New! Incomparable! Striking! (in every respect.)


I haven’t paid much attention to certain segments of Chicago’s Midcentury developments. I tend to focus on the ones with that unique Chicago style. But there are whole neighborhoods in the Chicago suburbs built in Mid-Century idioms that came from California and the southwest. They should be familiar to any Midcentury fan. Low-pitched roofs, preferably making big sweeps across most of the house, are the most obvious element. Recently I’ve stumbled onto a couple of these clusters.

Golden Acres subdivision

There’s no grand entryway to call your attention to this development. You just wander around the erratic curving streets, and after a while you start to realize that there’s some cool stuff going on in the ranches and split-level houses around you.

This is Golden Acres, a subdivision erected by Chesterfield Builders in 1960-1961. Chesterfield, headed by Arthur Zaltzman, built hundreds of houses around Skokie, Niles, Glenview and elsewhere. Chesterfield Builders was already putting up low-slung, low-pitched-roof ranch houses in the northwest suburbs by 1951, and they subsequently showed up repeatedly in the Tribune list of million-plus dollar developers, which means they were putting up easily a hundred or more homes a year.



Watch for the flaired-out planters wrapping around portions of these split-level houses. It’s a recurring element unique to this development, and it gives the houses a distinct 1960s flavor.



There are a few other house types mixed in as well.







Those last two designs shows up hither and thither across Niles and Skokie, if you find yourself in the right neighborhood.

And now that you’re familiar with the neighborhood, I just have to share the magnificent Chicago Tribune advertisement that trumpted the opening of the development. From July 22, 1961:

chesterfield builders golden acres opening ad
(As always, click for the larger version.)


From this, we learn that at least one of the house models, and presumably many or all of them, were designed by William B. Baime, architect (1928-1996).

We also learn that a hybrid between the Ranch and the Split-Level was known in builders’ circles as the “Splanch”, which sounds more like a gross-out sound effect than a house.

Sunset Manor Executive Homes

Greenwood and Central Roads, Glenview

Shortly before they built the single-family Golden Acres, Chesterfield put up a more dense multi-family set of buildings, begun in 1960, in a small corner of the same parcel. Here, four-unit buildings disguised as gargantuan California ranches are tightly packed at right angles to the road, with shared common green space all around them.



I have to wonder if “Executive Manor” is some sort of coded language that these were meant for unmarried businessmen. Buying into the development meant buying into a Home Owners Association which regulated and managed grounds maintenance.




The buildings are arranged along two L-shaped roads, a configuration which leads to a very picturesque set of interior spaces within the block. As a result, there’s some wonderful differentiation of space going on in Sunset Manor. Subtle cues in the size of paths, combined with the old standby of backyard fencing, let you know exactly where public space ends and private space begins.


Unknown development

The Sunset Manor model worked so well that it was reused at least two other times. A much more orderly iteration can be found just south of Golf Mills shopping center, off Ballard Road. The biggest difference, besides being set on neatly gridded streets, is that here the center section is only 1 unit.




You might think that this rigid arrangement would stifle individual creativity. You’d be happily wrong.




Chesterfield Garden Estates

The ultimate refinement of the apartments-in-a-giant-ranch-house design was the Chesterfield Garden Estates development. Here, Chesterfield Builders had a lot more room to work with, so instead of sitting face to face, most of the buildings are arranged in horseshoe shapes around enormous shared lawns.




Chesterfield Garden Estates is in Niles, off Shermer Road, south of Dempster. Its presence is announced by a pair of large, curved brick walls, which announce the development’s name in huge metal letters. This was a lucky break for me – it made finding info on the place incredibly easy.


These are, of course, multi-unit buildings, with four townhouses in each building. The end units are are split level, though you’d never guess from the design of the front. The two-level unit in the middle is “the popular Georgian design”.


The development was opened in 1961, and is centered around a small park which originally included a swimming pool (long since vanished.) The park is actually much smaller than the shared lawns that many of the buildings face. Sales rep Leo Krasny states in a Tribune article that he had been building such townhouses for several years, and they were popular in part because of the included landscaping.


Oh, and the full name of the place is actually Chesterfield-in-Niles Garden Estates. Just in case you got confused and thought you were in a London exurb.

The Chesterfield Builders developments are all doing quite well as they approach their 50th birthday. All the units look occupied, there are no maintenance issues, and the greenery on the grounds has developed nicely. There’s no reason to think they won’t stand for another 50 years.


Franklin Park MCM

This towering MidCentury office building, at 9401 Grand Avenue in Franklin Park, looms over the low-rise suburbia and industrial facilities surrounding it.


Completed in 1960, it’s a bit of hybrid – a 1950s design with 1960s colors. It was long the administrative headquarters of the Chicago-based Motorola company, who originally housed over a thousand office and technical workers within it. The building fronted a manufacturing operation that made TVs, radios, and stereo products; other divisions of the company worked on auto parts. An auto lift delivered cars to a 14-bay garage on the 2nd floor, made for testing car radios. A Chicago real estate blog also claims that it had a private executive auto elevator for the company president.

Motorola Annual Report 1960, when the building was brand new

Motorola moved to Schaumburg in 1976. A 1980 ad places the Matsushita Industrial Company at the Franklin Park address. In a later life, the building was known as the O’Hare branch of Telecom Central, with a sign that still stands in front of it.


Today the Motorola Building stands vacant, draped with a gigantic banner promising a total reskin and conversion to apartments. A sales office sits on the parking lot next door. The venture began in 2006 and has since collapsed. The site doesn’t appear to be online; meanwhile, online rumors swirl of conversion to HUD housing.


Architecturally, maybe it’s just as well. The conversion calls for a complete top to bottom reskin that would completely alter the character of this startlingly Modernist building. The rendering doesn’t quite look like the soggy historicalisticismist mush that has infiltrated so many Chicago neighborhoods (no developer ever touts the merits of living like it’s 1915; their condominiums are unfailingly examples of “modern living”. Yet somehow, no building is allowed to reflect this reality on its outside!)

IMG_8158 copy

In fact, the longer I look at the details of the rendering, the more I think it’s pretty good, particularly if that’s not red brick on the ends. Still, the question remains of why it needs to be done at all.


Is the building in its current form a masterpiece? Historically significant? No, of course not. But in equal measure, there’s nothing wrong with it, either. It has a powerful presence on the street, and gives a clean, presentable public face to all the industrial buildings behind it.


Of particular concern to me is the fate of the two concrete sculptures at the doorway. Stylized, abstract, and curvaceous, they recall the same sort of abstract works seen in certain Chicago apartment lobbies. I have no clue what they’re supposed to represent – the evolution of mankind and his telecommunicative abilities, perhaps? – but I love ’em.


Now, there will inevitably be those who decry the building as an “ugly hulk” or “banal” or “bland” or “awful” or a thousand other pejoratives. To them, and to those who have attacked other Modern buildings that I cherish, I say: just look away. Just don’t look at it, if it’s that awful. Spare us the onslaught of reskins and re-dos, and save the Midcentury for those of us who can appreciate it, both today and tomorrow!

Machines for Living


It’s not just that the occupants of this Northbrook home own three vintage cars. Nor is it the fact that all three cars, including a 1964 Imperial, a 1966 Chrysler Newport, and a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker, are operational.


No, it’s the fact that they park them in front of a set of patterned Midcentury garage doors of the exact same vintage as the cars themselves that makes me grin with delight every time I see it. Long may they run!



Friday Photo Special: The Remains of Bensenville

Orchard Avenue, August 2009

Orchard Avenue, April 2010

Orchard Avenue, June 2010

With clearance obtained, the demolition of Bensenville has proceeded with astonishing speed. Two months after the work began, every single house is gone. The only survivors are a 1920s gas station, and the apartment complex at the east end of the area.

View east from Orchard Avenue

North of Irving Park, the land is almost clear of everything except streets.

Orchard Road

Garden Avenue

Garden Avenue

Okay, sure, I would have photographed those railings anyway, ’cause they’re poetic and pathos-evoking and all that… but mainly I photographed them because they were the only identifiable landmark left on this side of the road.

South of Irving Park, there’s a lot more rubble. Some foundations remain, and piles of salvaged scrap metal remain in the streets.


Garden Avenue

Pershing Avenue

Capital-M Modernism in Rogers Park

Granville Gardens

It’s always nice when the AIA Guide to Chicago notes a building I’m interested in, since that means most of the legwork (who, when, what style, original use, for what client) is already done. However, you’d think guys as educated and smart as the authors would, in a city like Chicago, know better than to tempt fate with statements like the following:

“Amazingly, the entire complex is in close to original condition.”

Granted, it’s been 17 years since those words were published in the first edition copy of the Guide, in reference to Rogers Park’s Granville Gardens apartments. But sure enough, when I first paid a visit to photograph the Moderne garden apartment complex, there was construction work underway in the courtyards. On a recent repeat visit, I discovered that the interior courtyards were being converted into parking lots. Augh!!



To be fair, the lots appear thoughtfully designed, retaining the two mature trees in the center of each of the two courtyards as well as a sizable band of grass around them. And hey, parking lots can always be removed. In theory.


Granville Garden – now partially renamed Granville Court Apartments – stands amid the sides streets between Peterson and Devon, on the corner of Hoyne and Granville. It’s a complex of 14 buildings, connected by open terraces in groups of three and four, and arranged around the two courtyards. It’s a lovely, thoughtful way to manage housing, dense but not crowded.




The buildings went up as a privately financed venture under government insurance and supervision, in a time when not much was being built in Chicago or elsewhere. The architects were Rissman & Hirschfeld, the year was 1938, and the styling is Moderne, with prominent corner windows and thin mullions which (knock on wood) still remain intact. For now. Architectural interest is provided by brick banding at the exterior corners, curved concrete entry canopies with scalloped edges, glass block and curved walls in the entry foyers, and the stepped massing of the buildings. Look close at the entryways and you may find some surprisingly sleek original door hardware still in place.


Winchester-Hood Garden Homes

Granville Gardens are not the only early Modernist housing development in Rogers Park, nor even the only one in this neighborhood. Just down the street is an even bigger complex, occupying parts of four contiguous, partially-developed city blocks. The Winchester-Hood Garden Homes were built from 1948 to 1951, to the designs of Holsman, Holsman, Klekamp and Taylor.


HHK&T liked their angles. Not only do short angled bay windows form the buildings’ most distinctive feature, but the site plans place nearly all of them at slight angles to the streets and to each other. The four block plans are all different, as none of the available parcels were the same shape and size. The result is a delightful variety in the resulting garden spaces between buildings, with no two alike. Meandering sidewalks lead through the buildings and to their doors.


The buildings themselves are almost Spartanly simple, though many feature three sculptured designs piercing the walls of their stairwells. The three sculptures – stylized versions of Zodiac figures Aeries, Pisces, and Capricorn – were designed by architect Coder Taylor. Each is only semi-solid, allowing light from the stairwell to illuminate its outlines at night.


Winchester-Hood apartments


The resulting effect in the evening, of lantern-like lights filtering from the buildings, the curving paths, and the mature trees, is like walking through some celebratory forest village.

Winchester-Hood Garden Homes

Winchester-Hood has a near-twin down on the south side, the Parkway Gardens apartments at 6415 S. Calumet. Fenced off, surrounded by parking, and in a generally rough section of town, it’s not nearly as inviting. I have yet to photograph it.

Lunt Lake Apartments

HHK&T were busy after World War II. In addition to Winchester-Hood and Parkway Gardens, they acted as consulting firm to Mies van der Rhohe’s famous Lake Shore Apartments. And in 1948, the firm designed a second Rogers Park complex, the Lake Lunt Apartments.



Consisting of three buildings on a single large lot, Lunt Lake stands on one of the many dead-end street stubs east of Sheridan, that end at the lakefront. Lunt Lake isn’t as bucolic as its sister development, but its structures are cut from the same cloth.

One might expect a U-shaped arrangement facing the lake, but instead the buildings are simply arranged in a line along the street, doing little to take advantage of the lakefront location. Only one receives lake views. These structures also lack the the fascinating stairwell sculptures of the other complex, and the view of them from lakeside is a bit underwhelming.

Lunt-Lake Apartments


Lunt-Lake was finished at a cost of $1,000,000 – quite a steal for putting up three buildings! Lunt-Lake and Winchester-Hood were both featured in Architectural Forum of January 1950, which noted the unusual brickwork. Designated “rowlock bond”, it was combined with poured, steel reinforced concrete to create a very thin, strong bearing wall.

Today, the buildings look as good as new. May they remain unblemished for another 60 years to come!

Chicago Main News Stand


The Chicago Main Newsstand in Evanston is a real oddity, a little mutant of a Modern building. At first glimpse, it seems easy enough to suss out — it’s a classically Modern 1950s building, now and perhaps always functioning as a news stand, complete with a vintage neon sign on top, and thin sans-serif fonts announcing its purpose on the side.

Chicago Main News Stand

But it’s too perfect. There’s no sign of aging at all. Those thick window mullions are not very 1950s. And the interior uses varnished wood trim and exposed ductwork. No MidCentury architect would dare leave ductwork exposed, no more than they would walk out their front door without a pair of pants on. No, that interior, at the very least, is from the 1980s or later.


Turns out, the stand originally went up in the 1940s. Named for the streets upon whose intersection it stands, the Chicago-Main Newsstand operated until 1993 as a mainstay of Chicago readers from across the region. After years of neglect following its closure, it came close to demolition in 2000, but was spared. In 2001, it re-opened after an intense renovation that included an entirely new roof and structure, relaying of the north and south walls, and the restoration of the original neon sign, which glows to the delight of sign fans across the city.


Today, the City Newsstand sells “60 newspapers and 6,000 magazines”, according to its web site. And it looks pretty cool, a beautiful modern box glowing in the night and gleaming in the day.

Chicago Main Newsstand

Friday Photo Special: Greek Statues again

Wouldn’t you know it? The very day the post on Midcentury Grecian statues goes up, I happen to make it back out to the O’Hare neighborhood, where the whole thing started. Here’s a few closeups of the strange and intriguing chunks of statuary that inhabit the courtyards of this 1960s neighborhood.



Some are weathered, and some are well-loved and even decorated with flowers. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was realizing that some of them had been painted.



Not all of these things are centrally placed. Some of them look like they were just stuck any old place.




But THIS one, by contrast… it not only occupies the focal point of its courtyard, but it was also meant to be lit up in blue, red, green and yellow beams of light. Brilliant! Brilliantly tacky, actually, but still brilliant. I simply must come back after dark.


Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!

A long while back I wrote briefly about the strange Midcentury 3-flats on Kominsky at 55th Street, with their low-relief sculpture panels in place of the usual glass block over the stairwells.



I was already aware of another set of sculpture plaques just around the corner, a trio of charmingly chintzy “See No Evil” monkeys at 5516 S. Pulaski.

MidCentury See, MidCentury Do

Speak No Evil

Then I found a third set of plaques, this time on three breezeway apartment buildings on Division near Concordia University:




The name plate above the “Hear No Evil” monkey (7213 W. Division) reads “The Alexandrian”, as if someone thought they could convince students they were moving into a Colonial-era Grecian mansion.

This batch definitively ties the first two together, sharing the common background elements of a rising sun and a strange “cobblestone” pattern. The Concordia University set also led me to the story behind the monkey sculptures. And the story is… there is no story.

An article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 24, 1956, is titled “No Reason, But Monkeys Adorn Dwelling Units”. General contractor Angelo Esposito explains that the sculptures were added to the Division Street apartments for no other reason than to generate buzz about the company’s latest buildings, and likewise for sculptures added to previous developments. No mention is made of who did the actual designs.

Esposito and Company, Contractors, were headquartered at 1515 N. Harlem Avenue, and got their anonymous sculptor’s work on at least one more building, a large breezeway apartment at 1305 N. Harlem Avenue, just south of North Ave:


Harlem Avenue, I think.  In Oak Park.

It may look like a duplicate of the flute player on Komenski, but it’s actually a completely new rendering of the exact same pose. Likewise, the Concordia monkeys are completely new sculpts of the same idea used on the Pulaski building.

Other likely Esposito buildings feature geometric abstractions. One can trace a path of repeated design elements from the fourth member of the Komenski/55th group…

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

…to this 55th Street area 3-flat…

Somewhere southish

…to another 3-flat around 95th Street.

Somewhere around 95th Street

Past that, it gets more and more dodgy. Did they do “The Treehouse”, an apartment at 8101 S. Maryland Ave.? The sculpture and the building do fit the style; notice those gray stone stripes.



How about this 6-flat at 7322 N. Harlem in Niles? Could be, but the connection’s more tenuous.


Angelo Esposito’s company did not come to a happy end. In 1960 a bankruptcy suit was filed against the builder, and over a dozen buildings in states of partial completion were put in the trusteeship of the court and sold off, including “two 4 story apartments in the 900 block of Pleasant avenue; a completed one storey office building at 6807-09-11 North av.; a partially finished residence at 1115 N. Harlem av.; a completed two story apartment house at 1111 N. Harlem av.; and a completed one story commercial building at 6817 North av.” Others included 7026 North Avenue, 1915 Robincrest Lane in Glenview, unnamed properties in Niles, and a partially constructed “mansion” at 936 Ashland Avenue in River Forest, a “stately shell” of a house that quickly became a reputed neighborhood nuisance in its unsecured condition (city inspectors found no particularly egregious conditions at the house.)

Greece in a Box


While photographing the northeast corner of my much-beloved O’Hare neighborhood, I started to noticed something funny. An inordinate number of the 1960s apartment buildings prominently featured a Classical-styled sculpture hanging out in front of them. It was one of those shocking little moments when you realize that you’ve somehow not seen something even though it was right in front of you the whole time.






(That last photo, by the way, is a building I didn’t share earlier, a Midcentury courtyard apartment with a bizarre Frankenstein mish-mash of parts, including a Classical pediment next to a two-story asphalt-shingled mansard roof, wood siding, brick siding, picture windows and tacked-on balconies. Yikes!)

A skim through my considerable photo archive turned up quite a few more of these lawn sculptures scattered around the city.

W. Gunnison





The garden statues don’t appear to be recent add-ons. Sometimes, the building itself is designed to accomodate some kind of decoration. And a couple of designs (the water-carrier with a vase on her shoulder, and another water carrier holding a single smaller jug) show up in front of multiple buildings, making it more likely to be of the same vintage as the buildings themselves.

The question remains, then: What the hell?? Were Chicago builders trying to convince their clients that they were actually living in some sort of new American acropolis by dropping a bit of Greek lawn art in front of it?

Well, maybe. Mid-Century builders were not at all hesitant to slap on anything that they felt created a resonant image with home buyers and renters. The western frontier and the colonial era are both well-represented in Chicago’s 1960s style. So why not add in some Grecian statuary? Was America not the modern living embodiment of Greek ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality?

And a statue, unlike a fountain, doesn’t require any messy, expensive pipes.

Still, it’s another one of those strange convergences. How was it that so many buildings wound up with the same statues?

Victims of the revolution


The behemoth that is O’Hare International Airport has been hungry for land. After a protracted legal battle, it seems its appetite will soon be satisfied, as a large chunk of suburban Bensonville is being torn down to make way for airport expansion.

Dozens of homes are being sacrificed to appease the monster. I paid a visit to them last summer, at a point when perhaps 90% of the homes had been vacated, with only a handful of recalcitrant holdouts remaining. It was an eerie environment, with tidily kept yards and houses standing shoulder-to-shoulder with lots that were rapidly becoming overgrown.




A holdout next to a long-vacant house.


More recently I returned, and found that with the legal hurdles cleared and the holdouts gone, demolition of the entire area was underway. An entire neighborhood had been fenced off and was prepped for systematic destruction. Trees are down, fences are ripped out and piled in the street, grass has been stripped away, and the houses are looking pretty ragged.







The other bizarre casualties of the expansion scheme are two cemeteries that have already been ingested by O’Hare. The two will have to be relocated, but for many months they have stood as untouched islands in a vast construction project.

Yes, that's a jet engine.