Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois on January 6, 2002 · 149
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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois · 149

Chicago, Illinois
Issue Date:
Sunday, January 6, 2002
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calls them "welcome reminders in a turbulent time that not everything goes up in smoke nor tumbles into rubble." H In a photo essay that follows Leroux's story, Vergara's photos capture a different side of town of places long gone, barely standing or standing as lively if sometimes odd evocations of the past. Most reflect what the photographer calls "a certain kind of hardheaded practicality that seems peculiar to Chicago." B These two men have never met and seem to be searching for vastly different things. But they obviously share a philosophy that all of us might, every now and then, want to follow: "Look around and be amazed." 500W.CERMAK RD. RIVERFRONT ART CENTER Chicago happened where it did because the American Indians here shared a great secret with early explorers from Europe: Canoes and their cargo could be portaged from the Chicago River to the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers and, thus, to the Mississippi. That spelled boomtown for Chicago, especially after construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 put an end to portaging and created the long-sought inland waterway passage from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Soon warehouses and factories lined the riverbanks along what is now the west Loop. Many produced food products and filled the air with their scents some of them pleasant, some not. That held true even into the 1920s. When Ben Hecht came to town to work at the Chicago Journal at Madison Street and Wacker Drive, he wrote of the aromatic haze that hung in the air in , that area from the coffee roasting and packaging plants. The building at 500 W. Cermak Rd. was one of those fi places. With 350,000 square ! feet spread over seven floors that's 10 football fields it once housed the Thompson & Taylor Spice Co. Alexander Thompson and James Taylor, both packagers and purveyors of coffee and ' spices before the Chicago Fire, became partners around 1873. They set up shop in the old South Water Market, where the city's wholesale food and grocery businesses were clustered. When their business outgrew its quarters, Thompson and Taylor decided to build outside downtown, along the South Branch of the river. Their factory and warehouse was completed in 1911, expanded in 1917. Architects Chatten & Hammond clad the building in face brick and added geometric terra cotta decorations to create an industrial building handsome enough to serve as a symbol of the company. The building stands as a great example of the latter days of an era in which barge and rail traffic combined to feed the city's growth. Railroad cars could run right inside the Thompson & Taylor building from portals in the rear. On the river face, Pianist Bob Acri, a Chicago entertainer for 67 years, today and circa 1 968. you can see doors that seem now to float in space. They were built to be at just the right height so that a gangplank could be run from them to the deck of a river barge. Even the bones of the building are reminders of a lost past: The huge timbers that support the structure were hewn from towering old-growth forests that the Midwest won t see the likes of again. The company imported spices, processed them, packaged them and sent them out to customers. Thompson & Taylor also dealt in soaps, teas, baking powder and extracts such as vanilla and root beer. Tin collectors prize cans of Thompson & Taylor coffee with a picture of the building on the side. The company downsized around 1952 and moved to smaller quarters. By 1984, Thompson & Taylor disappears from the phone book. The 500 W. Cermak building and other industrial sites nearby fell largely into disuse. But this reminder of the city's mercantile might didn't die. Real-estate broker Liska Blodgett bought the building 11 years ago and offered to rent workspaces to artists and musicians in hopes that the place could become the focus of a burgeoning cultural scene. At the moment, it's a mixed bag. There are lots of artists and craft tenantspainters, sculptors, graphic and fashion designers, photographers, a muralist. There are custom woodworkers such as Atelier Wolfgang, a scratch deejay, a bunch of rock bands including Kim, an all-Asian-female group. There's rehearsal space for gospel singers and a school called Flats and Sharps, where keyboards and opera are taught And there's Steve Mulkerrins, who is an Irish boat builder, and Little Black Pearl, where children can learn how to do mosaics. But there also are businesses from the wider world a cable installer, a company that makes bottle labels, a ceiling tile maker, messenger and delivery services, a hair salon, a karate school. There's storage for a baby furniture company, a company that teaches firefighting techniques, a tax office. Tenants get a bonus. In various parts of the building, you can still smell which spice was processed there cardamom in one place, sage in another scents of history in a building that survives as an enduring cross section of the variety that is Chicago. BOB ACRI For longer than some live, longer than most are married, certainly longer than most work, Bob Acri has been entertaining Chicagoans with his fluid piano style. In a career spanning more than 60 years, Acri has played in almost every venue in town and with almost everyone who mattered. He accompanied Ella Fitzgerald at the Chicago Theatre, Harry Belafonte at the Shubert. He played with both Nelson Riddle and Arthur Fiedler at Orchestra Hall. or 10 years, his trio appeared at the Continental Hotel, and his five-piece band was a fixture two nights a week for five years at the Pump Room. He performed with the NBC studio orchestra here, off and on, for more than a quarter-century. That orchestra once added a large string section to accompany Louis Armstrong. "Louis sang, 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen,' " Acri recalls, "and when it was over, he looked around at all the violins, rolled his eyes and said, 'I think I died and went to heaven.' " In a long-ago gig at the late, much-missed Mr. Kelly's, Acri played behind a young singer. "She knew four songs," he says. "Three times a night for F 12 CHICAGO TRIBUNE MAGAZINE

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