File this under “The way things work.”
On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 29th, 1908, fire broke out in the boiler room of the Alfred Peats Co., manufacturer of exclusive wallpapers. Located in the Loop on Wabash Avenue, the fire quickly rose through several floors and spread to adjacent buildings. In this RPPC view taken while the fire still smoldered, you can see the shop front of Yawman & Erbe, who manufactured desks, file cabinets and other quality furniture for office and libraries. Chances are, if you’re over fifty, you once used one of their card catalogues. Plenty of them show up on eBay, though I knew very little about the company (headquartered in Rochester, NY) until this card tweaked my curiosity.
Armed with only “…N & ERBE MFG. CO” from the postcard, it’s surprising how easily I was able to piece together the story.
- Plugged the visible portion of the name on the sign into ancestry.com and was taken to a Chicago business directory which gave the company’s full name and address (pre-1909, however, which is when the city reformed its street numbering system)
- Searched for business history on Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co. and found much about their home office and actual manufacturing site in Rochester, NY
- Used the company’s full name as a search tool at newspapers.com and found the front page coverage the day following the fire in the Chicago Inter-Ocean of Wednesday, January 29th
Yet another Chicago disaster interests me for several reasons. First, it’s Chicago and for me that’s sufficient. Second, it involves a company whose products undoubtedly reached northwestern Iowa. Third, they made library equipment and, as Jorge Luis Borges observed “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Fourth, aspiring architect Anson Tennant was eighteen or nineteen years old that year and on the cusp of moving to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. It’s tempting to imagine Anson and his dad James Tennant in Chicago on business or making arrangements for school and actually witnessing the fire. They sometimes stayed in a hotel in that neighborhood. Somehow I feel a story coming on.
I love learning.
Incidentally, the Y&E loses from the fire amounted to $5,000. Their neighbors weren’t so lucky.
[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]
COOKSEY, May Louise Greville [1878-1943]
gouache on board / 13.5 inches by 9.5 inches
Among the foreign artists represented in the Community Collection, a surprising number are British and, of them, several are connected in one way or another with the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th century. May Louise Greville Cooksey may be the last of her generation to fall under the sway of William Morris and his artistic kin among the Pre-Raphaelites.
Like Margaret Lloyd, artist of the “Punch & Judy” stained glass window in Agincourt’s first kindergarten, Cooksey attended art school in Liverpool. A travelling scholarship from the city also permitted her to visit Italy (where this gouache may have been painted in 1908), perhaps as much an artistic pilgrimage as it may have been religious: Cooksey had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1899.
Astrology has no particular hold over me. I rarely look at newspaper horoscopes and I certainly have no illusions that my life has been shaped by the celestial alignment on the day of my nativity; my life was not foretold in any way, shape or form by heavenly bodies. Yet many of the characteristics of a Capricorn are clearly mine. I take no pride in claiming this New Age nonsense, though it has served my own processes of self-analysis.
A “pure” Capricorn, however, I am not. For the day of my birth, the 17th of January, is in that three-day transition between zodiacal signs called a cusp; mine is with Aquarius, the following sign, which is associated with water, whereas Capricorn is of the earth. [For those lucky enough to be unacquainted with the Zodiac, the twelve signs are divided into groups of three, each of which is associated with one of the four Classical Greek elements: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Don’t ask why.] The upshot of a cusp is the mingling of characteristics—EARTH + WATER = MUD?—which are often diverse and contradictory. Frankly, that’s the way I feel most days, anyway. In the context of dog breeding, I’m a mongrel.
Personality determination by the Zodiac makes as much sense as from ethnicity. As a self-confessed Scot, for example, I ought to be frugal in the extreme—which I am decidedly not. And as a Pole—well, let’s just not go there. Here, too, I am a genetic mongrelization of several European tribes of the Northern sort; for besides Scot and Pole, there is a hint of Irish and German courtesy of my mother, Marge.
Unlike the Zodiac, the Myers-Briggs Personality types are founded in science (or as much science as psychology can claim) and are more reliable predictors of behavior. In the four-by-four matrix of M-B types, I consistently test as an INFP, though one of them is so near fifty percent that I might someday test otherwise. I mention this only as foundation for the observations I often make about architecture, for there is in me a critical streak impossible to deny.
Starchitecture, Part 2
Perhaps the first building about which I developed strongly negative feelings was Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Clinging to the east bank of the Mississippi at the edge of the Main Campus (which was shaped to a large extent by architect Cass Gilbert), the Weisman has two public façades: the north, facing Washington Avenue and publicly accessible; the west, facing the Mississippi River and, in effect, the Wesiman’s public persona. I have visited twice (just twice, both of them prior to the museum’s enlargement in 2011) and experienced its two mean of entry: as a pedestrian entering from the north; and by automobile through the parking garage at the base of the west. Forgive these “dated” observations; I’ll revisit the Weisman soon and, no doubt, modify my views.
Arriving by car and parking in the ramp (in the building’s base), I took the elevator to the lobby, arriving not far from where I would have entered on foot. The gift shop was straight ahead (opposite the elevator bank) and the galleries were to the right, in which direction I turned, only to be cut short by a large sandwich board sign announcing: “The Museum’s skylight system for the admittance of daylight does not function properly on two days out of the year. Today is one of those days, so the skylights will not be open.” Bummer. The skylight system is near legend in these parts, so leave it to me to pick one of two does in 365 when it wouldn’t work. [Not incidentally, given the luminous ceiling of the Modern Wing of Chicago’s Art Institute, will someone explain to me why one functions and the other doesn’t?]
The galleries themselves were rectangular floor areas and simple planar white walls. I followed them, gallery after gallery, until we reached the end of the line and then, with considerable disappointment, I had to turn around and trace the reverse of the path I’d just followed. Remember those battery-operated Christmas toys that walk endlessly into walls until the batteries run down?
Of course much of my attention was directed upward to the intricate plaster shapes, wondering what their effect might be in the distribution of light. The swoops and curves were fascinating as negative shapes piqued my curiosity about the second floor itself, whose volumes must wander in intricate, meandering paths: I’d seen the jell-o mould; now I wanter to see the jell-o. So we took the elevator to the second floor and was sorely disappointed, for all we found were administrative offices and public restrooms. The restrooms were nifty, by the way; I visited both. What, exactly, occupies all that mysterious volume above the first-floor galleries? Ducts?
Back on the main floor, the gift shop cried out for attention. But while I browsed through “pages” of poster hinged on the inner wall, a staff person kindly asked me to move so that she could access the flat file drawers of the low display units behind me. As a product of architectural education in the ’60s, anthropometrics are important—all that LeCorbusier “Modulor Man” shit concerning reach and grab and squat and thrust and the varying level of your eye depending on whether you are lying down, lounging, sitting upright, or standing. How is it possible to design a retail space—a small one at that—without keen awareness of the anthropometrics of commerce? Has Frank never shopped?
On the way back to the car two floors below, I made a side trip to the unidentified gathering space on the Weisman’s west side; the space inside the dramatic titanium façade. Yes, it is shaped as dramatically as its crinkled-crumpled exterior but the interior space played no role in the display of art; all of that takes place in the red brick box.
All things considered, the Weisman was a disappointment. Much ado about not very much. It may be that recent enlargement and remodeling will have given its interiors greater clarity but the path of Gehry’s subsequent career doesn’t afford much hope. In this, I’m being true to my Capricorn type.