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The Memory Collector: Lost Chicago

Since it first appeared in 1975, Lost Chicago, recently reissued in a splendid new edition, has become one of the city’s essential books—but the personal recollections of its author, David Lowe, may be as valuable a treasure

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Henrici's, circa 1914
Henrici’s, circa 1914, located at 71 West Randolph Street


Pictures from Lost Chicago and David Lowe’s own private collection

Decades earlier, before it began its sad, slow slide toward oblivion, the big brick barn on 23rd Street reeked of glamour, culture, and an envy-inducing exclusivity. Situated just east of ultrafashionable Prairie Avenue, the building—a jumble of Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival styles—had been completed in 1883 from a design by John Root and Daniel Burnham, though clearly before those great architects had hit their revolutionary stride. Their client was Augustus Bournique, a dapper dance teacher who, with his wife, Elizabeth, instructed several generations of Chicago’s elite, among them the Pullmans and the Fields.

But with the advent of a new century, all that glitter had gravitated to the city’s North Side. Abandoned by the Bourniques, the remodeled building became a trucking company’s garage that then gave way to a cavernous brauhaus called Sauer’s. In a few more years, the place would vanish entirely. In other words, it was perfect.

Perfect, that is, if, on a December night in 1975, you were searching for the ideal setting to celebrate the appearance of a book dedicated to the city’s glorious but rapidly disappearing past. A boyish-looking magazine editor named David Lowe had proposed to a New York publisher a collection of essays and photographs cataloging the Windy City’s many destroyed architectural treasures. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had agreed to a small run of about 1,000 copies. No one expected the book to generate much interest—even among the residents of Chicago.

'Lost Chicago' by David Lowe

Then a funny thing happened. Paul Gapp, the newly appointed architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune (and only a few years away from winning the Pulitzer Prize), wrote a glowing review of Lowe’s book—titled Lost Chicago—that appeared on the front page of the newspaper’s Sunday book section. Gapp called Lost Chicago “one of the best . . . pictorial essays on the city ever produced,” and he quoted an eloquent passage from the book’s introduction.

“Their owners had not saved them,” wrote Lowe, lamenting so many lost buildings. “City commissions had not saved them. They were an incomparable heritage mindlessly squandered, pieces of gold minted by the fathers and thrown away by the sons. I could not save them in their concrete form, but I was determined that somehow I would preserve their spirit. I would do it in the one way I could, by writing a book that would reveal them and their architectural predecessors in all their glory. Perhaps, by showing the splendor which has been lost, I might, in some small way, help to preserve that splendor not yet departed.”

Chicago heeded Gapp’s call, and that December night on the South Side, Sauer’s was packed. “It was surreal,” says Lowe today, still awed by the turnout.

That was only the beginning. Back in New York—where Mark Smith, writing in the Times, lauded the book as “[not] just another coffee table gift . . . [but] a history of the whole city as a cultural creation”—Lowe encountered the novelist Kurt Vonnegut at a cocktail party. “I’d seen Kurt around,” recalls Lowe, but on this occasion, Vonnegut, at the height of his sci-fi-meets-the-counterculture fame, rushed up to rhapsodize about Lost Chicago. “David, this is my favorite book in the world,” he gushed. “I can’t stop reading it.”

At first Lowe was a little perplexed by the older man’s enthusiasm, though he eventually put the praise into context. “Kurt’s father was an architect in Indianapolis,” Lowe explains. “He built wonderful buildings, and most of them have been torn down.” Couple that with the two years after World War II that Vonnegut spent living in Chicago—which Lowe characterizes as the great metropolis of the novelist’s boyhood—and you may have the near-perfect sensibility for appreciating Lowe’s lovingly crafted tribute.

Over the next 30-plus years, Lost Chicago would become one of the city’s most essential books, selling, says Lowe, more than 70,000 copies by 2000. What had originated as a reluctant follow-up to 1968’s Lost New York—and which got under way despite an early editor’s doubts, recalls Lowe, that Chicago had “enough important architecture to make the project worthwhile”—has gone through several editions and publishers, including the latest version, released in October by the University of Chicago Press. (Given the quality of the photo reproductions, Lowe considers this new edition the loveliest.)

Arranged by categories that included residences, railroads, hotels, fairs, and places of entertainment, the book grew larger with each iteration as more buildings vanished. Lowe, who had begun his research during an extended visit to Chicago in the winter of 1973 (holing up almost daily at the Chicago Historical Society), continued to bring other forgotten images to light. For the newest edition, he’s especially happy to have turned up photos of the Arcade Building in Pullman (demolished in 1926–27) and the auditorium (razed in the 1990s) of Hyde Park’s Piccadilly Theatre.

With time, the book’s stature grew. Even toward the end of his life, Vonnegut was still thinking about it, as evidenced by an October 2004 post card he sent to Lowe. “‘Lost Chicago’ is for me the most moving and important American ghost story ever told,” Vonnegut wrote. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done with your lifetime.”

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Photograph: Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society


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