Now imagine that you’re the young scion of a wealthy family with a successful business. You dropped out of art school and went to Paris to find yourself for a couple of years – and came back with a vision to make money by renovating cheap old buildings into spaces for artists.
This isn’t a story about Wicker Park in the 1990s, or Pilsen or Logan Square today. It’s Old Town, circa 1927 – and the person with that initial vision was Sol Kogen. Call it arts-based community development or call it gentrification, his business model was not all that different from what many developers do today. What set that vision apart – what gave it an unmistakable style – was the artistry and craftsmanship of Edgar Miller.
Everyone who knows about Edgar Miller has their own journey of discovery, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about mine. Funny enough, I learned about him first through buildings he had no direct hand in designing.This photo was taken in 2006 on Schiller Street, during my first-ever visit to Old Town. I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I could tell it was weird. There was something about the dark but elaborate windows, the tantalizing rooftops, the crazy-quilt brickwork that arrested my attention. It was seductive, inscrutable and fascinating. A couple of years later, walking down Lincoln near Armitage, this idiosyncratic wall in front of a row of Italianate houses caught my eye. By then I knew enough to suspect – correctly – that these heads might have been salvaged from Louis Sullivan’s famed Garrick Theatre, the building that died to bring historic preservation to Chicago. The telltale hand-built quality to these things, their common brick construction and bricolage of repurposed materials, made up a kind of intriguing signature that I began to recognize. Just a month later I was transfixed by this complex on Blackstone just south of Hyde Park Boulevard. Two Victorian greystones knitted together with a ribbon of finely-detailed brick and glass block, an elaborately-carved wooden door concealing what must be a soaring and unusual space. I still didn’t know what I was seeing, but I knew that I had to learn more.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can tell you that it’s no coincidence that these strange buildings – which clearly share some creative DNA – exist in Old Town and in Hyde Park. Even though Edgar Miller wasn’t directly involved in these copycat projects, they clearly bear the imprint of his vision.
Miller – and the community of craftsmen and artisans surrounding him – lived in a rapidly-changing city. The area around the Water Tower, Towertown, was a countercultural hotbed in the early 1900s. But it was gradually displaced by the growth of the Magnificent Mile after the opening of the Michigan Avenue bridge in 1920. Many moved north to Old Town, including Miller. Hyde Park, too, accepted some cultural refugees.
Both neighborhoods were perceived to be declining by the 1930s, becoming “blighted” as the well-off moved away. But they were both cultural and political powerhouses, centers of literature, visual arts, music, theater, comedy, hippie culture, counterculture, gay liberation, activism of all sorts – the bastions of the “Lakefront Liberals”.
So there are real cultural and historical linkages between Towertown, Old Town, and Hyde Park. One of those connections is the impact of Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller’s vision on the built environment.
All the photos from here on are from the two most cohesive projects that Kogen and Miller built in Old Town, on Wells Street and Burton Place. There are common aspects of these projects (and those that copied or were inspired by them) that are legible from the outside.Repurposing and reconfiguring existing buildings was at the core of the work, but sometimes the old still peeks through. The stark, clean lines and planes and verticality of Art Deco pervade the modifications made to the buildings, too – although Miller once called a journalist an idiot for characterizing his work as such. Common brick was the material of choice, often laid in elaborate patterns. Spare but strategic adornments were made with salvaged and crafted materials – tile, stone, metalwork. A veritable riot of different windows is a signature, too: glass block, casement, stained glass, double-height.
But delightful, magical, organic courtyards are perhaps one of the most exciting elements of these developments. Narrow passageways curve around and open onto unexpected vistas lush with artistic adornment and greenery.Artfully-carved and decorated doors, no two alike, guard the entrances to the spaces. Behind those doors, no two studios are alike either – but they do share some basic design ideas and materials. Miller manipulated space deftly, opening up soaring and light-filled central rooms and arranging other spaces around them on multiple levels.
Once you start looking at the details inside, how they all relate to each other and the whole, you begin to sense them as immersive environments. The wide variety of media and styles come together in unexpected ways. One critic in the 1930s enthused that they would provide her young son with “a valid model for fairy castles.”This bas relief is something you can imagine Miller working on under the tutelage of the famed Alfonso Iannelli, but he did so much more than sculpture: painting, textiles, illustrations. He was very much a Renaissance man. Miller relished bucking the expectation to specialize, saying cheekily that “a painter may be forgiven for doing sculpture, but if he also makes the mistake of carving wood and the colossal mistake of working in stained glass, he invites ruin.” Miller was a self-taught success in those media as well.
But unlike a Renaissance man, he was not constrained to any particular style. He drew motifs and stylistic inspiration from throughout history and around the world.He also reflected and refracted influences from the designers he collaborated with – Iannelli, Rebori, even Howard Van Doren Shaw – who had their own interesting takes on historic and modern styles. Miller said “I accepted influence from anyplace. Every time I saw something that was of value, I absorbed it. Influence is nothing but nourishment, and you grow by it. To be afraid of influence is like being scared to eat.”
Whatever style he was working in, a common thread was the inclusion of figurative depictions. Sometimes people show up in his work.But much more often, animals were his subjects. The majestic horses and deer he remembered from his childhood in the west, interpreted through a multitude of materials and stylistic lenses, gallop through his work. There are many smaller animals, too. Miller’s work belongs to the Arts & Crafts movement in philosophy, if mostly not in style. He resisted mass production and standardization, and made people feel a sense of delight and comfort by incorporating familiar depictions of the natural world into his projects.
Miller saw creating beautiful spaces as an important mission, even if some dismissed what he was doing as something less than “great art.” He said that “an artist should be functioning in his environment – he should be affecting the environment, rather than letting mechanical men dominate it.”As Miller’s most significant works turn 90, it’s time for more people to learn about who he was and what he did. And it’s time to make sure that his legacy is preserved and protected, as recently happened with the landmarking of Burton Place.
While Miller’s work can’t be reproduced, it can continue to inspire and enchant. And we could certainly use a bit more magic in the world, places like these that uplift and feed the soul.
This essay is adapted from a short talk given by the author on January 26, 2017 at the Chicago Design Museum. That panel discussion was part of a series organized by Edgar Miller Legacy. Several additional discussions will take place over the coming month; details and links to RSVP are available here.
- Edgar Miller Legacy website
- Information and RSVP links for 2017 panel discussion series
- Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home, book from CityFiles Press
- West Burton Place District Landmark Designation Report [PDF]