Elmwood Park’s Sullivanesque Bungalows

In 1926, developer John Mills launched Westwood – an ambitious bungalow development in suburban Elmwood Park, due west of the Loop. Mills & Sons oversaw the construction of homes as well as the improvements to the entire holding, with streets, alleys and sidewalks all going in at the same time. In full swing by 1928, the Westwood development was one of the largest single developments the city had seen and would, when finished, include 1,332 homes and cover many blocks, with what is now known as Conti Parkway as its civic center.

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The bungalows are handsome and solid – they look terrific over 80 years after their construction – but nothing new or groundbreaking for their time. Mills & Sons’ work would be just a larger-than-average notch in the Bungalow Belt were it not for an unusual decorative decision: these are, perhaps, Chicago’s only Sullivanesque bungalows.

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The terra cotta trim was supplied by the Midland Terra Cotta Company (1), 105 W. Monroe in the Loop. Midland Terra Cotta made an entire line of Sullivan-inspired stock ornament. Their work wound up on quite a few of Chicago’s commercial buildings, though of course the Leiber-Miester was given no credit and, undoubtedly, no compensation. The intent was simply to make the buildings more “ornamental”, in the words of Midland’s own design drawings. Whereas Sullivan carefully integrated his ornament to enhance and reinforce the big idea of the building – developers just dropped it in because it looked nice.

And, well, doesn’t it?

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Blocks of catalog ornament were used to accent window surrounds, the heads of arched basement windows, porch columns, and simple expanses of brick wall. The ornaments are a ubiquitous marker of John Mills’ Elmwood Park bungalows, clearly delineating the extent of his development.

Mills & Sons took pride in their work, touting the “colorful terra cotta trim” and high-quality face brick in their advertisements. Pride could not save them from the onset of the Great Depression, however, and the company went into receivership in 1932, based on a motion filed by the Hydraulic Press Brick company. The company survived, however, and would go on to build wartime housing further west in the early 1940s.

Note 1 – Chicago Tribune display ad, March 11, 1928 – Mills & Sons Westwood. The ad lists all the major suppliers of building components including brick, hardwood floors, fireplaces, door hardware and much more.

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Elmwood Park’s Conti Circle

If one boils the annals of urban planning down to a decade-by-decade analysis, it is so very frequently the 1950s and 1960s that must lay claim to the biggest disasters, the most egregious screwups.  Yet in Elmwood Park, it is the 1970s where good planning abruptly veered off-course.

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Elmwood Park, if you’ve never been there, has at its center Conti Parkway, a broad circular boulevard that loops around a circular park. Around the outside of the park, commercial, civic and apartment buildings form a ring around the street. A layer of angled parking comes next, then the road, then the circular space in the center.

The styles of the buildings that line the Conti Parkway circle range back to its construction in 1926 by real estate developer John Mills (who also laid out the surrounding streets and built hundreds of bungalows on them, accented with Sullivanesque catalog ornament.) Buildings continued to rise on the parkway into the 1960s – each following the curving border of the street, reinforcing and building up this delightful space. Pre-war and Mid-Century Modern alike acknowledged and respected the form of the street and contributed to the grand outdoor space.

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It is a disarmingly charming space, where buildings of all architectural stripes rub elbows quite comfortably.

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Then something went haywire. In the early 1970s, the city of Elmwood Park, desiring certain recreational amenities and not having any other open land at its disposal, decided to redevelop the central park with a Civic Center and new library. This might have been a fine thing, if the result was worthy of the space – but it was anything but.

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The two buildings that went up on the north and south ends of the circle make no effort to respect the curving plot of land they sit on. Instead, by dropping rectangular buildings and spaces onto a round site, the complex manages to obliterate the maximum amount of land, leaving only shreds of uselessly awkward shaped lawns around the corners. The buildings themselves, rather than being an appropriately monumental or definitive capstone to decades of development, are completely forgettable.

Compounding the problems, a pool and aquatic complex was squeezed between them in the 1990, stamping out whatever open space remained. Fences and loading docks further slice and dice what was once freely accessible public space.

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The damage didn’t stop there; in recent decades, the southwest quadrant of the parkway has been further further diminished by poorly placed driveways for a fire station, the village hall, and a parking lot. A new library – replacing the one on the circle –  makes a rather ham-handed attempt to acknowledge the circle, with a series of stepping corner setbacks that leave an awkward-shaped concrete “plaza” facing the circle – a poorly defined open space masquerading as an architectural response to the parkway.

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Around the same time, the historic village hall’s front facade – a simple but dignified Classical-influenced design – was buried under a misshapen mass of 1970s brick, presumably to add an accessible entrance.  The same design sense went into the fire station next door, along with the same obliviousness to context – three broad driveways slice across the sidewalk, along with a parking lot.

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Unsurprisingly, trees now line the edges of the Conti Circle park space. They conceal the awkwardness within – the buildings trying so hard to become non-entities. Unable to come up with anything worthy of being seen, the village erected something that desperately tries to be invisible.

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For all that, Conti Parkway continues to charm. A stroll around its perimeter is a pleasant experience indeed – but what sad irony that it is the fully developed urban side of the street that offers the most inviting space.

An aside – Conti Parkway was originally known as Broadway; it was renamed Elmwood Parkway by the 1930s. It was renamed again in 1973 for the village’s then-mayor – over his veto!

Links:

UPDATE, May 20 2014: I noticed this post getting a large number of views. While poking around online to figure out why, I came across an interesting study of Conti Circle and its environment: Conti Circle Revitalization Plan. Still no idea where all the hits are coming from, though!

Mid-Century Townhouses

Rowhouses were the basic building block of many East Coast cities, but (as I’ve mentioned before) the classic rowhouse never really caught on big in Chicago. Here on the open prairie, with the abundant timber of northern Wisconsin in easy reach, the wood balloon frame took off, and with it the detached single-family worker cottage.

After World War II, however, the humble rowhouse got a makeover, and a second shot at success in Chicagoland. No longer the building block of the inner city, it became a more affordable alternative to those looking to make their home in the newly rising suburbs. The new rowhouse was clothed in mid-century Modernist garb and rechristened as the more market-friendly “townhome”. Construction of these units reached a fever pitch in the late 1950s.

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At its core, a townhome or row house is basically two or more houses that share vertical walls. Each unit has its own private, exclusive entrance – no shared stairwells. Each unit touches the ground. Beyond that, there were no rules in the post-war era.

Pre-war rowhouses had commonly been two to four stories high; post-war could be two stories, split levels, or even a single story, with or without basement. No one would mistake a pre-war rowhouse for anything other than what it was – but post-war townhomes were often dressed up to look like larger apartment blocks, colonial mansions, or rambling split level ranch houses.

Rather than forming the basis of canyon-like streets, Modernist townhouses were very often set perpendicular to the street, with garden-like courtyards between them.

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Flat roofs, brick and flagstone facades, and broad picture windows are common elements.
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More creative iterations might emulate the shapes of courtyard apartments…
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…or go the other direction, and disguise multiple row homes as a single gigantic split-level ranch, as did Chesterfield Builders.IMG_2621a

When I first thought about the idea of a Mid-Century rowhouse, I thought they must be rare. But to the contrary, they’re quite common. Once you start recognizing them, they’re everywhere. I know of four different sets of them within two blocks of my home.

Like other forms of mid-century Chicago architecture, a sort of builder vernacular emerged, presumably as builders borrowed ideas, inspiration and perhaps architects from one another. The typical 1950s Chicago townhouse can be described thus: two stories above ground with 4 or 5 units. Brick cladding except at the corners, where wood or cut stone forms an accent, along with a corner-wrapping picture window. The building mass is slightly offset at its midpoint, creating another chance for a corner picture window. Buildings are paired off facing one another across a walkway and small yards, creating a shared courtyard.
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Some of the more interesting developers and their works include:
Skokie Townhouse Builders, Inc. – headed by Ronald Dreyfus and Robert Krilich, this company put up several developments with simple Modernist facades.
* A cluster of 9 buildings at 9505 Gross Point Road in Skokie.
* A cluster of 13 buildings at 10081 Frontage Road, north of Old Orchard in Skokie
* 5839-5845 Lincoln Avenue, Morton Grove – a group of five, set perpendicular to the street:
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* 4702-4740 Main Street, Skokie – a group of eight on the north side of the street, perpendicular to the road, with a handful of additional buildings are on the south side of the street including one at Patrick & Main, 2 more at 4716 Main, and 3 more at 4712-4716 Washington.
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Dunbar Builders – the company of Herbert Rosenthal, who essentially brought the condominium to Chicago and the United States. Billing their developments as “Townhouses by Dunbar”, this company erected several groups of Modernist buildings:
* 2505 Howard at Maplewood – a large group of Modernist townhomes, 35 total, along Birchwood, Jerome, Maplewood and Rockwell streets. Opened in 1960.

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Of special note is the extreme similarity of Dunbar’s designs to those of Skokie Townhouse Builders. Both feature the same slight jog in the building footprint, with a first-floor overhang and brick walls giving way to wood paneling at the corners. To this mix, however, Dunbar Builders adds a massive chimney of gray Lannon stone on the narrow end of the building, as well as some additional details.

The Howard-Maplewood development uses a variety of elements and color – red, orange and beige brick; brown, red or white siding; ashlar or rough cut stone chimneys. The lines of the large corner picture windows at the living room are visually reinforced by built-in planters. First-floor overhangs run the length of the buildings’ fronts.
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This examples above and below both retain their original thin steel frame windows on the corner unit.
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* 6900 Ridge at Farwell & Morse – A group of 6 buildings with a pleasing staggered placement, thanks to Ridge’s angle relative to the street grid. Opened in 1960.
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* 6100 Ridge – 9 Modernist buildings along Norwood Street and Hood Avenue, along with 5 more in a Colonial style across the street. Opened in 1960. They use the same Modernist design as the 6900 Ridge development.
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* Grand & Prospect at Dempster, Niles – a full-block cluster of twenty 5-unit buildings.

Joseph Rush Realty and Management Company:
* Ridge Court Townhouses – 5 buildings at 7500-7508 N. Ridge, 1959. Variegated beige brick with flagstone at the corners, openwork wood frame faux overhangs at the first story, shallow pitched roofs, and vertical brick entry screens with small openings. This development replaced an abandoned farm house that had stood on the site for a hundred years.
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Builders unknown:
* 1000 Dodge Avenue, Evanston – twelve buildings perpendicular to the road. Opened by 1957, and built as rental housing. They could easily be by Dunbar Builders; the level of detailing is comparable.
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* 8401-8431 Lotus Avenue, Skokie – a group of twins – two units per building – lining one side of the street.
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