Northbrook Part II: Contemporary Modern

Continuing a look at some of the better buildings in this far-out Chicago suburb.

Northbrook Public Library
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It hovers delightfully by day, and glows like a lantern at night. The Northbrook Public Library is the town’s most notable “downtown” building, only a block away from the old village center, adjacent to the Postmodern village hall and overlooking a public park.

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The top floor reading and stacks room is wonderfully light and airy, with the exposed tube steel structure holding up the roof. The curved pipe trusses blossom from their columns like plant life. The whimsical light fixtures are a rebuke to the older section’s staid heritage.

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Frye Gillan Molinaro Architects, Ltd. designed this delightful space in 1999. It is an eastward addition to an uninspiring 1960 building, exploding outwards and making you forget all that boring low-budget Miesian repetition. Inside, the two buildings are almost seamlessly joined as one.

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It’s worth noting at this point that this portion of Northbrook – in and around the “downtown” – is comparatively compact and livable, compared to the surrounding sprawl. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the streets are nicer, and you can walk to the train station, the library, or the small knot of stores. It’s a different world from the Northbrook that most people experience, which is on massive arterial roads like Dundee or Lake-Cook.

The Pointe in Highland Park
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Maybe better known by their street name – Prairie Court – this cluster of Modernist houses stands along Lake-Cook Road, across from Northbrook Court mall (and technically in Highland Park, but it’s all about the same thing.) Two of the planned 17 units remain unbuilt – hit by the recession, perhaps – but the remainder stand in neat rows of gleaming glass and precisely finished concrete.

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They feature hugely generous glass walls, built-in balconies with projecting roofs, and punched-opening windows in the concrete walls that are echoed by the low screening wall along Lake Cook Road.

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They contain one giant WTF moment: a completely ordinary suburban ranch house that, from all appearances, went up at exactly the same time as all the other houses. Seriously… why would anyone who wanted this house choose to put it here?

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3150 Commercial Avenue
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This late-1970s warehouse recently got an attention-getting marker tacked on to its front. Those giant pieces of steel aren’t holding up anything but a small glass entry canopy, but they definitely make this faceless tilt-up concrete building a lot more interesting.

In the background, a new water tower is under construction; as of this writing, it’s just about completed on the outside.

Greek Feast – by Georgie V
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This prominent landmark at the corner of Dundee and Pfingston opened in 2010, designed by architect Brett Karson. The stainless-steel-clad cylinder is a stylized version of a gyro roasting on a spit, while the accompanying blue elements recall the colors of the Greek flag. The shallow-pitched roof, with its two intersecting vertical elements, recalls the 1950s atomic ranch homes which dot the nearby side streets.

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Much to my amusement, the restaurant has been embroiled in parking lot wars with the shabby strip mall surrounding it. In a place like Northbrook, is parking really so difficult to come by?

Crate and Barrel
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Is it fair to include a national chain in a survey of local buildings? Perhaps so, considering their corporate headquarters is just a few miles down the road. Yes or no, the fact remains that Crate and Barrel puts up rather nice buildings, and this outlot structure at Northbrook Court is typically handsome.

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Lipson Alport Glass Associates
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A startling building on Waukegan Boulevard, home to a package-design company. The visible portion is an addition onto a previously-existing warehouse. Opened in 2003. Architect: Valerio DeWalt Train Associates

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The contrast between the solid second story and the entirely glass ground floor would be interesting enough, but the building goes a couple of steps further. The north end floats off the ground, hovering above low-lying drainage areas; together with the south-end offset, it creates the impression of two overlapping bars that have been knocked off-center.

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Oh, and the ground floor tilts.

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It’s not just an illusion; and it is not just the outside. The interior floor, for reasons that Architectural Record left unexplained when they covered this building in May 2004, has a 4-5 degree cant. I cannot imagine how the architect talked the client into this – and I am certain that’s how it worked, for no client would request such a thing. “Yeah. We need tilted floors. When I drop a pencil, I wanna see it roll.” Clients don’t do these things.

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Whatever the reason, it sure is a treat to look at, day or night.

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    Parking Meter Wasteland

    I present here a short overview of the strange landscape alternately known as the Parking Meter Zoo and the Parking Meter Wasteland. Though Chicago blog The Expired Meter has already done a fantastic job documenting this surreal story, I have to get my own two bits in, if only to post a few of the unearthly images that have resulted from this strange landscape.

    March 2008:
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    The area in question is on the lower near west side – just north of the Pilsen rail yard embankment, just west of Ashland – in an area adjoining the Illinois Medical District. These utterly empty streets, an urban prairie including Wood Street, Paulina, 13th Street and 14th Street, were a popular parking spot for medical center employees.

    Well, you can’t have people parking for free, can you?! Fortunately, the local alderman rode to the rescue, having the city install 1200 parking meters on completely empty streets. “Problem” solved – nobody parks there anymore!

    March 2009:
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    Awaiting the hordes of workers who decend on the urban prairie every day
    Awaiting the hordes of workers who decend on the urban prairie every day

    If you wanna go nowhere, you're gonna have to pay.
    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate for free or cheap parking. “Free” parking is one of the great lies of American development, and a principal generator of sprawl. Parking requires land, infrastructure and maintenance, all of which have economic value – and so you always pay for parking somehow, whether through higher retail costs or higher taxes. “Free” parking is one of those tricky sleights-of-hand that American corporatocracy is so good at – an illusion that helps to diffuse and hide the true costs of the automobile, and thus enables all the attendant damage that has been done to American cities over the decades.

    But – the point of a parking meter is to keep traffic moving throughout the day, so that shoppers and people on business can reach local stores and businesses. It’s so people don’t just plonk their car down all day in a spot that other people need to use.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and speculate that this site does not face that kind of competition.

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    September 2011:
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    Now what’s this? Where’d the meters go?! Why, they took the thousands of brand-new meters out again… to replace them with the new meter boxes!

    But of course, even that may not last, since they’re dropping a new CostCo grocery store on part of the site, whose description includes all the vacant land shown here. I seriously doubt Costco will build without a sizable parking lot, and I will be surprised if they don’t want to take out at least part of one street.

    IMG_7395a So let’s recap. The city and its parking meter company (LAZ Parking) have:
    * Installed thousands of meters on empty land
    * Ripped out the meters and installed pay boxes on the still-empty land
    * May have ripped out some of the pay boxes to remove the streets they were on

    I mean, are they high or what??

    By way of history – these empty blocks were chock full of houses (and one large industrial building) a hundred years ago. The near West Side had a rough reputation when the Illinois Medical District was founded in 1941; by the 1960s, eminent domain was being used to gobble up properties in the area. Today, only a few faint foundations remnants and porch stairs remain to indicate that a neighborhood once stood here.

    Searching for Architecture in Northbrook

    As a preface to this post, I had written out a fairly long rant about how much I hate suburbs in general, and Northbrook in particular. But my M.O. on this blog is to celebrate, not denigrate, so we’ll skip all that and get straight to the point: even a far-flung exurb like Northbrook has its moments.

    Part 1: 20th Century Northbrook

    Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism – Lake-Cook Road
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    Fitch, Larocca & Carrington Inc., finished 1973 for a congregation dating back to 1954.

    Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses – Pfingston and Maria Avenue
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    A tiny confection rendered in Brutalist language. The building was designed in 1967 by architect Salvatore Balsamo, and built by members of the congregation over the next two years. It’s still in use by them today. Having designed it to be built primarily by unskilled labor, Balsamo commented in the 1970 Tribune that “the unions and building department did not bother the workers because the project was a house of worship.”

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    CitiBank – Lake-Cook Road
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    A giant square roof hovering over a transparent body below. The roof extends to shelter the drive-through ATMs in one unified swoop. The bank building went up in the mid-1970s as home to First Federal of Chicago.

    The bank is an outparcel of the adjacent Northbrook Court, a development fought tooth and nail by neighboring Deerfield, but opened nevertheless in 1976. The mall was designed by Architectonics, Inc., who also worked with developer Sears on another mall in Joliet.

    Great Lakes Structural Steel
    237 Melvin Drive
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    A plain warehouse with a bold International Style office building up front, built for a company relocating from Skokie. The style has been tweaked a bit, making it a bit more flamboyant than orthodoxy might have allowed – and allowing the original tenant to show off the effectiveness of their signature product. 1969, by the local firm of Alper & Alper.

    Ironically, it’s now home to HDO Productions – a company that provides large event tents.

    AA Service Co. Heating and Cooling – Anthony Trail
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    This shockingly dramatic arch was once an airport hangar for Sky Harbor Airport. Dating from 1929, it was opened to great aplomb in the days when the Northbrook area was far more sparsely settled. An incredibly stylized club house and control center stood to the south on Dundee Road, but did not survive the Great Depression which closed the airport. Abandoned and vandalized, the clubhouse was torn down in 1939 and the field re-opened as a training center, largely for military pilots. After three decades of use as a popular private airport, Sky Harbor closed in 1973 in the face of rising land values, to be replaced by light industrial development.

    The original hangar building was abandoned for a few years but survives to this day, now housing a heating contractor. In an utterly bizarre arrangement, it now has a narrow two-story seafood restaurant tacked on to its side.

    The Courts of Northbrook
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    Opened in 1988, the Courts stand directly west of the shopping mall of nearly the same name. What I like about this place is that it’s such a great model for a suburb. It’s nothing particularly special or overwrought; and yet, it shows how pleasant a neighborhood can be when the right architectural tools are used to control space. This is not some high-falutin’ architect’s theoretical experiment – any developer could come up with this place if they put their head to it.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an enlightened development, this is the work of the Optima Inc. company architect David Hovey.

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    The enclosed porch is an especially nice touch. What a pleasant place to sit and read on a sunny day!

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    360-370 Lake Cook Road

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    Lacking any name, this low, long building hunkers down under its wonderful green metal roof and behind its low brick walls, scowling out at the rushing traffic on Lake-Cook Road. Inside, a pleasant courtyard greets visitors.

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    And wander around a bit, and you’ll find the requisite 1950s ranch houses, still looking fantastic 50 years after they were built.

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    Following on 1950s houses came 1960s churches.

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    And the story doesn’t stop here… next time we’ll look at some more recent additions to the landscape.

    No, no, no, no…

    This giant mural of St. Vincent adorns the west face of DePaul University’s Francis X. McCabe Hall. It can’t be missed if you’re riding north on the Red Line.

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    The mural, titled We Are DePaul 2, was created in 2001 via a composite of 16 repeated images of DePaul students and faculty. But it’s not the composition or technical aspects that intrigue me so. No, it’s his chagrinned scowl.

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    St. Vincent looms far larger than life over the Wish soccer field, and his disapproval of DePaul’s athletic teams couldn’t be clearer. Every time I pass, I imagine just what he’s thinking as he glares at the minuscule student athletes below:

    “No, no, no, don’t pass to him… no, don’t go there… no… wrong… wrong… stop… oh good grief… don’t kick it – now what’re you – now what is that? What do you think you’re – you guys… no, no, no, no, NO. That just won’t do at all.”

    A remarkable restoration

    A heartfelt congratulations to the congregants of First Baptist Congregational Church on Chicago’s near west side.

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    This venerable church was damaged in the intense blizzard that struck Chicago in February of this year. Rooftop masonry was dislodged and tumbled to the street – and through the roof, into the sanctuary. The damage to the historic building was considerable, and it was immediately boarded up.

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    In far too many cases, this would be the beginning of a long, slow decline for such an aged church in an older city neighborhood. In this case, however, quite the opposite happened: insurance, bolstered by donations from an enthusiastic and sizable congregation, covered the damage and spurred additional interior work. The south size of the sanctuary is getting a new roof, a work still in progress, and the organ pipes are still out for repairs.

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    But the bulk of the interior work is finished; and thus, this Sunday, a mere seven months after the blizzard, churchgoers returned to the sanctuary for services.

    And what a sanctuary it is!

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    First Congregational was begun in 1869 as Union Park Congregational Baptist (architect: Gurdon P. Randall.) It opened in 1871; later that year the Great Chicago Fire burned much of the city to the east (though it never came close to the Union Park area.) Union Park Congregational housed city offices for a time in the fire’s aftermath; it would go on to have a long, storied history; in the 20th century, it has been a common stop for visiting presidents.

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    First Baptist Congregational was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.

  • Photos of the damage from FBCC’s site