Old and new life, on Easter Even

Old and new life, © 2013 Celia Her City

The culmination of Holy Week is Easter, a celebration of new life and new beginnings.  The Jesus story is a shattering of the normal rules of nature, a story of dramatic and revelatory transformation, a once-and-for-all event altering human history.  Observances run the gamut: zealots get nailed to the cross, schoolkids break out of school, new-bought hats and dresses make their debut.

Easter is a celebration of newness.  There is something forced about its drama, just as there is about the season itself.  Everything is changed in a second, and nothing is as it was before.  We buy potted lilies or sheaves of cut flowers, their forced blossoms ephemeral and artificial but apt, given the prevailing theme of unnatural and dramatic change.  We do strange things with eggs, dipping them in dyes, or parading them to churches for a priest’s annointing.  Children hunt for eggs, or roll them down the White House lawn.

All the emphasis is on the pretties.

As we get older, we form a more guarded appreciation of spring, and with it a more cautious appraisal of our jumping ahead, of the likelihood of radical alteration.  Looking out on the true spring landscape, we may be struck by the old and used-up look of things: the cornstalks left over from last season, the gnarly reluctant look of the trees, some stubbornly refusing to come to bud.  The prostrate soil looks as though it would rather sleep late.  And what about those evergreens?  Aren’t they . . . stuck?

Yet these aged elements are spring’s sine qua non.  The woodland flowers, aptly named ephemerals, depend on the trees, just as, in all things, change is vicariously related to continuity.  Christ’s resurrection derives its joy from the fact that his presence will be continuing.

The landscape too has its gospel, its lesson of truth, which it mutely spells.  It checks our idealism, asserting what is viable and real.  Subtle and gradual are the changes of the season.  New life arrives, a scant veil draping what is enduring and familiar in a gaudy canopy of blossoms and leaves.  The spring spurt will give way to summer’s glaring ennui, in the meantime quickening all with the bear-hug of change.


Goethe statue framed by Mies van der Rohe building, © 2013 Celia Her City

The coming of spring has made me strangely nostalgic for the passing season.  Nostalgic, yes; nostalgic for a season that wasn’t—for we didn’t really have a winter to speak of.  The season was dry, with precious few days when one could go out and snap a picture like this.

Regardless of the possible merits of this picture, what can be said for the specifics of the scene?  Is the place that it depicts, on the northern edge of Lincoln Park, in any respects a beautiful locale?  Is it appealing?  And what about the vaunted ethnic strains that are supposed to make living in Chicago so enriching and rewarding?

These are the questions that come to mind, as I gaze at this fairly absurd statue of Goethe, flanked on the left by a Mies van der Rohe building.  Both speak to the once powerful German element in Chicago that’s vestigial now.

Both attest to different waves of city-building, waves that are constantly ebbing and flowing, creating the visual bric-a-brac that make up our surroundings.  The wealthy Germans who had this statue erected in the public park in 1913 were asserting their cultural authority, memorializing a great writer from their native land, whose works remained a touchstone of their identity.  Symbolically, this German statue “wars” with the more nationalistic statue of Alexander Hamilton located nearby.  (A statue of the German-born Governor John Peter Altgeld, commissioned in 1913, is also hidden nearby in a grove.)

The commemoration of Germans, no matter how Americanized, came to a halt with the outbreak of World War I, as acceptance and admiration for Germans’ cultural heritage turned to suspicion and hostility.

Yet, with the advent of World War II, a German arrived who would once again change the face of the city: Mies van der Rohe, who swept away the beautiful old Chicago building traditions that Celia loves in favor of the modernist monoliths you see here. (And here.)

To make a long story short: In every community every building has a story.  Let us praise waves of building that leave us with enduringly beautiful and admirable things.  Even if you have never read a word of Goethe, you may still appreciate this statue from the bus, and let your imagination soar like the eagle you see.

The Pagoda Building

The Pagoda Building

Do you have nicknames for the buildings in your neighborhood?  Many Chicago apartment buildings have formal names, and some have nicknames that enjoy broad usage.  (“The Toaster” in Hyde Park, an early, ugly, I.M. Pei design, formally known as University Park Condominium, is one instance.)

Other nicknames are probably more obscure.  I’ve heard this formidable-looking co-op building at 399 Fullerton referred to as “Stalag 399” because it’s notoriously hard to get into.  (Legend has it you need something like 22 personal references to be approved.)  And this classic building at 2130 Lincoln Park West has been dubbed “the Statue of Liberty building” because of the iron diadem above its door.

As for the modern building above, it’s referred to in our house as the “Pagoda building” because its cantilevered slabs bring that ancient building tradition to mind.

The Pagoda building (at 320 West Oakdale) was the first all air-conditioned apartment building in Chicago when erected in 1954.  It was originally intended to be cylindrical, and its wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows were excitingly innovative.  Its architect: the 29-year-old Milton Schwartz, who eventually took up residence in its penthouse.

The nifty sales brochure originally drawn up to advertise the building has thoughtfully been made available here.  Featuring Jetson-era line-drawings, it exudes the spirit of those mid-modern times.

Between lake and sky

Between lake and sky

It’s where Chicago works toward transcendence.  Only from afar can we see the magnitude of all we’ve accomplished yet appreciate the trivialities that distract us every day.  May Chicago rediscover the resources and inspiration that made her great, and that are needed, now more than ever, to avert her decline.

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