Saturday, July 22, 2006

Movie review: L’ Avventura *****

L' Avventura is a film classic from 1960. See my review here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Zoning Rant

Read the article at the following link and then return to read my post:

In Santa Fe, an Architectural Battle Goes Casa a Casa

Having been to Sante Fe several times, I recall and can understand the desire to promote more adobe buildings that match the surrounding buildings. There is no question that more abode buildings will further the illusion that an invented historical community projects. It's interesting that just last night I read an article about a guy, Gilles Trehin, who has spent the last twenty years or more documenting (i.e. drawing and writing about) an imaginary city in France. People seem to be heavily preoccupied with living in the past or in some state other than reality. (“Man cannot bear too much reality. – T. S. Elliot)

The entire case for historic districts ignites the question: Why? I can support the idea that certain (few) buildings should be designated as historically important and therefore should be preserved, but I have trouble with wholesale designations that usually include a percentage (or majority) of mediocre buildings that have no historical significance whatsoever. What, exactly does a community require of a property owner when he or she wishes to remodel or replace a poor example within a historic district? How can rules be efficiently and fairly applied, in the absence of any defined rules? Don't tell me that some committee (possibly the very people responsible for bad architecture) or a committee of neighbors (perhaps including color-blind or even entirely blind ones) will do this extemporaneously. This is simply not an acceptable approach.

Certainly, I too respond positively to the visual and psychological atmosphere that such areas capture and strive to maintain. But, I believe that owners of residential property, short of being strangled by a deed restriction, should have the right to choose what their home looks like. Am I willing to take a risk that my neighbor will make poor choices? Absolutely yes! You should see some of the horrible buildings in my neighborhood. And you know what? Life goes on.

I think that zoning could/should include a category called "Tourist District," or “Disney District,” or something like that, which would be a zone of similar buildings that capitalize on that nostalgic atmosphere that their architecture exudes and promotes. Such districts would have remarkably strict regulations regarding design, scale, colors, materials, hardware, and mandatory design reviews. Like the inside of Disneyland. And those people who choose to live there or choose to own a business there will know exactly what they are in for before choosing to move there (or choosing to stay there). There will be no question what material the barge board shall be; or what window style/color/size/proportions shall be. Instead, zoning districts are ambiguous, fluid, changing and designed to result in trouble, anger, litigation, and other impolite behavior, because the “rules” are entirely and completely arbitrary and subject to the whim of whoever happens to complain the most.

For balance, can there be a district called “Anything Goes?” Just a small pocket in some corner of the community that allows variety, freedom of expression, original thought, and (take a deep breath) color.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Road Trip: Indiana

This past Saturday we took a road trip to Michigan City, Indiana. We visited an interesting development called Tryon Farm, which is on the outskirts of Michigan City. Tryon Farm is a semi-rural community development that emphasizes community and conservation of land and resources. There are several small “communities” (i.e. clusters of housing) in the 170 acre development, separated by lots of space. We were impressed by the concept and the architecture. Afterwards we embarked on a short ride along the lakefront of Long Beach, a short tour Michigan City, and lunch. Then we searched for a diner that I had vaguely recalled from my youth. I was surprized to find, after forty years, that it was still there (Westy's M&M Restaurant). Finally, we headed to the nearby resort community of Beverly Shores.

When I was young, before they invented Zip Codes, there was a hotel in Beverly Shores, right on Lake Michigan, named (inexplicably) Lenard’s Casino. It was a small family-owned hotel with a restaurant and spectacular botanic gardens. The sand beach stretched for miles in either direction and at night you could look across Lake Michigan and see the lights of the tops of a handful of the tallest buildings in Chicago. The cost, in the early 60’s, was less than $100 for my mother and I for a week. And that included meals! We vacationed there many summers, for a week or ten days, sometimes with my cousin MaryAnn and Aunt Jean. My father would work during the week and come on the weekends.

South Shore Line

We arrived in Beverly Shores via the South Shore Line from downtown Chicago. The station, which still stands and remains in service, has been thoroughly renovated to its’ original splendor. Although the hotel provided a courtesy car, my frugal mother, who did not want to give the driver a tip, insisted that we walk from the train station to the hotel. This, in the day when suitcases did not come equipped with wheels, and at high noon on a cloudless, sunny day. The still heat and humidity were oppressive. The distance, a half mile or so, seemed remarkable for a kid my age, but fortunately, there was a paved sidewalk the entire distance along the swamp, forest and dunes. Yet, today I am thankful we didn’t call for that car.

Lenard’s Casino

The hotel was not particularly large. My memory is three stories, with the lobby at the mid level (i.e. street level), which was reach through a spectacular botanic garden. The building, my recollection is, was stone. The train depot, which I recently learned is in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, a style that railroad magnat Samuel Insul favored. I also recently learned that the Beverly Shores depot has a twin called Briergate, in Highland Park, IL which is still in use.

Although we stayed at Lenard’s Casino many summers, a week or ten days at a time, I only remember staying in a room on the second floor. Knowing my mother, she probably asked for the same room each time. The rooms were tiny, which didn't matter because we spent our entire days on the beach, and there was no air conditioning, except in the restaurant. Ceiling fans cooled groups of guests who played cards in the lobby. There was a large patio in the garden, reached by a stone path, surrounded by towering sunflowers and other flowering plants, where my mother would broil in the sun while I played on the beach with a kid named Butch Lenard, one of sons of the owners, who happened to be around my age. On the weekends, which brought throngs of people from Chicago, I helped him sell sodas at a small stand outside the restaurant. The last time we stayed, when I was fourteen, Butch and I parked cars on a Saturday night for restaurant guests. It was different time. Nobody asked how old we were. And the keys were simply left in the ignition in every car.

Because our meals were included in the weekly rate, we dined like royalty. I favored deep-fried jumbo shrimp, followed by orange sherbet for desert. I recall one particular evening, when a couple of dozen guests assembled on the patio to watch another glorious sunset. A man and women, approximately my mother’s age, struck up a conversation. I recall feeling incredibly awkward with these strangers, until the man turned to me and asked what I planned to do when I grew up. Thankfully, here was a topic on which I could speak with confidence. I replied, without hesitation and with a seriousness that only Sean Connery can muster up, “I’m going to join the CIA and be spy.”

The Solar Eclipse

July 20, 1963 brought a total solar eclipse. I was twelve and my recollection of that day remains vivid. There was a record crowd at Lenard’s Casino that weekend and it was furnace-hot. Everyone was slathered in baby oil, their skin bronze-turning-black. I recall the bikini-clad women, arranged like so many sardines on the beach, with foil covered cardboard reflectors strategically positioned around their faces. In fear of missing any rays, they would only occasionally move, re-aiming the reflectors to improve their toasting effect. Of course, Butch and I, even darker from spending endless days in the sun, would wander around the nearly naked guests, blatantly staring; not understanding our sudden carnal attraction to all this near-nakedness. The women’s cleavage was deep, dark and oily and the glistening men wore tiny Speedos which provided obscene emphasis to their manhood. That afternoon, however, nearly all of these people were on their feet, hoping gingerly from towel to towel to avoid the scorching sand, sharing glimpses into small boxes that allowed a silhouette view of a small image of the sun (a pinhole image, actually) inside. To our delight, as the eclipse approached, one of the beautiful creatures called to us and allowed us to peer into her box. We glanced inside while she took advantage of the moment to pour another helping of baby oil over her. We watched, like desperate wolves, as she vigorously massaged the stuff over her body. We feigned fascination with the box. Once she had reached all the parts she could reach, she enlisted us to smear it on her back. We hesitated, but agreed. First Butch, than me. “Lower,” she commanded. I smeared dangerously close to the line of her bikini bottom. Of course, distracted in this way, we missed the eclipse altogether.

The Red Lantern

Years later, I took my mother and my Aunt back to Beverly Shores on a short road trip. The times had changed. The hotel was closed and the restaurant had been bought “by Italians,” according to my Aunt, and renamed “The Red Lantern.” There was talk that the place had connections with the mafia. We climbed out of the car, unto the familiar sandy blacktop, for a closer look. My Aunt gave my mother a significant glance in front of the new facade, “You know what they mean by that red lantern . . . “

The Architecture

The development of Beverly Shores by Frederick H. Bartlett Company, the large real estate developer, began in 1927 on the heels of the development of an interurban rail line. The railroad commissioned a series of posters, now collectibles, to lure travelers. Meanwhile, Bartlett purchased thousands of acres and miles of lake shore, envisioning a massive resort community. As luck would have it, they were thwarted by the depression of 1929 and World War II.

The son of the developer of Beverly Shores, Robert Bartlett, eventually purchased the development from his father. To drum up sales, he imported sixteen houses from the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair, including The House of Tomorrow, designed by Chicago architects George and William Keck. Today there are only five of these left; all in neglected, but there are plans to rehabilitate them.

In my internet research yesterday, I learned that the hotel, Lenard’s Casino, was in fact built by Bartlett. Unfortunately, I could not find any photos of the hotel, nor any brochures about the Beverly Shores development.

Even as a kid, I recognized that there was something special about the houses along Lake Front Drive. Clearly, these were homes of wealthy people, but more importantly, many of the homes were moderne or international style; sleek and modern. Even to young me, the clean lines and simple details resonated. During the mid-1980’s, high water levels undermined and destroyed many of the homes that stood along the lakefront. Subsequently, the National Park Service bought up the others and demolished them in it’s quest to establish the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The park is the offspring of generations of preservationists intent on saving the dunes from further industrial sprawl (picture the steel mills). Yet, it’s eerie and somewhat sad to return after many years and to see a landscape that doesn’t match one’s memory. I imagine how many families enjoyed those homes and the spectacular setting. Today, all gone. It’s astounding how the grasses, bushes and trees have taken over, completely eradicating all evidence of the homes that once enjoyed a Lake Michigan view. It is striking how time neatly and efficiently erases nearly everything. Houses, footpaths, roads. Only memories remain. For a while . . .

Below are links to photos of the trip:

Michigan City, IN

Tryon Farm

Beverly Shores

Lenard's Casino flyer page 1

Lenard's Casino flyer page 2

Sunday, July 02, 2006