MidCentury Suburbs Part 7: Modernize your garage door!

The garage door was yet another point of elaborate decoration for the MidCentury home. It provided a broad canvas for designers to decorate; in the 1950s and 1960s, the automobile was newly risen to its place of supreme importance, and its home was something to be celebrated — as was the design innovation of the attached garage, a new luxury for most home buyers at the time.

Raynor Door, based not far from Chicago in Dixon, IL, was a major vendor of both doors and the patterns for them.

Two patterns were particularly prevalent, and can still be found by the dozens today:



Midcentury garage door

Midcentury garage door

But the designs ranged all over the place. Asymetrical patterns were common:



Another common theme involved a series of small, repeating patterns instead of one big one:



Such small patterns were often another reflection of the Old West influence on Chicago’s MidCentury suburbia, as seen in this rope-like pattern:


Midcentury garage door

Small patterns didn’t have to cover the whole door; they could form a border pattern instead:


In the age of Kennedy’s Camelot and the attendant New Formalism, you too can be a king!

With your very own caligraphy-styled monogram!

Or you can just be stunningly modern, classy, and geometrically smooth.
Midcentury garage door

Midcentury garage door

Or exuberantly modern…
Midcentury garage door

You can shout your modernity to the world!
Midcentury garage door

Midcentury garage door

Or you can quietly wait for the world to notice it.
Midcentury garage door

There is no end to the patterns. Still more may be seen at my Flickr account.


Quarry town

Thorton Quarry

The fascination of a rock quarry isn’t hard to grasp. Here in the unendingly flat Midwest, a quarry is a shocking interruption of the landscape. The walls are vertical cliffs, their relief impressive in their own right and doubly so in the middle of so much prairie land.

The artificial depths seem ominously unstable; despite the solid beds of rock that line their walls, it is hard to behold a quarry without feeling that somehow, Nature will strike back, bring the walls crumbling down, reclaim the pit, fill the vacuum. Land dikes separating quarry pits look precarious to begin with, even before they are pierced by Gothic arch-shaped openings to permit communication between pits. And water inevitably finds its way in, requiring constant pumping. The thought of water overwhelming the works of man is, I suspect, a primal fear on some level. Here it’s not just a shadowy thought, but frank reality.

Thorton Quarry

The quarry pit is a window into the Earth, showing us a slice of what lies buried under our feet. Rock strata that have not seen daylight in millions of years lay exposed to the world. Tunnels hint at darker depths still. The invasion of water gives one a visual grasp of the water table, the rivers moving below the earth’s surface.

Thorton Quarry

And finally, the sheer volume of material removed to create these pits beggars imagination.

Thorton Quary

All this effort goes to remove minerals and rocks from the earth. A city the size of Chicago uses a lot of rocks. They doesn’t just go into those MidCentury buildings I’m so fond of; they’re cut and crushed and used as aggregate for concrete, gravel ballast for railroads, rip-rap for the lakefront, and many other purposes.

Being really heavy, rock is best harvested locally, and to that end there’s a surprising number of quarries to be found around Chicagoland.

Thorton Quarry
Thorton (the subject of all the above photographs) is the biggest and by far the most famous of Chicago’s rock quarries. The reason is obvious: not only is it huge, but it’s spanned by a massive and busy highway atop a two-hundred-foot high land dike.
Thorton Quarry

Tri-State Tollway

Views of Thornton Quarry are also easy to come by from the surrounding public roads. Access is limited by fencing, of course, but through the links one can see deep into the quarry’s depths.

Thornton Quarry

Thorton consists of four main pits, collectively forming one of the largest quarries in the world. Three of them are readily visible from the various roads hemming the site in. The material removed from here is for aggregates — the little bits of solid stuff that goes into concrete and various other materials.

Thornton Quarry

The northernmost pit, shown here, is being converted to a stormwater holding facility, for when strong storms overwhelm the city’s deep tunnel storage system.

Thorton Quarry

Tours of the facility are offered twice a year, and they fill up months in advance.

* Birds eye view at bing.com
* Thorton Quarry at Wikipedia

McCook Quarry
One of several pits operated in Chicagoland by Vulcan Materials Company, this pit operates beyond the city’s upper southwestern limits, covering some 650 acres. Sadly, very little of its depths are visible from public roads.

Lemme tell you man, I've been everywhere!

Joliet Road, abandoned

Speaking of pubic roads, McCook’s operations have apparently destabilized one. Joliet Road crosses the quarry on a land dike, similar to the Tri-State’s route across Thornton. But the road has been closed since the 1990s, fenced, barricaded and overgrown with weeds.

McCook Quarry

* McCook Quarry official web site

McCook is one of a string of quarries in the area; two more are directly northeast of it:

Reliable Materials Lyons Quarry
Somehow I missed this one on the ground, despite being only a mile away and on a very specific mission to visit quarries. I’ll get it some day!

* Reliable Materials Lyons Quarry aerial view

Unknown quarry, La Grange
Seen 'em haul rocks on the south side

Like McCook, very little of this one is visible from public roads. This is about the best view one can get from outside the property, and you’d better be prepared to hoist your camera up high.

* Aerial view

A skim through Vulcan’s list of Illinois facilities turns up quite a few additonal quarries in and around Chicagoland, and a Google search shows even more. Most are either much smaller operations, or else are far out in the countryside, away from the developed lands that help make Thorton so remarkable. A couple of the more notable and nearby ones are:

Elmhurst Chicago Stone Quarry

Elmhurst quarry

This former quarry now functions as a storm runoff holding facility for DuPage County.

Elmhurst quarry

I’ve seen it from an airplane, but I have yet to visit on the ground.

* Aerial view, showing the quarry flooded
* Elmhurst Quarry Flood Control Facility, with live images!

* Bolingbrook Quarry – aerial view
* Official site

* Laraway Quarry, Joliet – aerial view
* Offical site

* Romeo Stone Quarry – aerial view

MidCentury Suburbs Part 6: A catalog of housing types

The city of Chicago exploded into the 1950s and 1960s. Thousands and thousands of houses and apartments rose up on the ever-expanding urban frontier, in a remarkably unified ensemble of styles. There’s endless variation in the architectural details, but a great deal of it happens within a small range of fundamental building types.

The Bungalow/Ranch
MidCentury bungalows

Chicago’s famous “Bungalow Belt” began rising before the World Wars, but didn’t stop when the World Wars were over. The Bungalow simply cast off its original Craftsman-styled details and traded them in for MidCentury ones. Red-brown brick, stone lintels and quoins, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired art glass, semi-octagonal bay windows, Spanish tile roofs, dormer windows and heavy eaves disappeared.

Midcentury Bungalow

In their place came blond and orange brick, built-in planters, decorative wall panels of rough stone or elegant Roman brick, glass block, picture windows, geometrically designed front doors, patterned storm doors, and stylish door hardware.

These houses are compact and efficient, sitting tidily on a rectangular foundation, one story over a raised basement. The most classic style has a low-pitch roof with a hipped gable — not quite the flat roof that High Modernism demanded, but a valiant attempt to minimize the roof’s impact while maintaining the practical advantages of a pitched roof.

I’m honestly not even sure if “bungalow” is the right term for them. They certainly aren’t ranch houses, however, and I’ve never seen the word “cottage” used to describe a Chicago house.

Midcentury Bungalow

Midcentury Bungalow

The Townhouse
Also known as the rowhouse, the townhouse does exist in MidCentury garb, but it’s not an easy housing type to spot in the wild. They’re so unusual, in fact, that I hardly have any in my archives, and the ones I do have look more like they came from the Northwest woods than the northwest suburbs.

Evanston townhouses

Townhouses consist of individual housing units sharing common side walls, but with no units above or below, and each with its own entrance. MidCentury versions are usually either one or two stories high (older versions go even higher), and are commonly arranged perpendicular to the street, with two rows facing a common courtyard.

Evanston townhouses

The 3 Flat
The 3 Flat is a Chicago classic: three (sometimes 2 or 4) apartments vertically stacked, accessed by a stairwell on one side. Though there are plenty of pre-War examples, it’s the MidCentury version that really codified the style and made it Chicago’s own.

W. 55th Street

The standard version — and there’s hardly any example that isn’t the standard version — is two stories over basement. The basement may be a third apartment, or just a basement (that’s the 2-flat version; the 4-flat version pretty much disappeared after World War 2.) Huge picture windows for each unit are requisite, projecting an image of clean, bright, modern spaces.

The stairs most often entered through a shared doorway, often under a little porch roof. Occasional variants will have two doorways. Endless decorative variety surrounds the doorway. I’ve seen planters, curved stairs, ornate ironwork in the railings and porch columns, glass block patterns, and an assortment of storm doors. And of course the doors themselves were the canvas for some brilliantly creative carpenters. Solid angled walls sometimes surround the entry, in stone or brick, occasionally with light holes poked through them.

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

The stairway is most commonly illuminated by a large panel of glass block. Sometimes it’s divided into strips. More rarely, colored blocks are used to create patterns. A handful feature sculpture panels in place of the glass block, favoring the outward appearance over natural light.

8100 S. State Street

3 Flats

3 flats with pizazz!

Stoney block apartments

The 6-flat
Three-flats are generally long, narrow buildings, their short ends facing the street. For longer lots, the floor plan could be turned sideways and then mirrored, resulting in the 6-flat apartment building, two stacks of three apartments all sharing a common stairwell.

6-flat with random rubble stone

The 6-flat shares many decorative styles with the 3-flat. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the broad street-facing side walls of the 6-flat frequently become the canvas for decorative elements, such as stone panels and decorative lamps. The stairwell illumination panel became more creative as well — colored glass block is more common on 6-flats, as are bottle glass and panels of translucent colored plastic.

6-flats were often paired with a mirror-image twin, both perpendicular to the street, with access from the street and alley via a pair of sidewalks.

twin 6-flats (Harlem Ave?)

3-flats often presented only a front facade to the street, with most of the building wrapped in cheaper Chicago common brick. 6-flats, with their entrances on the broad face, usually don’t have that luxury; perhaps aided by the economy of scale, they often had much more extensive decoration than their smaller cousins.

6-flats, west side

Harlem Avenue 6-flat

Harlem Avenue 6-flat

The types pictured above are perhaps the most iconic Chicago style, but this flexible building type had several variants. A popular south side version features recessed balconies for each living unit, with the brick walls protruding from the body of the building to provide privacy, separation, and enclosure.

south side 6-flat

south side 6-flat

6-flats can have their broad or narrow faces against the street; the entry can be on or off the street in either configuration.


southwest side 6-flat

The X-flat
Just as the 6-flat is a doubled 3-flat, so could additional units could be strung together to match the length of any lot, to make a 9- or 12- or whatever-number-you-want-flat building. The example below strings together three 6-flats for a total of 18 units.


On narrow lots perpendicular to the street, a small L-leg at the end of the lot could also provide additional floor area, closing off the block and creating a sort of half-courtyard.

Rogers Park

A longer L-leg could give the unbuilt portion of the lot enough presence to hold a street corner, as on these Belmont Avenue-area 9-flats.

Belmont Avenue 6-flat

Belmont 6-flat

As with other types, mirroring the building could result in a court-yard like setting, such as this pair of 9-flats on S. Cottage Grove.

S. Cottage Grove

From the mirrored-pair, L-shaped X-flat, it’s a short step to connect the two buildings, resulting in the courtyard building.

The courtyard walkup
The courtyard apartment transcends architectural styles, being a common feature of every 20th Century Chicago landscape. In its MidCentury guise, it is essentially a series of 3- and 6-flats linked together by a connecting wing.
That wing could be a small extension of the corner apartments, or it could be a whole stack of 3 or 6 apartments with their own shared entrance.

West side

They frequently feature balconies, which tend to be rare on their smaller counterparts.

The wings could be thickened up as well, essentially forming two 6-flats at the street.

60s apartments

Mid-Century apartments

The breezeway apartment
I have no proof, but I strongly suspect this style was imported lock stock and barrel from California and Florida. Where else would it be considered a good idea to have the hallways on the outside?

Ugly on the whole, yet made of awesome pieces.

Single breezeway building

These are essentially single-loaded corridor buildings — a hallway with rooms on one side only. Instead of enclosing the hallway, however, it’s left open to the elements, doubling as a porch and public gathering space. It’s a great idea in mild climates. In Chicago, however… well, I have to wonder how much salt they have to dump on those walkways in the winter.

The stairwells are more sheltered, typically open only at their entrances; sometimes they have one or more doors. Their massive stone or brick faces are the usual points of decoration for the building.

Breezeway apartment

W. Foster apartments

South side breezeway building

Again, mirroring this long, thin style results in an enclosed courtyard. In the instance shown here, free-floating catwalks connect the breezeways of both buildings.

Twin breezeway building

Beyond these types, the next step up is the Four-Plus-One, covered in careful detail over at Forgotten Chicago. It’s essentially a corridor/elevator building, floating over a covered parking area.

There are other types as well: split-level ranches, “flying-wing” roof single families, and taller elevator/corridor buildings. These types, however, tend not to share the common design vocabulary of the flats and bungalows, making them more distant cousins of the types listed here, and not as distinctively native to Chicago.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

Last week, while traveling about, I decided to take a detour south of Touhy near O’Hare. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

Sandwiched between Bryn Mawr, Cumberland, Lawrence, and East River Road is the largest concentration of Chicago’s distinctive MidCentury Modern developer style buildings that I have yet to find. It is essentially half a square mile of nothing but MidCentury — bungalo-style cottages to the south, 3-flats in the middle, 6-flat apartments to the north. The capstone is in the southeast corner, where St. Joseph’s Ukranian Catholic Church rises high above its surroundings (watch for a separate post on that, as soon as I can manage to get inside the place.)

St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church

What caught my attention on a followup visit was a theme I’ve noticed before — the simple creativity of the designers who planned all these nigh-identical buildings. You may think they all look alike, but truth be told you’d be hard pressed to find two that are actually identical.


There are numerous points of detail, each with several different options, offering perhaps hundreds of different options within the limited framework of the style.

A catalog of this one block of three-flats on Winnemac Avenue includes:

* Stone panel. Options: framed panel, or longer panel that wraps the building’s front corner. Total options: 2.

* Stone. Options: white, green, gray, brown. (All these 3-flats feature rubble stone, as opposed to the carved flagstone found elsewhere, which would add another 3-4 options. The stone also appears nearby in black, though not on this block.) Total: 4.

3-flat entry detail

* Entryway decor. Options: small stone panel, 3 concrete blocks. (Not found on this block: the innumerable configurations of glass block used all across Chicago.) Total: 2.

* Front door. Options include at least 4 different highly ornate designs: tall double star, full-length triangle, paired diamonds, angled flower. There are at least a dozen more popular designs around Chicago. Total: 4.

* Storm door. Options: 3-panel, ironwork, standard. 3-panel comes in a rainbow of colors: clear, orange, green. It’s probably that more storm door (and front door) options have been lost to alterations over time. Total: 5.

* Ironwork canopy supports. Options: X-braced (more modern and geometric) or curli-cues (more organic, softer.) Curli-cues come in straight column or broad screen options. Matching balcony railings are optional if you have a flat canopy roof. Total: 4.

* Stairwell glass block. Options: full panel, 3 narrow panels. Like the entryway decoration, a nearly infinite range of block types, colors, sizes, and patterns can be found across Chicago. This block very conservatively restrains itself to two patterns, in a single block style (Sculpted Glass Module Leaf design.) Total: 2.

8527 W. Winnemac Avenue. Wrapping stone panels, brown stone, 3-paneled stairwell glass block, geometric canopy supports, standard storm door, large triangle front door, small stone panel entry decoration.

There are 26 3-flats on this block. But combining their different variations gives us 2 x 4 x 2 x 4 x 5 x 4 x 2 = 2,560 possible combinations.

Twenty-five hundred variations!!

Yeah, good luck finding two that are exactly alike!

And what else do you build, apart from 3-flats?

The Infinite City

If you asked me to tell you what Chicago looks like, I would tell you it looks like this: a thousand cars, a thousand streetlights, a thousand jumbled brick buildings, a thousand miles of sidewalk, all of it repeated without end till they disappear beyond the curve of the Earth.

Montrose heading east

Chicago is utterly Jeffersonian. Here there were no inconvenient hills or lakes or coasts to interfere with the perfect geometric grid of streets. The spirit of the westward expansion, of the surveyor’s hand wiping away the chaos of unordered nature, found perfect expression in flat, unbounded Chicago.

Shot on the fly

Chicago is very often not a pretty place. Its commercial arteries are often harsh and graceless expanses of concrete, seeming to lack any amenities like street trees. The city’s grid can be pitilessly rational, extending without curve or bend to the horizon, its progress demarcated with ruthless regularity by street lights, power lines, railroad tracks, mass-produced houses and apartments. If there is anything picturesque to be found in the city, it’s surely by accident.

Devon Avenue - view east

Vast amounts of land in Chicago are given over to the functional, the necessary, the purely purposeful. The Interstates are vast rivers carving up sections of the city. Power plants create vast islands. Industrial swaths chew apart neighborhoods. Railroad embankments form unpassable barriers.

Rails to Milwaukee

Yet this is also part of the city’s personality, for better or worse. This is a city that Does, that Makes, that Deals. The city may not always have time for nicities, but it’ll get the job done.

Alley under the El

There is beauty and awe to be found in the city’s sheer size. On a scale unmatched anywhere between the coasts, Chicago stamped itself into being, an ever-growing machine devouring land and churning out city. Any common object you find in Chicago is repeated on an unimaginable scale — streets, light fixtures, houses, blocks.

There's a ballet being fought

Sometimes the result is graceless and ugly. The mind may well boggle at the sheer volumes of land consumed by the city, at just how many miles are layered with unrelenting cityscape.

Comes now a parting of ways

But… look close. What is horrific in the aggregate may turn out to be composed of many beautiful little pieces.

Lawrence Avenue commercial district

And the raw, unmitigated ugliness is often an illusion. Step off the main arteries and you are likely to be submerged in an urban garden, lush street trees framing beautiful houses and gracious sidewalks.


…not to mention the famous bits downtown.

The wall

Within Chicago’s rigid framework, there is vast freedom — freedom to move, to travel, to settle, to carve a niche, to declare yourself and your individuality within the box.

Aerial south side

There is always a horizon in Chicago. Even in the heart of the Loop, one can look down a street that recedes into infinity, and the lake is ever-present. Suspended between prairie and water, Chicago offers a horizon as vast as the sky, promising something new and different just out of sight — you just have to keep moving toward it.

One Perfect Sunrise

Wild Western Midcentury

In architecture, the dominant image from the 1950s and 1960s is Modernism. Clean lines. Forward thinking. Leaving the past behind. The embrace of technology. Machine purity. The march of progress. The future!

Stoney apartments

The middle decades of the Twentieth Century are more complicated than that, however, and like all aspects of culture, architecture too had quite a few contradictory influences.

Chicago’s MidCentury building stock, simple though it may seem, draws from a broad range of cultural influences. The clean and largely unadorned lines, the glass block (a very modern material), the broad picture windows, and the minimalist, geometric decoration, are the influence of High Modernism.

Diamond pattern

Jet Age living

(The windows, by the by, are the clearest evidence that Chicago builders were not really interested in the high ideals of Modernism. Modernists proclaimed the liberation of the wall from structure. The wall could be anything, they said: glass, metal panels, whatever building materials were at hand. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than at the corners. Corners traditionally were solid, as they had to hold up the building; Modernists delighted in having windows wrap the corner, showing the world that the wall was a free-floating object, rather than a load-bearing mass. Chicago builders, however, almost never used this design trope — perhaps because, underneath the Modernist trappings, their buildings were still fairly traditional wood-framed structures sheathed mostly in Chicago common brick. The back sides of many Chicago MCM apartment buildings look exactly like their pre-War contemporaries whose backs face the Elevated in the older parts of town.)

The Prairie School brought in elements of horizontality and natural forms and materials — the rough fieldstones and boulders that adorn the walls of countless MidCentury apartments in Chicago, and perhaps the more organic forms seen in the sculpted glass blocks common on the south side. The stones, however, can also be seen as evoking several other ideals: the rough terrain of the desert southwest (freshly accessible at the time via the nation’s growing highway system), and the volcanic rocks of Hawaii and Polynesia (also seen in the thriving Tiki culture of the time.)

8100 S. State Street

Lots of rubble

Random rubble wall

Random rubble wall

Plant life is another part-and-parcel of Chicago Midcentury. The ideal Chicago bungalow or three-flat has meticulously sculpted shrubs growing outside of it, or perhaps an evergreen.

Random rubble stone

It's still the frontier!  Honest!!

The contemporary style of the New Formalism had a heavy hand as well. It can be seen in the form of repeating arch shapes (including the very same fieldstone wall decorations), stylized lamps strategically placed as objects of elegant, isolated adornment, and in the cream-and-brown color palette of a certain brand of suburban houses.


Proper.  Mannered.  Olde Tymey.


Mini-globe lamps!  In fluted amber!

But beyond all these contemporary influences, the past played a role as well. America being a relatively young country, two great periods of glory stand out and seem prominent in the mind of the 1950s: the Colonial era and the Old West.

Old West nostalgia was at a peak in the 1950s, driven by Western flicks at the movies and a surge of television shows. Perhaps it makes a certain amount of sense: with the closing of the frontier passing out of living memory, it would become much easier to romanticize that wilder, untamed time. The ongoing space race was sold to the public under the guise of “The New Frontier”, but the old frontier was just as easy for builders to evoke.

Well, pardner, I do reckon we could maybe rent'cha an apartment hereabouts.

This building on Estes is perhaps the most flagrant example imaginable. It has faux shutters (nowhere nearly big enough to cover that very modern picture window), faux clapboard siding, the obligatory old-styled lamps, and a metal-relief eagle. An eagle!

Any doubts that I’m misinterpreting this should be dispelled by the laundromat sign right up the street.

The Washing Well sign

The apartment on Estes is not alone, though. On Touhy near the lake, a series of townhouses features the same eagles, along with shutters and pedimented porch roofs perhaps intended, along with the red brick, to evoke Colonial America. Their layout — pairs of rowhouses facing each other along a common courtyard, perpendicular to the street — is quite modern, but their trappings are purely backward-looking.

The stockade!

And look at that fence! If that isn’t intended to call out images of frontier forts, nothing is.

The most ubiquitous Old West element of Chicago MidCentury, however, is the wood number plate. Proper capital-M Modernists would never used a serif font on their buildings. Serifs were decoration, decoration was The Enemy, and lettering was Arial font or some equally minimalist font, or nothing at all.

The men who built Chicago, however, were not Proper Modernists. Thousands of apartments and houses have their house numbers proclaimed on little strips of wood with ragged edges seemingly meant to look like jagged splinters, as if this were a random chip left over from splitting firewood, with curved and serifed fonts.

Number plate and rock inset

Number plate, 8" glass block

Number plate, storm door, front door

All these elements were thrown into the pot, swirled around, boiled down, and distilled by architects and builders who clearly knew how to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. They were selling an image: Modern elegance, life on the suburban frontier, clean but natural design. And sell it did, as testified by the thousands of buildings that went up in the Chicago MCM style and still stand today.