Chicago Mid-Century Modern: St. Lambert Catholic Church

Tucked away among the unassuming residential side streets of Skokie is the startlingly modern building of St. Lambert Church (architect Frank Polito, 1960.)IMG_0613

There is plenty of Mid-Century Modern in Skokie, but most of it is not on this level. St. Lambert is highly decorated and heavily stylized, inside and out. IMG_0899a

The lobby, for example, has stained glass doors and windows (with patterns unique to this part of the building), walls of red Roman brick, and  exuberant patterns of floor tile.  Stylized stainless steel railings and free-floating steps take visitors up and down, while built-in planters bring the indoors into the building.



This beautiful textured glass window separates the lobby from the sanctuary.


The sanctuary is large and open, with arched wood laminate beams creating a space with no columns. Behind the altar is a striking wall flecked with diamond-shaped windows, infilled with faceted stained glass.






St. Lambert Parish was founded in 1951, and work on the building complex began in 1952 with what is now the school building. The cornerstone was laid on November 9. This first building was designed by architects Pirola & Erbach. The school closed in 2003, just shy of its 50th anniversary, due to dropping enrollment.

The main church building dates from 1960 and was dedicated in June 1961. Today the congregation has a large Filipino presence.

IMG_0869aThe colors, materials, the grid of geometric windows, and the suburban side street location all give St. Lambert a kinship with Milwaukee’s Holy Family Catholic Church.

Architect Frank F. Polito (1908-1967) was in practice from the mid-1930s until his death, working from an office on Michigan Avenue until 1938, then from the Mather Tower and finally from Lincolnwood. Among his other works are a Moderne 2-flat apartment at Asbury & Isabella in Evanston, several single-family homes in a variety of styles including a dozen on Chilton Lane in Wilmette,  the International Style Woodbine School in Cicero, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran in Niles (done in a style similar to that of Charles Stade),  and St. Anne’s Church in Berryville, Arkansas.


Mid-Century Remuddle on Kedzie

For some fifty-odd years, this lovely 1960s structure was the home of Fortuna Brothers Funeral Home, at 4401 S. Kedzie. Begun in 1946 by brothers John J. and Stanley P. Fortuna, the site also included their home (a later addition to the rear may have replaced this). Stanley died young at age 46 in 1956, and John passed away in 1969; but the family business continued on for many decades. Death notices at the address first appear in the Tribune in 1952 and are prolific from then on, continuing until 2007. The building went up for sale in 2008.


Then, in 2011, new owners Kiddie Kare Daycare got hold of it, and… well, here’s the before and after:


Image from Google StreetView

It’s not just that they took a unified, handsome vintage design and obliterated it. It’s that the result is so incredibly bad. The Fortuna Funeral Home building was built to the highest standards of its time, and some 50 years later, it still looked great. Against this high standard have now been set the cheapest, most low-quality materials possible: Vinyl siding butted up against vintage cut limestone.  Fake shutters for the tiny windows (which replaced much more generous ones).  An asphalt shingle skirt masquerading as a mansard roof – without even the most perfunctory attempt to make it look like a “roof”.  A single tiny vent floating dead center on the facade, as if it were the most important design element – replacing the concrete block pattern window which was the most important design element. At the ground floor, split concrete block has replaced polished granite, and at-grade flower beds have replaced integral planters.

It’s impossible to know how much was covered up and how much was removed, but at very least, the building’s original base, and original window configuration, have been destroyed – gone forever. This hatchet job cannot be easily undone.

I can’t fathom the thought process. Was this intended to make the place look more inviting, more homely? It fails miserably.  Was it a cheap way around costly repairs? Nothing on the original facade indicates any problems. Was it meant to make the former funeral home look less like a funeral home? In this it succeeds, but only because now it looks like cheap junk. At any rate, I would have suggested two alternatives: accept the building as it is (nothing about it really screams “funeral parlor”), or find another building.

The only major feature that survived the remuddling is a relief sculpture of Mary on the building’s side (which I photographed during a street carnival):

All the rest is either buried for now, or gone forever.


Roscoe Village


Tucked away north of Belmont, running east-west between Western Avenue and Damen, lies one of Chicago’s great open secrets, the commercial district of Roscoe Village. For several blocks, this peaceful, tree-line street is laced with small restaurants (a few chains, but mostly local), stores and shops, delightfully intermingled with houses and apartments, both old and new. It may well be the prettiest commercial strip in the city of Chicago.


Roscoe is not a street you would naturally tend to find yourself on; it is not one of the city’s major arteries, with Belmont only a few blocks south. And its architecture is not great art; in fact it’s hardly noticeable at all. It blends into the background – a stage set, subservient to the performers.




What truly brings the street together and makes it sing are the trees. For blocks, the sidewalks are gently sheltered by great branches that overhang street and walkway alike. There is an intrinsic comfort to the place.







And the difference is perfectly illustrated by the gas station on the corner of Roscoe & Damen, where the trees come to an abrupt and unfortunate halt.


Some of the restaurants have wisely enhanced that sense of sheltering space with the layout of their sidewalk seating. A second layer of open enclosure makes the outdoor dining along Roscoe utterly irresistible – a perfect model of urban space.



The name “Roscoe Village” doesn’t appear in the Tribune archives until 1975. The original European settlers on this land built greenhouses, part of a booming produce industry based in and around the Lincoln Square area. Industrial development along the Ravenswood rail corridor, and the success of the Riverview Park amusement park on Western Avenue post-1903, caused the land around Roscoe Street to develop rapidly with stores and worker’s flats. The area suffered through a long funk from the Depression into the 1970s, but then began lifting itself up by the bootstraps. By the late 1980s, the area was booming as low rents attracted first-time store and restaurant owners who couldn’t afford pricier locations east and south; the street was for a time a mecca of 1950s and 1960s retro design and nostalgia. Today there are a healthy mix of chains and local restaurants, and all the charm you could want.

Chicago Mid-Century Modern: St. John Vianney Parish, Northlake


When I sat down to write this post, I discovered that I had no photographs of this church’s front facade (probably because crossing Wolf Road on foot to get them would entail taking my life into my hands.) Fortunately, the Church fathers saw fit to leave this lovely model of the building on display inside it.

The building of St. John Vianney Church (46 N. Wolf Road, Northlake) was begun in 1962, to the designs of architect Joseph W. Bagnuolo (1908-1996). The firm would also design the tile murals within. Seen from the air, the building is shaped like a fish, a common Christian symbol. Concrete panels with aquamarine stone and quartz embedded in them act as “scales” to continue the metaphor.




Inside, the sanctuary is an unbroken space, with side aisles separated by a sharp change in ceiling height.


Two giant stained glass windows dominate each end of the sanctuary. There are abstract faceted glass patterns on the side windows, but the bulk of the windows are flat glass.




The altar is in the center of the sanctuary, illuminated from above by a round skylight. The design is a “church in the round” approach based on the post-Vatican II updates of the Catholic liturgy.


The walls carry 150-foot long tile mosaic murals, depicting seven sacraments,  seven miracles, and the life of Christ.




Details small and large enhance the period feel of this church. These elegant light fixtures give style and panache to an ordinary stairwell, and the handsome door paddles below are a grace note as one enters the building.


The baptistry is a separate round structure connected by a small hallway. Articulated brick patterns give it an additional dose of 1960s pizazz.


Swiss Chalet or Atomic Ranch?

An occasional recurring theme I’ve found on Chicago’s Mid-Century south side is the Swiss chalet look, a vaguely historicist style heavily filtered through the lens of Chicago’s 1960s builder vernacular. These buildings may feature broad, shallow-pitched roofs, rough-cut stone and brick siding, generous overhangs, and ornamental wood railings, brackets and shutters. The apparent intention is to invoke the cozy security of a warm ski lodge, well-defended against the cold of winter. Lyons, in particular, has quite a few of them.

Readers may note that the list of features isn’t too dissimilar to what one would find on a typical mid-century ranch house, and it’s a blurry line at best between the “atomic ranch” and the “Mid-Century chalet”.

8133-8139 Ogden, Lyons
A pair of L-shaped breezeway apartment buildings apartment buildings, built circa 1963. Note the free-standing screen wall with the plastic window panels, protecting the stairway – it recurs on the next two structures as well.

6300-6324 W. 63rd Street, Chicago

A group of five related buildings, with fieldstone and brick patterns across their facades. The two end buildings are L-shaped structures with the “Swiss chalet” design, while the three in the middle are more conventional flats. Built by Olsick & Gaw (later Olsick-Gaw-Hartz), architect unknown.


Above: the western most building, 6324 W. 63rd Street at S. Mulligan.


8735 W. Ogden, Lyons
A breezeway apartment building, with the same stair screen and facade design patterns as the two previous groups. Whoever designed this one almost certainly did the previous two groups as well.

Roadway Inn – 8640 Ogden, Lyons

If the Swiss connection weren’t clear enough, this split-personality building calls it out explicitly – as did its original name, the Chalet Motel. Built circa 1962; D.F. Hedg, builder.

4319-23 S. Harlem Avenue, Stickney
Part of a larger grouping of apartments, these three buildings have the same shallow-pitched roof, and the same facade pattern with a sharply angled change in materials – not to mention those same corny shutters.

Plank Road Inn – 7307 W. Ogden, Lyons
In the 1980s, it was Sullivan’s Motel. The broad drive-in overhang, the massive brick pillar, and the wood balcony evoke the Swiss Chalet style.

The Presidential Inn & Suites Motel – 3922 S. Harlem Avenue, Lyons
Opened in 1961, this swooping Mid-Century motel offered “early Americana decor”… as well as integrated auto service right next door. Originally advertised as a family vacation destination, it has fallen on somewhat harder times in recent decades. Like the Plank Road motel, this one has a broad pitched overhang, with massive stone pillars.

Zarzycki Manor Chapels, Ltd. – 5088 S. Archer Avenue

Where to stop? In the world of builder vernacular, the lines are never clear. This funeral home has the low pitched roofs, the massive chimney, the flagstone siding… but no brackets, no massive overhangs. Does it count? Is it just a close cousin, or a similar result arrived at through totally different influences? Without knowing the mind of the builder, it’s hard to say.

The Zarzycki Manor Chapel building opened circa 1963, and has been in continuous operation here ever since.

And finally, there is the Chalet Nursery, in Wilmette – a place which, abysmally, I have never photographed. Click here for a Google StreetView image. The oldest portion is a pre-war building, but a large expansion was added in the 1950s.