Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ellantee Theater, 1554 W. Devon

Most people in Rogers Park know that Clark-Devon Hardware is actually a converted movie theater.  There are even remnants of the interior ornamentation, if you know where to look.  What isn't as clear is how this building changed over time, its context among similar neighborhood movie theaters, and its shifting significance to the neighborhood.
Terra Cotta Ornamentation of the Ellantee Theater

Last spring I joined the board of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society.  I'm not much of a joiner, so this was a big step for me.  At one of the meetings a brilliant suggestion was made to utilize vacant storefronts as exhibit spaces which would focus on the history of those buildings and the immediate area.  This ties in so closely to the goals of Ultra Local Geography that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to participate.  It was decided that Clark-Devon Hardware would be a good sample project.  It's not vacant, but some type of prototype project was needed.  And one of the other board members is the owner...

To the right is a lunchtime drawing of the decorative pier cap that once framed an even more elaborate parapet.   Time has not been kind to the terra cotta ornamentation on this building.  You can see remnants of the integral light sockets, which were a common treatment for theaters.  In combination with the old marquee It must have been an amazing glowing sight in its day.

So now the historical society is faced with some choices to make.  What are the goals of these storefront exhibits?  How should they be structured?  What sort of stories are they intended to tell?  I have some ideas, but this will need to be a collaborative effort.  Especially since the intent is to extend the project to other storefronts throughout the neighborhood.  I've developed a lot of methods to graphically represent development and change over time, but what about the social history embodied by the building?  How can that be made accessible in a visually intelligible way?  This should be an interesting process, and I expect to try out some ideas here first to see if they float.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Back to Ohio, Part 2

It seems like I've been traveling between Lorain and Chicago all my life.  My parents grew up in Chicago, and at least once or twice a year we would brave the 8-hour drive.  Three kids, no air-conditioning. 

The one constant factor on these trips was an overwhelming sense of boredom.  What was all this space between cities, and when would it end?  I remember listening to radio stations that were so bad even my parents knew it. I developed an ability to sleep for long stretches of time.  Mostly I remember wishing it were over.  When I moved to Chicago and reversed the trip it was still boring, but, as a driver, falling asleep on the road became less of an option.

When I finished graduate school in 1999 I had no job and few prospects.  Eventually I was hired as a part-time freelance surveyor for a historic rural resources survey in portions of unincorporated Will County, southwest of Chicago.  This was an area under heavy development and was rapidly losing  historic farms and farmhouses. 

In addition to the field work I had agreed to put together a database to contain the survey information.  But before I could do that I needed to familiarize myself with the vocabulary of agricultural construction.  This was a topic I had never explored, but since I had bluffed my way into a job I was suddenly eager to learn.

Luckily, there are some great publications out there to help explain what you're seeing and what it means.  Some of the most useful were The Old Barn Book , How to Complete the Ohio Historic Inventory, and the classic Big House, LIttle House, Back House, Barn.  But best of all were  the books put out by the government printing office and agricultural colleges in the 1920s detailing how and why farms and farm buildings should be built in certain ways.

So I spent a couple of months driving out to Will County with a big atlas, tracking down farms, taking photographs, and determining parcel  numbers at the Recorder of Deeds office in Joliet.   I got barked at by huge dogs, but was never bitten.  This is often a benchmark for a successful field survey.

But the unexpected benefit of the job was that I was no longer bored on my trips between Lorain and  Chicago.  Suddenly what I was seeing made sense. I could often guess what type of farm it was, and maybe how it fit into the history of the area.  I also began to spot more and more farms which had been enveloped by agribusiness, where the acreage seemed to soar, but the outbuildings fell into piles of decayed lumber.

On our last trip I wanted to document some of the farms west of Toledo, where there's still an unusual concentration.  These images are adapted from photos taken from the car.  Still plenty of variety, with triple gable barns, gambrel barns, different types of granaries, silos, and farm houses.  And only a few falling into ruin.  It's taken a while, but now this is a part of the trip I always anticipate.

From the 1922 edition of The Wiley Technical Series, "Farm Buildings," by Foster and Carter.
From "American Carpenter and Builder," Feb. 1916.  Accessed via Google Books.