2 Moderne houses in Wilmette

Below are a couple of Art Moderne houses in Wilmette that I stumbled upon in recent months. They’re only a mile or so apart in a quiet neighborhood, surrounded by more traditional houses.

Art Moderne is exactly what the name suggests – part Art Deco, part International Style, with some Streamline thrown in, yet not quite any of them. There’s ornament, but it’s more about abstract patterns and geometry than anything applied or figurative. Curved walls contrast with blocky massing, and focal points are provided by round windows, art glass, or glass block. The style tended to produce rare but lovely houses like these.

1910 Greenwood Avenue, Wilmette – Andrew Rebori, 1936



1708 Lake Avenue, Wilmette – John Burns House, 1937, Roy Walter Stott



See also – a student report from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, featuring a few additional houses of similar vintage and style in the area.


St. Joseph Catholic Church, Wilmette


A most imposing edifice, towering over the suburban houses and 2-story commercial buildings around it, stands at Lake and Ridge in western Wilmette. St. Joseph Church is that rarest of beasts, a church constructed during the lean years of the 1930s, a time when even the Catholic church slowed its building program.


St. Joseph is unusually tall and imposing. Its most striking feature is the indented front entrance, which looms like a shallow cave sculpted out of a mountainside.


The building is a mild update of traditional church styling. It’s historicist in bent, but the influence of Art Deco is inescapable. It’s nothing radical or stylized; the Deco is in the details.


The tower, in particular, is faintly reminiscent of Bertram Goodhue’s 1922 capitol building for Nebraska.



Inside, St. Joseph is clean and spare. Applied ornament is almost absent.





Angular Deco details can be seen in the hanging lamps, the wall sconces, and the side aisle arches.

The style of the stained glass windows matches the building itself: leaning toward traditional, with inoffensively faint traces of Modernist influence, such as the geometric patterns bordering this window.


St. Joseph was designed by McCarthy, Smith & Eppig, and dedicated in 1939.


And a coda: Across the street, a beautiful associated school building harmonizes with the church’s style, and somehow fails to have the sun on it every single time I pass by.


Chicago’s Holy Corner

From the downtown intersection of Clark and Madison, you’re within a two minute walk of a Catholic church, a Protestant church, and a Jewish synagogue. And all three are well worth the visit.

First United Methodist Church (The Chicago Temple)

The Chicago Temple is the tallest church building in the world, and the only skyscraper in Chicago with a religious spire. It’s a 1922 design by architects Holabird & Roche, in a French Gothic style. When it opened in 1924, it was the city’s tallest building.




At ground level, the wood-lined main sanctuary is open for most or all of the day; you can wander in just about any time for a look. (Being downtown, that means there’s sometimes a few homeless folks hanging out in the colder months, though the forbidding entrance lobby with its security guard makes it a bit uninviting.)



Those stained glass windows are an illusion – there’s no trace of them on the outside of the building, and they remain brightly illuminated day and night.



The stained glass is done in a traditional style, but with some contemporary subject matter, including Jesus blessing the skyline of the city and the highrise itself.


The sanctuary reaches some impressive heights, particularly when you consider the load of an entire skyscraper is carried above it.


But those heights pale compare to those of the Sky Chapel, just below the spire.




Long-planned, the chapel wasn’t fitted out until 1952, when a bequest by the widow of the founder of the Walgreens chain made it possible. Despite the changing times, the chapel is fairly conservative in style – though the stained glass continues the theme of bizarre subject matter begun in the sanctuary below.




And once again, just in case you forget where you are…



City Hall's green roof

Chicago Loop Synagogue


This Midcentury confection is slotted neatly into the street wall. Designed by architects Loebl, Schlossman and Benett in 1957, the Loop Synagogue opened its doors in 1958. The building is adorned by a 1969 sculpture entitled “The Hands of Peace” on the outside, by sculptor Henri Azaz, with stylized hands against a background of Hebrew and English letters spelling out a traditional Jewish prayer.


There’s a sort of slow, deliberative elegance to this building. You can almost feel the architects pausing contemplatively, stroking their chins in thought perhaps, before finally selecting these wonderful huge wood door paddles.


Beyond those doors lies a simple passageway with offices and other spaces. The main worship space is on the second story.

The beautiful wall of stained glass was designed by American artist Abraham Rattner and installed in 1960. Based on the “let there be light” Torah passage, it depicts an abstract, metaphysical cosmos flecked with ancient Hebrew symbols.



The rest of the space is spare and clean, befitting its Modernist origins.




St. Peter’s Church


Wedged between two adjoining buildings, St. Peters Catholic Church gives the impression that it was carved out from a solid rock face. Solid, planar walls contrast startlingly with deeply hewn entrances and window openings, creating one of the best facades in the city. Unlike the contemporaneous Queen of Heaven mausoleum, this 1953 church (architects: Vitzhum and Burns) shows a mix of modern and historical influences.

A three-story high crucafix by Austrian sculptor Arvid Strauss completes this compelling composition.


Like the Chicago Temple, the doors of St. Peter’s are always open (again, meaning there’s usually a few homeless guys hanging around, along with a smattering of curious tourists and the usual downtown office workers.) The space inside is vast, befitting the epic facade outside. Seemingly every surface is gleaming polished stone.



Deprived of natural light, the designers had to turn to other tricks to give the space a sense of holiness. Illuminated sculpture niches serve in place of stained glass windows, portraying the life of St. Francis of Assisi.


The building’s lobby is notable primarily for its wonderfully ornate doors.


If you’ve walked past this place, take five minutes to duck inside. It’s well worth the time.


  • A history of the church from Heavenly City at Google Books.


  • The Cubic Zirconium Coast

    The northern reaches of Chicago’s lakefront offer relatively affordable lakeside living, via a series of massive highrises that went up in the 1960s along Sheridan Road. One particularly big cluster stands south of Loyola University, where Sheridan meets Granville.



    Some of them have their merits. Others… less so.


    But at least two are of some interest.

    IMG_6188 copy

    6166 N. Sheridan – the Granville Tower – derives interest from its remarkable zigzag balconies. Modernistic bay windows protrude from the west face, as though the building’s framework couldn’t quite contain all the activity within. Emporis lists the architect as Seymour S. Goldstein (1920-2006 – the same guy who designed the Second City building and incorporated the salvaged terra cotta from Louis Sullivan’s demolished Garrick Theater into it), and notes that all the condos within are two-level units.





    Across the street, the El Lago condominiums (6157 N. Sheridan) present a serene, handsomely composed facade to the street… even if the building’s broad face is just another sea of undifferentiated brick and glass.



    Down at the entrance, a couple of slick little tile mosaics provide some liveliness and color, along with a handsome font for the building’s name.



    Emporis gives the name of Irving M. Karlin Associates as the architect, and dates the building to 1959. Mr. Karlin lived from 1902 to 1993.

    The painted concrete artistry of Jerome Soltan

    6201 N. Kenmore

    6011 N. Winthrop

    I have a deep, dark, dirty, dangerous secret to share with you all:

    I like the Four-Plus-One.

    There, I said it! I said it and I’m proud! I’m not taking it back!

    5617 N. Kenmore Ave.

    5940 Kenmore Avenue – “Thorndale Beach West” – probably Jerome Soltan

    Why do I like them? Well, c’mon. How could anybody not like buildings with entrances like these?

    1060 W. Hollywood Avenue – Jerome Soltan

    6110 N. Kenmore Avenue

    6250 N. Kenmore – the same design as 6110 Kenmore

    I don’t have an architect’s name for the vast bulk of these buildings, but when I do, it’s almost always Jerome Soltan. Somewhat infamous as the original and most proliferate developer of the Four-Plus-One apartment building, Soltan distinctive style is stamped on nearly every 4-Plus-1 in the area south of Loyola University, where most of these buildings are located. He may or may not have designed them all, but his influence can be seen in every one.

    5411 N. Winthrop Avenue

    Need I point out the delightful creativity of the entryways? Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re certainly expressive.

    Obviously, some of them crop up more than once. Soltan wasn’t at all ashamed to recycle his designs, just so long as they weren’t on the same block.

    5620 N. Kenmore – “The Chalet” (of course it is!) – Jerome Soltan

    5450 N. Winthrop Ave. – presumably Jerome Soltan again

    6134 N. Kenmore Ave

    6972 N. Sheridan Road – Jerome Soltan

    6246 N. Kenmore – Canisius Hall, Loyola University – again, presumably Jerome Soltan

    5851 N. Winthrop

    6610-6628 N. Sheridan

    6825 N. Sheridan – Jerome Soltan

    6307 N. Winthrop Avenue – Xavier Hall, Loyola University

    6128 N. Kenmore

    6011 N. Kenmore

    5953 N. Kenmore (left) and 5949 N. Kenmore (right – “Thorndale Beach East”, Jerome Soltan

    Kenmore Avenue, Chicago

    6030 N. Kenmore

    5833 N. Kenmore

    Friday Photo Special: Synagogues in the Night

    To all my Jewish friends, acquaintances, co-workers and readers: Happy Rosh Hashana!

    In honor of the high holidays, a mini-tour of some Skokie-area synagogues. Most are Midcentury creations, but one is brand new.

    Ohel Shalom Torah Center, Touhy at Sacremento – just completed within the last 2 years


    Congregation Ezras Israel, Lunt & California, West Ridge, Chicago


    Congregation KINS, North Shore & California, West Ridge, Chicago


    Devon Avenue synagogue
    Congregation A G Beth Israel, Devon west of Lincoln


    Iran Hebrew Congregation, Main Street, Skokie

    Skokie Central Traditional Congregation, Main Street, Skokie



    Beth Emet Synagogue, Dempster at Ridge, Evanston

    Loyola says goodbye to an old… friend? Acquaintance, maybe?


    I’ve seen quite a few campus buildings meet the wrecking ball, mostly at my own alma mater but elsewhere as well. But seldom have I seen a campus demolition greeted with such a quirky, open, mixed bag of emotions as that of Loyola University’s Damen Hall.


    From the layman’s perspective, Damen Hall is the quintessential 1960s building – big, bland, banal, ugly, and horrible. Designed with no operable windows, looming massively over everything around it, utterly bereft of ornament – Damen is a hard building to love. Students and faculty likened it to a radiator, a toaster, and a prison, and it’s hard to argue with those assessments. Even I, the all-things-Midcentury guy, never bothered to get a full-body shot of the place in life, only snapping a few details that caught my eye. Demolition prep work is well underway, so it’s a bit late now.


    But despite its reputation as a monstrous pile of awfulness, Damen’s impending demolition has inspired an outpouring of affectionate commentary from the Univesity community.

    While the building was still in use, a 3-minute video tour was produced, a sardonic pastiche of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that manages to be informative, fond, wry and hilarious all at once. The University ran a contest to see who should be the last Loyolan to leave the building and lock its doors. The building has its own Facebook page, lamenting its own impending demolition and missing the days when students filled its corridors and strange elevator system.

    Much of this is probably just the result of the building as a shared experience, a minor trial that most students had to endure at some point in their career. But I’d like to think that underneath it all, there’s some wisps of appreciation for the building’s genuine merits, for it did have a few.


    For starters, those marching concrete columns are a powerful statement, and the play of light across them is beautiful. I never saw that massive auditorium, but as shown in the video link above, it’s a stunning piece of Midcentury space.


    And then there’s the front lobby. The lobby and its grand tile mosaic mural was one of my first Midcentury discoveries in Chicago. There wasn’t much to the space: the mosaic on one side, two wall of glass on the other, a row of vintage seating that Mies van der Roes would have welcomed on the IIT campus.


    “Wonders of Creation” is a 1966 work designed and executed by Melville Philip Steinfels. The mural is a delight, an abstract plunge through the natural sciences as filtered through a 1960s lens.

    Loyola University Chicago

    The mural is gone now, bare concrete block walls left in its wake. It will be relocated to Loyola’s medical campus, in the inner southwest suburb of Maywood.


    You can see more details of the mosaic, and read the artist’s thoughts on the work, in the Loyola Nursing School’s Annual 2008 Report. The main Loyola campus, meanwhile, will be diminished for its loss.

    A coda: I’m not too keen on the new building that will go up in Damen’s place, either; it’s a historicist replica that mockingly apes the oldest buildings on campus, rather than bringing any new ideas to the table (this is marketed as “complimenting” the older buildings.) Designed to be ultra-modern in technology and function, it hides those attributes as though they were badges of shame. Resorting to this sort of neo-historicist pastiche, as so many other universities now do, is a sad admission that our age has nothing of substance to say in built form; all we can do is copy ideas from a hundred years ago, badly.

    Lincoln Square’s house of mystery


    2515 W. Carmen Avenue has intrigued me from the moment I saw it. It’s a peculiar little box of a house, a simple rectangle covered in stucco to make a sort of Pueblo Revival style.

    Nothing too strange yet… but the house sits next to a huge yard. Most of it is raw dirt under a canopy of trees. It’s fenced off for what would be privacy if the fence weren’t collapsing at the street.



    And then there’s the alley building. At first it might seem like an old garage with an apartment above… but there’s only one garage. And on the side that faces the yard, there’s some sort of strange barbecue pit.



    What did this place used to be? When was it built? Who lived there? What was it used for?

    A sign on the fence notes that the place is for sale by Sperry Van Ness realtors, though it appears to have changed hands a couple of times in recent years.

    Friday Photo Special: Critical Mass, August

    Leaving Daley Plaza

    I have a lot of mixed feelings about Critical Mass. This was my second time riding in one, but I’m familiar enough with the dynamic from the LATE Ride and other such events. Inevitably, when you get thousands of bikers riding en masse on city streets, some conflicts with drivers occur.


    I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I can totally sympathize with a bunch of angry, stressed out drivers slogging through traffic, trying to get somewhere, maybe late for a date or a meeting or a train or a flight, and then getting held up through multiple green lights by this mass of bikers going nowhere.

    On the flip side… well, how many of these drivers really have somewhere so important to be that it can’t wait five minutes? It’s a good thing to get pulled out of your little driver world every once in a while. Driving is not the be-all end-all of tasks in life, and cars do not have exclusive rights to public streets.

    Anyway, Critical Mass is generally a joyous occasion, full of thousands of happy bikers. At some kind of tipping point, don’t sheer numbers give them the right of way?

    But if there’s one true flaw with Critical Mass, it’s that it just doesn’t ever stop itself to let some traffic pass. At all. Considering the mass of riders can be strung out for many, many blocks, it’s not very fair to drivers to make them sit through the whole thing. It’s small wonder that a handful get impatient and start nosing their way into intersections, resulting in the inevitable and pointless confrontations.

    View large to see two more bridges' worth of cyclists

    All that said? Riding in this enormous group is a heck of a lot of fun.


    This was the coolest thing on this ride – a newlywed couple getting their photos made, who happily got out into the middle of the street to mingle with the passing bikers.

    Happy bride

    The driver blew the whistle for us!


    Holy crap, Western Avenue!


    Additional photos at my Flickr space.

    Aren’t you just a little bit curious?

    For years, I held the section of Golf Road that slides under I-90/94 in a degree of reverence. Seen from the highway, it seemed like a little downtown, a place where great and interesting things must surely be happening. What gave it this mythical aura? One and only one building: the Optima Condominiums, a veritable floating city that hovers over this stretch of crowded highway.


    I do have to wonder what kind of perverse, photographer-hating architect orients his building so that the best views are from the highway.


    But that’s no slight against the building’s non-highway-facing facades. From almost any angle, Optima Old Orchard Woods is an incredible mass of glass-walled homes, layered and piled upon one another in a magnificent symphony of space and materials. If ever there was a building to convince doubters of the merits of glass facades, this is it. It’s a structural feat as well, with cantilevers in every direction and even a massive multi-story bridge in the middle.




    The Optima building is in a tense location: on one side, the roaring Edens Expressway, one of the most traffic-choked Interstates in the nation, with the suburban detritus of the Skokie Golf Mills area beyond it. On the other side, a Forest Preserve – undisturbed wildlands coursing like a green river through the suburbs.


    Impressive by day, this building truly comes alive at night, with facades that are an ever-shifting checkerboard of light and dark.




    Like its cousins in Evanston, the Optima Old Orchard derives much of its sense of place by piling inhabitable spaces one on top of the other. The breezeway roof is a sun balcony. The pool is on the second story and looks over the entry court. Balconies and terraces are everywhere.


    With only one small retail store in the base, it’s not quite a self-contained city (nor is it terribly urban – there’s no rail transit anywhere closeby). But it does a good job of looking like it!

    Aren't you just a little bit curious?

    (The title of this blog post, by the way, comes from a rooftop banner which adorned the building for a time. Intended to stir up the interest of potential residents, it instead came across as a plaintive plea for attention, perhaps explaining why it didn’t last very long.)