My Chicago: Memoir of a City


Editors’ Note: We are honored to present the following article by Lost Chicago author David Garrard Lowe, accompanied by Mr. Lowe’s personal album of never-before-seen photographs of himself as a child and young adult.

My Chicago: Memoir of a City is the introduction to Selections from the David Garrard Lowe Historic Chicago Photograph Collection, donated by David Lowe to the Ryerson and Burnham Archives in 2016. An exhibit of the collection will be open at the Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago through June 15, weekdays only.



 The Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building by Architect Louis Sullivan.





By David Garrard Lowe


It is not too much to say that I have had a love affair my entire life with Chicago.  I remember, as a very small child, passing through a high doorway that was surrounded by alluring swirls.  I thought that they were living plants and was surprised to find, when I touched them, that they were metal.  Later, I heard the name Carson Pirie Scott, and later still, the name Louis Sullivan. From that long ago moment, the architecture and architects of Chicago became my living companions.


David Lowe with his mother, who died when he was six.


My father’s profession as a trainer of thoroughbred horses forced us to lead a peripatetic existence. We moved around Chicago with the seasons with a preordained regularity, which gave me the opportunity to explore a wide variety of suburbs and neighborhoods.  Spring and summer meant that we were at Washington Park, far south in Homewood.  Like many race-trackers, we spent several weeks in nearby Chicago Heights, a small town that held surprising architectural treasures.  In fact, we lived in the Victoria Hotel, an 1892 Prairie-style caravansary designed by no less a pair than Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan with the aid of Frank Lloyd Wright.  I remember well the deep overhanging eaves and the high tower with its large round clock whose hands perpetually announced 6:30.  I recall, with affection, our second-floor apartment, which boasted a little loggia whose columns were decorated with riotous Sullivanian arabesques.


Mr. Lowe is seated on the horse.


The ground floor held the Aladdin’s Cave of my childhood: a Walgreen’s Drug Store, complete with an elaborate marble-topped soda fountain.  Here, on hot August afternoons, I would order a Green River, that Midwest delicacy consisting of a tall glass filled with lime-flavored soda enriched with globes of vanilla ice cream.  I got my first lesson in recognizing Art Deco walking by the astonishing, moderne Bloom Township High School, with its sharp edges and streamlined entrance.  How I envied those who attended classes in such a building.  How I wished I could have stayed into the winter to enter, every day, that Hollywood-like doorway.


David was enrolled in a Kentucky military school from age six.


By contrast, in the fall, when we raced at Hawthorne in Cicero, just to the west of Chicago, we lived in the extraordinary Spanish Revival Guyon Apartment Hotel on Crawford Avenue, also called Pulaski Road.  Just across the street was the staggering Paradise Theatre.  Its exterior was a towering elegant Louis XVI-style confection, while within, the 3,600-seat auditorium was designed to make you feel as though you were in the midst of an ancient Roman villa, while above, arched a nighttime sky resplendent with twinkling electric stars.  If one wanted something even more exotic, there stood nearby, on West Madison Avenue, the Moresque Marbro Theatre.   Here, in Alhambra-like glory, one sat in sensuously plush seats to see the irresistible Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice.


With his father.


As I entered my teens, I was allowed to take the Madison Street bus to the Loop.  State Street always enthralled me, with its stupendous urbanity.  The long chorus line of department stores seemed to stretch forever: the Boston Store, the Fair, Maurice L. Rothschild’s, Carson Pirie Scott, and, at the corner of State and Randolph, the august Marshall Field’s.  When I had put aside a little money from a summer job, I would eagerly enter Field’s, and, moving beneath its sumptuous Tiffany mosaic dome, walk to the Men’s Store, and there, taking my time to peruse the merchandise, would purchase a silk rep tie, or perhaps three fine linen handkerchiefs, whose corners were embellished with an elaborate ‘D.’



I was soon exploring various dusty, almost forgotten enclaves that I had read about, precincts where the past could be readily encountered.  One crisp early autumn day, I walked nearly the entire length of Prairie Avenue, “the sunny street that held the sifted few,” as Arthur Meeker wrote in To Chicago With Love.   How exciting to see Richardson’s fortress-like Glessner House; and to take a seat on the porch, though I’m sure it was illegal, of the grand Kimball mansion in all its Second Empire glory.   Farther south, there was that Gothic dream, the University of Chicago, whose towers and cloisters assuaged those professors and students who longed to be, not in Chicago, but in the storied realms of Oxford.



By the time I reached high school and college, I was reading everything I could find on Chicago.  My favorite hunting grounds were the Newberry Library and second-hand bookstores, like the now-vanished Chicago Rare on Maple Street.  Among my favorite books were Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Henry B. Fuller’s The Cliff-Dwellers, and Frank Norris’s The Pit.  It was in these years that I began to learn more about Chicago’s peerless architects.  I cherished, above them all, John Wellborn Root, Howard Van Doren Shaw, Henry Ives Cobb, and, of course, Louis Sullivan.  They became not only my heroes, but, as I wandered the streets of their metropolis, they became also my companions.   I sought their masterworks and embraced them like lovers.  My excitement was palpable when I entered one of their creations, like the Board of Trade, and found there John Wellborn Root’s dazzling Deco lobby composed of white and black marble and brightly lit glass panels.



After college, I moved to New York and entered the vibrant world of magazines, eventually becoming an editor at the distinguished American Heritage, where my focus was architecture and art.  Among the people with whom I became friendly was Joyce Hartman, a senior editor at the fine old publishing house of Houghton Mifflin.   Joyce had been the editor of the seminal Lost New York.  One day she asked me whether Chicago had enough demolished significant buildings to make a book.  Having sadly watched, from afar, the beloved structures of my city disappearing like sand castles beneath incoming waves, I immediately answered, “Yes.”   And then, surprisingly, she threw out the question:  “Would you like to write Lost Chicago?”  I had authored numerous articles for Heritage and other magazines on cities and buildings, thus I did not hesitate.  “Yes,” I said, not realizing that it would change my life.



Lost Chicago would take more than four years to research and write (and would lead to Chicago Interiors, The Great Chicago Fire and Postcard Views of Chicago).  In those years, I would discover numerous rare and enchanting images of the Windy City.  I cast my net wide, travelling to Paris, Montreal, Washington, Boston, and New York.  I was fortunate to be given ready access to the rich collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society.

While researching the book I was particularly fortunate to meet men and women who would add a very personal note, both visually and in the text of the book.  There were masterful photographers like Harold Allen, Esther Bubley, Jack Hedrick, Ralph Marlowe Line, and Barbara Crane.  I spoke with architects John Holabird, Bertram Goldberg, and Harry Weese.  And then there were wonderful people who had a special connection with the city, such as Charles and Stewart Peacock, Byron Karzas, E. B. Smith, and Edward Morris Bakwin.  I cannot forget Florene Marx Schoenborn, who shared with me the archives of her late husband, architect Sam Marx.  And Marjorie Goodman Graff, who was so generous in providing both images and insight into the wondrous Goodman houses.   These people profoundly enriched my knowledge of the Windy City and thus, helped me create Lost Chicago, which famed author Kurt Vonnegut judged, “The most moving and important American ghost story ever told.”

David Garrard Lowe

New York City

January 2016