Chicago’s Rail Bascule Bridges

Swing bridges are quiet curiosities – if it seems odd that a bridge should move, at least it’s only moving sideways.

Bascule bridges, by contrast, are utterly bizarre. If bridges aren’t supposed to move in the first place, then they really are not supposed to upend themselves into the air. That a flat sidewalk or roadway should become a vertical surface defies all logic and expectation.

Chicago’s roadway bascule bridges – including all the ones downtown – are elegantly slender, partly by necessity – crowded downtown streets don’t have a lot of room to spare. By contrast, the area’s numerous rail bascule bridges sport gigantic superstructures and enormous hanging counterweights, visually spelling out the defiant nature of their function – the titanic forces required to span a waterway, support a train, and occasionally turn the whole affair on its side.

Pennsylvania Railroad Western Avenue Bridge

Variously known as the 8-track bridge or the scissor lift bridges, this complex conglomeration of steel is one of Chicago’s most unique sights. Just south of Western Avenue, the “bridge” is actually four bridges standing side by side, supported by common foundations. Each originally carryied two sets of railroad tracks. The western two bridges – seen above, rusty brown from lack of maintenance – are now abandoned, with tracks removed. The eastern two, however, still see many freight trains a day.


The bridge type is known as a Scherzer rolling lift bridge – to open up, the entire span would literally roll back on the rounded arcs visible, pulled down by the massive counterweights hanging from the structure. Each bridge is a single-leaf structure, though the close spacing, alternating opening directions, and shared foundations have lead some sources to refer to them as double-leaf.

The 8-track bridges are no longer operable, and their motors have been removed. Curiously, there are no images online of the bridges in the open position, nor any indication of when the bridges last opened. Fixed in their closed position, they constitute the lowest bridge on the canal, with only 17 feet of clearance – a landmark by which boat clearances are measured by pleasure cruisers doing the various waterway circuits that pass through Chicagoland. Boats unable to pass below them must instead take the Cal-Sag canal to reach Lake Michigan.IMG_9824a



The nearby Western Avenue road bridge was itself a lift bridge, with an impressively massive superstructure that has since been removed – see images here.

Further reading on the 8-track bridges:

Chicago and Alton Railroad Bridge

This smaller bridge sits next to an Orange Line El stop, and spans a short branch of the river that run southward before abruptly terminating north of Pershing Street. dates it to 1906.



Further reading on the C&A Bridge:

St. Charles Air Line Bridge
Baltimore & Ohio / Chicago Terminal Railroad Bridge

The most monstrously huge of them all, this pair of lift bridges crosses the Chicago River just south of Roosevelt Boulevard.

The northern bridge – built for the Baltimore & Ohio and the Chicago Terminal Railroad, in 1930 – is long abandoned and permanently raised, the tracks leading to it long since vanished. (ref 1)


The southern bridge, originally serving the St. Charles Air Line Railroad, was built in 1919, moved and shortened in 1930, and still sees Amtrak traffic today. (ref 1) (ref 2)

The 1919 bridge was originally a few hundred feet east, as was the river itself. When the river was straightened, the 1930 bridge was built, allowing the older bridge to be moved alongside it without disrupting rail traffic. The older bridge was shortened at this time since it had less river to cross.


If you’re ever lucky enough to see this mass of steel in motion, you’ll discover that the heavy angled piece is actually hinged at both ends – the counterweight section hoists the bridge up not as a contiguous piece, but through this pivoting system. The city has posted an amazing video of it, and many other bridges in motion, here.

The abandoned 1930 bridge operated through the same system, known as a Strauss Trunnion after the engineer who designed it.IMG_3696a



Further reading on the St. Charles Air Line Bridge:

Further reading on the B&O Bridge:

  • Deering BridgeP5020178aIMG_7428Serving the Union Pacific North Metra line, the Deering Bridge was built in 1916, replacing an earlier swing bridge on the site. (ref)Further reading on the Deering Bridge:

Kinzie Street Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Bridge
The other lift bridges are mostly far from the city center, in fairly out-of-the-way spots; not so the former C&NW bridge, which sits right in the middle of downtown. This bridge once served the industries near the lakefront, its tracks running under the Merchandise Mart to Navy Pier. The last customer was the Chicago Sun-Times; the bridge was lowered for paper deliveries to the printing presses. Since the Sun-Times closed up shop in the early 2000s (the site now replaced by the Trump Tower), this bridge has been permanently raised. (ref 1) (ref 2)



Further reading on the Kinzie Street C&NW Bridge:

Multiple bridges, at the Indiana Harbor Canal


At a narrow stricture point, multiple rail lines once crossed the Indiana Harbor Canal on their approach to Chicago – a total of ten lines on five bridges. Only two of the bridges remain in service today, carrying three tracks and seeing heavy freight traffic from BNSF and Norfolk Southern, as well as eastbound Amtrak trains.

The majority of trains pass over the Norfolk Southern bridge, the silver-whitish one in the foreground. Behind it, the bridge with the greenish tint is an Elgin, Joliet & Eastern bridge, now owned by Canandian National.  The box girder bridge was previously the Baltimore & Ohio main line; the two trestle bridges in front of it carried the New York Central. (ref)  The structures in the background are ore unloaders for the steel mill.


A sixth one was built in 2011 – a bright blue bascule bridge that directly serves the ArcelorMittal steel mills.


It’s barely visible above, but a clear shot may be seen here.

This fascinating group is difficult or impossible to reach without crossing a great deal of private property, or else taking a boat down the Indiana Harbor Canal – which, it just so happens, you can do this July if you take Forgotten Chicago’s Indiana Harbor Canal tour.

And just south of this group –

EJ&E Whiting Line Bridge No. 631

A much smaller and isolated bridge, still operable and in use. A small example of the Sherzer Rolling Lift style.


Further reading on the EJ&E Bridge:

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Bridge – at the Calumet River
This unfortunate stump of a bridge met a colorful end when a massive lake freighter hit it in 1988. The span was damaged beyond repair, and removed; only the counterweight portion remains in place today. (ref)


IMG_5073It stands alongside three vertical lift bridges… a topic we’ll cover next time!

Further reading on the B&O Calumet River Bridge, including photos of the accident that destroyed it:

The Trail of Churches, Part 1 – St. John Cantius

One of my earliest impressions of Chicago, driving in from the north, was the string of grand churches visible from the Kennedy Expressway. I visited a few of them in my early explorations of the city. Then my attention wandered away, further afield to the mid-century suburbs and south side, and I never really got back to these near west side neighborhoods… until recently. Lately I’ve been on a mission to visit all these landmark houses of worship, a loose grouping that I have dubbed the Trail of Churches.  A glimpse from the Sears Tower should show why the name fits.


At top-center, the domed roofline of St. Mary of the Angels. Below it, St. Stanislaus Kostka, with the highway swerving to avoid it.  At far left, the low twin towers of Holy Trinity Polish. (Not visible, but close to Holy Trinity are the abandoned St. Boniface, and the very much active Holy Innocents.)  And at bottom-center, just peeking into the frame, is the taller tower of St. John Cantius.

These four are among the city’s most spectacular religious buildings. Stick around and we’ll go on a tour of each one in turn. Today: St. John Cantius Catholic Church.


St. John Cantius (1893, architect Adolphus Druiding) was raised by the huge community of Polish immigrants that populated the near west side. Petitioning the nearby mother church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, they were granted their own parish in 1892. The work of raising a church building began at once; the final product was dedicated in 1898, flanked by a contemporary school and rectory. (Ref)

After its booming early years, the parish followed an arc of decline and revival. The downturn began in the 1920s with Ogden Avenue’s construction through the area, and bottomed out in the 1960s after the Kennedy was rammed through the neighborhood and innumerable residents fled. Decline began to reverse in the 1980s with the reintroduction of more traditional Mass attracting new congregants; the church’s fortunes have reached a magnificent new peak today as the building was renovated and restored in 2012. Today the church offers the traditional (pre-Vatican II) Mass in Latin, and has a strong emphasis on sacred music and art.

Architecturally, St. John Cantius Church is a hybrid of styles. The massive, dour exterior combines Classical elements – such as a flattened Greek temple front  with quasi-Corinthian columns – with heavy, blocky stone that gives it some kinship with the Romanesque. At the entryway, “squashed” columns call out a lineage that includes ancient Greeks, Renaissance Italians, and contemporary Victorians. They emphasize the  sheer massiveness of the building – as if at any moment they might snap and bring the whole thing tumbling down. Their smooth shafts are a moment of machine-like precision bursting out of a mass of roughly split rock. This sort of perversity was common among Victorian architects, who delighted in twisting expectations.


The interior lives up to the church’s official desigation of its style as “Baroque”. The modestly proportioned columms support pediments and seem a touch too large, intentionally “off” for dramatic effect. Huge arches spring from these dainty supports, a dazzling display of engineering.

Nearly every surface is gilded, sculpted, or painted.  In a lesser setting it might be gaudy – but here, the glory of the decoration simply matches the grandness of the space.


The sanctuary is enormous. Soaring columns support vast round arches. The crossing is of tremendous proportions.  The overall effect is of a open, lofty, airy space – a welcome respite during Chicago winters, which can leave a city resident feeling perpetually imprisoned in the small rooms of their house or apartment.


St. John Cantius is a golden space – it shimmers with browns and yellows, and blues and greens punctuate its murals and stenciling, but it is the golds which leave the deepest impression. The 2012 restoration has left the space in immaculate condition. Column heads and brackets are gilded in gold, and thanks to recent renovation efforts they gleam spectacularly.  Even the stain glass reinforces the golden hued tones.IMG_2201a


The reredos behind the high altar is a Mannerist confection, with clustered columns supporting a split pediment with a rounded arch pediment in the middle. A small round skylight brings light down onto it from above.


At the time of this writing, the old organ is being replaced by a new one; blue sheeting covers the balcony space where the new instrument will be installed.


The church is heavily laden with statues of saints and apostles; they are tucked away in the various side chapels and even in the stairwells.




The pulpit is a fine example of the church’s Baroque Revival style – its wooden stairs snake sensuously around a column, to an intricately carved wood speaker’s stand with an even more elaborate sounding board overhead.


Together with its school (1903) and rectory (1901), St. John Cantius Catholic forms a grand and amazingly intact group of turn of the century architecture.


Naval Air Station Glenview, buried in plain sight

It was some months back that, lost and trying to find my way back on track on my way to work, I stumbled across this New Urbanist development in north Glenview. Decent enough stuff, as suburban development goes, with plenty of sidewalks and bike paths, and easy access to the nearby Metra station. But then I came to the center of it all, and my eyes popped out a little bit.



This land, where shops and parking spaces and bike trails and a sizable wilderness preserve and park now dominate, was once a military airport.


And the International Style central control tower building has been preserved and adapted as the center piece of the new development. The surviving control tower is a portion of the Hangar One building; hangar sheds once stood behind each of the attached wings. Hangar One was built in 1929, by prolific Chicago architect Andrew Rebori, who also designed an expansion in 1940.


As an act of architectural preservation, it’s a remarkable feat. Such a utilitarian building would rarely be considered for preservation, let alone practical adaptive reuse.


The Navy air base at Glenview dates back to 1929, when it opened as Curtiss Field – intended to be the central hub for Chicago area air travel, and equipped with every modern amenity. It never took off, however; the Great Depression dealt a crippling blow. The Navy first moved in in 1936, and bought the field outright in 1940. With the United States’ entry into World War 2, the base became a major training center for aircraft carrier pilots, and was massively expanded in 1942. After the war it became a Reservist training center, a location for reserve naval aviators to maintain their skills and training. It also hosted Coast Guard and Marine units over the years, and served as a staging ground for the Chicago Air and Water Show.

Naval Air Station Glenview was closed in 1995 as part of a post-Cold War reorganization of the military, and the land turned over to the Village of Glenview for redevelopment. The runways and most buildings were demolished in the late 1990s; in their place rose The Glen Town Center – a collection of shops, businesses, parkland and residences. The project has not been a runaway success in business terms, owing to its somewhat obscure location, but design-wise it beats most of what’s around it hands-down.

An aerial view shows the two huge garages lurking behind the urbanist facades, where the hangar structures once stood.




The documentary site Abandoned & Little Known Airfields has a great set of historic photos of the air base while in operation and a thorough history, not to mention some colorful commentary on its closing, worth some editorializing:

  • The base was apparently fully maintained right up to the end – full road maintenance and even a heavy-duty replacement of existing runways. This is, as the site commentator notes, a pretty ridiculous waste of money when you know your base is closing soon.
  • “The Hangar One Foundation, NAS Glenview’s historical agency, had to fight & claw to prevent the entire area from being wiped clean. The village resisted nearly every effort to save historical buildings and grudgingly allowed the tower & HQ building to be saved & the establishment of a museum on site.”  This point is rather contradicted by a 1998 Tribune article which repeatedly states that village officials wanted the tower building as the centerpiece of the new development.  I don’t find the idea of such resistance hard to believe, though.  While the   multi-pronged value of the tower building may seem obvious – as a local landmark, as a notable bit of Modernist architecture, and as the most prominent and worthy signifier of the area’s Cold War history – bureaucracy and investment capital abhor anything that’s not shiny and completely new, and the creativity to imagine such a building being repurposed is often lacking. That it did happen is a tribute to those who fought for it. Virtually every other building on the site is gone today, though – all except one hangar, the tower building, and a chapel which was moved a half mile away.
  • “Ironically, the NAS’s existence had created a restricted area for aircraft flying into & out of O’Hare International Airport nearby. With the NAS gone, O’Hare flights have filled the airspace & Glenview residents are once again complaining about noise abatement.” In development circles, this known as the NIMBY syndrome – Not In My Back Yard. The irony comes when people move in next to something – and then start complaining about it. I saw this a lot in Milwaukee, where neighbors would complain bitterly about all the issues that arose from our adjacency to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus – as if they never noticed the university was there, until they’d already bought their house.
  • “As an aviation buff, I mourn the loss of a perfectly good airfield; even more so on 2001-09-11, when I was living in the shadow of the John Hancock Center, and realized that the nearest F-15 was probably an hour away.” I must confess a sharp divergence of opinion with this particular commentator – while I never applaud the waste of existing resources, and it’s dumb to move in next to an air base then start complaining about the noise, a military  airfield is not an inherently good use of urban land, and costs a ton of tax money to operate. Speaking as a resident of Chicago, the fewer airplanes over the city, the better. (The lineups approaching O’Hare and Midway are bad enough, not to mention the once-a-year belligerence of the Chicago Air Show – while I love the spectacle, I also can’t help reading a machisimo subtext into it, a bullying assertion that the military could incinerate our city if they so chose. And I am just waiting for the day an F-16 banks too hard and plows into some  Edgewater  apartment building.) The once-in-a-lifetime events of 9/11 are not enough to justify keeping a military airbase in the middle of Chicagoland’s suburbs – not least because there’s no reason to believe such a base would make a difference in such a scenario.

Chicago’s Coal Fired Power Plants

Chicagoland’s biggest power plants  – particularly Fisk, Crawford and State Line – are fascinating behemoths. They are madcap assemblages of machinery and ad hoc construction, as tall as a skyscraper, with additions and alterations accumulated over many decades of operation. All three started from a core of massive, pre-Depression, low-rise masonry buildings, embellished with varying degrees of architectural detail; all three exploded upwards as part of LBJ-era expansion programs.


Today, all three are facing closure due to their outdated coal-burning systems, which – despite improved burning techniques and pollution controls – make them the largest point sources of air pollution in and around Chicago. But for me the single uniting factor for them all is something far more mundane – the red-painted metal cladding, with International Style ribbon windows, that distinguishes their Mid-Century additions.


Those additions are mostly built as vertical additions to existing older buildings; they accommodate huge multi-story boilers and burners that used innovative technology to wring more value out of every pound of coal.

Power plant #2

There are other stations of similar styling in Joliet (above) and Waukegan, and even a smaller one by the lake in Winnetka, of all places – but for now we’ll stick with the big three, so prominent to travelers on the Skyway and the Stevenson.

Fisk Generating Station

The Fisk power plant is seen by many as the bane of Pilsen. Located between Cermak Road and the Ship & Sanitary Canal, it closely abuts the thriving Mexican-American neighborhood to its north.


A tiny sliver of the original Fisk buildings can be seen from Cermak:

But for the most part, they are buried under layers of additional buildings, additional machinery, and later remodelings.

Fisk was built by Commonwealth Edison beginning in 1902. Named for an obscure, now-vanished side street, the new power house was one of the largest in the world at the time, and was expected to cost $6 million. Expected to serve electric-powered railroads as well as homes and businesses, the plant marked the Edison Company’s move to become the area’s premier provider of electricity, under the leadership of celebrated mogul Samuel Insull. It was hailed as a wonder of the world upon its opening a year later, with its 14 massive turbines attracting the attention of visiting engineers. It was also hailed as a boon to the community’s air quality, concentrating energy production in a single location with “smokeless smokestacks”.

Coal originally arrived by train; it was mechanically unloaded and fed to the boilers; the ash was automatically removed in similar fashion. The degree of efficiency and automation was a marvel of the age. The massive turbines powered generators featuring nearly-frictionless shafts supported on a bed of high-pressure oil.

The original buildings, of red pressed brick, featured a turbine hall of “white enamel brick and white ornamental tile”, with a “floor of imported tiles”, all brightly lit.


Over the following decades, Fisk steadily expanded (its original buildings were built with temporary walls allowing further linear expansion.) A major expansion project was undertaken in the late 1930s, including a new switchhouse to govern how the plant’s output was distributed.

A new turbo-generator was installed in 1950, generating steam at almost twice the temperature of the older units, at a cost of $20 million, along with two 110-foot high boilers; its 150,000 kilowatt output dwarfed the original turbine’s output of 5,000 kW.

In 1959, another new turbine surpassed that one, with an output of 305,000 kilowatts, powered by 16-story high boilers.  The new boilers included electro-static precipitators, intended to remove 98% of the ash from the boiler output before it ever left the plant. Known as Unit 19, this is essentially the same system operating in the plant today.

The red-clad portion of the Fisk plant was almost certainly built to accommodate these gargantuan boilers; either 1950 or 1959 would be a plausible match stylistically. Similar projects were underway at the other stations around the area.




Today, Fisk and its sister Crawford are owned by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International. Since the early 2000s, Fisk and its fellow coal-fired plants have come under attack from community activists and environmentalists, with government studies identifying them as major sources of pollution and health risks to the communities around them. The state of Illinois ruled that the plants must be cleaned up or shut down by 2013; both Fisk and Crawford will suffer the latter fate, with closings planned for the end of this summer.


Crawford Generating Station

If the sight of Crawford power plant rising up over S. Pulaski Road doesn’t impress you, I can’t fathom what would. Crawford’s bulk rises some thirteen stories above the street, in an area dominated by single-story construction and low-rise industrial.


Like Fisk, it is located along the Ship & Sanitary Canal, giving it an easy source of water and a convenient means of obtaining coal. The site has no external rail service; coal arrives entirely by barge, and is carried by a series of conveyors into the plant for burning.


Crawford began construction in 1923 and opened in 1925, taking its name from Crawford Avenue (the street, but not the plant, was later renamed Pulaski Avenue.) Its initial capacity was for 500,000 kW, provided by three gargantuan Westinghouse turbines (two built in Pittsburgh, one in Scotland.)

IMG_7870 copy

One of the units was replaced in 1958 by a 205,000 kW generator, powered by a 14-story boiler, necessitating the vertical expansion of the plant.  The new stories were capped by two massive electrostatic precipitators, still prominently in place today. Work began in 1956 and was capped by a 375-foot smokestack. A second expansion began before the first was even finished, with a 305,000 kW generator going into service in 1961 and replacing the last of the older generators. These two generators remain in service today. A 1990 switch house fire at the plant caused a blackout of considerable size, leading to sporadic looting in some poorer parts of the city.


The Crawford power house is viewed by its Little Village neighbors with much the same enmity as Pilsen feels toward the Fisk plant. Its 1960s technology is unquestionably a major point source of air pollution (though in fairness, the nearby Stevenson expressway can’t be much better for air quality.) And like its sister plant, it is scheduled for closure later in 2012 in the face of a State mandate to clean up or clear out.




State Line Generating Station


The State Line power plant is named for its peculiar location, just over the Indiana state border in Hammond, Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Initial plans for the plant began around 1921, with the purchase of 15 acres of land – the Eggers estate, owned by a German immigrant since the 1860s – by electric power magnate Samual Insull.  Additional dumping and dredging expanded the holding to 90 acres. The plant was formally announced in 1926, to be built by its own dedicated company, which would then sell its power to various Insull-related companies such as Commonwealth Edision.


State Line Generating Station opened on the very eve of the Great Depression, in September 1929; its three Unit I turbines whose combined output totaled 208,000 kW – surpassing every plant in the country apart from Fisk and Crawford. Its handsome original buildings were designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, in a stock brick factory style, sited on artificially created land.


The plant’s coal fuel supply arrives entirely by rail; in the 1960s, a dedicated 100+ car train began running from the Lynnville coal mine in southern Indiana to State Line. The lakeside site is used solely for its access to the large amounts of water needed by the boilers – up to 700 tons of water were needed for each ton of coal that was burned, and plants of this scale could consume a ton of coal every minute.


State Line Generating Station

Unit 2 was constructed in 1931. The plant expanded in 1955 (mostly likely when the red-clad Intenational Style highrise portion was added) and again in 1962 with a new 340,000 kW generating unit, bringing the plant’s total capacity up to 900,000 kW. At its peak the plant had 6 massive stacks; only the two newer ones remain today.

State Line Generating Station

State Line is famous for a number of things – its odd location and name, its prominent visibility from the Chicago Skyway, its beautiful main gate. It is a designated National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for its original Unit I turbine group, from 1929 until 1954 the largest in the world, and still in service until the late 1970s, when it and Unit 2 were retired.

State Line Generating Station

Commonwealth Edision sold State Line in 1997 to Southern Co. of Atlanta; a year later the plant was in the news for a massive explosion in the coal-handling area that injured 17 workers.


It later passed to Mirant Corporation, then more recently to Virginia-based Dominion Resources in 2002.


Faced with dropping energy prices and stringent environmental regulations from the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rules, State Line shut down in early 2012, with shutdown work continuing through the end of June. On June 26, a completed sale of the plant to BTU Solutions of Texas was announced – a firm specializing in refurbishing and demolishing old power plants. An article in the NW Indiana Times states that “the deal was structured to ensure demolition of the former plant.”

State Line remains the most architecturally significant of the three, with the least amount of alteration to its original buildings. Its 1950s expansion was built alongside the original buildings, rather than on top of them as at Crawford, and it contains the most considered detailing of the three. The move to demolition is both rash and unfortunate – a building this size must surely have other uses in such a heavily industrialized area.

Power plants, like large hospitals, tend to acquire layers and layers of complex history, changing and evolving radically to keep pace with time and technology. The result is an aggregate that is is fascinatingly complex – and far more than the sum of its parts. The complexity is the very thing worth preserving.



I have yet to see a closed hospital complex be treated in a way that recognizes this fact. St. Louis’s City Hospital was stripped of over half its buildings, leaving the remainder feeling naked and exposed. Even the most generous of the farcical plans for Chicago’s Michael Reese had it stripped down to just two isolated buildings; today the one survivor is a bizarre anomaly, a single link from a vanished chain.


If it is so hard to see the preservation value of old hospital buildings – generally built with some eye toward aesthetics – then I fear deeply for these venerable but prosaic complexes. Even if they are not hazardous waste sites – even some unlikely savior sees their massive interior spaces as a potential benefit – it is almost certain that they would be stripped of their layers of history and alteration. The functional machinery, layered and piled on, will be demolished, leaving only a few selected buildings, returned to a pristine state of faux history.


But that is a best case scenario. More likely they will simply be demolished, top to bottom, and Chicago’s once-mighty industrial landscape will be all the more diminished.

Seed & Sin: Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row


Lincoln Avenue plays host to a large number of independent motels as it runs its northwestern course out of Chicago, mostly in a stretch between Foster and Peterson, west of Western Avenue. Informally known as Motel Row, this two-mile length of road once had fourteen motor hotels built after World War II. Nine of them survive today, though for how much longer is anybody’s guess.


Fans of vintage neon signs, Mid-Century design and roadside architecture love these old places. Travelers, by contrast, are not so kind – a quick perusal of guides like Yelp and Yahoo shows a number of scathing reviews by guests who describe deteriorating rooms, mysterious (or not-so-mysterious) stains, aging utilities, and a generally unsavory atmosphere. But weekend travelers are not the only demographic of these establishments – they are commonly used by transients who might stay a few weeks or months. More notoriously, the rooms at many of the motels have played host to any number of unsavory activities, including drug dealing, prostitution, and crimes of assault.

This wasn’t always the case – originally, these motels served families and other road trip travelers, the adventuring pioneers on the new frontier of highways and suburbia. After opening in the 1950s, they settled down for a quiet life for the next few decades. But the pull of the Interstates – begun in the 1960s – was irresistable, and business tumbled. By the 1980s, the names along the strip began to appear regularly in newspaper crime stories. Lincoln’s motel strip was well known as a magnet for crime, a reputation bolstered by hourly rates at some motels. Some fought the decay; others embraced it.IMG_2002
By 1998, the city of Chicago had had enough. It acquired three of the motels via eminent domain – the Spa Motel, Riverside Motel, and Acres Motel – and demolished them in 2000. Their lots became a police station, parkland, and a library, respectively. The survivors banded together and fought back against condemnation procedures, driving the buyout price up and delaying further acquisitions. In 2002, the city of Chicago was actively working to acquire and redevelop seven more of the motels, but it would be four more years before it acquired two more motels and tore them down. Nine remain in operation today.

Though the redevelopment bid has ended, changes are still coming rapidly. Of the great neon signs that once gave these motels their flair, only a few remain today – one standing alongside an empty lot where the Stars Motel once stood. In recent years, the Diplomat has been resurfaced in EFIS, the Summit, the Tip-Top, the Patio and the O-Mi have all lost their neon signs, and the Patio Motel and O-Mi have been repainted without their signature bright colors. The Spa, Riverside and Acres are all long gone; the Stars Motel was demolished around 2006, followed by the Lincoln Motel in 2007.

With enough research, any of these motels could be worth a lengthy post of its own, but I present here a condensed introduction to Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row. We start south, just north of Foster, and move steadily north.

Diplomat Motel
5230 N. Lincoln
Totally reskinned in recent years, it lost an interesting geometric stainless steel facade, and is now barely recognizable as a Mid-Century design.

Summit Motel
5308 N. Lincoln
Architect: Arthur P. Salk, 1960
The Summit Motel opened in 1962, a date which one could almost identify solely from the green schist stone facade. The “summit” refers to its location at the top of a small rise (what passes for a hill in the tabletop-flat landscape of Chicago.) Architect Salk was also responsible for downtown’s Ohio House Motel.


The Spa Motel
5414 N. Lincoln Avenue

Demolished in 2000 and replaced by a police station, this was a well-known stopover for touring rock bands passing through town. Known guests include Anthrax, Greg Allman, and a long list of more obscure punk and hard rock bands.

The Apache Motel
5535 N. Lincoln Avenue

Open by 1967. Referred to by a Tribune gossip column as “the most infamous of the hot pillow joints”, it’s actually two buildings joined by a pair of suspended walkways.

The sign was rebuilt between 2007 and 2009, by the owner who bought the place in 1987 and has worked hard to distinguish it from the more seedy establishments around it.


Guest House Motel
2600 Bryn Mawr Avenue

Open by 1965. Set just off of Lincoln Ave, the Guest House Motel is a secretive brick box with almost no exterior windows. Cars enter through a tunnel-like opening in the front facade, directed a pair of giant neon arrows (one of which still casts a feeble, barely-visible glow at night), and park in a secluded interior lot. A second driveway opens onto the alley for even more discretion.

2600 Guest House Motel


Guest House Motel


O-Mi Motel
5611 N. Lincoln Avenue

Open by 1957, the O-Mi Motel once had an excellent neon sign and a much cooler color scheme. More recent years have seen it sadly toned down, and the original sign has been replaced by a dull plastic backlit one.

The Acres Motel
5600 N. Lincoln
Demolished in 2000 and replaced by a library.

Lincoln Motel
5900 N. Lincoln Avenue
Lincoln Motel

Built in 1958, the Lincoln Motel came in amid a court battle over zoning laws adopted just as construction was beginning. It went out much the same way fifty years later. After a four-year court fight, the Lincoln Motel was condemned by the city and demolished in 2007. The planned developer backed out the next year, and the lot remains empty today.

Villa Motel
5952 N. Lincoln Avenue
IMG_6653 copy


Open by 1962. With its angled windows, angled roofline, and angled columns, this is easily the most space-age futuristic building on Motel Row. The current sign retains some space-age styling, but it’s all plastic. The original sign was far more elaborate and eye-catching. Now operated as the Lincoln Inn Motel.

Compare the above view with a 1992 image on Flickr.

Riverside Motel
5954 N. Virginia Avenue
Demolished in 2000. The site now serves as an expanded entryway to Legion Park, which runs along the north branch of the Chicago River.

Tip Top Motel
6060 N. Lincoln Avenue

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Open by 1959. Now the River Park Motel & Suites. The little entrance arrow sign is among the very few remaining neon signs on the strip.


Rio Motel
6155 N. Jersey (at Lincoln)
Open by 1957. The Rio and the Tip-Top are both broad, gentle curves in plan, and literally sit back-to-back, their rear brick walls touching.



Stars Motel
6100 N. Lincoln Avenue
The Stars Motel

Built in 1956. Rather famously, this motel at the corner of Lincoln and Peterson was demolished in 2006, leaving only the neon sign which was subsequently auctioned off on eBay. The bottom fell out of the economy before anything further could happen. Plans for a 4-story condo building named “Village Center” went nowhere, and the sign  – never claimed by the winning bidder – has presided over a vacant lot ever since.

The latest sign to pop up on the empty lot announces that the lot will, this summer, function as an outpost of the Peterson Community Garden – which is usually a neighborhood’s desperate plea for a vacant lot to please, please, please just go away.

Patio Motel
6250 N. Lincoln Avenue
Patio Motel

Likely built in 1955, open by 1957, the Patio featured a delightful orange and aqua color scheme and a glassy entrance lobby. It retained its vintage style in 2007:


But has been toned down since then:

The bright colors disappeared in 2008, the sign was removed in 2009, and the motel is now the North Park Inn, with yet another color scheme.


The sign has been chopped off; only the former letterboard remains, now with a backlit plastic sign:


More on Motel Row:

The Terrorists are Clearly Winning

WHEREAS, The City has determined that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire for fair market value those four certain parcels of real property located in the vicinity of Midway Airport [including] Midway Parcel 150, commonly known as 5600 – 5608 West 63rd Street…The Parcels are being acquired by the City for public purpose and use, namely, as a Runway Protection Zone or a Runway Safety Area, or both, as recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”)…It is hereby determined and declared that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire the Parcels for public purpose and use in furtherance of the City’s ownership and operation of Midway Airport…If the Corporation Counsel is unable to agree with the owner(s) of a Parcel on the purchase price…then the Corporation Counsel may institute and prosecute condemnation proceedings in the name of and on behalf of the City for the purpose of acquiring fee simple title to the Parcel under the City’s power of eminent domain.

Did you get all that?

Let me reparse it: the city wants to buy up this building and tear it down.


As first reported by Blair Kamin, this is in the name of creating/expanding a “runway buffer zone” around the south side’s Midway Airport.


I am, by my nature, a conservative person, in the purest sense of the word: I believe in conserving things. I believe in using what you have, instead of throwing it out. I believe in adapting, repairing, restoring, re-using. I abhor the waste of physical resources.

When charged with the awesome responsibility of managing a resource as vast as Midway Airport, however, people have an unfortunate tendency to think in grandiose terms. Plans are made by drawing on maps, made from a God’s-eye perspective, rather than from the point of view of persons on the ground. If the plan’s not big enough, just move some lines, gobble up a little more land. In the so-called City of Big Shoulders, virtually any scheme can be superficially justified by trotting out Daniel Burnham’s threadbare aphorism about how one should “make no little plans”.

Or maybe I’m looking at it backwards; perhaps this is petty bureaucracy run amuck, an old-fashioned case of government CYA – following the letter of FAA standards, no matter what, because if you don’t, someone could come around pointing a finger at you.


Regardless, here is a plan that has certainly stirred my soul, though not for the better.

Midway Airport, like it or not, is located in the city. Not even in the suburbs, but in the city – right in the middle of it. It is landlocked. And like all such institutions, it has a civic responsibility to be a good citizen, to work with what it’s got and work with its neighborhood, rather than tossing it out or grabbing up more.

Midway Airport by night

Unleashing the threat of eminent domain upon one’s neighbors, regardless of what the FAA recommends, is not being a good neighbor.

The author of the original letter also mentions a fear that a terror attack could be unleashed on the nearby National Guard station from the building’s upper windows. I am unable to source this comment; however, if it is true, it is absolutely the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Even if these hypothetical terrorists actually gave a crap about Midway Airport (hint: they don’t, especially not with internationally famous O’Hare right up the road), why on earth would they try to attack an obscure National Guard post that nobody can even knows is there? These would have to be the most ineffectual terrorists ever. Even if somebody did want to blow the place up, what’s to stop them from just lobbing some grenades over the fence instead?

This is the kind of panic-stricken “thinking” that prevailed in the days after 9/11, when people talked about making skyscrapers airplane-proof. You don’t make buildings airplane-proof; you prevent planes from flying into buildings. And you don’t tear down the neighborhood to protect it; you adapt your behavior to avoid endangering it.

Gold Coast International Style: Mid 60s

By the mid-1960s, the hour for Modernism was growing late. High-minded design ideals had largely (ahem) left the building when it came to multi-family residential development – even the city’s most expensive and luxurious tower paid little heed to exterior design.

1000 Lake Shore Plaza – Sidney H. Morris & Associates, for Chicago Highrise Corporation, 1963

1000 Lake Shore is a 55-story reinforced concrete building, a tall (590 feet) and slender tower with a low garage box attached to the back, fronting onto Oak Street. The building held 137 apartments, at 2 and 3 apartments per floor.


The garage and the building’s spandrels are sheathed in glossy olive green brick that’s close to, but not quite a match for, the cladding on the older 1000 Lake Shore Drive building next door, by the same architect and developer.

Left, 1000 Plaza; at right, the older, more textured bricks of 1000 LS Drive.

1000 Lake Shore Plaza, was a big deal in its day. Developed by Harold L. Perlman, the building was widely touted as the tallest reinforced concrete apartment building ever built, as well as Chicago’s most expensive and most luxurious residential address. The tower was billed by a book-sized sales brochure that cost some $5 a copy to produce and promised “the right to be pampered with luxuries not available even to Cleopatra”.

Ground was broken in January 1964 in a ceremony attended by Mayor Daley. On the building’s tall, narrow mechanical penthouse was a transmitter used by the Chicago Educational Television Association’s channel WTTW Channel 11, donated rent-free by the building’s owners. Drawn by the public generosity, Illinois governor Otto Kerner spoke at the December 28, 1964 topping out ceremony.

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Amenities included a 9-hole putting green on the garage roof, which should immediately make clear who the target demographic was. Other luxuries included a pool, sun decks, and a “fine restaurant”, commissary, and valet shop on the premises.

Even more than other Lake Shore towers, 1000 Plaza was hyped by its owners: “the most beautiful and spacious apartment in America”, for “sophisticated men of affairs”, aimed at “136 of Chicagoland’s finest families”, “rising majestically to become the tallest apartment building in the world.” The apartments were “designed to satisfy every fastidious desire”. Rents ran as high as $1,400 a month.


It wasn’t all talk, either: square footage ranging from 2000 to 3300 sf, they were quite large. It wasn’t all talk, either. 9 foot ceilings were provided throughout, as was central air conditioning. Maid service was available. The Otis elevators were listed as the fastest residential elevators ever built. Exterior windows were double paned with a 2″ insulating gap with venetian blinds inside. The water supply to the building was softened, “to assist M’Lady in cooking and laundering, and to improve hair and skin care!”

Left, 1000 Plaza; right, 1000 Lake Shore Drive


One item I haven’t been able to figure out is the faux double-height space seen above, on the 8th or 9th floor. It corresponds to the top of the garage and presumably contains access to the rooftop putting green space. The balcony space is doubled in height, but the interior floors seem to continue on as normal.

Sheridan-Hollywood Tower – 5650 Sheridan – Loewenberg & Loewenberg 1960

Clad in textured blue brick, the design ideas of this common apartment tower are hardly distinguishable from those of its high-priced cousin at Michigan & Oak Street. The design is an exposed concrete column structure, with glass and brick infill. The major point of interest is the handsome blue brick itself.


Opened in May 1961 as the 5650 Sheridan Road Apartments, the building featured a rooftop sun deck and solarium, still present today. Studio apartments started at $130 and 4-rooms at $165.



The Statesman – 5601 Sheridan, Milton Schwartz & Associates, 1963
The Statesman
Just around the corner geographically, but a world apart in design terms, is the Statesman building – one of the lakefront’s finest buildings, in my opinion. The building’s profile is wrapped in continuous horizontal bands, broken up into a zig-zag pattern by the projecting balconies. The balcony rails enhance the horizontal motif with their slender horizontal railings.


The ground floor is an odd departure, with a startling driveway and parking ramp that curves up over a ground floor garage entrance. Shoehorned into the tight space, amid descending columns, is a double height glass lobby. Capping off the semi-private spaces is a large full-wrap balcony that extends itself out to become a sun deck, sheltering additional parking spaces.


Above, the building holds 90 condominums, mostly 1- and 2-bedrooms. It was converted from apartments in 1979.

3470 Lake Shore Drive – Raggi & Schoenbrod Inc., 1966

A few miles south, 3470 LSD provides a contrast to show just how artfully the Statesman was handled. This building likewise uses its balconies to powerful effect in creating horizontal banding on its eastern face – but lets the architectural design completely drop on the equally-visible north and south faces.
A powerful composition is left incomplete.


3740 Lake Shore is a 27-story condominium building, opened in May 1967 with one, two and three-bedroom units ranging from $27,000 to $70,000. Amenities include 30-foot long balconies, a 3-story garage in the building’s base, and a pool, sauna and “sky lounge” on the tower’s roof. Larger units include sunken living rooms, and the building provided an interior decorator to help residents finish out their new homes.


Like so many other Lake Shore skyscrapers, it rose on the site of a Victorian mansion, this one erected by Robert D. Lay, president of the Chicago Athletic Association. Mr. Lay died in 1940; his house became an apartment building, then was wrecked in 1966.