Aerial view of the North Dakota State Capitol
We can finally check one of the big ones off of our Edgar Miller bucket list: the North Dakota State Capitol! One of Miller’s most extensive art installation commissions also happens to be one of his most difficult to get to and see. In fact, due to its remoteness, many die-hard Miller aficionados have never seen them in person. The stars finally aligned, and we traveled out to Bismarck recently in the hopeful spirit that many pioneering settlers no doubt felt when heading out to that expansive territory, with the belief that treasures would be found there.
The original capitol building ablaze
The original North Dakota capitol building was built in 1883-84, in a Romanesque Revival style made popular by the famous American architect H.H. Richardson. A stately structure, it caught fire and was completely destroyed in 1930, and thus, the state had to build anew. Instead of opting for a replica of the past structure, or aiming for a tired, nostalgic classicism all-too-often employed when designing public buildings in the U.S., the governor, George Schafer, pushed for a completely modern design and construction, including an 18-story office tower to house all the government offices. Side note: a typical domed capitol, while beautiful, often utilizes only 30% of its interior space for actual work functions, whereas the North Dakota capitol uses over 80% of its interior space.
John W. Root and John A. Holabird
While local North Dakota architects are given top line credit for the building, which broke ground in 1934, the noted Chicago firm Holabird and Root was also brought in to consult, and the aesthetic and structural results appear to be highly influenced by H&R’s popular sleek, if somewhat perfunctory, art deco style, which was made popular in Chicago during the 1920s with buildings such as the Palmolive, the Board of Trade, the Chicago Daily News, and many more. Because of his close professional connection with friends Holabird and Root, Miller was brought in to do much of the interior design and decoration.
Miller's signature, an M with an arrow, hidden in plain sight on one of his bas relief sculptures
In typical Miller fashion, his installed art is not merely decorative but tells the rich history of the land in which the building was erected. Each figure on the front façade of the building depicts an elemental piece of the history of the Dakotas: a Native American warrior defending his people’s lands; Sacajawea guiding Lewis and Clark through their exploration of the American frontier; a family reflecting the heavy mining culture that emerged during the industrial age; white settlers entering the unknown and dangerous wilderness; and another Native American figure depicting a shaman performing a ritual dance.
While the people of the Dakotas, settlers and natives, have always taken a great deal of pride in their Native American heritage, it should not be overlooked that Miller’s conscious choice to craft images showing the intrinsic beauty of Native American culture onto the walls of the capitol building was progressive for the time. Even though many art deco-period designs used Native American art styles, it was often used in a way which today we call cultural appropriation, where the art styles were borrowed merely for aesthetic reasons, often bordered on caricature, and the context and traditions of the native peoples were rarely depicted or paid homage to. Miller, though he was born into a white settler family in Idaho, found himself identifying much more closely with the Native Americans he befriended as a young man exploring the wilderness of his home state, and often made vocal statements deploring their treatment during the 19th century, as these culturally rich communities were systematically exterminated by the U.S. Army and deputized settlers and vigilantes.
Turnstile with Miller's high relief sculpture above
Inside the building, Miller added highly detailed ornamental art above the turnstile doors. Above one, he created a depiction of the iconic Midwestern farmer and his livestock, and above the other, a miner and a set of backhoes. While somewhat cartoonish, these images reminded visitors to the capitol of the two main industries of the state until they were permanently closed after the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, for security purposes.
Most impressively, Miller also crafted highly detailed cast bronze elevator doors. These doors, which were cast in eight sets of doors for the first and second floors of the main hall, again depict the history of the Dakotas: a cowboy and Native American in battle; an explorer and buffaloes ranging; a miner and a ranch hand; and a farming family. Looking closer, in between the major figurative depictions are bands of even more detail: a railroad locomotive and a wagon train; herds of sheep and cattle; a farmer harvesting wheat and a native woman harvesting corn. Needless to say, these elevator doors were the highlight of the experience. They are completely unique and made specifically for this building. As detailed and exquisite are some decorative hardware installations of the art deco period, these works transcend beautiful design to highly contemplated narrative art.
While we cannot confirm this with a second source, in addition to the ample relief sculptural work on the façade, turnstiles, and elevator doors, the capitol tour guide informed us that Miller also designed much of the lighting in the building, from the hanging lights designed after wheat stalks in the main hall, the sconce lamps designed to mimic designs recently discovered in King Tut’s tomb (in 1922) in the legislature’s connecting corridor, and the ceiling lighting designs in both the House and Senate chambers, the former to represent the moon and stars, and the latter to represent the sun.
Main hall of the capitol with lighting designed after wheat stalks
Legislative chambers. The ceiling is meant to represent the moon and stars.
While we don’t expect every fan of Miller’s work to be able to make the trip to Bismarck to see his work there in person, if you are ever there, we highly recommend taking the tour and checking it out. We are also very thankful that the people of North Dakota have taken such good care of their building, and even know and mention the name of the artist who is responsible for lovingly depicting their history, in many ways a history he understood all too well as a son of the West.
Recently we went to the Madonna della Strada Chapel at the Lake Shore Campus of Loyola University to find answers about work that Edgar Miller possibly created for the space. This gem of an Art Deco-style chapel, designed by architect Andrew Rebori, opened in 1938. Miller, by then a close friend of Rebori, submitted designs for many art installations, including the large rose windows facing Lake Michigan at the front of the building.
Front facade of Madonna della Strada Chapel (Photo: Loyola University)
The rose windows are the biggest source of confusion because Miller and another craftsman-artist Karl Hackert submitted designs for them, and while no letter ever expressed that they chose Hackert over Miller, recent research done by a Loyola student, Guy Valponi, shows a clear leaning toward Hackert as the final executor of the windows. Father Mertz, the priest in charge of the project, expressed that Hackert’s work was a lot cheaper and higher quality, although there are also reasons to believe that Mertz’s strong personality and Edgar’s devotion to art over practical costs came into conflict, and caused a rift between the two.
Still, the rose window design looks very similar to Miller’s sketches for the project, and exhibit his distinct design patterns, such as the use of clovers and a primitive aesthetic. It is completely possible that they used Miller’s designs but commissioned Hackert to execute them, due to his ability to work at a cheaper rate. Unfortunately, a definitive answer to this quandary is unavailable due to a lack of existing records.
Sketch of proposed rose windows by Miller (Photo by Alexander Vertikoff; Image courtesy Aldinger Collection)
On the front facade of the building are four relief sculptures, depicting the Four Evangelists, and though they aren’t officially credited as Edgar Miller’s work, the overall appearance combined with evidence that Miller worked with Rebori on other aspects of the chapel’s design, leads many to believe that Miller was responsible for their design and probably their execution, too.
Vintage images of the bas relief sculptures before they were attached to the front facade of the chapel:
It is unclear what Edgar specifically created inside the chapel, though there are many pieces that remind us of his work. It is known that Miller submitted a proposal for the Stations of the Cross to be done as an elaborate mosaic, which would have wrapped completely around the chapel nave. It was dismissed as completely unfeasible because of the limited, Depression-era budget, and another artist was chosen to paint the Stations. Though it remains unclear what work is Edgar’s, we were impressed by the mosaics in the building's crypt and in the Madonna della Strada Shrine to one side of the chancel. Valponi remarks that the evidence points to Hackert as the executor for the North American Martyrs Shrine, but limited information on the Madonna della Strada Shrine leaves us wondering about its creator. The mosaic work as well as the stained glass windows in the Madonna Shrine have strong stylistic similarities to Miller's aesthetic. The color scheme and geometric patterns resemble the chapel’s rose window, so again, it is entirely possible Miller's designs were used but he was not the executor.
Images of the crypt mosaics and the Madonna Shrine:
Photo: Larry Zgoda
Ceiling and wall mosaics, stained glass windows, and cast bronze plaques in the Madonna Shrine show resemblance to Miller's style
Angel plaques which bear a strong similarity to the Madonna and Child sculpture credited to Miller (see below)
Even woodcarvings in the rectory exhibit zigzag patters and a bas relief image of a Madonna and Child that seem peculiarly evocative of Miller’s artistic style and design sensibilities, but there is no clear record of who created them. The Loyola theology professor who gave us our tour, John Paul Salay, also took us into the bell tower where they store a bronze sculpture of a similar Madonna and Child. This sculpture, more than any other, seems clearly the work of Miller’s and is reported to have offended Father Mertz for overly resembling the statuary of Eastern religions. It was meant to sit at the alter of the chapel, but because it didn’t align with Mertz’s tastes, was relegated for many years to a spot on a wall outside the building, only to then find its way to its current storage area in the bell tower.
Carving of Madonna and Child in the chapel rectory
Madonna and Child credited to Miller, now in storage
If anything, our visit to the chapel created more questions than answers, but regardless, we are glad to have experienced such a beautiful building with so many interesting works of art.
Last week we went to view the stained glass windows Miller made in 1929 for the Medinah Athletic Club, which is currently the InterContinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue. This iconic Chicago building was created from the designs of architect Walter W. Ahschlager. Unaware of the approaching stock market crash, the Shrine Organization commissioned the project to build the 42-story edifice as both a center for the activities and an apartment tower. Four years after the onset of the Great Depression, they went bankrupt and lost control of the building, which is when the building went through various incarnations. In 1988, it began its life as the InterContinental Hotel.
Between the closing of the Medinah Athletic Club and the opening of the InterContinental Hotel the building went through a series of renovations and restorations. The balcony of the Grand Ballroom was rebuilt, the murals and gold leaf detailing on the ballroom’s ceiling was restored, a fifth Edgar Miller stained-glass window was removed, and guest-rooms had been expanded. Other than these changes, the general design remains the same and to this day anyone can see that each floor of the hotel represents a myriad of cultures and eras.
The building incorporates a variety of architectural styles: Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian, Medieval, Art Deco, and Gothic. On the first floor, just past the bronze doorway, there are two large marble columns topped with medieval knights. Etched in marble between the two columns, the Shriners wrote: “ES SALUMU ALEIKUM” meaning “Peace be to God” in Arabic. The lobby also features a staircase with cast-bronze friezes along the handrail and a ceiling painted in dark tones with Celtic and Mesopotamian motifs. Past the four-story lobby and the Assyrian styled Hall of Lions, marble steps decorated by family crests of the original founders of the club lead you to a terra-cotta fountain that is lined with blue Spanish Majolica tiles and an inscription, “All Waters Run into the Sea.” The Renaissance Room depicts the extravagance of the French Renaissance era of Louis XVI and is covered in Carpathian Elm Burl wood, hand-painted Renaissance motifs, and Baccarat crystal chandeliers. This elegance is carried on to the Grand Ballroom which has 37 hand-painted murals of classical landscape scenes around the ceiling, lined with 24-karat gold leaf moldings and a 12,000-pound Baccarat crystal chandelier. Directly above the ballroom is another terra-cotta fountain lined with brilliant blue Spanish Majolica tile and windows with fish-scale designs at both ends of the pool.
©InterContinental Chicago The Lobby
© Sarah Alair Photography The Renaissance Room
© oyster.com The Pool
The hotel’s King Arthur Foyer and Court has ceilings lined with colorful knights in uniform and stained glass windows that tell the stories of King Arthur and Parsifal. Walter Ahlschlager, the architect, commissioned and paid for Edgar Miller to create these Gothic-inspired stained glass windows which complement the Gothic architecture of the King Arthur Foyer and Court. These four windows depict classic medieval scenes featuring jousters, bards, peasants, knights, and a variety of symbols.
Photo by Eric Allix Rogers
Edgar struggled to delegate and share the load and was challenged by union members. When he attempted to install the windows himself, the union members threatened to “put a ladder through it” if he didn’t come up with twenty bucks for the Putty Glaziers’ Union. Edgar said, “unions killed the stained-glass industry.” Although he aspired to take part in every phase of his art, he accomplished these windows with the dutiful help of his sister, Hester Miller Murray, whom Edgar relied upon early in his career for assistance in artistic detailing. She had helped him on a number of projects before, but this was the first time they shared the credit. Hester once remarked, “Years later, I went in and asked at the attendant’s desk as to whom had done the glass. The attendant told me it was a count by the name of Hester Edgar. I was impressed. I did not educate him.”
Hester and Edgar worked collectively to construct a Gothic-styled Medieval narrative though they “accepted influences from anyplace” said Edgar. These windows include knights with swords and archers lunching and curving with dynamic motion which are skillfully juxtaposed and arranged with colorful and decorative tiles in a variety of ways. The piece demonstrates sophisticated design and construction techniques, featuring pieces of transparent, colored, and hand-painted glass.
The work also incorporates animals because of Miller’s belief that figurative art was more meaningful to the viewer than abstract art. These windows have a balance of both decorative abstract pieces and conceptual narrative pieces. We see this love of figurative and meaningful representations of animals celebrated in the piece. The Millers very clearly demonstrated their understanding of the harmony of animals, people, and art in these windows.
Edgar's unique style and skill is evident in the design and execution of the stained glass. The transparent, colorful glass paired with the lead lining creates a bold and dramatic look. The seemingly decorative symbols at the bottom of the picture below are actually used to represent a variety of stories of the natural world. The range of ribbed and other textured glass also compliments the iconic and symbolic pictures and colors he uses to create these expressive and robust windows.
(Due to usage rights issues all images are from our Edgar Miller Legacy Archives, but are similar to those found in the Chicago History Museum archives.)
Recently we made a trip to the Chicago History Museum archives to sort through their records of Edgar Miller’s work. We had the honor to experience connecting with his work in a private, personal setting. Out of sixty-two boxes of Miller’s sketchbooks, annotated art textbooks, correspondences, research notes, exhibit programs, and other documents, we were able to explore and document three. These boxes show a wide range of his work from 1924 to 1989. The first box contains a series of Miller’s personal sketchbooks, the bulk of which includes pencil or ink drawings of abstract forms, faces, and animals.
Sketches of animals.
The second box consisted of art textbooks annotated by Miller. As opposed to simply writing little notes in the margins, Miller’s annotations include critiques in the margins as well as illustrations of geometric lines, circles, and arcs on top of the images. It is said that he did this to explore and search for order and reasoning in the various artists’ spatial planning. Among his sketches and annotations, the notes he took in his journals are fascinating, and specifically his writings about technological advances. Miller writes that the digital and analogue computer “serves the two patterns of thought produced by the two hemispheres of our brain.” Edgar’s fascination with patterns were apparent in his stained glass windows, woodcarvings, and mosaics, but to learn that he was interested in patterns of thought and technology is particularly exciting.
Miller's line exercises super-imposed over Marc Chagall's work.
While looking through his work we found ourselves wondering about what it would be like if artists like Edgar Miller were alive today to see how technology has advanced. On the margins of one of the art textbooks we read Miller’s brutal critique of cropped paintings and photographs. He writes that, “The taste of a barbarian treats a painting like yard goods.” Essentially Edgar means that the person who cropped the image of a full painting was disrespecting the value of the artwork. He would probably have a lot to say about Instagram and the disrespect we must be doing by cropping his work over on our Instagram account (sorry, Edgar).
Hibiscus sketches, one of thousands of nature sketches by Miller
Though Edgar grappled with the emergence of technology, some helpful (i.e. airplanes) and some destructive (i.e. nuclear weapons), if he was alive today he would probably be taking advantage of all the possible mediums that now exist for art expression, because he was always trying new things and pushing himself to grow. In his later years, varying influences pushed him to transform his styles of work. Miller thought that no matter the medium, “to use it you just had to have taste and a sense of space” to create something beautiful that is full of life and even humor.
One of Miller's many playful sketches.
This is one of the many reasons why his work is successful and why it is so important for us to continue to share his work and his story. It is remarkable being able to see the work of an extraordinary artist and craftsman like Edgar Miller. On top of that, being able to flip through his sketchbooks and letters has helped us gain an even more intimate understanding of him as a working artist and regular human being.
Miller's sketchbooks are filled with portraits of everyday people from the 1920s to the 1980s.
Last week, we had the pleasure of speaking to the Chicago Art Deco Society at the former Jane Addams Homes housing project about a lovingly remembered courtyard sculptural collection conceived and designed by Edgar Miller in the late 1930s. Pure deco in design, with Miller’s stylistic flourishes, these sculptures are currently in storage awaiting restoration for the work-in-progress National Public Housing Museum, which hopes to incorporate the sculptures back onto the site. The NPHM is currently raising the remaining funds to rehab and remodel the last remaining structure of the project, at 1322 West Taylor Street, into a museum somewhat similar to the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum would tell the stories, through recreated tenants’ rooms, of what it was like to live and grow up in these then-revolutionary housing structures, while dispelling some of the stereotypes of public housing being a total blight and failure on our urban fabric.
Chicago Historical Society
The Jane Addams Homes public housing project— the first completed in Chicago in 1937 and named after the then-late activist reformer— was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a branch of FDR’s New Deal, which was implemented to help the US crawl its way out of the Great Depression. Astonishingly, at the time, the government also saw the value in funding art projects for these developments, and art projects for other government buildings, as a way to provide relief to struggling artists all over the country who remained committed to their craft in spite of the seemingly hopeless lack of capital to keep large-scale art projects going. The main agency in charge of this funding and resource allocation was the Temporary Relief for Artists Program (TRAP).
While it doesn’t seem as if Edgar came running for a handout— he was already gainfully employed and not in need of relief— the architecture firm Holabird & Root, which was hired to design and construct the Jane Addams Homes, in 1936 suggested Miller to the bureaucrats in Washington, DC, as the perfect artist to come up with the complimentary art to their innovative apartment project design. Of course, we’ve already discussed Miller’s close connection with the principals of Holabird & Root, so this should come as no surprise. The government gladly agreed, and Edgar set about to come up with a suitable design.
Edgar Miller (second from right) sits with friends, including John Holabird (second from left). Photo by Oscar and Associates.
We also know that Edgar loved to use animals as objects of his art, as they were a reflection of nature and he believed they brought us back in touch with our humanity. Even more so, since the sculpture garden was intended to be used by the housing project’s neighborhood children, it made even more sense to use animals as a way to engage the young minds. It took a while for Edgar, busily preoccupied with his other projects (notably the Normandy House restaurant design, and other small projects), and in the midst of housing moves himself, to come up with sketches and plans so that the government officials could approve them all. Daniel Ronan, Director of Public Engagement at the NPHM, provided us with extensive research he did into the back and forth exchanges between many key government officials, the architecture firm, the stone supplier, the sculpting firm, and Edgar. It is quite fascinating how cordial everyone was back then, often beginning letters with “My Dear So-and-So” and getting into robust discussions about the nature of the project and theories about art. We wonder if this would be possible in today’s climate of anti-intellectualism in Washington.
Original sketch of the Animal Court by Edgar Miller (courtesy Daniel Ronan, National Public Housing Museum)
One of the major points of contention was whether to use union labor in the execution of the sculptures. Naturally, Edgar would have wanted to do them himself, but since the WPA insisted the entire site be 100% union workers and all construction be on site, a workaround had to be found, since even the architects and government officials knew that the sculpting would need to be done by a skilled non-union artisan. Eventually they settled on a company run by a man named Charles Buhl, and the union agreed to let the work be done by these artisans as long as it was off-site, in a warehouse across town. Of course, this added some considerable moving expenses, but it also staved off any labor unrest on the project site.
The large bull sculpture, by Emmanuel Viviano, in the studio (courtesy Chicago Hisotrical Society)
Fast forward to the summer of 1937, and the animal sculptures were completed. It took three months to sculpt the six smaller, boulder-like sculptures, and the one large monumental sculpture of a cow and several cats. It has also been discovered, according to public housing researcher Elizabeth Milnarek, that the large sculpture was designed by an apprentice of Miller’s named Emmanuel Viviano. It is very hard to tell apart their styles, and clear that Edgar’s influence was profound. It’s also reasonable to assume that Miller had some critical influence on the design since it was his commission, so it was his reputation on the line.
In any case, once the sculptures were unveiled and the Jane Addams Homes opened, the Animal Court was a smashing success. Not only were the sculptures fun for children to climb on top of and make believe with, but there was also an innovative reflecting pool and sprinkler system that ran through the center of the sculpture garden, providing much-needed relief in the summer months to hot children and their undoubtedly exasperated parents.
Chicago Historical Society
Over time, the sculptures began to decay, but the residents of the apartments always took care of them, providing new paint jobs from time to time to protect them from the elements. Still, after nearly seventy years of exposure to Chicago’s harsh winters and rambunctious children, by the early 2000s they were in a state of serious neglect. Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Authority was on a mission to wipe clear as many of these old projects as they could as they had become outdated, run down, and seen as politically unacceptable in a new social climate hostile to large-scale affordable housing. The NPHM secured the rights to use the one remaining building of the thirty-two original apartment complexes, and to remove the sculptures from the site in the hope that they could be restored and preserved.
Modern day deterioration before the housing complex was demolished and the sculptures removed from the site
That project is still underway, and it is our sincere hope that eventually the sculptures will be restored to their former glory and the National Public Housing Museum gets to tell its part of history. According to Mr. Ronan, "The Animal Court sculptures at the former Jane Addams Homes are a touchpoint not only to the Taylor Street and Little Italy neighbors, but also advocates of art everywhere. Neighbors, Chicagoans, and Americans understand the importance of art in enriching and bringing together our communities and bringing together the stories we share." To learn more, and if you are interested in supporting, please visit www.nphm.org.
Recently we had the opportunity to visit the Oakridge Abbey in Hillside, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Back in the late 1920s, Edgar Miller was hired to create a large assortment of stained glass windows for the monumental crypt, which was then touted as one of the most elegant and beautifully designed mausoleums in the area. In fact, it was and remains quite a magnificent structure.
The person responsible for its construction was Anders E. Anderson. Already a real estate developer, he decided to go into the cemetery business, and believed that a mausoleum would prove to be a lucrative venture while providing a serene resting place for people’s loved ones. He became president of the Oak Ridge Cemetery and then, in 1917— the year Edgar arrived in Chicago— proceeded to take out a loan for the mausoleum project from Chicago Title and Trust for $300,000, no small sum in those days (or today, for that matter).
Detail view of the ceiling of the chapel
Wanting to do a project on a grand scale, Anderson even traveled to Europe in 1924 during the construction of the mausoleum to find artistic and architectural inspiration. Completed in 1928, it is not entirely clear when Miller was brought onto the project, but most likely his work there began in the mid-to-late 1920s and continued past the opening date of the building. Many of the windows appear to be commissioned by individual families, not just the cemetery itself. You can learn more about the history of the mausoleum and Anderson here, thanks to the research of Jim Craig.
Stained glass in the Anderson family crypt
Walking through the building is quite an experience in and of itself. It is two levels, with many hallways going off in different directions, and various nooks and stalls, some covered by curtains, which we had to peek through to see if there were any more hidden stained glass works.
Doors covered in stained glass
All in all, the abundance of Miller’s stained glass at Oakridge Abbey is far and away beyond anything else he worked on. While there are many great examples of Edgar’s stained glass work in other churches, public spaces, and homes, in no other place is there such an assortment of what has to be considered his finest work. Each window has its own sense of style and character, and within each set are so many rich details, down to hidden figures in corners of the glass, and various symbols and icons painted and etched in minute detail.
A religious scene depicted at the end of a grand hallway
Naturally, records of Miller’s receipts and pay stubs are non-existent, and it remains unclear who even hired him, though one might assume it was Anderson himself. It is worth remembering that at this very same time, Miller was concurrently working on the two projects in Old Town, the Carl Street Studios and the Kogen-Miller Studios. On top of all his other small projects and commissions, it is truly unbelievable that he was able to produce so much work in such a short amount of time.
A figure, with a noticeable "K" upon his lapel, is hidden at the bottom corner of a large stained glass window. Any symbolism experts know what this signifies?
That said, we know that his sister, Hester Miller, helped with these windows, most likely in painting the glass so that the work of individually hand-painting each pane would not fall entirely on Edgar's shoulders. That said, she insisted that Edgar be the only signer of the work, as she felt her contribution was merely as an assistant.
Detail of a dove
While the cemetery isn’t technically open to the general public, the staff in the office seemed amused by our interest in the stained glass windows, and were friendly enough and didn’t seem to have a problem with us wandering around the mausoleum to take photos.
Another private family window. Note the incredible detail in each piece of glass.
Unfortunately, many of the windows seem to be in a state of some disrepair. We realize fixing stained glass windows can be expensive, so it’s probably unlikely they will be restored any time in the near future. In the meantime, it’s probably just best to keep our collective fingers crossed that perhaps an emergent interest in Miller’s work will excite the cemetery or others enough to preserve them.
Another closer detail of a much larger window. Note the lion figure on the bottom right. Edgar Miller was always playful, even when faced with a project of such immense gravitas!
Before the summer’s madness surrounding the Burton Place saga, we were happily ensconced poring over documents in the archives, visiting sites of Edgar’s work, and writing about it here on the blog. Let’s try to get back to those halcyon days of academic bliss, if we can.
North Dakota Capitol by Holabird and Root with ornament by Edgar Miller
Most Chicagoans, and many architects from around the world, have heard of the firm Holabird and Roche and Holabird and Root. The firm’s existence stretches from the late 19th century to the modern day, but they are most well-known for their early work, and the work that continued into the mid-20th century. You can read all about the firm’s history on Wikipedia and in the book The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918 by Robert Bruegmann, but in a nutshell, William Holabird and Martin Roche collaborated as partners to much acclaim from the 1890s until the 1920s. Some of the firm's most famous early accomplishments are the Marquette Building, the Palmer House Hotel, and Soldier Field. When the two founding partners died in the 1920s, the firm was taken over by Holabird’s son, John Holabird, and John Root, Jr., who had been with the firm since 1914. Thus, the name change to Holabird and Root. At this point, the firm’s style adopted the forward-thinking art deco architecture of the period. The list of buildings this firm designed and constructed is immense, and many are American landmarks, either officially or unofficially. The Chicago Board of Trade building should be well known to any fan of the recent Batman films.
Chicago Board of Trade by Bob Vonderau
While the firm never achieved the kind of name-brand success in the general public in the way Frank Lloyd Wright did, their buildings nonetheless greatly influenced public architecture across the United States. Certainly, in terms of large buildings, there was no other firm so prolific for so long.
At some point in the 1920s, Edgar Miller became friendly with John Holabird and John Root, possibly through his work in the studio of Alfonso Iannelli but more likely by his reputation preceding him and then a more formal connection through their mutual memberships at The Tavern Club (which was housed, coincidentally or not, at the penthouse of Holabird and Root’s 333 North Michigan Building). From this connection, Miller was hired for many of the firm’s artistic installations on a slew of their buildings dating from the 1920s through the 1940s, including the Palmolive Building, the North Dakota State Capitol, and the Northwestern Technological Institute
Bas reliefs of famous inventors, scientists, and philosophers adorn the Northwestern Technological Institute in Evanston, Illinois
Today, we will focus on the work Miller did for the firm’s Statler Hotel in Washington, DC in 1943. It was one of the only major hotels built during the Second World War, and perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise then that it was built in the nation’s capital, where a disproportionate amount of the nation’s tax dollars were flowing into military and Federal building projects. By 1943, demand for a stately, modern hotel just up the street from the White House would have been high, and at the time virtually no other firm in the country had the reputation that Holabird and Root did for building large, beautiful, and modern buildings.
Statler Hotel in Washington, DC, now the Capitol Hilton
Miller, by this point, was well-respected by the firm and also within the larger Chicago design community. He was well past his hippie days in Old Town remodeling old Victorian mansions into artistic communes. At this point, Edgar Miller was known more as Chicago’s most unique artist and designer, who could be called upon for almost any task, be it architectural installation, graphic design, or painting and sculpture, and to produce something with originality and eye-popping detail.
Miller paints murals in the lobby of the Statler Hotel, Washington, DC (Photo by Hedrich-Blessing)
For the Statler Hotel chain, then at the forefront of hotel design and organization in the US, Miller decorated their entire DC space, from murals throughout the lobby and walkways to bas relief sculptures in the Presidential Ballroom. The murals in the lobby were simply ornamental, depicting patterns of jungle and forest. Throughout the hallways, however, the murals depicted scenes from US history and American expansion across the Western frontier. According to Cahan and Williams’ The Handmade Home (City Files Press: 2009), for the South American Ballroom, the architects told Edgar that South Americans loved heroic art and mentioned that nudity was not an uncommon sight in public parks in Brazil and Argentina. So Edgar, never one to shy away from the provocative, painted two large nudes on the wall of the ballroom. Unfortunately, this did not go over well with the first guests to use the ballroom, the understandably puritanical Sons of the American Revolution, and in front of Miller, the conventioneers taped sheets of paper over the naked women. Miller wrote, “In order not to embarrass the architects, I painted out one of the best things I had done, and I decided not be caught dead as a Son of the Revolution.”
Sadly, now everything Miller did at the Statler Hotel is either covered or removed. We visited the hotel in the spring and tried to track down any art that would have been saved during two renovations of the hotel in the 1970s and more recently in 2012, but unfortunately no one was able to locate any extant murals or sculptural work from the 1940s that might have been preserved. It is a real shame considering the building itself is on the National Register of Historic Places, while the interior has been remodeled to look like just any other generic hotel property. It is currently owned by the Hilton chain.
Presidential Ballroom of the Statler Hotel featuring Miller's bas reliefs (Hedrich-Blessing)
One can only hope that some of the sculptures from the Presidential Ballroom and some murals from the rest of the building were carried off by a contractor, or in the case of the murals, it would not be unlikely if they now rest permanently underneath the newer layer of drywall, only one day hoping to be uncovered by a renewed interest in Miller’s work.
Current state of the interior of the Capital Hilton. So fresh and so clean... and so boring...
From left to right, Carl Street Studios at 155 W. Burton Pl.; the proposed demolition site at 159 W. Burton Pl.; and an Andrew Rebori-designed art moderne gem at 161 W. Burton Pl.
What an interesting month it has been. We’re sorry it’s been a long time since the last blog post, but as most of you are already aware, there’s been much going on about the Carl Street Studios on Chicago’s Burton Place the past several weeks.
At the beginning of July, we received a frantic message from Trish VanderBeke, condo association president of Carl Street Studios (155 W. Burton Pl.), alerting us to a developer taking everyone completely off guard by announcing his intention to demolish the building right next door at 159 W. Burton Pl. Through the mail, no less. Granted, in this messed up city, that’s all he needed to do. Never mind the block is on the National Historic Register. Never mind almost every house on that block is coded “orange” (meaning it is worthy of protection) by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. Never mind the human thing to do is to discuss your plans to completely alter the fabric of a charming historic neighborhood with the neighbors instead of just sending letters and applying for a demolition permit post haste.
But alas, these are the times we live in, as all over the city, hungry (some might say greedy) developers are tearing down historic gems to replace them with ticky-tacky McMansion-style homes and condo buildings so they can turn a quick profit. Rehabbing vintage homes is for losers these days, apparently. The antagonist in this saga is a young developer, and someone who has been quoted as uttering the endearing words “money is what matters.” We feel for him—he is only human, after all, and we are all fallible—but it didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t in the mood to grow into a fuller human being through this unfortunate chain of events.
At first, we made nice with the developer, inviting him, along with Chicago Art Deco Society Vice President Amy Keller, to tour Edgar Miller’s Glasner Studio on Wells Street, just so he could see what it is he was disturbing in our tight-knit community. Usually people gasp a bit when seeing Miller’s masterpiece, and though we understand the developer was coming into the situation a bit on the defensive, he was visibly unmoved. It was clear from the get-go that we were taking the wrong approach with him, but we sent him on his merry way with a copy of The Handmade Home under his arm. Surely he threw it on the fire for kindling later that evening.
159 W. Burton sits snugly against an artistic rehab by Andrew Rebori at 161 W. Burton
Everyone wondered what we should be doing. Should the immediate neighbors lawyer up? What about the alderman? How long would the demo permit take to get? Could the Landmarks Commission step in? So many questions without answers were floating around, and in the meantime, it seemed as if the fate of the building and block was all in the hands of an uninformed, uncultured, and uncaring individual who was looking to turn a quick profit off of a neighborhood that was formed in blood, sweat and tears over decades. Then the developer would move on and leave in his wake an ugly condo building with new owners who would surely not be interested in retaining the cultural integrity of the block any more than they would be interested in living and caring for a vintage apartment building.
Then things got interesting. A meeting was called on Wednesday, July 8th. Held in a basement level unit at Carl Street Studios, it was mostly attended by neighbors from Carl Street, 161 W. Burton Pl. (the building on the other side of the proposed demolition), and a handful of concerned neighbors from elsewhere on the block. We also attended the meeting along with a small group of other Edgar Miller fans and long-time Old Town residents. The atmosphere was tense, but after a taste of wine and pizza supplied by the Carl Street residents, the meeting moved forward with an assessment of where we stood and what could possibly be done. It was clear that we would have to take a multi-tiered strategy: negotiate with the developer before he received his demo permit, push somehow for landmarking the block, and use our wits to get the word out to the greater Old Town and Chicago community that there was a crisis needing everyone's attention.
About halfway through the meeting, in walked Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who had been invited but no one expected would actually show up. A pleasant man, he carefully chose his words, knowing that everyone was hanging on his statements and wanting more from him than he felt capable of giving. He was hesitant to interfere with property rights, he said. Of course, we weren’t talking about some long-time ward property owner, but a developer who believes a city’s neighborhoods are a canvas upon which he should be allowed to work his will, however destructive to the cultural fabric. Still, Mr. Burnett promised he would allow landmarking to go forward, which brought a sigh of relief to the room. This meant only that he would propose it. It would be up to everyone in attendance to figure out how to convince the Landmarks Commission to take it up at their next meeting, and there was and is still no guarantee that a landmarking decision will stop the demolition of the building at 159 W. Burton.
The next step was to move ahead with marketing our plight. A young architect named Sophie Kohn, who only visited the Carl Street Studios for the first time in June, quickly volunteered her free time to help set up the website www.SOS-SaveOurStory.org. This she did purely out of love for the architecture of Burton Place and a passion for historic preservation. Trish VanderBeke had t-shirts and postcards ordered with a logo designed by Bill B., a neighbor and teacher who thankfully had some free time on his hands and who has also contributed immensely to keeping the website up-to-date with news articles and photos, among his other many contributions to the cause. A petition was started on Change.org (it currently has been signed and commented upon by over 1600 people). By the Dearborn Garden Walk on July 19th, Bill and Alan Artner, former art critic for the Chicago Tribune, were ready with an information table and their steadily hoarsening voices as streams of architecture fans heard of the sad and scary news that had befallen the block.
Bill B. and an assistant spread the word outside Carl Street Studios during the Dearborn Garden Walk
In the meantime, Amy Keller of Chicago Art Deco Society and Keith Stolte, another officer of the Carl Street Studios Condo Association, continued to press the developer, still without demo permit, to alter his plans and keep the integrity of the block intact. Ideally, the neighbors wanted the developer to keep the building as-is and simply do a gut-rehab. This would save the adjacent buildings from potential damage resulting from the demolition and carving out of an enormous new basement, and it would maintain the pristine historic aesthetic of Burton Place. Alternatively, knowing the developer had already refused to consider such an option, they hoped to persuade him to at least keep the façade in place and force his plans for optimizing square footage into the rear of the lot.
Of course, we mentioned the developer’s temperament above, and he wasn’t particularly interested in any compromise. He said it would be too costly, it would take too much time to revise his plans, and besides, he could do whatever he wanted within the current zoning constraints without compromising at all.
This brings us to what happened last week. For one, the developer did receive his demolition permit, finally. At this point, however, news had already spread and many media outlets were already running with the story. Furthermore, it is our understanding that there are potential talks of a buyout offer being proposed to the developer, which if true, would mean saving the building and him getting the money he craves without doing any of the work. Not too bad a deal for him. We suspect this is why he still hasn’t begun to erect scaffolding, now a week later.
On Friday last week, we also got word that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has agreed to take up the proposal for the entire West Burton Place District to become a Chicago Landmark. The Commission meets tomorrow, Thursday August 6th, at City Hall, Room 201-A, at 12:45pm. Contrary to popular belief, however, landmarking the block won’t necessarily prevent the developer from going ahead with demolition, because he applied and received his permit before any of this process began. There is also no guarantee that at tomorrow’s meeting the commission will vote to approve the landmarking to go forward, though we have every intention to make an effective argument that it should.
So where are we now? Our director, Zac Bleicher, will be speaking at the Landmarks Commission, along with many other experts who will attest to the cultural and architectural importance of the block. We are crossing our fingers that a mystery buyer will come out of the woodwork and extricate the developer from his folly. And we aren’t experts on the development process, but one does have to wonder how such a delicate demolition can go forward without involving extensive engineering studies and potential legal litigation.
Hopefully by the next time you hear from us, Burton Place will be on its way to landmark status, and the old Victorian at 159 W. Burton will still be standing as proudly as it does today, between Edgar Miller and Sol Kogen’s beautiful yet fragile Carl Street Studios, and its other art deco and art moderne rehabs that pepper the entire block.
To voice your concern and support landmarking for a West Burton Place District, please write to email@example.com