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“We will rebuild!”


“We will rebuild!” says Aunty Entity, Tina Turner’s character in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.” After all, she’d lived through the Apocalypse; the destruction of Bartertown was a minor irritation. Such optimism (or is it pigheadedness?) in the face of adversity is commendable. But I suspect there is a hint of spite there, too. I’ve written a piece on spite, wondering if some architectural evidence of spite remains in Agincourt. And sure enough, there not only is, but I’d written it into the story years ago, not recognizing it nor taking full advantage of the spiteful revenge inherent in the story.

Dearborn Street and Congress Parkway, Chicago, IL 60605

Next Fall semester, fate willing, I’ll be teaching a section of ARCH 371, Third Year Design, a studio/laboratory that also coördinates with a student field trip to Chicago, a few weeks into the term. Chicago is my home, as many know, and I may know more about the place — or at least have more than a passing familiarity with it — than most of our faculty, but for me it’s just good to go “home” and have a meal or two at my favorite watering holes — like Miller’s Pub on Wabash or the Berghoff on West Adams. [Pardon the baldfaced self-promotion; I do not work for the Chamber of Commerce.]

The trip will also be an opportunity to give students, especially those in my studio, to visit one of the sites we’ll use for a studio project: a sliver of land at the corner of Congress Parkway and Dearborn Street, a 67 foot by 19 foot postage stamp left over from a highway widening project of the 50s. In the aerial view above, it’s that tiny patch of green in an ocean of asphalt and concrete. [The big copper-roofed building just to the right is the Harold Washington Public Library, Chicago’s “poster child” for Post-Modernism.] The Project: a ten- to twelve-story building for one of a variety of purposes, including a boutique hotel — the HoDo on its end — a foreign consulate, and a library-archive. The Challenge: cramming required program elements, structural solidity, and life-safety amenities into the equivalent of a missile silo. The Lesson: you will never again consider so judiciously each cubic inch of available space — unless you’re packing for Mars.

In the early 1950s, Congress Street didn’t amount to very much, a narrow thoroughfare in the city’s Cartesian grid. But the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, President Eisenhower’s initiative for the Interstate Highway System, soon gave the street a more prominent position as the downtown feeder to what would become I-290, a.k.a., the Eisenhower Expressway.

Demolition of several buildings fronting Congress Street provided for three lanes in each direction, plus generous turn lanes and a partial landscaped median. But in a few cases it also left residual parcels of unmarketable real estate. In fact, I’ve been walking past this particular piece since I was about fifteen — when the area was “Skid Row” — and later on the way to Dearborn Station and the Santa Fe Railway journey to school in Oklahoma. The site has been host to a hot dog vendor, a billboard, a graveled parking lot for no more than six cars, and currently a raised patch of grass used by no one, as far as I can tell. Putting a building there is not an act of spite; it would be one of foolhardy entrepreneurial courage — or the chutzpah of Aunty Entity; the sort of design problem I call “packing the suitcase”.

But Agincourt?

When Cassius Hyde Miller, tobacconist, died in 1896, he and his widow Annabelle hadn’t quite recovered from the Panic of 1893, but tobacco held a strong future and Mrs Miller persisted with the business. The Hazzard House hotel burned a year later, in 1897, but her business-cum-residence was spared. By late 1898 a stock company had formed to build The Blenheim, a replacement but more upscale hostelry, and Belle (as she was known) received what they felt was a generous offer for her property. Stubborn in the face of adversity, she also realized it would not be enough to see her through old age.

The hotel stockholders needed southern views for a large number of rooms, however — they all faced outward from a central atrium — and the loss of those sixteen rooms put the project in jeopardy, whereupon the city stepped in [they liked the project] and offered an incentive: a twenty-foot wide alley aligned with the one beside the Opera House would be built; ten feet shaved from the hotel property and ten feet shaved from the Miller land, thinking this would entice her to sell.

It was about about this time when Mrs Miller’s brother Armand Schert arrived from somewhere along the Mississippi — Memphis or Vicksburg, I think — to take matters in hand. Schert reviewed the proposal but he and his sister were in no position to bargain. So a ten-foot strip of land was taken by eminent domain, which the city believed would lead to acquisition of all twenty-five feet and displacement of the Miller’s altogether. But they hadn’t counted on Armand’s creativity: the city could have those ten feet, but the remaining fifteen-foot-wide shop and dwelling would stay, with a new side wall confronting the new hotel. Then Schert extracted a bit more revenge the city hadn’t anticipated.

Cassius (a.k.a., Cash) Miller had also been a drayman and had kept a team of horses in stables at the east end of the property. Now, with the entire side wall revealed, it could be used even more effectively as rental space, and the former haymow was also available for development. Those sixteen hotel rooms would enjoy a panorama of horse shit.

What he placed above the stable is the second part of the story: Mrs Miller’s Enterprise.

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