The Riverwalk Staircase at the corner of Michigan Ave. and the Chicago River is now just a dimming memory. With the building of the new Apple Store in Pioneer Court, the staircase was demolished, and like an old tune that fades from the public realm, the staircase too is dissolving in to the past.
The staircase was designed by Bruce Graham at SOM in 1965 as part of the construction of the Equitable Building. Mr. Graham’s staircase was built to connect the bustling Michigan Ave. and Equitable Plaza (named Pioneer Court) to what was anticipated as a thriving Chicago Riverwalk that had yet to be developed. Instead, the sweeping staircase landed at a riverwalk that was barren and uninteresting. Leaving critics to often question the need for such a dramatic piece of architecture leading to an uninspired concrete slab along the river.
It was Goethe that said “Architecture is Frozen Music” and as a photographer, I work on the premise that the camera is a recording device, akin to those used to record music, that brings order, time, and, in the case of architecture, structure, together to create a new work.
To me, the riverwalk staircase buzzed with the sparkling piano of Grooveyard by the great Phineas Newborn jr.. Up and down the staircase the piano strolled and deep within there pulsed a pert piano and casual beat that swept people from the swank bustle of Michigan Avenue down to some quiet time by the river.
Of course, the fact that I could hear/see Grooveyard in that staircase had nothing to do with the title of the music, the fact that it was a Carl Perkins composition or the fact that Mr. Newborn’s version of it was released just one year before the building of the staircase. But it does have everything to do Phineas Newborn’s structure of the song and the way it seemed glide, like liquid, through the graceful stretch of the stone steps and tick a beat in the accompanying rails.
The staircase was a splendid, subtle, composition amongst the more traditional and attention-grabbing tunes that line that part of Michigan Avenue. It seemed a part of the giant ballroom that was the glittering city where one only need to steal away down those steps, to the soft rhythm of Grooveyard, to escape the folly and mayhem and sit by the river. One could exit with sophistication and aplomb to take off your mask, breathe, laugh, or perhaps sneak a kiss under the swirling steps along the river.
But all of that is just a distant memory and Grooveyard has drifted down the river and away to perhaps be resurrected in another structure. And while there is a new beat, a new song, that plays along the river in its place, the memory of the music that floated sparklingly off of Michigan Ave. through the riverwalk staircase will not soon be forgotten.