I did a five-foot wide pencil rubbing on my last day in the Tribune Tower

Goodbye, Tower. I just left the Tribune Tower for the last time. On my way out, I made a giant five-foot wide pencil rubbing. Here’s a four-minute video with me narrating its creation along with a time-lapse.

Etched into the walls of the Tribune Tower lobby are famous quotes about newspapers and publishing. I did a pencil rubbing of one my favorite quotations by Abraham Lincoln, “Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe.”

"Let the people know the facts and the country will be safe." -Abraham Lincoln

Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Ray Long tweeted this is also his favorite quote.

It was this quote that I made the etching of. What a fun way to leave a historic building for the last time. “The joy of creating!” I told my manager.

Here’s the story of how I came across doing this fun action of creation, and the lessons I learned along the way

During the last weeks in the Tribune Tower, employees were throwing things out left and right. Our new space in the Prudential Plaza will be much smaller than the Tribune Tower. We won’t have nearly has much room for all the stuff we’ve collected over the years.

One of the items being thrown out was an old financial calculator with half a paper roll still in tact. That paper roll looked interesting, so I ripped it off the calculator thinking it would come in handy for something.

The Chicago Tribune newsroom moved out last week as part of Phase 1 move. My division is part of the phase 2 move which gets to move out a week later.

When the Chicago Tribune newsroom had their last moments, a journalist tweeted how they did pencil rubbings of a quote from the newsroom lobby.

Tweet by @ChristyGutowsk1 of pencil rubbing

The Chicago Tribune architecture critic, Blair Kamin, tweeted about another employee’s rubbing of the cornerstone.

Tweet by @BlairKamin: "DEVOTION: On last day at Tribune Tower, journos make rubbings of its inscriptions, including the cornerstone."

What a sweet idea! I love pencil rubbings. In 2004, I grabbed the domain pencilrubbings.com. My brother and I intended it to be a website where people across the world could exchange their pencil rubbings. I would go around Chicago and make a ton of pencil rubbings of famous landmarks. And then exchange them with people’s rubbings in other countries.

Pencil rubbing is such an intimate way of capturing a place you’ve visited. We all can take photos, which is great. But pencil rubbings get you right on top of the location. You are constantly touching and interacting with environment. To the point of capturing a literal carbon copy of the surface. Your take-away is an intimate experience with that particular spot.

When I saw the Chicago Tribune journalists do this, I knew I had to do it. The pencil rubbing over the larger quote used several sheets. Honestly, that’s a bit awkward. But in last days like this, you improvise with what you got. In my case, I had this handy roll of paper from the financial calculator.

Lesson 1: When you find something interesting, take it. You might use it soon.

I’m glad I took that little paper roll last week. Although it looked to be more than half-used, there was probably enough to cover one small quote in the Tribune Tower lobby. And perhaps it was wide enough to capture the height of the letters.

On my last day, my brother asked me via IM, if I did any pencil rubbings.
Instant message with my brother, him asking about doing a pencil rubbing in the Tribune Tower

That reminded me to try my calculator paper! It’s my last day at this historic building, might as well have some fun with it!

I went down to the lobby with a pencil, tape, and paper roll.

The paper was indeed wide enough to cover the letters. The roll lasted enough to get the first two lines of the quote.

Pencil rubbing of Daniel Burnham's quote in the Tribune Tower lobby

However, the roll didn’t stretch out to capture Daniel Burnham’s name in his attribution. I grabbed one of large paper sheet off one of those presentation easels. That paper is very handy with the adhesive strip on the back, like a giant sticky note!

Rubbing Daniel Burnham’s name on a large sheet of paper felt really nice. I wanted to continue and do another quote with a very large sheet of paper. The art store Dick Blick isn’t too far from the Tribune Tower. I hopped on a 151 bus right across the street.

As I was riding the bus away from the Tower, it felt strange at that moment to be physically going away from the building on my last day. But in a poetic manner, the bus drove south down Michigan Avenue, right past our future workplace at the Prudential Plaza.

At the store, I got the same graphite sticks that I had bought for the pencil rubbings over 10 years ago. They were only a buck each! I never did many pencil rubbings with the sticks back then, but today I am!

The art store cashier was totally nice and insisted that I have a little box to hold my three one-dollar graphite sticks. Even though I said I wasn’t going far, and I planned on using the graphite right away, she packed them up carefully into a cute box.

Also, the paper was a pleasant surprise. Their paper rolls were large enough and very cheap! $2.50 for a 30-inch x 15 yards. That would be enough for TWO Lincoln quotes!

Lesson 2: Materials at an art store can be cheap!

The bus luck was upon me again as another bus was sitting right in the nearby stop with passengers boarding. I ran up to the bus with paper and graphite in hand. I was so happy to not have to hike it back and forth in the humidity. I didn’t want to get all sweaty on our last day. But lo and behold I didn’t realize how sweaty I was about to get! (doing a large rubbing is a lot of manual labor).

The abandoned security desk in front of the quote was very handy as a work station. I was able to trim the large roll of paper on the desk.

Tribune Tower security desk as crafting station

Getting the paper up on top of the quote was a bit tricky. The sheet is so large! Plus, I was running low on painters tape. Yeah, I keep painters tape at work. I’m handy like that.

Also pretty handy was having a Narrative Clip. Wait–Narrative Clip? What is that?

Narrative Clip on sweater

The Narrative Clip is very small wearable camera that takes a photo every 10 seconds. It’s great for transitional days like this. I wore one on my wedding day, honeymoon, residential moves. And just general fun like playing with my daughter. I set up the Narrative Clip on the security desk in front of the quote.

My first strokes with the larger graphite turned out so well! I could immediately tell that this work much better than a regular pencil.

First strokes of graphite on the large sheet of paper

The very soft nature of the 6B level graphite was able to get the sheet really dark. Plus, since the graphite is very wide, the pencil doesn’t dip into the letter etchings. That leaves the letters pretty white.

General's Wide Compressed Graphite Sticks

To get the sheet really dark, I kept going over and over with the graphite. Even when the entire sheet was filled, I continued to make it darker. DARKER, I SAY! DARKER!

When I researched pencil rubbing years ago, I somewhat remember that you really need to go over a rubbing repeatedly to make it darker and dark to enhance the contrast.

Sweat started to drip down my face. Thankfully, I was able to keep a bit cooler today at work, as I wore a tshirt. One that the Chicago Tribune sold a month earlier commemorating the Tribune Tower.

Eventually my graphite stick broke in half, but that helped me to put more pressure on the strokes to make the drawing darker.

Lesson 3: When doing a large pencil rubbing, use a large graphite stick for the initial overall covering. Then use a half stick for heavier pressure to achieve optimal darkness.

I’M A PENCIL RUBBING EXPERT. I sure felt that way as people kept passing by admiring my work. That was really nice. Tour groups, random employees, and my coworkers. It was a lot of fun creating the pencil rubbing, and it was equally as fun sharing it with people walking by.

As I make the rubbing darker and darker, the letters started to fill in a bit more. You really want the letters to be a nice plain white, so they are legible against the gray background. The background can never get to be completely black, because of the texture of the wall. So you’ve got this gray background with gray letters. Not that good.

Lesson 4: Don’t be afraid to erase when doing a pencil rubbing

Thankfully, I just so happened to have a nice kneadable eraser in my backpack. (I use it to create scorecards of historic baseball games while riding the train) The flexibility of this eraser makes it really nice to able to fit into the nooks and crannies of the letters.

Kneadable eraser

Initially I thought I could just clean up the letters after I take down the drawing. But I tell you what, it’s a whole lot easier to clean up the letters while the drawing is still on the wall. All you have to do is rub the eraser against the paper. The etching in the wall takes care of keeping the edges.

If I did the erasing after taking the drawing down, I would have to be super careful to not erase the edges of the letters.

The letters ended up being super nice and white. Great contrast.

While I was doing this, the thought came across my mind if this was considered cheating. Does the pencil rubbing world think that erasing the foreground to be cheating? Shouldn’t you do your rubbing good enough to not erase? Or maybe the pencil rubbing world knows that it’s an expert tip to use an eraser to make your rubbing spot-on sharp. I go with the latter.

Lesson 5: Spray your rubbing to prevent it from smearing!

Now the trick is to take the five-foot drawing down. And it’s completely loaded with graphite. Very smearable graphite. Remember, this is done with a level 6B graphite. The softest level. This stuff SMEARS.

I didn’t have any that graphite drawing sealer stuff. The art store sells that spray. But time was running out. We had to check out before 4pm. And it was already near 3pm.

Now my art education kicked in (I was an art major in college). If you don’t have the official graphite sealer spray, you can use hair spray! Da na na naaaaaaaa! The trusty Walgreens is right across the street! I love that Walgreens–especially now that it’s in the beautiful Wrigley Building. Side note: the renovation they did to the Wrigley Building a few years ago is just amazing. I hope Tribune Tower gets a renovation as nice as that one.

With all the hair spray options at Walgreens, I went with the cheapest one, and it just happened to say “Quick Dry” Perfect!

Quick dry hairspray

I didn’t want to get any hair spray on the walls of the esteemed Tribune Tower lobby, so I cut up extra paper to put around the drawing to protect the walls. That hair spray is just a spray, it’s not entirely accurate.

The hair spray worked very well in sealing it. Funny thing is that the five bucks I spent on the hair spray was more than I spent on the graphite and paper. Haha.

At this point it was 3:30pm, and I needed to check out at 4pm!

Lesson 6: Wash your hands before removing the drawing

If you spent all the effort to spray-seal your rubbing, you might as well have clean hands to remove it. My fingertips were pitch-black from the graphite.

black fingertips from graphite

I left the drawing hanging for 15 minutes to dry while I went back upstairs to wash my hands. Also my Narrative Clip and iPhone could use a little recharge. I hung up a sign saying that I would return by 3:45pm to remove the rubbing. Can you imagine if I came back down 15 minutes later and the drawing was taken away? Oh man.

Plus, with all the people that walked by to take photos, it would be fun to give more people a chance to see it and take a photo.

Returning back 15 minutes to the drawing with clean hands, the drawing indeed was still there. Phew! And the spray was dry. Thank you, fast-drying hair spray!

As I was about to remove the drawing, two Tribune Tower security guards arrived. They asked me what I was doing. “A pencil rubbing to capture the quote”

Lesson 7: Get permission from building security first

To help ease their concerns, I explained how rubbings work. The wall is left completely safe.

They said they saw me on the security camera spraying something.

Oh right. That was the spray to prevent the drawing from smudging onto the wall. I pointed out the extra sheets of paper around the rubbing to make sure the wall is safe.

They explained that when the Chicago Tribune newsroom left the Tower last week, some questionable things were done. To which I replied that I intend to fully respect the building, and in fact that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m wanting to make a replica of what is inside the building to help preserve it. (Which is entirely true! I’m not making that up). I want to preserve the legacy of this great building.

They asked to see my ID. I happily showed it to them. My manager already knew what I was doing, so I knew there was not going to be any trouble.

Now before anyone gets upset at the security guards. I’m not upset at them at all. In fact, I’m totally happy that they came down. That’s what they should do. If they see something fishy, they should investigate. They simply asked me that next time I do something like this to first go to the security office on the 12th floor to give them a heads up.

Yup, I should have done that. Ah well.

I told them that I will do that next time, but I have only 15 more minutes in the Tower, like ever. So yes, if I do something like this again in 15 minutes. I will let them know. 🙂

At the new building, we will all have new security badges. So them looking at my Tribune Tower security badge is the last time someone checked my badge. Rather funny that was for an “incident” like this—making art.

Lesson 8: Capture your memories

All-in-all, this was an absolutely fantastic experience. I could have been sad throughout the day. In fact, earlier in the morning, on my train ride to downtown, I wrote in my notepad, “In my blog post I say that I’m not sad to be leaving. But today I have to allow myself to be sad.”

from my notepad: “In my blog post I say that I’m not sad to be leaving. But today I have to allow myself to be sad.”

I’m not the best at expressing my emotions. I try to be conscious of that, and make an effort to be aware of how I’m feeling. If I needed to feel sad, I should be sad. But in this case today, I found something to be totally excited about. And that is creating artwork. Very physical, hands-on artwork.

In my last couple hours, I got to be right up close with the history of the Tribune Tower’s walls. Literally making art not only on the walls, but FROM the walls. The walls are transferred onto this sheet of paper with my labor and sweat. And now I have a piece of the Tower to bring home with me—along with the great memories of the joy of creation in my last hours in this historic building.

Matt Maldre standing next to pencil rubbing of quote in Tribune Tower lobby

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Jennifer Holt
Jennifer Holt
6 years ago

Such a cool video and recap. I feel like I was there with you. Feel like I should start pencil rubbings now while traveling. Such cool art!

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