Monday, October 1, 2012

Gannett Awards 2012

Some years ago I offered a yearly sermon series called “the annual vulgarity awards.”  I would rant a little about four or five egregiously ugly or corrosive aspects of our common culture.  But I tired of that series; and I also felt, I was, ironically, contributing to a toxic social climate.

So I flipped the series 180 degrees and developed a yearly sermon series on what I find to be excellent in our common life.  I immediately named this new series The William Channing Gannett Awards in honor of the first minister of this congregation, whose signature phrase “domestication of the infinite” suited my sense of the source and result of excellence.

Mr. Gannett was a remarkable man with an impeccable Unitarian pedigree.  His father, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, was the first President of the American Unitarian Association, 1825.  Ezra Stiles Gannett was also the associate minister at the famed Federal Street Church in Boston, where the saintly founder of American Unitarianism William Ellery Channing was for senior minister.  Dr. Channing was William Channing Gannett’s godfather, hence the middle name Channing.

Mr. Gannett was a modernist compared to his godfather and father, who were Christian Rationalists.  Young William was influenced by Transcendentalism’s more expansive vision of religion; and when he made his way west, he joined the Unity Men of the Western Unitarian Conference, whose motto “the unity of all things” summarized their broad view of religion.  The Unity Men also promoted ethics as the proper focus of religion, in which character (ingenuousness) blended with what we now call social justice.

William Channing Gannett wrote the great compromise, “The Things We Hold in Common” that allowed the Christians and the emergent not-just or more-than Christian liberals to stay in one Unitarian denomination.    His essay, “The House Beautiful,” inspired the magazine of the same name thanks to the efforts of his good friend Frank Lloyd Wright.  And his plan for our Church-Home has shaped generations of Hinsdale Unitarians over one hundred, twenty years.

Before I present this year’s awards, I want you to think about Mr. Gannett’s signature phrase “domestication of the infinite.”  The ideals we recognize (and you might see them in terms of the great categories of the good, the true, and the beautiful), if they are our ideals, are necessarily compelling—so compelling that we must implement them in our self and our world.  This is a process of domestication—of household and home infusing our larger world.  The doors open in and welcome the worthy; the doors then open out and infuse the world with the warmth, intimacy, and values of the home and the home-like.

I’ve been greatly influenced by William Channing Gannett, through his writings and through his sculpture in wood, brick, and stone, this Church-Home, that he was instrumental in designing.  In his honor and memory I once again lift up the excellent in our common world.

The Hyde Park Neighborhood

This year, I focus upon the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park.  Some of you know Hyde Park quite well, having lived there or perhaps attended the University of Chicago, the area’s indisputable anchor.  The University by itself, is worthy of a thoughtful and attentive stroll.  It’s a tribute to American capitalism, since it was originally endowed by John D Rockefeller on land donated by Marshall Field.  It rose in 1890 from a failed Baptist College of the same name.  Its neo-gothic (Victorian and Collegiate Gothic)  style of architecture, particularly the great conceit called Rockefeller chapel, is noteworthy.  It also has buildings of significant architects, Wright, Saarinen, and Mies van de Rohe.  The Midway Plaisance, a long rectangular park separating the north from south campuses, was a site of the famous World’s Fair--the Columbian Exposition of 1893--that announced the arrival of Chicago as a world city.  If you read Devil in the White City, you might be able to imagine the elegance of the architectural/landscape vision of Daniel Burnham as well as the serial murder spree of  infamous Dr. H. H. Holmes, as you gaze down the Midway. The U of C claims 87 Nobel Laureates, including several economists of what is often called the Chicago School of Economics.  In the early years of the 20th century it was a major football power under Amos Alonzo Stagg.  Under its 5th president Robert Maynard Hutchins who took office in 1929, the University abandoned football and instituted a core curriculum based on a collection known as the Great Books and the teaching style of the Socratic Method.  The first sustained atomic reaction took place within the confines of the old football field. It has a small undergraduate student body of a mere 5,000 students. Among its adjunct institutions are a number of theological schools and seminaries. Until last year the UU Meadville Lombard Theological School had its own building on 57th and Woodlawn, adjacent to First Unitarian Church, yet another neo-gothic structure.

So when you visit my Gannett Awardees from Hyde Park, be sure to include a stroll through the tightly contained old campus north of the Midway known as the Quadrangle, particularly if you heading toward my first awardee, The Oriental Institute.

The Oriental Institute

Similar to the University itself, The Oriental Institute raises mixed feelings.  Its collection dates from the era when outside concerns went on archeological digs in the Middle East and returned to their own countries with what was essentially plunder.  The era ended in the 1930s.  Its core collection dates from that time. The Museum of the Oriental Institute has artifacts from long ago digs in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

The Oriental Institute is located on the corner of 58th Street and University Avenue in, if you can imagine, an Art Deco/Gothic building, dating it from the 1920s. The interior is spacious and, in my estimation, church-like. The collection provides ample stimulation to contemplation of the human condition and civilization--the latter, a veneer a scant 10,000 years thick, yet seemingly so ancient.  The modern nations whose long-ago ancestors created such stuff of monumental stature, bodily ornamentation, or everyday business, such as Egypt and Iran (once Persia), can rightly claim a very long perspective on world affairs.

For me, the museum and its plundered collection together make for one of the holiest places I’ve ever visited.  Such a place with its collections cannot be replicated today or ever again.

My first Gannett 2012 goes to the shrine of ancient civilization known as the Oriental Institute.

Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore

Still on campus, on Ellis Avenue between 56th Street and 57th Street, in the midst of a stark plaza is a large bronze sculpture, nearly fourteen tall, a bronze statue by Henry Moore. Perhaps it’s meant to suggest a human skull or perhaps it represents a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, or both. It marks the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction beneath the abandoned football stadium. That reaction, an effort of the famed Manhattan Project and headed by Enrico Fermi, was one of the most important scientific accomplishments, boding evil, as well as good in the human experience.

Thirty years later from the actual event, the sculptor Henry Moore remembered: “It’s a rather strange thing really but I’d already done the idea for this sculpture before Professor McNeill and his colleagues from the University of Chicago came to see me on Sunday morning to tell me about the whole proposition. They told me (which I’d only vaguely known) that Fermi, the Italian nuclear physicist, started or really made the first successful controlled nuclear fission in a temporary building. I think it was a squash court - a wooden building - which from the outside looked entirely unlike where a thing of such an important nature might take place. But this experiment was carried on in secret and it meant that by being successful Man was able to control this huge force for peaceful purposes as well as destructive ones. They came to me to tell me that they thought where such an important event in history took place ought to be marked and they wondered whether I would do a sculpture which would stand on the spot.”

The enigmatic but evocative bronze was dedicated in 1967, exactly to the minute, twenty-five years after the actual event.

My second Gannett Award of 2012 goes to the gestalt of this incredible and historic event with the monumental sculpture by an important 20th century sculptor.

The Fountain of Time by Laredo Taft

Speaking of sculptures, a third Gannett Award 2012 goes to a truly monumental work, one hundred twenty-six feet long, The Fountain of Time, by the turn of the century Illinois based sculptor Laredo Taft. Time, as it is often called, resides at the west end of the Midway Plaisance.  An oversized figure, twenty-six feet tall, shrouded in a robe and with a scythe, Father Time, presides over a hundred figures that progress in an historical, three dimensional diorama and human life span, progressing before him.  It was intended to fit into a larger landscape design for the Midway that did not happen.

Taft worked on Burnham’s great White City design of the1893 Exposition. Time followed in the grand Beaux Arts style of Burnham’s great success. The sculpture was finished in 1920 and dedicated in 1922.  Taft, for reasons of economy, had settled on the medium of reinforced concrete.  The Beaux Arts representational style was no longer in favor by the time the sculpture was finished. The medium proved to be susceptible to the weather—cracking, pitting, and crumbling.

Thirty years ago, when I first encountered it, it was a crumbling, neglected, very sad site. It bordered the areas to the south and west that were transitional neighborhoods. Then, I found it an ironic statement of the very subject matter it portrayed—the inevitable progress of time, that leaves in its wake decay and yes, death.

I’m sure that this wasn’t what the artist intended.  But unintended consequences added a patina of deeper truth.  One commentator justly observed: “(Perhaps Time felt that Taft’s ambition was impertinent and wanted to team him a lesson.)  In any event, the leading Chicago newspaper soon labeled the outdated sculpture one of the city’s ‘pet atrocities.’ Resentful at the way styles had passed him by, Taft became a leading spokesperson for conservative sculpture and lectured against the evils of modernism (demonstrating that he had learned absolutely nothing about the inevitably of time).”

In this context, the sculpture is doubly richly. In the late ‘90s and in the early years of this century, the sculpture has been restored.  (Remembering last week’s sermon, for me, this has always been a place for memento mori—to think about time and mortality, evoked by a Beaux Arts style that reminds me of the so called War to End All Wars, which I’ve always suspected influenced the artist’s design.)

The Nile

My annual Gannetts usually include a food place.  Hyde Park has many to choose from including Morry’s Deli, opened fifty years ago by Suze Orman’s dad.  Another likely place is the student and neighborhood standard called the Medici, which I’ve long seen as essentially U of C.  However, I’m recommending that you try out a Middle Eastern restaurant The Nile at 1611 East 55th Street, with plenty of on-street parking. I’ve been eating there for at least a couple of decades.

It’s of a type, minimally decorated, bright to the point of harshness.  Behind a tall counter, the food is prepared, often taken from a glass display case. Since I can remember, a solitary Asian waitress has been the server. On the wall is a poster of the city of Jerusalem, the dome of the rock in the center.

The menu includes typical Middle Eastern fare at a very affordable price. It’s a good place to go with a group and share. The humus with a generous basket of warm fresh pita is outstanding.  My favorite is a falafel sandwich filled with freshly fried, sliced falafel, Jerusalem salad, and tahini sauce that oozes deliciously. I like it with a glass of hot tea.

The Fair Trader

Either before or after eating at The Nile, mosey down the street a half a block to 1623 East 55th Street to visit a shop The Fair Trader. Ellie and I were in Hyde Park several days ago. After eating at the Nile, I wanted to see what was new on the block and found this place with the slogan “where shopping makes a difference.” I recognized the women who ran it.  They belong to First Unitarian Church. They joke that this place is First Unitarian East. Stop in, tell them you’re a Hinsdale Unitarian, and that I recommended the store to you. They are celebrating their fifth year of business (an accomplishment in this economy). They might even give you a little celebration gift, a handmade glazed pendant on a chord, as they gave to both Ellie and me. Ellie bought a large bead bracelet and a couple of cards; perhaps you’ll find something to support this business, as well as assist far away laborers struggling to earn a living.

For putting their UU values into practice, for making a difference in their community, for their enthusiasm and perseverance and their entrepreneurial chutzpah, I give Evelyn Johnson, Madeiria Myriekes, and Cindy Prado—the three proprietors of The Fair Trader—a fifth and final Gannett Award 2012.  They are making our larger world more home-like.

That’s what my ten years of awards have honored: people and places that have domesticated the infinite, making our common world more home-like.

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