The big blue windmill on Burling Street
Freshly installed sculpture brings questions of safety, legality and aesthetics
11/09/2011 10:00 PM
When John Novak put a large, windmill-like sculpture on the front lawn of his soon-to-be-completed home at the corner of Armitage Avenue and Burling Street, he thought of it as a gift to his future neighbors.
“The majority of them are very positive about it,” said Novak, referring to the blue steel sculpture, a piece from a series of similar works by Tennessee-based artist John Henry, whom Novak called a personal friend.
Novak, president of the Chicago-based Novak Construction Inc., refused to comment on the price of the work, which previously sat in the Orlando Museum of Art before being transported to Chicago, but suggested that a sculpture of that size was usually worth “in excess of a million dollars.”
“It’s going to be a real asset for the whole community,” he said.
But when Evelyn McCullen first viewed the big blue windmill at the end of her street about two weeks ago, all she saw was a liability.
The windmill, which stands about 40 feet tall and faces northeast toward the adjacent Lincoln Park High School, has one arm that juts out past Novak’s fence and over the sidewalk — a feature that made McCullen question whether the owner had acquired the proper permits to install the piece.
“He has the right to put any kind of art that he wants on his property,” she said. “My complaint is that it goes beyond his property line.”
McCullen, who lives about a block and a half south of Novak’s home on Burling, started making calls to the office of Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) to check on Novak’s permissions for the property.
McCullen also contacted media outlets in the city, and even set up an email distribution list to discuss the issue with neighbors. She soon found that there were some in the area who were worried about whether the sculpture would create a safety risk.
“From a neighborhood standpoint, we’re upset that something so large went up in the neighborhood without any type of neighbor notification,” she said.
But not everyone shared her concerns.
“I’ll agree that it is a little out of proportion to the size of the house, but that’s [Novak’s] decision to make as a property owner,” said David Vernerin, a board member with the local neighborhood group Lincoln Central Association. “If she’s concerned about icicles falling off and causing injuries, then cross the street.”
Vernerin said that the sculpture would be discussed at an upcoming LCA meeting.
Smith’s spokeswoman Althea Conyers said that the alderman’s staff was currently looking into whether Novak had gone through the appropriate channels to erect the sculpture.
“The question that was brought to us was a zoning concern, which is why we are checking into it,” said Conyers. “That is our duty, that’s our protocol for this office.”
When asked whether he had attained the permits to have the piece hanging over the sidewalk, Novak declined to comment. He did say, however, that the sculpture had been OKed by the former alderman, Vi Daley, who retired from the ward post in May.
“She was very supportive,” he said. “She loved it, encouraged it [and] endorsed it.”
Daley’s memory of that approval wasn’t as vivid.
She said that Novak had told her about the sculpture years ago when they discussed the construction project at the property, but stated that she hadn’t given him permission to install it — mainly, she said, because he didn’t include that it would spill out over the public walkway, and thus did not need approval to put up the piece on his own land.
“I knew it was going to be a big sculpture,” she said. “Sometimes people say things, but you’re never sure if it’s going to happen or not.”
Daley’s former chief of staff Chuck Eastwood recalled that the sculpture was not indicated in the permit drawings that the alderman’s office reviewed for the site.
“They never presented us with an application for public way use,” said Eastwood.
Whether or not Novak’s windmill is lawfully sound is yet to be seen, but for now the future Lincoln Park neighbor said he accepts the controversy that has come with the sculpture.
“Whenever a piece of art evokes emotion, I think it’s a great thing, regardless of what that emotion is,” he said. “Maybe ‘love it’ is too strong a term, but I think they’ll come to appreciate it.”
McCullen said that it’s not really an issue of taste, though admitted that she didn’t find the windmill particularly striking.
But McCullen affirmed Novak’s theory that, given enough time, even she could come to terms with the piece.
“If the city says it was it was permitted appropriately, I’ll get used to it,” she said. “I just want to make sure that, legally, he did what he needed to do.”
Novak said he expects to move into the house with his family by the beginning of next year.