Ghost Building: The St. John Cantius School

Today, I found another ghost building in the West Town area. It is building for the Chicago Academy of the Arts. Over the entrance, the words “St. John Cantius School” have been etched into the building.

It is next to the still active St. John Cantius Parish, a Polish Catholic church that goes back to the 1890s when the community petitioned the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka for a new church in 1892. Construction started in 1893 by architect Adolphus Druiding but due to financial issues, it wasn’t completed until 1898. The school appears to have been started around the same time and staffed by Mother Caroline Friess of the School Sisters of the Notre Dame. When it opened in 1893, there were 150 children. I think the building named for the school was opened in 1903.

Construction of Ogden road and the later construction of the Kennedy Expressway (along with the Great Depression) all dealt blows to the parish and the school. In 1943, only 376 students attended the parish church. Due to falling enrollment, the last class to graduate was 1963. The school was rented by a Montessori organization and eventually the Archdiocese. In 1989/1990 (accounts differ), the building began to be used by the Chicago Academy of Arts.

The Academy has its own intriguing start. Larry Jordan, a CPS high school teacher, was dismayed by the lack of arts education in Chicago and decided along with other like minded people to open a school dedicated to the arts. When it opened its doors in 1981, it was first housed in a building part of the Old St. Patrick’s Church on DesPlaines Avenue. Eventually they moved into the old Parish school and renamed itself to its present name.

So an interesting intersection of two histories: that of Polish Catholic community and that of the arts minded community of Chicago. Not bad for a ghost building.


Hot Chocolate: Black Dog Gelato

In the ongoing adventures of hot chocolate, I’m pleased to announce a new contender: Black Dog Gelato. Yes, the awesome Gelato place on Damen. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Black Dog Gelato, you are in for a treat. It’s a gelato shop with the most unusual gelato flavors: sesame fig chocolate chip, blueberry french toast, and maple cayenne pepper. My personal favorite is the goat cheese cashew caramel.There are two locations on Damen, one at Iowa and another off Belmont. It’s a charming place that when it runs out of gelato, it runs out for the day.

So yesterday, I was happy to discover that they now serve hot chocolate and apple cider. Their hot chocolate was immense. It was thick and not too sweet. They also have amazing marshmallows to top off the hot chocolate; malted vanilla and mesquite (which I didn’t try not liking smoky things as a rule). So yes, we have a contender. It’s not quite as intense as Catherine Anne’s sipping chocolate but sometimes, you actually do want to eat dinner that evening.

So yeah, Black Dog Gelato, you win at hot chocolate too.

Live Dancing Music

This weekend we had the pleasure of listening and dancing to not one but two live bands. The first was the amazing Fat Babies at the Music Box’s The Freshman party. There were about 6 musicians who played piano, bass, clarinet/saxophone, cornet and I think trombone. They play 1920s and 1930s tunes which are near and dear to my heart. Their performance made me deepen my thesis about why silent film parties are the best: it’s definitely the upbeat happy music. THe music of the era has this cheerful and upbeat attitude. It’s almost innocent even when the song is extremely bawdy.

The second was for the Annual St. Cecilia Czechoslovak Dinner & Dance. It’s a celebration for Czech immigrants and their descendants every year to come together and celebrate their heritage, mostly in  musical and food form. They celebrate the various cultural clubs, like Czech radio station and more. It’s a beautiful event and we look forward to it every year. My boyfriend and I nickname it Polkafest but only because our favorite part is the brass band. There’s a big band with lots of brass and they play polkas and waltzes. We have a tremendous time polkaing. And to start it all off, even before the band starts, an accordionist and tuba serenade from table to table. (I believe the tuba is my spirit animal-but that’s another tale).

Dancing to  live music is really just the bees knees and I wish there were more opportunities to do so. Recorded music just isn’t the same. I have played, with some competency, four instruments over the years, in order: alto saxophone, two Korean drums, the buk and channggo, and soprano recorder in a Renaissance and Medieval instrumental guild.

My favorite parts of playing instruments is the dancing. This could mean dancing with the instruments or having others dance. When I played Korean drums, we actually strapped these large drums to our bodies and marched and danced. There was really nothing more impressive that swirling around with an instrument wider that you. When I was in the guild, we played a few balls at events. Everyone is in their Medieval/Renaissance best and they would dance along to our music. Exhilarating to see people enjoying themselves and moving about because of the music you are playing. I’ll never forget the experience. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to play an instrument to people dancing in the future.

Until then I’ll visit the Green Mill to see the Fat Babies or Alan Gresik and his Swing Time Band.

Harold Lloyd’s The Freshmen

Last night, we went to go see Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman at the Music Box Theatre. It was part of their 30th anniversary celebration. It was a lovely event. They tried to emulate vaudeville; originally, at first, movies, though probably more shorts, were shown between live performances. They had the Fat Babies, a great band that played1920s and 1930s music, a clown/juggler who balanced everything from an open umbrella to a ladder on his face, and then a little comedy bit with a young woman (whose name escapes me) whose exercise routine was turning into jazz dancing.

The Freshman was quite fun. It tells of a young freshman, Harold Lamb, trying to find his place in college. It’s a bit different from Safety Last; this movie was more character driven than the later. The movie largely centered around the football at the school. One of the title cards said, “Tate University- a large football stadium with a college attached.” Not once did we see any character in class or going to class. It was all about football and popularity.

I went to a Big 10 school for graduate school after spending four years at a school not exactly known for anything besides academics. It was startling to see how prevalent football culture was at this school. One game day there would be waves of red all around town. It was like the town was put on hold. People would come in from all over the area, tailgate, and basically celebrate the fact that it was football day. Even living in Chicago with many professional sports teams, this was still startling to me.

It was impossible to get tickets and the one time I went to a game, I had to buy tickets from a scalper. The game was fun but I think I was more interested in seeing the marching band than the game itself. (I much preferred ice hockey but that’s another story).

Now don’t get me wrong, my graduate school/Big 10 school had great academics and other cultural institutions. However, I do remember the tale told to me by someone who went there in the 1960s. She was talking to her friend and her boyfriend, someone who played football on the university team. When she expressed excitement for going to class, the footballer asked, “Wait, you actually like going to class?” So there’s that. (In fairness, I never experienced anything like that ever. But I also didn’t know anyone in any sports teams there).

Anyway, Harold Lamb’s college career really hinges on football success. And yes, I recognize that it was a plot device and useful to have the climax rest on the big football game. But the humor of this film resonates today because somethings really never change. Football culture at big schools was just as prevalent in 1920s as it is now.

The best scene though is unrelated to football; it involves a poorly made suit and a fancy party. So there’s that.

Anyway, here’s to the Music Box and Harold Lloyd for good times!

Not Quite Ghost Buildings

So I have been trying to scour Chicago for more of these “ghost buildings.” And it’s been interesting to see what is available and not. Some of the ones I find don’t appear to have any info available like the Neckhardt, Sylvia or M. Koenig. These are likely family names, though it’s possible that the families may still own these buildings.

I did find two interesting buildings which aren’t strictly ghost buildings. One is 2418 N. Milwaukee, across from the Whistler. It’s an imposing brick building with cream colored decoration and has the phrase “Hollander” inscribed on the building. It’s not a ghost building because the name still reflects the ownership and function of the building. The building appears to be the Chicago address for Hollander International Storage and Moving Company, Inc which seems based in Elk Grove Village.

It was founded in 1888, which is pretty awesome since not many companies exist over 100 years later. They used to advertise “Hollander Fire Proof Warehouses,” perhaps a result of Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire. They also appear to have made thermometers and it was a give away between 1906 and 1911.

Another building that sprang up on my radar was the John B. Murphy Memorial. It’s next to the Richard Driehaus Museum on Erie Street. The Memorial is a monumental building; it looks like a Greek temple in front. It’s largely an auditorium though I think it may have some offices. Again, it’s not a ghost building since the name still reflects the use of it. It is still a memorial to John B. Murphy.

John Murphy was the son of Irish immigrants in Appleton, Wisconsin, who went on to become a famous surgeon. He was the inventor of several medical devices all named for him:Murphy drip, Murphy’s button, Murphy’s punch, Murphy’s test, and Murphy-Lane bone skid. He also advocated for early treatment of appendicitis, and much more. Two days before he died, he allegedly wrote,  “I think the necropsy will show plaques in my aorta” and, indeed, this was later confirmed at autopsy.”

He became so revered after his death, his friends actually formed a memorial association for him and decided to build John B. Murphy Memorial. The land was owned by the American College of Surgeons and the agreement was that  they would maintain and use it for meetings and education about surgery. Construction was started in 1923 and finished in 1926 by architects Marshall and Fox in what is called “French Renaissance style”. The offices of ACS were moved in 2003 and it was opened to the public in 2006. It appears to be a popular spot for weddings.

I’ll keep on my quest to find ghost buildings throughout Chicago. Suggestions are always welcome. But I’ll also let you know about these little pockets of history I find of not-quite ghost buildings.


Review: Burning Bluebeard

Tonight, we went to see a preview of Burning Bluebeard at Theatre Wit. It was a beautiful, moving production. It was put on two years ago at the Neo-Futurarium when I first saw it. I was happy to hear that it was being done again this year.I will confess that a friend of mine is in the show but I don’t think that biases me. It’s simply a well written, thoughtful show that has made me cry twice, which is fairly uncommon for me.

It’s a production within a production about the Iroquois Theater Fire in 1903. 600 people died, mostly women and children, making it one of the worst, if not the worst, theatre fire in US history. The fire was infamous around the world that it impacted theatre safety codes throughout the country (so they say). They had rushed the opening so safety features like fire escapes weren’t complete. So many people died from falling several stories. One account said that they found about 200 bodies in the alley behind the theater.

So the play is about the actors trying to tell their story and the story they were supposed to tell the afternoon of the fire. The story is Mr. Bluebeard, this bizarre gory story of Bluebeard killing his wives and hiding their bodies in a room. It was supposed to be about good winning over evil. The actors repeat, that was the rule. But the fire that came from the production wasn’t because of evil choices, it was human error.

I love how each character talks about their motivations. You really understand what they were trying to accomplish and what they were trying to do during the fire. The actors and stagehands had the same ambition: they wanted to show people something that will amaze them and make them happy. And how that impulse became twisted with circumstance. In the real world, the fairy godmother can’t make wrongs right.

I was reminded a lot of a talk by Bethany McLean, a journalist who was really the first to start questioning Enron and is known for book turned documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room. In her talk about the Failures of Leadership: From Smart Guys to Devils, she expounds on the notion that the mortgage crisis, the financial crisis of 2008, Enron, etc. wasn’t the result of men meeting in a smoke filled room to conspire to do evil. It was more due to incompetence that maliciousness. These leaders didn’t really understand what was going on in their own companies. Which is kinda scarier.

In Burning Bluebeard, I think that the same is true. Everyone had the best intentions in their actions or thought they knew what they were doing but the results were horrifying.

It has its moments of whimsy, like the song about theater safety. But it has its moments of intensity that can leave you shaking.

I highly recommend this show. It’s

Happy Birthday Rene Magritte

Today is the birthday of the man responsible for my beloved bowler hat. Rene Magritte, Belgium surrealist artist, was born today, November 21st, 1898. It is he, and he alone, who inspired me to take the bowler. (I have even dressed as one of his bowler hat men with obligatory apple.) His work has been monumental to me in my development. It is a good day when I encounter his paintings.

I remember the first work that really made an impact on me. At the Tate (back when there was one unified Tate), I remember seeing  a sculpture of the Healer, a cloaked man with a hat and cane whose body was a bird cage. It floored me. It was delightfully recognizable but new and strange. It really opened up an entire world for me.

I love his conception of the mystery of the ordinary. He takes everyday items, items we even take for granted, like curtains, mirrors, shoes, leaves, etc, and plays with them. He pivots their meaning in language, space, the visual realm itself. He plays with perspective, especially with those paintings of paintings that are continuations of their landscapes like “The Human Condition.”

The viewer will see this familiar vocabulary of images but have to reassess, reconsider them in his work. One of my favorite paintings “Personal Values” shows a room with oversized comb, brush and other cosmetic tools. He has taken the items we take for granted, the items we need for everyday and magnified them to the size of furniture. He emphasizes their importance by changing their scale. Also, I think that we need to be reminded of how wonderful everyday life is. Sometimes it is easy to get bogged down by the day to day. But Rene Magritte tries to make us realize that everything, the smallest things, can be full of mystery and possibly adventure.

I also love how he makes one rethink language. One of his better known paintings is “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” or “This is not a pipe.” There is the easy interpretation: of course, it is a painting of a pipe or a painting of that phrase. But he also could refer to the fact that the pipe is a word, not the object of the pipe. Or even, why is it that we call this thing that we recognize as a pipe, a pipe. One quotation attributed to him is “An object is not so attached to its name that we cannot find another one that would suit it better.” I love it.

And I think THomas Crown Affair’s homage to Rene Magritte and his bowler hat men is one of the best scenes in cinematic history. I don’t think there was a better way to celebrate this artist. (Also, that movie is just great).

So happy birthday Rene Magritte. May your bowler hatted men be causing surrealist mischief wherever you are.