Recently I heard Richard Cahan and Michael Williams discuss their new book about Chicago artist Edgar Miller and his miraculous transformation of old homes. Actually, two miracles occurred, according to Cahan. The first was Miller created this body of work. The second is the work not only still exists, it’s as beautiful as ever.
When it comes to interior design, Miller wasn’t one to hang a few paintings on a wall and call it a day. In 1927 he deconstructed a Victorian house at 155 Carl Street (which became West Burton Place in 1930) and used mostly found and salvaged materials to put it back together as a one-of-a-kind apartment complex filled with color, light and texture. Miller made art on walls, ceilings, bricks, beams, windows, stairways, chairs, tiles—every surface was a canvas.
Although Miller falls in the Art Deco period and his structures certainly have elegant lines, a primitive spirit, an ancestor of what we now call outsider art, hovers over his work. Cahan mentioned that Miller was influenced by prehistoric cave paintings, and the photo on the book’s cover reminds me of the Maori Meeting House in the Field Museum.
After Burton Place, Miller created other equally glorious buildings: 1735 N. Wells, in an Old Town courtyard; 2150 N. Cleveland; 1209 N. State Parkway, and various commercial projects. By 1930, he was the toast of the town and had a solo exhibit at the Art Institute. In the 1940s, Architecture magazine called Edgar Miller “one of the most versatile artists in America.” Then he was forgotten and left town.
In 1977 the owner of the Wells Street complex hired an artist named Bob Horn to do restoration work. After a few years, Bob went to work on the Burton Place building for 12 years. Now he’s back on Wells Street as head of a restoration team that includes artists as well as tradespeople.
Bob estimates he’s touched every inch of both the Wells Street and the Burton Place complexes. He’s worked longer on the buildings than anyone else. Extensive repairs, walls torn down, walls put up, room renovations, air conditioning installed—he’s done and seen it all. He’s spent more time working in the owner’s unit than the owner has spent living in his unit.
Duplicating Edgar’s touch isn’t easy, Bob told me. “Not because he was so precise, but because he was so spontaneous, it’s harder to be true to him. It’s like trying to copy someone’s handwriting.”
In addition to his restoration work and teaching at Lill Street Art Center, Bob is a portrait artist. I wondered if the years working so closely on Miller’s work affected his style. Bob shrugged off the question, “Not at all.” The biggest compliment he’s received was when someone asked, “what did you do here?”–meaning they couldn’t see Bob’s hand at all in Miller’s work.
The Return of the Artist
In the mid-1980s, a resident of the Wells Street complex discovered Miller was living, not comfortably, in California. A group led by the building owner brought Miller back to Chicago, gave him a unit to live in, provided health care and paid him a salary–to resume working on his buildings.
Bob spent considerable time with Miller and shared a couple of Miller’s comments with me. Miller didn’t liked being labeled “eclectic”; he preferred “well informed.” He told Bob that on the original renovation of the Carl Street house they were required to have a consulting architect, but there was “damn little consulting.”
Back around 1990, Bob gave me a tour of a unit he was restoring at Burton Place. There’s nothing like it in Chicago, so if you ever get a chance to see one, go. Especially Unit 8 on Wells, Bob’s favorite. That’s where Miller had the freest hand to express his creativity.
If you don’t get a chance to see the interiors, you can see beautiful photographs of them in Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Bob told me that photographer, Alexander Vertikoff, spent two days getting familiar with the buildings before he started shooting. Except in a couple rooms, he used only natural lighting for the 400 photographs in the book. You’ll find the book at the publisher’s website or on Amazon. Go now, stock is running low.
Related posts: See the Edgar Miller-designed house in Hollywood Park.
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