Com Ed Substation on Block 37 | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Com Ed Substation on Block 37



You have to look up to see the sculpture that adorns the only building on Block 37 that escaped the bulldozers 11 years ago--the Com Ed substation. Hidden in plain sight near the top of the structure is a male figure in a loincloth holding a thunderbolt in each hand while standing astride a group of little houses.

Holabird & Root, which designed and built the substation in 1931, commissioned Sylvia Shaw Judson to decorate its facade with an art deco motif. This was "not exactly characteristic of her style," says Judson's daughter, Alice Judson Hayes. Judson, whose father was noted architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, was normally drawn to simpler subjects--nature, children--rendered in a plain but elegant style that had an otherworldly quality.

Born in Lake Forest in 1897, Judson studied at the Art Institute, then in Paris and New York. She returned to the midwest, where she married and raised two children. One of the few women sculptors at the time with a national reputation, she continued to work throughout her life, exhibiting at museums in Philadelphia and New York in addition to the Art Institute, while producing pieces for private collectors and taking on projects such as the substation sculpture.

One of her best-known works is a statue of Mary Dyer, the Quaker martyr hanged in Boston Common in 1660, which still stands outside the Massachusetts statehouse in Boston. Jacqueline Kennedy purchased another Judson work, The Little Gardener, for the White House; President Lyndon Johnson had a copy made as a gift for Ferdinand Marcos, and it now stands in the front hall of an office building in Manila. Yet most of Judson's work remains in the Chicago area, much of it in the gardens of North Shore homes.

By the time Judson died, in 1978, her reputation was fading into obscurity. Then in 1994 a photograph by Jack Leigh of her 1938 sculpture Bird Girl appeared on the cover of the best-selling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. That Bird Girl was hidden away on a family plot in a Savannah cemetery, but there are also two copies in Lake Forest. The book's popularity led to a cottage industry of making reproductions, including 14-inch replicas that are sold to benefit Ragdale, the artists' retreat in Lake Forest. And it sparked a new appreciation of Judson, whose work was the subject of a retrospective at Lake Forest College two years ago. (A side note: the 1997 Warner Brothers film of the book used images of Bird Girl, and Leigh filed a copyright-infringement suit; in May the 11th District Court ruled in favor of Warner Brothers.)

It's not clear how the substation and Judson's sculpture fit into current redevelopment plans. Before public outcry sent developers back to the drawing board in July, her creation was slated to be hidden behind louvers and design elements on a new, larger building. Perhaps the new plan will showcase, not hide, the work--Block 37's strongest link to the past.

--Mary Beth Klatt

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.

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