Jack Delano – Working on the Railroad All the Live Long Day

I’ve long admired the photography of Jack Delano, one of many talented photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Works Progress Administration to document America, but knew little about him. When I discovered his masterful railroad photographs of Chicago, this provided inspiration to dig deeper. Born Jacob Ovcharov in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) in 1914, he immigrated with his parents and younger brother to the U.S. in 1923, settling in NYC. In addition to his photography, he was a prolific music composer and wrote children’s books with his wife Irene. When he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1928-1932, Delano won a Cresson Traveling Scholarship. During his four-month fellowship in Europe, Delano bought a tourist camera, sparking his interest in photography. It’s also at school, during a beer-soaked party, that his classmates convinced him to change his name. A female friend suggested her own – Delano, while Jack had been adopted earlier in honor of the boxer Jack Dempsey. In 1941, he was sent on assignment to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by the FSA. This had such a profound influence on him, he moved there in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a photographer in the Pacific and South America. Soon after moving to Puerto Rico, Delano became the official photographer of the government, chronicling the island’s transformation from agriculture to industry.  The book Photographic Memories was published by the Smithsonian shortly before his death in 1997. In it, Delano was quoted, “Light, color, texture and so on are, to me, important only as they contribute to the honest portrayal of what is in front of the camera, not as ends in themselves.” During his long career, Delano photographed coal miners, sharecroppers, railroad men, and Puerto…

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The RISD-Chicago Vintage Party Favor Connection

  My friend Barbara recently sent me a stack of old student newspapers from our days at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Perusing these was an enjoyable trip down memory lane and I certainly plan on mining these for future RISD and Providence-related blogs. I uncovered a completely unrelated, unexpected, and delightful surprise in the October 28, 1977 Halloween issue. Lo and behold, one of the contributors included visually-intriguing catalog pages from Van Housen’s Favor Co., Inc. My assumption is that they found this in the RISD clipping room (now called the Picture Collection), a wonderful historical archive of all sorts of paper ephemera. Naturally, the cool-looking graphics beckoned to the sleuth in me and I had to do further investigating. Dennison Was Primary Competitor Van Housen’s was a Chicago-based company located at 81 W. Lake Street. Their primary competitor was Dennison Manufacturing Company which was founded in 1844 by Colonel Andrew Dennison. They opened their first store in Chicago in 1864, with subsequent store openings in the 1870s in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Although Dennison already had a longstanding reputation for manufacturing high-quality paper goods, it was crepe paper decorations that set them apart. If you recognize the Dennison name, it’s likely because the company merged with Avery International Corp. in October 1990.   I couldn’t find definitive dates when Van Housen’s was in business, but I did uncover ads from 1922, 1923, 1924, and the 1930s. I also uncovered an interesting article on crepe paper decorations that appeared in the Autumn 1924 issue of Fort Dearborn Magazine, with excerpts below: During the holiday season when entertaining is the order of the hour, many a social affair is given festive background by the use of appropriate crepe paper decorations, favors and novelties. While the demand for…

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My Magnificent Mile – Personal Reflections & Short History – North Michigan Avenue

This blog is about my family’s personal connection to North Michigan Avenue (from the Chicago River north), also known as the Magnificent Mile, as well as an homage to a few iconic buildings and businesses that no longer exist. The stretch of North Michigan called the Mag Mile, for short, figured into my family’s life from the day I was born. While my dad first started his private psychiatric practice in a bathroom-sized space at 25 E. Washington (Field’s annex facing an alley) in October 1952 for $93 a month, that was his only office location not on the Mag Mile.     The Sterling Building (also called Michigan-Superior) Shortly after returning from serving in the U. S. Navy in Bainbridge, Maryland in 1958, my dad’s first office on the Mag Mile was at 737 N. Michigan (Sterling Building). Once I was old enough, I would shop at the Walgreens next door before going up to his office. In 1970, my dad was forced to vacate when Neiman Marcus decided to build on that site. Ironically, the deal fell through and a parking lot occupied this site for more than a decade. It took 14 years before Neiman Marcus opened its flagship Chicago store here in 1984. Designed by architect Andrew Rebori and completed in 1929, the Sterling Building was commissioned by the family that owned the Fine Arts Building. The gorgeous 5-story Art Deco building had an intriguing observatory on top. The building was originally designed to include artists’ studios, but even in the 1920s, artists couldn’t afford those rents.      The Farwell Building – 664 N. Michigan My dad’s next office was the 11-story historic Art Deco/Classical Revival Farwell Building designed and constructed in 1927 by architect Philip B. Maher. Arthur Farwell owned several other North Michigan…

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Art Supply and Camera Stores That Are No More

Favor Ruhl 425 S Wabash 1910 and 1938

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I was born with a crayon in my hand. By the time I was 5-years-old, I was drawing all sorts of things on cheap yellow paper my dad bought by the ream. The crayon was replaced with ballpoint pen, magic markers, colored pencils, pastels, paint brushes, sculpting tools, and by age 12, darkroom equipment. Going to art supply and camera stores as a kid was nearly as glorious as walking up the street to the corner store to buy my favorite candy. That’s right, for many artists and/or photographers, a visit to an art supply or camera shop is like unleashing an overzealous kid in a candy store! Nowadays, it’s hard to find old school art supply and camera stores – many have closed. In Chicagoland, you can buy art supplies at Dick Blick, Hobby Lobby, Michaels, JOANN Fabric and Craft, and a handful of small shops. Of course, you can always buy art supplies online, but it’s not the same experience. I first encountered Utrecht in NYC and later shopped at the store on South Michigan Avenue. Utrecht is now partnering with Dick Blick, although they are still doing business online independently. My favorite Chicago-area store is Artist & Craftsman Supply, an employee-owned shop in the old school model – while there are stores across the U.S., the Chicago location at 828 S Wabash reminds me of defunct stores of my youth. Good’s of Evanston is an independent store that has been in business for more than 100 years. It’s more renowned for its framing services and has a certain slick look these days that is the antithesis of old school. Thank heavens for Central Camera, a truly iconic old school store in the South Loop that has been…

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One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words … or a Little Less

  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, or at the very least, a few hours of sleuth work. When I saw this wonderful Vivian Maier photograph, circa August 1960, the first thing I saw was Donald Koehler, once billed the world’s tallest man at 8 ft. 2 inches tall. I love the two ladies standing in the middle of the sidewalk – both appear to be looking at and talking about Koehler. I can almost hear them clucking their tongues in amazement. A fellow standing against the light post also appears to be looking at him from afar. Koehler was days away from his 35th birthday when Maier took this photo and she had turned 34 on February 1. Photographer and subject were exactly 5 months apart in age to the day.     I wrote briefly about Koehler in my first Lincolnwood blog. I remember seeing him get up after dining and walk through the aisle past my table at a little coffee shop on Cicero just north of Devon. I was very young, but an incredible visual sight like that tends to stay with you forever. His dad owned the card shop on Cicero, just north of Devon, in the same little strip mall as the coffee shop. The Koehlers didn’t live in Lincolnwood, but close enough in West Rogers Park. Believe it or not, Koehler had a twin sister who at a mere 5 ft. 9 inches tall was 29 inches shorter than her famous brother. He started growing abnormally at age 10, although it’s unclear when he was diagnosed with acromegaly, the pituitary disorder that results from excess growth hormone. This is the same disease that afflicted Sam Kappel, owner of Howard Clothes, who I wrote about in this blog.     Koehler won…

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That Great Street – Not State Street – Randolph, Once Upon a Time

Vivian Maier 1961 Chicago

  The summer after 8th grade, I went downtown a few times a week to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Young Artist’s Studio program. The photo silk screening class was in the Pakula building at 218 S. Wabash. The painting class was in a studio on the campus building behind the Art Institute. On occasion, I would shop at the Woolworth’s on State Street and the Stop & Shop at 16 W. Washington. When I was about 18, I summoned the courage to walk into an X-rated book store located on Dearborn at Randolph, if memory serves me right. I hightailed it out of there when a freaky guy in a trench coat leered at me. Perhaps he would have flashed me, or my vivid imagination got the better of me. I was fascinated by Randolph Street, in particular the block between State and Dearborn. It had a similar kind of sleazy charm as Times Square in the 1970s, albeit on a tiny scale. The photographs featured in this blog provided inspiration for businesses to include and a search for materials such as matchbooks, postcards, and menus. This ephemera offers a glimpse at a street that was once vibrant and thriving with an incredibly cool and eclectic array of businesses. Sadly, by the time I ventured downtown, most of these businesses were long gone or had lost their luster. I primarily researched businesses between State and Randolph, west to LaSalle. Of course the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center’s north lobby is on Randolph at Michigan.

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Amazing Tales From the World of Vintage Underground

As a lifelong lover of history and unique vintage goods, I often write about the past. On occasion, I discuss and analyze unusual objects that strike my fancy visually. The idea of interviewing a vintage shop owner never crossed my mind until I met the remarkable Carlos Pascoll, owner of Vintage Underground. The first Vintage Underground opened in 2007 at 1834 W. North Ave. in a 3,500 sq. foot basement space. I cannot speak firsthand about that location, however, the current store at 1507 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a fantasy come true. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, eclectic treasures I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! Trust me – you won’t find a more impressive, lovingly curated collection of vintage goodies anywhere. The spacious shop is filled with an amazing array of red-carpet worthy jewelry, as well as vintage cameras, hats, purses, clothing and unusual artwork. A big thank you to Carlos and Ellen Sax, Vintage Underground manager and partner extraordinaire for doing this interview.

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My Favorite Thing is Monsters Embraces Creativity and Differences in Brilliant, Dark Story

I thought I left comic books behind in early adolescence, however, Jeff convinced me recently to read Saga, an intriguing, often risqué, beautifully illustrated 7-set graphic novel volume based on the comic. So began my sojourn back into the world I left behind, albeit on a completely different level of existence than the fluffy comic books of my youth. While I enjoyed Saga, after hearing her interview on Fresh Air, I looked forward to reading My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the first graphic novel by Chicago illustrator Emil Ferris. Her personal story of perseverance is remarkable and tugs at your heartstrings, but even without the back story, this book is so incredibly brilliant, I found myself mesmerized. About 15 years ago, Ferris contracted meningitis and encephalitis from a mosquito infected with West Nile Virus, losing her speech and suffering from partial paralysis which impacted her right hand. As a child, she suffered from severe scoliosis, which was exacerbated by childbirth years later, leaving her spine quite vulnerable to infection. Her then 6-year-old daughter duct-taped a pen to her right hand and she arduously retrained her brain and hand to draw. She developed the fantastic, truly unique dense crosshatching technique employed in Monsters many years prior to that. The book is printed on lined paper with a facsimile spiral spine, resembling a typical composition notebook. Ferris used Bic pens to draw the images and Paper Mate Flair felt tips for the text.

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Old Town Through Rose-Colored Glasses … Looking Back at Wells Street

Lately I have been thinking about how much I adored North Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town in my youth. My parents took us to Old Town on occasion and every single trip was imbued with magic. I’m not alone in this adoration – in my research I found quite a few blogs devoted to this unique street. Of course Old Town is far more than Wells St. – it consists of the charming, tree-lined residential and historic district defined by the triangle formed by North Avenue, Clark Street, and Ogden Avenue. Commercial Old Town is the busy stretch of North Wells running from Division Street roughly north to Lincoln Avenue and a small piece of North Ave., east and west. To residents in the 1960s to 70s, North Wells was a fabricated medley of oddities targeted at suburbanites and tourists looking for an edgy, artsy thrill in the big city. This June 7, 1964 Chicago Tribune article certainly implies North Wells was a Disneyfied tourist attraction. “It’s far from the true Bohemian atmosphere the tourists think they are savoring, but North Wells street is fascinating, lively, colorful, crowded and a pot of gold for the merchants. Like any night-life addict, Old Town’s Wells street sleeps until just before noon when it opens one reluctant eye to welcome the day’s first visitors: the suburban matrons. Sleek and well-dressed, they motor in from the north shore or the far western suburbs to infiltrate the shops and restaurants. ‘They arrive at 11:30,’ says Kris Perkins, co-proprietor of Charlie’s General Store, citing their movements as precisely as an almanac predicts the orbits of the heavenly bodies. ‘They eat lunch until 12:30, then shop until 3 O’clock when they all leave at once to beat the traffic and get home before their husbands.’”

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Woolworth Memories ~ From Main Street to State Street

Lunch Counter State Street 1940

The F. W. Woolworth Company, also called Woolworth’s or Woolworth, delighted children and their parents alike for more than a century. In Illinois, 25 Woolworth stores, mostly in Chicago and the suburbs, were shuttered forever in July 1997. In the UK, the stores lasted a decade longer, going out of business in December 2008. The very last thing I bought at Woolworth’s when the store was liquidating stock, was a pair of Barbie roller skates for my then 9-year-old daughter. The store closures symbolized the end of quite a run that began on February 22, 1878 when Frank Winfield Woolworth opened “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York. The first store failed after a short time, however, the second store that opened on July 18, 1879 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was a big success. When he launched the Lancaster store, Frank enlisted his brother Charles Sumner Woolworth to join the business.

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