Wallpaper Buildings

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1048 N. Marshfield Ave. at Cortez

Robert Venturi famously grouped the ornamentation of buildings into two types: “The Duck”, a building with an iconic and usually literal exterior shape (named for a souvenir shop on Long Island built in the shape of a giant duck), and “The Decorated Shed”, a constructed box with ornamental systems applied to it – exemplified by the Gothic cathedrals with their huge ornamental facades standing in front of vast warehouses of religious space.

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Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, 3121 W Jackson Boulevard

Nearly all common Chicago architecture falls squarely into the second group, to the extent that the city’s architecture is often a structural system with a layer of cladding and ornament applied to the front, visible in the most literal (and sometimes comical) of ways. My own shorthand for these is “Wallpaper Buildings”.

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2900 N. Mildred Avenue at W. George Street. This is the back and side of a massive U-shaped courtyard apartment. At left, the facade continues on minus the structure without missing a beat, adding one last bay to shelter the rear stairs from the street. We are not meant to notice the disconnect.

When you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. It makes you think about the nature of a building, of construction and design. Is architecture a frame with an elaborate weatherproof sculpture in front of it? Is it still architecture if you remove the frame? What happens when the sculpture ceases to be sculptural, or ceases to have mass, or ceases to have decoration? The story of the Wallpaper Building, its evolution over the years, is the story of architecture itself.

Most Chicago buildings are meant for urban settings, where the front facade is more visible than the sides or back. As a compromise between cost and quality, builders would load up the front facade with higher-grade materials and most if not all of the building’s ornament. The sides and alley-facing walls usually were built of beige-colored Chicago common brick, a softer, cheaper, lower-quality material than the highly finished brick used on the front.

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1363 N. Bosworth. This building does a double downgrade. The front facade (above) is the most heavily composed side, with stone and heavily articulated finish brick; the side comes second, with a lesser grade of brick but still ornamented with considerable corbeled brickwork; the utterly plain backside (below) is done in Chicago common brick.

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Sometimes, though, the sides and back weren’t nearly as invisible as the designer would like to imagine. My favorite example is in Buffalo, New York (where Louis Sullivan’s towering Guaranty Building has two insanely ornate sides facing the streets… and two completely plain brick wall sides facing the alleys) but there are plenty of similar instances in Chicago. The idea, obviously, is that a tall neighbor would eventually cover up the sides not facing the street. Sometimes it might have even worked out that way.

And sometimes it didn’t.

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A view north  from the Wilson Red Line stop in Uptown shows no less than 5 buildings with decorative facades and unornamented sides.

The design strategy was not limited to low-budget buildings. Some of the city’s most ornate and lavish buildings switch over to cheaper common brick on the sides. Many feature bay windows projecting from the common brick sides, a pointed acknowledgement that the sides are indeed visible and always would be.

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2424-2428 N. Geneva Terrace, Lincoln Park

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 1547 N. Dearborn Parkway, Gold Coast – an 1891 mansion by architect August Fielder, still a private residence. Yours for only $13.75 million!

The approach was more successful with mid-block buildings on neighborhood streets, where a builder could count on having similarly scaled neighbors only a few feet away from his sidewalls.

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3000 block of S. Bonfield Avenue, Bridgeport

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2700 block of S. Wallace Street, Bridgeport. The exposed wall bears a faded ghost ad for long-vanished Selz shoes brand, possibly a reference to the Selz Good Shoes Lady.

At some point, this common design response changed from an adaptive strategy to a default setting, used even when it didn’t make a lot of sense. Hence the full-lot houses in many neighborhoods with their plain brick sides exposed for all the world to see. A more cohesive design approach might have found a middle-grade material to use on all sides while evening out the cost between expensive front facade brick and cheap common side brick, or just left off the front facade upgrade altogether, since in these cases it only serves to call out the lower quality materials adjacent to it. But builders of the time just weren’t rolling that way. Why? I have only guesses.

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1329 W. Chicago Avenue at Throop, West Town

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1500 N. Walton Street, West Town

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1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac, West Town – Chicago

All this stuff drove the early Modernists crazy. They couldn’t stand the notion of buildings having hierarchy, fronts and backs, important sides and secondary sides, decorative skin and hidden structure. To the most dogmatic among them, these things reflected the hierarchies of unjustly stratified societies, the moral decay that precipitated the First World War.

Today, of course, we take a different view. The ornate facade is seen as a gracious gesture, a polite and noble contribution to the public space of the street. Decorating the front of the building is about living up to social norms and expectations, treating your neighbors well, showing respect for the people around you, saying “hello”, enhancing the public space.

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1901 N. Bissell Street at Wisconsin, Ranch Triangle – Chicago

It does still raise the question, though: why is the person riding the Red Line or walking through the alley somehow less deserving of social graces than the person on the front sidewalk? Is the Bridgeview Uptown Bank building a gracious neighbor, or a dowager in a hospital gown, with the backside hanging open and flapping in the breeze, mooning the rest of the world?

The disconnect between the artistically designed components of a building and the bulk of its mass was a driver of Modernist philosophy, as its young masters sought to design buildings as complete entities – respectfully and properly clad on all sides, among other things. There would be no hidden back; all sides of the building would be forever visible as it sat on its site in splendid isolation.

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University of Chicago D’Angelo Law Library, Eero Saarinen, 1958

 

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The Esplanade Apartment Buildings at 900-910 Lake Shore Drive, Mies van der Rohe, 1956 – essentially an expansion of his famous 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments from 1949, next door.

Structure and cladding would become one. The facade ceased to be a thing of mass, of sculpture, of elaboration, of separation; it became a mere cladding, a pattern, an expression of the structure that lay just beneath it.

Pre-war buildings are sometimes subjected to “facadectomies”, with everything but the decorative front wall torn down and a new structure erected behind the old facade. It’s physically possible because old masonry facades are structural entities, capable of carrying their own weight even if they weren’t structurally integral to the building behind them.

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The facade of the Fine Arts Building Annex, 421 S. Wabash Ave, suspended in place after the rest of the building was demolished in 2010. It was subsequently had a new Roosevelt University building grafted onto it from behind.

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Group facadectomy on the 000 block of S. Wabash Avenue, 2008

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Citizens State Bank of Chicago, just off Lincoln Avenue, creatively remade into loft apartments circa 2007.

Chicago’s had its fair share of them, though usually the city’s ethos is just to knock everything the hell down and start over, because, hey, history don’ make money, know what I’m sayin’? An anyway, all dem old things is old, y’know? (By comparison, stronger preservation laws mean the practice is absolutely rampant in downtown Washington DC, where almost no pre-war buildings remain in their original state.)

No orthodox Modernist building could survive such an operation. Take down the building and the skin has to come with it.
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The IBM Building – 330 N. Wabash Avenue, Mies van der Rohe, 1969

You do not tear down the building while leaving behind a Modernist facade; if you were interested, though, you could rip off the facade while keeping everything else, and transform the building into something different. This possibility was painfully rendered evident during the recent demolition of Prentice Hospital.

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The “pedestal” portion of Prentice was a steel and concrete frame supporting a thin, non-structural outer skin.

However, late Chicago Modernists, as I’ve discussed before, weren’t always adherents to orthodoxy. Finish brick on the front, common brick on the side – step away from the Loop, and the old patterns rolled right on into the 1960s.

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1111 W. 47th Street, Back of the Yards – Chicago

There’s beauty to be found in both approaches, and some part of me admits: a neighborhood street with a solid wall of elaborate facades is a lot nicer than a more middling approach. Who cares about those side walls anyhow? Some of Chicago’s most beautiful streets have been created this way. It’s not orthodox or pure… just pretty. Pleasant. Human. “Pretty” may sound vapid, but it’s hard to argue with “human”.

Modern construction techniques, however, have come down firmly on the side of the structure-and-skin approach.  One might say that the thin-skinned buildings of today are more covered in something akin to wallpaper than ever before – layers of thin and varied materials, each serving a particular function – sub-structure, moisture protection, framing, insulation. To build a structurally self-supporting facade – a facade with significant mass, heft and depth – requires a massive material, like stone, brick or concrete. Stone is too expensive to transport, cut and lay up; brick has been reduced to just another facade material, just another form of thin skin. Nobody’s managed to use concrete block in a way that doesn’t look hideously ugly, the lessons of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block phase apparently having been forgotten.

The last stand of the facade-as-mass approach could be found in Brutalism, since poured-in-place concrete is the last massive material that can be affordably transported. The style died out with the 1970s, when architects found that almost nobody liked the look of exposed concrete (except architects). It is currently one of the most hotly contested architectural styles around as its buildings age into their 40s and 50s, their structural skins flaking and spalling in the weather; beating up on it online is currently in vogue with folks everywhere.

Chicago never had many Brutalist buildings, and as of 2014 it has one fewer still.

Prentice Hospital Most significant remaining examples are likewise Bertrand Goldberg designs.

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The Vic Theater, 3145 N. Sheffield Avenue, Lakeview; architect John Pridmore, 1912

With the passing of Brutalism, the victory of attached skin over embedded mass is complete; the Modernists have had their way – though it was via the economies of materials and labor, rather than a triumph of philosophy. The Wallpaper Building as described above is now a relic of a bygone age.

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The Lengthy Houses of Polonia

For a long time, I nourished a latent fascination with a peculiar type of vernacular house. Often gabled, sometimes flat-roofed, these houses are sized to fit the standard 25′ wide Chicago lot. They are typically two to four stories tall. But they are incredibly long, extruded all out of proportion and stretching on for bay after bay after bay. Their rooflines may have up to half a dozen chimneys, lined up like soldiers on the march. One or more entryways are often found on the long side, providing separate access to apartments further back in the building. Most are flecked with many windows.

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Long houses of Pilsen, seen from the Pink Line El, with St. Adalbert Church beyond.

Once I began looking more closely, a few things jumped out. Firstly, these houses are usually on the end of their block. The long side faces a street or alley. The reason for these abnormal houses, then, suggests itself: With the sure knowledge that no future neighbor would block up the light and the view, there was no reason not to fill the entire length of the lot with building. For an owner, it meant more space and more rental income.

Buildings on this model proliferated in two neighborhoods: Pilsen, and Pulaski Park. Both have a common point of origin as home to Polish immigrants in the late 1800s.

In Milwaukee, Polish immigrants famously developed the “Polish Flat” – a wood-frame house that, as time and finances allowed, would be jacked up a level, with a more solid brick basement built underneath. Likewise, back-lot houses would be added behind the main house to provide rental income – or a smaller front-of-lot house would be moved to the rear when a more spacious replacement could be built. In short, Poles were experts at extracting value from precious city land, and these houses are designed in the same tradition.

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1458 W. 18th Street at Laflin, Pilsen

The archetypal examples, in my mind, stand in the Pulaski Park area, clustered along Blackhawk Avenue, just east of Ashland.

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1362 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

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1363 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

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1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac

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1409 N. Greenview Avenue, at the mid-block alley. This house suffered a serious fire in 2004 that destroyed the third floor, attic and much of the roof; it has, obviously, been restored since then.

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2100 Hoyne Avenue at Charleston

A number of things make these houses curiosities to me. First is the steadfast refusal to treat the exposed long side of the house as decorated architectural facade. The same unadorned common brick that would appear on an unexposed wall (ie, one crowded up against a neighboring building) is used in most cases; on the building above, a simple gabled roof is extruded out of the elaborate front bay. The front is the front and the side is the side, and that’s that. That elaborate façade is another point of interest – they came in all styles, arrayed with beautiful brick corbelling, pressed tin cornices and finials, cast iron storefront columns, carved stone lintels and more.

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918 N. Ashland Avenue at Walton – a particularly curious case, as a modern addition has continued the fill-the-whole-block approach begun by the original building, while conjoining it with the building across the alley.
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And then there is the final mystery – what kind of floor plans were originally hidden behind those walls? Are the interiors contiguous or separate? How did a preponderance of light and air on one side affect the design? Maybe one day I’ll turn up some plans, but till then I simply gaze and speculate.

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1725 S. Ashland Avenue at 18th Street

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1400 N. Noble Street at Blackhawk

Mid-Century Townhouses

Rowhouses were the basic building block of many East Coast cities, but (as I’ve mentioned before) the classic rowhouse never really caught on big in Chicago. Here on the open prairie, with the abundant timber of northern Wisconsin in easy reach, the wood balloon frame took off, and with it the detached single-family worker cottage.

After World War II, however, the humble rowhouse got a makeover, and a second shot at success in Chicagoland. No longer the building block of the inner city, it became a more affordable alternative to those looking to make their home in the newly rising suburbs. The new rowhouse was clothed in mid-century Modernist garb and rechristened as the more market-friendly “townhome”. Construction of these units reached a fever pitch in the late 1950s.

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At its core, a townhome or row house is basically two or more houses that share vertical walls. Each unit has its own private, exclusive entrance – no shared stairwells. Each unit touches the ground. Beyond that, there were no rules in the post-war era.

Pre-war rowhouses had commonly been two to four stories high; post-war could be two stories, split levels, or even a single story, with or without basement. No one would mistake a pre-war rowhouse for anything other than what it was – but post-war townhomes were often dressed up to look like larger apartment blocks, colonial mansions, or rambling split level ranch houses.

Rather than forming the basis of canyon-like streets, Modernist townhouses were very often set perpendicular to the street, with garden-like courtyards between them.

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Flat roofs, brick and flagstone facades, and broad picture windows are common elements.
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More creative iterations might emulate the shapes of courtyard apartments…
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…or go the other direction, and disguise multiple row homes as a single gigantic split-level ranch, as did Chesterfield Builders.IMG_2621a

When I first thought about the idea of a Mid-Century rowhouse, I thought they must be rare. But to the contrary, they’re quite common. Once you start recognizing them, they’re everywhere. I know of four different sets of them within two blocks of my home.

Like other forms of mid-century Chicago architecture, a sort of builder vernacular emerged, presumably as builders borrowed ideas, inspiration and perhaps architects from one another. The typical 1950s Chicago townhouse can be described thus: two stories above ground with 4 or 5 units. Brick cladding except at the corners, where wood or cut stone forms an accent, along with a corner-wrapping picture window. The building mass is slightly offset at its midpoint, creating another chance for a corner picture window. Buildings are paired off facing one another across a walkway and small yards, creating a shared courtyard.
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Some of the more interesting developers and their works include:
Skokie Townhouse Builders, Inc. – headed by Ronald Dreyfus and Robert Krilich, this company put up several developments with simple Modernist facades.
* A cluster of 9 buildings at 9505 Gross Point Road in Skokie.
* A cluster of 13 buildings at 10081 Frontage Road, north of Old Orchard in Skokie
* 5839-5845 Lincoln Avenue, Morton Grove – a group of five, set perpendicular to the street:
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* 4702-4740 Main Street, Skokie – a group of eight on the north side of the street, perpendicular to the road, with a handful of additional buildings are on the south side of the street including one at Patrick & Main, 2 more at 4716 Main, and 3 more at 4712-4716 Washington.
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Dunbar Builders – the company of Herbert Rosenthal, who essentially brought the condominium to Chicago and the United States. Billing their developments as “Townhouses by Dunbar”, this company erected several groups of Modernist buildings:
* 2505 Howard at Maplewood – a large group of Modernist townhomes, 35 total, along Birchwood, Jerome, Maplewood and Rockwell streets. Opened in 1960.

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Of special note is the extreme similarity of Dunbar’s designs to those of Skokie Townhouse Builders. Both feature the same slight jog in the building footprint, with a first-floor overhang and brick walls giving way to wood paneling at the corners. To this mix, however, Dunbar Builders adds a massive chimney of gray Lannon stone on the narrow end of the building, as well as some additional details.

The Howard-Maplewood development uses a variety of elements and color – red, orange and beige brick; brown, red or white siding; ashlar or rough cut stone chimneys. The lines of the large corner picture windows at the living room are visually reinforced by built-in planters. First-floor overhangs run the length of the buildings’ fronts.
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This examples above and below both retain their original thin steel frame windows on the corner unit.
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* 6900 Ridge at Farwell & Morse – A group of 6 buildings with a pleasing staggered placement, thanks to Ridge’s angle relative to the street grid. Opened in 1960.
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* 6100 Ridge – 9 Modernist buildings along Norwood Street and Hood Avenue, along with 5 more in a Colonial style across the street. Opened in 1960. They use the same Modernist design as the 6900 Ridge development.
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* Grand & Prospect at Dempster, Niles – a full-block cluster of twenty 5-unit buildings.

Joseph Rush Realty and Management Company:
* Ridge Court Townhouses – 5 buildings at 7500-7508 N. Ridge, 1959. Variegated beige brick with flagstone at the corners, openwork wood frame faux overhangs at the first story, shallow pitched roofs, and vertical brick entry screens with small openings. This development replaced an abandoned farm house that had stood on the site for a hundred years.
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Builders unknown:
* 1000 Dodge Avenue, Evanston – twelve buildings perpendicular to the road. Opened by 1957, and built as rental housing. They could easily be by Dunbar Builders; the level of detailing is comparable.
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* 8401-8431 Lotus Avenue, Skokie – a group of twins – two units per building – lining one side of the street.
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Related posts:

The lovely rowhouses of Evanston

The rowhouse form never caught on in Chicago. With limitless room for expansion and an endless supply of timber from the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan, the city that sent the wood balloon frame upward to fame had little use for conjoined party wall housing. Older East Coast cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston packed their houses cheek to jowl (the former two in particular are completely dominated by red brick rowhouses).

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Instead, Chicago’s landscape is dominated by free-standing brick two- and three-flats, brick apartments, and wooden balloon-frame single family cottages – closely packed, but never touching. New, teeming Chicago offered the working man a chance at his own house and perhaps a break from the ingrained, stratified ways of the older cities. The scattered rowhouses  that were built, therefore, exist more as curiosities and experiments, rather than shapers of the urban landscape. Those experiments took a particularly interesting form in the inner-ring suburban town of Evanston.

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1401-1407 Elmwood Avenue – Stephen A.  Jennings, Architect; 1890

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1209-1217 Maple Avenue – Holabird & Roche, Architects;  1892

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1101-1113 Maple at Greenleaf – Seth  H.  Warner, Architect; 1892

South of downtown Evanston, these three sets of rowhouses are standouts on streets already notable for their lovely houses. These were not the mass-produced meatgrinder products that local builders churned out in the industrial East Coast cities. These were high-class, high-design buildings meant to integrate with their tony suburban neighborhoods, without the neighbors batting an eyelash. The 1890 building is almost pure Shingle Style; the 1209 Maple building is predominantly Queen Anne; the third building splits the difference, with turrets alongside shingle-clad hipped gables.

As the National Register form notes, they achieved this by striving for the appearance of single-family homes. The two Maple Avenue examples are particularly successful in this regard, using Queen Anne elements of bay windows, projecting turrets, and generous entry porches, as well as gabled roof ends, to break down their massing to a single-family scale.

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The Shingle Style building at 1401 Elmwood is a bit more anomalous, as its massing is in tension with itself. The massive hipped gable roof suggests a single large building, while the small corner arched entrances and scattered bays and gables suggest the smaller scale of a single family home.

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In addition to their compelling beauty, these three rowhome groups suggest the possibilities of dense suburbanism – that it need not be unattractive or stifling; that we can use land intelligently and rationally as well as attractively.

Alvin Hoffberg’s Courtyard Townhouses

“Every visitor says these are Chicago’s most beautiful and unusual town homes.” – August 7, 1957 Chicago Tribune classified ad

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Midcentury builder Alvin M. Hoffberg brought a unique twist on the townhouse to Chicagoland in the 1950s. The Midcentury townhouse is a rare beast indeed, but it does exist, and Hoffberg planted several variations on a similar theme in Rogers Park and Evanston. He developed a series of one-story rowhouses ranged around a long, narrow courtyard.

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Several decorative features make it obvious that these buildings are all by the same builder, but it was a classified ad for 1338 Main Street, shown above, that finally gave me the builder’s name.

(Just so we’re all on the same footing – a townhouse, in US parlance at least, is the same thing as a rowhouse – an individual dwelling unit that shares party walls on at least one side with another home, but has its own individual entrance at the ground. In the 1950s, “townhouse” probably would have sounded much more cosmopolitan and appealing than “rowhouse”, with its connotations of crowded cities and industrial workers’ housing.)

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1338 Main Street shows up in a delightful little classified ad in the 1954 Tribune, advertised as a group of California-styled ranch townhouses:

“Very de luxe [sic] and unusual, on 1 floor, with full basement and roofed patio. Landscaped and decorated to suit. Tiled Youngstown kitchen, colored fixtures in tiled dual bath. Ample cabinets and wardrobes, many other features. Carpeting, utilities and rumpus room opposite. Fine residential area, close to all transporation, shops, schools and recreation.”

Hoffberg went on to use this design in several more locations around Evanston and the far north end of Chicago.

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239-45 Custer (Evanston) appears in the classifieds by 1963. Unlike the Main Street group, they’re built over a raised basement, which also raises up the courtyard – an extra measure of privacy and separation from the street.
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This design pops up several more times around the neighborhood, such as 135 Callan:
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135 Callan, Evanston

These were advertised as 5-room townhouses, approaching completion in 1955 with prices ranging from $180 to $195 a month:

“For discriminating people who desire the utmost beauty, privacy and comfort, each a complete de luxe home in a choice residential area clos to shops, express “L”, bus and train. Spacious rooms, huge wardrobes, snak bar, dispolsa, and de luxe utilities area few features.”

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7374-80 and 7382-88 Winchester, named “Park Terrace”, stands in Chicago’s city limits. Like the Main Street group, 7376 Winchester was advertised in 1959 with an emphasis on its fabulous rumpus room. Alvin M. Hoffberg, builder could be contacted at 6131 N. Sheridan.

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A variation on these designs stands nearby in northern Rogers Park, marked by an entry gateway.

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This is 7323-29 Damen (or maybe just 7327 N. Damen); at any rate, it’s the Park Damen Town Homes. A resident of this site died in 1958; I have to wonder if his home was sold to make way for this building, which a real estate agent lists with a 1960 date of construction (CityNews says 1957, but they can be real wonky sometimes.)

This group has a twin to the east, the Park Patio at 7342-44 and 7346-48 Winchester (where, perhaps not coincidentally, another owner died in 1960.)

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Not only does it have the same sloped bay windows as the wood-siding buildings, it’s got the same little cutesy development name in the same kind of cutesy font as the Park Terrace up the street.

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Hoffberg drew on a very distinct vocabulary of design ideas and facade materials: Flat roofs; picture windows set in square, boxed-out projecting bays or sloping walls, finished in wood siding and usually painted red or brown; rough-faced limestone banding at the windows; small patches of red Roman brick or flagstone; blonde brick.
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Hoffberg had a second design, seen above, that was useful for narrower or shallower sites, consisting of a simple twin or duplex design – two houses, 1 party wall. 729-31 Brummel Street, above, is a typical example. The building opened in 1956.

Here’s a virtual duplicate at 738-40 Mulford Street:
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And another near-duplicate at 238-40 Custer, across the street from one of the courtyard townhouses. This one opened in September 1960, and was constructed by Elston Builders.
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And here’s the same idea again at 806-08 Mulford Street:
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A third variation is a bit more free-form, with no courtyards.
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244 Elmwood at Mulford Evanston – appears to have been standing by 1959; possibly by 1956.

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700-706 Shaw

Both of these occupy corner sites and are paired with a duplex building, apparently a response to a square site.

“Distinctive 5 room apartments with a distinctive address built for discrminating tastes” — Tribune classifieds, 1955

Like most developers from the 1950s and 1960s, Alvin Hoffberg wasn’t exactly a celebrity figure, so there’s not a lot of info about him. Mr. Hoffberg shows up in 1947 as VP and general manager of Leonard W. Besinger & Associates, Inc., working on a group of homes in Park Ridge (bounded by Devon / Talcott / Cumberland / Glenlake / Vine), designed by architects Marin J. Green and William Kotek. Then came his run of indepdent buildings in the mid-1950s. And then, poof, nothing. Silence. Whatever became of Mr. Hoffberg, he didn’t make any more headlines after the early 1960s.

There are some other buildings in the area that share similar materials, particularly that rough limestone trim and red Roman brick combo, and some indications that Hoffberg worked with a few other companies.

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314-16 Callen, for example is a co-op apartment building that dates to 1954, was put up by the Town Development Co., and was advertised using his distinctive vocabulary.

And 1601-09 W. Lunt, dating from 1964, is credited to Bannon-O’Donnel (realtors or builders, it’s not clear), but has all the hallmarks of a Hoffberg design.
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And these buildings are right across the street from the Elmwood/Mulford group, and use the exact same materials.
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301 Elmwood, Evanston

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300 Sherman, Evanston

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301 Elmwood detail…

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….and a detail from a known Hoffberg design across the street.

“Sensationally different – California one story – designed in the modern trend, for discrminating couples” – Chicago Tribune classified ad, 1955

No master plan, no guiding hand

After long study and research, I have reached a conclusion: there was no single guiding force that created the Chicago Midcentury style. It was simply an amazing confluence of factors.

When I first noticed how prevalent this style was, the most obvious thought was that, perhaps, a single large builder developed huge swaths of Chicago. But I have encountered dozens or hundreds of builder names. The O’Hare neighborhood, which I marveled at recently, makes a great case study, containing many homogeneous blocks. Consider, for example, this three-block stretch of Berwyn, lined with nigh-identical 2-flats:

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At a glance, these buildings are totally homegenous. They share identical massing, height, footprints, and unit layout (stairs on one side, two stacked units, giant picture windows.) Yet a careful look at their details shows that each builder did things a little bit differently, and had their own distinctive details that they used and re-used.

Take these buildings by the Relias Building Corporation, for example:
8359 and 8361 W. Berwyn Avenue
8359 and 8361 W. Berwyn Ave. The glass block design on the right is used on many Chicago MCM buildings.

8356 W. Berwyn Ave.
8356 W. Berwyn Ave

8300 block north, W. Berwyn Avenue
The 8300 block, north side. 8356 from the previous shot is at left. Notice the brick vestibule walls of each successive house – the first is the same as 8356, the next is a variation, and the next is a variation on the variation, and uses the same stairwell/glass block details as 8359 and 61 from the first shot. It’s a good bet that Relias built this entire block.

But they sure didn’t build the next two blocks!

8426 W. Berwyn Avenue
8426 W. Berwyn – Forest Lane Builders

8410 W. Berwyn
8410 W. Berwyn Avenue – Forest Lane Builders

8400 Block of W. Berwyn
And here’s what stands between the two Forest Lane buildings. The repeating porch wall design makes it almost certain that the three center buildings, and the ones at the far right, were by a single builder. Could it also be Forest Lane? Sure. One of them even re-uses the glass block design from the first Forest Lane building. A look at an aerial view on Google Maps reveals that every building shares the exact same curved sidewalk design, too, meaning the whole north side of the block is probably Forest Lane. But that wall detail… didn’t we just see that a moment ago, on a building by Relias? Did Forest Lane build on the Relias block, or did one company just swipe a detail from the other?

Across the street, another company was busy. Below are two buildings by Frank J. Munao, a wealthy builder who also happened to be into horse racing. He was so prominent, in fact, that some hoods attempted to extort money from him in the early 1950s by threatening his wife and children. They wound up going to jail instead, and Mr. Munao went on to grace Berwyn Avenue with these 2-flats:
8455 W. Berwyn Avenue
8455 W. Berwyn Avenue

8435 W. Berwyn Avenue
8435 W. Berwyen Avenue

Given that distinctive concrete pattern block over the stairwell, it’s a certainty that he also did these:
842? W. Berwyn Avenue
8423 W. Berwyn

8439 W. Berwyn
8439 W. Berwyn

8461 W. Berwyn
8461 W. Berwyn

And the same shape repeats here, minus the pattern block:
8427 W. Berwyn Avenue
8427 W. Berwyn Avenue

So this whole side of the block is probably Frank J. Munao & Son, Inc.

One block west, and we’re still in solid 2-flat territory, but with still more builders:

8555 W. Berwyn
8555 W. Berwyn – C.O.R. Construction Co.

8540 W. Berwyn Ave.
8540 W. Berwyn Avenue – Larry J. Pontarelli & Sons, Inc.

And so, in short, we’ve got three solid blocks of nothing but nigh-identical 3-flats…. by at least five different builders.

Further west on Berwyn, the 2-flats give way to 6-flats. Like the previous area, these buildings are rigorously aligned, and very similar in massing and style… but by a multitude of builders.

5222 N. Reserve Avenue
5222 N. Reserve Avenue – McNerney-Goslin, builder. They did a row of 5 or 6 buildings on this block.

5231 N. Reserve Avenue
5231 N. Reserve Avenue – David J. Cahill

5241 N. Potawatomie Avenue
5241 N. Potawatomie Avenue – Relias Building Corp.

8639 W. Berwyn Avenue
8639 W. Berwyn Avenue, SW corner of Berwyn and Potawatomie – aka 5240 N. Potawatomie. Ferlette Builders & Realty Co. Both this and the previous building (right across the street, and seeming to form a gateway with their prominent lamps) share New Formalist influences, but are by different builders. Clearly one of these buildings is reacting to the other.

Most of these 6-flats, spanning three parallel streets, align so perfectly that you can look through the gaps between them and see through corresponding gaps in two more blocks of identical buildings. And every decorative trick on these buildings shows up on other buildings by other builders. These different builders were clearly borrowing from each other and trying to work together.

IMG_3016a

I have no solid explanation, though, for how this incredibly unified style came to be. As we’ve seen, a single builder was buying up a whole block, or large chunks of one, and stamping out the same designs. Zoning codes explain some of this homogeneity within neighborhoods, requiring similar dwelling unit types on blocks, setting setback limits and perhaps height restrictions as well. None of that, however, explains why a six-flat at 7600 N. Harlem Avenue (Parisi Brothers Construction Company) should look just like a 6-flat at 7724 W. Belmont Avenue (Nick S. Theodorau, architect) or one on 5200 N. Potawatomie.

The availability of affordable building materials is a likely factor – blonde brick, for example, was obviously cheap at the time. Brickmakers were experimenting with new cuts and colors at the time, as can be seen on many of these buildings. Many common components were catalog elements, such as the fancy doors and escutcheons and various kinds of glass block, and would have been readily available to any builder. Certain stone types that occur again and again were probably cheaply available as well, perhaps bought in bulk by local suppliers and sold to many contractors.

And then there was probably some good old fashioned peer pressure – all the cool kids are building modern-style apartments. Don’tcha wanna be cool? Builders are risk-adverse by nature; if they were building modern-clad buildings by the hundreds, it had to mean they were popular with the public. Certainly some of these elements were copped from famous designers of the day, and there was also a variety of cultural influences at work, too.

8700 Berwyn

Despite all the explanations, it’s still a remarkable convergence. These factors, and perhaps others still unknown, combined to produce a distinctive Chicago style that appears all over the region, and to my knowledge, nowhere else.

(For the record, most of the builder and architect data comes from a series of real estate advertisements run throughout the 1960s by the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company, touting the merits of gas heating and appliances. Names of architects appear far less frequently than names of builders, but there is still plenty of variety.)

MidCentury Suburbs Part 6: A catalog of housing types

The city of Chicago exploded into the 1950s and 1960s. Thousands and thousands of houses and apartments rose up on the ever-expanding urban frontier, in a remarkably unified ensemble of styles. There’s endless variation in the architectural details, but a great deal of it happens within a small range of fundamental building types.

The Bungalow/Ranch
MidCentury bungalows

Chicago’s famous “Bungalow Belt” began rising before the World Wars, but didn’t stop when the World Wars were over. The Bungalow simply cast off its original Craftsman-styled details and traded them in for MidCentury ones. Red-brown brick, stone lintels and quoins, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired art glass, semi-octagonal bay windows, Spanish tile roofs, dormer windows and heavy eaves disappeared.

Midcentury Bungalow

In their place came blond and orange brick, built-in planters, decorative wall panels of rough stone or elegant Roman brick, glass block, picture windows, geometrically designed front doors, patterned storm doors, and stylish door hardware.

These houses are compact and efficient, sitting tidily on a rectangular foundation, one story over a raised basement. The most classic style has a low-pitch roof with a hipped gable — not quite the flat roof that High Modernism demanded, but a valiant attempt to minimize the roof’s impact while maintaining the practical advantages of a pitched roof.

I’m honestly not even sure if “bungalow” is the right term for them. They certainly aren’t ranch houses, however, and I’ve never seen the word “cottage” used to describe a Chicago house.

Midcentury Bungalow

Midcentury Bungalow

The Townhouse
Also known as the rowhouse, the townhouse does exist in MidCentury garb, but it’s not an easy housing type to spot in the wild. They’re so unusual, in fact, that I hardly have any in my archives, and the ones I do have look more like they came from the Northwest woods than the northwest suburbs.

Evanston townhouses

Townhouses consist of individual housing units sharing common side walls, but with no units above or below, and each with its own entrance. MidCentury versions are usually either one or two stories high (older versions go even higher), and are commonly arranged perpendicular to the street, with two rows facing a common courtyard.

Evanston townhouses

The 3 Flat
The 3 Flat is a Chicago classic: three (sometimes 2 or 4) apartments vertically stacked, accessed by a stairwell on one side. Though there are plenty of pre-War examples, it’s the MidCentury version that really codified the style and made it Chicago’s own.

W. 55th Street

The standard version — and there’s hardly any example that isn’t the standard version — is two stories over basement. The basement may be a third apartment, or just a basement (that’s the 2-flat version; the 4-flat version pretty much disappeared after World War 2.) Huge picture windows for each unit are requisite, projecting an image of clean, bright, modern spaces.

The stairs most often entered through a shared doorway, often under a little porch roof. Occasional variants will have two doorways. Endless decorative variety surrounds the doorway. I’ve seen planters, curved stairs, ornate ironwork in the railings and porch columns, glass block patterns, and an assortment of storm doors. And of course the doors themselves were the canvas for some brilliantly creative carpenters. Solid angled walls sometimes surround the entry, in stone or brick, occasionally with light holes poked through them.

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

The stairway is most commonly illuminated by a large panel of glass block. Sometimes it’s divided into strips. More rarely, colored blocks are used to create patterns. A handful feature sculpture panels in place of the glass block, favoring the outward appearance over natural light.

8100 S. State Street

3 Flats

3 flats with pizazz!

Stoney block apartments

The 6-flat
Three-flats are generally long, narrow buildings, their short ends facing the street. For longer lots, the floor plan could be turned sideways and then mirrored, resulting in the 6-flat apartment building, two stacks of three apartments all sharing a common stairwell.

6-flat with random rubble stone

The 6-flat shares many decorative styles with the 3-flat. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the broad street-facing side walls of the 6-flat frequently become the canvas for decorative elements, such as stone panels and decorative lamps. The stairwell illumination panel became more creative as well — colored glass block is more common on 6-flats, as are bottle glass and panels of translucent colored plastic.

6-flats were often paired with a mirror-image twin, both perpendicular to the street, with access from the street and alley via a pair of sidewalks.

twin 6-flats (Harlem Ave?)

3-flats often presented only a front facade to the street, with most of the building wrapped in cheaper Chicago common brick. 6-flats, with their entrances on the broad face, usually don’t have that luxury; perhaps aided by the economy of scale, they often had much more extensive decoration than their smaller cousins.

6-flats, west side

Harlem Avenue 6-flat

Harlem Avenue 6-flat

The types pictured above are perhaps the most iconic Chicago style, but this flexible building type had several variants. A popular south side version features recessed balconies for each living unit, with the brick walls protruding from the body of the building to provide privacy, separation, and enclosure.

south side 6-flat

south side 6-flat

6-flats can have their broad or narrow faces against the street; the entry can be on or off the street in either configuration.

6-flat

southwest side 6-flat

The X-flat
Just as the 6-flat is a doubled 3-flat, so could additional units could be strung together to match the length of any lot, to make a 9- or 12- or whatever-number-you-want-flat building. The example below strings together three 6-flats for a total of 18 units.

12-flat

On narrow lots perpendicular to the street, a small L-leg at the end of the lot could also provide additional floor area, closing off the block and creating a sort of half-courtyard.

Rogers Park

A longer L-leg could give the unbuilt portion of the lot enough presence to hold a street corner, as on these Belmont Avenue-area 9-flats.

Belmont Avenue 6-flat

Belmont 6-flat

As with other types, mirroring the building could result in a court-yard like setting, such as this pair of 9-flats on S. Cottage Grove.

S. Cottage Grove

From the mirrored-pair, L-shaped X-flat, it’s a short step to connect the two buildings, resulting in the courtyard building.

The courtyard walkup
The courtyard apartment transcends architectural styles, being a common feature of every 20th Century Chicago landscape. In its MidCentury guise, it is essentially a series of 3- and 6-flats linked together by a connecting wing.
That wing could be a small extension of the corner apartments, or it could be a whole stack of 3 or 6 apartments with their own shared entrance.

West side

They frequently feature balconies, which tend to be rare on their smaller counterparts.

The wings could be thickened up as well, essentially forming two 6-flats at the street.

60s apartments

Mid-Century apartments

The breezeway apartment
I have no proof, but I strongly suspect this style was imported lock stock and barrel from California and Florida. Where else would it be considered a good idea to have the hallways on the outside?

Ugly on the whole, yet made of awesome pieces.

Single breezeway building

These are essentially single-loaded corridor buildings — a hallway with rooms on one side only. Instead of enclosing the hallway, however, it’s left open to the elements, doubling as a porch and public gathering space. It’s a great idea in mild climates. In Chicago, however… well, I have to wonder how much salt they have to dump on those walkways in the winter.

The stairwells are more sheltered, typically open only at their entrances; sometimes they have one or more doors. Their massive stone or brick faces are the usual points of decoration for the building.

Breezeway apartment

W. Foster apartments

South side breezeway building

Again, mirroring this long, thin style results in an enclosed courtyard. In the instance shown here, free-floating catwalks connect the breezeways of both buildings.

Twin breezeway building

Beyond these types, the next step up is the Four-Plus-One, covered in careful detail over at Forgotten Chicago. It’s essentially a corridor/elevator building, floating over a covered parking area.

There are other types as well: split-level ranches, “flying-wing” roof single families, and taller elevator/corridor buildings. These types, however, tend not to share the common design vocabulary of the flats and bungalows, making them more distant cousins of the types listed here, and not as distinctively native to Chicago.