Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Strange Interlude, 2003: The Art Institute of Chicago, Undocumented Industrial Polluter

     I haven't been on the editorial board for 14 years. And while I generally don't miss it—too many meeting about some monorail to DuPage County that's never going to be built—the duty was a source of occasional columns, such as this one about how The Art Institute of Chicago got itself on a list of industrial polluters operating without permit.
     I sometimes tell PR sorts that opening tale of trying to track down payment of the $1 yearly rental for the Chicago Water Tower. Except after the official finally blurts out that it's a line item, that an actual dollar bill never actually changes hands, I add my unvarnished thought at that moment, along the lines of: "I'd hate to tell a media professional her JOB... But if I had a representative of a major newspaper pestering me to see a dollar handed over so he could put run a story in the newspaper about all the worthwhile programs that I conduct there, I would reach in my purse, pull out a friggin' dollar, put in an envelope, and arrange a goddamn ceremony that he could see. But maybe that's Old School of me...."
     Anyway, the leg heals, slowly. Hope this is as fun to read as it was to write.
     The Chicago Water Tower—the limestone structure in the middle of Michigan Avenue, not the shopping mall—is actually still owned by the Chicago Water Department. That makes sense. The quaint structure was originally part of a pumping station, and the fact that it is really old, that it survived the Great Chicago Fire, or that Oscar Wilde took one look and called it a "fairy castle with pepper boxes stuck all over it" does not take the Water Tower away from the Water Department, which leases it to the Tourism Department for $1 a year.
     This odd tidbit of hidden Chicagoana haunted me, particularly that dollar fee. There was something wonderfully antique about the payment, like a jeweled falcon given in yearly tribute to the king. I wasted more time than I care to recall trying to track down exactly when and how that dollar changes hands. I pictured it as a matter of great pomp, like the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day: the various assembled honchos from Water and Tourism in their top hats and sashes, the ceremonial dollar mounted in a frame, with lots of hands shook and photos snapped.
     That I had to see. (Despite the fad of making stuff up, I'm a big fan of factuality. The damning thing about the fabulists isn't just that they're lazy, but that their fictions are so dull.) For a while I had hope, since I was taking a two-track approach: through both the Water and Tourism departments. But neither bore fruit and finally, an exasperated official snapped, "It's a line item. They do it through bookkeeping. They don't hand over an actual dollar bill."
     The missing dollar came to mind when a young lawyer from the Sierra Club, during one of the deadly dull meetings that have come to fill my days like kudzu, handed over a list titled, "Major Sources of Air Pollution Without Operating Permits."
     The list had 194 companies with names like Bunge Grain Milling and Sterling Steel. I'd like to claim that my sharp eye caught this—that darn factuality again!—but it was my boss who, scanning the list, picked out from among the various soap manufacturers, zinc replaters, tool works and wet corn milling facilities, one polluter who, well, was kind of unexpected: The Art Institute of Chicago. Its purpose, "museum," listed among "soap mfg." and "steel tubing" and "boilers."

Reporters can be sadists

     There is a certain amount of sublimated sadism in professional journalism, and I must admit savoring the moment I placed the call to my old friend, Eileen Harakal, whose enviable job it is to promote the greatest museum in the Western hemisphere.
     She said she had no idea why the museum would be on the list but was appealingly defensive. "We have state-of-the-art solar panels on the roof," she snapped. "Why don't you write about that?"
     Exuding charm, or an obvious oiliness I consider charm, I promised her that, if she found out why the Sierra Club was lumping the home of "Nighthawks" with the Danville Metal Stamping Co., that I would give her solar panels their due.
     To her credit, rather than dodge me for the next week, as I expected, within 24 hours Harakal spilled the beans: A dozen years ago, the Art Institute installed a pair of 725-kilowatt co-generation engines designed to supply about a third of the museum's peak period electricity, plus steam for heating and cooling.
     This wasn't an emergency back-up kind of affair—the things ran 13 hours a day when the museum was open. Because the pair squeaked under the 1,500-kilowatt limit, no permit was required.
     But rules change. In December 1995, the museum was required to file an application with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Act permit program. Not precisely one to flout the dictates of civilized society, the Art Institute did so.
     Those readers who are of foreign nations waiting for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to process their citizenship papers might have a hint of what is coming.

Eco do-gooders smear city icon

     The passage of nearly eight years is not sufficient, apparently, for approval of the Art Institute's permit to be acted upon.
     "The IEPA has a large backlog of applications to review," said Harakal, taking a far more benign view than I would if failure of some IEPA bureaucrat to stamp my form was prompting the Sierra Club to travel from one Chicago media outlet to the other, tarring me as an undocumented polluter.
     Not that the museum runs the generators like it used to. In late 1997, Commonwealth Edison changed its billing formula, and now the generators are in use about 30 hours a year.
     On to those solar panels. The museum installed a 102.96-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panel system, making it the largest such installation in the state. Who says French Impressionism and ecological responsibility don't mix?
     Touching base with ComEd, I had to ask: Since the Art Institute generates electricity, does Com-Ed have any artworks it is proud of?
      "The headquarters of ComEd, Exelon, is in the Bank One Building," spokesman Tim Lindberg said. "That Chagall mosaic is outside." Turnabout is fair play.
                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 23, 2003


  1. The top photo looks like what is now the Hillshire Brands HQ. Formerly the Armed Forces Examining & Entrance Station [well, the 4th floor anyway, I had to walk up there in 1967]. Before that it was a lithography company.

    1. Been to the 4th floor a little later; fall 1968.

  2. That was fun; and interesting and enlightening as well; and you couldn't make it up.


  3. A shame that your vision of the ceremonial exchange of a real dollar turned out to be a beautiful theory murdered by a gang of brutal facts. But as Leslie Stephen, great Victorian and Virginia Wolfe's daddy, once put it, "No good story is entirely true."


    1. Tom: Thank you. I've suspected as much. When I repeat someone else's good story a few times, it becomes less and less believable to me and I'm tempted to improve it.



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