Cars and pedestrians stream workward along Dearborn on a recent morning. More
Mies van der Rohe
I must say I’ve warmed to the modern colonnades that Mies van der Rohe designed into Chicago’s federal buildings. Yes, they lack the charming details and coziness that go along with classical stone porticos, but I enjoy being under these cavernous overhangs, and I like the way their plain black columns frame the views.
The south end of the Federal Plaza has recently seen an upgrade of the mechanical systems that lie beneath it. After being closed for more than a year, it has been replanted and is again open to the public.
I like to imagine what stood on this spot in other days. Before the squat black Mies van der Rohe post office was built, a grand old cruciform Federal Building, capped by a fancy dome, took up the whole block. It was destroyed to make way for the present complex in the 1960s.
The buildings ringing the site—the Clark-Adams, the Com-Ed Building, and the old Marquette—seem to get along well with their new neighbor, though. And the new plantings only enhance an already appealing scene.
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.