Cleaning up Louis Sullivan…Or Not

2 April 2019

I love it when my ethics get me out of doing something I don’t want to do.

We have a dark-as-ebony fragment from the former Chicago Stock Exchange building. It lives in my office. It’s not on the sales floor-on purpose.

The Stock Exchange was demolished in 1972. It was designed by famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. There are fragments of it all over the nation. I have seen them at museums in Milwaukee, Minnesota, and New York.

Local treasures include the reassembled trading room at the Art Institute of Chicago-some of the door knobs are authentic! My favorite is a painted panel at Cliff Dwellers.

The building was terra cotta in color. The mat black is a result of years of exposure to the soot and grime inside and outside inherent to the era. Here’s Chicago architect and ardent preservationist John Vincini,  atop the building during the demolition, then years later with a fragment from the building, post cleaning. I was unable to find credits for either of these photos. A longtime Louis Sullivan preservationist, John was in charge of the reassembled trading room at the Art Institute that I mentioned earlier.

In January, we had a large leak at the book shop courtesy of the polar vortex. We have been under construction for about two months. We expect to finally open in a week or so.

It’s time to clean! The dust is unbelievable!

I started with a small brush on the Louis Sullivan fragment. As I brushed the object, black dust landed on the catch cloth. I stopped.

I said to myself, “What am I doing?”

It was suddenly very clear to me that I was removing valuable information! I was violating the first rule of conservation! The rule is to never do anything to the substance and the structure of an artifact that is not reversible! Soot is like patina! I would never remove information from a manuscript or book!

I gave it a gentle swipe with a shoe cloth from an old Holiday Inn. The gritty, new dust disappeared. A quiet matte appeared. It seemed itself again.

I put it on the shelf and went on to a little Bissell of Lincoln.

It was less work for me, too.