#328: The Unsigned

June 2nd, 2014

The old public bath building is beautiful. It’s plain, yes. Stone fa├žade covering the bottom two-thirds of the front. Brick for the rest, coming to a flat, square roof with some triangular ornamentation on the front.

Simple and pretty, with a few flourishes to show people cared. Some swirled carvings in the tile. And a name carved in the stone: JOSEPH MEDILL PUBLIC BATH.

“Personally, I believe the various public buildings of the city should be named after those officials of the past who have rendered valuable public service and have aided in the upbuilding of our city,” Mayor Carter Harrison II wrote the city council in February 1905.

In April of that year, he submitted a list of suggested names for five new public baths, turn of the century Health Department buildings where “the great unwashed” could fix that last bit. The city built 19 baths between 1894 and 1918, according to a Forgotten Chicago article.

They were places the poor could get some basic hygiene. The last one closed in 1979 after nearly 80 years of providing basic sanitation for those who needed it.

Four of the baths remain, all now turned into apartments or condo buildings. Curbed listed a particularly well-rehabbed version for $2.3 million in 2011.

The $2.3 million one wasn’t the Joseph Medill bath, although the assessors office puts the Medill bath’s price at a comfy six figures. The stone building along a dingy stretch of Grand got hacked into two apartments and they called it a day.

Joseph Medill was a Lincoln supporter, an abolitionist, the mayor of Chicago and the owner of the Chicago Tribune. Northwestern’s journalism school is named after him. I went there.

Medill won the mayoral election a month after the Great Chicago Fire. He ran on the newly minted Union Fire Proof Ticket so, y’know, hard to miss on that one.

But that’s history. I’m left on a street in a neighborhood a stone’s throw south of mine, standing in front of a public bath turned apartment, wondering why we don’t carve our names in buildings anymore.

Walk through any older neighborhood and look up. You’ll see names carved in buildings. Old developers. Titles of businesses that built the spot. Initials. Cornerstones. Polish or Germanic patronymics someone cared enough to take chisel and hammer to slam into stone for eternity.

Now look at a new neighborhood, the only slamming done by cookie cutter. Big windows, yes. Central air and granite countertops, yes. Anything to distinguish it from the houses two, three, four down? No.

We don’t carve our names because you don’t sign work you’re not proud of.

But it’s not the architects who stopped signing their work. It’s the owners. The businesspeople who decided their new base of operations would be better with their name painted on an awning than carved in the stone or etched in the metal itself.

Even the Mariano’s grocery stores popping up like yuppie dandelions don’t do anything so gauche as to put the name into the building. Theirs is a sign bolted on the side of the buildings they’re putting up, as if they’re readying for when their own store is a shopping mall, day care, condominium, whatever function the building serves after the builder is gone.

We don’t carve our names when we assume we’ll either go out of business or succeed enough to move away.

Maybe it’s wisdom. Maybe we finally learned our lesson after a century of seeing buildings declare in stone that, yes, this pocket watch factory shall inhabit this spot forever. This carriage stable shall be a touchstone of the community.

It doesn’t feel like wisdom to me. It feels like resignation, modifying the landscape without feeling secure enough to sign your name to it. Building buildings out of materials easily taken up and down but hard to sign or make permanent. At some point we chose siding over stone. We decided to live in linoleum.

Maybe that’s why our names aren’t carved in but stuck on. We sign our names with stickers to be peeled off, as temporary and futile as we now believe ourselves to be.

Comment on this story

Read about the man behind one name on a building

Read about one of those cookie cutter establishments

Read a Forgotten Chicago article about the public baths

Read an Encyclopedia of Chicago article about them

More on Medill

The mayoral request to name the bath after Medill

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