Friday, October 28, 2016

From Garbage to "Ghostbusters": The Strange Case of Streeterville

    In urban areas around the world, architecture’s brilliant progress has been checked by many faults.  For every successful design there are ten that fail--aesthetically, financially, or environmentally.  Most troublesome have been the so-called “sick buildings” that have caused everything from nausea and headaches to brain tumors and cancer, due to difficulties with exhaust and ventilation systems, mold growth and other quirks.  In Chicago, one of the most controversial buildings in this birthplace of skyscrapers is believed  by Chicago paranormal experts to have a much more malicious quality. Since its completion in 1968, the John Hancock Center has been the site of multiple murders, suicides and deadly “accidents.”  Why? Windy City occultists are convinced that it is the very design of the place that causes its residents and workers to often take a turn for the worst.

The Hancock under construction.
    The John Hancock Center was designed as a trapezoidal structure by its chief architect, Bruce Graham, under the counsel of  Fazlur Khan, a structural engineer at the esteemed Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Khan proposed the shape as an economical way to combine larger office spaces on the lower floors with smaller apartment units on the upper levels.  But it wasn’t long before some Chicagoans began to question the “innocent” trapezoidal design as a poor one.  Was the building’s form, in fact, the shape of things to come?

    A little over three years after the Hancock’s completion, a 29-year-old Chicago woman named Lorraine Kowalski fell to her death from her boyfriend’s 90th-floor Hancock Center apartment.   To this day, detectives and structural engineers are dumbfounded by the event; the building’s windows are capable of withstanding more than 200 pounds of pressure per square foot and winds of more than 150 miles per hour, yet Kowalski actually broke through the glass.  Four years later, a transmitter technician for a local radio station plunged to his death from the 97th floor offices of his television station. Just three months later, a 27-year old tenant “fell” from his 91st-floor apartment while studying for an exam at breakfast.  In 1978, a 31-year old woman shot a man to death in his home on the Hancock’s 65th floor, and in 1998, beloved comedian Chris Farley was found dead in the entrance hall of his 60th-floor apartment.  Most recently, in March of 2002, a 25-foot aluminum scaffold fell from the building’s 43rd floor, crushing three cars, killing three women and injuring 8 others.  Most of the incidents were called by detectives "baffling," "inexplicable" and seemingly unmotivated.

    Many years before construction on the Hancock began, the area it would occupy was part of the most luxurious residential district in the city--the Gold Coast--, and this neighborhood, still known as Streeterville--was already thought to be a cursed tract of land.  Cap Streeter was a ragtag former sea captain who made a living ferrying passengers between Chicago and Milwaukee on a beat up old schooner he owned with his wife.  After the vessel literally washed up on the Chicago shore during a storm, Cap decided to settle down in the city for good.  He staked claim to the very parcel of land on which he had run ashore:  prime lakefront property much in demand by Chicago‘s first families.  Cap found the land so lovely that he decided to share the beauty.  He set up shop in the old Tremont Hotel, selling tracts of “his“ land to willing buyers.  Soon a legion of squatters peppered the lakefront, angering Chicago‘s elite and the city council that served them.  But when the city tried repeatedly to run off the trespassers, Cap and company responded with shotguns, batons and all manner of homemade weapons .  When Cap ran out of land to sell, he quickly made more by inviting residents and contractors to dump their garbage on his land for free . . . creating one of the most desirable garbage dumps in history, the soon-to-be "Gold Coast" of Chicago.

    The battle over “Cap’s” land--which he called Streeterville--raged until the man’s dying hour--and beyond. On his deathbed, Cap cursed “his” land and swore that no one would ever be happy on it again.  Then is the “Curse of Cap Streeter” the source of the Hancock’s problem?

    Not likely.  But it can’t help.
Captain George Streeter and cronies with the first"Streeterville" shack.

    In 1930, a baby boy was born in Chicago.   Musically gifted, Anton Szandor LaVey grew to enjoy a colorful career with many facets, playing in nightclubs and even taming lions for a time.  On a spring night in the 1960s, LaVey brought some like-minded friends together, ceremoniously shaved his head, and founded what he called the “Church of Satan,” an institution that was part religion, part philosophy, and all based on his own extensive ideas about love, hate, pleasure and will.
 When occultists like LaVey saw the plans for the Hancock revealed, they were devastated.  The problem? Not necessarily one for the city itself, but for the residents and workers of the Hancock structure.

 The Hancock center offers both apartments and offices, and all of the apartments are on the outer edge of the structure, wrapping around the outside as in any other such building.  Unfortunately, in the Hancock, every one of these apartments has, due to the trapezoidal structure of the building, an outer wall that is “off-kilter” because it does not rise at 90 degrees.  Many--LaVey among them--have believed that these “strange angles” have caused residents of the Hancock to behave in strange and deadly ways, and that the superhuman strength of those who have forced themselves or others through  the building’s seemingly impenetrable windows were calling on a ready supply of supernatural energy in the Hancock itself:  energy coming through the “portal” of its trapezoidal structure.

    Students of popular culture will want to note three intriguing facts about the Hancock.  First, the structure’s legend is said to have inspired Harold Ramis’s Hollywood dream of a diabolical building: the centerpiece of his film, “Ghostbusters.”  At the time the script was being written, Ramis and Dan Aykroyd paid a weekend visit to friend John Belushi, who at the time was living in the Hancock apartments.  As he regaled them with tales of his strange home's structure, the wheels began to turn, and the idea of a skyscraper as a "portal to the supernatural" was born.  Second, the late, little Heather O’Rourke, myth-shrouded star of the “Poltergeist“ films, took a turn for the worst after a final publicity plug  . . . held in one of the Hancock’s studios.   This was shared with me by her grandfather himself.   Third, a number of controversial or distressed personalities have called the Hancock home; among them, talk show host Jerry Springer, Catholic priest and novelist Andrew Greeley, and--as mentioned--comedian Farley, whose time in the building (his friends say) was riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, the eventual cause of his death.

Anton LaVey with the late Sharon Tate
 LaVey wrote many essays during his time as the Satanic Church’s leader, including fascinating analyses of the problems of modern architecture.  In his essay, "The Law of the Trapezoid"--part of his collection entitled The Devil's Notebook--La Vey talked about the trapezoidal shape as holding significant power for arcane forces: traditionally, the shape is believed to serve as a doorway or “portal” for occult--or even diabolical--forces.   As a young man, LaVey was fascinated with the thought of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror novels often feature characters grappling with the dangers of “strange angles,” and it was Lovecraft’s work which led LaVey to first pursue his study of modern architecture’s sometimes deadly capabilities.