Madison Street West, Part 1: 4042 W. Madison

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

Madison Street, west of Garfield Park – where to even start?! A grandiose commercial district, with landmark after landmark. Historically, it rose fast and fell hard; today it’s a tattered place, but still busy. Second- and third-tier businesses persist in buildings created for far richer occupants. We’ll take a closer look at some of them in the next few posts, starting with my personal favorite.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

The building at 4042 W. Madison Street is a genre-defying show stopper. A buff terra cotta facade rises three stories above the street to a magnificent crest. The ornamental style is an impure Art Deco – the line of fins recalls streamlining and the tall, thin masses of New York skyscrapers, while the eagles and floral ornament are more organic, more harmonious with traditional styling.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

The building was erected by Spiegel’s, a Chicago furniture seller who later morphed into a nationwide catalog house. Architects were B. Leo Steif & Co.; the firm also designed another Spiegel’s location at 64th and S. Cottage Grove at the same time (long since demolished) as well as a variety of apartment buildings around town. Mr. Steif (1894-1953) described the style as Spanish Renaissance and claimed the details were adapted from a town hall on the Spanish island of Majorca, though I don’t see it. Those fins sure didn’t come from Spain! As with most American architecture, it’s a free composition drawing liberally from many sources. The interiors were reported to be ornate and finely furnished as well. A small cable-suspended canopy over the entry has been lost.

The building opened on May 14, 1927, to no small fanfare – radio station WGES broadcast from the new store, an orchestra performed on site, and an airplane dropped cash-redeemable prizes onto the crowd. The roaring 20s indeed!

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

At some subsequent point, the building was expanded to the north, with a concrete-frame addition filling the lot all the way back to the alley.

Spiegel’s furniture business was bought out in 1932 by Hartman’s, a regional chain with over 30 stores.  By 1938, Kennedy Furniture Company was in business there instead. The biggest chapter of the building’s life began in 1939, however, when it was bought by the L. Fish Furniture company. A local chain with four locations around town and more elsewhere, L. Fish was founded in 1858 and was a long-lived Chicago institution. Their faded painted sign remains on the building’s west party wall today, above the ghost outline of a lost three-story building.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

After a 44-year run on West Madison, L. Fish Furniture was bought out by North Carolina company Heilig-Meyers, Inc. in 1993. Heilig-Meyers closed its Chicago stores in 1999 and went bankrupt in 2000. It seems they’d already sold off this location, however, because in 1992 the current occupant opened: Dream Town Shoes.

Dream Town started in ironic circumstances. Named for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, it opened in the wake of the riots that followed the Bulls’ 1992 victory. The store’s owners suffered looting and a devastating fire at their older Diana Department shoe store, two doors east, but forged ahead nonetheless. Both stores have thrived and remain in business today, focused on the most trendy shoes. Dream Town even has an indoor basketball court inside the store!

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

Research log:
1924 – Forrester and Schjoldager Jewelers – Jul 6 1924 ad for Navarre Pearls – either a prior building on the site or a wrong address.
1926 – designed and leased. Tribune article, October 3 1926
1927 – Spiegels opened – May 14 1927 display ad. Dec 11 1927 ad for Clements Jewel Electric Vacuum Cleaners.
1932 – Hartman’s – Apr 26 1932 help wanted ad for furniture salesmen. Open by May 20, per display ad.
1938 – Kennedy Furniture Co. – Mar 27 1938 ad for Stewart-Warner Ice Boxes.
1939 – L. Fish Furniture Company – Oct 1 1939 ad for Congoleum flooring (a Spiegel’s product, ironically.)

The ruins and sundry of Washburne Trade School

I photograph a lot of abandoned buildings, and have been doing so for somewhere between 15 and 20 years. I can’t say I’ve never found a romantic aspect to decay, nor can I deny finding architectural decay a fascinating subject for photography. The slow falling out of place of things, nature’s patient labor of unbuilding, creates visually rich patterns that naturally stir the soul and raise all manner of questions about the ultimately transient nature of our built world.

Washburne Trade School

But photographing the ruination of the American cityscape has always had a social dimension for me. I consider it my ongoing and ever-present mission to document endangered architecture – to call attention to its plight, and to save its memory even if I can’t save its form. I haven’t always been disciplined about sticking to that principle, but I try. If I’m going to post a photo of building ruins, it better be because I want to call attention to that specific site, to a building’s history, to its architecture, its style, its neighborhood – something beyond just LOOK BUILDING FALL DOWN, I MAKE PURTY PICTURE.

In recent years, the popularization of “ruin porn” has given new dimensions to the ethical issues surrounding urban abandonment and decay, especially when considered in conjunction with the wide spread of urban gentrification. Alongside the earnest preservationists decrying the collapse of great buildings, a generation of urban explorers and their internet audience seems to revel in decay for its own sake. Again, I’ve been on a number of urbex jaunts myself, and can’t deny the fun and the thrill of it – but I try to come away with more than just pictures of stuff that’s falling apart.

Washburne Trade School

The Internet is one big race to the bottom, though, and what was a niche culture ten years ago, shared on a few discussion boards, is today a vigorous source of clickbait for lowest common denominator sites like Buzzfeed and UpWorthy. Even this could have been used as a chance to educate and motivate, but instead these sites give us vapid headlines about the “strangely haunting beauty” of decay (or “beautiful and chilling images of abandonment”, or “the 30 most astounding abandoned places in the Solar System”, or whatever other collection of adjectives are making the rounds this week), which lead to isolated single images with minimal context. The state of things in ruin is treated as an aesthetic experience; people shake their heads, briefly wonder what the world’s coming to, and then click on with their lives.

Whichever way you choose to interpret the cultural and economic insanity that has allowed multitudes of fantastic American buildings to be abandoned and destroyed over the decades, there’s no shortage of photographs of the results online.

Washburne Trade School interior

So when I decided to do a post on Chicago’s late, great Washburne Trade School, I had to stop and think for a moment. What am I trying to achieve here? Because at Washburne, decay – ludicrous, profligate, wasteful, narratively rich decay – was half the point.

I settled on two things as a focus:
1) Washburne was a cool building.
2) Washburne was full of insane crap.

In the process of illustrating these two points, I may include photographs of ruins. Hopefully they’re good photographs, and if they make the ruins look beautiful, well, don’t confuse a beautiful photograph with a beautiful state of affairs. Washburne should not have been abandoned, should not have been left to rot, and should not have been demolished – not in a sane world. Alas, our world is frequently certifiable, and Washburne is no longer with us.

Enough prelude! On with the show!

Washburne Trade School

TREATISE #1: Washburne was a cool building

Washburne Trade School stood at the southwest corner of 31st and Kedzie. The school was contained in a massive complex of buildings, taking up the rough equivalent of three city blocks.

The historical basics: the buildings were originally home to the Liquid Carbonic Corporation plant, manufacturer of soda pop fizz. The huge red brick building with the classic Chicago tower dates to 1910 (architect: Nimmons & Fellows); the Streamline Deco office building to 1935 (architect: S.D. Gratias). The Chicago School District bought the buildings in 1958, spent a million bucks renovating them, and installed Washburne at the location, consolidating many programs in one place; there  it stayed till it closed for good in 1996 (the school’s renowned chef training program survives as the Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute, part of the City College system.) The buildings were left abandoned until their 2008-09 demolition.

The primary building was a huge concrete structure with brick facing, with two long 4-story wings at a right angle. Where they met stood a tower with faintly Prairie School accents, of a style that can also be seen on a few Rogers Park apartment buildings (and probably elsewhere): horizontal bands of stone, square piers, shallow arches, and cubic volumes.

Washburne Trade School

The rest of this marching monolithic mass of building, however, was pure Chicago School: concrete frame with brick cladding. Minimal ornament. Huge windows between narrow brick piers made up its bulk, and a simple overhanging roof element capped it off without elaboration.

Washburne Trade School

To the west, a totally prosaic annex was tacked on in 1936 for bottling machinery assembly and metalwork; I never photographed it intact, but Google Streetview shows it to be an unremarkable concrete frame infilled with industrial windows.

Washburne Trade School

To the east, the school was connected by two skybridges to the former Liquid Carbonic Corporation office building, a Streamline Deco edifice with an inwardly-curved main entryway (echoed by a more modest building across the street that survives to the present.)

Liquid Carbonic Corporation buildingWashburne Trade School

Washburne Trade School

THE Liquid Carbonic Corporation

The Streamline building was already 2/3rds gone when I arrived on the scene in 2008 – but by chance, I’d snapped a few shots of it while driving by in 2005, while it was still intact.

An expansive garage stood on the block-interior side of the main building, gone before I ever got there; its outline appears on the main building.

Washburne Trade School

This was classic Chicago School architecture, as Preservation Chicago notes – impressive for its size, for its architectural purity, for its unabashed hugeness. Not as famous or glamorous as the skyscrapers of the Loop, buildings like Washburne nonetheless made Chicago what it was and is – a sprawling hub of manufacturing, a modern city that sprang up out of nothing and spread like wildfire across the prairie. They were landmarks of their neighborhoods, sources of jobs, and iconic images for the city. With huge windows, concrete structures and open floor plans, they should lend themselves readily to adaptive reuse – but they have fallen in alarming numbers.

Washburne Trade School

The Washburne buildings were demolished because… well, nobody seemed to have a good answer at the time. The ol’ E-word was apparently batted around some – you can justify tearing down anything you don’t like by calling it an “eyesore”, and you can justify calling it an eyesore basically if anything at all is wrong with it, regardless of how simple it would be to fix it. Broken windows? EYESORE! Tear it down, quick! (And pray nobody ever breaks a window on your house.)

Another driving factor was desire for green space. Normally I lobby against this desire tooth and nail, because most American cities have far too much green space, not too little – but Little Village actually does need a park. And they will get one – just… not on the Washburne site, it turns out. A huge brownfield site designated Park No. 553 – closer to a sizable residential population, incidentally – will instead be turned into public green space.

In fact, the Washburne site is still sitting vacant five years after the demolition was finished.

Saint Anthony Hospital has stepped with a pretty fantastic program for the site, announced in 2012 – an 11 story hospital building, some smaller wellness-related buildings, some retail, and a modest public park. It is as good a project as anybody could want for such a site  – urban, modern, dense, mixed use, integral to the community – and it’s an economic engine that will likely offer spillover benefits to the area around it. The city is well on board and a design team was announced last year; hopefully further progress will follow soon.

Washburne Trade School interior
Seriously, look at the light in that room. Magnificent. Who wouldn’t want that?

TREATISE THE SECOND: Washburne was full of insane crap.

I mean it. The school’s buildings were absolutely loaded to the hilt with crazy, wacky, random, quirky stuff, the likes of which you’ve never seen in all your life. Visiting it was a non-stop stream of “what the hell?” moments.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Some of it was bizarre by virtue of age. With a history on the site going back to 1958, some of the materials had become quite dated by the time the school closed. Even the most modern of equipment would have been over a decade old by the time the building came down, but everything left behind was likely quite a bit older.

Washburne Trade School interior

1970s style font

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

1960s style sign

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior
Gloriously dated curtains

Washburne Trade School interior

Other portions are just strange by virtue of being inside a classroom. Framed-up mini-buildings, random plasterwork, set-like storefronts lining the hallways, disassembled automobiles, massive saws, metalworking machines – the range of things found inside a trade school is massive.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Odd juxtopositions abound as students practiced their craft using the building as a test subject. You never knew what style or material of decoration you might find in a room or a hallway.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Again, not to romanticize decay, but… the abandoned site was a big ol’ playground for any number of urban adventurers, and part of me is sad over its loss for that reason alone. Explorers of all stripes – taggers, architects, photographers, historians, urbexers, perhaps an odd New Years Eve celebrant or two – wandered the rotting hulk, leaving their mark or documenting their passage.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

And finally, there’s just the volume of stuff left behind in the building. Chairs, desks, equipment, lockers, projects, cabinets, shelves, machinery, hardware, tables, signs, posters, pamphlets, books, computers – a huge amount of paraphernalia was simply left where it stood. Other explorers, arriving sooner, found even more, some of which they carried out with them.

Washburne Trade School
Mr. Henley didn’t even bother to erase the blackboard! (And what kind of phone number is that? And how long is this class, anyways?)

Washburne Trade School

Washburne Trade School
No home for a circa-1970 PA system in a new school? Blasphemy!

Of course, when you think about it, the motivation to bring a lot of it along to a new location is pretty lacking. New building usually equals new equipment, and anyway, plenty of the stuff was heavily dated by the time Washburne closed. There’s no telling how much gear did leave the building along with its occupants.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School

Forgotten Chicago has a terrific post on the opening and the closing of Washburne, with a lot more historical detail than what I’ve posted. A simple Google search will also bring up plenty more photos of the school’s dilapidated interior in the years before was razed – amazingly, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Thanks to Chicago’s prolific architectural exploration community, you can still spend hours wandering the halls of this lost landmark in digital form.

The Mutilation of the Esquire

The Esquire Theater was a 1936 Moderne beauty at 58 Oak Street, just off the Magnificent Mile. Ultra-modern for its time, it retained its sleek, clean looks up into the present day.

Esquire Theater

Note the use of past tense. In 2012, the building was converted into a retail and dining complex, housing a mix of stores in keeping with the high-priced shopping along Oak Street. In the process, most of its facade – and its Streamline Moderne style – was obliterated.

Esquire Theater

The marquee, the mass of mottled dark granite, the checkerboard grid of the vertical sign supports, the grain elevator styled bulge of the auditorium – all gone.  In their place, more of the same bland minimalism that passes for elegance on Oak Street.

Esquire Theater

Esquire Theater

Considering the incredible elegance of the original interiors, it’s ironic that the owners chose to gut the building to accommodate top-tier retailers today. Those interiors were lost in a 1989 remodeling, but imagine recreating that space as a boutique mini-mall. That would be some high-end shopping!

Esquire Theater

Also lost in the remodeling: a couple of Victorian houses with Gothic detailing; they were demolished and replaced with a three-story building whose storefronts match the dullness surrounding them.

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A rare bird: the Art Deco church

One day last summer I was looking at a map of the city, looking for places I hadn’t been.  I realized I couldn’t remember ever venturing west on Irving Park, so, off I went.

I saw lots of neat stuff, including beautiful Portage Park, but the king find was St. Pascal’s Church, a 1930 Catholic structure which was a bit of a jackpot for me.

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There is a paucity of Art Deco churches in general. I know of two in St. Louis, and perhaps half a dozen in Chicago, and I am still looking for one that carries the style all the way into the interior. St. Pascal’s is no exception; despite all those geometric details on the outside, the inside is pure Mission Style.

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St. Pascal’s is a close stylistic relative of St. Joseph’s, the church in Wilmette that I covered previously. Both are tall and massive, with a shallow carved entry cove, bearing a massive cross with a rose window behind it.

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Other examples:

St. Ferdinand, 5900 W. Barry Avenue, out west near Belmont Avenue, filters Art Deco through a 1950s Midcentury prism:
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Designed by Barry & Kay in 1955, this building is an amazingly simple collection of powerful geometric forms, overlapping and rising. Construction began in 1956 and the building was dedicated in 1959. It was noted for being air conditioned, and for an underground tunnel connecting it to the rectory (no doubt a cherished feature in the dead of winter.)

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Then, there is Hyde Park’s St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church – 1929, Barry Byrne, architect.

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St. Thomas is one of the city’s most outlandish churches, mishmash of styles and influences that defies exact classification. I mention it here in conjunction with Art Deco churches – but it could just as easily stand alongside Byzantine or Spanish Baroque Revival.

Inside, it’s surprisingly restrained – the closest thing I’ve yet seen to an Art Deco styled religious interior.

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Outside, brick and terra cotta run wildly amuck.

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And finally, Andrew Rebori’s spectacular Madonna Della Strada chapel at Loyola University, opened in 1938,  is the most unambiguously Art Deco example – perhaps the only one, in fact.

Madonna della Strada Chapel

The Madonna della Strada (“Our Lady of the Wayside”) chapel was the dream and brainchild of Father James P. Mertz, who wanted a chapel honoring the patroness of travelers – such as young college students far from home. Father Mertz raised the money to fund the construction of the building’s shell, then continued the work of gathering materials to fit out the interior for another decade.

Loyola University Chicago

Compared to the radically sculpted exterior, the interior seems a bit tame, particularly the traditional-styled artwork and stained glass –  but it’s still sumptuous in materials, with curved forms that echo the Art Deco style, and full of surprising little details. Dozens of marbles from around the world give the interior a lavish finish.

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When the chapel was built, the assumption was that Lake Shore Drive would soon be extended further northward. As a result, the “front” faces the lake, whose waters are only a few feet away.

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301 Taylor – the Union Station Power House

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In August 1931, preparatory work began for the Union Station power plant building, which stands today 301 W. Taylor Street. Any traveler who has crossed the lengthy Roosevelt Boulevard viaduct south of the Loop has seen this massive Art Deco edifice (and more than a few have, no doubt, been reminded of a particular Pink Floyd album cover, as the power station is of the same architectural style as London’s Battersea Power Station.)

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The Union Station plant was built to provide power not only to the train station but also to the new (now old) Post Office, both owned by the Chicago Union Station Company. It was advertised as a “smokeless” power plant, using newly refined techniques to burn coal with a reduced ash output.

Architects were Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Construction of the new power plant was urged along, as its predecessor occupied the future site of the new Post Office, which in turn could not be started until the old power plant was replaced and demolished.

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The plant was still operating in 1980 when the company received notice from the city boiler inspections department that it must replace the four boilers. The work was apparently carried out, because the plant was still providing power and steam to local buildings into the 1990s, and – despite its forebidding appearance – still shows some signs of life today.

Public Storage Mutilates for Commerce!

Y’know what company really hates architecture? Public Storage.

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Clark Street, Edgewater

These guys ram their unified corporate paint scheme over every building they get, with a disregard for aesthetics and architectural detail that borders on the criminal.

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S. Ashland Avenue

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Archer Avenue

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N. Broadway, Edgewater

Seriously. It melts my brain.

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What crime did these poor warehouse buildings commit to have their ornament slathered over in such a fashion? Who did they offend?

A stock Moderne design

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Here’s a group of Midcentury townhouses, done in a typical Chicago Moderne style. I’ve found 4 examples around Evanston so far.

801-13 Mulford Street:
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142-150 Callan, at Brummel:
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143-151 Custer at Brummel, back-to-back with the building on Callan:
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1413-23 Main Street, similar in style but definitely the odd man out:
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These buildings were presumably part of the post-War construction boom; by 1952, the Callen building was complete and being advertised by The Bills Realty, Inc.