Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Chicago Encounter With China: the "Golden Temple"

A little over twenty years ago, I started a newsletter called Chicago China Newslink. One of the topics I wrote about was a Chinese-themed pavilion that had been sponsored by a local industrialist and included in the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Below are four articles about the "Golden Temple of Jehol." They are slightly edited from the original. In a subsequent blog post I will provide some reflections and updates on the topic.

"The Golden Temple of Jehol"
Century of Progress Exposition commemorative print

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Chicagoans Chase Elusive "Golden Temple of Jehol"

(originally published July, 1998, in Chicago China Newslink

What do you do with a temple that has been scrupulously copied from an original in North China, erected at world's fairs in Chicago and New York, then dismantled and shuffled between a series of warehouses in the U.S., and ended up languishing in storage in Sweden?

Rebuild it in Chicago! At least that's what Chicago architect Charles Gregersen says the current holders of the temple hope to do.

Gregersen is a specialist in restoring and conserving historic buildings, and he has traced in minute detail the journey of the "Golden Temple of Jehol," which was originally commissioned for the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933.

"The temple is currently in the possession of a foundation in Sweden, disassembled and in storage. It was rescued from oblivion years ago by the Swedish foundation and its head, Max Woeler, and they had hoped to erect it as a museum," says Gregersen. "But those hopes seem to be fading." According to Gregersen, Max Woeler believes the foundation's best hopes of fulfilling the terms of its trust now lie in making the temple available to be rebuilt in some other location, such as Chicago.

The ideal location for the temple is somewhere on the Museum Campus, the site of the 1933 exposition, says Gregersen. "In fact, there is a triangle of land just east of the Field Museum that would be perfect," he says, continuing, "Don't forget -- this is the only remaining building of all those originally commissioned specially for the Century of Progress. Nothing could be more appropriate than restoring it to its original location."

With the renaissance under way in Chicago-based China activity, that plan seems all the more appropriate.

Little by little, the story of the temple is becoming known in business and cultural circles in Chicago. "Our committee has had the opportunity to learn a little bit about it, and it certainly is a fascinating story," says William Spence, a partner at Freeborn and Peters. Spence is the co-chairman of the committee of Chicagoans who are helping to build strong links between Chicago and the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Shenyang.

"Now, all that is needed is the money," says Gregersen. He cites estimates of $3 million for the cost of constructing a foundation for the 5,000 square foot temple and restoring its former condition.

And what of the original temple -- the one in China? It was reported to have fallen into disrepair, but Gregersen believes restoration is under way. The temple is ensconced in the central courtyard of the largest of a group of structures in the 18th century imperial summer retreat at Chengde (about 90 miles northeast of central Beijing), also known as Jehol.

"The Golden Pavilion of Jehol of which the Bendix Lama Temple of Chicago
is an absolutely faithful replica made in Peking by Chinese workers."
(Source: The Chinese Lama Temple Potala of Jehol exhibition booklet)

Recalled to Life
... and recalled to Chicago? How conservators on three continents are saving a piece of China's past

(originally published September, 1998, in Chicago China Newslink

The first time Swedish architect Max Woeler saw the original structure on which the "Golden Temple of Jehol" was based, in 1988, he was overwhelmed by a mixture of delight and melancholy.

Delight was inevitable for someone who had, like Woeler, spent the previous five years in a dogged effort to conserve what remained of the replica -- the pieces of the full-size re-creation of the original structure, which were in storage at the time in Stockholm. "It was the first time I had been to China, and I was filled with anticipation. There was a whole group of us, and we spent three weeks in China altogether, but the most exciting part, our real goal, was seeing the original pavilion, set within the high-walled enclosure perched in the ills of the old imperial summer resort area of Chengde [Jehol]."

At the same time, reaching that goal was bittersweet. According to Woeler, "The whole place was in a state of disrepair. The pavilion itself was dilapidated, rather run-down. None of the precious artifacts remained inside it. The area had been occupied by Japanese troops prior to WWII, and before that the warlords had sold off artifacts to buy weapons. But mainly, the problem was just the passage of time -- as if nothing had been repaired since the days of the emperors."

What Woeler saw in that moment seemed to confirm the prediction made by another Swede, nearly 60 years earlier. Sven Hedin, a famous explorer and the man who oversaw the production of the pavilion replica that later stood in Chicago, wrote in 1930, "In ten or twenty years [the original] will be nothing but a mass of ruins. When [it] has rotted away, the Western World will be able to rejoice that a faithful copy of it has been preserved." Hedin felt the structure [in Jehol] was "the most sumptuous, not only in Chengde, but in the whole of China." The replica was as sumptuous as the original. In fact, Hedin thought the replica had one advantage over the original: writing in 1930, he had commented that the surrounding walls were placed so close to the original pavilion that there was no way for a spectator to step back and get a full view of it. The replica, in contrast, was ideally situated. "In its new position in the land across the sea, this masterpiece of Chinese architecture will come into its own. There, it will be possible to see it standing alone against a background of leafy trees, and there the sinking sun will make the red colonnades glow like real gold."

Both the original and the replica were neglected for many years, but, by the late 1980s, people had begun to recognize the importance of preserving such treasures, and architect Max Woeler found that the goals of his Chinese hosts closely paralleled his own. "They were setting about to refurbish the original, just as I was trying to recondition the replica. We made a plan to work together -- to exchange technical expertise."

The refurbishing of the various structures in the Chengde complex was an enormous effort. Prof. James Hevia confirmed this after a 1991 visit to the original. He wrote: "At that time, the Potala was undergoing massive reconstruction. The center of the structure, where the Golden Pavilion stood, was completely closed off, while other portions were only partly accessible. It was clear, however, that the restoration staff had to rebuild parts of the structure from scratch." (from a pre-publication version of New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde)

The Golden Pavilion is 70 feet wide and 70 feet deep, and 60 feet high. (The replica and the original are identical in size.) Major repairs included replacing an elevated gallery in the walls surrounding it. The elevated gallery allows a closer view of some of the best parts of the pavilion, on the upper levels, but the gallery had been burnt down long before, probably prior to the wartime era.

But the intricate details, carved and painted on hundreds of wood panels, were as challenging as the expansive structural work. For the painting alone, there was a team of 70 craftsmen. At that time, there were no artisans left who knew these specialized crafts. Now, little by little, young people are learning these special skills again.

The Chengde restorations were completed in 1991. On a return visit, Hevia confirmed that a lot had changed: much of the restoration was complete, the entire site had been placed on the UNESCO world cultural heritage list, and "[its] new status as a global as well as national treasure seemed to be epitomized in part by the large crowds of domestic and foreign tourists, including large numbers of overseas Chinese . . . . [The] streets were bustling."

As for architect Woeler, since first becoming involved with the pavilion in 1983, he had spent one entire year tracking it down to a warehouse in Ohio, and then procured it for restoration, planning to put it up in a park in Stockholm.

Woeler set up a foundation to handle the massive project. First, the pieces of the pavilion replica had to be shipped to Sweden -- overall, it took nine forty-foot truckloads! Then preparations had to be made to refurbish key components, especially the beautifully painted surfaces and gold-plated copper roof tiles. In addition, a site was selected in a Stockholm park, and designs were drawn up to allow the structure to function as an exhibition hall, so that it could have a functional use, as well as serving as a symbol of growing ties with China and as an important cultural artifact.

All that was needed to situate the structure in Sweden was the final agreement on the land. Unfortunately, obstacles emerged, and bit by bit grew insurmountable. Woeler and his foundation were unable to bring the project to completion.

But Woeler hasn't given up. "It will really be like a phoenix, rising from the ashes," says Woeler, " -- when it finally gets built, that is!" Now his hopes have turned from Sweden back to the land that originally hosted the structure. "I think the pavilion should be brought back to America -- preferably Chicago!" he says.

A committee of interested Chicagoans has been formed to determine whether funds can be raised to bring the Golden Pavilion replica back to Chicago and erect it here.

Title page, The Chinese Lama Temple Potala of Jehol exhibition booklet,
with portrait of donor Vincent Bendix.

The Idea's the Thing
What inspired Vincent Bendix to create one of the century's great monuments to Chinese art and locate it in Chicago?

(originally published November, 1998, in Chicago China Newslink

Source note: Invaluable assistance for this article was provided by
Charles Gregersen, historic preservation architect
University of Illinois at Chicago: The University Library, Century of Progress Records
Mr. Pete Leatherwood, Director of Communications, retired, AlliedSignal/Bendix
Northern Indiana Center for History
King of Stop and Go by Menefee R. Clements
Family of Donald Boothby, Bendix architect

Vincent Bendix was a man who liked to make things. Even more, he was a man who liked to DO things, and do them in a BIG way. And if the things he made and the things he did caught people's attention, and captured their imagination, well, that was all right with him, too.

Bendix has been called "The King of Stop and Go," after two of his inventions which had an enormous impact on the auto industry: the Bendix brake and the automatic starter. Those two products were just the most important in a long list of products that he invented and/or commercialized, products ranging from carburetors, hydraulic steering, and u-joints, to aircraft wheels, brakes, and struts.

Bendix once said, "Business is only a collection of ideas, and you must keep getting a new idea." Bendix seemed to have an endless supply of ideas -- one former Bendix employee said Bendix "had more ideas than he had money to implement them" -- and those ideas went beyond just mechanics. It was Bendix who, in 1928, bought the Potter Palmer Mansion, together with a block of Chicago Gold Coast property, and planned to erect a $25 million dollar hotel there. It was Bendix who created the annual Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, which culminated with Gatsbyesque parties at his South Bend, Indiana estate. It was Bendix who bought a rather ordinary West Palm Beach mansion and turned it into an Italianate palace -- with the help, of course, of imported Italian palace builders.

But, more than anything else, history is likely to remember that it was Bendix who conceived and executed the erection of a magnificent Chinese structure on Chicago's lakeshore in conjunction with the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition -- one which was visited by over two million visitors. One of those visitors was Joe DeFilipps, today a Nebraska travel agent who in 1833 was an 8-year-old student at Washington Irving School on Chicago's West Side. "What I remember most of all was just how beautiful it was -- and how big!!" says DeFilipps. "When you're eight years old, a five story building looks like a twenty story building. And of course, I remember the golden roof."

Perhaps Bendix wasn't the only one who could have come up with the original idea. After all, in the 1920s, everyone was reading the headlines about China and the great archaeological discoveries made there by the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. It was natural to think about bringing those discoveries before the public.

Still, it was Bendix who, as a leader of the Swedish-American community (one who had, in fact, been recognized for his public service by the King of Sweden), was in a position to meet Hedin and learn about Hedin's ideas in person.

In the same way, the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition inspired scores of structures of a kind never seen before from contributors in Chicago and all over the United States, and from around the world, not just from Bendix. There were industrial exhibitions, concept pavilions like "The Future of Transport," pavilions of foreign nations, and more. The Century of Progress was as much about commerce as it was about entertainment and education. In large part, it was an explicit testament to the decade of economic development, especially in the automobile industry, that had made Bendix, himself, a rich man. By 1927, his plant was producing 26,000 brakes daily, and those brakes were used to outfit cars from Autocar, Willys, Hudson (& Essex), Marmon, Packard, Studebaker, to Lord's Lincoln and GMC's Oldsmobile. Not surprisingly, the most prominent pavilions at the Century of Progress belonged to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, together with exhibits by Goodyear, Firestone, and Sinclair, and the spectacular "Wings of a Century Pageant of Transportation" pavilion.

What was intriguing about the project Bendix conceived was that, although it was certainly intended as a publicity vehicle for him and his companies, it was a profoundly subtle and indirect publicity vehicle. While the auto and utility companies were using their exhibition pavilions as little more than glorified car and appliance showrooms, and the national pavilions held obvious benefits, both diplomatic as well as for trade and tourism promotion, Bendix's pavilion was intent on addressing some "better angels" of his public's nature. Bendix was flamboyant and loved publicity, but he also "preferred the soft sell over the hard sell," as one of his former employees put it.

Another important consideration in all this, beyond the Chinese theme and the idea of doing something big for the Century of Progress, was the money. Bendix wasn't the only one with automobile money in those days. Nor was he the only one funneling all that money into Gold Coast property development. However, some people's money started to dry up as the Roaring '20s gave way to the Depression '30s. The son of Bendix's architect, Donald Boothby, recalls his father saying, "To an architect, Bendix was a godsend -- it meant having a job at a time when jobs were very hard to come by." The senior Boothby, busily employed in implementing Bendix's architectural visions, was doing well enough to buy a new $3,900 Packard in the early '30s, and thought of his employer as a kind of Midwestern Medici.

Of course, even a Medici has to have influence as well as wealth, and, in the late 1920s, wealth didn't confer much influence until after it had been transformed through devotion to civic responsibility. In 1929, Harvey Warren Zorbaugh wrote in The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago's Near North Side: "The means by which members of the Four Hundred become the arbiters of the social world, get into the top dozen, are many and varied. One accomplishes it by managing a world's fair and taking a prominent part in notable civic movements ... One is frowned upon, a little, in more conservative circles if one does not take a part in the larger civic and social movements of the day."

Bendix seemed a step ahead of others in this respect, as well: his administrative partner in the Golden Pavilion venture was none other than Daniel Burnham (Jr.), son of the Daniel Burnham of "make no little plans" fame, and himself secretary of the entire Century of Progress project. Likewise, Bendix was living in the mansion whose renown stemmed from being the former home of the Impressionist art collection that eventually formed the core of the Art Institute's holdings; he filled it with a new collection, one consisting of precious artifacts from China, and rechristened it "The Bendix Gallery."

Bendix's imprint on this project was unmistakable: only Bendix could have done something which was at once so quixotic and at the same time so grounded in the nuts-and-bolts realities of manufacturing and construction.

In the first place, there was the procurement of the components of a pavilion in distant China. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Bendix's money was well-spent, considering the spectacular Chinese structure it bought. The man Bendix relied upon, Sven Hedin, was a generally-recognized authority and inspired great confidence. Still, in 1929, entrusting a third party to embark for warlord-run and bandit-infested North China with $125,000, knowing that you would hear nothing from him for months, took nerve.

Second, a superstructure needed to be supplied. Hedin copied and brought back reproductions of most of the intricate woodwork of the original temple. That left the structural elements -- foundation, supporting columns, and roof -- to be fabricated in the U.S.

Ah yes! That roof . . . .  The builders needed a way to re-create the gold-foil-coated roof for which the structure was so well-known. For a manufacturer like Bendix, the solution was obvious: he put his South Bend plant to work stamping out 25,000 copper roof tiles and plating them with 23-carat gold.

Finally, more than anything else, there was the management of the thousand-and-one details that go into any production of this kind. I like to imagine Bendix, in his offices on the 38th floor of the Bankers Building in the Loop (on the southwest corner of Madison and Clarke, just west of The Rookery), where he could look out to where workmen were laying the foundations of the Century of Progress pavilions. What were his days like? (The interior painting - can we get it done on time? What material will we use to pave the outside? How will admission work? How about postcard sales? Incense sales? How do we get the lighting just right?) I try to remind myself that, for someone like Bendix -- someone who had established his first manufacturing company in 1907, and had been churning through business ideas continuously ever since -- the day-to-day travails of an undertaking such as the pavilion were probably more refreshment than anything else.

Ironically, the greatest challenge for Bendix was to figure out what to do with the structure after the Century of Progress Exposition was over. Like every other exhibitor, he had agreed to abide by the Century of Progress Ordinance, guaranteeing that he would remove his structure, so that the lakeshore site could be returned in its natural condition to the South Park Commissioners. After much negotiation and request for extensions (some granted, some not), Bendix's organization in March, 1938, disassembled the structure and put it into storage. The Golden Pavilion had been created with the kind of care that goes into great and enduring buildings, and Bendix and others wanted to see it re-erected permanently. It was resurrected briefly for the 1939 World's Fair in New York, after which Bendix gave it to Oberlin College as part of a Center for Oriental Studies it was to build. It then went into deep hibernation. It passed to a series of trustees, principally other universities with interests in Asian Studies, but none could ever match Bendix's ingenuity at getting the structure erected for public display.

Bendix went on to other things. His Bendix Brake Company has had a glorious history in South Bend, Indiana; it is now Bosch Braking Systems (div. Robert Bosch Corporation). Other companies he founded included Bendix Aviation Corp. and Bendix Helicopters. According to one former employee, Bendix helped finance Amelia Earhart's ill-fated flight, was a part-owner of the original Washington Nationals (forerunners of the Senators), and helped build the original stadium at Notre Dame. Vincent Bendix died in 1945, with yet another grand project on the drawing board: "a popular type helicopter four-passenger sedan . . . to be ready for mass production after the war . . . . " Chicago skies are not yet full of family helicopters, but, with luck, they will once again soon be graced by the silhouette of Vincent Bendix's finest idea.

An imagined rendering of the Macartney mission.
(See description from Royal Museums Greenwich)

Noble Witness
Did the Golden Pavilion loom over the seminal event in Sino-Western relations?

(originally published April, 1999, in Chicago China Newslink

The Summer Palace of the Qing Emperors at Jehol was the site of perhaps the most important diplomatic encounter in China's history of engagement with the West. In 1793, Lord George Macartney traveled to China bearing messages from King George III to the Emperor of China. The Emperor's reply to those proposals contained what has become perhaps the most pithy statement of China's attitude toward the outside world: "We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures." His reply went on to veto proposals for trading stations, warehouse locations, anchorages, and other aids to international intercourse. And so nearly two centuries of mutual misunderstanding was set in motion.

This encounter, along with its aftermath, is a staple of every history of China's interaction with the West. An often overlooked fact about this famous event, however, is that it took place not in Beijing but in the Imperial Summer Palace at Jehol -- the site of the original Golden Pavilion. This is not exceptional. Qing Dynasty emperors -- like any number of modern chief executives, who have discovered that, if they can rule from anywhere, why not rule from someplace they enjoy being? -- spent a very substantial portion of the year at the Jehol complex.

Sven Hedin devoted a chapter of his book, Jehol: City of Emperors, to the Macartney mission. He focused in particular on the not inconsiderable question of whether Macartney would kowtow to the Emperor, or if the Emperor would instead tolerate some lesser evidence of respect. The Chinese side had the foresight to be gracious and accept kneeling on one knee, probably reasoning that, as the ones who would make a record of the proceedings for posterity, they would have ample opportunity to spin the event. (Hedin wrote, "Court gossip asserted afterwards that the noble Lord had been so overcome in tghe presence of the mighty ruler that his legs gave way and he fell upon all fours. If he had refused to kowtow of his own accord, the presence of the Emperor obliged him to do so.")

The central business of the meeting was the transmission of a letter from the King of England to the Emperor of China, requesting a number of accommodations for the purposes of trade, as well as the presentation of a large quantity of official gifts.

[One of those gifts was described as "A clock resembling an astronomical instrument by which one can easily explain and reconcile the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens. It is useful in the study of astronomy and geography."  Was this instrument useful for navigation? Was it possibly related to the breakthrough marine chronometer (described in Dava Sobel's 1995 book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time)? It would be ironic if this was one of the "ingenious articles" which the Emperor later said he "did not highly value."]

Macartney's visit had to compete for attention with visits by other ambassadors, such as those of Burma and Mongolia, and it was wedged in-between numerous other court functions, as well. "On the Emperor's birthday, September 17th, the Ambassador received an invitation to a review at which Captain Parish estimated 12,000 officers and 80,000 troops were present." One wonders if this display of power made Macartney feel any trepidation for himself -- did he have second thoughts about his principled refusal to follow the court ritual of the kowtow? -- or for the future of the interactions between his own, very powerful, country and the one he was visiting.

Hedin observed that "it is interesting to compare the manner in which Qianlong received the King's envoy with the deference and obsequiousness with which, thirteen years earlier, he had received the Tashi Lama. For him the King of England was merely one vassal among hundreds, whereas the Tashi Lama had power over all the Lamaist lands which were under the rule of the Middle Kingdom. In the opinion of the Emperor, Tibet was of far greater importance than Great Britain." What might the role of the Golden Pavilion in the 1780 visit by the Tashi Lama have been?

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