old things

Travel endows

Staircase in the Buttrick Mansion (now the Old North Bridge Visitors' Center), Concord, MA © 2013 Celia Her City

Our vacation house in Michigan contains a dangerously irregular set of stairs, which I fantasize about having rebuilt one day.  My brother tells me that only smart craftsmen can build good stairs because of the complex calculations involved.

This staircase, which I saw during my trip, inspires, not only by being beautiful and well-proportioned, but because its technique is plain to see.  Every stair is a box, stacked in a modular fashion, producing stairs of uniform height and depth.  The underside of the staircase is fully exposed, but the detailed molding on the boxes makes that agreeable, accentuating the underlying geometry.  Even the corner landing is marked off this way.  Meanwhile, the curving bottom stairs and curves in the handrail keep the risk of visual monotony at bay.

Detail of stair handrail at the Buttrick Mansion (Concord, MA), © 2013 Celia Her City

This house, which belonged to a family named Buttrick, was built in Concord in 1911.  Components of the stairs were no doubt made by machine, especially these fancy spindles, which add an element of fun.  The alternation of the three different patterns is visually engaging—I ended up staring at them for a fairly long time!

I come home from trips like this full of ideas.  I love seeing how other people lived, the ways they came up with to do everyday things.  Out in front of this house were the foundations of the tiny homes of their ancestors, which had stood there some 300+ years ago.

Pre-revolutionary foundations (Buttrick property in Concord MA) © 2013 Celia Her City

Small foundations, © 2013 Celia Her City

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. . . .

On Plymouth Court

On Plymouth Court

One of the funny things about the Loop is that it contains lots of streets that have an “out-of-the-way” feel.  The northernmost block of Plymouth Court, off Jackson, is this way.

It’s a backwater that the main currents of the city sweep past, unfrequented except for a valet loitering in the doorway of the Standard Club, waiting for something to do.  Waiting for important people who have business in the federal courts, chauffeured cars loiter, along with the occasional television crew.  Plymouth Court is the green room of politicians, lawyers, criminals: the class of people who make Chicago go.

The only notable thing on the block is this restaurant with its proud paint and retro sign.  It’s called The Plymouth, but it used to be Binyon’s, a very famous hangout that closed in the 90s.  I was too young to remember it, but I found this picture of what it looked like in the 1950s.

Someday I’d like to step in to the Plymouth and ascend to its rooftop deck for a drink.

Historical image courtesy of Chuckman’s Collection.

Nature and civilization

Michigan Avenue from the North Garden of the Art Institute, Chicago © 2013 Celia Her City

Why, you may wonder, is Celia angry about the city’s decision to fell a few old trees?  Here, in the north garden of the Art Institute, we may find an answer.

For, on one side of the garden—just steps from Michigan Avenue—, are two improbably aged, enormous, gnarly, overreaching trees.  They are not decorous, they are not over-managed; they are awesome, merely.

In a town incessantly straining against its nature to be great, these trees are possibly the most cultured things around, because they are dignified, and because their stewards have accorded them the respect and even reverence necessary for them to survive.  Though the garden they’re situated in has been remade several times, they have been left alone to achieve the majesty and character that is the work of time.

Next time you are at the museum, be sure to take a moment out for these glorious trees.

A sewing-machine store

A sewing-machine store

I admire the old businesses that just keep going.  This sewing-machine store in Wicker Park was probably discovered by the young, do-it-yourself crowd just in time.

We write a lot about the dynamism of cities but less about the things in them that do not change.  The hoary businesses that go undusted for decades; the narrow buildings that are home to the same people for generations, that own their inhabitants from cradle to grave.  The old wooden doors locked and unlocked at the same time each day.

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