Saturday, October 29, 2011

The mysterious, magical Farcroft

This little guy is the keeper of the key to an unusual building on the north side of Chicago. The Farcroft Building in Rogers Park is reportedly the northernmost highrise building in the city. Construction of the 13-storey building began in 1928, the work of architect Charles Wheeler Nicol. The Farcroft was built with 84 three-, four- and five-roon suites. Maybe this fellow was one of the original tenants:

The Farcroft is adorned with about a dozen grotesques, including these characters:

Not much appears to be known about this building. Even the architect who is working on restoring the Farcroft has posted a request for information on an architectural history listserv, including the location of Nicol's archive, if one exists. The dearth of information seems remarkable since Nicol designed more than 1,200 buildings, largely in the U.S. Midwest. Then again, being prolific is no guarantee of being remembered.

There's more to doing research than Google searches and finding what's on the Internet, but from Toronto, that's the only way I'm able to research a Chicago building. Here's what I've turned up about the Farcroft:

A Chicago Tribune article from February 1928 — admittedly, before the building had even begun — described, only cursorily, the exterior, not mentioning the faces at all. The interiors were described in a bit more detail:

"Color will play a prominent part in interior equipment and decoration. For instance, the kitchens will have colored tiled walls, to match the cheerful hues manufacturers at last are putting into culinary utensils and kitchen furniture. Several bathrooms will have gay tinted tubs to splash in, with walls and fixtures to match."

David Blixt, a Shakespearean actor, writer and former tenant of the Farcroft, wrote an intriguing, provocative post on his blog of building lore he picked up from other tenants and the company that formerly owned it. Nicol, Blixt said, "fancied himself a magician, and wanted the building to be a nexus for mystical energy."

None of the rooms in his apartment had right angles, "the better to funnel the 'mystic' energy."

When he and his wife moved in, they met another resident in the elevator who gave him a business card and said, "This is the name of my exorcist. He did a wonderful job."

I suppose some sinister, mystical, magical energy could be expected at a 13-story building located at 1337 West Fargo Avenue.

And this wizard appears at each storey up the front of the building:

I'll post any additional information I get. In the meantime, Happy Halloween, everybody!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Who knows what evil...

... lurks on the walls of Chicago apartment houses?

So, last summer, my sister and I were driving around Chicago, attending various family reunions. (Actually, they were newly discovered family, so they weren't so much REunions as... I guess, just unions.) Anyway, while we were driving I noticed the flute player on this house, and asked my sister (the driver) to stop so I could shoot it. (She's getting used to this.)

I did a little research and learned from Robert Powers's excellent blog, A Chicago Sojourn, that the same developer responsible for the flute player had also incorporated the Three Wise Monkeys "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil") on other buildings.

But why? Thanks to the digging that Powers did, the answer seems to be simply: "Because." The headline of a Chicago Tribune article from 1956 says it best: "No reason, but monkeys adorn dwelling units."

The story says that Angelo Esposito, president of the general contracting firm that built the house and apartments, had always put sculpture on his buildings. The monkeys were chosen "for no special reason," he said, but added, "The fact that it has created talk and interest, tho*, indicates the idea accomplished what it was meant to do."

I have a special fondness for the "hear no evil" monkey, who clearly is open to hearing anything and everything:

*Back in the 50s and 60s, and probably before and probably since, the Chicago Tribune, no doubt like other newspapers, used to use these shortened versions of words (e.g., tho, thru) to save space. So I never understood why the Trib insisted on using "clew" in its headlines. That "w" takes up a huge amount of space.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top of the book pile

“You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.”
— Lionel Twain, played by Truman Capote in the 1976 movie Murder By Death

It’s for those reasons that I have never read mystery novels. I’ve been afraid, not that I wouldn’t guess whodunit, but that it wouldn’t make sense to me when the central detective figured it out. I didn’t want the mystery to be ... you, know... mystifying.

Such is not the case with Paula LaRocque’s Chalk Line, the first in what I hope will be a long line of Ben Gallagher mysteries. You’ll never guess the murderer of an old family friend of Ben’s — a man his widowed mother was about to marry — but, for those of you who are as insecure about these things as I am, you will be able to follow the steps in solving the mystery.

It would have been easy to make Ben and the the rest of a large cast of characters one-dimensional caricatures, but LaRocque has provided them all with enough contradictions and personal quirks to make them seem like frustratingly real humans.

Ben Gallagher, who has a doctorate in fine arts, is chief of detectives in Arlington, Texas. The book opens with him driving to the state penitentiary to pick up his brother Andrew who has just completed a 10-year sentence in Huntsville prison for his part in a prank gone bad.

Once home, but before Ben and Andrew can have a reunion dinner with family and friends, Dayton Slaughter (a fitting name for the victim) is murdered in Ben’s house. Ben manages to cop two days’ head start from his boss to find the killer before the case is handed over to his Nigerian-born partner (who also holds a PhD, in chemical engineering) and their team, consisting of a Comanche and a lesbian. The cast consists of practically the full complement of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual-orientation possibilities, but mercifully no Texas stereotypes.

The case takes Ben and Co. on a multiple mystery tour from Texas to Michigan and back again, solving not only Slaughter’s… um, slaughter… but also a 40 year-old cold case, and uncovering family secrets.

LaRocque is a former assistant managing editor and writing coach at the Dallas Morning News and author of several books on writing that I have used in training new journalists. So I expected her writing to be as evocative as it was. In fact, LaRocque’s use of detail is such that once you’ve read the book and then seen the movie when — and there will be a movie — you will swear you’ve already seen it.