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Ask Geoffrey: 7/2

What IS that thing?

Geoffrey Baer answers the questions of six viewers who wonder what's up with weird objects in and around Chicago.

At the corner of Komensky & 31st Street there is what looks like a concrete barber's pole. You can even see it on Google maps. Any idea what this is?
Jeff Barmueller, Arlington Heights

The object in question is about six feet tall and sits outside a two-flat on the northwest corner of Komensky Avenue and 31st Street in Little Village. You can see that our viewer is right – it does look like a barber pole, with its angled red and white stripes. And guess what? It is a barber pole – a very, very old one.

We spoke to Little Village historian Frank Magallon, and he pointed us to the storefront at the rear of the two-flat. It’s a barber shop that is mostly closed these days because the owner is pretty much retired. The pole is very old and doesn’t look like a modern barber pole. It’s closer to the front of the building, so it’s not immediately evident that it’s connected to the business at the rear. Magallon sent us a photo of a barber shop from around 1915 near 16th Street and State – the sidewalk-set barber pole there is pretty similar to the Little Village pole.

Paul Meador is the owner and proprietor of the shop, as well as a longtime Chicago lifeguard at Oak Street Beach and Mr. America runner-up in 1954. He does still give trims to friends and family in his shop, which is filled with wonderful ephemera, including a barber chair that is more than 100 years old. When Meador bought the property in 1952, the porcelain-enameled iron and steel barber pole was already in place, since the previous owner of the property also ran a barber shop in that space. But the pole was in rough shape, so Meador and his son cleaned it up, filled it with concrete, and gave it the crisp red and white paint job they maintain to this day. He said that the pole is a sort of neighborhood landmark – people will say, “Let’s meet at the pole” – and he even decorates it for Christmas with wreaths.

We were able to approximate the pole’s age with some help from the barber supply manufacturer William Marvy Company, who determined that this is a Model 1218 non-revolving Paidar barber pole produced by the Emil J. Paidar Company in Chicago around 1910. They note that this barber pole had the base shortened, and that the color of the base and the upper ring in its original incarnation was royal blue and not red. It’s also missing a white globe on top that would light up. But whatever color it is, here’s hoping the barber pole will continue to be piece of Little Village history for years to come.

We noticed some large, peculiar concrete objects in the lake between South Boulevard Beach and Garden Park in Evanston that resemble keys. What are they?
Brooke and Lyle Smart, Evanston

The odd, 4-foot-long objects were actually once parts of a modular pier, a design is called the Sydney Makepeace Wood pier, after its inventor. Wood was an engineer who pioneered the use of permeable piers, which allow water and sand to flow through the pier, instead of solid piers that trap sand.

This is useful when access to the lake is desired without creating a beach, which is what happens with a solid pier. Along a shoreline, sand moves in the direction of the biggest waves. In Lake Michigan, the biggest waves usually come from the north. When a solid pier is installed perpendicular to a beach in Lake Michigan, sand gets pushed up against the north side of the pier – something that is immediately evident when you look at an aerial photo of a shoreline with impermeable piers or groins installed. Back when the Makepeace Wood piers were installed, the belief was that this kind of permeable pier stopped or even reversed beach erosion. But since that time, it’s been determined that permeable piers had no positive or negative effect on beach erosion, so better strategies have been developed.

We were able to identify the objects with the help of Charles Shabica, whose company designs and engineers shore protection systems, and he recognized the objects. According to Shabica, these piers were once common on the northern Illinois shoreline. They are constructed of these concrete beams over steel piles, and were built from the late 1930s to the 1960s. The pieces our viewers asked about are parts of an Evanston pier that deteriorated or was dismantled and left in in the lake as rubble to protect the shore. The Evanston piers were built from 1945 to 1948 and were 150-250 feet in length.

There is still a functional Makepeace Wood pier in Winnetka – Shabica took us to see it in action. The Makepeace Wood piers were also used in New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, and even beaches on the island of Jamaica. Permeable piers like these are still used when access to the water is desired without changing the shape of the beach.

In my commute on I-355, I see an old smokestack near the Veterans Memorial Bridge, but no factory. What factory was located there?
Robert Evans, Frankfort

This lonely smokestack stands beside a pond in the middle of the Keepataw Preserve, which is a Will County Forest Preserve property in unincorporated DuPage Township. It is a remnant of a limestone quarrying facility belonging to the Western Stone Company, a giant conglomeration of six Des Plaines Valley quarrying companies that operated at the site from 1889 to 1918. The neighboring pond and a few others like it dotting the preserve were long-ago quarry pits.

The Western Stone Company fell on hard times prior to 1920 partly because its president, Chicago City Councilman Martin B. Madden, got elected to the U.S. Congress and began paying less attention to his stone business, and also because of a decline in local limestone’s use as a building material. By 1925 the site was listed as abandoned in the state geological survey. The property changed hands a few times until it was acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Will County in 1978.

Archeologists gathered a wealth of information about limestone processing technology in the late 19th century from the site, but no one knows why the stack was never demolished along with the rest of the facility.

The trails were underwater when we went to see it with a Will County Forest Preserve team, so we were only able to capture it from a distance, but you can still see what an oddity it is in the preserve, rising up out of the prairie landscape (the two photos of the stack are courtesy of the Will County folks). Today, the land is a quiet home to prairie plants and wildlife, as well as nature lovers out for a contemplative hike or bike ride.

What are the objects across the street from the Logan Square monument near Comfort Station at Milwaukee and Kedzie?
Dave Gudewicz, Third Lake

These are called dual port vent stacks, and they provide air circulation and ventilation to older parts of Chicago’s underground system of natural gas distribution pipes. They’re a vestige of Peoples Gas’ earliest days of supplying gas to Chicago.  Peoples Gas started out in 1850 lighting the city’s streets with gas lamps via 24,000 feet of underground gas mains. These days, natural gas is no longer used for lighting, but of course it is still used for heating and cooking. And it’s distributed via 4,000 miles of pipes running under the city. More than half of that system has been upgraded -- the remaining 1,600 miles will be replaced over the next 10-20 years. The new lines don’t need the vent stacks, but there are a handful of old stacks like these around the city.

What's with the windmill on the north side of 47th and Aberdeen?
Alice Harper-Jones, Chicago

The 24-story wind turbine does have quite a presence in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. It generates roughly 880,000 kilowatt hours of energy annually for its owner, wholesale produce distributor Testa Produce, whose name is emblazoned on the turbine. That’s about 30 percent of the building’s electricity needs. It’s the most visible example of Testa Produce’s commitment to sustainable practices in an industry that consumes a lot of energy, particularly in refrigeration of its products.

According to Testa Produce, this was the first freestanding wind turbine in Chicago when it was installed in April 2011. From the ground to the top of an upright blade, it stands 238 feet tall. Each blade is 70 feet long and the foundation plunges 48 feet underground.

Testa Produce has been in business more than 100 years in Chicago, but their energy technology is anything but old. Their 91,000-square-foot refrigerated food distribution facility also boasts 180 solar panels, a retention pond, a green roof, and other environmentally-friendly features, all of which helped them earn LEED Platinum Certification in 2011. Testa Produce believes that clean energy is smart not only from a financial perspective – they expect the turbine will pay for itself by 2021 – but also from a sales perspective, as it gives them an advantage with restaurants and other businesses who share their green ethos.

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