Search This Blog

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Egyptian Revival and 'Egyptomania,' from Reebie to Art Institute - Chicago Tribune

Have you seen the pyramids in Wadsworth? Pharaohs in Lincoln Park? 'Egyptomania' dates back to the King Tut obsession

Once you leave Chicago headed west on Interstate 88, once the suburbs melt away and after the endless expanses of nothing much at all, when you arrive in DeKalb and drive along 1st Street into its sleepy downtown, just a block off the beaten path, there's quite the sight. A pair of towering Egyptian pharaohs, and between them, the elegant latticed entrance to the 1,400-seat Egyptian Theatre. It opened in December 1929, just after the stock market crash. And it was always quite the sight. It cost $250,000, or around $4 million today, and was completed several years after the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, one century ago. Over in Chicago, there were already Egyptian-inspired buildings.

But in tiny DeKalb, the Egyptian was ambitious, and very on trend, part of a brief architectural vogue for Egyptian-themed movie palaces that found deep-pocketed champions in the late 1920s, just as silent film houses began transitioning to sound. Scores of Egyptian masks stare out into the audience. There's a 20 foot-tall stained glass window of a scarab cradling the sun. Its facade is sage-colored terra cotta, its columns are ringed with additional terra cotta Egyptian design, everything cresting into blossoms and palms. And in the dark recesses, imposing statues of Egyptian rulers, seven feet tall, resting on thrones.

Nearly 100 years later, the place is still audacious.

A car speeds past the Egyptian                      Theatre, built in 1929, in downtown DeKalb on April                      1, 2022.
A car speeds past the Egyptian Theatre, built in 1929, in downtown DeKalb on April 1, 2022. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

No wonder the local kids say the eyes of those solemn masks click open whenever the lights go down. No wonder there are longtime rumors around DeKalb of a warren of catacombs hidden away beneath the auditorium. No wonder the Egyptian is occasionally accused of promoting pagan symbolism, and that the box office has received phone calls wondering if they show only Egyptian movies.

It's a curiosity in 2022.

Alex Nerad, executive director of the Egyptian — which is now a nonprofit better known for cover bands and folk-dance performances than occasional movie screenings — looked around the dramatic North African-influenced auditorium, last restored in 2020. "Truth is," he said, "we are never not restoring, and this is as close to we can get to what they were thinking (in 1929). Though if we built this today? Someone would ask, what are you thinking?"

For starters.

"How much of this is appreciation, how much is appropriation?" Alex Nerad, executive director of the Egyptian Theatre asked. "Interesting question. I'm not sure anybody can say now. But I know we don't want this (theater) to be a museum piece. We want to be an active part of this community. But what happened is, we're now our own category of architecture." (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

If you built the Egyptian Theatre right now, you might also hear questions about the sincerity of its use of pseudo-African artifacts for a performance space serving a predominantly white Midwestern county. You might hear cries of appropriation. And groans of kitsch. Or at least criticism that it's incongruous now.

You'd hear a lot of stuff.

"How much of this is appreciation, how much is appropriation?" Nerad asked. "Interesting question. I'm not sure anybody can say now. But I know we don't want this (theater) to be a museum piece. We want to be an active part of this community. But what happened is, we're now our own category of architecture."

Call it Egyptian Revival.

Or Egyptomania.

Both are formal, serious terms — the Art Institute of Chicago has long kept a large Egyptomania collection, of restaurant menus, photographs, candy boxes, napkins, all of it Egyptian-styled. Either way, Nerad is spot on. His theater still feels awake in a way that old Egyptian Revival buildings usually are not.

A century ago, the last time American fascination with Egypt resulted in a wave of architecture, there were Egyptian Revival banks, car showrooms, warehouses; in Southern Illinois, Egyptian-influenced newspaper buildings and veteran's hospitals. Our fascination with Egypt has never entirely left: Marvel just released "Moon Knight" on Disney+, about a Chicago-born Egyptologist (Oscar Isaac) channeling an Egyptian god, and the Art Institute recently opened its first new display of Egyptian artifacts in 25 years. "Which is a new gallery," said Ashley Arico, assistant curator of ancient Egyptian art, "though walk around here and you'll find Egyptian-inspired work in every department. It's a very enduring influence."

Still, the number of Egyptian Revival buildings in the Chicago area, never huge, is much smaller now.

Some are literally fading.

In fact, as local structures go, DeKalb's Egyptian, despite arriving at the tail end of its 20th century trendiness, is, today, one of few Egyptian Revival buildings that doesn't look like it's gathering dust.

Two reliefs of the pharaoh Ramses                      II look out onto Clark Street from the Reebie                      Storage Warehouse in Chicago's Lincoln Park                      neighborhood on April 5, 2022.
Two reliefs of the pharaoh Ramses II look out onto Clark Street from the Reebie Storage Warehouse in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood on April 5, 2022. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

You've probably seen the Reebie Storage Warehouse in Lincoln Park. It's been on the National Register of Historic Places for more than 40 years, and though it opened exactly 100 years ago, just before the discovery of King Tut's tomb, its crayon-colored terra cotta is still mostly vibrant. Among Montessori schools and corner markets, the place almost pops, a blocky seven stories flanked by twin statues of Ramses II. The day I visited, one sported a pair of stick-on googly eyes. No respect at all. Those statues were meant to represent company founders John and William Reebie, who meant well. The hieroglyphs on the facade are real, and supposedly say something like: We protect furniture. Terra cotta ornamentation out front includes scarabs and lotus-adorned columns that end in (fading) ocean blue waves; inside, at the cornices, dark plaster reliefs depict ancient grains being transported by boat.

Even the warehouse's tomblike aura of perpetuity was thoughtful.

Among the better reasons architects employed Egyptian style in local buildings was the history of Egypt as a foundational civilization whose constructions have outlasted most things. It suggests permanence and protection. The first floor is a resale store, but Reebie Storage still dominates the rest of the Reebie.

Lee Bey, the architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, told me that the Reebie's use of Egypt strikes him as sincere and respectful. Indeed, in his 2019 book, "Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago's South Side," Bey argues that another excellent use of Egyptian Revival was the National Pythian Temple in Bronzeville, built in 1927, demolished in 1980. It was not trendy but rather a way for Walter Bailey (the first Black architect licensed in Illinois) to "stake a claim to the history and people of Egypt, a place viewed by many — even today — as separate from 'Black' Africa and Africans."

"Bailey was bringing it home to 38th and State Street," he told me. "Which was called Black Wall Street in Chicago. This was the tallest building by a Black architect (in the country then), so Bailey and the Knights of Pythias (a Black fraternal order) were reflecting what academic Black America was asking in the '20s: Who we are? Where we are from? His building was a reply to that — 'Africa is us. Egypt is us.'"

But also, Egyptian Revival "paired nicely with the rise of Art Deco at the same time," Bey said.

Ornamentation outside of the Reebie                      Storage Warehouse built in 1922, is an example of                      Egyptian Revival architecture.
Ornamentation outside of the Reebie Storage Warehouse built in 1922, is an example of Egyptian Revival architecture. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Conversely, and perhaps less respectful in its use of Egyptian Revival: the Cairo Supper Club building on Sheridan Road in Uptown, the second-best known example of Egyptian Revival in Chicago. It was built as an automobile showroom, then became a nightclub after World War II. Archival photographs show a curling, light bulb-packed Art Deco marquee; newspaper accounts describe a Bedouin tent-like interior.

Drive past now and — well, it's looked better.

The front, tagged with graffiti, appears bricked shut, like a tomb without a door. Designed by architect Paul Gerhardt — who also made Cook County Hospital and Lane Tech high school — its large framing columns still show sky blues and spring green terra cotta, and its long scooped cornice is still centered around a winged sun. But the place looks forgotten now, like neighborhood wallpaper. It was firebombed by the mob in 1964. According to its owner at the time, speaking to the Tribune: He didn't see a thing.

The funny truth about Egyptian style is that it has become so ingrained into civilization itself, it's hard to know where appropriation begins and ends anymore. Some of the earliest waves of Egyptomania led to the construction of buildings during the Roman Empire. Later, as travel to Egypt itself remained rare, Europeans often knew the country secondhand — from now Roman ruins. Firsthand knowledge wasn't common until the 19th century, not until Napoleon invaded and began transporting its artifacts. Colonial archaeological expeditions — France, then Britain — spiked, which led to the first major Egyptian influence in this country, during the 1800s. Masonic lodges adopted Egyptian design. Abolitionists worked Egyptian history into writings. Spiritual hymns ("Go Down, Moses") sought connections. The Washington Monument, a classic Egyptian obelisk (finished in 1885), is the best-known example.

"Egyptian culture, to Americans, was familiar and exotic, all at once," said Ronald Fritze, author of the 2016 book "Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy." "Americans knew Bible stories referencing Egypt, and though there were greater empires like the Persians, we just had more access to Egypt. But also in the late 19th century, there's a lot of talk about the Bible as actual history, so now you also have expeditions being financed by people who are eager to seek real-world evidence and artifacts as a basis for the Bible. Much of how Egypt was used, though, it could seem pretty superficial."

Still, by 1922 and the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter, Egyptomania was raging. Egyptian Revival architecture reached California apartment complexes, Wisconsin supper clubs and federal buildings in Washington. In Chicago, partly thanks to James Henry Breasted, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago who launched many archaeological digs (and was a member of Carter's King Tut expeditions), Hyde Park's Oriental Institute (which Breasted founded) grew rich in Egyptian antiquities; today it claims more than 30,000 artifacts from the Nile Valley. For decades, Hollywood told tales of killer mummies. Agatha Christie even relocated death to the Nile.

In East Garfield Park, the Egyptian Lacquer Company building was finished in 1926, its business based on Egyptian-styled preservation techniques for furniture. The building is still there. There's even a little lacquer work done; Chicago Mastering Service provides sound engineering for lacquer records to artists such as LCD Soundsystem and Waxahatchee. The usual terra cotta covers the facade — a winged sphinx across the cornice, hieroglyphs on the doorway — but it's badly damaged. That's because of attempts to steal the terra cotta, said George Zaremba, a painter who owns the building. Still, again, as intended, the place resembles a tomb. "Really, it's basically a concrete bunker," Zaremba said, its walls made thick by the building's original owners, who feared possible explosions from working with lacquer.

Speaking of death, probably the best examples of Egyptomania in Chicago prior to the 1920s are in Graceland and Rosehill cemeteries on the North Side. The earliest use of Egyptian style in American architecture was in prisons and cemeteries — in both cases, Fritze said, Egyptian iconography served as a reminder of the sublime, the concept of an awe-induced transcendence of Earthly bonds. Or as Alison Fisher, curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute, explained: "The status of death (in ancient Egypt) was way more important than life, making Egypt a natural association with funerary practices."

Particularly for wealthy Chicagoans.

A person takes a photograph of the                      Schoenhofen pyramid mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery                      in Chicago on April 5, 2022.
A person takes a photograph of the Schoenhofen pyramid mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago on April 5, 2022. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

Darius Miller, who grew up a couple of hours west of Chicago, in Bureau County, and become a railroad president at the turn of the 20th century, is buried in an Egyptian tomb at Rosehill. It's worth a visit. Set against a small pond, surrounded by the rattle of frogs and buzz of spring birds, it's a classy block, ringed with columns topped by papyrus-leaf carvings and a curled cornice of snakes, wings and suns. Miller — who was only 55 when he died on vacation at Glacier National Park in Montana, during an emergency operation for appendicitis — almost seems modest. At least compared with the pyramid in Graceland.

Designed in 1893 by architect Richard E. Schmidt, who was later responsible for the Montgomery Ward building on the Chicago River, the mausoleum of Chicago brewer Peter Schoenhofen is a narrow pyramid, with a door guarded by a sphinx, an angel and, curled around the door handle, an asp. Just across the grass, there's another pyramidlike tomb, built by no less than Louis Sullivan for the lumber baron Martin Ryerson. But it's wide, austere, and without the ornamentation, not quite Egyptian Revival.

An asp curled around the handle on the door of                      the Schoenhofen pyramid mausoleum at Graceland                      Cemetery.
An asp curled around the handle on the door of the Schoenhofen pyramid mausoleum at Graceland Cemetery. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

It's like Schoenhofen's pyramid sucked all the air out of tomb.

"I get a sense from his pyramid that (Schoenhofen) was hedging his bets on the afterlife," said Adam Selzer, who leads tours of Graceland (and has a book of Graceland history coming this summer). "He's got a hodgepodge of cultures represented. The pyramid is Egyptian, but then those snakes could be Greek or Jewish. And that angel is definitely Christian. Actually his will bore this out: He left money to a various religious organizations, of several different faiths." And the punchline: Schoenhofen was atheist.

Finally, the Gold Pyramid.

In Wadsworth, outside Waukegan. It was started in 1977, and completed in 1982. So not Egyptian Revival. But drive by and you will gape in awe. It's a sorta roadside attraction, and a sorta shrine. And a sorta residential home. Five stories tall, nine baths, five bedrooms, with a four-car garage (also shaped like a pyramid), all sitting on 11 acres, surrounded by a moat, a pond, a stone yellow fence painted with hieroglyphs, dozens of sphinx statues, and, at the center of the property, a 55-foot tall Ramses II statue.

This is not a joke.

A 55-foot tall replica of Ramses II                      statue greats those who peer through the gate at the                      entry to the Golden Pyramid property in Wadsworth.
A 55-foot tall replica of Ramses II statue greats those who peer through the gate at the entry to the Golden Pyramid property in Wadsworth. (Rob Dicker/for the Chicago Tribune)

This is the dream of Jim and Linda Onan, who started a construction business. They covered their pyramid in 13,000 square feet of gold plating, which has since been removed because airline pilots complained about its blinding glare on sunny days. The Onans offered public tours, but stopped after a fire in 2018 gutted many of the floors. No one lives there right now. Jim Onan Jr. told me he didn't know what to do with it. He's hoping to reopen for tours, perhaps this summer. Or maybe rebrand as a B&B.

"There have always been strange things about the pyramid," he said. "Razor blades stay sharp, my mother would notice bananas took weeks to get yellow. Plants grow toward the middle of the house" — where there is a well, which the family used to create a line of Gold Pyramid mineral water and vodka.

Jim Jr. said his father "was always fascinated by the energy you would get from pyramids" — a very '70s belief called "pyramid power," more spiritual than traditionally religious. It's no coincidence that construction on the pyramid began as a renewed Egyptomania swept the United States, spurred by a blockbuster exhibition of King Tut antiquities (that drew packed audiences to the Field Museum). But also during this time, Black artists such as the AfriCOBRA collective in Chicago found inspiration in Egyptian culture as an ethereal nexus, a way station to past and future; meanwhile in record stores, the Chicago-founded Earth, Wind & Fire worked Egyptian iconography into album covers and stage designs.

But usually, said Michael Berger, a retired Egyptologist from the University of Chicago who led Egyptian Revival tours in Chicago, Egyptian imagery in the United States "became full of kitsch, built more on the marketing than the meaning." Think Las Vegas's Luxor pyramid hotel. Or closer to home, the Egyptian-styled Empress Casino Joliet, which also incorporated pyramids in its look, then burned down in 2009.

All of which leaves a thriving place like DeKalb's Egyptian Theatre ... where? With a century of history, tradition, kitsch, each layer stacked upon the next, too impacted to tell what is what anymore.

Maybe we should call it meta architecture.

Stepping into the auditorium of the Egyptian is like stepping onto a movie set of a Biblical epic by Cecil B. DeMille about Biblical epics by Cecil B. DeMille. It's touching, authentic and fake, somehow all at once, a replica of a copy of an imitation. Even the seats are reproductions of the original 1929 seats, which were sold off to raise money to maintain the Egyptian. Those impressive murals along the auditorium walls are also reproductions, repainted using photographs of the originals, which were painted over. Which is too perfect. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, a Scottish bagpipe act, will be playing here in April. A Paul McCartney tribute act is coming soon. Eventually, it seems, you stop caring what's authentic and just start enjoying.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

No comments:

Post a Comment