Cermak Road’s Mid-Century Riches

Head west out of Chicago on Cermak Road, and at first you may think you’ve come to the end of anything interesting. The first thing to greet your eyes after you cross the city boundary into Cicero is a series of bland strip malls. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Once you cross Central Avenue, Cermak has many wonders in store as it cruises west through the inner-ring suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn.

Cermak’s buildings gradually transition from pre-War revival and eclectic, to Mid-Century styles. While grand commercial buildings from before World War II are scattered along the Cicero stretch of the road and and into eastern Berwyn – there is no visible transition at the political boundary – the Mid-Century buildings are primarily concentrated in western Berwyn, towards Harlem Avenue.     Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture Berwyn Western Plumbing, 7100 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – open by October 1962. Two projecting sun shades with two walls of almost continuous glass between them – an ideal box for displaying a vendor’s wares. With the namesake business having relocated elsewhere, this building’s future is currently up in the air.

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture   Rosicky’s National Cleaners, 5818 W. Cermak Road, Cicero. Open by 1966.

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture

Laundry World, 6947 Cermak Road, Berwyn – present at this spot since the 1990s. The sign is recycled from Color Tile, the previous occupant, who moved in in 1978 and stayed at least through 1990. It’s not clear when the building was originally built.

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture 7008 Cermak Road – The Back Center, Berwyn. Alternately known as the West Suburban Chiropractic Clinic, the business has operated here since 1984.  No word on its original life, but the high windows make a doctor’s office seem like a decent bet; mid-1960s seems a likely construction date. A recent “remodeling” has removed the primary points of interest, including the folded-plate canopy and the stacked stone panel at the ground floor.

7008 W. Cermak

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture   6841 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture 6534 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – General Dentistry. Two buildings of red Roman brick with limestone banding. The latter, in particular, is a powerful yet simple geometric composition.

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture 6913 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn. The vertical stripe/flag element at left is the primary point of “flare”; the rest of the building is stock 1950s components – orange-blonde brick, limestone banding, bottle glass and metal spandrel panels on the stairwell, and ribbons of metal-framed windows.

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture Kenilworth Arms Apartments, 6850 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – a 1959 building by George V. Jerutis & Associates builders, who will be covered in an upcoming post. This one features the glazed baby blue brick which appears on dozens of north side apartments, and an offset grid of projecting bricks on the otherwise blank end wall. 

Cermak Road Mid-Century ArchitectureBank of America – 5801 W. Cermak Road, Cicero. Originally the Western National Bank of Cicero, a bank founded in 1913. They moved to this, their new location, in May 1960, vacating a NeoClassical building which still stands two blocks east.

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6901 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – a mixed-use residential/commercial building, opened in 1957. Among the first ground floor tenants was a Niagra massage chair showroom. 

 

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Clyde Savings and Loan Association
Sharon Beauty Supply – 5817 W. Cermak Road, Cicero, 1959 – originally Clyde Savings and Loan Association, founded in 1914. The left-most portion of the building dates back at lest to the 1940s; the current look dates to a 1958 remodeling designed by Chicago Bank Building and Engineering Company, which extended the building west to the corner. The remodeled building opened in January 1959.

Cermak Road mid-century bank Charter One Bank – 6201 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – a pre-war building remodeled in the International Style. Originally Olympic Federal Savings and Loan Bank, founded in 1937, the building was expanded and remodeled in 1962, opening in June. The post-remodel building sported a tall round sign over the corner.
Olympic Savings Bank, Cermak Road

Harris BankBMO Harris Bank – 6655 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn, 1957 – originally Lincoln Federal Savings and Loan. Angled walls of flagstone, alternating with metal panel spandrels and a storefront system, as well as sunshade fins, mark it as a high Mid-Century design. See a 1958 postcard view of it in its original glory here, just after it opened. The bank had previously been Lombard Bank, but a custodian working there passed along his interest in President Lincoln to the bank’s president – who changed the company’s name, had two statues of the President commissioned for the property, and included a Lincoln library in the new building.

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Cermak Road, between the wars

Travel the major commercial streets of Chicago, and you’ll find a particular breed of structure that I have short-handed as the “corner commercial” building –  2- and 3-story structures with brick exteriors and terra cotta ornament, trending toward the Gothic in their details, more often than not sited on a corner lot. Apartments or office space on the upper floors, small storefronts at the sidewalk.  They are plentiful on streets like Western, Lincoln, Cottage Grove, and many others.

A particularly large and outstanding collection of corner commercial buildings can be found on Cermak Road as it passes through Cicero and Berwyn, both of which boomed in the 1920s.  The population at the time was dominated by Czech immigrants, whose immigration to the US had reached a peak just before World War I; their descendants have largely moved onwards, replaced today by Hispanic populations – but some traces of their presence remains in their buildings.

Virtually all of the examples below were erected between 1921 and 1929. Curiously, I can find no record of them in the Tribune before 1930 – and yes, I did check under Cermak’s prior name, 22nd Street. I suspect that, in the tightly wound immigrant community, advertising in a regional paper like the Tribune simply wasn’t necessary to fill your apartments and hawk your wares.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

Queen of them all is the Sokol Slavsky building (“Slavic falcon”), constructed in 1927 to the designs of architect Joseph J. Novy (6130 W. Cermak). The building takes up the entire block; in the center is the Olympic Theatre, built as a grand ballroom and concert hall, and later converted to a movie theater. The theater is decorated with sprawling painted murals. Built as a home to the Sokol youth fitness and community movement – a Bohemian equivalent to the German Turner clubs – the building was a center of Bohemian life in Chicagoland, with a gym, pool, restaurant and more. The movement reportedly didn’t last long in the building, which was foreclosed on in 1933, but the Sokol maintained a presence there at least into the 1950s, and theater has continued on in various incarnations to the present day.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

If Sokol Slavsky is the queen, then the prince is the Majestic Building (6114-6126 W. Cermak, Cicero), just to the east.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

This lovely mixed-use building features apartments on the side, stores at street level, and office space in the front upper floors. It presents a more domestic aspect to the side street, where a U-shaped courtyard faces the street, somewhat softening the transition from commercial Cermak to the bungalows of the neighborhood.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

Fantastic Gothic detailing marks the office entryways on the Cermak side. Tudor Gothic elements show up elsewhere as well, such as the faux quoins around the windows and the plentiful medallions and battlements along the roofline.

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

A healthy run of storefronts still surrounds the base of the building, some with 1950s or 1960s storefront installations featuring terrazzo floors and Roman brick.

Apart from these two grand dames, there’s a whole cavalcade of brick and terra cotta encrusted buildings lining Cermak.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

The Berwyn Building, 6440-6450 W. Cermak

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

 

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

6500 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn. (Inexplicably, I have never photographed this building’s beautifully ornamented corner, so go have a look on Google Streetview instead.)

Cermak Road

6424-6436 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – featuring Gothic-styled window heads on the third floor, and battlements on the roofline.

 

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

5953 W. Cermak Road, Cicero

Central Federal Savings has a been a corner tenant at this building since 1939 (they replaced a Sears when they moved in.) Their original mid-century storefront has been remuddled into something far less interesting, but they still have an excellent Moderne rotating clock that projects out from the building’s corner.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

The building itself is in a handsome shade of blonde brick, with plenty of white glazed terra cotta Gothic details on the two upper floors. Those floors were most likely apartments when the building was constructed, but the former entrance – at middle-left in the photo above – has been bricked over, and it seems that Central Federal Savings has occupied the entire building.

Cermak Road Mid-Century Architecture

 

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

6318-6324 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – another blonde brick three-story building, with a much more intact ground floor. The rounded corner acknowledges the corner site, while several Sullivanesque terra cotta medallions enliven the roofline. The courtyard apartment building at left is a separate structure, though designed in a harmonious style and built directly against its commercial neighbor.

 

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

The Ruth Building, 6011-6025 W. Cermak, Cicero – a third blonde brick structure augmented with white terra cotta. Like the Majestic Building, this one has an integrated apartment courtyard facing the side street, with this lovely tripartite arcade providing some separation from the sidewalk.

Cermak Road

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

 

 

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

6127-6133 W. Cermak Road – a red brick building with cream terra cotta ornament in a Classical vein, with faux ballusters and dentalated cornice over the corner window, and vase-shaped finials and large cartouches at the roofline. Down on the ground floor, some of the storefronts have been bricked in, leaving only small 1940s Modern windows. An apartment courtyard faces the side street.

Cermak Road, Cicero IL

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

6241-6243 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – orange-toned brick with carved limestone ornament in the classical mode. The crest over the round corner includes a faux ballustrade, capped with a medallion.

Cermak Road

 

 

Cermak Road

6226-6232 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – Tudor Gothic in red brick and carved limestone. A pressed tin cornice in need of paint sits above the third floor windows.

A number of smaller buildings also contribute to the area’s architectural significance.

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

Cermak Avenue pre-war commercial

The Great Depression put a sharp halt to construction on Cermak; large-scale building would not resume until the 1950s – in a new and different style, influenced by the newly dominant Modernism.

Klas Bohemian Restaurant

Cermak Avenue is a fascinating road. It begins at the convention center on the south edge of downtown, heading west. It forms one of the major arteries of Chinatown shortly thereafter, then becomes an industrial corridor south of Pilsen – and then a commercial strip that’s part of Pilsen. Then another mile or two west it becomes one of the two commercial spines of Little Village, then a residential boulevard. And then, a few miles further along, it marks the terminus of the Pink Line El – at which point it becomes one of Chicago’s most rewarding places for hunting Mid-Century commercial buildings.

Then, apart from all that, there’s the Klas Restaurant.

Klas Restaurant, Cicero

Standing at 5734 West Cermak Road in Cicero, Klas’ Restaurant would be an institution by virtue of its age alone, having been open since 1922. Founder Adoph Klas was a native of Bohemia, who established his Czech restaurant at a time when Cermak bustled with Eastern European immigrants, and was known as the “Bohemian Wall Street”. On a 1939 return trip to Czechoslovakia, Klas was reportedly imprisoned by the occupying German government, which prohibited the carrying of money out of its territories. No word on when or how he was freed.

The elaborately decorated restaurant was a neighborhood fixture, hosting everything from 50th wedding anniversary parties and Dale Carnegie speaking courses to famed gangster Al Capone, who dined regularly on the second floor. Klas passed away in 1962 but the restaurant has persisted. More recently, President George Bush (the elder) also dined there.

Klas Restaurant, Cicero

Klas Restaurant, Cicero

The restaurant was built in at least three stages, visible in the three distinct facades along the street, as well as in the parapet walls separating each section through the length of the building. The eastern-most section appears to have come first, appearing by itself in an early black and white postcard photo. All three sections were completed by 1954, when they appear in a Chicago Tribune ad.

Klas Restaurant postcard

Klas Restaurant, Cicero

The front facade is a riot of architectural detail, overwhelming in its volume, which makes the exterior a treat to visit time and again. The westernmost section, rendered in smooth gray limestone with steep copper roofing, takes its cues from the grand civic architecture of Prague, folded down to the scale of a neighborhood funeral chapel; the other two sections are both variations on medieval German house styles, embellished with every Eastern European trope imaginable – from faux half-timber and plasterwork to elaborate battenboard trim, and lots of sculpted detailing tacked on – including a little bronze Statue of Liberty in the niche of the central gable as a tip-of-the-hat to the new country.

It’s not all Ye Olden Style, however; steel beams support a massive vertical sign with plastic backlit components spelling out the restaurant’s name and mission.

Klas Restaurant, Cicero

There have been some minor changes since this circa-1950s postcard view was taken.
Klas Restaurant postcard

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The little cupola at right, once a bell tower and later a clock tower, is now blank. A few bits of trim have vanished, and some of the colors have become more muted. The copper roof, seemingly new in the postcard view, has gained the green patina of age. The woodwork needs a new coat of paint. But overall, the place is remarkably intact.

I have never had the good fortune to venture within, but the interior is reportedly tricked out to match, with heavy woodwork that’s a reflection of the heavy food served there. I offer up instead a couple of vintage postcard views, featuring Mr. Klas himself in an inset.

Klas Restaurant postcard

Klas Restaurant postcard

Klas Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with the bar only open on Wednesdays.

Structural Gymnastics in Wood

America, in my opinion at least, has had two golden eras of church building.

One was the Modernist decades, from the late 1940s into the late 1960s. It was driven by the freedom to design new forms and shapes, to play with light and pure geometrical spaces. It came accompanied by its own decorative elements and ornamental style, including its own genre of stained glass, but its defining aspect was the uniqueness of each building as an individualistic composition. I’ve written about many examples from this period, and have many more still to share.

The other began after the Civil War and reached its peak in the 1880s and 1890s. The Gothic style set the tone, supplanting the moribund Greek Classicism that America had long clung to**. Chicago is rich in surviving examples from this movement.

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Central-plan churches were the greatest creations of this movement. The switch away from a long, linear church to one where the congregation is arranged circularly around the pulpit created a new type of space. New possibilities arose as iron and steel came into play. Heavy wood timbers rose and soared, accented by carvings, iron fastenings, and decorative details.

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Stained glass in earthy tones of greens and yellows, influenced by the rising Arts and Crafts movement, painted the interiors in subdued, serene light. Unlike fussy Classical churches, where every surface was covered in decorative murals or painted patterns, these grand, sublime buildings needed no ornament. The space, and the structural gymnastics at play, are the entire show. And Chicago is as good a place to witness this remarkable era as any.

Ravenswood Methodist Episcopal Church

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4501 N. Hermitage, Ravenswood
Architect: John S. Woollacott, 1890

The Poor Man's Fisheye Lens

On the outside, straight-up walls, rough-faced masonry, and rounded arch windows characterize this Romanesque style building. Inside, the sanctuary is a square space laid out with curving pews that bring congregants close to the pulpit. The space is a beautiful study in contrasts – plain white walls with spots of ornamental detailing, against a heavy, massive wood ceiling supported by great wood beams. The curving elements are false hammerbeams, possibly non-structural (in a true hammerbeam arrangement, the arch would support a horizontal beam, and a vertical post would spring from the end of the arch, allowing a longer roof beam to be composed of multiple pieces of timber.)  Above them are tie beams, upon which rest a hornet’s nest of wood elements.

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As with the hammerbeams, it’s not clear which if any of the elements are structural and which are purely decorative. The thin size suggests there might be iron tie rods under those round spindles, pulling the two sides of the truss together.   The stained glass was pre-existing, with the new windows designed to accommodate it.

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Greater Union ME Baptist Church

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1956 W. Warren Blvd.
Architect: William LeBaron Jenney, 1885<

Even from the outside, the stained glass on this Romanesque church is utterly spectacular.  Within, it glows, shimmers and twinkles with a thousand rich colors.

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The wood ceiling beams are no less impressive, with A-frame beams meeting and crossing in the center of the space, decorated with inverted finials and a grid of thin timbers above the tie beams. The crossing, where the church’s gable roofs meet, is a simple intersection of these elements.

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As with Ravenswood Methodist, the squared space and round pews serve to pull the congregation into closer proximity – to the pastor, and to each other.

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First Congregational Baptist Church

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1613 W. Washington Boulevard
Architect: Gurdon P. Randall, 1871
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A French Gothic church very nearly in the round, with balconies running nearly all the way around the sanctuary. Architect Gurdon Randall is credited as the originator of this style of planning, first built here and widely utilized around the nation in the following two decades. The white painted plaster ceiling shows off the dark wood ceiling beams well.

The wood beams are heavily ornamented, but their structural role seems very simple – nearly plain beams with a small scissor truss element at the top, nearly buried in non-structural ornament. Small wood arches create a place for the trusses to land on the walls, visually if not structurally.

Comparing the inside ceiling slope to the exterior roof pitch reveals that this is a false ceiling with considerable enclosed space above it; the church’s site confirms there is a 20 foot high attic space above.

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Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church

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600 W. Fullerton Parkway, Lakeview
Architect: John S. Woollacott, 1888

Built as Fullerton Avenue Presbyterian Church IMG_6142a IMG_6156a

Designed by the same architect as Ravenswood Methodist, in the Richardsonian Romanesque style on the outside. Inside, the ceiling structure includes a tangle of false hammerbeams near the base of the roof beams, with kingpost trusses near the roof peak. The kingpost is the vertical beam at the center of the truss – it hangs from the peak, and helps support the cross-beam member below it. The cross-beam is tied in to the ends of the roof beams, and pulls them together so they don’t push the walls outward.

The structural complexity reaches its fantastic climax at the center of the space, where the two kingpost trusses cross through each other:

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The stained glass, meanwhile, has much in common with other churches of the era. Patterns of color are used as much as images, reinforced by jeweled glass ornaments that throw slivers of sunlight into the space.

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Church of Our Savior Episcopal

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530 W. Fullerton Parkway, Lakeview
Architect: Clinton J. Warren, 1888

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The 4-panel scissor truss structure here might appear simple at a glance due to the straight members, but it’s probably the most complex beam system of all these churches. A series of horizontal and vertical web members complicate the wood connections, while the lower beams actually pass through the upper beams, projecting a bit beyond them to support the roof over a row of clerestory windows.

The finest space in the church is the least accessed – the balcony, occupied only by the organist and choir, is flooded with colored light on sunny days. It also makes it the warmest space in the church – several fans were going when I visited. But the light was breathtaking.

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For more churches of this era, see: Suburban in Their Day.

The structural picture painted by these visible wood beams isn’t the whole story. First Congregational Baptist, for example, has considerable augmentation to its structure above the false ceiling. Iron tie-rods were commonly used during this era as an affordable way to keep trusses from pushing horizontally on the walls, allowing the walls of neo-Gothic churches to be built without the massive and complex stone buttresses that vintage Gothic churches required; however, not a trace of iron is visible in these sanctuaries – suggesting it was hidden beneath wood veneer or between joined beams. Nevertheless, these fantastic flying beams still say a lot about the tremendous weights and forces at work in the roof of any great space – a story too often hidden in Classical style churches.

** I don’t HATE Classical (eg Greek Revival) style, but I definitely find it boring, stodgy, pompous, stifling and unoriginal when compared to the freeing expressiveness of Neo Gothic and the various Romanticist styles that flowed out of it, including the Romanesque. The overwhelming popularity of Classicism remains a continual source of bafflement to me; I tend to feel that once you’ve seen one faux Greek temple bank/church/funeral home/whatever, you’ve seen ’em all – while the Gothic church unfolds in endless variety.