a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wright's cornerstone of modern architecture

The Robie House in Chicago, a building that would give early definition to the Prairie school style of architecture developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CHICAGO – Frederick C. Robie gave Frank Lloyd Wright just three instructions in 1905 for building his new home; he wanted it to be fireproof and to have a sense of openness and privacy.

What the bicycle manufacturer ended up getting would become the "cornerstone of the modern world of architecture," said Peter Schramm, a docent at the meticulously restored Robie House in Chicago.

Wright designed the three-story Roman brick house from his Oak Park, Ill., studio to have a sturdy limestone base to make the building appear to as it's part of the ground, Schramm said. And, the architect selected thin bricks to "set up the horizontal vision" that would define many other Prairie school-stye houses he would design.

Much attention was given to how mortar was applied between the bricks to make the house appear as repetitive bands of narrow horizontal stripes, like a "unique geological strata" rising to the wide overhangs of the low hip roof, other architectural details that would define Wright, Schramm said.

"The Prairie vocabulary was developed in Oak Park," he said.

The house at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave. is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks based on its architectural merits alone, and has been absorbed into the University of Chicago campus, he said.

It's the first house in the United States to have been built with a full steel beam support system, primarily to hold the nearly 17.5-foot overhang that juts out seemingly unsupported over the front porch.

The Germans nicknamed to the house "the steamship," while Robie lovingly called it "the battleship," Schramm said. 

Visitors enter the house through a door tucked into the back of the house and partially hidden behind a high brick wall that cuts out the traffic noise.

Inside, the reception hall ceiling would only be 6 feet 8 inches off the floor to make people feel uncomfortable there until they moved upstairs to a larger room with a higher ceiling.

Wright would reuse this technique called "compression," too, because it gave people a "sense of relief" while exploring their way into his houses," Schramm said.

The house came under threat of demolition in 1941 and again in 1957, only to be rescued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the University of Chicago. The school and Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust have invested $5.5 million to stabilize the house by restoring the bricks and rebuilding the roof.

The final phase involves adding carpeting, reproduction furnishing and restoring the art glass windows, which Wright didn't name.

A worker adjusts a watering hose in a planter at the Robie House near where sunlight reflects off iridescent glass in one of many art glass windows Wright designed for the home. (Scott Beveridge photo)

The living room is surrounded by large windows that allowed Robie to see all of his neighbors' houses. However, the stained glass was positioned in places that gave him privacy behind a nearly 4-foot brick outdoor banister.

The ceiling here has oak banding to make it appear even taller and a step-down hearth in the fireplace. Also recessed into the ceiling were ornate Wright-designed wooden light screens.

The tour proceeded to a guest room and a kitchen, which was built larger that many others Wright would later include in the homes he designed. Tourists were not permitted inside the three bedrooms on the third floor.

They leave beside Midwest's' first attached three-car garage, something that Wright included even before Ford began producing the Model T.

"Wright realized how important the car would become to America," Schramm said.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Defining the art of Wright's studio

The ornate stork panels at the entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright's studio on Oak Park, Ill. (Scott Beveridge photo)

OAK PARK – Architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed his Oak Park, Ill., studio in a way that its entrance would be shielded from traffic noise on what soon became a noisy Chicago Avenue.

To do that he hid the entrance behind two rows of ornate columns and also built a nearly 4-foot-high porch banister with red Chicago brick.

The columns, in collaboration with artist Richard Walter Bock, were designed in repeated panels, each showing a stork flanking an architectural scroll below the tree of life. The art represented wisdom and fertility, according to a tour guide at Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio.

One of two replica's of artist Richard Bock's "Boulder" flanking the studio entrance. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Also at the studio entrance Wright placed two replicas of Bock's sculpture, "Boulder," flanking the door at the roof line. The sculptures of a crouching man appearing to be bearing the weight of the world were cast in red-dyed concrete. The pose symbolizes humankind bound down by life.

Click here to continue reading about a tour of this attraction, which Wright abandoned in 1909.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright's laboratory wasn't built for comfort

The dining room chairs Frank Lloyd Wright designed for his home in Oak Park, Ill, weren't built for comfort, but rather to create an illusion the space was taller than it appeared. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

OAK PARK, Ill. – Frank Lloyd Wright built his first studio in such a manner to impress upon potential clients that he stood out from all competing architects.

Wright positioned its front porch across the street from a row of tidy Victorian-era houses in order for him to frown down on those buildings when greeting prospective customers at his front door, a tour guide said today at the Oak Park, Ill., home and studio of one of the best architects America ever produced.

"This is where he could look across the street and say, "I don't do that. Those are stick houses,'" said Monte Levinson, a retired physician leading about a dozen visitors today through this complex Wright began building in 1889 for his family and business.

Levinson presented himself as a Wright devotee, spitting out anecdotes with perfect accuracy and in rapid fire, often focusing more on them than the architectural details of this national landmark house built in the seaside style at the corner of Chicago and Forest avenues.

He's read the newer books: "Loving Frank," a historical novel by Nancy Horan about Wright's unfortunate mistress who was the love of his life; and Roger Friedland's "The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesan Fellowships," stories that have spawned even greater interest in the architect's remarkable life.

"He was absolutely a difficult man," Levinson said, while standing in Wright's former office, an octagonal room adorned with the architect's signature oak furnishings and art-glass windows. "He was a curmudgeon."

Wright's customers were forbidden from entering the drafting room and kept waiting in the adjoining foyer.

"He would not ask you what you wanted. He'd tell you what your needs were."

In private Wright berated city planners for ignoring nature in their designs and then would play the role of a contrarian in public.
Levinson leads tourists through Wright's office in Oak Park, Ill. (Scott Beveridge photo)

The hero of this story, though, was Catherine Wright, the rejected first wife of this builder and mother of his six children for whom Wright erected this two-story house constructed with Chicago brick and wooden shingles painted brown.

She was a suffragette who gave many civic lectures on the responsibility of the wealthy to care about the less fortunate and earned a master's degree in social work after Wright left her in 1909 for Mamah Borthwick Chaney.

Wright and Chaney fell in love while he built a nearby house on East Avenue for the Chaneys while they, too, were still married.

That house still stands today, albeit in need of attention in an otherwise well-kept suburban Chicago neighborhood speckled with either Wright designed or inspired houses.

However, Mamah Chaney met an untimely death in 1914 during a murderous rampage at Taliesen East, the house Wright built for her in Wisconsin.

Wright designed 1,200 buildings in his lifetime and 125 of them were produced in this studio, Levinson said. He built a debated 460 of those designs, including 30 around the corner from his studio.
Frank Lloyd Wright chose a seaside-style of construction for his first home, using it to experiment in organic and prairie-school architecture. (Scott Beveridge/O-R)

The home and studio grew from a $5,000 loan from Wright's boss, Louis Henry Sullivan, a renowned Chicago architect. To get the money Wright made a promise to continue working for Sullivan, only to sneak behind his back and build four "bootleg" houses in Oak Park, Levinson said.

Wright used this house as a laboratory, designed similar to a spin wheel to maximized the size of rooms that jut out from a central fireplace. It was here where he experimented with organic design techniques that made it appear the rooms flowed seamlessly to and from the outdoors.

While pocket doors were fashionable during this era, Wright shed them in order to allow the eye to travel throughout the first floor of his house. Widows were arranged high on walls so visitors would gaze out to trees rather than neighboring houses.

Paint colors for the walls were limited to those of the autumn, including olive green and Wright's favorite, Cherokee red.

He included built-in couches in the living room, something he would include in many more houses to follow, including Pennsylvania's beloved Fallingwater in the Laurel Highlands.

"He wanted people to sit where he told them to sit," Levinson said.

In the dining room it didn't matter if the chairs were comfortable for seating. Wright designed them with seats too low for sitting and backs so tall they would have given his dinner guests leg cramps.

More importantly the furniture design, Wright believed, made the ceiling above the table appear taller, Levinson said.

Wright was an illusionist. At 5-feet, 6-inches tall, he wore two-inch heels to make himself look taller, Levinson explained, before embarking to the second floor to show off two opposing rooms with vaulted ceilings that hover over the first floor like giant lunchboxes.

The property is owned by the by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which was established to acquire and care for the site. Advance tour reservations are suggested.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Chicago for the hot dog

An authentic Chicago-style hot dog from Portillo's in the so-called Windy City. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CHICAGO – It's day one in the so-called Windy City and already friends back home are telling me I have to eat deep-dish pizza and Chicago dogs, foods that are as synonymous to this Illinois city as pierogi and kielbasa are to Pittsburgh.

I'm in the mood for one of these hot dogs and head to the hotel bar where I am staying in the Central Loop - the location of many of Chicago's best restaurants - to ask the staff how to find Hot Doug's. A guy I know earlier tells me on Facebook about this restaurant, that it's famous for cooking French fries in duck fat and its Chicago-style dogs.

"It's far away and really hard to get to from here," the hotel bartender says to my dismay.

I next seem to stump her when I ask if there is a place within walking distance to find a good Chicago-style dog.

"Not really. Most of the places are chains," she says before recalling a locally-owned restaurant that sells them across the Chicago River named Portillo's

So I head out for the 1.4-mile trek to this destination at 100 W. Ontario St., passing through this town's fancy theater district, only to notice that a Beatle's tribute is playing at the Oriental Theater and Conan O'Brien is filming his show this week at The Chicago Theater.

Somewhere along my route I wonder about who in "Chi-town" invented such a hot dog that has brought me to this place and what makes it more special than a copycat I can get back home in Pittsburgh at D's Six Pax & Dawgs.

A random waitress at Chicago O'Hare International Airport gives it an attempt after I land here and her ask that very question.

Her response is Chicago's hot dogs are bigger and made "right here" with all beef and no additives. I think that's a pretty impressive sell for any processed food.

Eventually I see Portillo's. It's across the street from a McDonald's with super-sized golden arches next to a Hard Rock cafe filled to its brim with middle-schoolers involved in a lame flash mob.

This Portillo's bills itself as having a Chicago gangster ambiance. Sure enough there is a maroon 1930 Chevy sedan suspended from the ceiling, a car just like those seen in old mob movies. Nearby is a framed 1926 photograph of Ralph "Bottles"Capone (Al's older brother) and his pals below a sign the U.S. government once posted at a local business it closed for violating the National Prohibition Act.

This place is noisy and festive, though, and beer is sold here these days from a bar that is separate from where the food is served. Customers place their food orders while standing at a counter below such decorations as a bra, apron and other garments hanging from a clothesline.

It boasts as having been founded in 1963 by Dick Portillo in a small trailer and since grown to nearly 50 locations with requests for catering from almost as many U.S. states.

I take my food to a table laced in a blue and white checkerboard plastic tablecloth, only to realize while devouring it that I still haven't figured out who had the genius to first dress a hot dog with a pickle wedge, hot peppers, mustard, chopped onions, relish and tomato slices.

Chicago pizza; you are my tomorrow.
 The eclectic interior of Portillo's in Chicago. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dad's hot dogs

Crescent-wrapped hot dogs like those my dad used to prepare. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – One of us made the mistake of telling our father - the "chef" of the family - that we really liked the crescent-wrapped hot dogs he had prepared in the 1960s for supper.

He responded by baking the Pillsbury Crescent Dogs so often that we finally had to complain that we kids had become sick of them.

Jim Beveridge worked the kitchen like a sergeant of a mess hall, preferring to fix meals that were easy, quick, cheap and dirty. The cheaper the better. I mean he stocked up on Jiffy Mix cake mixes like there was no tomorrow. On a good day back then those cakes mixes sold for a quarter apiece.

The cooking around our house often fell to him or dinner was going to be late to the table.

As a steelworker whose job schedule was known as "working the swing shift," he was home in the late afternoon and evening more often than not because his week was divided into his punching the time clock for three different 8-hour shifts. Our mom's day job as a secretary/bookkeeper kept her in the office weekdays until 5 p.m.

My father took to the crescent dogs after seeing a cooking demonstration about them on the The Mike Douglas Show, the father-of-all daytime television talk shows. In between groundbreaking interviews of such stars of their time as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the show often featured easy recipes for housewives to prepare.

In time he discovered Hamburger Helper. When Betty Crocker expanded that line to include Tuna Helper, the two skillet dishes became our version of surf 'n' turf.

A group of my friends earlier this year wanted to try these crescent rolls after I told them this story, having never heard of the delicacy. They really liked them, too. For the sake of room on the Internet, I won't rehash the recipe here because there are plenty of them already posted across the web.

However, my favorite hot dogs prepared by my father were cooked in beer. (Vegans do not try this at home)

He'd put hot dogs in a skillet, cover them in Iron City and boil them until they swelled and the liquid began to disappear. Then he tossed in a couple tablespoons of butter to brown the hot dogs.

It was a feast de la Resistance, Appalachia style.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Dancing With 'Our' Stars"

Charleroi Attorney Keith Bassi and Emily Seey of Arthur Murray Dance Studios perform the swing during a Monongahela Area Chamber of Commerce fundraiser mirroring the hit TV show "Dancing With the Stars," an event organized to pay for a Fourth of July fireworks display in the small Pennsylvania city.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A 'masterpiece' church turns 100 in Pittsburgh

The ornate stained-glass windows at First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Century-old records are missing that could shed light on the motivation behind the elaborate and massive stained-glass windows gracing a landmark Baptist church in Pittsburgh.

The First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh has just one sheet of paper from the artist, Charles Jay Connick, explaining his use of particular symbols in the windows, his first major commission, said its current pastor, the Rev. Gary W. Denning.

"We do not have records of church committee discussions debating/deciding what they thought the symbols should be on the various windows," Denning said Sunday as the church at 159 N. Bellefield Ave. in Pittsburgh's Oakland section marks the 100th anniversary of its completion.

"We don't know what they were all thinking," Denning said.

It's even more fascinating that any Baptist church would have ornate stained-glass windows to begin with, he said.

"Baptists are usually poor," he said.

However, the congregation in the early 1900s was blessed with money after its Downtown home was demolished to clear land for a public office building at Fourth and Ross streets.

The sale earned the church $570,000, which allowed it to construct the Oakland site, a second in Mt. Washington that not longer survives and a third in Dormont, one that since has been heavily altered, Denning said.

A donation from the family of George and Clara Porter allowed First Baptist to spend $6,500 on windows for the English/Gothic-style sandstone building in Oakland, said Rommy Wyllie, an architectural historian who spoke at the anniversary celebration.

One of the smaller stained-glass windows inspired by those created during Medieval France and incorporated into the Pittsburgh church. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Connick, along with the church's architect, Bertram Goodhue, gave Pittsburgh a "sublime masterpiece" to tell the story of the Bible, Wyllie said.

Connick was born in Springboro, Pa., in 1875, and turned to drawing after moving at age eight with his family to Pittsburgh and being bullied by children for being a country boy. His other masterpiece in Pittsburgh would become the 73-feet-tall windows in Heinz Memorial Chapel at the University of Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, Goodhue was born in 1869 in Pomfret, Conn., built the State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. and designed the Cheltenham typeface used to create The New York Times headlines.

Goodhue incorporated two-dimensional relief sculptures of Earthly scenes to adorn the east, exterior side of his Pittsburgh church and heavenly versions of the art style on its western walls.

For example, Denning said, an image of a ship at stormy sea can be found among the Earthly images and its counterpart is one of Noah's arc, a rescue ship.

Connick drew inspiration from medieval churches he toured while visiting France and sought to blend that ancient style with glass-making technologies that were new when he was alive, said Albert Tannler, director of collections at Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

The riches brought to Pittsburgh by the steel industry in the early 1900s also attracted a bank of artisans that gave the city "some of the finest work available" in the United States, Tannler said.

The bulk of the design of the 13 giant windows created by Connick in the city's Baptist church involved repeated geometric shapes on gray and beige backgrounds.

The religious symbols on the panels can largely be found along just one row of the glass, and were designed in such images as a cross, lamb, inverted torch and broken sword. They were arranged in the progression of Christ, from his birth in those beside the altar to the others following his ministry, teachings, death and resurrection as visitors returned to the front doors.

The sculptures outside included a vine to represent Jesus and their branches to symbolize his followers in such a design to invite people inside the building, Denning theorized. Above the main entry are bas-reliefs of God's hand reaching down to a lamb (Jesus) shown above a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, he added.

Indoors, he said, the windows prepared the congregation to follow the word of God as its members left the sanctuary.

The Rev. Gary W. Denning, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, discusses its architecture outside the main entrance to the landmark building that turned 100 this year. (Scott Beveridge photo)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This arts fest is a trip

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – A trip through the crowd at a performance by the Wailers while they headlined the opening of the 2012 Three Rivers Arts Festival.