The long view

Oh, Chicago! It’d take a lifetime to know you through’n’through. Details and delights continue to unfold around me on a daily basis. Unnoticed ornament, secret pathsways, hidden spaces… the city’s wonders, charms and quirks are endless.

Detail

Today I noticed this terra cotta boss on the building at 203 N. Wabash Avenue. With the sun falling just so, he appears to be rolling his eyes in exasperation. He sits on a wall with profuse ornament, floral and geometric designs that make the first three stories of the building a sheer joy to pass by. How many of the city’s rushing workers and scrambling tourists have seen him before me, and how many never took the time to look? Such long contemplation is the luxury of living and working in the core of a great city — the time to absorb the breadth and depth of all its treasures.

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Casa Bonita condominiums

Casa Bonita Condominiums

The U-shaped apartment building is a very standard 1920s Chicago development scheme, allowing a tall building with lots of rental units, while still providing each with plenty of natural light. The resulting courtyard can also become an amenity, providing a slice of nature to the residents.

These buildings are decorated in a wide variety of styles, but far and away the most elaborate one I’ve found to date is the Casa Bonita, on Ridge Avenue just north of Touhy.

Casa Bonita Condominiums

Designed in 1928 by Alexander Capraro and Morris Komar, it’s slathered in glazed white terra cotta ornament. Sculpted faces, spiral pilasters, brackets, medallions, and floral decoration are only part of the list.

Casa Bonita Condominiums

The building is well-maintained today, having been converted to condominiums. Plantings surround a small reflecting pool with a sculpture in the center.

Two trees near the open end of the courtyard ensure that it’s almost invisible from Ridge (and unfortunately make photographing the building as a whole impossible.)

Casa Bonita Condominiums

But those trees also provide a screen from the street; a grade change allows the courtyard to be sunken half a flight down from the street, further sheltering it from the busy traffic on Ridge. The entire building as it stands is a testimony to how wonderful controlled outdoor space can be, a literally shining example of the wonderful power of architecture.

Casa Bonita Condominiums

More detail photos may be seen at my Flickr space.

Randolph Tower

This mighty mountain of Skyscraper Gothic rises from the western Loop at Randolph and Wells; the Loop elevated runs right next to it. Built in 1929 as the Steuben Club Building, and also known as 188 W. Randolph Street, it’s among the very last of its breed, the historicist revival skyscraper. Already declining due to the rise of Art Deco, large-scale period revival would all but vanish in the face of the Great Depression. This would not be the last historicist design by architects Vitzthum & Burns, but it was nevertheless the end of an era.

188 Randolph Tower

The building consists of a 28 story base and a 17 story upper tower. The amount of intricate ornament is impressive; it becomes astonishing in light of its inaccessible location, 26 stories above the street. Many of the shields, arches, medallions, crockets and finials are essentially invisible without binoculars.

Lush with details, heavily weathered by decades of Chicago smoke and grime, this is a building that begs to be examined up close, and I’m only too happy to break out the zoom lens and deliver the goods.

Randolph Tower

Randolph Tower

Randolph Tower

Randolph Tower

188 Randolph Tower

188 Randolph Tower

That magnificent upper tower, sadly, has had some problems with its skin in the past. Metal straps have been wrapped around the curvaceous terra cotta flying buttresses that surround the tower base, presumably to keep them from falling apart. Pieces of terra cotta broke loose from the tower facade and fell in 2001, landing on the lower roof. Nothing fell all the way to the ground, but the city shut down the surrounding streets and the Loop lines until protective scaffolding could be erected around the building’s base and over the adjacent L station. The building subsequently went into foreclosure.

188 Randolph Tower

Today, this is the bizarre sight that greets travelers walking east from Ogilvie Transportation Center, as half of the tower’s west face has been wrapped in protective scaffolding. The building has sat idle for several years, deteriorating as redevelopment schemes have been formulated. Latest word: construction is to begin in 2008, converting the building to 288 apartments — including 15 floors of penthouses in the tower, and a $15 million facade restoration.

Randolph Tower

More detail photos may be seen at my Flickr space.

Deco joy

Chicago is not particularly famous for its Art Deco heritage. Although there are a few fine Deco skyscrapers downtown, most notably the amazing Carbide & Carbon tower, most of the Art Deco architecture I’ve found has been scattered and hidden.

The work of architect Andrew Rebori is worth special note, and I’ll get to it in the next post. For this one, I want to share some of the more “ordinary” Art Deco buildings I’ve stumbled across in my travels.

10 W. Elm Street

This is 10 N. Elm Street, a highrise at the north end of River North, designed by B. Leo Steif in 1928.

10 W. Elm Street

10 W. Elm Street

Cornice lines and transom panels are slathered with exuberant geometric designs, executed by Edouard Chassaing of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, freshly imported from France. And they would’ve continued all the way to the ground, too, except…

10 W. Elm Street

…the ground level was obliterated by one of the most unfortunate “modernizations” I’ve ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. It burns my soul to think what they destroyed for this.

Deco beauty

Next up, we have a jewel of a building out on western Lawrence Avenue, currently home to the Interstate Blood Bank. It was a neighbor of the recently-demolished Metro Theater building, and remains the crown jewel of the avenue’s architecturally rich commercial buildings. Sadly, a quick web search reveals nothing about its past.

Deco skyline

It’s a stunning composition in creamy-white terracotta, with deep blue glazed highlights. Geometric plants, shapes, and fish are arranged on the spandrel panels and in ascending piers running the height of the building.

Deco fish

All that said… I don’t know where these guys went fishing, but I ain’t never seen a fish that looked like the ones on this building.

Deco fish

Our next stop is on a side street in eastern Rogers Park, 1521 W. Sherwin.

Deco Apartment Building

This six-story apartment building doesn’t look like much from afar, but first impressions can be deceptive.

Deco detail

Deco detail

Deco Detail

Next stop: Milwaukee Avenue at Montrose, where this sea-green building is squeezed to fit into the acute angle of two major streets’ intersection.

Deco commercial building

The overall effect of this building isn’t quite as Jazz Age as it could be; there’s something more historical about its general aura. But the details tell a different story.

Deco detail

Deco detail

Deco detail

A stroll down Devon Avenue offers many rewards, architectural and otherwise. Among the wildly varied historical styles that adorn the avenue’s many commercial buildings, a few Deco details may be found.

Deco detail

Deco detail

And that’s all I got for now. The hunt continues!

The Atlantic Theater, or what’s left of it

This gem of a building is located in the center of the 26th Street commercial district, in the core of the Little Village neighborhood. The area is a lot like Pilsen, but without all that pesky gentrification. There are no condos or hip coffee shops here, but you can find a wrought iron company and a place selling live poultry. And bridal shops. Lots of bridal shops.

Former Atlantic Theater

The building today is called the Atlantic Mall, but from its commandingly lush terra cotta ornament, it fairly obviously used to be a theater — the Atlantic Theater, unsurprisingly, built in 1917.

Former Atlantic Theater

It was gutted for a “mall” in the mid-1990s, sadly. The inside today doesn’t look like much. But the facade remains a centerpiece for the busy 26th Street corridor.

Former Atlantic Theater

Link: The Atlantic Theater at Cinema Treasures

Lawrence Avenue demolition

Okay, Chicago architecture fans, it’s time for a quiz! The question:

Which of the following is most likely to keep a building from being demolished?

A) Lavish, beautiful terra cotta ornament and decorative brick patterns
B) A series of occupied storefronts bringing in rental income
C) A location on a major thoroughfare, ensuring those businesses will continue to thrive
D) Easy access to a major public transportation service like the Brown Line L
E) A total lack of any obvious structural or facade problems
F) All of the above

Picked your answer? Good. If you answered “G), none of the above”, congratulations! You truly know how Chicago works!

Meet the former Metro Theatre building, 3308 W. Lawrence Avenue:

Metro Theatre Building

Built in 1925 as the Terminal Theatre, it’s integral to the wonderful commercial row facing the Brown Line terminus station across Lawrence…. though it won’t be for much longer.

Lawrence Avenue

The theater closed long ago, its lobby converted to retail space. Those businesses seem to have been doing quite well, judging from the remnants they left behind. Every storefront was occupied — the upstairs too. In 2006, the auditorium suffered a collapse and was demolished. The commercial portion of the building, which wrapped around it, appears to have soldiered on regardless.

Before:
Metro Theatre Building, before

After:
Metro Theatre Building, after

Nevertheless, the siren call of money-grabbing condos was apparently too much, and the beautiful building is being destroyed, slicing a gash into the previously unbroken string of ornate early 20th Century buildings on these blocks.

Ornamental lintel

The tenant spaces appear to have been evacuated in a big hurry. Displays, ad posters, neon signs, and even some merchandise remain behind.

Brickwork

This is a beautiful and richly ornamented building. It features a two-tone brick pattern alternating thin and thick bricks in running bond. It is lavishly endowed with cream-colored glazed terra cotta ornament, none of which has been salvaged from the remaining portion of the building.

The demolition is a diminution of the public realm, and a real loss for Lawrence Avenue and Chicago at large. What a shame, what a shame.

Links:
The Metro Theatre at Cinema Treasures

Ornamental dude

Cushman’s

Cushman's

On N. Broadway Street (Broadway Street? Nobody noticed the redundancy there?) near Rosemont sits this series of concrete slabs, remnants of commercial buildings long gone. Most are undifferentiated gray, but this one bears the terrazzo imprint of the long-ago business that it housed. The sloped cursive letters, the material, and the sea-green color suggest a date of birth in the 1950s or early 60s.

Such fragments always raise up questions, thoughts that drift in like ghosts: who was Cushman? What did he or she sell? When did they move in; when did they leave? What happened to them? Could they have envisioned that their elegant entryway would be the only thing remaining from all their hard work, the last indication that there had once been a thriving business here? With such a permanent marker at the door, would they be surprised that their building had not lasted longer, its life instead proving to be vanishingly brief?