Southern Exposure at the DuSable Makes the South Side Shine

Shore to suburbs, Chicago is a shining example of architecture from so many different schools. Whether you’re admiring Burnham and Root’s Rookery, the intricacies of the Gothic Revival details of the Tribune Tower or the stately Neo-classical stylings of the Field Museum, almost everywhere you look you’ll get fantastic examples of the finest architecture built by the finest architects. There’s a lot you can stumble into downtown without even trying, but there’s much more impressive architecture that many people aren’t seeing—on the south side.

It’s this that drives Lee Bey, an architecture professor, writer for WBEZ, and former Sun Times architecture critic, to draw attention to what’s often unfairly overlooked. It’s behind his project, Southern Exposure. Southern Exposure first debuted during the Chicago Architecture Biennial and its aim is to get people looking at, talking about, and then exploring the neighborhoods that house these architectural gems.Among the beautiful shots Bey includes in the exhibit are examples of Art Deco, Art Moderne, midcentury modern, and modern wonders.

Pride Cleaners, 1959, 79th and St. Lawrence designed by Gerald Siegwart. Photo by Lee Bey, courtesy DuSable Museum of African American History.

The architects behind them are names like Wright, Saarinen and van der Rohe, as well as architects like Gerald Siegwart, who was responsible for the soaring angular roof of Pride Cleaners in Chatham. It’s a beautiful building, still in use today, with its original aquamarine interior and colorful marquee a blast from the past.

D’Angelo Law Library. 1959. Photo by Lee Bey, courtesy DuSable Museum of African American History.

Another is the complex lines and accordion folds of the D’Angelo Law Library on the University of Chicago’s campus. Designed by Eero Saarinen, who was also responsible for Dulles International airport and the sleek lines of the St. Louis Arch, Bey’s shot captures the stately beauty of the building as it is reflected on the black pool below.

Finally there’s the Chicago Vocational High School on 87th, with its stately columned gymnasium entrance and Art Deco/Art Moderne details. The building, designed by John C. Christensen, wasn’t completed until 1941, and was planned as a civilian school; it was used by the Navy during World War II.

Chicago Vocational High School. 2100 E. 87th. 1941. Photograph by Lee Bey. Courtesy of DuSable Museum of African American History.

The beauty of the buildings is only partially the point, though. What Bey hopes that viewers get out of it is two-fold. First, that they realize that the south side of Chicago isn’t a place to be feared, or one in a perpetual state of decay. The exhibit should challenge notions that the south side is a place where people should fear to tread or skip, and we should ditch our biased, racist, classist notions of that part of the city. The beautiful buildings of Bronzeville, Chatham, Pullman, Woodlawn…are lived in, cared for and owned by people of color, who preserve them with pride. They are buildings worth everyone’s attention. Bey also hopes that the front page perfection of these architectural gems combined with the context of the neighborhoods they belong to will awaken a curiosity in people, and help give them the motivation to explore these buildings.

Whether you’re familiar with the landmarks pictured in this exhibition or not, Southern Exposure is more than worth your time to see. Bey does a fantastic job of setting these monumental achievements apart while still contextualizing them with the people and environment they come from. Southern Exposure, which has now been extended through April at the DuSable, does exactly what it sets out to do—display beautiful works of art, stoke curiosity and ask the most important question of all: why are we missing these things?

We hope you’ll visit the DuSable and get inspired to explore more of the beautiful architecture of the South Side through Bey’s exhibit. Click here for more details and images from Southern Exposure, and check out our profile of the DuSable Museum of African American History here

Marielle Bokor
Marielle Bokor
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