The glass block quest continues

This seems like an unlikely building to be included in a hunt for Mid-Century Modern design elements, doesn’t it?

Philadelphia Romanian Church

And yet, here it is, the Philadelphia Romanian Church. A series of massive windows into this Lakeview church’s basement rec room were infilled with the same geometrically patterned glass block that’s so common on suburban Chicago houses and apartments.

Wall of delight


Red | | Yellow | Blue

I found it by chance this afternoon, and was delighted. An identical design adorns both sides of the building. I snapped away.

And then it occurred to me, this is a church. Why not try to go in, and see what the back side of these things look like? So I did.

Now, I’ve been in a lot of churches — 50 or more in St. Louis, at least a dozen in Milwaukee, and a handful in Chicago. Churches in general are amazingly open and welcoming to a guy who wanders in off the street, camera in hand, wanting to take snapshots of their sanctuary. Either they’re in a landmark building and they’re used to it, or else they’re pleased and proud that someone thinks their home is worth photographing. Sometimes they even say “come on in” during their services, an invitation I always have to refuse, as I feel it’s just too disruptive and disrespectful to run around during a service taking photographs. I just come back later, when the service is done.

In all my travels, I can think of only two times I’ve actually been denied access to a church. One was in north St. Louis, and they said they’d have to run it by their board first. The other… was today. At this place.

They wouldn’t let me in to photograph their basement windows.

There didn’t seem to be much of anything going on, but a short, stout man at the door simply told me “no”. No reason, just “No, no, outside only. Not inside.” Denied!

However, during our short conversation, I did glance over his shoulder, and saw the north window wall, including one of the colored blocks. It was glowing red in the light coming through the window.

They glow! They’re translucent!!

Can you just imagine what something like THIS must look like from the inside?


…to say nothing of something like this!

W. Foster

Now I have to get inside some of these buildings. This is now a holy mission.

Triple blue brick attack!

I found the first one back in the fall, on W. Pratt at California.

W. Pratt Boulevard at Califonia

Apartment door

It’s nothing special in plan or massing, just an ordinary Chicago apartment block, a bit lacking for windows. But it’s clothed in the crazed spirit of the 1960s, when pastels were fine and spots of random color were king.

The entry is a confection of 1960s geometrical exuberance, with patterns in blue glazed brick laid against a cream brick background, and accents in colored tile. Blue piers highlight the building’s corners and are used in a decorative grid of squares on an otherwise blank wall.

(Pratt, by the way, is a terrific shortcut for bicyclists looking to head west out of Rogers Park. There’s enough stop signs that the traffic isn’t roaring by too terribly fast, and it runs all the way out to the river without interruption.)

Then I bumped into another one while tooling around Rogers Park. Number 2 is at 1322 W. Chase Avenue, not far from the lake. It doesn’t take much to see the connection. One’s an oddity; two’s a reproduction.

1322 W. Chase Avenue

W. Chase

Sure enough, hidden behind shrubs and the neighbor’s fence, there’s that same entry detail. But wait! It’s not quite the same — the colors are different, and the tiles are separated by a soldier course of brick. Variations on a geometric theme — sound familiar?

Then as the day wound down, I found a third one — 7241 N. Claremont Avenue, just off of Touhy. If three buildings do it, then, folks, it’s a organization!

7241 N. Claremont Avenue

This one’s the clear winner of the bunch. In addition to the blue brick piers, the limestone outlines, and the blue brick squares, it’s got porch railing screens in the same spirit of exalted geometry. It’s had an unfortunate gabled entry cover tacked on, which really should be a flat canopy, but otherwise it’s still looking 60s snazzy.

N. Claremont

But the real shocker came at the entrance, where, lo and behold…

N. Claremont

…there stood none other than the elusive geometric pattern blocks! Could this trio be yet another construct of my mystery suburban builder? The M.O. certainly fits. Stay tuned!

Edit: I’ve since found another half dozen of these buildings; photos may be seen here.

Mid-Century Suburbs Part 3: 8100 S. State Street

Behold: the mother lode of Chicago colored glass block apartments!

8100 S. State Street

This glorious collection of apartment houses stands along State Street, just south of 81st, and overlooking the combined 90/94 Interstate highways’s ten roaring lanes of traffic. They’re in plain view for tens of thousands of motorists every day; that’s where I first saw them last week, and I nearly had a heart attack when I did.

8100 S. State Street

The builder really went nuts on this block, slathering each building with unique designs — perhaps they anticipated the high visibility of the buildings.

8100 S. State Street

Like the Froebel Gifts, the designer took a few simple elements and patterns — the colored blocks, a few kinds of brick, limestone borders — and created a unique series of artworks from them.

8100 S. State Street

8100 S. State Street

8100 S. State Street

8100 S. State Street

8100 S. State Street

8100 S. State Street

The blocks themselves are actually glass block, with a solid color of some kind applied to them at the factory, possibly a baked-on paint. They’re found on multi-unit apartment buildings like these, and on small 1960s ranch/bungalow houses, where they typically are placed in stacked or offset trios. Occasionally, clear versions can be seen; colored translucent versions are more common.

The joy and delight they impart to this otherwise ordinary 1960s row is infectious.

More can be seen at my Flickr space.

Mid-Century Suburbs, Part 1

South Chicago house

South Chicago house

South Chicago house

They cover mile after mile of street grid in the far southern reaches of Chicago and its inner suburbs. They are simple houses, small and modest, one story over basement, shallow-pitched roofs, built for narrow lots — but they are distinguished by the endless variation of a few simple elements: brick color, horizontal limestone accent bands, three-paneled screen doors, doors with geometric window designs, groupings of single glass blocks, groupings of colored glazed tile.

The colored block

The overall unity of their style and details seems to suggest a single builder — but could one company have built all this? These houses cover miles of land; there are thousands and thousands of them. Dense concentrations can be seen on the streets around 79th Street and 85th Street, as they leave Chicago and enter Burbank and Bridgeview.

They delight in their tidy, well-kept ranks; they charm with their little accents that suggest individuality even within the confines of a limited design scheme.

They are supplemented by a series of three-flat and six-flat apartment buildings, which share some of the same details — particularly the colored block. More on those in the future.