How to Get to Sesame Street in Chicago

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Every city has them – the day care centers with the window-paintings of popular childrens’ cartoon characters, slightly misproportioned, festooning large storefront windows or walls, cheerfully waving at passersby.

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These creatures assure us that the place within is welcoming, friendly, comfortable, familiar – all the things a parent would want their children to have while they are away at work.

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Their ubiquitous nature says a lot about the commonality of children’s television programming. Elmo and Dora the Explorer are popular favorites, though Big Bird remains the king.

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Also of note, they’re mostly seen in lower-income neighborhoods. I could speculate on a number of possible reasons why – perhaps the TV is a more common babysitter. Maybe there’s just less money for decoration. Maybe they’re fighting harder against an unpleasant built environment. Maybe these things aren’t seen as very classy in higher-income areas, or are prohibited by ordinance. Maybe they just aren’t as worried about using trademarked characters. Maybe small daycare centers just aren’t as common. But it’s all just speculation.

What’s remarkable is how universal the artistic style is. There’s almost always something a bit… off about the portrayal of Big Bird and company. I’ve noticed this for years.

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The photo above was taken near the boundary between Chicago and Oak Park – right where incomes are starting to rise. And perhaps not coincidentally, it’s a rare example of the characters not looking slightly mutated.

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And finally…. all I can say here is that Mickey looks awfully excited by Minnie’s tush. Yikes!

The coolest city hall ever!

I was just driving along one day, tooling along minding my own business, when up pops this crazy lookin’ thing.

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It’s a lovely Prairie style building, with the unmistakable fingerprints of Frank Lloyd Wright’s idiosyncratic style, the kind that outlasted him and can be seen scattered here and there in Wisconsin. And in fact, it turns out that it was designed by his son, Lloyd Wright, along with his son, Eric Lloyd Wright. (Thanks to Bright Lights, Dim Beauty for having that link handy.)

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It’s been the the city hall of Maine Township since 1983, but before that it was the Good Shepherd Community Church, begun in 1957 on land set aside by a suburban developer.

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I couldn’t get inside, of course, but I did manage a tantalizing glimpse through the rear (formerly the front) windows.

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The (adorable) Skokie Swift

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I’ve become fascinated with the oddball of the Chicago Transit Authority’s light rail system, the Yellow Line – aka the Skokie Swift. It’s such a mismatched, out of place beast that I have to stop and stare every time I come across it.

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The trains are just two cars, two lonely little tiny cars rolling along all by themselves like lost sheep, wandering innocently past suburban lawns and parks and back yards and arterial roads. They’re so cute! You just want to pinch their little metal cheeks.

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Whether it’s running at grade between 1950s backyards, flying above a river on a trestle, or roaring through a forest in a below-grade cut, the Yellow Line just leaves me wondering: what is it doing here? What are grungy CTA cars doing out in the June Cleaver suburbia of Skokie? Did they get lost or something??

The Swift is a relic of an aborted idea, back when people and governments hadn’t quite completely given up on mass transit. Surely light rail could find a way to work in the suburbs, right? And so this line was activated in the 1960s on 5 miles of semi-abandoned right-of-way that had passed from a defunct private transit company to the CTA. The Skokie Swift served a test bed to see what was possible out in the new suburban frontier. The notion was that a really fast, no-stops, no-frills run from a suburban center into Chicago could be a viable transit model.

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And it worked pretty well – better than expected, in fact. Ridership was higher than predicted, enough so that the train still runs every 10 minutes or so daily. But it wasn’t such a success that the model was replicated; the Swift remains a one-of-a-kind line in Chicago, rivaled only by the Purple Line for its strange intrusion into suburban woodlands.

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Part of the Skokie Swift’s fascination is that so many relics of the past remain in place. Much of the western half of the line still passes under the catenary poles that once held overhead wires, used when the line was electrified from above. The lines were taken down when full third-rail service was added in 2004, but the poles remain.

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And that little stub at right is the remains of a one-time station platform, now used only as a housing for electrical boxes.

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The right of way is also quasi-industrial, lined with huge power lines that give the line a sort of apocalyptic feeling. The train is taking you to wherever it is that all these electrical lines go, and when you get to that ominous, distant place, who knows what fate might befall you? Maybe you’ll be made into electricity, too.

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When you finally do reach the end of the line, it’s a surreal spot – a seemingly random point, surrounded by parking lots and light suburban commercial buildings, not enough to constitute a downtown or village center, or even much of a place at all.

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This humble bumper marks the very end of the CTA rail system.

Across the street, the power lines continue their relentless march northward, beckoning for an expansion of the line. That expansion is in the planning phases at present.

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The other part of the fascination is, as mentioned, how strangely out of place the Swift is. It’s a tiny train running through huge places, running on towering trestles and over hugely busy roads like McCormick. CTA cars mostly run in cramped quarters in the city – tight subway tunnels, or squeezed between residential streets with houses so close that residents can almost touch the track structure from their windows. Their compact, no-nonsense design reflects this, and looks very strange in all the open space of Skokie.

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And so the trains just look sort of… lost. I want to call out to the outbound ones: “What’s the matter, little fella? You lost? You looking for Chicago? You wanna go the other way!”

I find my feet down on Main Street

Main Street westward from Evanston has all sorts of interesting things on and around it. My favorite bit may be this trio of buildings in the 3400 block, in Skokie.

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They sit in a sea of Midcentury buildings – raised ranches on the surrounding streets, and 1950s shopping strips, with little 1-story commercial buildings like these across the street – the kind with stacked bond Roman brick and big plate glass storefront windows set at a slight angle from the sidewalk.

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First is this 2-story building at 3400 W. Main Street, designed as if it were a California ranch house – low pitched roof, overhanging eaves, glassy front walls. The building was finished in 1957, as commercial offices.

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Second is this contemporary structure, a modern metal building with a shipping container aesthetic, at 3412 W. Main Street. It’s home to a dentist’s office. There was a home builder at this address in the 1960s, but I doubt the building is any older than 1985. CityNews dates it to 1991.

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The most interesting is 3420 W. Main Street. Tribune ads identify this address in 1963 as home to Palco Builders, who were constructing California-style ranches out west in Lincolnwood and pulling in enough money to show up on the paper’s list of million-dollar sellers. By 1966, a tax service had appeared at the same address. Today it’s home to the Knowledge Systems Institute.

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The building might at first seem to be an ordinary 1960s office building, raised up off the ground on columns, Corbu-style. (Oh, sorry. Pilotis. A piloti is like a column, only it’s French.)

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But when you look close, you’ll find that the entire facade is covered with textile patterned concrete blocks.

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If I had to take a stab at the building’s parti – the big overriding idea that the designer had in mind – I’d call it a sort of ancient temple that an Alan Quatermain adventurer type (or Indiana Jones, but that character didn’t exist in 1963) might stumble across in some South American jungle. Pull the lever, and the stone facade creakingly splits and slides open to reveal the techno-wonderland within! Notice that everything in the facade opening is set back, and it’s all glass and metal. There’s even a top and bottom “rail” for the “doors” to slide on, visually speaking.

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These are the same blocks that I’ve written about on a couple of occasions. I still haven’t discovered where they come from. I have, however, found one other building that makes use of them, out west at 6121 W. Higgins Avenue. Not quite as mind-blowing, but still interesting!

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On this 1963 apartment building, they appear as a decorative element on the major facade.

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Midcentury craziness

I wish I had something to say about these apartments. They date from around 1963, they’re at 6634 W. 9th Street in Oak Lawn, they’re called the the Pavilion Park Condominiums, and that’s all I know.

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Well, that, and they apparently had a crazy genius mason.

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Apart from this one architectural outburst, there’s nothing at all remarkable about these buildings. They’re utterly plain Midcentury stuff. They don’t continue any evident trends on the street or the surrounding neighborhood. They pop up, do their thing, and go away again.

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I sure would love to know if this designer did any other work around town!

Alvin Hoffberg’s Courtyard Townhouses

“Every visitor says these are Chicago’s most beautiful and unusual town homes.” – August 7, 1957 Chicago Tribune classified ad

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Midcentury builder Alvin M. Hoffberg brought a unique twist on the townhouse to Chicagoland in the 1950s. The Midcentury townhouse is a rare beast indeed, but it does exist, and Hoffberg planted several variations on a similar theme in Rogers Park and Evanston. He developed a series of one-story rowhouses ranged around a long, narrow courtyard.

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Several decorative features make it obvious that these buildings are all by the same builder, but it was a classified ad for 1338 Main Street, shown above, that finally gave me the builder’s name.

(Just so we’re all on the same footing – a townhouse, in US parlance at least, is the same thing as a rowhouse – an individual dwelling unit that shares party walls on at least one side with another home, but has its own individual entrance at the ground. In the 1950s, “townhouse” probably would have sounded much more cosmopolitan and appealing than “rowhouse”, with its connotations of crowded cities and industrial workers’ housing.)

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1338 Main Street shows up in a delightful little classified ad in the 1954 Tribune, advertised as a group of California-styled ranch townhouses:

“Very de luxe [sic] and unusual, on 1 floor, with full basement and roofed patio. Landscaped and decorated to suit. Tiled Youngstown kitchen, colored fixtures in tiled dual bath. Ample cabinets and wardrobes, many other features. Carpeting, utilities and rumpus room opposite. Fine residential area, close to all transporation, shops, schools and recreation.”

Hoffberg went on to use this design in several more locations around Evanston and the far north end of Chicago.

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239-45 Custer (Evanston) appears in the classifieds by 1963. Unlike the Main Street group, they’re built over a raised basement, which also raises up the courtyard – an extra measure of privacy and separation from the street.
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This design pops up several more times around the neighborhood, such as 135 Callan:
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135 Callan, Evanston

These were advertised as 5-room townhouses, approaching completion in 1955 with prices ranging from $180 to $195 a month:

“For discriminating people who desire the utmost beauty, privacy and comfort, each a complete de luxe home in a choice residential area clos to shops, express “L”, bus and train. Spacious rooms, huge wardrobes, snak bar, dispolsa, and de luxe utilities area few features.”

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7374-80 and 7382-88 Winchester, named “Park Terrace”, stands in Chicago’s city limits. Like the Main Street group, 7376 Winchester was advertised in 1959 with an emphasis on its fabulous rumpus room. Alvin M. Hoffberg, builder could be contacted at 6131 N. Sheridan.

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A variation on these designs stands nearby in northern Rogers Park, marked by an entry gateway.

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This is 7323-29 Damen (or maybe just 7327 N. Damen); at any rate, it’s the Park Damen Town Homes. A resident of this site died in 1958; I have to wonder if his home was sold to make way for this building, which a real estate agent lists with a 1960 date of construction (CityNews says 1957, but they can be real wonky sometimes.)

This group has a twin to the east, the Park Patio at 7342-44 and 7346-48 Winchester (where, perhaps not coincidentally, another owner died in 1960.)

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Not only does it have the same sloped bay windows as the wood-siding buildings, it’s got the same little cutesy development name in the same kind of cutesy font as the Park Terrace up the street.

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Hoffberg drew on a very distinct vocabulary of design ideas and facade materials: Flat roofs; picture windows set in square, boxed-out projecting bays or sloping walls, finished in wood siding and usually painted red or brown; rough-faced limestone banding at the windows; small patches of red Roman brick or flagstone; blonde brick.
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Hoffberg had a second design, seen above, that was useful for narrower or shallower sites, consisting of a simple twin or duplex design – two houses, 1 party wall. 729-31 Brummel Street, above, is a typical example. The building opened in 1956.

Here’s a virtual duplicate at 738-40 Mulford Street:
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And another near-duplicate at 238-40 Custer, across the street from one of the courtyard townhouses. This one opened in September 1960, and was constructed by Elston Builders.
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And here’s the same idea again at 806-08 Mulford Street:
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A third variation is a bit more free-form, with no courtyards.
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244 Elmwood at Mulford Evanston – appears to have been standing by 1959; possibly by 1956.

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700-706 Shaw

Both of these occupy corner sites and are paired with a duplex building, apparently a response to a square site.

“Distinctive 5 room apartments with a distinctive address built for discrminating tastes” — Tribune classifieds, 1955

Like most developers from the 1950s and 1960s, Alvin Hoffberg wasn’t exactly a celebrity figure, so there’s not a lot of info about him. Mr. Hoffberg shows up in 1947 as VP and general manager of Leonard W. Besinger & Associates, Inc., working on a group of homes in Park Ridge (bounded by Devon / Talcott / Cumberland / Glenlake / Vine), designed by architects Marin J. Green and William Kotek. Then came his run of indepdent buildings in the mid-1950s. And then, poof, nothing. Silence. Whatever became of Mr. Hoffberg, he didn’t make any more headlines after the early 1960s.

There are some other buildings in the area that share similar materials, particularly that rough limestone trim and red Roman brick combo, and some indications that Hoffberg worked with a few other companies.

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314-16 Callen, for example is a co-op apartment building that dates to 1954, was put up by the Town Development Co., and was advertised using his distinctive vocabulary.

And 1601-09 W. Lunt, dating from 1964, is credited to Bannon-O’Donnel (realtors or builders, it’s not clear), but has all the hallmarks of a Hoffberg design.
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And these buildings are right across the street from the Elmwood/Mulford group, and use the exact same materials.
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301 Elmwood, Evanston

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300 Sherman, Evanston

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301 Elmwood detail…

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….and a detail from a known Hoffberg design across the street.

“Sensationally different – California one story – designed in the modern trend, for discrminating couples” – Chicago Tribune classified ad, 1955

A stock Moderne design

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Here’s a group of Midcentury townhouses, done in a typical Chicago Moderne style. I’ve found 4 examples around Evanston so far.

801-13 Mulford Street:
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142-150 Callan, at Brummel:
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143-151 Custer at Brummel, back-to-back with the building on Callan:
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1413-23 Main Street, similar in style but definitely the odd man out:
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These buildings were presumably part of the post-War construction boom; by 1952, the Callen building was complete and being advertised by The Bills Realty, Inc.