Madison Street West, Part 3: Slip Coverin’ Away

Any respectable commercial street has gone through some cycles of renovation and rejuvenation. In the decades after World War II, that often meant putting a new facade on your building – sometimes tearing off the old completely, but sometimes taking a cheaper route and just hanging something new right on top of the old, an approach known as the slipcover.

West Madison is no exception; some of its seemingly unremarkable storefronts have quite a bit of history behind them.

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4019 W. Madison Street (Shoe Avenue): Two upper floors hide behind that checkered brown granite facade.  A parade of businesses has occupied the building, sometimes more than one at once. Articles from 1941 and 1987 both mention people listing it as their residential address, as well. Businesses I could find, and dates they were definitely there, include:

  • A. Rost and Son shoe store, 1917-1920
  •  Wormser Hat Store, 1930-1940
  • York Women’s Apparel, 1943
  • Jerome Millenery Store, 1948-1962 – the building was renovated by architects Lowenberg & Lowenberg in anticipation of this store’s opening, giving it its current Modernist facade. The upper floors used for making women’s accessories by hand, seemingly run as a separate business, the Una Harvey Shops. Lowenberg & Lowenberg was a prolific architectural firm whose successor is still in business today; the company also worked on the iconic University Apartments in Hyde Park, several sumptuous high rise apartment buildings, the Colony Theater on 59th Street, and a similarly radical recladding job on a building right near my old home in Rogers Park.
  • Two Legs Inc. – 1953
  • Today: Shoe Avenue Family Shoes.

4021 W. Madison Street (Maybrooks) – a two story building, either built or re-built in 1951. A one-story garage and store – visible in the postcard below – stood on the site originally.

  • Keen and Howe clothing store – 1915
  • E. Newman Paint Company – 1924
  • A. Rost & Son – 1927 (moved from next door!)
  • Father & Son shoe store – 1942-45
  • Lynn Niles Shoes – 1946-1950
  • Bond Clothing Store – opened Nov 30, 1951; operated at least through 1968. Their opening seemingly triggered the replacement of the original structure with the present one.
  • Maybrooks – For Men and Women – 1986-2011
  • Present: YOLO Ladies Ware & Shoes, since ca. 2012

 

4027 Madison Street (aka 4025-29 W. Madison) –  James Burns, architect; Henry Ericsson Co., general contractor

4025-29 W. Madison
Postcard view – compare with the previous photo

Towering above the 1- and 2-story stores around it, this blank-walled hulk was designed in 1910 and built by 1911, for the Keelin Fireproof Warehouse Company. On the east party wall, a faded ghost sign still announces the original occupant with a barely-legible “Keelin’s Storage Warehouse”. Fireproof storage warehouses are a whole genre of buildings in Chicago (and the topic of a future post). Like most, this one – also known as the West End Storage Warehouse and the Keelin Brothers Warehouse – was built of reinforced concrete, with steel doors and minimal windows (illuminating only the corridors), and a facade of pressed brick. It’s among the simpler of its kind, with its already minimal ornament now lost to age and a mid-century rehab that covered the facade with a grid of square tiles.

West Madison Street, Chicago

The Keelin brothers were a prominent business family with their hands in coal and grain interests. Two of the brothers were indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges in 1921. Architect James Burns (ca. 1858-1933) was a Chicago practitioner, active from the 1890s into the 1920s, and the designer of various houses, flats, stores, factories, and most prominently, several significant Catholic churches: St. Columbanus on E. 71st, St. Gertrude’s in Rogers Park (Burns’ neighborhood), and St. Keven at Torrence and 105th.

In 1912, the address made small-headline news when a 14 year old boy died in the building while trying to exit its elevator.

Gold Point Hosiery Stores leased the ground floor in 1928 and converted it into a retail storefront; they remained there at least through 1930. In 1947, the building was sold, and O’Conner and Goldberg leased the entire building, opening a new store at the location which lasted from 1949 into the 1960s. This major turnover was likely the point at which it gained its  new Mid-Century facade of square panels.

In recent years, the storefront has been home to Cisco NYC, a high-end clothing and shoe store specializing in hip hop culture. Cisco NYC got some unwanted attention in late 2014 when it became the latest victim of a string of smash-and-grab robberies happening all around the city. A gang of thieves used a mini-van to smash through the store’s gated front entrance at 4am on a November night; 20 masked robbers poured into the store, stripped it of thousands of dollars worth of a single brand of designer jeans, and escaped within three minutes. Despite the devastating loss, the store was soon open again and joined in a local Madison Street tradition of opening on Christmas Day.

 

3932 W. Madison (Catholic Charities)

West Madison Street, Chicago

Appears to have been built in the 1920s. Today it’s covered in polished granite panels, a massive frame surrounding 2 stories of windows with a sheltered balcony, and accented with a two-part stainless steel sign. 65 years after the new facade was added on, it still looks terrific.

  • 1925-1930 – Apex Stores (refrigerator dealers)
  • 1936-1963 – Apollo Savings and Loan, who remodeled the building into its current form. Grand re-opening for the renovated structure was November 16, 1950. Apollo moved downtown in 1963, before imploding in 1968. They sold the building in 1967.
  • 1967 – Headquarters and later Credit Union of the Christian Action Ministry
  • Today – The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago / WIC Food CentersIMG_4786

 

4126 W. Madison Street (Green Star Groceries)West Madison Street, Chicago

This sad little two-story building was built around 1927. It’s barely visible in its original form in the background of this photo of the Marbro Theatre, which stood next door until its 1964 demolition. With its pale green color, the slipcover screams early 1960s.

  • 1926 – Fignter(?) Scott Co. (furniture finishing? hardware?)
  • 1930 – Western Radio & Electric Stores
  • 1932-34 – Lee Radio Stores / Lee’s Radio Shop / Lee’s Radio & Refrigerator Store
  • 1935 – Straus & Schram (Lee’s had moved a few doors away. Or it’s a typo.)
  • 1938-42 – Singer Sewing Company
  • 1956-63 – Little Dutch Mill Candies
  • Most recently – Green Star Super Market Groceries

Due to a text resolution issue (4126 looks a lot like 4128 to an OCR scanner), this address is almost entirely overshadowed in the Tribune archives by the Spiegel store that operated next door.

 

4034 W. Madison – City Sports Shoes & Sportswear

West Madison Street, Chicago

Sometimes slipcovers are just a flagrantly bad idea – they make a building look worse to begin with, and that’s before they start falling apart and exposing bits of the vastly superior facade they hide. Such is the case here, where column capitals and ornate shield emblems in colored terra cotta have forced their way out from beneath a plain grid of rectangles, painted over in white.

  • 1934-36 – Grossman’s shoe store
  • Burt’s shoe store – Burts – then a subsidary of Edison Brothers Stores – opened an outlet at this location in 1937 with a $25,000 “modernization program”, which seems too early to have been the date of the slipcover. In 1956 the chain changed its name to Bakers, in keeping with their shoe line in other cities, and continued on here through 1962.
  • 1971 – Mary Jane Shoes
  • 1977 – A.S. Beck Shoes
  • Today – City Sports Shoes

And finally, a note about some of the trends I’ve seen in researching these places. First is turnover – many stores only last a few years before vanishing. Some of it is just the economy – it’s almost guaranteed a small store present in 1929 will be gone by 1932, wiped out by the Depression. Similarly, many stores had good long runs from the late 40s into the 1960s or early 70s, boom years for the city. Even then, many beloved retail institutions were really only around for a couple of decades.

Second is consistency – if a storefront started off as a shoe store, it was very likely to stay a shoe store, even as ownership and names changed repeatedly. Clothing stores stayed clothing stores – Cisco NYC, for example, is continuing an almost 90 year tradition of clothing sales in that space.

Third is the abruptness with which a business can vanish. A tempting assumption is that the advertising budget was the first thing to go when times went sour. Many places ran weekly display ads for years – until suddenly they’re just gone from the Tribune, no going out of business notice, no clearance sales, no nothing. Just – poof! Gone!

 

Research log for Keelin’s Storage Warehouse:

  • 1910 – The American Contractor, September 10 1910 p. 30 col. 1 – notice of drawings on file and bids being taken
  • 1912 – Tribune article, Sept. 20
  • Assessor: 1914; CityNews: 1947
  • Appears in “The Transfer and Storage Directory” of 1916.
  • Sold: April 13 1947 article (erroniously gives date of construction as 1900)
  • Gold Point Hosiery Stores – leased Feb 1928 (real estate transaction article); display ad April 9 1928 (4027), through 1930
  • O’Conner and Goldberg – short article Sep 1 ,1949; display ads through 1966
  • 4126: Cook County Assessor puts the date at 1932; CityNews Chicago says 1927; Realtor.com says 1926.

 

Madison Street West, Part 2: The Gothic Block

On the 4100 block of West Madison Street, a trio of commercial buildings in the Gothic Revival mode:

4100 W. Madison Street

From left to right, they are:

  • 4138 W. Madison Street – most recently Westgate Funeral Home
  • 4132 W. Madison Street – Garfield Counseling Center
  • 4128 W. Madison Street – vacant and covered in an melange of overlapping signs

The little two-story funeral home is quite overshadowed by its larger neighbors, but harmonizes perfectly with them. It is Tudor Gothic by vintage, with a two-toned material pallet of red brick and cream terra cotta. Th ornament includes faux quoins of stone at the windows,  crenelations along the roofline, and tiny blind arcades of cusped arches in terra cotta, along the outer piers and above the main windows.

4138 W. Madison Street

Opened by 1927, the funeral chapel here did a steady business for five decades. In the 1970s, the business there was the Baldridge Funeral Home; in the 1990s, the Westgate Funeral Home, whose signs still adorn ground floor canopies. The commercial portion of the building is shuttered today. The narrow building runs the full depth of the block; the Cook County Assessor’s database says it contains three apartments and a garage – where it all fits is a bit of a mystery.

4100 W. Madison Street

Next door is 4132 W. Madison Street, a four story building with a Gothic-ornamented facade in creamy terra cotta. Four slender piers, capped by faux statuary niche canopies, demarcate three bays. Double rows of blind pointed arches fill the spaces between windows and march across the roofline, giving the facade a busy, heavily shadowed appearance. The original ground floor design is long lost.

No definitive word on the architects or date of construction, but 1928 is a good bet. That’s the year  that Joseph Marschak Sons Furniture began appearing in ads with this address. By 1948, it was owned by the Amber Furniture Company – who had a long run in the building next door – and by 1951, it had been taken over by Baer Brothers & Prodie. They in turn went out of business in 1967; the building housed the Erie Clothing Company for a few years.

West Madison Street, Chicago

By 1973, it was occupied by Debbie’s School of Beauty Culture. In 1980 the school became a subsidiary of Johnson Products, sellers of cosmetics and hair care products, and began developing its own line of cosmetics. The school would later expand to five locations around the city and eleven more in other states. The company eventually moved to Houston, but their fading green-and-yellow painted sign still remains on the building’s brick party wall.

IMG_4693

By 1987, the building was home to the Garfield Counseling Center, an outpost in the struggle against the drug abuse which had swept over the neighborhood; in the early 90s, it ran a group home for women trying to break drug habits. The agency operated from at least 1987 and continues today.

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4128 Madison has the most complex decorative program of the trio. Its surviving second floor facade gives some hints as to what the first floor might have originally look liked like, with ornamentally framed windows. Above, three floors of Gothic terra cotta with a faint greenish tint rise to the sky. Four carved bosses in the form of grumpy looking grotesques support the four major piers. The piers are capped with pinnacles, seemingly truncated at the roofline. The spandrel panels, however, are where the real action is: they are laden with heraldic shields, fleur-de-lis panels, a yin-yang shape I’m going to tentatively call a doublefoil, and bits of floral carving.

4100 W. Madison Street

Along the roofline runs a row of large, elaborate blind trefoil or cusped arches adorned with crockets, capped with a row of smaller blind trefoil arches, further capped with a twin parapet cap with a shield motif. It’s quite an extravaganza of terra cotta.

4100 W. Madison Street

Again, my research came up empty on date, architect, original occupant, and anything about that long-lost vertical sign; I’m taking a guess of 1929.

ETA: the demolished Marbro Theater was nearby – and so Cinema Treasures offers up a distant view of this block when new. The giant sign on this building isn’t legible; behind it, a smaller, similar sign for Marschak Sons Furniture next door can be seen.

The building first appears in the Tribune through 1930 ads for Straus & Schram, a furniture refurbishing business. Straus-Schram was bought out by Spiegel in 1945, who promptly opened a new home store at this location on October 13 of that year, complementing their clothing store down the street at 4020 W. Madison. Spiegel was a heavy advertiser who ran weekly ads for years, selling televisions, washers and dryers, sofas, and all manner of mid-century furniture, until quitting the retail furniture business in 1954 to focus on their mail order catalog sales.

Amber Furniture was the next occupant, taking over by 1955. Their run didn’t end well; in 1961, a public auction was held of all the store’s inventory and equipment.  The vacant storefront was used as a Civil Defense information center for a while that year, at the height of Cold War nuclear fears, distributing information on “first aid, home protection, fallout, and other survival information.”

The store was still vacant in December 1963 when a team of robbers entered it, cut a hole through three and a half feet of brick and concrete walls into Baer Brothers & Prodie next door, and stole 750 suits. The robbers were caught in the act when a security patrolman spotted one of them in the store, prompting an escape attempt and police pursuit that ended with a car crash and three of the four in custody.

By 1968, the shuttered Amber Furniture had been replaced by *E*mber furniture, who almost certainly chose their name based on the economy of altering the exterior signs the least amount possible. This store had it going on – they had their own slick soul-styled promo 45, “The Ember Song” by Sidney Barnes in 1969, now widely available again thanks to the magic of YouTube. Give it a listen and feel the vibe of late 1960s Chicago.

Alas, Ember was not forever, and the store disappeared from the Tribune after 1983. 4128 Madison was subsequently absorbed by its neighbor, Debbie’s School of Beauty Culture, whose faded blue and yellow logo is one of several overlapping painted signs still visible on the storefront today. “Amber Furniture – Since 1872″ can also be made out in red, and a third occupant’s lettering in white is also visible. Tattered signs in the windows still advertise long-ago furniture lines, while the equally tattered storefront and facade signs are barely legible through the melange of paint and letters. Even the 2nd floor windows still bear the painted logo of a “Family Dental Offices”. The vertical facade sign, meanwhile, still reads “May” and “Easy Credit Terms”, along with a painted-over section I have not been able to decipher. The building is apparently vacant, though some facade work was done in 2008; despite an ancient banner hanging from its signage, it’s no longer listed as for sale online.

4100 W. Madison Street

Research log, 4138:
1924 – Ben Gross Jewelers, from December 14th Tribune ad – likely an earlier building
1927 – funeral home chapel – from July 21st Tribune death notices, for George D. Fletcher
1971 – last appearance in Death notices
1978 – Baldridge Funeral Home – from April 9, 1978 Tribune column
1997 – Westgate Funeral Home – from Jan 3, 1997 Tribune obituary
Now closed – per Yelp

Research log, 4132:
1928 – Joseph Marschaks Sons furniture – Oct 7 1928 display ad for Chase Velmo mohair upholstery; May 4 1930 display ad for Vanity Fair mattresses – through 1950, Jun 25 diplay ad for Arrow Sport Shirts
1950 – October 1950 – address appears in classifieds 2x
1948 – Amber Furniture Company – Dec 5 1948 display ad for Thor Gladiron
1951 – Baer Brothers & Prodie – Apr 15 1951 display ad for Cricketeer Sport Coats
1967 – Baer Brothers & Prodie goes out of business – display ad Jan 26, Feb 23
1967 – Erie Clothing Company – Dec. 10 display ad for Florsheim dress shoes
1973 – Debbie’s School of Beauty Culture – Feb 15 1973 feature article.

Research log, 4128:
Straus & Schram – Apr 6 1930 Tribune display ad for Vanity Fair mattresses (also includes their competitors Joseph Marschaks Sons, right next door); Nov. 18 1940 Tribune display ad; Dec 6 1944 display ad; Feb 25 1945 display ad – last one.
Spiegel bought out Straus-Schram in 1945 (article, Jan 19 1945)
Spiegel Store – Opend October 13, 1945 (display ad, Oct. 12.). Ran weekly partial or full page display ads for years. Goes out of the Chicago furniture business  – display ad Sep 2, 1954
Amber Furniture – display ad Feb 27 1955 – newly opened
Apr 10, 1961 – public auction of inventory and store equipment. (notice Apr 9 1961). T
Civil Defense information center – article, Oct 22 1961

Madison Street West, Part 1: 4042 W. Madison

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

Madison Street, west of Garfield Park – where to even start?! A grandiose commercial district, with landmark after landmark. Historically, it rose fast and fell hard; today it’s a tattered place, but still busy. Second- and third-tier businesses persist in buildings created for far richer occupants. We’ll take a closer look at some of them in the next few posts, starting with my personal favorite.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

The building at 4042 W. Madison Street is a genre-defying show stopper. A buff terra cotta facade rises three stories above the street to a magnificent crest. The ornamental style is an impure Art Deco – the line of fins recalls streamlining and the tall, thin masses of New York skyscrapers, while the eagles and floral ornament are more organic, more harmonious with traditional styling.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

The building was erected by Spiegel’s, a Chicago furniture seller who later morphed into a nationwide catalog house. Architects were B. Leo Steif & Co.; the firm also designed another Spiegel’s location at 64th and S. Cottage Grove at the same time (long since demolished) as well as a variety of apartment buildings around town. Mr. Steif (1894-1953) described the style as Spanish Renaissance and claimed the details were adapted from a town hall on the Spanish island of Majorca, though I don’t see it. Those fins sure didn’t come from Spain! As with most American architecture, it’s a free composition drawing liberally from many sources. The interiors were reported to be ornate and finely furnished as well. A small cable-suspended canopy over the entry has been lost.

The building opened on May 14, 1927, to no small fanfare – radio station WGES broadcast from the new store, an orchestra performed on site, and an airplane dropped cash-redeemable prizes onto the crowd. The roaring 20s indeed!

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

At some subsequent point, the building was expanded to the north, with a concrete-frame addition filling the lot all the way back to the alley.

Spiegel’s furniture business was bought out in 1932 by Hartman’s, a regional chain with over 30 stores.  By 1938, Kennedy Furniture Company was in business there instead. The biggest chapter of the building’s life began in 1939, however, when it was bought by the L. Fish Furniture company. A local chain with four locations around town and more elsewhere, L. Fish was founded in 1858 and was a long-lived Chicago institution. Their faded painted sign remains on the building’s west party wall today, above the ghost outline of a lost three-story building.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

After a 44-year run on West Madison, L. Fish Furniture was bought out by North Carolina company Heilig-Meyers, Inc. in 1993. Heilig-Meyers closed its Chicago stores in 1999 and went bankrupt in 2000. It seems they’d already sold off this location, however, because in 1992 the current occupant opened: Dream Town Shoes.

Dream Town started in ironic circumstances. Named for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, it opened in the wake of the riots that followed the Bulls’ 1992 victory. The store’s owners suffered looting and a devastating fire at their older Diana Department shoe store, two doors east, but forged ahead nonetheless. Both stores have thrived and remain in business today, focused on the most trendy shoes. Dream Town even has an indoor basketball court inside the store!

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

Research log:
1924 – Forrester and Schjoldager Jewelers – Jul 6 1924 ad for Navarre Pearls – either a prior building on the site or a wrong address.
1926 – designed and leased. Tribune article, October 3 1926
1927 – Spiegels opened – May 14 1927 display ad. Dec 11 1927 ad for Clements Jewel Electric Vacuum Cleaners.
1932 – Hartman’s – Apr 26 1932 help wanted ad for furniture salesmen. Open by May 20, per display ad.
1938 – Kennedy Furniture Co. – Mar 27 1938 ad for Stewart-Warner Ice Boxes.
1939 – L. Fish Furniture Company – Oct 1 1939 ad for Congoleum flooring (a Spiegel’s product, ironically.)

An old preservation victory: Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict

I discovered this ancient photograph hanging on the wall in a downtown Starbuck’s. It shows the Hotel St. Benedict flats, a Victorian era apartment building erected in 1882 at 40 E. Chicago Avenue. All too often, I find photographs like this and sigh wistfully, shaking my head that such a building could be built, and that it could be demolished.

In this case, however, I decided to step outside and reproduce the photograph, since the Starbuck’s in question is inside the Hotel St. Benedict Flats building.

Hotel St. Benedict

Astute readers will notice that the building lost its Wabash Avenue wing at some point – compare the number of dormers and entry canopies.

If I had to pick a favorite block in downtown Chicago, the St. Benedict apartments would be on the shortlist. A generous sidewalk, a healthy dose of shade trees, and plenty of outdoor seating, only steps away from a variety of major attractions, make this a popular low-key resting and gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. And then there’s the building itself.

Hotel St. Benedict

Such articulation! The massing of the building steps in and out as it goes along, but that’s just the start. Stairs climb up and down from the sidewalk, leading to chain sandwich shops above and basement bars and nail salons below. Life on the sidewalk, above it, below it: the perfect urban setting.

Hotel St. Benedict

Hotel St. Benedict

The Hotel St. Benedict Flats are not stylistically pure (the mansard roof with its copper trim is borrowed from the Second Empire style) but primarily it follows in the same Victorian High Gothic vein as Frank Furness’s buildings and Louis Sullivan’s earlier works. Characteristic details include flat stone elements with incised designs, both floral and geometric, and the polished stone columns supporting the massively oversized entry canopies. Massive weights bearing down on undersized columns is a recurring theme of High Victorian – see the entry of St. John Cantius Church, for example.

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

The Hotel St. Benedict Flats were never a hotel, but were an early apartment building, designed by architect James J. Egan. The building was made to resemble a group of rowhouses, to counter the unpopular perception of apartments (aka “French flats”) at the time. The effect is achieved through the stepped massing, while dormers breaking the mansard roof give a domestic air. It was named for a Benedictine order which occupied the site until the Great Fire in 1871. As marketed by William D. Kerfoot & Co in 1890, the building featured

Elegant Apartments of 7 or 9 rooms each…complete with steam heat, gas fixtures, mirrors, mantels, garbage and ash shutes [sic], and every convenience.

After its initial burst of marketing in the 1880s, it settled into a quiet life. In 1922, 6-room units were renting for $82.50 a month; a threatened 25% increase sparked a battle between the tenants and owner. A small 1923 fire forced 50 families out into the January cold for a night. Two different betting operations were busted in the basement storefronts in 1948. A parade of ordinary Chicagoans seems to have lived there: a World War II vet and a YMCA worker appear in various mid-century articles. The building presumably trended along with its Near North Side neighborhood, which suffered post-War malaise and decline, followed by a gallery- and retail-based revival beginning in the 1970s.

Hotel St. Benedict

The building was purchased by David “Buzz” Ruttenberg in 1980, who found it in run-down shape and had little interest in sinking money into it, given its size and condition. In light of the tremendous real estate boom on and around Michigan Avenue, in 1986 he applied for a demolition permit (alongside the Esquire Theater, which he also owned and whose Moderne interiors would be gutted in 1989), triggering a preservation war which would last almost a decade. The city landmarks commission rather inexplicably denied the building City Landmark status twice in the late 1980s. The building was in dire straits by 1990, when Ruttenberg had designs on its demolition and actively opposed landmarking the building (stating that the building’s commercial tenants had “changed this building dramatically. It’s not pristine. It’s unfit to be a landmark. It’s just an old building.”) Loyola University considered purchasing it to replace it with student housing; Ruttenberg wanted to put a parking lot on the site.

Preservationists refused to give in, however, and eventually a deal was reached.  In late 1994, Ruttenberg announced a $2 million plan to renovate the building, in a project led by historic properties developer Bruce Abrams. Working with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the developers arranged a tax credit on the foregone value (ie, the additional money they could have made by demolishing the St. Benedict and building something new and bigger) that made the project viable.

Hotel St. Benedict

It’s hard to argue with the results! The building today continues to host rental apartments, now modernized and renovated. Below, the storefronts are thriving, and the city retains one of its finest old buildings amid the bustle of downtown.

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict

* Link: Cruddy text scan of the National Historic Register nomination form for Hotel St. Benedict

The End of General Automation

On a recent visit to Chicago, I was shocked to see that the General Automation, Inc. building (3300 W. Oakton Street at McCormick) was gone. In its place, a generic big box style store selling flooring.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation’s building was one of the north shore’s most distinctive bits of Mid-Century design. It encompassed 75,000 square feet of offices and factory floor for a company that produced precision metal fabrications – machine parts, screws, etc.

General Automation, Inc.

Most of the architectural interest was in the curved office section facing Oakton. Concrete piers and panels framed pyramidal windows, in an elaborately framed facade. At the center, a pod-like vestibule welcomed arrivals to the futuristic building. Concrete pattern block screened the lower levels. The major face of the warehouse was lined with concrete panels, decorated with simple fins and a small incised circle on each panel.

General Automation, Inc.

According to the successor firm’s website, the General Automation brand began in 1935. A 1958 obituary for an employee (William Starr) lists the company at 900 N. Franklin Street, near what is now the Brown Line tracks downtown. In the 1960s, they moved to 1755 W. Rosehill Drive, in the former industrial corridor along the UP North Metra tracks.

General Automation, Inc.

In 1982, the company moved to its newly constructed digs at Oakton and McCormick. Yep, you read that right: the hyper-futuristic 1960s building is actually a 1980s building, at least according to the Life: Skokie Edition newspaper, which noted the company’s pending move in a November 1981 article. No word on the architect, alas, and no independent confirmation that I’ve been able to locate (I find the 1982 date difficult to reconcile with the building’s architectural style.)

In recent years, the company combined with three others to form HN Precision; the consolidated corporation specializes in precision-milled machine parts, serving a variety of industries including rail, oil and gas, automotive and more. Consolidation among the merged companies began in 2011, and the Skokie location closed circa 2012.

General Automation, Inc.

The building was sold at the end of 2013, stripped of its architectural exterior, and reclad to bland blend in with its surroundings.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation, Inc. of Illinois should not be confused with an identically named company which, though based in California, also had significant operations in the Chicagoland area. This other General Automation engineered, sold, managed and maintained computer systems, from 1967 through the 1990s, under their own name and the subsidary California GA Corporation, with offices in Des Plaines and Bensenville. As far as I know, they did not have an awesome Brutalist factory building.

Of interest to industrial fans: the vacant lot across Oakton was once a natural gas facility, including three gasometers dating to 1911. They were demolished in the early 1960s; the site is currently undergoing cleanup of remnant contaminants.


1958: 900 N. Franklin Street (obituary of William Starr, July 8 1958)
1962-1968: 1755 W. Rosehill Drive (classified ad, May 27 1962 – inspector to check screw machine parts against prints; Aug 13 1965, Mar 20 1967, July 18 1968- inspector, screw machine job shop; Dec 15, 1968 – hand screw machines)
1972: 1001 Touhy, Des Plaines IL (classified ad, July 29 1972; want ad, April 29 1973. “Custom engineering”, “digital computers”, “mini-computers”, COBAL, Fortral and Assembly Language. )
1973: 1515 Jarvis Avenue, Elk Grove Village IL. Display ad, Dec 18 1973.
1979: California GA Corporation, a subsidary of General Automation, Inc. based at 1260 Mark STreet, Bensenville. Display ad July 8 1979. A 1978 ad lists the 1001 Touhy adress.
1980: address in Anaheim, California – “a leader in mini- and microcomputer based solutions systems”, including maintenance contracts, used equipment, spare parts, repair and refurbishment. Display ad, Sept 14 1980.
Life – Skokie edition (Weekend edition), Sec. 1, p1, 11/1/1981 – firm to move to Skokie in summer of 1982
1990: Anaheim, CA (December 11 article about purchase of Motorola computer systems)
1991 – 3300 Oakton – “parts for the military and for anti-lock brakes. (Tribune article, 1991)
1997 – Irvine, CA according to a Tribune article (Sep 28, 1997)

Trim ‘n Tidy Cleaners: Dry Cleaning for the New Frontier

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Trim ‘n Tidy Cleaners at 5939 W. Higgins Avenue has been in business here for decades (since 1963, according to the Cook County Assessor’s database). And in all that time, this New Camelot Space Age creation has hardly changed a bit.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Is there anything this richly layered building doesn’t have? Outside, the vintage neon sign is capped with a quivering Googie blob, with cursive neon letters announcing the business’s name, the I’s dotted with starbursts.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Inside, it’s a library of Mid-Century tropes – the faux cast iron and lime green elegance of New Formalism, the horizontally cut sandstone walls typical of innumerable Atomic Ranch houses… and a terrazzo floor. Strange baldachin-like hangings “shelter” the counter, hanging on chains from the ceiling.

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The silvered, overstuffed, deeply-buttoned couch looks like it belongs on a space station, while the patio recliner below seems to be waiting for the Kennedys to sit down and have a cocktail or two in the sun.

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Another starburst is emblazoned in the terrazzo floor, while the counters mimic the geometries often seen on suburban Chicago garage doors.

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Outside, the building features a flying wing portico for sheltered drop-off and pick-up, supported by three angled metal tube beams. The whole thing is painted white for cleanliness – clean lines, clean spaces, clean clothes, clean lives.

Trim ‘n Tidy is still in business, though the inside is a bit of a mess, with plants and other accouterments scattered haphazardly about. The old neon sign is badly rusting, and the furniture probably needs to be reupholstered. For all that, the original glory still shines. The best renovation the place could have would be simply to move some plants and sweep the floor.

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