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A modest proposal for an Austin arts and cultural center

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Imagine if Mt. Rushmore were located in the heart of the Austin neighborhood. The world would be beating a path to our door.

The well-kept secret is that Austin already has its own Mt. Rushmore. The Laramie State Bank Building is one of the finest examples of Art Deco commercial architecture in the world.

In 1929, architects Meyer and Cook undertook a massive overhaul of a modest one-story building that originally housed the Ruzicka Drug Store.

After the renovation, the Laramie State Bank was awash with butterscotch-colored terra cotta tiles. Each tile was sculpted by Chicago artisans employed by the Northwestern Terra Cotta Co., which had contracts with prominent architects, such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The hundreds of tiles on the building's fac%u0327ade depict a wealth of images, including industrial workers laboring in factories, surrounded by rivers of coins, squirrels and bees preparing their larder for the winter; an American Eagle sinking its claws into the globe; and a contented family gathering for a meal. The theme of the fac%u0327ade is the importance of hard work and savings to the American experience.

The Austin neighborhood has the opportunity to turn its reputation and livability around in one fell stroke. Public acquisition of the Laramie State Bank Building, at the corner of Laramie and Chicago avenues, for the purpose of establishing an arts, culture and history museum, smack in the middle of Austin, would enliven a slowly emerging commercial corridor along Chicago Avenue and instill civic pride among our residents.

Austin could join Bronzeville, Andersonville and Pilsen as neighborhoods that are anchored by a museum and cultural center. The Laramie State Bank Building is an architectural treasure. It sits on a large piece of land that could serve as a staging area for the music, art and theater talents of Austin's young residents.

A restaurant, gift shop and trained tour guides could provide jobs of substance to our youth, as well as physical and intellectual nourishment to world travelers. Professional and selfless management of the museum and cultural center would insure benefactor and foundation support for the unrivaled enterprise.

The Austin neighborhood has a history that reflects the cruel impact of race relations in America. Originally settled by European immigrants fleeing impoverishment and persecution in their homelands, Austin attracted dozens of architectural landmarks, many of which still exist.

Columbus Park was designed by world-famous landscape architect, Jens Jensen. Homes along Midway Park and Race Avenues reflect the gentility of the Victorian age. By the 1930's, Austin supported a thriving manufacturing district, including the now-abandoned Brach Candy Co. and the Meyercord Decal Co., at 5323 W. Lake St.

By the 1950s, Austin High School was considered one of the best high schools in the Chicago area, with a perennial powerhouse of a football team. Then came the Great Migration.

By 1970, white flight, aggressive blockbusting, and commercial and housing disinvestment turned Austin into an apartheid community, separated from the rest of the world by our own Berlin Wall, known as Austin Boulevard.

Word has it that the Cook County Land Bank Authority may soon acquire the Laramie State Bank. To permit this community resource to be sold and used for anything other than an Austin cultural center would be the equivalent to selling Mt. Rushmore to the Russians or, closer to home, Chicago's public parking meters to private interests.

The main question is whether Austin has the vision and the ability to collaborate to bring such a project to fruition.

— James Bowers, Austin

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