And the kitchen sink

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The year is 1964. After his latest round of projects, a contractor finds he still has a lot of little architectural decorative bits left in his supply yard, none of them enough to work on any one building by itself. What to do, what to do? Find the next client that walks in the door and just throw everything at their project!

At least, that’s the story I picture behind the building of North American Heating and Air Conditioning, 5915 Lincoln Avenue in Morton Grove.

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The tiny office portion of this building packs a grab bag of architectural materials, including a brown brick, black lava rock, and metal spandrel panels. Adorning it are a bronzed window screen, funky Mid-Century address numbers, and three columns of randomly spaced colored glass block dripping down the side. If that ain’t enough, a brick and pattern block fence once lined the parking lot, too, with brick posts topped by lamps. IMG_9475a IMG_9469a

The end result is just way too much stuff packed into one tiny facade, but I love it.

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It seems that North American Heating & AC eventually moved further west; the building has looked empty and for sale since at least 2010, though the name “Service Packaging Inc.” remains on the door and on that company’s enigmatic website. (Curiously, all the real estate ads peg the construction date as circa 1970, a good five or more years later than the actual date.)

An Intaglio Extravaganza

Last post I mentioned that designers could occasionally go a bit nuts when they got their hands on a pile of Intaglio blocks, right? Well, there’s no better example than this former daycare center, on S. Ashland:

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This building is made of 1960s details, top to bottom – flagstone at the entry, stainless steel paddle door handles with a snazzy font, blue metal panels, blue glazed brick…

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But it’s the blocks that put it completely over the top.

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And because it just wasn’t enough to have vertical stacks of them ringing the entire facade, the north face has a sort of free-form design built into it, made of still more Intaglio glass blocks.

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This can’t have been in the original design. Even for a loopy building like this one, it just doesn’t fit. It’s the kind of design an architect doodles on his paper during a boring meeting, not the kind of design that actually makes it onto the building! A real estate site offering the building for sale notes that it was originally a bank, so perhaps this was a drive-up window or something that was later infilled?

After years as a community center and daycare, the place has gone vacant in the last year or so. Weeds are growing out of control in the paved lot and the playground. The real estate firm offering it for sale notes that you can occupy the building or redevelop the whole lot. So… enjoy the place while it lasts, because its future is up in the air.

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Intaglio blocks!

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Intaglio glass blocks are the little cousins of the Sculpted Glass Module. Manufacturer Pittsburgh Corning described them in a 1960s catalog as “all-glass units in four distinct patterns featuring a recessed antiqued glass area…outlined with textured gray-colored frit fused into the surface of the glass unit itself” which could be used “to produce dimensional walls with strong textural effects…combining dramatic surface patterns with the richness and beauty of light.”

intaglio glass block catalog photo

The catalog photo shows the 6 available models – 2 blank infills and four standard patterns.

And Chicago designers loved ’em. Not quite as much as the Sculptured Glass Modules, but still quite a bit.

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They even came in totally clear versions, apparently. This three flat near Bryn Mawr and California is the only instance I’ve found so far.

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Their distinctive appearance made them a great advertisement for the local glass block distributors; both the Hardy Glass Block Company and Imperial Glass Block used them in the design of their buildings.

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Hardy Glass Block

Intaglio blocks could really let a designer go nuts, if he was so inclined.

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Or they could be used in a more subdued fashion, as with the Swiss Valley Dairy Products building on western Chicago Avenue:
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Intaglios, for whatever reason, aren’t as regionally restricted as the glass module blocks; I’ve seen them in Davenport, Iowa and in Hoboken, New Jersey. And my friends Michael and Lynn located a most impressive example in Trenton, IL.

Sculpted concrete blocks

Within the span of a week, I discovered two totally separate uses of an unusual architectural product, a sculpted square concrete block inscribed with an artistic pattern of rectangular shapes.

Sculpted concrete block detail

This example is used on the entry overhang of a four-plus-one apartment building on northern Ridge Avenue in Evanston, where its use vaguely evokes the image of an Aztec temple emerging from the jungle.

835 Ridge entryway

The same design is used on the stairwell decoration panel on a 3-flat on 55th Street near Midway Airport.

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In both cases, rotating the block allows its complex patterns to overlap and interweave between blocks, erasing the distinction between the individual blocks and obscuring the fact that this is simply one design repeated over and over.

The design brought to mind a certain Rogers Park apartment building, and sure enough, one of the geometric forms on its wall is the very same block:

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The recurrence of the blocks suggests that these were a product from a catalog, rather than the custom design I originally imagined. If so, were there other designs? Who manufactured them? Were they used by the same architect in all three cases? (N. S. Theodorou designed the Rogers Park building.)

The blocks certainly owe a heavy debt to the concrete textile blocks used by Frank Lloyd Wright in several of his California houses. Considering the 1950s fascination with the glamor and style of California living, the connection isn’t too surprising.

Hardy Glass Block Company

Then and now

Standing at 711 W. 103rd Street, deep on the south side, the Hardy Glass Block Company‘s building is a weathered time capsule. With a couple of eager companions in tow, I paid a visit last weekend.

Hardy Glass Block

The exterior sign isn’t quite as fabulous as it once was; it’s lost a revolving clock, as well as flecks of colored filler block which have been replaced by clear blocks over the years. It is likely they were removed over time to act as replacements for customers.

Inside, however, a number of delights await the fan of Midcentury architecture.

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Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

The company’s offices, though small and utilitarian, are of the same vintage as the exterior wall: unblemished 1960s. The president’s office in particular is unfathomably perfect.

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The wood desk is perfectly geometric, clean and precise. Three matching chairs sit across from it. The company’s product forms a backdrop, between vintage false wood paneling. Even the carpet fits. Marvelous!

Not everything is untouched. In a conference room, a solid wall of wedge modules in “fire engine red” has been painted over with white; when new, it harmonized with bright red furniture and carpet to form a shocking Sixties composition.

The biggest treat, of course, is viewing that spectacular wall of glass block from the inside, amid aisles of loose glass block stacked on shelves.

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

As can be seen, the wall has taken some abuse over the years. A few of the leaf-design modules have been replaced by other designs or by standard blocks, either as replacements for customers or following damage. The wall as a whole has suffered from its proximity to the street, as buses and street work cause damaging vibrations over the years. Several of the modules are noticeably cracked. Its days are probably numbered, the company representative who ushered us in said that it will eventually be replaced with more current product lines. Understandable, but still saddening.

And of course, the culmination of our visit was actually purchasing a few of the blocks ourselves. I got the last two unused modules, a pyramid and a wedge in orange, as well as a pair of the blue leaf blocks shown here, salvaged from a church some years ago. My compatriots walked out with several modules and a pile of “filler” blocks in a rainbow of colors.

Hardy Glass Block

The prizes

They still have quite a few left, and they’re cheap as cheap can get; the salvaged blocks cost us $2 each.

Meet the Sculptured Glass Module

This alone was worth the trip.

It was a Flickr contact’s photo that alerted me to the existence of the Imperial Glass Block Company, up in the inner-north suburb of Niles. Their storefront operation has wall panels displaying different makes of glass block, including a circa-1960s design I’d seen around town. Based on that, I figured they might be able to direct me further in my quest information on the colored geometric blocks I’ve been tracking all over town for the last year.

Dropping by for a visit last Sunday, I found them (unsurprisingly) closed, but peering in their windows, I beheld a miniature wonderland of glass block in all sizes, shapes and colors. And there, on a shelf, off in the distant corner, sat the golden prize: one of my blocks. I knew I had to come back. Today, I finally did.

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The current head of the business, son-in-law of its founder, was happy to spend a few minutes chatting about the company and its products. He was also happy to tell me what he knew about the blocks.

Their proper name is “sculptured glass module”. They were made in the 1960s by Pittsburgh Corning (still a huge name in the glass block business today). They come in four designs: Leaf, Harlequin, Pyramid, and Wedge. Earlier versions came with the one-sided baked-on color coating, introduced in 1958; eventually that was discontinued in favor of clear one. A fibrous insert, a thin panel built into the center of the block, could render the clear colorless versions translucent. Neither kind has been manufactured for many years.

Answers, at last

Three companies sold them in Chicago: Imperial, the Fred Beyer Company (defunct some 15 years now, though a company selling glass block and windows remains in its original building), and the Hardy Corporation. Hardy’s building is worth a post of its own, but unfortunately I managed to leave home today without a card in my camera. Whoops.

Their popularity in the 1960s stemmed at least in part from their size: at 12″ x 12″, they require substantially less labor and only 1/4th the number of blocks to fill the same square footage as more common 6″ x 6″ blocks.

Pittsburgh Corning made other designs in the 1960s that were also popular in Chicago. Among them is the Chiaro line, which came in two different patterns. The wall below is on Belmont, and features Chiaro II blocks.

Glass block in reverse

The blocks featured an hermetically sealed partial vacuum to increase their insulating value and decrease sound transmission. At 8″ x 8″, they are smaller than the sculptured blocks; they are partially covered with an opaque black fired finish.

Another popular option was the Intaglio Glass Wall Unit, with a recessed pattern surrounded by an opaque gray area.

Imperial Glass Block

The center design is made of “antiqued” glass, while the blank area is finished with “frit”, fused into the glass. The two types above are Intaglio II (hourglass) and Intaglio III (circle). They also came in ovals, groups of four small circles, and blank “filler” panels with only the frit finish.

A competing design style was manufactured by Owens-Illinois about the same time, the Crescent Design block, sold in Royal Gray, and affectionately referred to by Hardy staff as the “toilet seat” design.

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Owens-Illinois seems to have gotten out of the glass block business today, focusing instead on glass packaging.

Why these designs were so popular exclusively in Chicago, while none are to be seen in Milwaukee or St. Louis, remains a mystery.

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It ties in to larger questions about Chicago’s 1950s and 1960s development: with so many architects and builders working on it, why was it all so homogeneous? And more specifically, was there specific purpose in the glass block patterns seen on the fronts of so many single family homes? I have a suspicion that various pattern types may have served as a particular builder or designer’s signature, but no evidence — yet — to back that up.