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What's Happening With Sulzer Library's VHS Tapes? 

(Not to mention the chairs and tables)

Valentino Rarities is a videotape collection of the silent film star's early shorts. The Sulzer Regional Library is Chicago's only public library that carries it.

How long will that last? In 2005 half of Sulzer's 20,000 VHS tapes were purged, and lately the still impressive collection of 4,795 tapes has been disappearing from its shelves. Ask Sulzer's staff what's going on and they say they're in the dark—or they indicate they're afraid to say anything.

Who'd object to a library cleaning out its tape shelves—VHS being such an obsolete technology? But some folks (including teachers) still have VCRs. And as a Sulzer librarian says, "A lot of older films from years ago—you just can't find them on DVD." Sulzer has the CPL's only copy, in either VHS or DVD, of dozens of silent films, and of lots of other mysteries, dramas, comedies, children's movies, foreign films, documentaries, and travel, educational, and TV shows.

For example, only Sulzer has The Kiss, a 1929 silent film starring Greta Garbo, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 release with Fay Wray, All Through the Night, a 1942 Humphrey Bogart movie, and The Paris Express, a 1953 film starring Claude Rains. The foreign language section stocks Jean Pioret in The Elegant Criminal, 1990. And from television, there are episodes of The Saint with Roger Moore from 1966 and the Nancy Drew Mysteries with Pamela Sue Martin from 1977.

After days spent trying to find out from the library's top brass what's going on, late last week we finally received a response. Chicago Public Library spokesperson Ruth Lednicer said via e-mail, "The staff at Sulzer is in the process of consolidating the movies in preparation to move them to the second floor. The area in which they are currently kept is going to become a teen section and the teen books will be moved to those shelves."

She added, "I can say with all certainty there is no plan to remove the VHS movies from Sulzer. If it were to change, we would let you know."

There's no apparent room for the collection on the second floor, but Lednicer says they'll be able to reconfigure the space without throwing anything out. But we've heard that before. When CPL commissioner Mary Dempsey tripled the number of computers at Sulzer Library this winter, Lednicer said, "We are not getting rid of any books or magazines to make room for the computers. . . . We are simply being more efficient in the use of space." Yet that didn't turn out to be the case. Old single issues of magazines that used to go back five years or more now only go back to 2009. Bound copies of magazines still date back to the 1920s, but now Sulzer has only Time, Newsweek, Life, Look, National Geographic, Ladies' Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post. It used to keep bound copies of 15 other magazines—Vogue, Art in America, House Beautiful, Historic Illinois, Theatre Arts Monthly, and Architectural Digest among them. They've been sent downtown to the Harold Washington Library—duplicating a collection the Harold Washington already had.

Says Lednicer, "The resources are available within the library system, but just not always in the same location. We can't say, 'We won't get rid of old magazines,' and mean they will stay at Sulzer. They could move downtown."

But if it doesn't make much of a difference to the CPL brass whether magazines—or tapes, for that matter—are downtown or at Sulzer, it certainly does to the people in the community who use Sulzer. Were they asked if they wanted more computers and fewer magazines? No, the public wasn't consulted. Were they asked how they feel about the VHS collection? No, again.

And then there's the matter of Sulzer's furniture—the hand-carved, hand-painted, whimsical pieces of site-specific furniture created for the library when it opened in 1985. On this wooden furniture you could find Adam and Eve, various constellations, the four seasons, and much more—a chair featuring the Snow Queen was chosen for the Museum of Science and Industry's 1985 exhibit, 150 Years of Chicago Architecture.

Many of those pieces now have stickers attached, mostly tiny blue dots, but some in other colors. Does this mean the furniture is on its way out, and that some pieces are destined for the scrap heap?

Again, the staff at Sulzer is in the dark and so is the public. I attended last week's library board meeting and spoke up as a concerned member of that public, Sulzer being my neighborhood library for the past ten years. Mary Dempsey showed contempt for the furniture. "It's 25 years old," she said, "and mostly broken, falling apart." But many of the pieces are actually in good shape, and even the most battered ones could be restored—either by the library or by whatever school or organization Sulzer donated the furniture to—if it donated the furniture.

Tannys Langdon was Hammond, Beeby & Babka's project architect for Sulzer Library and the creative force behind the furniture. She tells me, "You would imagine that they'd think this furniture was absolutely fantastic and should be preserved. People say it's more convenient to have new furniture, so they say, 'Let's get rid of this old crap.'"

Langdon says Thomas Beeby, the design architect, spent a fair amount of time in Germany, his wife's homeland, and owned "a really great book about painted furniture. He said, 'Wouldn't it be great to design furniture, and see where it goes?' I had a blast doing the big watercolors—the drawings for the prototypes."

Woodworking Corporation, a millwork company based in New Paris, Indiana, made the furniture. Langdon trained recent art school graduate Lori Coy, the sister of the company's owner, to paint and stencil the designs.

"It was appreciated by so many people at the time it was designed," Langdon says. "People were really looking for something avant-garde, and this was really pushing the boundaries."

Progressive Architecture magazine devoted a page to Sulzer's furniture in a 1985 article that said the library cost $5.1 million to build, the furniture $700,000. And two years earlier, when Sulzer and its furnishings were still only plans, the magazine gave Sulzer an award citation. It explained that "special furniture design is based on the neighborhood's European tradition, using primitive peasant forms as a foil to the building. Planar surface will be painted with a profusion of flora and fauna ornament that emphasize the form of each piece and frames areas for painted scenes."

In all, 115 plank chairs, winged chairs, trestle tables, and bigger rectangular tables were custom built for Sulzer. But Langdon says that seven or eight years ago, "[Dempsey] said all the big, hand-designed and hand-painted tables were going. I have no idea where they went, but she replaced them with white oak library tables."

Lednicer claims "many of the pieces simply wore out" and were moved out by the CPL's Department of General Services. She doesn't know what happened to them after that. The department hasn't returned our phone calls. As for the remaining pieces, she says they're being rearranged. "There is no plan to throw out any pieces that are still in good condition." But what constitutes "good condition?" And why can't someone at least say what those tags mean?

Langdon happened to be involved in the library's move from the old Hild building, which now houses the Old Town School of Folk Music. She tagged the furniture that was making the move, saving as much of it as possible. A rocking chair stands out in her memory. "Leah [Steele, Sulzer's then executive director] called me and said, 'Someone is chopping up the furniture.' And I ran down there and it was too late to save it, the rocking chair was gone, literally busted up into pieces."

At the moment, Sulzer still has 75 of the original 115 pieces of furniture. Are they about to become as rare as Rudolph Valentino videotapes?

Image of VHS tapes via Flickr/Tantrum_Dan
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