No comments. Just an awesome Art Deco entryway on an industrial side street, out west on Lake Avenue.
Now home to Genieco, Inc. Fine Fragrances.
Here’s a slick little commercial building, way down south on Western Avenue:
Built to the sidewalk, with apartments above (complete with their own balcony!) and shops below, it’s the kind of MidCentury building that I refer to as the last stand of urbanism. By the 1950s or 1960s, whenever this building went up, the automobile was at the zenith of its ascendancy. Yet numerous builders still designed in the old way, building to the sidewalk, as if this poor stretch of gargantuan, highway-like Western Avenue might some day harbor thriving foot traffic. In some places, like the older streetcar suburbs, this was simply fitting in with what already existed. In the new suburbia, however, it was a totally lost cause, and these buildings stand as novelties today.
But enough about that. Let’s check out the slick bits of 1960s style on this place!
The building goes heavy on the colored glass block, using yellow and blue in addition to its baby blue brick. Geometry is emphasized by blocky massing and that thick overhanging roof.
The building also uses lovely thin Roman bricks, and has a bit of stylized door hardware to boot.
Nearby, another building holds a recycled sign of similar vintage. Jim’s Beverly Bicycle Shop has creatively and fittingly given a second life to the body of an old neon sign.
Last post, I made a protracted and over-detailed claim that basically, builders were stealing ideas from each other left and right in the 1960s. Here’s a simpler argument for the same idea: look at just one recurring decorative element, and see how many different builders you can find who used it.
I’ve chosen the horizontal band of stone, set in a brick wall. There’s no reason to think this particular element is inherently obvious or necessary; you can look at other buildings in the photos and see a dozen other ways to use field stone, and I can make up plenty more out of my head.
After long study and research, I have reached a conclusion: there was no single guiding force that created the Chicago Midcentury style. It was simply an amazing confluence of factors.
When I first noticed how prevalent this style was, the most obvious thought was that, perhaps, a single large builder developed huge swaths of Chicago. But I have encountered dozens or hundreds of builder names. The O’Hare neighborhood, which I marveled at recently, makes a great case study, containing many homogeneous blocks. Consider, for example, this three-block stretch of Berwyn, lined with nigh-identical 2-flats:
At a glance, these buildings are totally homegenous. They share identical massing, height, footprints, and unit layout (stairs on one side, two stacked units, giant picture windows.) Yet a careful look at their details shows that each builder did things a little bit differently, and had their own distinctive details that they used and re-used.
The 8300 block, north side. 8356 from the previous shot is at left. Notice the brick vestibule walls of each successive house – the first is the same as 8356, the next is a variation, and the next is a variation on the variation, and uses the same stairwell/glass block details as 8359 and 61 from the first shot. It’s a good bet that Relias built this entire block.
But they sure didn’t build the next two blocks!
And here’s what stands between the two Forest Lane buildings. The repeating porch wall design makes it almost certain that the three center buildings, and the ones at the far right, were by a single builder. Could it also be Forest Lane? Sure. One of them even re-uses the glass block design from the first Forest Lane building. A look at an aerial view on Google Maps reveals that every building shares the exact same curved sidewalk design, too, meaning the whole north side of the block is probably Forest Lane. But that wall detail… didn’t we just see that a moment ago, on a building by Relias? Did Forest Lane build on the Relias block, or did one company just swipe a detail from the other?
Across the street, another company was busy. Below are two buildings by Frank J. Munao, a wealthy builder who also happened to be into horse racing. He was so prominent, in fact, that some hoods attempted to extort money from him in the early 1950s by threatening his wife and children. They wound up going to jail instead, and Mr. Munao went on to grace Berwyn Avenue with these 2-flats:
8455 W. Berwyn Avenue
So this whole side of the block is probably Frank J. Munao & Son, Inc.
One block west, and we’re still in solid 2-flat territory, but with still more builders:
And so, in short, we’ve got three solid blocks of nothing but nigh-identical 3-flats…. by at least five different builders.
Further west on Berwyn, the 2-flats give way to 6-flats. Like the previous area, these buildings are rigorously aligned, and very similar in massing and style… but by a multitude of builders.
8639 W. Berwyn Avenue, SW corner of Berwyn and Potawatomie – aka 5240 N. Potawatomie. Ferlette Builders & Realty Co. Both this and the previous building (right across the street, and seeming to form a gateway with their prominent lamps) share New Formalist influences, but are by different builders. Clearly one of these buildings is reacting to the other.
Most of these 6-flats, spanning three parallel streets, align so perfectly that you can look through the gaps between them and see through corresponding gaps in two more blocks of identical buildings. And every decorative trick on these buildings shows up on other buildings by other builders. These different builders were clearly borrowing from each other and trying to work together.
I have no solid explanation, though, for how this incredibly unified style came to be. As we’ve seen, a single builder was buying up a whole block, or large chunks of one, and stamping out the same designs. Zoning codes explain some of this homogeneity within neighborhoods, requiring similar dwelling unit types on blocks, setting setback limits and perhaps height restrictions as well. None of that, however, explains why a six-flat at 7600 N. Harlem Avenue (Parisi Brothers Construction Company) should look just like a 6-flat at 7724 W. Belmont Avenue (Nick S. Theodorau, architect) or one on 5200 N. Potawatomie.
The availability of affordable building materials is a likely factor – blonde brick, for example, was obviously cheap at the time. Brickmakers were experimenting with new cuts and colors at the time, as can be seen on many of these buildings. Many common components were catalog elements, such as the fancy doors and escutcheons and various kinds of glass block, and would have been readily available to any builder. Certain stone types that occur again and again were probably cheaply available as well, perhaps bought in bulk by local suppliers and sold to many contractors.
And then there was probably some good old fashioned peer pressure – all the cool kids are building modern-style apartments. Don’tcha wanna be cool? Builders are risk-adverse by nature; if they were building modern-clad buildings by the hundreds, it had to mean they were popular with the public. Certainly some of these elements were copped from famous designers of the day, and there was also a variety of cultural influences at work, too.
Despite all the explanations, it’s still a remarkable convergence. These factors, and perhaps others still unknown, combined to produce a distinctive Chicago style that appears all over the region, and to my knowledge, nowhere else.
(For the record, most of the builder and architect data comes from a series of real estate advertisements run throughout the 1960s by the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company, touting the merits of gas heating and appliances. Names of architects appear far less frequently than names of builders, but there is still plenty of variety.)
If you’ve ever driven west on Foster, out toward Harlem Avenue, you’ve surely noticed these two remarkable apartment buildings, standing on the angled block where Foster Place briefly splits off from Foster Avenue.
They are 5133 N. Neva Avenue (top) and 7111 W. Foster Place (bottom). Built around 1964, they were designed by one Lee N. Romano, a planner, designer and builder who ran his own eponymous company, founded in 1950. They seem to be his most notable buildings, as very little information can be found about him otherwise. But hey, a guy could do far worse than to leave these MidCentury explosions as a legacy.
Those unmistakable eyelid stained glass windows set the tone of the place. They reappear as a motif in several spots, like the fake balconies…
The main entry doors…
…And even the interior doors, which have their own miniature version of the big window.
Those big windows cast a beautiful light into the tiny lobby space on a sunny day. It’d be hard to live here and not get a little smile on your face every time you walked out the front door.
They didn’t seem to know just what to do with the backside, but hey, who in Chicago ever does? Lacking a better option, they made it into a little courtyard with a castle wall fence thing. Why not?
Oh, it was a glorious day when I found this place!
These scenes all come from a single neighborhood, on Chicago’s northwestern fringe. Most of the area is in Chicago proper, with a chunk belonging to the suburban municipality of Norridge. The area consists of three half-mile squares bounded by East River Road on the west, which curves into Montrose on the south, Bryn Mawr to the north, and Cumberland Avenue on the east.
For some reason, one of the most difficult things to find on the internet is a map that clearly shows municipal boundaries. Google and Bing are both equally useless in this regard. I’m fairly certain about the Chicago/Norridge part, but some of this area may be in a township or village or city or Chicago neighborhood (or all four) called Harwood Heights. A town or neighborhood called O’Hare might also be involved.
What I can tell you, without qualification, is that this is the largest and most amazing MidCentury neighborhood in Chicago.
If you want to educate someone on MCM Chicago in just five minutes, take them here. It has all the essentials: the glass block. The 3-flats. The 6-flats. The raised ranch/bungalows. The door handles. The blonde brick. The wood pattern doors. The garage door designs. The metal railings. It’s even got split-level ranch houses. And it has all this in droves. Entire blocks were constructed to identical plans, then festooned with all the varied decoration that 1960s Chicago could muster. The result: a bizarre landscape of endless repetition and endless variety. Every building is alike, yet no two are alike.
Perhaps the most amazing part is that, from what evidence I’ve been able to gather, this incredibly unified neighborhood was designed and built by a multitude of unrelated architects and contractors. I would have expected to find one giant firm churning out the same plan again and again. Of the 10 or 15 addresses for which I have an architect or builder’s name, there are almost as many designers’ names attached. Certainly single builders put up runs of buildings, perhaps even entire blocks, but no single entity guided the creation of the area. I am still researching this and will have a more detailed post soon. Ish.
The bulk of the area went up in the mid- to late-1960s, though there is some indication that the construction continued into the early 1970s.
Again, that’s St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the background there, another future post topic. Promise!