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Living Landmark: How Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson Became an Encyclopedia of Chicago

Architecture, Chicago History, Loop, Rogers Park Add comments

Photo: Thomas Marlow

By Harrison Smith

To design buildings, says Tim Samuelson, you have to be able to see things as one great complicated whole, “to think as one creative act.” The great ones, architects like Chicago’s own Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, were able to “imbue part of themselves” in their work, to design buildings that functioned as both useful spaces, as homes or auditoriums, and as works of art, objects that could move a person as much as a line of poetry or a beautiful painting. Sullivan had a concise way of expressing this point, writing in 1896 that “form ever follows function,” a quote that has long been misinterpreted to mean that form is secondary to function.

“What it really means,” says Tim, “is that the two work harmoniously together.” From this idea, architecture is “like creating poetry. Form follows function, as Sullivan intended it, is pure, beautiful, creative poetry. All the parts harmoniously and beautifully relate together. They stir the emotions.”

Tim Samuelson, no architect, says he was never able to imagine buildings this way, to see a building in his mind’s eye before any foundation had been laid and construction had begun. When he sees a great building, however—the Auditorium Building on Michigan and Congress, or the old Federal Building on Dearborn and Jackson—he is struck; he is in rapture; he is in love.

Samuelson has been the city’s cultural historian for the past ten years, functioning as a one-man office of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His job is that of a spokesperson, consultant, historian and storyteller, a wide-ranging position that requires him “to tell the spirit and the history of Chicago” through exhibits, public programs, and collaboration with other cultural institutions, museums, and governmental agencies. He answers questions, and he does his best to tell the story: what Chicago “is,” and why it is the way that it is. The city’s buildings are a part of that story, though his job and his interests pull him in every direction. When I meet him in his office for the first time, one block north of the Cultural Center, he has just gotten off the phone with a group that wanted a definitive list of significant Chicago-made recordings from 1900 to the present. “Embarrassingly,” he says, “I just was able to rattle it right off and say here it is.” Just about every time this happens people want to know how he does it, and just about every time Tim laughs and says “Don’t ask, I just know how to do it.” When people who know him or have worked with him in the past try to describe who he is and how he operates, the words that always get thrown around are “encyclopedic” and “living encyclopedia.”

The calls and requests that he receives come from historians, businesses, journalists, architects, politicians and museums, and Tim has a policy of treating “everything that comes in here like it’s the lightning round on Jeopardy!”, answering questions and getting back to people as soon as he can. If he doesn’t, things start to stack up like issues of the New Yorker, which as Tim can attest is a constant battle for the weekly subscriber. He has recently been asked to provide input about the early movie industry in Chicago, to speak to elementary school teachers about how best to present the city’s history to students, to participate in an investigation into the origins of the city’s street names, and to provide information on an obscure 1930s magazine and Amelia Earhart’s Chicago connections. When diplomats and their families were in town for the NATO summit, Tim gave them tours of some of the city’s historic areas. When Target was remodeling the old Carson Pirie Scott building for its new Loop location, Tim advised the retailer on how to restore the space. The interior is now painted all white, as it was in 1904.

The paint job is not, Tim insists, the result of any extremist antiquarianism or historical fetish—painting everything white, columns and ceiling included, was intended by architect Louis Sullivan to draw people into the building, to create an effect by which the floor’s columns seem to reach out and grab the ceiling “like a waiter balancing a tray on his fingertips.” “Sullivan’s buildings were created as architectural poetry,” he says, “and they were meant to have a subliminal, emotional power…All parts relate to the whole, and when you have something painted the wrong color or something missing, it’s like having a fine instrument that’s out of tune, or it’s like having a beautiful poem that’s missing a few words.”

Tim is sixty-one now, but as longtime friend and former co-worker Jim Peters says, he seems to be the kind of person who at “eight years old was a pretty fully formed individual.” Even at a young age, he “always felt that certain buildings had a life to them,” and remembers getting upset when he saw people tearing them down or changing them, “almost like if I saw somebody beating the dog.”

The old Federal Building, one of Tim’s favorites; demolished in 1965

When he was growing up in Rogers Park, he used to imagine what his grade school looked like originally, finding old copies of the school newsletter to look at pictures of the rooms. He asked administrators to paint the original colors back on the walls, dreaming of the original brown shades instead of the 1950s pastels. At one point he saw workmen tearing off the building’s old sheet-metal cornices. He wrote a letter to the principal, remembers that he may have even called the Board of Education, and ultimately had the cornices repaired and kept on the building. After the Our Lady of the Angels fire, the original doorknobs in Tim’s school were replaced, and eight-year-old Tim Samuelson wrote another letter of protest to the principal. She called him into her office, told him that the knobs and locks were a safety hazard, and gave him one of the doorknobs as a consolation. He still keeps it in his office desk, although “needless to say,” he says, “you can see that the reason I have this doorknob is that I didn’t win that one.”

His parents were “kind of mystified” by the whole thing, though they generally supported his interest. When he saw an old Reader’s Digest article about Chicago architecture he had his grandmother take him downtown to see the Carson Pirie Scott building; he was too young to read, but after seeing the article’s little line drawings his grandmother explained that the lavish building with the cast-iron entrance was where she bought her stockings. He started figuring out how to take the bus and the train watching his mother and grandmother, and after saving up change began taking the bus downtown in secret, making trips to old buildings while his parents thought he was playing on the playground. Taking the bus south to Bronzeville he would look at old jazz clubs, getting invited into people’s homes and having dinner with strangers who recognized his precociousness. When a building he loved was knocked down, he took home old pieces on the bus or on the El, often hiding them in the backyard until he could sneak them into his bedroom when his parents weren’t looking.

Working his way down a list of buildings he wanted to see, one day he talked his way into the Adler & Sullivan Auditorium Building, shuttered at the time. “There’d always be a friendly elevator operator or someone who’d let me in,” says Tim, and he made it through a side door to see the auditorium, illuminated by two light bulbs hanging from the leaking roof. The building made such an impression on him that he decided to attend Roosevelt University just so he could spend more time there, and gave that as his answer to the “Why do you want to go to Roosevelt?” portion of his college application. There was a precedent to this—for a long time Tim petitioned to go to Schurz High School, miles away from his assigned school, Sullivan, because he thought the architecture at Schurz was much better than the fake Tudor of Sullivan. Not yet in high school, Tim arranged a meeting with Barry Byrne, an architect who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, to talk about Wright and Chicago architecture; after hearing about Tim’s schooling situation, Byrne explained that the terra cotta columns at Schurz were fake, purely decorative, and Tim went to Sullivan.

Around this time Tim was introduced to Richard Nickel, a legendary advocate for Sullivan. Nickel was one of the first to really popularize architectural preservation, a gifted photographer who was working on a comprehensive book on Sullivan’s architecture and philosophy. Along with another young man interested in architecture, Samuelson and Nickel would measure floor plans and document buildings before they were knocked down, working to save as much of Sullivan’s work as they could. When the Stock Exchange Building was about to be demolished, the pair was there, taking photographs, measurements and artifacts out of the vacant building. The two of them would split time between the Stock Exchange Building and the Adler & Sullivan-designed Rothschild Building that year; both were set for demolition, and each was located just a few blocks away from the other. They continued their work until, in April of 1972, Nickel died during an accident at the Stock Exchange. Coming from a lecture, Tim was there that night to meet him, and heard a cave-in inside the building while waiting for Nickel out on the street. When Nickel failed to meet him and a search was finally convened, they found him under a pile of rubble, the yellow hardhat he always brought for Tim sitting a floor above.

Tim at Adler and Sullivan’s Rothschild Building, 1972, just before it was demolished/Photo: RIchard Nickel

Nickel’s death, told by Tim in a project he did with Ira Glass and Chris Ware called “Lost Buildings,” was a shock to Tim and to everyone who knew him. The photographer was, Tim says, his “great teacher and mentor,” someone who was as taken with old buildings as he was. About a week before he died he told Tim he wanted him to take on more responsibilities with the Sullivan book, a project that Nickel had started as early as 1953 and become totally consumed in. The book, following Nickel’s death, became Tim’s own, a thing to finish for both Sullivan and Nickel. He was hired by renowned preservation architect John Vinci, a friend of Richard Nickel, and began working on the book full-time in addition to working with Vinci on what Tim calls “architectural forensics”: researching historical specifications for old buildings, replicating nineteenth-century building technologies, studying historical correspondence, and doing color analysis to find out original building colors by putting paint chips under the microscope. When Vinci was commissioned to do restoration work at Carson Pirie Scott, Tim was there to help do research and scrape paint. And when the firm worked on Adler & Sullivan’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, Tim would spend days in the building trying to get the colors just right, back to the way they were. “I even had cases where I’d stay all day and just sit and read the newspaper. Get up and get a glass of water and walk through the space. That’s the way to do it. You don’t get those opportunities that often.”

The office, says John Vinci, would frequently get calls from people asking for Tim’s help and input. “He made a name for himself just by his knowledge,” says Vinci, and “he would help them gratis,” always willing to share his knowledge. After ten years Tim left the office to work for the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Richard Nickel’s book on Sullivan was put on hold, and it would be another twenty years before it was finally finished and released as “The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan,” nearly sixty years after Nickel had started it. Tim is acknowledged, but—not involved in the book’s completion and publishing—was not credited as an author.

At Landmarks, Tim was the first person to recommend that non-architectural buildings, significant because of their history and not necessarily because of their design, be protected. “They thought I had landed from the moon,” he remembers. He successfully advocated for Motor Row, a series of South Loop buildings that served as automobile showrooms and service rooms in the early twentieth century, and the Chess Records building on South Michigan, a mecca for blues and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the fifties and sixties. At one point he fought unsuccessfully to landmark “Perium’s tree,” a South Side tree that was part of an orchard in the mid-nineteenth century, and Walt Disney’s birthplace, now a private apartment building on the Northwest Side. For over ten years, says Landmarks co-worker Jim Peters, he “beat the drum” for Bronzeville and the Black Metropolis District of the South Side, advocating “for how important this was to American history and Chicago history.” He was able to save everything in the district except for the Jordan Building, which Tim says he “fought like hell for” until it finally collapsed.

After working on buildings with Vinci and advocating for their protection with Landmarks, Tim worked as the architectural curator for the Chicago Historical Society, now the Chicago History Museum, telling their stories until Lois Weisberg pulled him back to city office and named him the city’s cultural historian in 2002. His job and interests, through all their transmutations, have largely been the same. He never learned to drive, and still takes the bus or the train to visit buildings.

In early August, Tim is at The Cliff Dwellers, giving a lecture at the club’s twenty-second floor penthouse on South Michigan. The Cliff Dwellers are more than a hundred years old now, one of the city’s oldest private clubs and arts advocacy groups, and this is Tim’s second time to speak here. He does this sort of thing fairly regularly, invited by arts groups or classes to speak on some aspect of the city’s history or architecture, and tonight is giving an overview of his new exhibit, “Wright’s Roots,” a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s origins and development. The last time he was here, October of 2006, he was lecturing on Louis Sullivan when the architect’s Wirt Dexter Building caught fire a few blocks away. Tim remembers having to fight the urge to stop the lecture and run over to the fire while he was speaking, seeing billows of smoke coming up past the windows as he told stories about Sullivan and his passion, what “form follows function” means and why it was so important. The building was almost completely destroyed by the time he finished speaking.

Tonight, however, there is no breeze carrying out to Oak Park, and Tim isn’t worried about a Wright-related fire. When he talks, gesticulating with his non-mike hand periodically, he is perfectly at ease, wearing a coat and tie and speaking with a slight Chicago accent. He has never lived anywhere else, though he jumped across the city when he moved from the far North Side to Pullman, and lives in a Mies van der Rohe building in Hyde Park today. He shows family photos on a PowerPoint, but doesn’t read any names or dates off the slides. He has all that memorized, though sometimes he has to pause for a three-h “ahhh” to think about whether construction began in 1885 or 1886. He is exact, and he is unfailingly accurate, but he knows that the names and the dates are not really the important part, and that most people in the audience will forget them as soon as they hear them. “A lecture on this stuff,” he says, “is deadly.” When he was in school, he didn’t enjoy class very much—“the regimentation, the facts, and the rote suck the life out of it”—and he does his best to tell history as a story rather than as a sequence of facts, which he says are nothing more than “a historical boat anchor.”

He has a conversational style as a historian—a conversational style as a storyteller—and it’s something he’s sharpened over the years since being described as “an urban Appalachian” in high school, as someone who carries over the Appalachian tradition of storytelling “as a way of conveying your heritage and your story” into buildings and cities. He graduated from Roosevelt with a degree in English, not history, and when he worked at Landmarks, Joan Pomaranc, one of his co-workers, remembers that “he moved the reports to a whole other level,” integrating images into the stories that he told about Bronzeville and Motor Row to try and get the city to understand more deeply the places he was fighting for.

Pop-O-Matic, et al, circa 1999/Photo: Paul Natkin

Images play a large component in the way Tim works as a storyteller; when he gives a presentation he can be like a lepidopterist, identifying beautiful butterflies for the uninitiated: here the tailored precision of the windows, there the telltale swag over the doorway, the Sullivanesque pattern of the banisters and the lofty reach of the columns. But he doesn’t like to act like a living field guide, and when he curates exhibits or gives tours he believes in allowing a building or work to speak for itself. “One of the best goals and attributes a historian can have,” Tim likes to say, “is to know when to shut up.”

His exhibits, usually held in the Cultural Center, are masterful exercises in shutting-up: the captions at his Louis Sullivan exhibition were informative but never in the way, and instead of being greeted by large placards of text-heavy information visitors would see enlarged images of Sullivan buildings that were destroyed when Tim was still a boy, images placed in a way designed to surprise and affect people like the real thing. “When you look at a photograph, it’s not the same,” though it is as close as someone who has never seen the building can get. “I’m trying to take a physical photograph of the building and just delicately fill in the blanks for people, try to give enough so you get the subjective surprise and discovery, and just give the little hints to help you realize what I did when I saw it in three dimensions. [But] no matter how many photographs you take, how many drawings, you’ll never have the sense of seeing it at human scale on the street under the sun or at night.”

Tim’s exhibits, which are really his most direct interaction with people in the city, are usually filled with artifacts from the collection he’s assembled. The hall to his office is, as he says, like a little museum of his exhibits, which range from shows on Sullivan and Wright to shows on Ron Popeil’s “But wait, there’s more!” inventions. In the hall and in his office he has pieces from demolished Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and blocks from Bronzeville’s lost Jordan Building, a spring clip that was part of Chess Records’ acoustical chamber and an official souvenir from the Columbian Exposition Ferris Wheel. He has old incense and perfume containers illustrated by the African-American artist Charles Dawson, which he wants to enlarge and put on big drums for a future exhibition, and he has plans for many projects to come: an exhibit on the origins of Chicago pizza, on millionaire Washington Porter and his Kiosk Sphinx, on “the lost South Side,” and on the history and art of Chicago Greek-owned diners.

He is not nervous about displaying any of his artifacts, and is as generous in opening them up to the public as he is in opening himself up to questions. Where some scholars and historians are reticent about giving up their sources and knowledge, Tim is open and gregarious. “The most impressive thing about Tim was that it was all information that everyone should have access to,” remembers John Eifler, an architect and longtime friend who worked with him on several projects. “It was his belief, and still is his belief, that the more history and knowledge he could spread among us not-so-smart people the better off we’d all be.”

Iinside the former Park Ridge  home and studio of artist Alfonso Iannelli/Photo: HHZ

For architects like Eifler or Vinci, being “better off” means learning from the past in a way that directly impacts the present. “We’re part of a long chain of events and clients and building and construction,” says Eifler, “and all that stuff that’s been done before—the good stuff, the stuff that really has something to say for itself—that work needs to be preserved. It teaches you how to think.”

Tim does not see himself as speaking exclusively to the architect and the preservationist, of course. The work that he does in trying to get people to reexamine the city, to learn more about its history and its culture and its what-it-is, is most directly an attempt to remind people of what Tim says is “the whole essence of Chicago,” “its great creative impromptu spirit” by which people can come and do things in a way that’s never been done before. This is a romantic view of the city, and Tim knows it’s not a perfect place. But there is, he thinks “a character to the buildings and a character to the city…an underlying vibe to all of it.

“It’d be foolish to try and define it specifically,” he says, “because it’s all of the moment and it’s all powerfully subjective to whoever the person is that experiences it.” It is, he thinks, like the sort of feeling you get when you see a sunrise, or see the autumn leaves. And when you stand in the Auditorium Theatre for the first time with the lights slowly coming up, or walk along South Michigan and see the old buildings rise one after another, north toward the river and the skyscrapers on its shores, it’s impossible to disagree with him.

One Response to “Living Landmark: How Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson Became an Encyclopedia of Chicago”

  1. wendysue302 Says:

    Excellently done!! Bravo!

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