era.

It’s also been aesthetically desecrated. Walking around the bank you first see the grey, bunker-like addition tacked on the back, housing the modern Chase bank. To enter the Sullivan portion you need to enter the bunker doors and turn right, only to see that the guts have been scooped out and replaced with drywall, ramps, and cubicles. Outside, the elegant archway that once stood over the doorway now houses an ATM. Sharper architectural mavens than myself have also pointed out the completely erroneous pattern formed by new tuckpointing. It seems likely an oblivious everyday work crew was enlisted rather than anyone with any sense of Sullivan’s legacy. It’s like finding a Faberge egg with its insides smashed and picked out, then replaced with a plastic dog turd.

Boo, West Lafayette. Boo.

Friends, They Are Jewels Pt. 2 Owatonna, MN/Columbus, WI

If you’re bound to see every last brick Louis Sullivan laid atop another, the last century made your job easier. By the 70s, most of Sullivan’s buildings were smashed and scattered, and in a useless bit of serendipity, seeing Sullivans has turned into one-stop shopping. A single Sullivan, the Bayard-Condict Building, exists in New York, while one apiece stand in Buffalo (the Guaranty Building) and St. Louis (the Wainwright). Two of Sullivan’s tombs remain in sight of one another in Chicago’s gracious Graceland Cemetery, while the third beautifully endures at St. Louis’ lovely Bellefontaine Cemetery. Looking for more? The Chicago Loop offers a short walking tour sporting two masterpieces (the Auditorium and Carson Pirie Scott store) and two lesser, but interesting edifices, the Jewelers’ building on Wabash and the Gage Group on Michigan. What we’ve lost in beautiful, inspirational, aspirational architecture, we’ve gained in shoe leather.

The hard part comes with making your way to those buildings showing Sullivan’s clockwork essence—the so-called “jewel boxes.” Prepare to drive through much of the Midwest’s green emptiness to reach these little treasures. In the past few months my wife, son, and I have done just that. Three down, five to go.

Erected between 1908 and 1919. The jewel boxes—all banks, save one—count as the last manifestations of Louis Sullivan’s talent. While partnered with architect/engineer Dankmar Adler in the 1890s, the man turned out literal masterpieces and created a new and vibrant American architecture. Then the rich people decided they didn’t want a new and vibrant American architecture, and Louis was kicked to the curb (not helped by the fact that he was an argumentative cuss). His last few years were spent destitute, drunk, and living on handouts from ex-student/employee Frank Lloyd Wright and the infrequent commission. His books The Autobiography of an Idea and Kindergarten Chats and the jewel boxes account for much of Sullivan’s creative output in his last decade. While none of the banks count as his final work (that would be the facade of the Krause Music Store), they are his last fully realized buildings. Created with limited budgets and far from the grandeur of the Auditorium, Wainwright, or Guaranty, the banks remain little triumphs from dark days.

Making our way to International Falls last week, my wife, son, and I stopped in Owatonna, MN, and Columbus, WI, to see two of the banks.1 While charming towns indeed, there’s not much reason to travel to either place unless you either (a) plan to settle down or (b) have a fetish for doomed Victorian architects. If it’s the latter, you’ll be satisfied.

Listen. Let me communicate what I call The Moment.

When one of the banks comes into sight an hour after exiting the interstate; winding down county roads edged with corn stalks and ramshackle barns; motoring through shiny plastic corridors of fast food restaurants, gas stations, and retail outlets… The Moment takes place. For me, it’s a thrill equal to 20 Christmas mornings. Imagine walking through your neighborhood, turning the corner, and finding the Taj Mahal or Sagrada Família in pocket-sized form. Seeing human potential at its zenith is always affecting.

The National Farmer’s Bank provides The Moment in shimmering, scintillating waves. The bank is big—the biggest of all the jewel boxes—and visually dominates the quaint town center with its monolithic boxiness, stained glass windows, and alien ornamentation. Much is made of Sullivan’s ornamentation, but his sense of placement is overlooked. The National Farmer’s Bank belongs there. Massive and making its presence felt, but not so big as to dwarf the surrounding buildings. It sits on its corner like an elegant grande dame, the ornate green corner cartouches hanging from her like jewelry.

Founded by Mr. Leonard Loomis Bennett, the bank enjoyed enough fat years to warrant a new building. Bennett’s son, Carl Bennett, was an artistic sort who dutifully left behind Harvard’s music school and a potential career as a conductor/composer, to assume control of the family business. To Sullivan’s benefit, Bennett’s studies introduced him to the Chicago architect’s work and ideas. “I want that,” Mr. Bennett may have said, and he commissioned Sullivan in 1909 to work his magic.Bennett shelled out $125,000 for the project, which works out to about $2 million today.

As mentioned, Louis didn’t work alone.  George Elmslie—a Sullivan protege helped with the drafting and design. Greatly helped, in  fact, as some references I’ve encountered state that he may have designed most of the bank—arguably, however, Sullivan’s influence and eye rule. The stained glass was created by Chicago artisan Louis J. Millet while the murals of horses, farmers, and a cabal of staring cows were painted by muralist Oskar Gross. By most accounts, Sullivan didn’t play well with others. He must have had some rapport with Elmslie, Millet, and Gross, because it all fits together. Hell, it breathes.

The Rust Belt and Iron Range don’t lack for depressed towns, but while Owatonna and Columbus display the usual historical downtown stagnation (few new or even late 20th century buildings), they seem to be doing all right. At the least they appear to appreciate what they have in the banks and take their custodianship seriously. I’m reminded of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when they find the knight who’s both guarded and been sustained by the Holy Grail for centuries. Funny that. I don’t want to suggest that Christ’s love has preserved the bank—that would be nuts—but Owatonna does give off a Christian vibe. This wasn’t helped by the guitarist who sang about the Nazarene in the park’s bandshell across the way. Nice town square, I must say, with a beautiful, old, Gothic fire station. If we had more time I would have liked to explore the town further (I had the same experience as this fellow, discovering that two  Elmslie homes were nearby. Shucks). 2

(Note: The below photos are reversed. The first 18 photos are of the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Columbus, WI. Just FYI.)

Ah, the bank, yes.

The bank was impressive on the outside, but walking through its low and flat lobby and entering the main chamber was breathtaking. I felt myself choke up for a moment as I beheld the bank’s Elmslie-ornamented clock; four massive and resplendent, 2.25 ton, cast-iron electroliers; gold-stenciled arches; and the unbelievable illuminated symphony of green and amber light cast by the Elmslie/Millet stained glass windows. Maybe it was momentary Stendahl syndrome. Enter a particularly pretty church from the good old days and you’ll get the same sensation.

The National Farmer’s Bank hasn’t arrived in the 21st Century wholly intact. Some misguided attempts to upgrade the bank’s interior over the years led to the removal of ornamentation, some of which has been replaced. The lovely teller window grates aren’t originals, for instance, but are instead well-crafted repros (an original screen can be seen at the Sullivan photography exhibit currently at the Art Institute, But you won’t… you just can’t be disappointed when you ascend the staircase to the balcony behind the Elmslie clock and check out the view.

I’m not one for exaggeration, but the building is damn near perfect. It has balance, warmth, and soul, and was created with human beings, not drones, in mind (a teller I spoke to said she looked forward to working there every day). I have seen many buildings and my share of Sullivans, but never a building so emblematic of the man’s ideas. It’s almost autobiographical. Gazing about, you can peer back a century and read his mind.


On our way back to Chicago we encountered sweltering heat, and I was worried that I might have to sweet talk Mike and her father (who was traveling with us) into making a stop-over in Columbus, WI. Fortunately, I was cheated, CHEATED!, by the Fates and Gods of Travel over a handful of other sites I wanted to see (the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station—the only one he ever designed—and several Paul Bunyan statues I knew about in Brainerd, MN. Yes, I have many strange levels.), and I (easily) convinced them I was due another bank. I kid. Both were as impressed with the Owatonna bank as I was and willingly supported my madness. But lordy, lordy, it was HOT.

If the Owatonna bank is Sullivan’s church, the Columbus bank is his chapel. Slim, petite, sedate, and meditative. I don’t want to try to read Sullivan’s mind too much, but it’s as if the man who said a skyscraper should be “Every inch a soaring thing.” and whose works are often described as symphonies in stone, began looking inward. To use another Sullivan quote—recalled and beautifully illustrated by the recent documentary Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture—”Remember the seed germ.” By which Sullivan meant, I think—to look to nature, and consider what can grow from a bare idea. A hundred or so Farmers and Merchants Banks could fit snugly into the Auditorium, yes, but if, of all of Sullivan’s works, this single bank survived, we could still look at it, grasp the gist of his philosophy, and mentally “rebuild” his lost works. Plus, it’s mighty cute.

The Farmers and Merchants Union Bank isn’t just the last of the jewel boxes, it was Sullivan’s final building, and the only edifice he put his full name to, on the terra cotta facade, chiseled beneath the bank’s name and painted in gold on the marble lintel (Sullivan got cute and placed his initials on the Carson Pirie Scott Building’s rotunda).

Built a decade after the National Farmer’s Bank, despite the falling of Sullivan’s fortunes his talent remained undiminished. The outside is more “jewel boxy” than the Owatonna bank—compact and seemingly delicate, while retaining a sense of restrained power and solidity—Bruce Lee versus Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sullivan was commissioned by bank owner J. Russell Wheeler, who, according to the bank’s Web site, was leaning toward the humdrum but popular Greek/Roman temple look for his itty-bitty bank. His wife Mrs. Anna-May Wheeler disagreed, bless her heart. Having seen photos of the Ohio and Minnesotan banks, she talked her spouse into hiring Sullivan. It seems likely that Mr. Wheeler never mentioned his desire for a wee temple. The three became good friends, despite Sullivan’s acidic and sarcastic rant in Kindergarten Chats (as Lynn Becker reminded me), insisting that if bankers demanded Roman temples, the banker should “…wear a toga, sandals, and conducts his business . . . in Latin.” Sullivan stayed with the Wheelers whenever he was in town to supervise construction.

If there was nothing else behind the facade, that would have been fine. The red to blue brick provides cool, shady gravitas to the building. The leafy, fractalling ornamentation by Elmslie, of course, is vintage Sullivan, albeit with a couple of lions and eagles that seem oddly out of place for the anti-classicist. Entering, the coolness continues with a long, hall-lake interior, making the most of the lot’s oblong shape. Up and to the right, the stained glass lets sea-green and amber-tinged sunlight shine in and wash over the brown brick and green marble teller stations. What a beauty. A very nice lady who worked at the bank took us up to the balcony, the only admonishment being that we couldn’t take shots over the teller line. Fine with me. I took a nice shot of the stained glass, and walked about admiring the cluttered displays of documents, recovered fragments, and shots of Johnny Depp posing with bank employees when he was there, filming Michael Mann’s plodding Public Enemies. The footage wasn’t used: more fool Michael Mann for doing so. Special treat, the bank has Sullivan’s blueprints on display.

As a final note, a pretty bronze lamp stands on corner table. Sullivan donated the lamp to the bank upon completion of the project, placing it, according to the sign, on that very spot. While I’m guessing the lamp was moved or stored during renovations and suchlike, it’s a thoughtful tradition, compared to the wholesale slaughter Sullivan’s buildings have experienced in his adopted  city. And what a perfect gesture, leaving an illuminating device at the heart of the last architectural jewel he ever “cut.”

1. We visited the bank in West Lafayette, IN, not too long ago. It was disappointing, for obvious reasons. I do advise stopping by, if only to see the (sadly truncated) exterior.

2. Hardcore architectural travelers may wish to consult this page of Prairie School architecture before heading out.

3. The Columbus Public Library, designed by Elmslie, is also worth a look-see if you happen to be town for the bank. Just take a gander across the street.3.

Okay, Honestly, WTF?

This? This is the reason you’ve been scraping away at the front of the Gage Group? Note too that the “restored” facade is nothing special. Jesus.

By the way, this is one of only five Sullivan buildings left in Chicago.

Also, note that they’re not calling this restaurant “Sullivan’s.” Filthy, filthy Irish.

Such Great Heights

My dentist has her offices in the Garland Building on Wabash. Having my teeth scraped and my gums poked is made somewhat more bearable by the fantastic view I have of the lakefront from the dentist’s chair. Truly, it’s a gorgeous sight, especially during the summer when all the rich folks sail their boats out there. What I did not know was that if I looked straight down, I’d get an amazing view of the Chicago Cultural Center’s rooftop. I’d heard that the Center’s rooftop  went green, but I’d yet to see it with my own eyes. Ditto the top of the Tiffany dome. Pretty breathtaking, I must say. I hope you get to see it for yourself, and without having to go through a scaling and root planing procedure to do so.