Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, was strolling through the Loop last week with Nathan Mason, the city’s curator of public art. They’d just attended a dedication party for the Paris Metro entrance replica at Van Buren and Michigan. “We passed a horrible gold Nike in one of the new buildings,” Bringe recalls, which prompted him to ask Mason, “What’s your favorite interior sculpture?” Bringe says the reply came without hesitation: “One of them is right here; you’ve got to see it.” They stepped into the marble lobby of the former Arthur Andersen headquarters at 33 W. Monroe and cast their gaze up into the shadowy well of its eight-story atrium. “Oh my God,” Mason uttered. The sculpture, a massive light piece by Greek-American artist Chryssa Varda that had spanned six stories of the huge space since the building opened 25 years ago, was gone.
The untitled work consisted of six 22-foot-wide white plastic modules (think stretched Ws) strung on aluminum rods like a set of chunky beads and lit from within. It had been commissioned from Chryssa (like Michelangelo or Christo, she’s known by her first name) by the building’s developer and the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill at a cost of $275,000. Mason had been an admirer of the sculpture’s complex use of programmed neon light, which intensified and dimmed, moving very subtly within and among the modules over time. “It’s in our catalog of sculpture in Chicago,” he said to Bringe. “We need to remove it if it’s gone.” Approaching the first person they found who worked in the building, they asked what had happened to it. “The company that owns the building got rid of it,” they were told.
“What did they do with it?”
“They put it in the garbage.”
The lead architect at 33 W. Monroe was SOM powerhouse Bruce Graham, who also designed the Hancock building and Sears Tower. Graham retired from the firm years ago, but SOM partner Richard Tomlinson, who was senior designer on the project, remembers the sculpture well. He was part of the team that selected Chryssa, and he worked with her for more than a year while the project was under way. SOM had used work by Alexander Calder in the Sears Tower and other projects around the country, Tomlinson says, but by the late 70s Calder was dead and the designers, wrestling with an energy-efficient but mostly dark atrium, were thinking about a piece that would add light to its environment. They also wanted a sculpture that would be “substantial and powerful, and would dominate that space.” Chryssa, whose international reputation was based on her pioneering use of neon, was chosen from a short list of artists provided by A. James Speyer, then curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute. “There were very few artists at the time that were working in light quite the way she was,” Tomlinson says. One of the things he liked best about the finished piece was that it had a presence on every floor of the atrium.
In recent years the building has changed hands several times; Tomlinson says he was contacted about a year ago by its current owner, New York-based AmTrust Realty, which is renovating the lobby. “They asked me what I thought of [the sculpture] and what my recommendation was, and I told them I thought it needed to be upgraded because it had fallen into disrepair. I encouraged them to bring it back to its previous condition, to make it a vital piece of art again. They acknowledged my recommendation but didn’t make any commitments,” he says. Tomlinson didn’t hear any more about it. The building’s owner and management office did not return calls for this article.
The lobby renovation is being handled by John Burcher of DeStefano & Partners. He says the sculpture was “in terrible shape and needed to be removed. It was difficult and expensive to clean, and the previous owner had not maintained it.” Burcher, who worked at the SOM office in the building when it first opened, was never a fan of the piece–as far as he’s concerned, it was “one of those things that never quite achieve what they could be.” In its prime, he says, it functioned as a kind of clock: you knew it was lunchtime when the sculpture started to glow. More recently, the plastic had grown discolored, the lights were permanently off, and the building, so long associated with the now defunct Andersen, needed a lift. The new look, on view in sketches, has a reflecting pool on one side of the lobby and a decorative glass wall on the other.
Tomlinson says he’s disappointed but not surprised if the piece was trashed. “Those kind of things have happened in the past, where major art commissions have been destroyed in the process of renovation,” he says. “I think it’s a loss to the city and to the idea that art is part of the city’s culture. It’s sad to lose a piece that was unique.”
Word is that visitors, especially international tourists, still wander into the lobby, guidebooks in hand, eyes up.
Nearly a century ago, Frank Lloyd Wright designed one of the first electric forced-air systems in the world for Unity Temple, his revolutionary cast-concrete structure, and “it was an absolute disaster,” Keith Bringe says. As the story goes, everyone inside the building froze all winter, while trees lining the block outside mysteriously bloomed. Within six months of the church’s opening in 1909, “Wright jerry-rigged hot-water radiators,” Bringe says. “That’s still what we’re using.” The seasonal extremes and uncontrolled humidity in the building have been cracking the concrete ever since. As part of a $15 million restoration scheduled for completion on the building’s centennial, Bringe’s foundation, a secular preservation group, will dig a test well this summer, the first step in a $2 million geothermal energy project. The plan calls for 26 wells drilled 400 feet into the bedrock around the building, where the temperature is a constant 58 degrees. Liquid circulating through the wells and into the church will pick up heat in winter and help cool the space in summer; it’s to be supplemented by conventional equipment that will make use of Wright’s original ducts and vents. Keep an eye on those trees.
Chicago Dance and Music Alliance has put its entire staff–that would be executive director and 20-year vet Matthew Brockmeier and 6-year program coordinator Lawrence Klevan–on half-time and given them notice that they’ll be replaced by a single staffer come fall. CDMA blames “a lag in unrestricted contributions” for the problem; board president Paul McPhail says that with a budget of less than $100,000, “we couldn’t continue paying the salaries we’ve been paying.” Meanwhile the new kid on the block–the Chicago Community Trust’s audience development project–is hosting a giveaway-priced marketing boot camp for dance companies today and Saturday at the Cultural Center. Registration is $30 at the door….Gone with last month: the Majestic Midway theater, but director Jenniffer Thusing says it’s only temporary; her company is looking for new space. She blames a rent increase and says they still believe in their southwest-side mission. Also: Gallery 312, which didn’t survive a transplant in its West Loop hood after its building was sold last year.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz, Merrick, Hedrich Blessing.