11:42 PM EST, February 1, 2013
A building is not, of course, a living thing, and so, unless it's the one you work in, live in or visit with some regularity, you probably take most of the city's thousands of other buildings for granted.
There are, of course, the stars, those structures we proudly show off to friends visiting from out of town: Wrigley Field, Wrigley Building, Water Tower, Hancock and Museum of Science and Industry come quickly to mind. There are the ones featured on architecture tours: Think the Monadnock and Auditorium Theatre. But think of the many, many others that exist in the shadows until …
So, I was talking recently about one of those buildings with Jacob Kaplan. We were talking about the huge warehouse in the 3700 block of South Ashland Avenue in the Bridgeport neighborhood, which jumped into the city's collective consciousness when it started to burn Jan. 22.
The five-alarm blaze prompted the Chicago Fire Department's biggest response in seven years, attracting more than 200 firefighters, about one-third of the force.
"It is, was, such a compelling building," said Kaplan, who visited the site as it was still burning and in the process of being demolished. "It was part of what was once the Central Manufacturing District, essentially the first industrial park in the nation. I am sad to see it go."
Kaplan is the editor and co-founder of the Forgotten Chicago website, a fascinating and important place. For those of a certain age and still in full control of their memories, it provides a joyful trip to the past. For those too young to be able to recall streetcars, Riverview or the golden age of neon signs, it is a colorful revelation. For all, it is a vivid reminder that parts of the past are still parts of the city.
Its stated aim is "to discover and document little known elements of Chicago's infrastructure, architecture, neighborhoods and general cityscape, whether existing or historical."
Its stated hope is "that exposing many of these often overlooked elements of Chicago's built environment to a wider audience will result in more interest in their preservation."
A few months after the site was launched in November 2007, Kaplan was a 23-year-old part-time college student and full-time drugstore manager living in Rogers Park, where he grew up. He told my colleague Steve Johnson in a 2008 Tribune story, "I like showing people stuff they never thought about."
And so the site is filled with such things as a fine essay by Greg Borzo on the topic covered in his latest book, "Chicago Cable Cars," for which Kaplan wrote the introduction; a Kaplan story about forgotten breweries; and Patrick Steffes on hotels: "Of the 13 Shoreline Motels built in Chicago between 1955 and 1965, the former Sheridan-Chase (now Super 8) is one of only two properties still in use in 2012."
The site is rich with photos and provides links to like-minded Internet stops.
In addition, Forgotten Chicago conducts tours and stages events. You are lucky, because the next is Thursday, focusing on "overlooked aspects of the central business district … examining long lost architecture, hidden in plain sight remnants of former retail institutions, innovative parking solutions, and overlooked buildings that have remained from lost eras of the Loop." It takes place at 12:15 p.m. in the Cultural Center (a prominent gem). And it's free.
Understand that there is nothing wrong with change. A city is an organic thing. But when change eradicates important and vibrant parts of the past, a city becomes less alive. Go have a look at what was once the lively marketplace around Maxwell and Halsted streets for proof of that.
Or go find a copy of David Lowe's "Lost Chicago," one of the greatest books ever written about the city. First published in 1975, the latest editions came out in 2010. It is a poetic photographic essay about our bygone public buildings and private residences. A recently published book of the same name by John Paulett and Judy Floodstrand also looks at some of our vanished architectural wonders. It is not as harshly critical of the city's once cavalier attitude toward architecture as is Lowe's, but it is a valuable addition to any Chicago bookshelf.
Paulett has written two other books. "Printers Row" and "Forgotten Chicago."
That's not to be confused with Kaplan's website but is a good example of people's appetite for the past.
Kaplan, who still lives in Rogers Park and now works as a political consultant, has no plans to stop what he has been doing, some of which consists of "just driving around and looking for interesting buildings. There are hundreds of them in the city."
I mentioned Tribune Tower, hardly forgotten, and then remembered that the first house built in Chicago was a cabin of five rooms, no bathrooms, no closets. This simple home was constructed in the 1770s by Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable at a site very close to where Tribune Tower now stands.
It was, according to Lowe, "a dwelling built in the manner of those found in all French settlements of the mid-American continent — logs of modest diameter set upright, fastened at their top with a horizontal timber, and the whole structure surrounded by a porch."
Now that would have been something to see.
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