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Will This Man Save Inland Architect?/A Simple Process

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A panel of architects who might loosely be described as the local athenaeum of their profession are awaiting, anxiously, the next edition of the bimonthly journal that bears their names.

They include Walter Netsch; Laurence Booth; Richard Solomon, director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; Seymour Persky, on the board of overseers of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology; Stanley Allan, chairman of the board at Harry Weese Associates; and other luminaries.

You'll find them listed on page one of Inland Architect as the board of directors of the Inland Architect Press. But the directors are merely advisers now; early this year they bit their lips and agreed to a sale of last resort--they turned over the magazine to someone who may or may not know exactly what he's doing.

"We're terribly apprehensive," Allan told us. "But I don't want to cast any aspersions upon it until we see it. I don't want to say anything to harm him or his efforts or his enthusiasm."

The new publisher is Steven Polydoris, whose qualifications to take over a critical journal of Inland Architect's stature seem to be these: he thinks it's "a great magazine"; he already puts out four trade magazines--Real Estate News, Chicago Film & Video News, New Accountant Magazine, and the Chicago Development Guide; he presumably knows much more about selling advertising than the directors and he's presumably correct when he promises new economies of scale.

And he was willing to assume about $180,000 in debts. This last qualification counts more than all the others put together.

And here are reasons why the directors are uneasy:

Polydoris is but 39, and he brings insufficient awe to the task at hand. When we asked him if he knows enough about architecture to run a magazine devoted to it he said, "I know the same amount about architecture as I do about real estate and accounting. You don't have to be a genius in order to publish a magazine."

"We have urged him and urged him and urged him to hire an architect as editor," said Allan. But Polydoris hasn't hired anyone at all, although he says he intends to. Inland Architect is being put together by the same person who was already doing Polydoris's other four magazines. Polydoris says not to worry--editor Steve Klebba, who's 23, has time for all of them. "A lot of [his] other magazines use press releases."

Polydoris and the board do not see eye to eye about content. The board proposed devoting the upcoming issue to the southern Illinois river town of Valmeyer, which is being rebuilt on higher ground after being wiped out by the floods of '93. "It's like an architect's wet dream," Polydoris told us. "A town gets wiped out, and they have the chance to go in and create a whole new town."

Walter Netsch drew up an outline for a Valmeyer issue, Allan fleshed it out, and then Polydoris didn't like it.

"He said, 'This sounds like a PhD thesis,'" Allan told us.

"Those were my words exactly," said Polydoris. "I told those guys it would be a beautiful PhD thesis for somebody. But for a magazine, I didn't think it would cut it."

This disagreement might one day be remembered as a defining--or redefining--moment in the history of Inland Architect. Polydoris says he ran the subject by his own "network of people"--some architects, a lawyer, his dad--"and somebody said 'The magazine is a bunch of PhD theses!'" Will that tone vanish?

The next issue--the one the board of directors is on pins and needles about--will examine Valmeyer, but not with the A-to-Z rigor the board envisioned. "It's a great subject," said Polydoris. "Originally it was to be the entire issue. It's a subject way too tenuous and tedious to carry an entire issue."

Although the board is supposed to review all copy considered for publication, Allan said last week that Polydoris hadn't shown them anything in about a month. On that occasion, Allan told us, "We sort of said you'd better go back to the drawing board." Polydoris assured us he hasn't been trying to dodge anyone; he simply was waiting for fresh copy, and when it arrived the board would see it. He also said he hoped to have the Valmeyer issue off the presses in two or three weeks. When we wondered how he could be so confident about publishing an issue when a large part of it hadn't been written yet, he replied, "We're only missing a couple of key things. We've got the rest of it laid out."

The lead story was written by a newspaperwoman from Saint Louis. The board wanted the story expanded, but Polydoris decided to leave it as it was. "We didn't want to beat our readers over the head with a nonstory."

Polydoris describes his mission as turning a "subsidized house organ" into a magazine that pays its way. Inland Architect dates back to 1883, but owes its present eminence primarily to two people: to Harry Weese, who resurrected it, and to former editor Cynthia Davidson, who ran it from '84 to '91, made it fatter and glossier, and convinced Weese to pay the mounting bills that accompanied her ambitions. But (1) Weese became ill and stopped underwriting Inland Architect in 1990, and (2) the construction and architectural industries collapsed, costing the journal both advertising and new patrons. The modest black-and-white, stapled Inland Architect of 1984 might have held its own; the tony Inland Architect of Davidson's creation was too expensive to survive.

The board, which became larger and more active after Weese withdrew, raised $120,000 in three years, much of it from its own pockets. This held the debt in check, but didn't reduce it, and failed to placate creditors. (A former printer recently sued Inland Architect Press for $50,000.) Early last year, just before Davidson's successor, Richard Solomon, resigned to join the Graham Foundation, the board decided to find a new owner.

The logical place to turn was to universities. There were conversations with both the Urbana and Chicago campuses of the University of Illinois and with Saint Louis's Washington University, where Weese's sister-in-law Cynthia Weese is dean of the architecture school. She wanted Inland Architect, and was willing to let the journal stay in Chicago. The talks lapsed, she told us, because her school would not assume the existing debt.

At any rate, those negotiations were secondary. "Most of the eggs"--in the words of former associate publisher Timothy Hill--"were put in the IIT basket. We really thought that was going to go through. When it didn't, it was upsetting to a lot of people." The board negotiated for months with the Illinois Institute of Technology. Seymour Persky went so far as to pledge $25,000 a year against Inland Architect's $65,000 to $70,000 in annual losses.

IIT never categorically said no. But it dawdled. The lack of a university press was a problem. The debt was another. Yet the luster of a prestigious journal carrying the institute's flag might justify the aggravation. IIT hired a consultant and was still crunching numbers when the impatient board of directors turned the magazine over to Polydoris. Their penniless operation had failed to publish its last two issues of '93 and was in no position to bring out the first issue of '94. It was time to unload Inland Architect or shut it down.

There's been one issue under the new owners, a late-arriving January-February issue on the theme of affordable housing that was put together by the old management and originally scheduled for last autumn. The next issue will be vaguely dated "spring"; not until it's out--and maybe not for several issues to come--will the board have a clear idea of whether Polydoris is up to his responsibilities.

It is written into his agreement with the directors that he must maintain the quality and mission of Inland Architect, and that he cannot sell the journal without their permission. Like other guarantees enforced by paper, it's worth the paper. "We can give him advice, but he doesn't have to follow it," said Allan. "It's his bloody magazine now."

Polydoris agrees. As he sees it, the board had been writing checks for two years until he came along. "Now they're not doing that, but they're giving comments on editorial. It's virtually an ideal life for them."

A Simple Process

A few weeks back we were looking through old newspapers for something else and came across a picture of the cast of Ma Perkins. Long ago we used to listen to this radio soap opera when we came home from school for lunch. Oxydol might have been the sponsor. Now we discovered to our astonishment that a young Sondra Gair was in the cast!

The road from Ma Perkins to Midday With Sondra Gair was long and winding, according to the newspaper accounts that observed her death last week. But it was a road that stayed true to radio. The 15-minute soap and her daily forum on international affairs for WBEZ had at least this in common--both isolated the human voice engaged in conversation. The artists of radio understand that the voice alone can work wonders.

The obituaries told us that Gair never formally studied international affairs. It was a subject that appealed to her, so she kept up. She asked sensible questions, listened carefully to the answers, and then asked others. It's a simple process, yet journalism is loaded with people who want to do anything but.

When we read the obituaries, our thoughts turned to press councils, licenses, and all such measures that journalism's worst enemies as well as a handful of best friends offer as reforms that would save the calling from its excesses. There was nothing about Gair's Midday that any of them could regret except, perhaps, its tolerance. But Gair was an example of journalism's only important truth: anyone can do it--anyone of any age from anywhere who knows what she does not know and intends to ask. It's a way of life one should never need permission to live, nor to live publicly, on behalf of the rest of us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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