Friday, December 24, 2010

Treasures from the Vault at Decorators Supply

At the heart of one of the oldest businesses in Bridgeport is 2 story vault behind a steel door, stacked to its lofty ceilings with shelves of wooden trays. Each tray is 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep, and each one is packed with blocks of ornament, carved by hand in hickory and oak. You cannot hire craftsmen capable of carving such detail today.

They are the surviving library of patterns Decorators Supply has used to mold plaster and composition ornament to decorate interiors for over 100 years. When Decorator’s Supply first set up shop in 1883, interior embellishment was just becoming widely available. Builders could order ornament by the linear foot from catalogues, rather than commissioning skilled craftsmen to produce custom designs. Though Decorators Supply has always done custom projects alongside its catalogue business.

They helped decorate the White City for the Columbian Exhibition that lined the Midway in 1893, and they have provided decor for Disney, and the Epcot Center in Florida. They detailed the fantasy of at least 75 of the movie theaters built in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, including the Spanish courtyard for the Ramova Theater in Bridgeport, and they molded military emblems during World War II.

Alongside the landmark projects, they have lent elegance to private parlors and lobbies of countless banks, courthouses, and lakeshore co-ops. Occasionally President Steve Grage, whose grandfather William Grage Sr., first joined the business as an office boy in 1896, will glance up at a lobby ceiling and see patterns he is still being asked to produce for new installations today.

The patterns in the vault at their workshop at 3610 South Morgan Street represent a fraction of the creations of generations of craftsmen employed by Decorators Supply. Patterns for a grand show room were sometimes created to realize the architect’s design, and then discarded when the project was built.

Many others were left behind when the business moved to Morgan Street from their old shop at 2601 South Peoria, to make way for the Stevenson Expressway, in 1963. The building on Peoria went up in a terrific fire shortly after they had moved out – possibly as a shortcut maneuver by the demolition crew.

Today, only a fraction of the patterns stored in the treasure trove in the current shop on Morgan Street actually appear in the company catalogues. “We could create a new catalogue with entirely different patterns,” Steve says.

All told, Steve says Decorator’s Supply has about 12,000 molds – originally made by pressing the carved patterns into a bed of pitch. Many of them are variations on common patterns. They have over a hundred versions of egg and dart, bead and barrel, and lamb’s tongue. “There are so many variations, in the details, the depth of the pattern…” Steve says. They’ll add one more version of egg and dart for 29,000 square feet of crown molding – to match the exact pattern for the restoration of a grand bank lobby in Montgomery, Alabama.

Meanwhile, the old pitch molds tend to crack, so they are in the process of gouging out the pitch and replacing it with more durable polyurethane – an ongoing project Steve says is about 20% complete.

All the plaster and composition ornaments are made to order, Decorators Supply doesn’t warehouse stock. And aside from the occasional big bank or courthouse project, the bulk of their jobs today are made to add extravagance to private residences. Though they also serve millwork companies, who carve basic patterns for furniture and moldings on their own machines, then have Decorators Supply add elaborations in “compo,” or composition ornament.

While plaster moldings remain a significant fraction of their business, Steve says compo adds up to about 60% of their output. Compo is a thermoplastic made popular in the 18th century as a cheaper substitute for wood carving, but it is still 4 or 5 times more labor intensive than plaster moldings, which come out of the mold virtually ready to install.

On the other hand, compo can be molded to a finer level of detail than plaster. Because it’s still pliable out of the mold, it can also be squeezed, or stretched, or curved over rounded surfaces. In its soft state it’s sticky, so it self-adheres, and it dries to a durable finish that can be stained to look like wood – in fact it will pick up the grain from the wood carving used to make the mold.

Compo finish once carried a certain mystique: the mixture was said to have origins in the Italian Renaissance, and recipes were passed on as carefully guarded secrets. But most of them boil down to a few basic ingredients.

A batter of hide glue (sticky and pliable) and linseed oil is mixed with pine rosin (a hardening agent), and then kneaded into a dough with chalk, or whiting (a filler). The dough hardens at room temperature, but can be softened again with steam heat.

Decorators Supply uses a recipe brought from Europe that includes molasses. They used to get glue boiled from hides at the Union Stockyards; now it’s shipped from a rendering plant in Texas. To mold a decoration, they steam the dough in 150 year old bagel ovens. The kneading is done on a table with piles of whiting to prepare a smooth surface, and then pressed into a mold, which is compressed in a screw press to force the material into the tiniest crevices.

When the mold is removed and the dough cools, the pattern sets but the mixture is still rubbery, so the pattern can be sliced off the surface of the excess material with a very sharp blade. The excess can be re-steamed and reused. The patterns are kept on big cookie sheets. When it’s time to use them, they’ll be warmed, and made sticky, over a steam table, and then affixed to wood background, usually one built out of poplar in Decorators Supply’s woodshop, but sometimes they’re affixed to furniture, picture frames or woodwork built by other companies, and then shipped on to be finished with stain or gilt.

Steve says the capital of this column was layered with 60-70 distinct pieces of compo. He says they will sell it for $400 to $500, which is a bargain considering how many times the craftsman will touch it. Steve says the customer may pay 3 times as much for the finish, depending on what it is.

In 1918, near the height of a highly ornamented era, Decorators Supply reported about 150 employees and $500,000 in business a year, roughly $7.2 million in today’s dollars. Demand for ornament slowed when mid-century modernism took hold. Today, Decorators Supply employs 20 union craftsmen on the shop floor.

They are widely recognized as “manufacturers of the largest selection of classical ornament in the country,” according to Beaux Arts, a Maryland based company that advertises patterns they’ve developed in collaboration in Decorators Supply.

Others have been less above board about borrowing. Some 25 years ago, a prospective customer requested an unusually large number of samples, and those patterns are now available through the catalogue of a California based competitor.

When it comes time to refurbish Bridgeport’s own Ramova Theater, Bridgeport can secure a genuine sample of Decorators Supply's much imitated craft for new generations to enjoy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reinventing the Ramova

As a kid in Bridgeport, Maureen Sullivan could meet up with her friends and stroll over for a movie at the Ramova Theater without asking anybody’s parents for a ride. She says school kids are awed when she describes that to them now. The Ramova was where she saw Carrie, and waited in a line that snaked down the block for the opening of Jaws.

Maureen describes passing the shuttered façade today as seeing an old friend on her deathbed. She used to say “I wish someone would do something with that theater” nearly every time she passed it, until her husband Rob Warmowski suggested they do something about the theater themselves. They launched the Save the Ramova campaign in 2006.

Today, between paper and online petitions, they estimate they have assembled about 5,000 unduplicated signatures of people who want to see the Ramova restored. Rob does a quick tally and compares that to roughly 11,000 voters who cast ballots in the 11th ward in this year’s mid-term elections. Though support for the Ramova isn’t limited to the 11th ward. “I get e-mails from people in Italy,” Maureen says for example “wanting to know if I’m accepting donations.”

Maureen doesn’t want to start collecting donations until there is a real development plan for financing renovations. But a real development plan will be one step closer in the coming months. The Illinois Institute of Technology has taken up the Ramova as the subject for its Interprofessional Projects, or IPRO, Program. Over 2-3 semesters, an interdisciplinary seminar will draw up designs, do market research, and assemble a feasibility analysis for the redevelopment of the Ramova Theater in a new version of its old glory.

When the Ramova first opened in 1929, an amusement boom was transforming the Chicago landscape. Historian Scott Newman charts that boom on his web site Jazz Age Chicago, and links it to the development of the “modern lifestyle” that took hold in the first decades of the 20th century.

Droves of people were migrating from small towns to the big city, where their social ties were looser and their jobs were more monotonous. Newman says leisure pursuits took on new importance as a vehicle for personal identity and fulfillment. He points out that the new public venues built to supply cheap amusements -- department stores and pleasure parks, but especially theaters of all kinds -- also created an arena for unprecedented mixing among social classes. Anyone could participate for the price of admission; once you were inside, he says, the way you earned the price of the ticket was not so important.

The post-modern lifestyle is less supportive of mass entertainments. Theaters have gradually given way to television, HBO and Netflicks subscriptions, and new social venues often draw more specialized crowds. Maureen says there were once 12 theaters in Bridgeport alone, the Ramova was just the last one to close. Today, Bridgeport’s art galleries may have achieved a density theaters once had – they draw patrons from further afield, but from narrower niches.

Still, the Save the Ramova compaign has proven a strong current of nostalgia for a venue with a more general appeal persists. From students in the classroom, to officials in public office, to the buzz of friends on the Campaign’s Facebook page, people resonate with memories of the old Ramova. They also respond to Maureen’s appeal for reinventing the theater as a cultural center-point for Halsted Street – one where patrons of all kinds would rub shoulders, and bring their kids.

And a revivified Ramova could lay the ground for more good things. Maureen recalls that she and Rob lived in the neighborhood of the Music Box when it was still showing porn; she can tick off the businesses that were open on Southport on the fingers of one hand. Crowds who came to see shows in the new Music Box surely encouraged Southport’s restaurants and boutiques to find opportunity there.

The Ramova is a sister theater to the Music Box, except larger, with 1,500 seats to the Music Box’s 850. Both theaters opened in 1929, and they shared a Spanish courtyard decor, with twinkling lights in the ceiling, simulating stars in the night sky. Fifteen years of water damage have destroyed a lot of the Ramova’s décor, however. It would be hard to cover the cost of renovations with $10 movie tickets.

A little picture of the Ramova's interior, borrowed from the Ramova Theatre's Facebook Page

Maureen enlisted architect Rob Vagnieres to produce schematic drawings that show a more varied mix of revenue streams: something similar to the Beverly Arts Center, or the Historic Portage Theater, which is home base for the Silent Film Society, but which hosts a wide variety of events, and supplements ticket revenues with beer and wine sales.

She also ferreted out the company that did the original ornamental plasterwork, and which is still in business a few blocks away. Decorator’s Supply has been practicing the craft of plaster and composition ornament since 1883. Tucked back behind CL Doucette on Morgan Street, they keep a vault with tens of thousands of original wood carvings for decorative molds, and employ 20 skilled craftsmen in a venerable trade. Stimulus for a historic Bridgeport business would be just one of the other good things renovations at the Ramova could bring.

The city of Chicago issued a request for proposals for redeveloping the Ramova in 2002, and managers of the Silent Film Society were among those who looked it over, before they settled on the Portage Theater instead. They didn’t return calls to comment on the Ramova now, but one party in their troupe recalls they believed the project was physically doable “with money and time;” they were less sure that the neighborhood, as it existed 5 years ago, would draw an audience, either from within, or from without.

Maureen is sure that has changed. University Village is closer than it was 5 years ago, and more people come from elsewhere to attend Bridgeport cultural events every year. But more important, she has proven there is a strong local audience for the Ramova, eager for it to open its doors again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Notes from the Pew: Thanksgiving

Sheaf of Wheat

When I first started attending First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, its diversity attracted me. How many friends do I have who are convinced Christianity is a force of evil in the world? An excuse for wars internationally, and bigotries at home. An instrument for social control through guilt and peer pressure.

People who believe that ought to come to First Trinity on Sunday, I thought when I first found the place. I still recommend it. They say Sunday mornings are the most segregated day of the week –if people go to church anyway, they usually worship with people who are a lot like themselves.

Sunday morning at First Trinity is the only day of the week when I am in close contact with so many people who are so different from me: the very old and the squirming young, talented musicians, foreign students and Bridgeport householders, a Pentecostal preacher, a Methodist missionary, and a woman who attends service at her Catholic parish first, then comes to First Trinity where she can hear.

But also, overwhelmingly sometimes, by people who struggle in the world. We all have our struggles. But for a lot of us, they don’t set us apart. They don’t interfere with our ability to hold a job, or make casual conversation.

Some of the people who come to First Trinity are really hard to talk to. They have bad oral hygiene, distracting manners, or ugly opinions, or they are painfully shy.

Many of them are sweepingly generous with what they have. If they come to help out with coffee hour, they’ll bring a packing box of cheese sandwiches, or a big tub of Kraft macaroni and cheese. They don’t bring a dainty snack, they come to feed people. Because some people come to our coffee hour to eat.

As a group, though, they’re also demanding. Some people can wear you out even when they’re trying to help. They’re not trying to come in and disrupt other people's plans, but they don’t know how to help any other way. There’s a strong undertow of chaos that pervades everything at First Trinity – it attends every event we host and it uses every facility in the building without cleaning up -- and it can wear you out.

If you don’t believe people who wouldn’t blend in at a Starbuck’s should be herded into an institution somewhere, or off to a more distant neighborhood where they can’t get on your nerves, then it seems worth engaging with them, at least casually, as neighbors.

But for a church to function like a sanctuary and not a nuthouse, you need a ratio of people with certain practical skills to balance out the ones without them. As far as I can tell, for years, Marge and Tom Fashing have been those people at First Trinity.

It’s not that no one else does the housework. There are several people who put in more than a fair share of practical labor, and more who contribute what they can. But no one shoulders as much of it, as reliably, as the Fashings do. They usher us during the service, make sure there’s always something to serve during coffee hour. They wanted us to have an Octoberfest this year, so they basically prepared enough food to feed the neighborhood.

If they could do so much to hold things together for all those years, think what’s possible if we could round up a few more reliable volunteers!

First Trinity Octoberfest 024

It was actually at Octoberfest that I started to think about this seriously. I was proud to see the church parking-lot fill up with people for whom a filling meal is not a small thing. But we were scrambling the whole time. There were only a handful of people to do the work, and our guests were demanding – they needed help maneuvering bratwurst onto a plate, or help ushering their kids through the line, or they wanted to take issue with who got a plate without buying a ticket.

From behind the serving tables, I watched a nice looking couple wander in and leave as soon as they finished their plates. I wished we’d organized a crew of friendly conversationalists to work the crowd, because our crowd can be hard to chat with. But the ones who could have done it best were all scrambling to keep the food coming.

Alderman Balcer and Commissioner Daley came early to show their respects, but they ate their bratwurst almost entirely unnoticed. I was sure that wasn’t the reception they would get when they went over to St. Mary’s of Perpetual Help, who were also having their Octoberfest that day.

Octoberfest - Manning the Ticket Table

Last week, Father Craig and some of his flock from Saint Mary’s came to First Trinity to celebrate a shared service on Thanksgiving Eve. I wanted to make sure the heat was turned on and the refreshments were organized, ahead of time, so we could all focus on making the guests welcome. And frankly, it didn’t work out that way.

Among other things, the boiler broke hours before the service, spewing hot water through the basement of the former school next door. In the church, we laid out blankets among the pews. It was frustrating. The afternoon before the service was probably not the best time to run maintenance on the boiler. On the other hand, Rich Albrecht managed to bind the pipes somehow with plastic bags just before the service started, so the heat was at least beginning to rise.

When it came down to it, the refreshments and the heat didn’t really matter. During the service, when people stood to say what they were thankful for, a lot of them said they were thankful for their neighborhood, and their neighbors. And then they stayed afterwards to socialize for a long time, and even talked about other things we might do.

I was thankful for that. Because some of the diversity that first engaged me as quaint and interesting at First Trinity has started to tire me out as I’ve been around for awhile. And so far, I’ve probably made First Trinity sound like a place to meet your social obligation to interface with crazy people. That’s not what it’s really like.

Our Sunday worship services are really joyful occasions. We’re still a small group, but the whole church resonates. We’ve been accumulating new people, young people with energy to give and faith in giving, even since I’ve been there.

After Advent, we’ll be making plans for what we want to accomplish in the New Year. I’m looking forward to that. And at the Wednesday night service, our neighbors from Saint Mary’s, and also from Christ the Mediator and the Bridgeport Coffee Shop, helped remind us what we’re about as we close the old one.

Last Supper