The Stripes Make It Go Faster

One of my favorite Mid Century Chicago decorative motifs is also among the simplest: patterns of overlapping vertical and horizontal bands, usually done in contrasting colors of brick, on the building’s walls. It’s a simple and stylish way to dress up a large wall space with no windows, particularly one on the building’s street frontage. They’re most powerful when used on a completely blank, flat, rectangular wall – a bold mass with a bold pattern inscribed on it. Often the accent brick is a bright color with a glazed finish, contrasting with the matte background brick around it.

These geometric patterns show up on MCM buildings across Chicagoland, but especially on the south side and inner south suburbs. Sadly, I was not able to uncover much about these buildings’ builders or designers, but there are some definite correlations among disparate sites that raise the old question of whether a single designer was repeating their style, or multiple designers were copying one another.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 7859 S. Rutherford Street at 79th, Chicago Ridge. Inevitably, those fantastic Mid-Century doors have been replaced by something cheap and inappropriate, some time during 2011-2012. This building is one of a row of four along 79th Street, and the last to retain its original entryway configuration. All four give street addresses for the side streets, rather than for their primary entries along 79th Street. Chicago Mid-Century apartment building   Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 10200, 10216, 10232 S. Crawford (aka Pulaski) Road, Oak Lawn – opened in September 1960, this trio of breezeway apartment buildings features a blank wall at the street, providing some measure of protection against the noise of busy Pulaski (aka Crawford); the geometric pattern serves as adornment for what would otherwise be an unfriendly gesture toward the street. These apartments are located only a block from Saint Xavier University and are home to many students. Chicago Mid-Century apartment building The backs of the same buildings features simple vertical stripes in a corresponding spot facing the alley: Chicago Mid-Century apartment building Chicago Mid-Century apartment building     Chicago Mid-Century apartment building The Riviera Apartments – 9739 S. Kedzie / 9732-9742 S. Troy Avenue, Evergreen Park. Opened 1962. Another breezeway building, with ornamental patterns on the end walls and the sheltered exterior stairwells.  Large light blue band, small red rectangle, connecting black stripes – if it is not the same designer as the Crawford buildings, then it’s at least someone who noticed them.  Chicago Mid-Century apartment building Chicago Mid-Century apartment building     Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 1436 W. Farwell Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago, built by 1964

1131 W. Lunt 1125-1131 W. Lunt Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago – opened 1963, replacing an “8 room brick” house that had stood on the lot previously. Developed by L & L Builders as luxury condominiums, when condos were a brand new commodity. The developers, apparently unaware of the doings down at south Kedzie, billed this building as “The Riviera Condominium at the Lake”.  (Or maybe they knew all too well, but figured nobody from that deep on the south side would ever venture up this far on the north side!)Chicago Mid-Century apartment building

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building Deanville Condos at 9105-9111 S. Roberts Road, Oak Lawn – a pair of back-to-back walkup buildings with lower-level garages between them. Here, the vertical band is made of lava rock. Seemingly of a later vintage than the previous buildings, this pair also makes dramatic use of a quasi-mansard roof over the entryways.Chicago Mid-Century apartment building

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 6616 S. Stewart Avenue, Englewood – Chicago. The entryway is marked by a pattern of colored geometric glass block.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 2030 N. Cleveland Avenue, Lincoln Park – Chicago, opened 1963. Perhaps the simplest possible iteration of the motif, but accented with a grid of raised bricks. The raised brick grid is itself another common Mid Century architectural motif that appears on many buildings across the region.

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 5439 S. 55th Avenue at 25th Street, Cicero  – a unique example that uses concrete panels to form its decorative pattern.

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 4343 W. 95th Street at Kostner, Oak Lawn, opened 1963. A variation on the theme, with thicker vertical bands and glass block accents. The color pattern is very similar to the alley wall of the Crawford/Pulaski buildings.Chicago Mid-Century apartment building

Some designs dispensed with the horizontal accents altogether, instead using a simple column of stacked brick banding.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 6148 Gage Avenue, Rosemont  

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 9600? -9610? N. Greenwood Avenue, Niles – almost certainly the same builder as the previous example. The style is startlingly similar to that used on S. Harlem Avenue by Western Builders.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building10425 & 10433 S. Longwood Lane, Oak Lawn – again, top to bottom vertical brick bands on a blank sidewall.

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United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park has held down the corner of 53rd and S. Blackstone since 1889, with a congregational history that goes back even further. Architecturally and historically, there is much to say about this venerable church building.

On the outside, the church is not that different from any of the dozens of gray stone church structures that dot the Chicago landscape. It is a free interpretation of the Romanesque style, adapted to an urban corner site and dressed up with touches of French Gothic. Round arched windows, round engaged columns, thin bands of organic ornament, and shear stone walls that rise up without setback or articulation put it in the same vein as Sullivan’s Auditorium Building and HH Richardson’s Glesner House, both close contemporaries.

The church responds handsomely to its corner site, placing the main entrance on the corner and marking it with the bell tower. The current tower roof is a sadly simplified replacement for the elaborate original (see a photo on the Hyde Park Historical Society newsletter); a plain copper panel testifies to the engaged micro-turret which once ran up into the tower’s upper level, today shorn off at the masonry line.

United Church of Hyde Park

Inside, the sanctuary is a surreal departure from the steady American-grown Romanesque exterior. A flat ceiling marked by curving, looping plasterwork and an Egyptianesque colonnade around the perimeter of the sanctuary tell of a space that has been radically changed from its original configuration.

United Church of Hyde Park

Per the church’s own website, the church has roots going back to the earliest days of Hyde Park, beginning as a meeting of residents around 1858 and eventually organizing as the First Presbyterian Church of Hyde Park in 1860. Moving from their original site a few blocks east, the congregation put up a conventional French Gothic stone building at 53rd and Blackstone in 1869.  It was soon too small for the growing congregation, and was replaced by the current structure – erected in 1889 to the designs of architect Gregory A. Vigeant. 

A 1923 remodeling significantly altered the interior, bringing it to its current form. Additions to the space included the balcony, the colonnade, and new flooring to work with the church’s Skinner organ. I would also assume that this is when the flat ceiling was added, as Victorian churches unfailingly went for the more dramatic effects of  exposed wood structure and high pitched ceilings that followed the exterior roof. The whole thing comes together as a sort of surreal Spanish Romanesque fantasy.

United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park

The ceiling dome is a particularly curious specimen. Because the flat ceiling so dramatically lowers the ceiling height, the dome is actually deeply sunken within the roof structure. Above, there is presumably a column of empty enclosed space, originally topped by a skylight; today the skylight is gone or blacked out, and fluorescent bulbs light the dome from above.

United Church of Hyde Park

The stained glass in the sanctuary is unique – an Impressionistic assortment of hues ranging from clear through murky greens and sunset purples, all rendered in overlapping fish scales of glass. The style adds a distinctly Shingle Style air to a church that is already pulled in several other architectural directions.

United Church of Hyde Park

United Church of Hyde Park

The congregation merged with that of Hyde Park Congregational Church in 1930, and with Hyde Park Methodist Church in 1970 amidst a radically changed neighborhood. Today it’s an integrated, open congregation that strongly reflects the progressive influences of nearby University of Chicago.

United Church of Hyde Park

The Mutilation of the Esquire

The Esquire Theater was a 1936 Moderne beauty at 58 Oak Street, just off the Magnificent Mile. Ultra-modern for its time, it retained its sleek, clean looks up into the present day.

Esquire Theater

Note the use of past tense. In 2012, the building was converted into a retail and dining complex, housing a mix of stores in keeping with the high-priced shopping along Oak Street. In the process, most of its facade – and its Streamline Moderne style – was obliterated.

Esquire Theater

The marquee, the mass of mottled dark granite, the checkerboard grid of the vertical sign supports, the grain elevator styled bulge of the auditorium – all gone.  In their place, more of the same bland minimalism that passes for elegance on Oak Street.

Esquire Theater

Esquire Theater

Considering the incredible elegance of the original interiors, it’s ironic that the owners chose to gut the building to accommodate top-tier retailers today. Those interiors were lost in a 1989 remodeling, but imagine recreating that space as a boutique mini-mall. That would be some high-end shopping!

Esquire Theater

Also lost in the remodeling: a couple of Victorian houses with Gothic detailing; they were demolished and replaced with a three-story building whose storefronts match the dullness surrounding them.

IMG_3945a

6-Flats on South Harlem

“HONESTY

SINCERITY

QUALITY

WORKMANSHIP

SERVICE”

Around the corner from Cermak Plaza, just north on Harlem Avenue, stands a remarkable run of 1960s apartment buildings – almost 50 of them, standing for four blocks in an unbroken row. With a range of cladding and ornament applied to a long series of virtually identical buildings, they are an almost perfect catalog of the decorative vocabulary of Chicago’s mid-century builder vernacular.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

These buildings are primarily the work of one builder: George V. Jerutis & Associates, who put up most of the row between 1958 and 1961.  A 1985 Tribune article gives some details of Mr. Jerutis’s life: a Bridgeport native born in 1924, Jerutis was a prolific builder in the Chicago area; by his own estimates, his firm constructed 15,000 buildings of all kinds in the 1950s and 1960s, touting itself as “Chicagoland’s largest multiple builder”. In the early 1970s, he moved out of building and into land development, spreading out into other states around the country.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

This building is one of three triplets in the row – the same design repeated a few lots apart, at 1909, 1921 and 1931 S. Harlem. Several others repeat the same design but with brown or orange brick instead of blue.

In their advertising, Jerutis & Associates repeatedly emphasized the quality of their work and materials, as well as the high value one could obtain by purchasing one of their buildings. Reading between the lines, it appears that most or all design was done in-house, though if a buyer got in early they could choose the design style, brick, colors, etc.

“We have and will continue to practice what we PREACH. YOU – our customers have made us the largest multiple builder in Chicagoland because we give you more for each dollar you spend.” – Tribune ad, May 22, 1960

Harlem Avenue 6-flats

1919 S. Harlem – stacked orange Roman brick spandrel panels on the sides; raised brick patterns on the ends

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

The entryways use a number of devices common to single and multi-family buildings of the era – glass block as a decorative sidelight, geometrically patterned column-screens, built-in planters, and wood doors with delightful patterns.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

 

At least five buildings in the row were built by another company called Western Builders. Their generic name does not lend itself to online searching, but the buildings are easily picked out by their vertical stripes, made of stacked Roman brick:

Harlem Avenue 6-flats

1847 S. Harlem Avenue. The geometric glass blocks seem to be a more ornate response to this building’s prominent corner location.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

 

A handful of buildings in the row appear to be by other builders, differing in style and not appearing in the classified ads:

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Apartments – a sort of O’Nassis Modern pastiche at 1817 S. Harlem.

Harlem Avenue 6-flats

 

IMG_9023a

1809 S. Harlem and its twin neighbor feature 1×1 mosaic tile panels in an abstract pattern. These also appear to be by another builder.

 

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats1801 and 1805 Harlem are a break from the usual model; instead of 6-flats, they are two-level breezeway buildings. Built in 1960, they are not Jerutis products.

Cermak Plaza’s Lost Art and Architecture

It’s not possible to discuss Mid Century Modernism on Cermak Road without bringing up the famous Cermak Plaza Shopping Center.

Cermak Plaza

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Cermak Plaza opened in 1956, a Modernist styled shopping center primarily noted for its excellent neon signs. After losing its prominence to newer and larger shopping destinations further west, the center gained notoriety in the 1980s when the progressive-minded owner began installing works of modern art all around the grounds.

Cermak Plaza ain't nothin' new to me

Plane Crystals

Cermak Plaza

Moonbells (Bell Tree Quartet). In the distance, the “floating McDonald’s” which was inexplicably altered to no longer float.

Cermak Plaza

Ever-Blooming Night and Day Flowers

Cermak Plaza

Good Time Clock

The first and most notorious piece, Big Bil-Bored, came down in 1993 due to structural deterioration. The most well-known sculpture, the automobiles-on-a-spike installation known as Spindle, was destroyed in 2008.  Various other pieces had also come and gone by the time I made my first photo visit later that year.

Cermak Plaza

Above, the Walgreens outlot building that displaced Spindle.

Cermak Plaza

Pinto Pelt and Windamajig

On a return trip in 2009, I captured several more works, as well as some of the store frontage in the background.

Cermak Plaza

The Embrace

Cermak Plaza

Drum Yard, with the soon-to-be-defunct Circuit City in the background

Cermak Plaza

Millennium Fountain

Cermak Plaza

Kettle Head Choir

Cermak Plaza

Cermak Plaza in 2008 was on its second iteration, with a series of Post-Modern Dryvit structures tacked over its original Mid-Century elements – faux castle towers in a 1980s color palette. Some of the original elements still shone through, particularly the old Service Merchandise store, unaltered except for a shed roof tacked to the front.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

The Walgreen’s also retained some of the 1958 design, too – rough stone at the entrance, and stylized stainless steel railings along the walkways. A handful of the original storefronts survived as well.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Beginning in 2010, the plaza’s owners gave the aged shopping center a second face lift, dramatically updating it to a contemporary look. That renovation would mean the removal of almost all the remaining artwork, but it also re-established the center architecturally – sweeping away the incredibly tacky Post-Modern add-ons, and replacing them with some dramatic contemporary design.

On the flip side, the Service Merchandise building was demolished in 2011; it has been replaced by a Meijers whose Dryvit facade dwarfs the previous building in scale.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

Above: The renovated space previously occupied by Walgreens; the Pinto Pelt sculpture formerly hung on the wall at left. The stone around the entryway has vanished, but the original storefront panels are still in place.

Cermak Plaza, Berwyn IL

The art may be gone, but some of its spirit is retained in a group of peculiar wind turbines in the parking lot. The turbines generate electricity to power the lights, and sometimes return energy to the grid.

Cermak Plaza

The neon signs, meanwhile, were brought down in 2012 for repairs, but found to be beyond salvage. Backlit plastic signs temporarily took their place. Modern duplicates of the original neon signs were fabricated and installed, and the difference is practically invisible.

Cermak Plaza’s architectural story is among the most interesting a shopping center could have; it is one of continual change – sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. I might mourn the loss of the Mid Century design elsewhere; here, it appears something better has, by and large, taken its place. The disappearance of the artworks is more lamentable, and removes the quirky character of the place – but the restoration of the neon signs keeps the continuity of memory intact.

Other writers have covered Cermak Plaza in more detail than I could hope to; for more on this peculiar strip mall, see:

* Sculptures in the Cermak Plaza Shopping Center

* The Art and History of Cermak Plaza, at the Pleasant Family Shopping blog