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Chicago's Orchard Street - Urban Menace?





Chicago's wealthy elite are taking the mega-mansion to Orchard Street in the city's Lincoln Park area. "There goes the neighborhood," is the Trib's Blair Kamin's take. Why?

 -by Lynn Becker








Today's Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine is largely devoted to a wave of new mega-mansions rising on Orchard Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. An introduction by the magazine's editor Elizabeth Taylor ponders whether so much press should be given to the topic instead of weightier tragedies and triumphs of the day. In the end, however, Taylor winds up rationalizing the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine Attack of the Killer Housesissue's existence because "We may think of our homes as private sanctuaries, but they are also part of a shared environment. Just something we should all keep in mind."

Taylor may have answered her own question of "Are we simply indulging in real estate pornography?" in the negative, but the work of the graphics staff answers, "yes, Yes, YES!" It's the Dynasty effect. The foibles of the rich can be counted on to sell papers. This week's cover is made up in mock-tablod style, complete with sensational callouts ("A $40 MILLION MANSION TAKES UP SEVEN CITY LOTS!"), and the screaming headline "ATTACK OF THE GIANT HOUSES!".

Inside, however, is a pretty thorough exploration of the phenomenon by writer Susan Cindy Pritzker House, Dan Wheeler ArchitectChandler. The article focuses on two new houses just nearing completion - a modernist mansion, set on five city lots, designed by Chicago architect Dan Wheeler for Hyatt Corporation's Cindy Pritzker, and a 13,500 square-foot dwelling for Sara Crown Star designed by Wheeler's partner, Lawrence Kearns. Chandler's article is engaging and covers a lot of ground, from the history of the city's enclaves for the rich from Prairie Avenue, to North Lake Shore Drive, to a discussion of the permissive zoning that has made the huge houses possible, to a psychologist's take on why the wealthy do it.

The Trib's architecture critic Blair Kamin is also on hand to lend his perspective, Sara Crown Star House, Lawrence Kearns architecttaking his - and the Trib's - role as civic guardians of good taste, as usual, a bit too seriously. Not that he's wrong in the particulars. The new houses are often absurd in size, capricious in detail, and insular in posture. I just find it hard to get incensed about any of this. When its comes to the real damage being done to the city's neighborhood fabric, it's not from a handful of zillionaires placing their ostentatious fingerprints on a few prime city blocks, but from the rampant, careless and often architecturally toxic development going on across the city, which the Trib rarely comments on, perhaps because it's all those residential real estate ads (no fewer than seven sections' worth this Sunday alone) that may be Orchard Street house, Chicagowhat's keeping the increasingly beleagured Tribune's finances from going totally into the tank.

Kamin's headline is "Exercises in isolationism", because the new houses don't have front porches with Jane Jacob's styled residents socializing from their stoops. Some even have high fences, but it's a real stretch to compare the district to those gated communities that have become so popular with rich and middle-class alike. Orchard is a public street. Any schlub - even myself - can walk down Orchard and play the flaneur, which reminds me of perhaps my favorite bit in Chandler's article, which is Ben Weese's story of how he took his architect wife Cynthia to the street to "stand and point at these houses and laugh derisively."

There is a kind of reverse snobbery going on here, with both Kamin and architect Larry Booth archly suggesting that these kinds of houses - well they may be ok in Lake Forest, don't you know -but we don't need their kind here. To which I say: come on in!

The rich are no more prone to bad taste than the rest of us. They just have a lot more money with which to indulge it. This is nothing new. When we think of Prairie Avenue, Chicago's 1890s millionaires row, we think of H.H. Richardson's architecturally splendid Glessner House, but the truth of the matter is the fact that few of the other megamansions on the street survive allows us to conveniently forget House on Orchard Street, Chicagothat most were more notable more for billboarding their residents' wealth than for advancing the cause of design.

So I think it's great that all these mega-millionaires are here. They may live a chauffered existence, but it's in the city, not just passing through on the expressway on the way to outer suburbia. More of their attention - and money - may actually wind up staying here. Sure they get to put up the often silly houses, but it's people like myself, as cash-starved and underachieving as they are monied and hypersuccessful, who get to point to their residences at close range and, like the Weeses, indulge a condescending but hugely satisfying sense of aesthetic superiority. Take that, Lake Forest.


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© Copyright 2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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