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.

IMG_6484

IMG_6486c

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:

IMG_5268

IMG_5240

IMG_5238

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:

IMG_8970

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.

PA275036

PA275035a

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

Niles

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.)

Advertisements

Greece in a Box

IMG_3285a

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.

IMG_3005a

IMG_3219a

IMG_3272a

IMG_3269a

IMG_2804a

(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.

IMG_1694a
W. Gunnison

IMG_1074a

IMG_2329a

IMG_1756a

IMG_1769a

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

Bensenville

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.

IMG_1206

IMG_1203

IMG_1200

IMG_1213
A holdout next to a long-vacant house.

IMG_1201

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.

IMG_2970

IMG_2966

IMG_2990

IMG_2981

IMG_2976

IMG_2988

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.

A church on the verge

This is St. Boniface Catholic Church, in the Pulaski Park neighborhood on the near west side, at Chestnut & Noble Streets.

IMG_7569a

Closed since 1990, this imposing 1902 building made it onto 1999’s Landmarks Illinois Most Endangered list for the whole state.

It’s an absolutely wonderful church building, no two ways about it. The side elevation could pass for the main facade of a lesser church. In front, the main portal has a delightful array of patterned columns, each with a different design.

IMG_7572

IMG_7592

Today, the venerable building is in a sorry state. Roof leaks have gone unchecked over the side aisles, developing into miniature roof collapses, and the interior is pretty well trashed. Efforts to secure the building by walling up the main entrance with concrete block have failed, as the wall stands broken down, the security fence pried apart, and the door’s portal windows shattered out.

IMG_7550

IMG_7583a

A small rectory building stands behind the church. Sadly, a school building to the east and two convent buildings have already been lost.

IMG_7544

IMG_7598

Things might be looking up for St. Boniface. A web site devoted to the church reports that, after over ten years of the community fighting to save the building, a developer is moving forward with plans to renovate and redevelop the property.

Renderings of the proposed construction may be seen here. To put it mildly, it’s a pretty aggressive intervention. It essentially adds a 6-story building that wraps around 2 sides of the church, completely burying the building’s white-brick-clad eastern facade, (a side that was meant obscured by the other buildings previously on the site). The plan cuts lots of windows and skylights into the facade and roof. Some changes, such as the new round porthole windows on the lower towers, blend right in (they match the round windows on the tall tower), while others could use some refinement – I sure hope they aren’t actually going to destroy the tall arch-topped aisle windows behind the tall tower, only to replace them with stacks of punched openings. The roof skylights could likewise be visually unified somehow, tied together into a single element rather than a scattered patchwork of squares. And couldn’t the rose windows be saved?

IMG_7546

The new construction also replaces the rectory building. It’s not clear why the vacant land to the east isn’t used for this additional housing instead – perhaps it wasn’t part of the land deal; perhaps it was the only way to avoid having multiple buildings with multiple services. But the loss of the rectory is damaging to the complex as a whole, diminishing its integrity further. The building is nothing too special, but it’s definitely integrated with its parent structure.

Overall, the preservation purist in me cringes, but the realist side of me recognizes an economically viable renovation when I see it. If it’s this or total demolition, then bring on the construction crews.

IMG_7529 copy

I tend to go back and forth on historicist churches. On the one hand, they’re wonderful, no doubt about it. They’re elaborate and ornate and embody thousands of years of tradition. On the other hand, I look around at all the flowering creativity of churches from the 1950s and 1960s, where every church could be something brand new under the sun, and start to have dismissive feelings about yet another French Gothic or Italian Renaissance styled church.

But then I find a place like this, a handsome, magnificent church that overwhelms in its splendor, and all those doubts go flying out the window. The preservation of a building like St. Boniface is a moral imperative.

IMG_7558

Read more on St. Boniface at Saint Boniface Info.com, a comprehensive site about the church. Be warned, your heart will break when you see the vintage photos of the interior before its abandonment.