Protest at Adams & Clark

Back again on September 3 or so. Hard to believe the summer’s dwindling down, but at least it’s still as warm and dry as a real summer.

I was downtown late yesterday morning, and spotted a protest at the northeast corner of Adams and Clark. I heard it first, and then went closer to take a look. People filled the sidewalk in front of the building at that corner, and with them were a speaker on a small platform, some cameramen, and a few bored-looking cops, watching.

At first I thought it might be fast-food workers out on strike, but no. That was scheduled for today, and besides, no fast food is available at that corner. Instead, the building is home to the Chicago Board of Education, and it wasn’t long before I figured out that the protestors were being vocal about the recent closings of a large number of public schools in the city.

The speaker, despite his microphone, was a little hard to hear. Across the street, a fellow let us know his displeasure with Mayor Emanuel.

I haven’t followed the mayor’s time in office closely enough to form much of an opinion, but I know the protestor is hardly alone.

The Fern Room

Another picture of the Garfield Park Conservatory: The Fern Room.

According to a sign at the entrance, the room was Jen Jensen’s “imaginative tribute to prehistoric Illinois. So natural looking was the result that when the Conservatory first opened, visitors thought it has been erected over an existing lagoon… Many of the plants in this room date to the time of the dinosaurs. They have changed little from their ancestors over the last 200 million years. Our plants, of course, are not that old. The oldest are about 300 years of age.”

At the entrance to the Fern Room, another Chicago talent of yore left his mark: sculptor Lorado Taft. Seen a few of his things before.

He called this piece “Idyl,” and it dates from 1913.

This one is “Pastoral,” of the same vintage.

The (Glass) House That Jens Jensen Built

“In 1905, Chicago’s West Park Commission’s general superintendent and chief landscape architect, Jens Jensen, demolished the three smaller greenhouses in Humboldt, Douglas and Garfield Parks to create what was intended as ‘the largest publicly owned conservatory under one roof in the world’ in Garfield Park,” according to the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance. “Many of the original plantings came from the three smaller West Side conservatories.

“Constructed between 1906 and 1907, the Garfield Park Conservatory was designed by Jensen in collaboration with Prairie School architects Schmidt, Garden and Martin and the New York engineering firm of Hitchings and Co. It represents a unique collaboration of architects, engineers, landscape architects, sculptors and artisans. Jensen conceived the Conservatory as a series of naturalistic landscapes under glass, a revolutionary idea at the time.”

It’s a fine place to stroll, even if you don’t spent a lot of time absorbing botanical facts. Plenty of leafy vistas.

Jens Jenson ought to be better remembered, and not just for the conservatory. The Jens Jenson Legacy Project tells us that he “created Columbus Park on the western edge of Chicago, and extensively redesigned three other large west-side parks (Humboldt, Garfield, and Douglas) as well as 15 small ones. He designed parks in smaller cities – among them Racine and Madison, Wisconsin; Dubuque, Iowa; and Springfield, Illinois. He landscaped dozens of estates belonging to wealthy Midwesterners along the North Shore (Rosenwalds, Florsheims, Ryersons, Beckers) and elsewhere (Henry and Edsel Ford).

“Jensen organized and inspired the early conservation movements that led to the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the Illinois state park system, the Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore.”

The Garfield Park Conservatory

Last week I was visited the Garfield Park Conservatory on the West Side of Chicago, one of the great conservatories (just ask anyone). Been some years since I’ve been there, but I remember taking younger versions of Lilly and Ann at least once, and pointing out the cocoa trees. “See? That’s the plant chocolate comes from.”

The cocoa trees are still there, of course. So are the banana trees.

Plus a welter of plants I’ve never heard of. Or forgotten. No matter how many conservatories or gardens I visit – and I try to take in a few every year – I always run across something new.  I don’t have it in me to be a botanist, just someone who says, wow, that’s interesting.

Take a look at the Hanging Lobster Claw, Heloconia rostrata cultivar, Heliconiaceae, native to South America (someone added the little glass eyeballs on the top petal). It’s like something Dale Chihuly might hang at the conservatory. He had a show at the Garfield Park Conservatory a few years ago for which he did hang his glass art in the conservatory, but I missed it.

Or the Shrimp Plant, Pachystachys lutae, Acanthaceae, which grows in Peru.

I liked this plant, but it also shows that my note-taking isn’t always very thorough.

Item from the Past: Nephews & Uncle

The picture doesn’t need much explanation, except to say that that’s me – I’m the large monkey in the see-no-evil pose – with my nephews Sam (speak no evil) and Dees (hear no evil). Since the picture was taken by my brother Jay, their father, in late August 1988, the boys have gone on to be grown men.

I’m wearing my Hog Heaven, Hog Hell t-shirt, which depicts a one-panel cartoon by Sam Hurt: pigs lolling around on clouds, pigs finding themselves on plates next to fried eggs. I think I got it in Austin that year. I’m not sure what happened to it – maybe I lost it in one of my moves since 1988.

The Opera House and the Box It Came In

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: acknowledge the famous, or at least the noteworthy, but don’t ignore the obscure. Never know what you’ll find in obscurity. Besides, odds are you yourself are obscure. It’s the human condition, or rather the condition of most humans.

That’s an over-long intro for the Sandwich Opera House, which we chanced on after seeing the Farnsworth. Sandwich, Illinois, is a town on U.S. 34 in southeastern DeKalb County. The Opera House dates from the golden age of opera house construction in small-town America, the late 19th century. It’s apparently also the City Hall. It was closed, but you could admire it from across the street.

It’s still in use for entertainment. For a little contrast, I took a picture of this brutalist box of a building across the street.

Maybe it isn’t beyond saving. What it needs is a lick of paint – some DayGlo green, say. It could be the Green Cube of Sandwich.

More on the Farnsworth

Our tour of the Farnsworth House on Saturday took us inside its floor-to-ceiling glass walls, where photography isn’t permitted on weekends. We heard about the mechanical aspects of the house — all those pesky practical items like electricity and water — the guest bathroom, Dr. Farnsworth’s bathroom, the kitchen zone with its long stainless steel prep area, the history of the curtains, the placement of the few lights, and the back-and-forth between client and architect about whether there ought to be at least one closet. Architect said no, client said yes, so ultimately a freestanding wardrobe was fashioned by one of Mies’ employees for the house.

Previously I hadn’t bothered to find out much about how the house came to be. Not to worry, a video at the visitor center and the guide filled us in on some details, such as initially warm (maybe very warm) relations between the unmarried Dr. Farnsworth and the free-with-his-affections Mies, which eventually grew acrimonious. Especially when Mies presented her with a bill she considered inflated. Less might be more, but not when it came to his fee.

Outside again we went to the “back” of the house, that is, the side facing away from the river.

This is a fuller view.

The row of kitchen-counter-like shapes under the brown interior structure are in fact kitchen counters, with the “bedroom” off to the left. The black cylinder-like thing under the main level — the other columns are white — is where water goes in and out, and electricity comes in.

Got a good look under the house, too.

Another bit of the house’s history involves the land to the west. Lord Palumbo built a boathouse there, and just beyond it is a road: Fox River Dr., which crosses the river within sight of the house. In the late 1940s, the road and bridge were small. In the late ’60s, Kendall County took two acres by eminent domain to widen the road and build a bigger bridge. Dr. Farnsworth fought it, but lost. With the increase in population over the decades since then in this part of the state, the road’s now pretty busy, at least on a Saturday afternoon. Quiet isn’t something you get on the Farnsworth grounds these days.

From the back of the house, the property slopes upward to a small hill, which would have been the rational place to build a dwelling, considering its location above the flood plain. But as suggested about some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s works, perhaps it’s best to think of this Miesian creation as a work of sculpture rather than a house. And a right interesting sculpture it is.

The Farnsworth House

I can’t say that I know architecture, but I know what’s interesting. The Farnsworth House is definitely that. Built over 60 years ago in rural – and now exurban – Illinois, it’s a glass-and-steel, but most notably glass, house designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famed Chicago architect (which he became later in life, another unwitting gift to America from the Nazis), and one of the panjandrums of Modernism. It’s also hard for amateur photographers like myself to get a good image of the place.

This is the “front,” facing the Fox River, illustrating the fact that the house is all about the horizontal: a “deck” (my term) accessible by stairs, a main level accessible by more stairs, and then the flat roof, presumably accessible by ladder. The deck is wide open to the elements, though shaded by trees in our time, and the main level is either outside or inside, as delineated by glass walls. Except that, as I understand it, one of the purposes of the glass walls was to help obviate the distinction between exterior and interior. Unless you close the curtains, which I understand the residents did with some regularity, and which the National Trust does when it isn’t giving tours.

For a while we stood in front as our guide filled us in on the building’s origin and other details of the site, such as its propensity to flood. Mies knew that, of course, and raised the structure to avoid the worst of the Fox River’s periodic rampages. Turns out that because of development upstream, rainwater and snowmelt drain faster into the river than they used to, so the river rises higher than it did in the early 20th century. Oops. Such torrents flooded the house in 1956 and 1996. Not sure that’s what Mies had in mind when he talked of integrating the built environment with the natural one.

Apparently the ’96 flood was especially vicious, popping one of the floor-to-ceiling windows and washing away some of the artwork belonging to Lord Palumbo, the property’s second owner.

We went up the stairs to take in the view from the deck…

…and then to main level. Both levels are floored with Italian travertine, a wonderful stone hand-picked by Mies. According to the guide, so far the National Trust hasn’t been able to locate any exactly like them, so there aren’t any replacements. It’s wonder we were allowed to walk on them at all.

Up on the main level’s “porch,” (my term again) our guide gave us the rules for going inside: no photos, no shoes, and no sitting around on the furniture. We were free to take pictures of the interior through the window-walls which, of course, offer an expansive view of the inside.

Something you appreciate after standing around for a few minutes on the main level, at least I did, is the lack of handrails. That is, in fact, a code issue that would prevent the house from being built in our time exactly as it was in the late ’40s (among a few other things). The drop is only a bit more than five feet, of course, but even so it could be an injurious crash to the ground, or worse, into the narrow space between the deck and the main level. I don’t know if the matter of rails ever came up between the original owner, Dr. Edith Farnsworth, and Meis, but I feel certain any such thing would have been ruled out for aesthetic reasons.

Down by the Fox Again

Saturday found us down near the Fox River again, this time further downstream than Aurora — at a spot near Plano, Illinois. It was a fine day for a walk along the river. Temps were in the upper 70s F and the skies were partly cloudy, and everything was still summer green, even now in the declining part of the season. The path paralleled the river most of the way.

In places, views of the river peeked through the thick foliage.

Underfoot, it was clear the river had overstepped its banks earlier this year. That’s par for the course for the Fox.

So the natural aspects of the property were pleasant, but that isn’t what we’d come to see. We were paying a visit to the Farnsworth House, which is located south of Plano, on the river. To reach the property, which since 2003 has been a house museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, you park about a half-mile away at the visitors center. Once your tour starts — ours was a 1 p.m. Saturday — you walk via path the half-mile to the site.

In as much as I understand it, the structure is an exemplar of Modernism. It was worth the drive southwest of metro Chicago, and then the walk near the river, to see it. More about that tomorrow.

Item From the Past: Kinokawa

August 18, 1991

Osaka radio, Bonchi Rice Snack, high winds pouring through my window; such is the stuff of today, the last day of O-bon. The highlight of the week was an excursion to Kinokawa, a river about an hour south by train, and then more time by car.

Last Saturday, one of my students, Aiko, spontaneously invited me to go after I ran into her at Keyston, where my friend Don and another guy were playing a gig. Aiko had been in turn invited by her friend Kumiko who – together with her sister and brother-in-law – rented a two-room “cabin” overlooking the Kinokawa. Kumiko is having an affair with Don at the moment. So I was expecting him to come along. Wrong again. Instead, Kumiko invited my friend Bill, who’s attracted to Kumiko in spite of the fact, or maybe because of the fact, that he married another woman earlier in the summer. Why? I don’t know. Maybe Kumiko just likes fanning Bill’s ardor.

[Unsurprisingly, Bill’s marriage – to a Japanese woman – didn’t last very long, and after their divorce, rumor was she dimed on him to immigration, to make sure he’d leave the country. I went to his “deportation party” just before he left, though strictly speaking, I think he left ahead legal action.]

None of those interpersonal complications really concerned me. I just enjoyed a fine two days out of town. The river wasn’t much more than a large creek. The territory, hilly and lush, reminded me of southern Idaho, minus the tall pines. The slopes down to the river were steep, meaning a climb up from the road to the cabin, and another one down to the riverbed, which was shallow, pebbly, and remarkably clean for a Japanese river.

Larger rocks lay here and there in the riverbed. For dinner the first day, we set up a grill on the riverbank and put a watermelon afloat in the cool water, tethered to one of the rocks. That detail sticks in my mind. Almost every cluster of people I saw along the river – and there were many groups – had a melon bobbing nearby.

Most of the people visiting the river had either pitched tents, or were sleeping in their cars, as we discovered when we went to a nearby bridge to shoot off fireworks at 2 a.m. (I can’t remember whose bright idea that was.) One guy emerged from his car and yelled at us a Japanese equivalent of “Shut the f— up!”, which we deserved. I was impressed at the terrific fireworks you can buy at convenience stores in Japan. Big gaudy tubes that spit sparks and fireballs and whiz and pop.

Thursday night we drove in three cars to the Hashimoto matsuri (festival). Getting there only proved that there’s no road in Japan too small for a traffic jam. At one point all four occupants of the car I was in fell asleep while waiting for the cars ahead to move. Good thing the driver had put it in Park. I woke first and noticed that cars behind us were going around us. Odd, because I think that in most places, we’d have gotten honked at.

The festival itself was a mass of people. The centerpiece of the festivities was a big dance circling a band who played continuously. The music wasn’t exactly rock, though there were elements of it, especially the drums. Yet it was bar after bar after bar of the same thing, and forming a circle around the band were the dancers, making steps and hand motions with their fans in a pattern I couldn’t quite follow. It was mesmerizing in a way that a light show is sometimes.