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Ask Chicagoist: Paris in the Springtime in Chicago?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Apr 25, 2007 2:15PM

Dear Chicagoist,

I hope you can fill me in on what the story is behind the Metra entrance on Michigan that looks like the entrances to the Parisian Métro. Is it a reproduction or the real deal? Is there more than one?


2007_04_askmetra.jpgHi Nina,

Well it's not really a secret-portal wormhole entrance to Paris via Michigan Avenue, so we bet it's a reproduction.

Sorry. We know what you mean. Of course there's a good reason it looks like the Parisian Métro entrance. It is!

The Metra entrance at Michigan and Van Buren, to seasoned European travelers or architecture buffs, looks astoundingly like the Métro stations in Paris. The Parisian entrances were designed by Hector Guimard around the turn of the last century. Guimard is more or less the primary icon of the French Art Nouveau movement, and his Métro entrances are characterized by their "graceful organic forms" with their "green iron rails, light posts with red bulbs hovering over the steps and shields with a 'M' for Metro engraved near the base."

Metra's South Shore entryway, at 18 feet tall, nine feet wide and with four foot high railings, is made of cast iron and limestone -- all materials came directly from France. It is a cast of the original and is an official part of Chicago's permanent art collection. So it's not just a shoddy wanna-be European replica -- it is in fact a gift to Chicago from Paris. Note that by saying it's a cast, we mean it never actually served as a Métro station in Paris. So you could call it a replica (although an official replica), since it was created from the original mold that Guimard designed. Whenever repairs need to be made to existing stations or Paris needs a last-minute retirement or baby shower gift, replacement parts or complete station entries are cast.

In this case, the full-cast came to Chicago from the Parisian Transit Authority in December 2001 by way of the Union League Club of Chicago, the organization that originally came up with the idea (specifically architectural artifact collector Seymour Persky) to get Paris to give us a station, and helped pay for some of the costs of transporting the piece of art to Chicago from France.

The idea was to get something to show the community between Paris -- one of our sister cities -- and Chicago in the new millennium. Granted, the structure was not completely in place until 2002, and dedication ceremonies didn't happen until Bastille Day 2005 (July 14).

Getting a station from Paris was, according to Persky, in keeping with the "Art Nouveau atmosphere at the corner" of Michigan and Van Buren, what with the Fine Arts Building and Auditorium Theatre in the same area. He also pointed out that "Michigan Avenue has such French airs that when Mark Twain once took a walk there, he proclaimed it more Parisian than Paris."

Another part of the original goal of the project was to give Paris an artistic gift from Chicago. This part of the bargain has yet to be fulfilled, as Paris has refused the two gifts offered so far -- a cow from the infamous Cows on Parade exhibit, and art deco concrete panels from the Ogden Street Bridge.

What do you think we should offer France that they'd actually want?

Image via puroticorico.

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