Chicago Classics: A Springtime Sampler of Urban Architecture | Architecture | Chicago Reader

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Chicago Classics: A Springtime Sampler of Urban Architecture

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Photographs by Brady Shea and Betsy Walsh

Scratch a Chicago and, if he doesn't scratch you back or spit in your eye, he'll probably tell you he's got this love affair going with the city's architecture. There's a strange romance in this town that's developed around buildings, and it makes a kind of sense, given the big picture. Chicago's a metropolis where many of history's greatest schemers have erected some of the world's most powerful monuments to the tensile strength of steel and the glory of concrete and glass. Fabled architects like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright broke in their T-squares here, as well as their philosophies. "Form follows function," they proclaimed, neglecting only to mention that financial success followed it too.

But there's another Chicago architecture tradition, one that has nothing to do with airy commercial plazas or gleaming office buildings, a tradition that fabled architects meet only in their most terrifying nightmares. It's named after its founder, Mrs. Patrick O'Leary, and its greatest spark of creativity burst forth on an October day in 1871. Its legend tells of a rambunctious cow, a fateful lantern, and an aftermath that made fire-and-brimstone sermons very real for a few generations of Chicagoans.

Now Mrs. O'Leary never claimed to know anything about the subtleties of architectural ornament, or the laws of structural mechanics that made the great Chicago School of Architecture its fortune, but the story is told that she know what she liked and what she didn't, and what she didn't like she'd just as soon barbecue. And her tradition lives on: Today, a horde of feverish devotees ignites tributes to her legacy all over the city, and each year just after the thaw the products of their craft come popping out of the Chicago soil like mushrooms gone mad. You see them in clusters—by the el, in rundown commercial districts, and in ramshackle neighborhoods. They give off an eerie, pitch-black glow, and when it rains, smoke rises slowly off their corroded frames and rotting floorboards.

This year, the architecture-loving Chicagoan can see memorial pyres to the explosive Mrs. O. in Hyde Park and near the Loop, in Rogers Park and Lakeview, in Uptown, New Town, and Old Town, and in virtually every other corner of the city. They are largely ignored by art critics and lofty thinkers (except for Professor Brickson Mortar, who agreed to write the accompanying captions), but, like the more famous Chicago School, their tradition has a motto. "Storm follows function," is its cry. Scratch a Chicago building and it will probably fall down.

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