Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bye-bye baby blue

Much as I hated to admit it, I always figured that the blue brick Midcentury building at North and Prospect would be coming down. Sitting adjacent to an empty gas station and its own parking lot, it'd be an easy sacrifice to make, to allow combination of the lots and creation of one large building site.

I was right... and I was wrong.

The blue brick building, Milwaukee

Blue building site

They tore down the blue building, alright -- much to my regret. But in its place is coming... a building of similar mass and footprint. Meanwhile, the gas station lot has got its own building already, a brand-new Bruegger's Bagels.


North & Prospect

Make no mistake, this is definitely an improvement over the vacant gas station (even when it was occupied.) But... I'm a little surprised that something more ambitious didn't arise here.

Meanwhile, the blue building will be replaced by a new branch building for the Educator's Credit Union. Trading out a two-story building for a one-story building? How does that work?

Coming Soon

The new building is purported to be a Prairie Style structure, though it's hard to discern from the rendering shown here. The architect, Racine's Genesis Architecture, does show some beautiful Prairie Style work on their web site, so perhaps it's just down to my crappy photograph of the sign.

But I miss the blue building. It's yet another case of tearing down something not just because it's old, but because it's the wrong kind of old. We need a new old instead, an older old! The style of forty years ago is never new enough, and never old enough. By the time Midcentury Modern has aged enough to be old, valued and historic, by the time we're far enough removed from its time to look back on it with fresh eyes and truly appreciate it... Milwaukee will have torn it all down.

Blue brick

Additionally, if the building absolutely had to go... I really wanted one of those bricks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

90 miles apart

Being in Milwaukee this weekend made me acutely aware of some of the differences between it and Chicago. It's more than just a matter of scale. The difference of size causes different attitudes, different mentalities.

Milwaukee is a city that's still close to the land. It is shaped by topography, sitting atop 80-foot high bluffs that overlook Lake Michigan. It's a small city, small enough that people who essentially live out in the country can take part in its daily life, and people who live in the city have many options for outdoor sports and activities. That connection gives it an often rural attitude. People in Milwaukee come from small towns. They root for the Packers -- it's not just a cliche. They hike and fish and hunt and backpack and camp and canoe on their weekends. That same rural attitude, applied to city living, gives the city an air of smart environmentalism; it also means that Milwaukee sometimes fights against its own nature as a city (just look at the hew and cry over bus funding and rail transit, or the reluctance to convert 794 to a surface parkway, or the fuss over tearing down a useless stretch of highway, or...) Milwaukee is a small niche of the (reluctantly) man-made perched among the vast wilderness of Lake Michigan.

Chicago by contrast has long since conquered nature, which is sequestered away in distant woodlands known collectively as the Forest Preserve. Chicago's Lake Michigan coast is entirely artificial, constructed over a hundred years of city-building, and gives an illusion of control over the vast body of water. The city sprawls for thirty miles in every direction, ensuring no easy escape from its artificial environment. The resources of the Great Lakes funnel down to Chicago, which is the drain through which they flow, the sieve that sorts them, the mill which grinds them up and churns out product. Chicago is less a part of Lake Michigan and more an engine strapped to its side, converting its resources to commercial goods and fountaining wealth across the region.

At their cores, the cities may seem similar -- glistening downtowns perched on idyllic lakefronts (indeed, Milwaukee's lakefront is no less artificial than that of Chicago.) But the difference is in how they spread themselves across the land. In barely five minutes of driving north from downtown, Milwaukee's Gold Coast high rises give way to single family homes, and five minutes after that these houses gain their own private beaches and forests. By Whitefish Bay, the view up the coast is essentially the same as it will be for the next hundred miles. One must travel a good ten miles north of central Chicago to find a single-family home with a lake view. Milwaukee is a short interruption of nature; Chicago is its own nature.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A south side mystery

Wadhams Gas Station

It began with a photo on Flickr, showing the well-known brick wall on 1st Street where a Wadham's gas station pagoda once stood. The building's outline remains embedded on the wall, along with part of a painted sign.

"Oh," I commented. "I have a photo of that when it was still standing." But a dig through my film archives showed no such thing. Apparently, I was thinking of this place instead, which I photographed in the summer of 2001.

I have no idea if it was a Wadham's or not. I'm not even sure where it stood -- somewhere between the Modjeska Theater on Mitchell Street, and St. Hyacinth's a few blocks south on Becher Street, to judge by the before and after images on my negatives.

Wadhams Gas Station

Where was it? What was it? I turn to my readers for answers -- I have none!