An old preservation victory: Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict

I discovered this ancient photograph hanging on the wall in a downtown Starbuck’s. It shows the Hotel St. Benedict flats, a Victorian era apartment building erected in 1882 at 40 E. Chicago Avenue. All too often, I find photographs like this and sigh wistfully, shaking my head that such a building could be built, and that it could be demolished.

In this case, however, I decided to step outside and reproduce the photograph, since the Starbuck’s in question is inside the Hotel St. Benedict Flats building.

Hotel St. Benedict

Astute readers will notice that the building lost its Wabash Avenue wing at some point – compare the number of dormers and entry canopies.

If I had to pick a favorite block in downtown Chicago, the St. Benedict apartments would be on the shortlist. A generous sidewalk, a healthy dose of shade trees, and plenty of outdoor seating, only steps away from a variety of major attractions, make this a popular low-key resting and gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. And then there’s the building itself.

Hotel St. Benedict

Such articulation! The massing of the building steps in and out as it goes along, but that’s just the start. Stairs climb up and down from the sidewalk, leading to chain sandwich shops above and basement bars and nail salons below. Life on the sidewalk, above it, below it: the perfect urban setting.

Hotel St. Benedict

Hotel St. Benedict

The Hotel St. Benedict Flats are not stylistically pure (the mansard roof with its copper trim is borrowed from the Second Empire style) but primarily it follows in the same Victorian High Gothic vein as Frank Furness’s buildings and Louis Sullivan’s earlier works. Characteristic details include flat stone elements with incised designs, both floral and geometric, and the polished stone columns supporting the massively oversized entry canopies. Massive weights bearing down on undersized columns is a recurring theme of High Victorian – see the entry of St. John Cantius Church, for example.

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

The Hotel St. Benedict Flats were never a hotel, but were an early apartment building, designed by architect James J. Egan. The building was made to resemble a group of rowhouses, to counter the unpopular perception of apartments (aka “French flats”) at the time. The effect is achieved through the stepped massing, while dormers breaking the mansard roof give a domestic air. It was named for a Benedictine order which occupied the site until the Great Fire in 1871. As marketed by William D. Kerfoot & Co in 1890, the building featured

Elegant Apartments of 7 or 9 rooms each…complete with steam heat, gas fixtures, mirrors, mantels, garbage and ash shutes [sic], and every convenience.

After its initial burst of marketing in the 1880s, it settled into a quiet life. In 1922, 6-room units were renting for $82.50 a month; a threatened 25% increase sparked a battle between the tenants and owner. A small 1923 fire forced 50 families out into the January cold for a night. Two different betting operations were busted in the basement storefronts in 1948. A parade of ordinary Chicagoans seems to have lived there: a World War II vet and a YMCA worker appear in various mid-century articles. The building presumably trended along with its Near North Side neighborhood, which suffered post-War malaise and decline, followed by a gallery- and retail-based revival beginning in the 1970s.

Hotel St. Benedict

The building was purchased by David “Buzz” Ruttenberg in 1980, who found it in run-down shape and had little interest in sinking money into it, given its size and condition. In light of the tremendous real estate boom on and around Michigan Avenue, in 1986 he applied for a demolition permit (alongside the Esquire Theater, which he also owned and whose Moderne interiors would be gutted in 1989), triggering a preservation war which would last almost a decade. The city landmarks commission rather inexplicably denied the building City Landmark status twice in the late 1980s. The building was in dire straits by 1990, when Ruttenberg had designs on its demolition and actively opposed landmarking the building (stating that the building’s commercial tenants had “changed this building dramatically. It’s not pristine. It’s unfit to be a landmark. It’s just an old building.”) Loyola University considered purchasing it to replace it with student housing; Ruttenberg wanted to put a parking lot on the site.

Preservationists refused to give in, however, and eventually a deal was reached.  In late 1994, Ruttenberg announced a $2 million plan to renovate the building, in a project led by historic properties developer Bruce Abrams. Working with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the developers arranged a tax credit on the foregone value (ie, the additional money they could have made by demolishing the St. Benedict and building something new and bigger) that made the project viable.

Hotel St. Benedict

It’s hard to argue with the results! The building today continues to host rental apartments, now modernized and renovated. Below, the storefronts are thriving, and the city retains one of its finest old buildings amid the bustle of downtown.

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict

* Link: Cruddy text scan of the National Historic Register nomination form for Hotel St. Benedict

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The End of General Automation

On a recent visit to Chicago, I was shocked to see that the General Automation, Inc. building (3300 W. Oakton Street at McCormick) was gone. In its place, a generic big box style store selling flooring.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation’s building was one of the north shore’s most distinctive bits of Mid-Century design. It encompassed 75,000 square feet of offices and factory floor for a company that produced precision metal fabrications – machine parts, screws, etc.

General Automation, Inc.

Most of the architectural interest was in the curved office section facing Oakton. Concrete piers and panels framed pyramidal windows, in an elaborately framed facade. At the center, a pod-like vestibule welcomed arrivals to the futuristic building. Concrete pattern block screened the lower levels. The major face of the warehouse was lined with concrete panels, decorated with simple fins and a small incised circle on each panel.

General Automation, Inc.

According to the successor firm’s website, the General Automation brand began in 1935. A 1958 obituary for an employee (William Starr) lists the company at 900 N. Franklin Street, near what is now the Brown Line tracks downtown. In the 1960s, they moved to 1755 W. Rosehill Drive, in the former industrial corridor along the UP North Metra tracks.

General Automation, Inc.

In 1982, the company moved to its newly constructed digs at Oakton and McCormick. Yep, you read that right: the hyper-futuristic 1960s building is actually a 1980s building, at least according to the Life: Skokie Edition newspaper, which noted the company’s pending move in a November 1981 article. No word on the architect, alas, and no independent confirmation that I’ve been able to locate (I find the 1982 date difficult to reconcile with the building’s architectural style.)

In recent years, the company combined with three others to form HN Precision; the consolidated corporation specializes in precision-milled machine parts, serving a variety of industries including rail, oil and gas, automotive and more. Consolidation among the merged companies began in 2011, and the Skokie location closed circa 2012.

General Automation, Inc.

The building was sold at the end of 2013, stripped of its architectural exterior, and reclad to bland blend in with its surroundings.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation, Inc. of Illinois should not be confused with an identically named company which, though based in California, also had significant operations in the Chicagoland area. This other General Automation engineered, sold, managed and maintained computer systems, from 1967 through the 1990s, under their own name and the subsidary California GA Corporation, with offices in Des Plaines and Bensenville. As far as I know, they did not have an awesome Brutalist factory building.

Of interest to industrial fans: the vacant lot across Oakton was once a natural gas facility, including three gasometers dating to 1911. They were demolished in the early 1960s; the site is currently undergoing cleanup of remnant contaminants.


1958: 900 N. Franklin Street (obituary of William Starr, July 8 1958)
1962-1968: 1755 W. Rosehill Drive (classified ad, May 27 1962 – inspector to check screw machine parts against prints; Aug 13 1965, Mar 20 1967, July 18 1968- inspector, screw machine job shop; Dec 15, 1968 – hand screw machines)
1972: 1001 Touhy, Des Plaines IL (classified ad, July 29 1972; want ad, April 29 1973. “Custom engineering”, “digital computers”, “mini-computers”, COBAL, Fortral and Assembly Language. )
1973: 1515 Jarvis Avenue, Elk Grove Village IL. Display ad, Dec 18 1973.
1979: California GA Corporation, a subsidary of General Automation, Inc. based at 1260 Mark STreet, Bensenville. Display ad July 8 1979. A 1978 ad lists the 1001 Touhy adress.
1980: address in Anaheim, California – “a leader in mini- and microcomputer based solutions systems”, including maintenance contracts, used equipment, spare parts, repair and refurbishment. Display ad, Sept 14 1980.
Life – Skokie edition (Weekend edition), Sec. 1, p1, 11/1/1981 – firm to move to Skokie in summer of 1982
1990: Anaheim, CA (December 11 article about purchase of Motorola computer systems)
1991 – 3300 Oakton – “parts for the military and for anti-lock brakes. (Tribune article, 1991)
1997 – Irvine, CA according to a Tribune article (Sep 28, 1997)