The most beautiful street in Chicago

I may be devoted to Mid-Century style now, but my first true architectural love was High Victorian Gothic – the kind of heavy, massive, overly ornate, slightly surreal stuff that Frank Furness imprinted on the Philadelphia area and imparted to Louis Sullivan before the latter decamped for Chicago. I was introduced to it through the late Tudor Gothic Revival style of Washington University’s campus, and became intimately acquainted during a three-year stay in Philadelphia.

You never forget your first love, and so I am deeply stirred when walking down the 500-600 block of West Fullerton Parkway. For my money, these two blocks comprise the most beautiful street in all of Chicagoland.

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The green stone Gothic house at left is 616-618 W. Fullerton.

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626 W. Fullerton (left) and 620-624 W. Fullerton – the centerpieces of the block (650-646 under the pre-1909 numbering scheme). 624 was home to Dr. & Mrs. Clarendon Rutherford in the 1890s into the 1920s; in the 1950s , a doctor at nearby Children’s Memorial Hospital resided there. In the 1920s Mr. Louis O. Kohtz, resident of Chicago since the 1860s, lived next door at 620.

Oh, there are plenty of close competitors, some right in the same neighborhood. The parallel streets just north and south, for example, offer similar scale and architecture. I could cite other streets in Old Town, near DePaul, in Rivernorth, Little Italy’s Taylor Street, Roscoe Village, even Jackson Boulevard east of Ashland. Yet too often these streets are violated by later intrusions, which may be of interest themselves, but tend to detract from the overall effect.

On 500-600 Fullerton, by contrast, you can – however briefly – submerge yourself in an architectural dream straight out of the 1880s.

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And it’s only those two blocks. Just east, a massive 1960s apartment tower shatters the ambiance, and Clark & Fullerton is crazy, lively, bustling, thrilling, but not especially beautiful. In the other direction, the trees run out, and the hulk of Children’s Memorial Hospital is even more of a period architecture buzzkill.

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What is it about these two blocks?

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Trees, for starters. No city block can be truly and completely beautiful without mature shade trees. Fullerton has them in abundance – massive, tall and aged, they gently shelter the sidewalks, forming a roof over the outdoor space. For pure picturesque beauty, great trees are vital for a great street. The western point where the shade trees end is exactly where the two-block dream world also ends.

The trees are supplemented by a wealth of greenery on the ground – bushes and miniature gardens abound, amply demonstrating that a yard does not need to be large to be beautiful.

Next is the architecture. It is all of a period, though it is not of a single style  – it is a mish-mash of ornate, elaborate Gothic derivatives, Romanesque, and Queen Anne, with twoPrairie Style apartment houses thrown in for good measure. Hints of the influence of Richardson, Furness and  Sullivan can be seen. Queen Anne woodwork gives many homes elaborate porches and entryways. Terra cotta detail abounds, from floral ornament to sculpted lintels.

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620-624 Fullerton – architect Theodore Karls

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610 Fullerton

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540 Fullerton

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Porches and stoops provide a welcoming, layered approach to each house. Public, semi-public, semi-private, and private are all delineated in the space of a few feet. No one can own a house here without being aware of how his house contributes to the whole, and how much much the whole enhances the value of his own property. Houses follow a common setback line, a common entry height. The entries themselves are elaborate and inviting. This is urban design par excellence.

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Two Romanesque Revival churches provide punctuation and community – Church of Our Savior…
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…and Lincoln Park Presbyterian:
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Both of which will be covered in a future post.

And finally, there’s context. These blocks don’t stand in isolation – they are, rather, the culmination of many blocks of beautiful houses on lovely streets. The beauty of these streets is enhanced in the mind by the knowledge that you can’t take a wrong turn off of them. Any way you go, you will be further rewarded.

A small book could be written on the history of 500 & 600 Fullerton. The addresses appear with high frequency in the social pages of the Chicago Tribune, in the who’s who books of turn-of-the-century Chicago, and in the city’s 1990s inventory of its historic resources. Remarkably, they do not appear to be part of a National Register district, despite the proximity of the Sheffield Historic District – possibly the neighbors declined to be registered.

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301 Taylor – the Union Station Power House

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In August 1931, preparatory work began for the Union Station power plant building, which stands today 301 W. Taylor Street. Any traveler who has crossed the lengthy Roosevelt Boulevard viaduct south of the Loop has seen this massive Art Deco edifice (and more than a few have, no doubt, been reminded of a particular Pink Floyd album cover, as the power station is of the same architectural style as London’s Battersea Power Station.)

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The Union Station plant was built to provide power not only to the train station but also to the new (now old) Post Office, both owned by the Chicago Union Station Company. It was advertised as a “smokeless” power plant, using newly refined techniques to burn coal with a reduced ash output.

Architects were Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Construction of the new power plant was urged along, as its predecessor occupied the future site of the new Post Office, which in turn could not be started until the old power plant was replaced and demolished.

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The plant was still operating in 1980 when the company received notice from the city boiler inspections department that it must replace the four boilers. The work was apparently carried out, because the plant was still providing power and steam to local buildings into the 1990s, and – despite its forebidding appearance – still shows some signs of life today.

Storefront Additions

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6100 Lincoln Avenue – original home of the  Morton Grove Public Library in the 1930s; later home to Philip’s Television Radio Service by 1949.  An electronics shop was still here in the 1980s.

My friend Michael Allen first brought storefront additions to my attention, through his detailed documentation of them in St. Louis. As often happens among architecture fans, his interest rubbed off on me, and I began looking for them in Chicago.

Well, it turns out you don’t have to look very hard. They are everywhere. Major commercial streets like Western and Ashland have dozens of them, often side by side, and they come in every shape, size, material and style.

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Athens Grocery Store in Pullman, E. 113th Street and S. St. Laurence. Appeared in the Harrison Ford film “The Fugitive”; operated here since at least 1972. In the 1950s it was the Busy Corner Grocery.

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4345 N. Western Avenue – a butcher shop in 1928; until recently the Green Briar Pharmacy. Not clear if they are still open.

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2114 Belmont – home to “The Belmont Shoe Hospital” shoe repair shop by 1917; in the 1980s it was a fine arts gallery.

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723 Wrightwood – currently vacant, but has held multiple businesses in the past including an Internet cafe in 2001 and the more standard Box Car Cafe in 2004.

The typical storefront addition is a small commercial structure added to the front of a residential building, often in a sharply contrasting style. The result allows a small business to operate out of the ground floor, and may or may not result in the whole building going commercial. They are common on streets that have transitioned from residential or mixed use to a primarily commercial use, though they can also show up on totally random residential  side streets.

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4000 block, S. Indiana Avenue

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1757 Roscoe Street – a deli in the 1940s; possibly a butcher before that; most recently home to Carmen Electric, Inc.

Neighborhood transitions usually don’t happen until several decades after the neighborhood’s construction; as a result, storefront additions usually are built in a different style than the house they are attached to, if there is any style at all. Many additions are purely utilitarian. Others are more flamboyant than the house itself.

Particularly curious are the little brick boxes tacked onto the front of wood-framed houses. Like the additions themselves, the upgrade in building material speaks to an increase in prosperity.

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4504 N. Central Avenue – home to Glen E. Davis, Realtor, who had operated from this address as far back as 1951.

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1523 / 1525 Devon – Wireless Shack Inc.

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1415 Devon – a 1950s addition for the Perma-Stone company, whose product covers the outside of both house and addition.

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1435 W. Diversey – Chicago Cleaners

Additions could come in any style, as shown with these two Mid-Century tack-ons attached to totally ordinary wood-frame houses.

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Parky’s Hot Dogs – 329 Harlem Avenue, Forest Park

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Dos Compadres Restaurant, 7021 Roosevelt Rd, Berwyn – previously another location of Parky’s Hot Dogs. The “chain” – noted for their fries – dates from 1949; this location was closed and sold some time between 2004 and 2009.

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724 W. Wrightwood – The Burwood Tap, family owned & operated since 1933

Storefront additions can come in all scales, from tiny brick boxes to full-fledged structures that could stand as independent buildings. The Burwood Tap is an extreme example of the latter; it’s a full two-story corner building attached to a wood framed house behind it.

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Nesh Mediterranean Grill – 734 W. Fullerton Avenue, Lakeview. Nesh opened in 2008; before that it was a Planet Sub.

New ones are almost  unheard of today. This  Fullerton Avenue storefront  looks like an exception, but with a grocery store at the address as far back as 1949, and a real estate office for decades after that,  it’s likely it simply got reskinned when remodeled in 2006. The North Avenue storefront below seems like a similar case – bits of stone roofline ornament can be seen poking out from behind a more recent coating of EFIS.

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153 W. North Avenue – Magnifique Nails today; a grocery store in the 1920s; a custom T-shirt shop in the 1960s; office for the Chicago Film Festival in the 1980s.

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Then there are my two favorites, a pair of Victorian-era houses on Clark Street in Lakeview, which are totally buried by this long commercial building. It’s actually not an addition at all – it doesn’t touch or interact with the to houses, apart from sitting in their front yard. But it swallows them up just as effectively as if they were connected. The two houses remain accessible from Clark via long, narrow passageways, one of which is visible on the right.

The most interesting thing about storefront additions, apart from their stylistic anomalousness, is what they say about the growth and desirability of the city. A proliferation of storefront additions speaks to rampant expansion and a thriving economy – neighborhoods growing so fast they cannot keep up with the demand for commercial space.

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234-238 S. Ashland – an Art Deco storefront built by 1942; a tavern in 1946; Cafe Penelope from 1989 into the 2000s; today, a vehicle registration agency. The house behind frequently appeared in the society pages of the 1890s and 1900s.

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1400 N. Wells Street

They are not only indicators of growth, but incubators for it as well. An existing storefront addition allows a small business to have a home of its own without the undo expense of new construction. This sort of flexibility, in turn, is what makes cities such great drivers of economic growth and diversity. Try starting a new business out in the timid, corporate-run ‘burbs – assuming you can even find someone willing to rent space to a non-franchise company. No, you’re far better off in the well-worn, infinitely adaptable city.

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2807 N. Sheffield Avenue – Shirts on Sheffield

And the kitchen sink

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The year is 1964. After his latest round of projects, a contractor finds he still has a lot of little architectural decorative bits left in his supply yard, none of them enough to work on any one building by itself. What to do, what to do? Find the next client that walks in the door and just throw everything at their project!

At least, that’s the story I picture behind the building of North American Heating and Air Conditioning, 5915 Lincoln Avenue in Morton Grove.

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The tiny office portion of this building packs a grab bag of architectural materials, including a brown brick, black lava rock, and metal spandrel panels. Adorning it are a bronzed window screen, funky Mid-Century address numbers, and three columns of randomly spaced colored glass block dripping down the side. If that ain’t enough, a brick and pattern block fence once lined the parking lot, too, with brick posts topped by lamps. IMG_9475a IMG_9469a

The end result is just way too much stuff packed into one tiny facade, but I love it.

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It seems that North American Heating & AC eventually moved further west; the building has looked empty and for sale since at least 2010, though the name “Service Packaging Inc.” remains on the door and on that company’s enigmatic website. (Curiously, all the real estate ads peg the construction date as circa 1970, a good five or more years later than the actual date.)