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Book review: “Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side” by Lee Bey


When Lee Bey writes about Pride Cleaners, he expresses a palpably warm affection for the other worldly structure which has stood on the northwest corner of 79th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue since 1959.

Bey notes in Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side [Northwestern University Press, 192 pages, $30] that Pride is a unique presence in the city:

“[T]he building rocks a spectacular, radically tilted, self-supporting hyperbolic paraboloid concrete roof that touches the ground on three sides, then shoots skyward above the main entrance.

“An architectural creation from the Space Age, with a roof pointed toward the heavens — in all of Chicago’s 238 square miles of architecture, there is absolutely no other building like this one.”

“Twinkle and flash”

As if the building itself weren’t enough, there’s also its freestanding, curbside sign which author-photographer Bey describes as:

“an exuberant pop art beauty with the letters of P-R-I-D-E each assigned their own primary-colored, lozenge-shaped backdrop.

“When the place was new, they’d flip a switch inside the cleaners and the lights would twinkle and flash with the exuberance of a Las Vegas marquee touting a Sinatra engagement at the Sands, rather than the humble name and services of a same-day dry-cleaners.”

Bey, the former architecture critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, writes that this stretch of 79th Street had been built up back in the 1920s, and there’d been few nods in the direction of more modern architecture.

“When Pride arrived, Pride was as radical as a flashy new 1959 Cadillac — tail fins and all — roaring past a row of Model Ts.”

“Thrill ride”

Pride was a design marvel from the imagination of Chicago modernist architect Gerald Siegwart — and South Sider Peter Pope told Bey, it was something else as well:

“As a teenager in the 1960s, he grew up in Chatham, about two blocks north of the building.  ‘We would ride our bicycles off the slanted roof after the cleaners closed for the evening,’ he told me. ‘The thrill ride of going airborne off the roof lasted for months — until they installed a chain-link fence on the roof to prevent us from doing so.’ ”

As Bey’s three photographs indicate, the building and its sign show their age, although only a bit.  The cleaners remains in operation after 60 years in business.

Yet, he notes, Pride Cleaners, for all its design vitality, has been ignored in virtually every book or journal description of Chicago’s architecture.  It doesn’t have a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and neither has it been designated as a city landmark.  Both of those would protect the structure from demolition and radical alterations.

That, though, is the story of architecture on the South Side, and it’s the story of Bey’s book.

“Robbed from property-owners”

In Southern Exposure, Bey celebrates the strong, vibrant and beautiful architectural design to be found throughout that part of Chicago that exists south of Cermak Road.  This is an area where he grew up and has spent much of his life — an area he clearly loves.

Lee Bey

But this book also is about how white Chicago and the rest of the nation have seemingly gone out of their way to ignore the cultural riches of South Side. That’s where his subtitle comes from: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side.

This is an area where more than 750,000 people live, a land mass the size of Philadelphia.  But, in local and national media, in public discourse, in Congress and the White House, it is often dismissed — demonized — as “a place where people are mostly black, poor, and murderous, living in squalor, disinvestment, abandonment, and violence.”

The demeaning attitude toward everything South Side also has a huge dollars-and-cents impact on those who live, work and own in the area.

It reflects and is reflected in an institutional racism that, Bey writes, has “cruelly conspired” to drive down the value of all properties in predominately African-American neighborhoods.  A year ago, a Brookings Institute study determined that

“the median value of an owner-occupied house in a black Chicago-area community was $114,000.  The same house in a similar white neighborhood in the region would be $151,000.

“According to the study, that differential over the years means untold millions of dollars in potential real estate equity — cash that could’ve been pulled out to send kids to college, fund businesses, climb into or above the middle class, save a residential landmark or build a future one — were robbed from property owners on the South and West sides of Chicago.”

Here’s the kicker:

“And the theft was done neatly, cleanly, and legally with a balance sheet and a ledge.  The South Siders would’ve stood a better chance against a stick-up man on the street.”

“The finest collection”

Nonetheless, South Siders have done wonders as Bey shows with Southern Exposure.  Indeed, he asserts:

“The South Side contains the finest collection of architecture, parks, and green space in Chicago, outside of downtown.”

Not only are there undiscovered jewels, such as Pride Cleaners, on the South Side, but also:

  • nine Frank Lloyd Wright homes;
  • multitudes of public schools and residences from the modernist disciples of Mies van der Rohe; and
  • the D’Angelo Law Library at the University of Chicago, designed by Eero Saarinen, one of the 20th century’s most respected architects.

The library is featured on the cover of Southern Exposure, and Bey describes it as

“a showstopper, with its crisp, undulating curtain wall of bluish glass that reads like the folds of an accordion’s bellows.” 

Even so, it hasn’t been designated a city landmark, nor listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  And it’s not alone. 

“The South Side…has been largely omitted from Chicago’s architectural discussion…[and] flat-out ignored.”

Not a landmark?

Not a landmark nor on the National Register is Chicago Vocational High School at 2100 E. 87th Street, “an art deco and art modern hybrid that is so detailed and accomplished” that, Bey argues, it should have been honored a long time ago.

Chicago Vocational High School

Not a landmark nor on the National Register is the nearby Bowen High School at 2710 W. 89th Street which is “virtually identical” to Schurz High School at 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave. on the North Side. 

Schurz has been lauded “as an acclaimed masterpiece of Prairie School architecture,” and named a city landmark in 1978 and accorded a spot on the National Register in 2011.  Bowen, its twin, however, has been left out in the cold.

Much of Southern Exposure is taken up with pointing out such injustices.

“A curious mix of the ordinary and extraordinary”

Yet, despite such accusations, Bey’s book is far from grim.  The buildings he writes about fill him with delight which his clear-eyed prose and his sharp-eyed photographs communicate well.

Consider his decision to devote one of his seven chapters — albeit, just three pages long — to a single architectural thrill that he discovered by accident at 38th Street and Wabash Avenue.

Bey describes St. Thomas Episcopal Church, built in the 1960s, as “an architecturally funky and bold structure,” featuring four large triangular windows and red doors set in a wall of mosaic-like glass. The small, predominately black church, he writes, is an example of the often-vibrant building designs of the South Side.

“How did I not notice all this before?

“But that’s the South Side.  On the right street, or in the right neighborhood, architecture of all sorts can come flying at you.”

He notes that one West Chatham resident described her community as “a curious mix of the ordinary and extraordinary.”  Bey takes that comment further, though.

“For my money, that’s the perfect way to describe the architecture of the entire South Side.”

Patrick T. Reardon


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