The David Garrard Lowe Interview

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I have a treat for those of you who love art, architecture or Chicago history. Today's interviewee is the author of many books, but locally, most famously for Lost Chicago. He is considered one of the world's leading authorities on architectural history and social criticism and regularly sells out his weekly lectures at the Met (so those of you in New York should go check him out.) This was one of my rare phone interviews so if some of the text is stilted, please blame it on my bad note-taking, because I could have spoken with this fascinating person all day.

The David Garrard Lowe Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

In Chicago, architecturally, what are your favorite neighborhoods?
I have two. First is North Dearborn Parkway, between Division and Lincoln Park. You can go and find a Kinko's, a Walgreens; it's a commercial neighborhood, but not totally gentrified. It's got a wonderful mix of old houses, like the Claridge hotel that I used to stay in (which has been redone as the Hotel Indigo, which is a silly name). You can walk right to the Chicago Historical Society and Lincoln Memorial.
My other is Oak Park. When you walk down Forest, the array of Frank Lloyd Wright houses is staggering. When I take people there, they can't believe it. They don't know the whole history of his style is there. It's also got a nice mixture of people-I went to college with a lot of people from there. And, it's still got a downtown, and is close to the Loop.

I still also have a lot of feeling for Hyde Park, too. It's always a struggle for Hyde Park, but there are a lot of great houses and the immediacy to the neighborhood has a feel you can't find much other places with universities, other than Columbia in New York and the Sorbonne. It's also got some of the best parks. People who don't know Chicago don't know it exists. It'd be very hard for any city to equal those three neighborhoods-and they're urban, so you can walk around and enjoy them.

Do you think that the Marshall Fields building will lose architectural value when it turns into Macy's?
Yes. I am disturbed by this more than I want to admit. When I was a boy, I used to be taken as a very special treat to the toy department at Marshall Field's by one of my aunts and we'd have lunch at the Narcissus room and have creamed chicken on a biscuit and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. It's a wonderful anchor for State Street and it's more than just a store. Daniel Burnham designed it and it's got that great interior and the wonderful decorations at Christmas. It is so identified with Chicago, it's as if someone bought the Chicago Tribune and called it the Chicago Times. Names mean something. Fields was once it was very high end: it was where people came from around the country to get their bridal trousseau. It's a name of Chicago and it's a great loss. It used to mean a sense of celebration. The store itself was so physically attractive. When I was a little kid, I had this sense of awe whenever I went there. And when the Fields van came to your house to deliver something, that was an event. I like the democracy of places like State Street where anyone can go into Marshall Fields. I like cities, but I don't like malls. It's like hotel lobbies-as long as you don't make a scene, you're welcome into some of the most luxurious places in the world.

What is/was your favorite Chicago sports building?

Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison. It was done in art deco, which I wrote a book about. It was so beautiful and had such memories. I was so disturbed when it came down. It could seat 25,000 people. In 1932 FDR accepted his nomination and gave the New Deal speech there. It was the first time a presidential nominee had come to a city to accept the nomination and it was the first time a nomination was broadcast by radio. Truman and Dewey were also all nominated there. It was a great sports stadium that was torn down in 1994. It was located on Madison Avenue and was one of the great cornerstones of that street. It was too bad they couldn't have thought of a way to save it. I would have loved to see a museum of politics there. There's nothing like that in America. You could have had a pretty interesting educational/interactive center there. In was in good repair, so you wouldn't have had to restore much.

Do you believe that the sites that occupied old buildings can be haunted? (i.e. the Oriental theater, the location of the Iroquois theater?)
I absolutely do believe in spirits: I think they are still around. When you go up Lake Shore Drive and you go by Banks Street and you remember the Potter Palmer castle, I think Bertha Palmer's ghost is still stamping its feet because of the terrible building that went up there. I think that it would have been a great place for the Mayor to live: the Mayor should have a residence in Chicago. That way, the citizens could keep an eye on the Mayor, plus it would be cheaper. Also, at the site of City Hall, I always feel that if you go down there late at night you can feel the ghost of Lincoln and others. Lincoln's body laid in state there. I've always wanted the Lincoln statue in Lincoln park to be down near the County Building. And Graceland Cemetery is truly haunted, in a nice way: all the architects and people from Chicago history are there. Another ghostly place: Forest Home cemetery, where you have the Haymarket martyrs all buried. That is just a very moving and powerful place to go with the great monument there.

How does the current Mayor Daley compare to previous Chicago mayors about keeping old buildings up?
He has pluses and minuses. The problem is that prosperity is the enemy of renovation. When the booms come, it's always a battle. One good thing is the landmarking of South Michigan Avenue. That's an incredible façade of Chicago, and he's done some good things there, like keeping the old auditorium building. If there is a need for a building, they can discuss that, but nobody can just go in and destroy something like that.

A negative is the lack of planning or thought of the North Bridge area, just north of the Chicago River. They allowed so much to be torn down so that that neighborhood which once had a lot of charm is now becoming very soulless. I think that could have been better planned. They did save the Tree Studios, though. You have to be very careful destroying neighborhoods where people live. The mayor has done a good job in the Loop, though, I think.

What are your thoughts on the tall, spindly skyscrapers they keep threatening to put up here?
I think those sliver buildings are a real disaster. There is no sense of context of a streetscape with them and they're out of scale. Most of them aren't very beautiful and they don't have enough space to make themselves beautiful. They make no sense in a neighborhood, plus they take take light and space away from other buildings nearby. They're bad things.

You say that nowadays, people are more aware of what they're tearing down, yet they keep tearing down…how are they justifying it, then?
They're doing the worst possible thing, by saying it brings jobs and that's the bottom line. Construction jobs are important but they don't go on forever, though. The bottom line in a city like Chicago is tourism. The number of people who come to Chicago to see the Art Institute and go to the Lyric Opera is huge. The Musee Dorsay features bits and pieces from the Stock Exchange. Everybody in Europe who knows anything about architecture knows about Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, but the city doesn't know how real it is. The book Lost Chicago has sold very well in Paris and London. The fact that the city would make a little more money on taxes and construction jobs is not the real bottom line. The famous buildings are the draw. You wouldn't tear down St. Peter's in Rome just to give people construction jobs. Great architectural heritage: that's the bottom line.

Also, I don't think there's a reason not to develop new neighborhoods. We keep building on the same sites. There's no reason why we can't have new neighborhoods further South and West. I know they're trying to do it, though.

What cities in the world are the most underrated, architecturally?
I've got some strange places. One is Rheims, one of the great French cathedral cities. It was destroyed in the first World War but was rebuilt in 20's Deco style. Another one is Lexington, Kentucky. It was done in an early 19th century Greek revival with Georgian buildings. It's so close to Chicago and so in the center of things that people realize that you can see Henry Clay's home and Mary Todd Lincoln's home there. Another is Verona, Italy. It was a surprise to me. Not only does it have a Roman arena where they show operas, but you can see where Romeo and Juliet allegedly lived. It's Renaissance Roman, with layers upon layers of civilization. I tell people when they've gone to Venice to go to Verona afterwards.

Based on your "Lost" books, which city have you seen has done the worst job of preserving its gems?
St. Louis. Here was one of the great cities of the 19th century. But on the Mississippi riverfront, in one of our worst 'urban renewals,' they just leveled the waterfront, where they had beautiful houses and warehouses. Then they put in public housing which has since been blown up. It was like Cabrini Green but worse. It made people lose their self-respect and it lost the life of the downtown. The city still has a has a great museum and the railway station, but they lost a lot.

Given the rise of Chicago's architectural reputation throughout its history, were some of its tear-downs worth it?
My feeling is no. I was just looking at a great book: Growth of a Metropolis by Mayer and Green. It shows a lot of South Side neighborhoods, and a lot of houses that look like Old Town and North Dearborn which say "slums to be cleared." They were individual family homes but they were torn down to make public housing. A little money could have spent on keeping the neighborhoods and restoring them. They also lost a lot of the neighborhood entertainment centers. On Cottage Grove, they lost the Tivoli, Midway Gardens and Trianon Ballroom. If any of those houeses on Prairie had been left standing, they'd be worth 3 million dollars now. Like in New York, it wasn't like you had blocks of terrible tenements that needed to be cleared. The teardown of the Chicago Stock Exchange on Lasalle was a huge part of my book: there are now pieces of that all over the world. That building could have been saved and would have been great for the State of Illinois Building. It could have been recycled but the building on there is built back on this silly plaza. The Board of Trade could have completed a great urban vista.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on a collection of short stories with a few on Chicago. I'm also working on a book on the conflict between classicism and romanticism in American architecture: I gotta get back to work on that soon. Whenever you do a book, there is a lot of follow-up but you have to stop and start something new or else you're just promoting a book until you're dead.

What are some of your favorite architectural books?

Harold Mayer and Richard Wade: Chicago Growth of a Metropolis, which is so good on covering the neighborhoods. It came out in 1969 and is a marvelous book. Also, Hugh Morrison's Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture, which came out in 1952. It's such a good book: that's how Sullivan's reputations was revived, you know. Funny how people can be forgotten then revived.

Are there any American architectural landmarks or famous buildings you would like to see razed?
There are two. First there's the State of Illinois Building, designed by Murphy and Jahn. It was started 1979 and they finished construction in 1985. When it was being built, everyone missed the dome of the old building, which you need to to have to seem like a civic statement. So with this building, they sliced off the dome, but couldn't commit to a regular dome. The interior is so silly. You go in and you're surrounded by gift shops. You try to get your license renewed, and go crazy trying to figure out where the office is. It's a half mad hotel/shopping center. It doesn't have any of the dignity that a state building should have. And then in front is the Dubuffet Beast which is weird: it would be great would be at the Art Institute, but there they should have a Lincoln or Stevenson or Altgeld, I don't care, but somebody that matters. That trivializes state government, but maybe that's deserved. Maybe that's appropriate.

The other is at the corner at Randolph and Michigan: 150 N. Michigan Ave. It was done by Epstein and Sons and features that sliced off top. It's right across from Chicago Public Library: that's an important corner. But whenever you see the building lit up, it always looks silly. It isn't tall enough to have a top like that. If it were 80 stories, then maybe it'd be interesting but it's squat. I hope the new Michigan Avenue preservation area includes a new building that the architecture has to be approved by a commission. Everyone has said that since it went up.

What buildings in New York or Chicago do you think has the best exterior but blew it on the interior? And vice versa?
The Washington Library in Chicago for one. The exterior isn't bad: it's kind of interesting. It would be better if it there was a tower to enter on Washington or if it straddled State Street, but you have to go to top to the roof garden to get any sense of space there. Another is the Ritz Carlton in Chicago: the outside looks like contact paper. Inside, the lobby one of the worst things I've ever seen, with the strange fountain with the cranes. It's very weird. The exterior is not terrible, just uninspiring. But the inside is terrible. In New York is the Lincoln Center. The exterior is banal, but the interior is done in white marble and bright red tapestry. It's as close as you can get to vulgar. I hope somebody is watching the chains on those chandeliers before they fall down. I contrast it to the Civic Opera house in Chicago which is so beautiful.

How hard do you think it is to blend old and new architecture, like the Pei addition to the Louvre?

I happen not to like the Pei addition. It's odd. But I understand what they were trying to do with it. The Louvre needed an entrance, because in 1871, one end of it was burned. In the old days one had to go into a little side door which was not good. But the pyramid is odd. Everyting has become a shopping mall these days. On rainy or icy days, people have to stand out in the open to get in and use one small elevator. It's a little mousehole. The design isn't bad, but form is not following function. It's very hard to tie modern to traditional. A terrible example is the Chicago Historical Society. The old part of it was built 1932, facing the Lincoln statue, by Graham, Anderson and Probst. I think they thought they were in the East, like Harvard Yard, using red brick. It's not bad, but it's dull. In 1988, Holabird & Root built an addition, trying to express traditional arhicturecture with open grille work. And now they're rebuilding. Again. This is alll within 35 years. They have never been able to get the two sides of that building to work. That's the difficulty of putting modern onto traditional. They just could have keep buiding the way it looked originally. The museum keeps going through closings, and I don't know what it's all about. Sometimes if you do the minimum, like glass and steel, it works. You have to be careful making two serious architectural statements, because it's very difficult. An example of where it's been done well is the Chicago Board of Trade. Behind it, it's all new. But it followed outline of the old bulding. That works well.

What have been some of your most popular recent lectures at the Met?
I've been giving Pop Lectures. I did one on Cole Porter, that I wrote like a play. I had a piano and singer who sang songs as I talked about him. That was a sellout and I also did it in Newport. I did a lecture on ocean liners at the Met and I did it last summer on the Queen Mary. I gave a lecture last Monday on Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School. To much my surprise it was full at a 6 PM. That's more proof about the interest in Chicago architecture. Another was on the Eiffel Tower. Eiffel such an interesting man, and everyone knows the tower and can relate to it.

I work at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive, which used to be the Furniture Mart (and 666 N. Lake Shore.) Do you have any cool facts for me on that building?

Yes! The east end was built in 1924 by Roeder and the west end was completed in 1925 by Nimmons. At the time it was the Chicago center for wholesale furniture trade. Chicago was actually the center of the wholesale furniture trade for whole country. Now that's in North Carolina. But at the time, it was partially because the furniture was made from trees from Michigan's woods. Then Chicago was central because of the days of the railroad, so it was an ideal thing. The building is interesting. It's got a 30 story tower with Gothic detailing. Gothic became one of the great skyscraper designs because it is felt that Gothic is vertical. It's perfect for skyscrapers. It relates very much to the Woolworth building and the Tribune Tower. It wasn't until I started looking at it that I realized a lot of these buildings are on the same continuum. The tower at 680 N. Lake Shore was inspired by the House of Parliament in London, which is a logical design idea. I think the color on it is remarkable. It proves how nice the color is in the city. What killed the business, though, was the Merchandise Mart opening and things moving close to the manufacturing in the North Carolina.

How does it feel to be the 135th person interview by
It feels good.