A few weeks ago we took part in the annual Chicago Architecture Foundation's Open House Chicago, which gives residents and visitors a chance to see behind the curtain at many famous and not-so-well-known buildings.

One day we were downtown and took tours of the Marquette and Fisher buildings, built in 1895 and 1896 respectively, the Chicago Temple and the Randolph Tower Apartments.

There were also quite a few newer buildings open for tours. And you could peek inside some of the gleaming LEED-certified architectural offices that occupy some of the city’s most desirable spaces.

It's interesting to see inside a building you may have walked by a hundred times.

People who either worked in the building or were part of the architectural group provided tours. When pointing out the details of an inlaid floor or intricate woodwork or metalwork in an older building, however, the tour guide invariably says something like, "Of course you can't have work done like this anymore."

They make it sound as if the skills needed to do intricate handwork had been lost with the Mayans. I always want to reply, "Well, you can do it if you have the time and the money, or if someone has the passion."

The next day we visited Bridgeport and a company that does have the passion for the old ways of doing things. Decorators Supply Corp. makes historic carvings, mouldings, corbels, mantels, and walls and ceilings, often using designs that are more than 100 years old. The primary material is composition, or "compo" for the historical carvings, which are often attached to furniture. Plaster is often used for the interior corbels and mantels. The company also maintains hundreds of molds that preserve the old designs.

Wood, mostly poplar, is also used but accounts for a small share of the overall business. One of the company’s customers is a high-end furniture manufacturer.

Of course, today’s furniture, millwork, and cabinet manufacturers have many wood component and other suppliers at their disposal. These companies can provide intricate and special designs. They may be made differently than they were in the 1890s, but they are still being made. And buyers of components can see online catalogs with hundreds of different species and designs. What would they have given in 1895 to have that?

The skill hasn’t been lost, but it has evolved.

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