Showing the love for Optima

Evanston has had a trio of sophisticated, contemporary-styled condominiums go up in the last few years, all of them by the Optima design and development company, with architect David Hovey at the helm. They share a number of traits: a Modernist sensibility that is neither over-the-top nor inhumanely cool; a propensity for glass facades; and the ability to slot neatly into urban lots of virtually any size.

Optima Towers

The best, or at least the most interesting for me, is the Optima Towers building.


Undulating elevations of blue-tinted glass are broken up into a myriad of forms, with bright orange metal balcony railings further enlivening the view. The staggered profile alone is nice, but what really makes this building sing is the multiple layers of space around its base.


Two stories of balconies and dwelling units flare out over the street, hovering above a “wrapper” of stores. Indoor and outdoor spaces interweave, overlap, and all contribute their activity to the atmosphere of the street. This is a wonderful way to build up a street.

In back of the building, the delightful complexity continues, as a narrow slot of space acts as a garden courtyard, with a waterwall fountain in the back. This serene space offers a layer of separation from the bustle of downtown Evanston.


Ironically, despite its name, it’s the shortest of the three.

Optima Views

The connection between the Optima Views building and its smaller Towers cousin is obvious. They use exactly the same orange-painted metal balconies, and share a similar aesthetic of carefully angled plans. Optima Views is a much bigger and taller building, however.


This broadside view of the south elevation is not the building’s best face. As you move around it, however, different views arise. The building changes shape completely, becoming a slender, jagged monument of glass and concrete.



It was this view that made me wonder if Mr. Hovey was perhaps taking some inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower.

Another point in common with Optima Towers: a slick ability to turn even the most neglected, leftover space into something pleasant and desirable, as with those shadowed corners that became intimate balconies.


The entryway is more straightforward, given the much larger space available to work with.


Optima Horizons


Optima Horizons is a Herculean block of glass and steel, an entire city block of dwellings lifted into the sky. The multiple levels of parking make its porches a bit detached from the city life about them, but it’s hard to argue with the notion of a mini-forest 4 stories up in the air. Like much about these buildings, it’s just plain cool.

With the largest and most open site of the three, Optima Views also got the biggest entryway.



With so many condos and renovations adding clumsily tacked-on balconies, I have to comment on how much I like the way the Optima buildings handle their outdoor space. Even when the balconies protrude from the building, they never feel like separate, intrusive objects. Quite the contrary: the buildings’ compositions would be significantly diminished without them.


Coming up next time: Optima’s magnus opus in Skokie.


Where to get your neon

It’s not a sure-fire indicator, but there are very often clues when you’re getting close to a neon sign store.


Elaborate and not-especially-necessary neon displays become more common in the storefront windows, the obvious result of good salesmanship from the neighborhood neon shop – in this case, N. Broadway’s Neon Express Signs, in Uptown.


Quite a few of these little stores pepper the north side of Chicago, and the smarter ones use their store as a form of advertising, leaving it brightly illuminated at night.


The Independent Neon and Signs neon shop stood on Irving Park, right next to the Brown Line, until its building was demolished fairly recently. They’ve relocated to a new building on the opposite side of the Brown Line, but sadly their replacement digs aren’t as exuberantly marked as the old ones.


Neon Design, Inc. on Ashland puts on a particularly good show inside.



But hands down, the best window display is at The Neon Shop Fishtail on Western Avenue. Not only is their sign the best, they also leave the most signs on at night inside the store. AND they have the most beautiful old storefront, to boot.





An Intaglio Extravaganza

Last post I mentioned that designers could occasionally go a bit nuts when they got their hands on a pile of Intaglio blocks, right? Well, there’s no better example than this former daycare center, on S. Ashland:


This building is made of 1960s details, top to bottom – flagstone at the entry, stainless steel paddle door handles with a snazzy font, blue metal panels, blue glazed brick…


But it’s the blocks that put it completely over the top.




And because it just wasn’t enough to have vertical stacks of them ringing the entire facade, the north face has a sort of free-form design built into it, made of still more Intaglio glass blocks.



This can’t have been in the original design. Even for a loopy building like this one, it just doesn’t fit. It’s the kind of design an architect doodles on his paper during a boring meeting, not the kind of design that actually makes it onto the building! A real estate site offering the building for sale notes that it was originally a bank, so perhaps this was a drive-up window or something that was later infilled?

After years as a community center and daycare, the place has gone vacant in the last year or so. Weeds are growing out of control in the paved lot and the playground. The real estate firm offering it for sale notes that you can occupy the building or redevelop the whole lot. So… enjoy the place while it lasts, because its future is up in the air.


Intaglio blocks!


Intaglio glass blocks are the little cousins of the Sculpted Glass Module. Manufacturer Pittsburgh Corning described them in a 1960s catalog as “all-glass units in four distinct patterns featuring a recessed antiqued glass area…outlined with textured gray-colored frit fused into the surface of the glass unit itself” which could be used “to produce dimensional walls with strong textural effects…combining dramatic surface patterns with the richness and beauty of light.”

intaglio glass block catalog photo

The catalog photo shows the 6 available models – 2 blank infills and four standard patterns.

And Chicago designers loved ’em. Not quite as much as the Sculptured Glass Modules, but still quite a bit.






They even came in totally clear versions, apparently. This three flat near Bryn Mawr and California is the only instance I’ve found so far.


Their distinctive appearance made them a great advertisement for the local glass block distributors; both the Hardy Glass Block Company and Imperial Glass Block used them in the design of their buildings.


Hardy Glass Block

Intaglio blocks could really let a designer go nuts, if he was so inclined.



Or they could be used in a more subdued fashion, as with the Swiss Valley Dairy Products building on western Chicago Avenue:



Intaglios, for whatever reason, aren’t as regionally restricted as the glass module blocks; I’ve seen them in Davenport, Iowa and in Hoboken, New Jersey. And my friends Michael and Lynn located a most impressive example in Trenton, IL.

Paneled Storefronts Again

Every week on our blog we choose a theme, and then bring you a variety of different buildings on that theme.

This week: revisiting old posts.

Act 2: More 1940s Storefronts.

Sometimes I find that just the very act of posting a blog entry generates more information. Just putting the post out there gets me thinking more about the topic, and maybe I think of a place to research that I missed earlier, or just realize that I need to take a closer look at the building itself. And of course, readers post comments. Sometimes they’ll know the answer to a question, or have the architect’s name, or – as in this case – they’ll know where to look to find more examples of the buildings I’ve just posted.

Both of these porcelain enamel panel storefronts are near Roscoe Village, and in fact one of them I’d photographed before, and then totally forgotten about it.

The history of this Belmont Avenue storefront can literally be read right off the facade. Currently it’s home to a pub called Hungry Brain. Before that, it housed a laundromat, its applied letters leaving faint outlines. Originally, it had an attached neon sign, whose lettering was not legible.

Orange Garden has obviously been a Chinese restaurant for a long time, what with the vintage neon sign. Combined with the stainless steel fluting and the porcelain panels, this storefront’s a real winner!


And then, once I started looking for it, I realized that the panels, and the oatmeal texture porcelain enamel in particular, are everywhere. There’s a stretch of Broadway where three buildings in a row have paneled storefronts.





One of my favorite Clark Street facades is made of metal panels:
Bell Auto

And then there’s this spectacular multi-store example on S. State Street:
Blue Star Auto


With its battered neon sign, flaking painted signs, and 1940s-style blue paneled facade, Blue Star Auto Store is worthy of a whole post.

And just to round out the set, here’s one more black Vitrolite facade. Belle Kay on Lincoln Avenue is now home to LuLu’s vintage clothing store, and a more appropriate reuse I cannot imagine.


And “belle” is indeed the word to describe that angular font.


Vitrolite, sadly, isn’t a very good material for meeting the ground. It’s a type of glass, and glass snaps and shatters when anything hits it hard enough.


Finally, a quick update on Erickson Jewelers in Andersonville: A banner announces that it will become a Potbelly’s location. The metal lettering has been removed to allow replacement of some of the Vitrolite panels. The neon sign has also been removed, hopefully / presumably for repairs. I’m hoping both elements will be coming back. The Intarwebs remain silent on the matter.


Rebecca and Hebe

Never forget how much you can learn about a thing just by poking around it, inspecting it, examining it up close from every angle. You might even find the solution to a mystery.


So it was when I decided to take a close-up look at some of those weird statues that recently intrigued me. Out near Elston and Montrose, two of the water carrier statues bore the crumbling inscription of Henri Studio, Chicago. Ah hah! Perhaps some trace of this obscure, forgotten studio might yet be found amid the vast informational detritus of the Internet.



Yes, some faint footprints remain!

Henri Studio is, by their own account, a large and very busy cast statuary company, a notion reinforced by their 200+ page catalog. The company was founded 60 years ago by an Italian immigrant from the Tuscany region – just in time to start supplying statuary for the mid-century building boom.

And our lovely lady here with the jug on her back, it turns out, is the Biblical Rebecca, offering water to Abraham’s servant. Rebecca at the Well is a subject of statuary and painting with a long, long history.










There doesn’t appear to be any precise precedent for the statue’s design; as far as I can tell, it’s an original work. Furthermore, the statue is far from a clone. Details vary from statue to statue, such as the position of the right arm, or the nature of the vessel in her left hand.

Rebecca’s most frequent competitor is Hebe the Cupbearer, a minor Greek goddess whose popularity as a garden statue extends far beyond Chicago.






Just what these two have to do with modern apartment living remains a bit unclear to me, though it’s certainly further evidence that Modernism was never some monolith force stamping out all traces of historicism. Heretics remained at large amongst the population, and they were in the garden!

Streamline Theaters

Today we visit four vintage theaters from the golden era of theater design, all of them beautifully restored in recent years.

Skokie Theater


Our first stop is the humble little Skokie Theater, on Niles Center Road in downtown Skokie. The Art Moderne facade is a later addition to a circa-1916 building. After many years as a movie theater of varied genres, today this little gem serves as a small-scale (140 seats) concert venue.


Of particular interest, the facade shares elements with both the styles I posted last week – the low-budget commercial Deco/Streamline storefronts, and the paneled WW2 storefronts.

  • Skokie Theater web site
  • Skokie Theater at Cinema Treasures
  • Wilmette Theater

    Also on the north shore, this little theater is the most humble of the bunch. Its main interest is that it shares the same porcelain enameled panels as most of the 1940s storefronts from last week.


    The Wilmette Theater is part of the Metropolitan Block, a World War I-era building that got a partial face lift during the Depression.


    Lake Theater


    A fully-illuminated theater is something that should be seen by both day and night. Sadly, I haven’t made it out to Oak Park in the daylight since finding this remarkable Deco waterfall.

    The Lake Theater (on Lake Street, natch) dates from 1936 (architect Thomas W. Lamb). The spectacular marquee remains fully illuminated, as does the vertical theater name sign, which lights up letter by letter, top to bottom, before blinking off again. Inside, the theater has more recently become home to salvaged artifacts from other Chicago theaters that no longer stand.


  • Lake Theater at Cinema Treasures
  • Official history at Classic Cinemas
  • York Theater


    The York Theater (York Road, Elmhurst) looks sharp by day… but it’s at night that this facade truly comes alive.


    Curved neon follows the sensuous lines of the facade, uniting the building and its marquee into a single entity. The structure was only 14 years old in 1938, when architect Roy B. Blass replaced its Spanish-influenced facade with a new, ultra-up-to-date facade in the Art Moderne style.

    Like the Lake Theater, the York is owned by the Classic Cinemas company, who have taken superb care of both places and runs on a business model of celebrating historic theater design. Also like the Lake, the York has survived into the present as a viable first-run theater by gobbling up adjacent retail space for conversion to additional theater screens. Combined with the triplexing of the original auditorium, this has brought the York up to a total of nine screens.

    If you visit the York and your timing is right, you can also visit the offices of the Theatre Historical Society of America – they’re located in an upstairs office right next to the theater.

  • Official history at Classic Cinemas
  • York Theater at Cinema Treasures
  • Art Deco Moralizing

    If you’ve browsed the spectacular Unexpected Chicagoland (Camilo Jose Vergara and Tim Samuelson), you surely remember the equally spectacular Laramie State Bank of Chicago (architects Meyer & Cook, with the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, 1927.)


    It’s a beauty, one of the finest Deco facades you’ll find in the city. It’s also covered in fine and, to my mind, rather amusing detail.


    The theme of the entire facade is “hard work and savings”, and the artists laid it on thick and heavy. Across its columns and around its windows, industrial workers labor in factories, surrounded by rivers of coins. Atop the columns, squirrels and bees prepare their hordes for winter, while a wise owl watches in sage approval.


    And above the door, a contented family gathers for their meal.


    Meanwhile, on the eastern facade, the American eagle sinks its claws into the entire globe. Hard work + savings = American hegemony!



    The building is located at 5200 W. Chicago Avenue, most of the way out to Oak Park. This is a pretty hardscrabble neighborhood today, but the building survives as a combination of banquet hall, carryout restaurant, church, and I’m not sure what else.