The Tivoli Theatre (1928), Downers Grove, Illinois, 2016. The 1,000+-seat movie theater was designed by Van Gurten and Van Gurten architects and opened on Christmas Day, 1928. The theater was the second in the U.S. fitted for sound movies. The first was the 1200-seat Brooklyn Paramount Theater in New York City that opened in November 1928 and closed as a movie palace in the early 1960’s.
Symphony Center, Chicago, 2014.
Miss Dior, Macy’s, State Street, Chicago, 2018.
Chicago Loop Synagogue (1958), 2015.
The Auditorium Theatre (1889), Chicago, December 2017. The 3900-seat theatre was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan.
Yeti in My Spaghetti (Hey, Get Out of My Bowl!), April 2020.
The Braddock Road, south-central Pennsylvania, March 20, 2010.
The Braddock Road was a military road built in 1755 in what was then British America and is now the United States. It was the first improved road to cross the barrier of the ridge lines of the Appalachians. It was constructed by about 2,500 troops of the Virginia militia and British regulars commanded by General Edward Braddock (1695-1755), part of the expedition to conquer the Ohio Country from the French at the beginning of the French and Indian War (1756-63). George Washington, who was aide-de-camp to Braddock, had pioneered this route a year earlier when he traveled into the Ohio Country and met Native American leader, Tanacharison (1700-1754). The expedition gave Washington his first field military experience as well as other American military officers whose numbers profited from this military outing later during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).
Braddock’s men had to cut a road wide enough to accommodate the wagons and draft animals that accompanied them, as well as the siege artillery that they brought along to use against the new Fort Duquesne established by the French in 1754 at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. Progress was painstakingly slow until Braddock split the force into a lead column of about 1,500 men and the rest as a support column to drag artillery and supplies. The flying column made rapid progress, and with each day, the distance between it and the support column increased. This marker is on the (later) National Pike (Route 40) between Elk Park and Farmington, Pennsylvania.
Cloaked Cats, April 2020.
flexible mannequins (Memorial Day weekend), May 2018.
Restoration, Grand Theater (1925), Wheaton, Illinois, May 2018.
2002 November 1. Tour de l’Horloge, 1490-97, Évreux, France.
2005 May 24. Le Château des Dames, Main Entrance, 1514-22, Chenonceau, France.
1979 July 12. Gargoyles, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.
Tourists can visit the gargoyles on the façade of Notre-Dame de Paris by ascending the south tower that leads to a passageway to the outdoor balustrade of the tower base. (A second balustrade at the top of the tower is not open to the public.)
The exuberant Gothic design of the cathedral — a stone structure that dominates the Île de la Cité — in the most ancient part of Paris, was built in stages. The building project was instigated by Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris (in office, 1160-1196). It started in 1163 with the construction of the choir at the back of the church. The front portals were next starting in around 1200. The towers followed, rising into the Paris sky in the 1240’s.
Whether at ground level or far out of sight at the top of the cathedral, the building’s details are meticulously construed. Its gargoyles of birds, humanoids, and chimeras are, along with its main portals and flying buttresses, the cathedral’s most photographed exterior feature.
With time and changing artistic tastes, 13th century Gothic architecture became greatly reviled in Paris by the early 15th century. Witness to important political and cultural events in the early 19th century–- including the crowning of Napoléon I (1769-1821) as Emperor of France in 1804 followed by the publication of the French Romantic Gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo in 1831–-public interest in Notre Dame de Paris and Gothic design in general was revived.
In the 1840’s, French architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus (1807-1857) overhauled most of Notre Dame. The cathedral’s exterior gargoyles also underwent reconstitution though to what extent is not fully known. The roof fire in April 2019 is the most recent challenge in the church’s long history.
2002 October 31. Courtyard of Le Prieuré Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.
1992 March 1. The Collegial Church of St. Gertrude, c. 1050, Nivelles, Belgium.
The westwork’s appearance is the result of a reconstruction finished in 1984 following the severe damage it received during World War II from bombing by the German Luftwaffe in May 1940. The church was built in the 11th century to serve a Benedictine abbey of cloistered nuns whose first abbess was St. Gertrude of Nivelles. This dramatic church is classified a major European Heritage site and remains one of the finest examples of the Romanesque style in Belgium. Its Romanesque crypt is one of the largest of its kind in Europe where Merovingian and Carolingian tombs have been found.
St. Gertrude of Nivelles, patron saint of cats!
St. Gertrude’s feast day is March 17–the same as St. Patrick of Ireland.
St. Gertrude is also the patron saint of gardeners.
St. Gertrude de Nivelles, from the Hours of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545), Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, c. 1522. Opaque water-based paint mounted on board by Flemish artist Simon Bening (c.1484-1561). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
A closed-down weather-beaten replica of the very first McDonald’s franchise restaurant started by Ray Kroc (1902-1984) on April 15, 1955 standing on its original site in Des Plaines, Illinois, is slated to be demolished by McDonald’s Corporation with its land donated or possibly sold.
It was not long ago that McDonald’s touted that approximately one in every eight American workers had been employed by the company (Source: McDonald’s estimate in 1996) and that even today McDonald’s hires around 1 million workers in the U.S. every year. By 1961 there were 230 McDonald’s franchises in the United States. In 2017 there was 37, 241 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. Not only historians and historic preservationists decry the imminent demolition of the first McDonald’s restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois, just west of Chicago, but others impressed by its direct significance to the growth and impact to U.S. labor history as well as the American restaurant industry and American automotive culture in the post-World War II era. Further, McDonald’s restaurants today reach into 121 other countries around the world influencing and being influenced by global cuisine. That all of this cultural and business import was born on a now-threatened patch of land on Lee Street in Des Plaines, Illinois, is impressive.
It appears that if and when McDonald’s follows through on its November 2017 decision to raze the building and give up the site, this originally-designed McDonald’s restaurant on Ray Kroc’s original site in Des Plaines will be forever lost. The story of how that planned demolition of this unique piece of Americana came to be began 35 years ago. It was on March 3, 1984 that after 29 years of continual operation the original franchise restaurant on the original site was permanently closed and demolished. Founder and former McDonald’s Corporation chairman Ray Kroc had died less than six weeks before in January 1984 at 81 years old in San Diego, California.
The McDonald’s restaurant brand opened its first burger bar called McDonald’s Bar-B-Q in California in 1940 – and, by 1953, brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald started a small franchise business in Phoenix, Arizona and Downey, California. Today’s nationwide and global franchise empire that serves 75 burgers every second (Source: McDonald’s Operations and Training Manual) began when Oak Park, Illinois-born Ray Kroc, a paper-cup-turned-milkshake-machine salesman, convinced the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their business nationwide. Kroc offered to manage the franchises in the U.S., excepting the brothers’ first franchises in Arizona and California, and the pair were to receive a tiny percentage of gross sales nationwide in return.
Kroc’s first walk-up franchise McDonald’s restaurant at the “Five Corners” intersection in Des Plaines, Illinois, served an assembly-line format menu of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries and a selection of drinks. In 1955, he founded McDonald’s System, Inc., a predecessor of the McDonald’s Corporation, and six years later bought the exclusive rights to the McDonald’s name and operating system. By 1961, Ray Kroc’s vision had clearly paid off for the now 59-year-old former paper cup salesman. That same year, Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million and launched his strict training program, later called “Hamburger University, ” in nearby Elk Grove Village, Illinois, at another of his 230 new McDonald’s restaurants. Ray Kroc’s original vision was that there should be 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States. When Kroc died in January 1984, his goal had been exceeded six fold — there were 6,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. and internationally in 1980.
The Des Plaines suburban location of Ray Kroc’s very first McDonald’s franchise retains its relatively humble setting even as the McDonald’s Corporation it spawned earns $27 billion in annual sales making it the 90th-largest economy in the world (Source: SEC). Kroc, the milkshake machine salesman who convinced the McDonald brothers to let him franchise their fast-food operation nationwide, saw his original McDonald’s franchise at 400 Lee St. in Des Plaines open for business until, shortly after his death, it closed on Saturday, March 3, 1984.
In 1984 there were no plans to preserve the site – its golden arches and road sign had been carted away – but a public outcry prompted McDonald’s in 1985 to return the restaurant’s restored original sign designed by Andrew Bork and Joe Sicuro of Laco Signs of Libertyville, Illinois, and dedicate a restaurant replica that still exists today on the original site though it is now slated for demolition. The historic red neon-lettered sign turned on for the opening of Kroc’s first store on April 15, 1955 – there is one similar to it preserved in The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan dating from 1960 – proclaimed “McDonald’s Hamburgers” and “We Have Sold Over 1 Million” and, intersecting with an iconic golden arch displayed a neon-animated “Speedee” chef, the fast food chain’s original mascot. (The clown figure of Ronald McDonald first appeared in 1963).
The day after the original restaurant closed – Sunday, March 4, 1984 – a McDonald’s restaurant franchise moved across the street into a state-of-the-art new building on a site that once accommodated a Howard Johnson’s and, after that, a Ground Round. The full-service McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois, today continues to operate out of that 1984 building. It may confuse the visitor which exactly is the original site of the first McDonald’s as the newer 1984 building not on the first site displays inside a high-relief metal sign that reads: “The national chain of McDonald’s was born on this spot with the opening of this restaurant.” Though undated, it is signed by Ray Kroc which points to it being brought over from the original restaurant when it was closed. At the replica restaurant on the original site two metal plaques (dated April 15, 1985) properly proclaim: “Ray A. Kroc, founder of McDonald’s Corporation, opened his first McDonald’s franchise (the ninth McDonald’s drive-in in the U.S.) on this site, April 15, 1955.”
A few months after the first franchise restaurant was closed and demolished in 1984, the parcel of land on which it sat – it had only always been leased since 1955 – was purchased by McDonald’s at the same time they announced plans for the replica landmark restaurant.
The original architectural plans by architect Robert Stauber from the mid1950’s were lost, so 1980’s planners applied architectural drawings of McDonald’s restaurants built in the late 1950’s for the replica. Its kitchen included refurbished equipment brought out of storage, including the restaurant’s original six-foot grill. It also displayed one of Ray Kroc’s original multimixers like the ones he sold to Maurice and Richard McDonald that started a fast-food partnership in the 1950’s which by the mid-1960’s inspired many well-known copy cats of McDonald’s model, including Burger King, Burger Chef, Arbys, KFC, and Hardee’s.
The original restaurant had been remodeled several times during its almost 30 years of operation but never had much in the way of indoor seating or a drive-through. It did feature a basement and furnace built for Chicago’s four seasons and was used by the replica museum to exhibit items. The McDonald’s Museum was open for tours until September 2008 when the site experienced record-setting flooding from the nearby Des Plaines River. In April 2013 another record flood in Des Plaines submerged the McDonald’s Museum and produced serious speculation that the site would be moved or permanently closed.
In mid-July 2017, only four years since the last significant flood, the area experienced its worst flooding on record. In November 2017 McDonald’s announced it would raze the replica restaurant structure and by May 2018 the site had had its utilities disconnected and its golden arches, Speedee sign, and main entrance McDonald’s sign dismantled and removed. These historically valuable items were taken by McDonald’s out of public view to an undisclosed location. Once again, and this time more seriously it appears, the prospect of pleas by Des Plaines municipal authorities, historic preservationists, social media and others for McDonald’s Corporation to preserve the site intact is murky at best.
These are some of my photographs featuring the people, places, and things I have met along today’s American Midwest roads.
I have a personal affection for the American Midwest. I grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, and went to grade school, high school and university here.
Growing up In the Midwest I had my family, friends, diverse outings, engaging jobs, and, later on, married here. I continue to enthusiastically explore this vast region that’s rightly called “The Heart of America.”
Memories of the Middle West — its sights, sounds, smells, and tastes — and mostly in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan — are the mother’s milk of my life. Through steamy summers, multi-colored autumns, ice-bitten winters, and flowering springs to traverse Midwest roads spell adventure — both then and now.
The American Midwest is filled with human stories and diverse and awesome natural beauty. There is timeless nostalgia, and, when those things don’t entice for the moment, unexpected curiosities.
For those who love it, the Midwestern terrain possesses what Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) spoke about in his last major book, The Sangamon, as “magic in that soil, in the plains, the borders of forest, the oak trees on the hills.” The poet was sure that “if you should drive through (this region)…strange dreams would come to you, and moreover those dreams would tally with mine.”
The region continues to offer the sightseer magical things including impressive remnants of an American Indian mound-building culture and encounters with animals and birds, wild and domestic. Edgar Lee Masters understood that it is the Midwestern people – individualistic, hospitable, industrious, good willed, courageous and independent – who bestow to the central part of the country its greatest distinction. It is this populace that, like the past, builds what is frequently photographed on Midwest roads and in its towns and cities: canals, roads, barns and farms, houses. In the 21st century new things of interest can be seen on a Midwest road trip– such as cellphone towers or wind turbines — while older things, like barns, disappear.
Many famous Americans and international figures have traversed the Midwest roads, some perhaps unknown or unexpected–James Monroe (in 1785), Charles Dickens (1842), John Muir (1849), Henry David Thoreau (1861), Antonín Dvořák (1893), Winston Churchill (1946). Others were born or lived here, such as Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Edgar Lee Masters, Walt Disney, Mark Twain, Jane Addams, Harry S Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Barack and Michelle Obama, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Jesse James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Dinah Washington (“Queen of the Blues”), and many more.
It is Abraham Lincoln whose memory is most famously linked to Midwest Roads. Riding his horse, “Old Bob,” Lincoln loved to travel the Eighth Judicial Circuit as a defense lawyer. It is to the sixteenth U.S. president and the Midwestern spirit he manifested that this photographic essay is dedicated.
Man in his garden, DuPage Co., Illinois, July 2018.
Woman in her garden, DuPage Co., Illinois, July 2018.
Bureau Co., Illinois, June 5, 2017.
Crucifix and horizontal-axis wind turbine. Bureau Co., Illinois, 2017.
Wedding party, Waukesha Co., Wisconsin, 2017.
Walworth Co., WI, 2017.
Kirkland (DeKalb Co.), Illinois, 2017.
Northern Illinois, 2017.
Dixon, Illinois, 2017. The Ronald Reagan Trail is a route in Illinois that follows areas and sites of interest associated with the 40th president of The United States. Reagan grew up in Dixon, Illinois. Route 26 originally ran north-south about 25 miles from Freeport, Illinois to Polo, Illinois. In 1937, IL-26 was extended north about 15 miles from Freeport to the Illinois-Wisconsin state line and south about 15 miles from Polo to Dixon, Illinois. In 1969, IL-26 was extended nearly 100 miles south from Dixon to East Peoria, Illinois.
Honor Guard, Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon (Lee Co.), Illinois, June 5, 2017.
Cook/DuPage Cos. (Schaumburg), Illinois, March 29, 2016.
LaSalle/Grundy Cos. (Seneca), Illinois, 2016.
Leaf blowers, 2018.
DuPage Co. (Downers Grove), Illinois, 2018.
DuPage Co. (Wheaton), Illinois, 2018.
At about 3,100 miles long, U.S. Route 20 is the longest road in the country. It stretches east to west from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon. Its origins began on the east coast in the early to mid-1920’s. Its designation and routing reached Illinois in 1938 and is since unchanged. In 1955 the Illinois General Assembly designated the entire length of U.S. 20 in Illinois the U.S. Grant Memorial Highway. This sign was produced in late 2006.
Lake Geneva (Walworth Co.), Wisconsin, 2017.
Elevation, Des Plaines, Illinois, 2018.
Grotto shrine, Des Plaines, Illinois, 2018.
Winnebago Co. (Rockford), Illinois, 2017.
The Worker, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Camp Chicago-Lemont, Company 612, Willow Springs, Illinois. Established June 4, 1933.
The CCC was a major part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Federal program provided manual labor jobs related to conservation and the development of natural resources on mostly rural lands owned by government entities. The CCC was specifically designed to give jobs to young men so to relieve their families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression. The CCC was active from April 1933 to July 1942. In those nine years and 3 months the program employed approximately 3 million young men who, with food, clothing and shelter included, earned $30 a month, of which $25 had to be sent home to their families.
Capt. A. Lincoln, Illinois Volunteer Militia, Black Hawk War, 1832, bronze, 1930. Sculpture by Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944) in Dixon, Illinois.
During the 1832 Black Hawk War, 23-year-old Abe Lincoln was a captain in what is today the Illinois National Guard. Lincoln enlisted in the Volunteers on April 21, 1832 near Richland Creek in Sangamon County, about halfway between New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. He was mustered into State service the next day at Beardstown, Illinois, on the Illinois River almost 40 miles to the west and elected captain, a position Lincoln said he was surprised and proud to receive. Illinois and adjoining states at this time were at the edge of the American frontier. Lincoln was mustered into the U.S. service on May 3, 1832 near Janesville, Wisconsin and mustered out on May 27, 1832 as they camped in Ottawa, Wisconsin, without having fired a shot. On that same day, Lincoln re-enlisted as a private in Captain Iles’ company and when that expired re-enlisted again in Captain Early’s company. Lincoln was finally mustered out of military service on July 10, 1832 at Whitewater, Wisconsin. For a time, young Lincoln was stationed at Fort Dixon on the Rock River in Dixon, Illinois where this statue, unveiled in late September 1930, stands. The sculptor is French-born Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944). His immigrant family came to Illinois in 1889 and settled in Decatur. While Crunelle was working in the local mines, he started making fired clay sculptures. His work was brought to the attention of Lorado Taft (1860-1936) who brought the young Crunelle to Chicago to study at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and begin decorative work at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The bronze sculpture of Lincoln, who later as a lawyer and politician expressed pride in his brief military service, is one of the first attempts to depict the Great Emancipator in his youth.
ASSUMPTION WINDOW (central panel/detail), 1902, St. Michael Church, Chicago. Franz Mayer & Company, Munich, Germany.
St. Michael Church in Old Town on Chicago’s north side is one of the oldest parishes and church buildings in the city. Founded as a parish in 1852, the church building’s brick walls from 1869 withstood the flames of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Yet those flames left it a charred, empty shell. Hot flames fed on clapboard wooden houses that surrounded the historically-German parish. The bell tower collapsed in the fire’s intense heat as it continued its northward march out of downtown until it petered out completely about one mile away. The Great Fire had started about three miles to the south at the site of today’s Chicago Fire Academy. In 1871 that was the site of Mrs. O’Leary’s barn and her cow.
In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build– approximately $2.25 million in today’s dollars. After the fire in 1872 its repairs cost $40,000, though not including unknown insurance money amounts, or about $700,000 today. Reconstruction did not include the stained glass windows included in this post that were photographed in 2015. Gloriously preserved in the sanctuary today, they were created and installed in the early 20th century.
In preparation for St. Michael’s Golden Jubilee in 1902 the tall, thin stained glass windows made in Bavaria, Germany, were installed. They were the fourth set to be installed into church architect August Walbaum’s original design. The first sets of glass in the same windows–in 1866, 1873 and 1878– were either frosted or tinted.
The Golden Jubilee windows in 1902 drew on centuries of craft and technique in stained glass-making. The Franz Mayer & Company of Munich produced some of the finest stained glass in the world. For St. Michael’s east and west walls they created colorful glass depicting familiar New Testament scenes.
For the Golden Jubilee St. Michael Church also had hand-crafted and installed five new altars by Hackner & Sons of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The realism and expressiveness of the Franz Mayer & Company windows –in 2013 these windows underwent a complete professional cleaning– offered to the prospering Chicago parish an added sense of wonder and joy in their sacramental worship that can still be experienced and seen today in its intact form.
Mayer’s WEST windows depict events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: the (non-biblical) Presentation of Mary and (biblical) Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Epiphany, and Assumption.
The EAST windows depict events in the life of Jesus: Finding Jesus in the Temple, Jesus Blesses the Children, Jesus’s feet washed by Mary Magdalene, the Ascension and the (non-biblical) Sacred Heart.
The windows’ rich color tones are rendered by using precious metals — gold dust for red; cobalt for blue; uranium for green.
The story scenes are given a Renaissance Europe setting.
All of these faith events are accompanied by Mayer’s fine depictions of the heavenly host of angels.
Franz Mayer & Company, founded in 1847 as “The Institute for Christian Art,” established a stained glass department in 1860. In 1882 it was awarded the designation as a Royal Bavarian Establishment for Ecclesiastical Art by “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) . The Pope later pronounced the foundry a Pontifical Institute of Christian Art. Instead of thinking of St. Michael Church commissioning a venerable Old European arts company to create their stained glass as would be Franz Mayer & Company’s status today, in 1902 Franz Mayer was a new German arts company whose religious artwork would mirror the sensibilities of a new parish on the north side of the new city of Chicago.
The founder’s son, Franz Borgias Mayer (1848-1926), continued to grow the royal manufacturing company for Christian Art. Ten years after St. Michael’s stained glass windows were installed, Saint Pope Pius X (1835-1914) commissioned the same German company to make stained glass for St. Peter’s Basilica as well as windows in important chapels throughout Vatican City.
In the United States, Mayer’s client base and prestige grew in its service of an increasingly prosperous and broad-based Catholic immigrant community. Their ecclesiastical work can be found in Chicago, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Washington and California. As of 2016 Franz Mayer & Company continues as a family-owned and operated business (see http://www.mayer-of-munich.com/werkstaette/).
The bell tower of St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue. It was in 1876 that the church having rebuilt after the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 hoisted five new bells into the tower that were cast by McShane Company. In 1888, the tower’s four-sided clock was installed. atop the steeple, the twenty-four-foot tall cross weighs over a ton. Until the mid-1880’s this church tower was the tallest building in Chicago.
By John P. Walsh
The story is told that if you can hear the five 2-to-6-ton bells peel from the 290-feet-tall tower of St. Michael Church you live in Chicago’s Old Town. Yet it depends on which way the wind is blowing. St. Michael Church is one of Chicago’s oldest parishes and church buildings. It was founded by German Catholics in 1852. From their arrival in the 1830s and 1840s until World War I, German immigrants of all faiths made up Chicago’s most numerous nationality. They quickly migrated out of downtown Chicago the two miles or so north to North Avenue, a thoroughfare which became known as German Broadway. This Western and Eastern European community expanded to settle a four-mile square area that was called North Town. St. Michael Church was placed in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman-brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey had immigrated to the United States in the 1830s from Saarland in western Germany.
St. Michael Church stands on land donated expressly for the purpose of building it by successful German-American brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey emigrated from Germany in 1830, and by 1844 he was a Chicago alderman. The church is named after the wealthy beer maker’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel, whose limestone figure stands in the high niche on the façade (see photograph below). Diversey’s so-called Chicago Brewery, first established in Chicago in 1839, grew to become one of the most extensive establishments of its kind in the West.
The church building is built of red brick with limestone trim in the Romanesque style. Construction started in 1866 and finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was virtually destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire along with iuts entire North Town neighborhood. Only the church’s exterior walls remained. Using these existing walls, the fire-gutted St. Michael Church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1873. Ashes from that famous conflagration are still present in the church’s basement.
St Michael Church, interior.
In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s population was around 30,000 making it the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States. Ten years later, in 1860, right before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had almost quadrupled and ranked in the country’s top ten largest cities. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Chicago was mainly Irish and they relied on religious orders to handle a tidal wave of non-English-speaking immigrants such as the Germans. At St. Michael Church the charge was entrusted in 1860 to the religious order of Redemptorists founded in Italy in 1748. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the church in Chicago that is seen today. One hundred and seventy years later the Redemptorist order continues to shepherd the parish.
The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one more image—others in stone, wood and paint—in the interior and exterior decoration of St. Michael Church. St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude, and the Book of Revelation. St. Michael the archangel is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Daniel where in the first instance he helps the prophet Daniel and in the second he is linked to the “end times” of the world. In the Epistle of Jude St. Michael the archangel guards the tombs of Eve and Moses and combats Satan to protect these holy sites. In the Book of Revelation St. Michael and his angels do battle with the “dragon.” St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.
The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. That was the year the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. There are five altars in St. Michael Church but the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward. Crowning this painted construct—which is so heavy that it required a new local foundation to be dug for it—is the figure of St. Michael the Archangel described in the Book of Revelation. He is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Also depicted are the nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul. Smaller human figures depict the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols— specifically, the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). The five altars were made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings. The motivation for the church’s extensive redecoration in 1902 was its Golden Jubilee as well as one expression of the parishioners’ decided prosperity by the later 1890s.
The Annunciation window, Franz Mayer & Company of Munich, St. Michael Church. In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build (approximately $2.25 million today). After the fire its repairs in 1872 cost an additional $40,000, plus unknown amounts of insurance money (about $700,000 today). Reconstruction did not include the stained glass windows which were installed in 1902. For a history of the stained glass in St. Michael church go to: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2016/05/10/angels-in-stained-glass-1902-complete-st-michael-church-in-old-town-chicago/.
Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich in 1902 for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee, the tall and thin stained glass windows —the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design— depicted biblical and other scenes and drew on centuries of craft and technique. As with other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuated the use of Gothic-style glass in the Old Town Roman Catholic church.
The ceiling mural over the central nave includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists. Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as perhaps one of the scenes from the Book of Genesis painted in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice in the fifteenth century.
The history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in a new American city that was also rising. In less than 50 years Chicago developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States. Between 1874 until after World War I Chicago’s rapid emergence on the world stage was accompanied by Deutschtum (or “Germanness”) in its culture. While Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the kaiser’s defeat in 1918 in Europe signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago and was virtually completely dismantled by World War II.
Sources: G. Lane and A. Kezys, Chicago Churches and Synogogues; P. d’A Jones and M.G. Holli, Ethnic Chicago; D.A. Pacyga and E. Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods; D. McNamara, Heavenly City; St. Michael Church website.
All photographs taken by author on February 13 and 17, 2013.