Mixed Use Midcentury

New Urbanists like to make a fuss over the notion of a mixed-use building, touting it as a revival of a long-lost art. While the basic, common-sense notion of people living and working in close proximity certainly did fall out of favor in the 1960s through the 1980s, it never really vanished entirely. And at the height of the 1950s suburban building boom, small-scaled mixed use was actually surprisingly common in Chicago’s southern and western neighborhoods.

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Harlem Avenue

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Main Street, Skokie

“Mixed-use” generally implies some combination of office, retail and residential, and that’s generally what you’ll find on these commercial buildings. Some feature apartments above storefronts, with generous porch space marked by wood or decorative metal railings.

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Cermak Avenue

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Western Avenue – more photos here

Others feature upstairs space of a less clear nature. Behind those walls could be office space, either separate or joined with the retail space below, or living space.

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Bryn Mawr

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The most exciting ones share a similar design vocabulary of materials and style, with an emphasis on angles: angled brick wing walls, angled panels of Roman brick with limestone borders, angled wood roof overhangs.

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Cermak Avenue

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63rd Street – Midway Lounge

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63rd Street

You can find a crop of one-story, single use commercial buildings in the same neighborhoods that use the same design vocabulary, with angled sections of facade and roof overhangs, often trimmed in red wood or red Roman brick.

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Preservation, Chicago style

When you land at O’Hare airport and take the intra-airport rail system between terminals, colorful ad strips on the train urge you to come explore the city’s architecture. It’s a pretty rare city that explicitly promotes its architecture as one of its leading attractions.

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You might be surprised, then, at how casually the city throws its built environment away, even today. I’m referring, of course, to the recently announced backpedal by the Daley administration on saving the Prairie-style old Main Building at Michael Reese Hospital. Once heralded as the administration’s token gesture toward preservation of the once-dense complex, now it seems that a few break-ins and vandals are the flimsy excuse being used to justify tearing the place down.

It’s nauseating, but who can honestly say they’re surprised?

Neons I have known

It’s no great secret that historic neon signs are steadily disappearing from the Chicago landscape. The difficulty and cost of maintenance, along with the closing of older independent businesses, are the primary causes. Even when the signs are valued by store owners, sometimes they’re impractical to move, maintain or update.

Altered:

Jim Fong Chop Suey
Jim Fong Chop Suey, a modest sign on Touhy in West Ridge.

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The former Erickson Jeweler sign on Clark Street in Andersonville, now a Potbelly’s.

American General Furniture...?
Tasemkin Furniture. Now covered up with generic paneling.

Replaced:

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Eden’s Liquor on western Devon Avenue

Vanished:

The Washing Well sign
The Washing Well, Clark Street, Rogers Park. Not a neon, but still interesting.

E-Z Credit Wheels
E-Z Credit Wheels, a Western Avenue car dealership

Meyer Delicatessen
A.E. Meyer Delicatessen, Lincoln Square. The hanging sign has been relocated to the interior of the new store on this site; however, the storefront sign is gone.

Jubilee Gas for Less
Jubilee Gas for Less – this Lincoln Avenue sign has a surviving sister in the lobby of the Chicago History Museum.

DeMar's Coffee Shop Restaurant
DeMar’s Coffe Shop Restaurant – Chicago Avenue at Paulina

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Standee’s Coffee Shop, Edgewater – closed by corporate property managers who did not consider the 60-year-old restaurant “a solid investment”. Brilliant!

Gone dark

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The “Z” Frank Cheverolet sign is a Western Avenue icon; however, it hasn’t been lit since around 2007, when the car dealership relocated. In the press, the owner stated that they’d love to donate or relocate the sign, but that it was just too big to move.

4 Plus 1 again

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I wanted to talk a bit more seriously about the Four Plus One apartment buildings, beyond the level of just fawning over their entry canopies. Four Plus Ones got a bad rap even in their own day, and they aren’t much more beloved today. Eventually, residents of Lakeview fought them to a standstill in the early 1970s.

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The big concerns about Four Plus Ones were three-fold: insufficient parking, increased density, and a change in the character of the residents. The last charge is the most interesting to me. Opponents maintained that 4-Plus-1 apartments attracted transient types – singles, young men, workers, all of whom had no attachments to the neighorhood and therefore had no incentive to maintain and improve it. It’s an interesting argument, but it smacks of NIMBYism. Where else are these apparent undesirables supposed to go? Somewhere else!

As for the parking argument, well… quite a few of these buildings were slotted in between pre-war apartment buildings of equal or greater size – buildings that had no off-street parking at all. Nobody seems to raise an eyebrow at this.

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“Cheap construction” was another charge leveled at the 4 Plus 1 (by no less an authority than the AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture). But it’s a relative term – brick veneer was never a cheap finishing material, even in the 1960s. And a demolition photo from Forgotten Chicago reveals that concrete block infill was also used, both as as a firebreak between units and also as the structural element of the exterior walls. Today, concrete block with brick facing is the gold standard of bearing wall and light frame construction.

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Underneath the brick, these buildings are actually wood-framed; to be sure, concrete framing would have been more pricey, but would it have made any difference to the buildings’ appearance? Zoning codes required an upgrade in framing construction above four floors, so it was simple good economics to stop at that level and build in a more affordable material. If they’d been less “cheap”, they’d have gone higher, been bigger, and thus amplified the neighbors’ other concerns. How this makes the buildings “cheap” – in the derogatory sense, not economic – isn’t clear. “Cheaply constructed” seems a pointless slur rooted in aesthetic dislike.

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But hey, aesthetics aren’t an invalid concern. Apart from their space-age concrete canopies and screen walls, there isn’t much to these buildings as seen from the street. And if you didn’t like a design once, you’re unlikely to like it 50 more times. That’s not much of an exaggeration; principal Four-Plus-One architect Jerome Sultan recycled some of his designs to an almost comical extent.

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525 Stratford

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532 W. Roscoe

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540 W. Roscoe

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530 W. Aldine

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441 W. Barry

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528 Oakdale