Chicago Mid-Century: St. Thomas More Catholic Church

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St. Thomas More Church sits on S. California Avenue at 81st Street, amid vast stretches of post-World War II semi-suburban cityscape.  Founded in 1947, it was the first new parish established in the city after the war, and is older than most of the development around it. The far south side of Chicago boomed in the post-war years as new, modern houses went up, and the parish’s growth was rapid. St. Thomas More began holding services in a 300-seat temporary building a few blocks east, at Talman and 81st Street. Meanwhile, a series of buildings went up on the larger site on California Ave., beginning with the school, followed by the convent, the main church building, and a rectory.

The parochial elementary school leapt from an enrollment of 250 to 450 in a single year. In 1950 a second story was added to the school building, bringing its student capacity to 800. In the following decade, even that would not be enough, and students would be split between morning and afternoon shifts. A second addition of 8 classrooms followed in 1954, designed by architects Barry and Kay; this building sits on the south border of the property. At its peak, the parish school had 2,000 students. Enrollment fell over the following decades, leading to the school’s closure in 2005. Today the building houses a charter school.

The convent, seen to the left of the church above, was built in 1954 with housing for 21 residents.

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All these buildings were designed by Chicago architecture firm Barry and Kay. The firm’s principal was Gerald Ward Barry Jr. (1924-2005). Presumably aided by his prominent family connections (his relatives founded Barry University in Florida; his father, Gerald Barry senior, was also a local church architect), Barry & Kay designed many Catholic churches and school in Chicago and around the country. Other works by the firm include the magnificent St. Ferdinand Church on the far west side and Chicago’s St. Cajetan Church, also on the deep south side.

Planning for the new church building began in 1956, to replace the temporary structure at Talman Street. The cornerstone was laid in November, 1957, and the new building was dedicated at the end of 1958. Described as “ultra-modernistic”, the new sanctuary seated 1,300, was fully air conditioned, and included a large chapel in the basement.

St. Thomas More Church

St. Thomas More’s main building consists of an oval drum sitting atop a one-story rectangular base. The base contains chapels, side wings, the lobby, stairs, entrances and other assorted service spaces. The drum, of course, is the main sanctuary space, distinctly articulated inside and out. Flagstone and harmoniously colored 1×1 tile cover the ground level facade, with orange brick above. A high-relief sculpture group centered on the church’s namesake saint marks the entryway.

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Inside, the sanctuary is simple in form, with a flat ceiling and no columns in the primary space – but elaborate in ornament. Tile mosaics enliven the walls with images and delightfully stylized text, and the hanging lamps are a 1950s delight.

The deeply recessed stained glass windows are made of faceted glass, designed by Gabriel Loire (1904-1996) of Chartes, France; they portray the life of Thomas More, recognizable by his peaked cap.

Stained glass

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The reredos is a curvaceous affair, rising up behind the altar and swelling up to the heavens, covered with a massive tile mosaic and lit from above by three circular skylights.

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Stained glass and details

I am particularly fond of the designs on the window recesses, a melding of abstract shapes and symbolic imagery, and the aggressively whimsical font used on the text.

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Plenty of little period details enliven the rest of the building, as well, such as the holy water basin in the lobby.

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The baptistry gates are another high point, loaded with abstracted imagery.

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A tiled holy dove is emblazoned on the ceiling of the entry canopy, whose tapered columns dissolve seamlessly into the ceiling.

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The same tile pattern carries all the way around the building’s exterior.

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During one visit I was gently greeted by an aged priest; during another, two older women were raptly offering alternating Hail Marys in the sanctuary.  I did not visit during services and so have no notions about the congregation’s size or health, though the school closing obviously speaks to changing local demographics – likely a home-owning population that’s aging in place while their children have moved elsewhere. Regardless, the church building and its harmonious ancillary buildings are one of the area’s best Mid-Century religious complexes, intact and well-maintained to this day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mid-Century Office Space on Lincoln

Lincoln Avenue’s western reaches benefited from the same office construction boom in the early 1960s that blessed Peterson Avenue with so much great Mid-Century design. Between Western Avenue, and its intersection with Peterson, Lincoln holds quite a few fine examples of 1960s office design (in addition to its famed skeezy motels):

5700 Lincoln Avenue
Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Opened in 1962 as the headquarters of Liberty Federal Savings (then celebrating 75 years in business), this bank building is today home to a Charter One branch. It follows a common basic scheme for 1960s banks – a big wall of glass, with a double-height atrium behind it, and a mezzanine balcony above. A surprising amount of the original fixtures are still in place, including railings and check-writing stands.

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

5940 Lincoln Avenue
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This angular little building first appears in the Tribune classifieds in 1953. Today it houses a Christian Science Reading Room, and still has its original ceiling vents inside.

EDITED TO ADD: This was originally the Slick Chick Drive-In restaurant, open for about 10 years (it drops off the classifieds after 1962.) It was robbed in its first year by three teenagers. In 1965, it was converted to the CS Reading Room – so the interior likely dates to that year. Thanks to reader Brian W. for identifying the original occupant and their matchbook ad campaign (see here) which they shared with the motel next door.

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

5875 Lincoln Avenue – Lincoln Office Building
Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Comprising several sections, the Lincoln Office Building is dominated by a long International Style facade. This main portion went up in two parts, the second built in 1957 to the designs of architects Eugene A. Meyers & Associates. At the corner of Richmond and Lincoln, two other sections at 5865 Lincoln continue the building’s materials and style, in a different design.

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

5850 Lincoln Avenue – Simgreen Building
Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Following the same pattern as the bank building, this little office building includes a delightful tile mosaic in its lobby – as covered here.

5757 / 5765 Lincoln Avenue – The Executive North Building
Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

A stylish International Style building in blue-black paneling, this building opened in 1961 and retains much of its original decor in the lobbies – stainless steel railings, geometric railing screens, and wood paneling.

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

Lincoln Avenue Mid-Century

The nearby Stephen Tyng Mather High School is yet another Mid-Century complex, done entirely in white brick. Designed in 1957 by Loebl Schlossmann and Bennett, it appears to have had a small addition or two, but mostly remains as originally built.

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1×1 Tile Mosaics

I love finding convergent architectural elements scattered about the city. Geometric glass block, Midcentury 2-flats, green-on-white glazed brick storefronts – whenever I see something popping up in a variety of places all over town, I’m hooked.

My latest find in this vein – 1960s-era 1×1 tile mosaics. Using common construction materials, which could be installed by commonly-skilled workers, 1×1 tiles allowed an artist to create colorful additions to a building’s exterior. For curves and added levels of detail, the titles could be cut in half with a 90-degree angle.

I have found about half a dozen examples of note scattered around Chicagoland:

169 Grove Avenue, Oak Park

An apartment building from circa 1960 turned condo, with wonderful projecting balconies on two of the corners, trimmed out with blue metal spandrel panels.  Inside, the lobby features  a wonderful abstract mosaic along one side. The mosaic extends through the glass front wall into the vestibule.

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1040-1044 Ontario Street,  Oak Park

A curious little courtyard apartment building from around 1963, with 4-Plus-1 style parking under one wing, and the other wing at ground level. On the street facades, two tile mosaics reflect Native American or Aztec themes. Unfortunately, the eastern mosaic was mostly covered by climbing vines when I photographed it.
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El Lago

A residential highrise at 6157 N. Sheridan, by architect Irving M. Karlin Associates (J.J. & I.M. Karlin). Planned in 1957, El Lago broke ground in Sept. 1958, built on the site of the George Leahy home, president of Republic Coal and Coke.  The structure was built utilizing federal housing insurance that covered mortgages. 22 stories, 268 apartments.

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The El Lago tower was built with a “Mexican motif” meant to convey a warmth missing from contemporary buildings. The primary result seems to be the two tile mosaics flanking the entrance, portraying a man and a woman of Mexican heritage.
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5850 Lincoln Avenue, the Simgreen building

This multipurpose commercial building was built for real estate developers  M. Suson & Associates, circa 1959. Inside the curvaceous lobby, a tile mosaic depicts the building trades at work, reflecting the primary tenant’s occupation. Other offices located here over the years include  Vacations Enterprises in 1959  and Simgreen Jewelers by 1989. Today it houses an alderman’s office and a gold shop.

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2411 W. Fargo / 7420-7428 N. Western

A mixed-use building with commercial spaces facing Western Avenue, and access to the upper-floor residences on the side street. The apartment entry is marked by an abstract design in 1×1 tiles.

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1809 N. Harlem Apartments

his  pair of 6-flat apartments is  part of a long row on Harlem Avenue of the same vintage and scale. These two  feature an abstract pattern of colored tiles, with a minor echo of the motif around the entrance.
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West Leyden High School

1000 Wolf Road, Northlake. A 1957 building with somewhat workmanlike mosaics decorating its wings, portraying the various areas of academics, learning, athletics and high school life.
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St. Demetrios and the Pod Buildings From Beyond!

This is the older portion of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (1929, 2727 W. Winona), a touchstone of Greek cultural life in Chicago for eight decades:

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And this is the interior of the sanctuary:
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It’s nice and pretty and all that. Yadda yadda. What really makes this church pop, though, is the St. Demetrios Cultural Center – a pair of gleaming pod-like additions to the north and south sides.

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On both sides, a round vestibule section greets visitors, acting as a foyer for larger adjoining spaces. The north wing houses an auditorium (with some cool funky recessed lighting), a library, and various smaller rooms. The south wing is part of the church’s affiliated school, and contains a gym, locker rooms, game room, classrooms, and stairs.

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Ground was broken on the Cultural Center in October 1962, and the motherships opened their doors in 1964. The additions are almost symmetrical, and wrap the full backside of the church, save for the southeast corner of the block. There, a single house stands untouched. Was it a holdout? Was it used by the church?

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The buildings are exquisite – covered in a shimmering aqua blue tile highlighted with flecks of gold, set amid stainless steel window mullions and broad expanses of glass, and decorated with fabulous dimensional lettering, also in stainless steel.

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The north pod features this cool curvy fountain. If you rent out the auditorium for an event, you can pay a bit extra to have the fountain running too.

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This is complete design, top to bottom – the tile and stainless steel set the motifs and are carried to the interior, and even onto the entry overhangs. When was the last time you saw a tiled overhang?

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The tile has seen better days – in quite a few places, individual tiles are missing. One panel on the south pod has almost fallen off entirely.

The pod buildings were designed by the still-extant firm of Camburas & Theodore; they submitted an earlier design illustrated in the March 9, 1960 Chicago Tribune, a more staid stand-alone building which was discarded (and looks too big to fit on the portion of the block left open by the church building.)

Industrial art

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A friend’s blog post from a while back extols the architectural merits of a St. Louis industrial park… then leadingly wonders if there might be any comparably architectural industrial park elsewhere. I haven’t managed to find a Chicago counterpart just yet, but I did turn up this place a while back.

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This is the building of Continental Electrical Construction Co. at 5900 W. Howard. Though it is otherwise an unremarkable 1960s brown brick office building, its western face bears a mosaic tile mural designed in 1967 by Leo W. Witz, son of the company’s founder and its CEO until his retirement in 1973. The mural, titled Shakespeare’s The Seven Ages of Man, is accompanied by a small plaque quoting the piece in question.

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Common to the era, it’s a highly stylized and abstracted work, combining forms, curves and colors with identifiable subject matter. The result works as both an aesthetically pleasing composition and an illustration.

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In a nice touch, the false window panels around the corner are filled in with a continuation of the same design.

The Cubic Zirconium Coast

The northern reaches of Chicago’s lakefront offer relatively affordable lakeside living, via a series of massive highrises that went up in the 1960s along Sheridan Road. One particularly big cluster stands south of Loyola University, where Sheridan meets Granville.

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Some of them have their merits. Others… less so.

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But at least two are of some interest.

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6166 N. Sheridan – the Granville Tower – derives interest from its remarkable zigzag balconies. Modernistic bay windows protrude from the west face, as though the building’s framework couldn’t quite contain all the activity within. Emporis lists the architect as Seymour S. Goldstein (1920-2006 – the same guy who designed the Second City building and incorporated the salvaged terra cotta from Louis Sullivan’s demolished Garrick Theater into it), and notes that all the condos within are two-level units.

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Across the street, the El Lago condominiums (6157 N. Sheridan) present a serene, handsomely composed facade to the street… even if the building’s broad face is just another sea of undifferentiated brick and glass.

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Down at the entrance, a couple of slick little tile mosaics provide some liveliness and color, along with a handsome font for the building’s name.

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Emporis gives the name of Irving M. Karlin Associates as the architect, and dates the building to 1959. Mr. Karlin lived from 1902 to 1993.