Thursday, July 16, 2009

The shape of a future that never was (Part 3)

Mosquitoes brought Edward G. Lewis to St. Louis, but magazines made him famous.

Famous at the time. Ask the average citizen who Lewis was and they’ll say, “Who?”

For that matter, ask the average Blue Rapids resident and the response will be the same. Mention the Woman’s League chapter house, though, and a few will say, “Oh, Betty and Loren’s place.”

Before the chapter houses and the magazines, before the resplendent octagonal monument rose above the rutted scrape of a city in the making, there was a silver-tongued stranger on the run from Tennessee with a carload of homemade mosquito repellant and a crossroads city awash with malaria. Within weeks of Lewis’ arrival in St. Louis he claimed to have grossed $40,000 in “Anti-Skeet” sales, a feat he followed with “Wonderful bug chalk,” a concoction more anesthetic than pesticidal.

There was nothing he wouldn’t try in pursuit of riches. Molasses candy, a pyramid scheme involving watches, a secret substance “discovered” in the jungles of South America guaranteed to break nicotine dependency, each step brought him closer to financial solvency and disaster. And each twist of fate taught him something of the ways of the world. His gift was the ability to convince others of his sincerity. He could, in short, sell ice to an Eskimo. Behind the facade was a cunning mind slowly evolving into what would become his crowning achievement: the publishing and advertising business.

The two decades between 1885 and 1905 saw the golden era of periodicals—almost 11,000 were circulated during that time. Selling advertising space was the key; with enough paid advertisers, magazines could be sold below cost. Sensing a greater calling, Lewis purchased an inexpensive magazine called The Winner, along with its publishing plant and offices. His business plan was as simple as it was effective: by drastically reducing the cost of subscriptions, thousands more would be sold.

He also targeted rural readers. Almost two-thirds of the population lived in rural communities of less than 3,000, and the 1897 Rural Free Delivery brought those numbers into his grasp. But perhaps his most brilliant move was in catering to female readers of such magazines as Cosmopolitan and the Ladies’ Home Journal. The Winner was changed to Woman’s Magazine, subscription and advertising rates slashed and samples mailed out with an emphasis on rural homes. And the money rolled in.

Within four years, he claimed to have the largest circulation of any magazine in the world. Purchasing the Woman’s Farm Journal cemented his capture of the rural market. Other magazines followed, and soon his publishing company was swamped.

Others might have settled for larger quarters and more modern equipment; Lewis designed a city.

University City, as it was named, remains. Lewis is long gone.

If the very abruptness of that passage is jarring, so, too, is the historical record. Lewis’ empire lavished no expense on his university, his office building, his publishing house—which contained the largest printing press in the world—or on his Woman’s League, whose chapter houses dotted the nation. (Two exist in Kansas, one in Manhattan, the other in Blue Rapids.) But within a decade he had fled to California to start a new planned community at a sleepy hacienda called Rancho Atascadero.

Fame is an unforgiving mistress. And if for Lewis it was fleeting, though not without a small measure of resurrection in the cities of University City and Atascadero, it was doubly so for the architect who designed and built Lewis‘ crowning achievement: the Magazine Building.

Herbert Chivers, a Topeka architect and tireless self-promoter, is remembered now only for that one structure, though his obituary on June 5, 1946, mentioned that he also assisted drafting plans for St. Louis’ Union Station. Why he chose an octagon decades after Fowler’s Folly became a laughingstock is a mystery. Perhaps Lewis had a hand in the decision, for the building was constructed on high ground and the eight sides offered expansive 360-degree views of a city slowly taking shape. It’s doubtful that he was familiar with the Chinese aesthetic philosophy of feng shui, for whom the octagon represents the perfect shape and center of energy, or the I Ching with its eight compass points.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Or maybe it matters but in ways we can never understand but only glimpse through cultures not our own, such as the Chinese and their bagua, or the Hopewell cultures with their octagonal observatories charting the lunar standstill, or geomancy and ley lines and energy centers and harmonic convergences. Perhaps Fowler tapped into something when he wrote his seminal book, and the founders of Octagon City, though inept and criminally ill-prepared, discerned the potential of perfection through an eight-sided form. Maybe Chivers was merely an instrument of some greater power, his drafting pen divinely ordained. Maybe, just maybe, it’s right there in front of us and we’re too blind to see it, too set in our rectangular ways, too dependent upon our own oblivious senses.

All I can say is this: on a hot, humid summer day Lori and I stepped past the flanking lion guardians into Chivers’ masterpiece and climbed the flowing staircase to the central landing, itself encircled in white Italian marble so that we stood within a circle within an octagon, two universal symbols of perfection, and if the wonder we felt could barely be translated into written language, beneath or beyond the wonder was another response, intangible, wordless, more vibration than sensation, as if we stood on the brink of a doorway into another dimension.

Chi. Bagua. Octagon.


Carol said...

Wonderful series. I see more journalistic honors in your future and hope you submit this work to competition. Max and I both thought your work bringing us the ideas of "octagon" inspiring.

shoreacres said...

Here is the great advantage of falling behind in my reading a bit - I don't have to wait to move on to Part 3....! This really is quite enjoyable.