Gilded Age

An old el station

The old el platform (Chicago), © 2013 Celia Her City

In the Loop, there are several “L” stations that haven’t been thoroughly modernized: the station at La Salle and Van Buren is one; this one at Randolph and Wabash is another.

The steel bones of the stations are the same as when they were built around 1900.  The old wooden benches and the shape of the shed roofs are much the same, too.  Some of the stations have old wooden swinging doors, their edges rounded under the paint by impatient hands pushing them for a century, chipped by the brush of parasols and satchels, wheelie bags and bikes.

I like these stations, with their peeling paint, the patina of age.  The push is on to make Chicago more like other places, to get rid of its peculiarities, its antiquities; but what is a city but a peculiar mix of old and new things?  It would be dreadful if everything worn or simply old were to be extirpated.  Like a woman who has visited her plastic surgeon too many times. . . .

Inspirational postcard

Postcard from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

About a year ago, I was in Boston and visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time.  It’s an amazing house museum crammed with stuff that Mrs Gardner collected throughout her life.  The house itself is an impressive replica of a Venetian palace built to Mrs Gardner‘s specifications.  Since her death in the first part of the 20th century, the house has been kept pretty much the way it was when she lived.  I believe she specified in her will, for instance, that much of the artwork on the walls is not to be moved.

I found it a revelation to see this house.  On the one hand, it was something unique to the Gilded Age that could never be replicated.  Mrs Gardner was very wealthy, and she traveled all over the world and had people to buy her the best of everything—all kinds of art, antiques, and furnishings; decorative objects, statuary, religious relics, you name it.

On the other hand, I was most struck by Gardner’s offhand, almost modern sensibility, which was most evident in the spontaneous way the rooms were decorated, as in the blue room above, where various silks are hung in various ways on the walls, and paintings and mirrors hung atop them—not at all willy-nilly, but nonetheless in a distinctive way not often seen now.  In one of the upper rooms of the house were hung many different types of lace window curtains and other examples of fine lace (much prized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

The museum prohibits photography, so I bought this postcard, which I keep in my desk to look at when I need to be inspired.

Mrs Gardner went further with her re-purposing.  The house itself incorporates many structural and decorative elements that she found and salvaged in various parts of the world.  The elements of the house are global and include tiles, wrought iron, stone carving, and old wood from many historical epochs and countries.  For a nineteenth-century woman, Isabella Gardner was unusually cosmopolitan and forward-looking,  and much of what she was aiming for in her house is still  cutting-edge now.

Have you ever been to her house?  If so, I would very much like to hear what you thought.  I would visit it very often if I lived nearby.

PS The museum was the scene of an infamous, unsolved 1990 art heist.