Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

Last week, while traveling about, I decided to take a detour south of Touhy near O’Hare. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

Sandwiched between Bryn Mawr, Cumberland, Lawrence, and East River Road is the largest concentration of Chicago’s distinctive MidCentury Modern developer style buildings that I have yet to find. It is essentially half a square mile of nothing but MidCentury — bungalo-style cottages to the south, 3-flats in the middle, 6-flat apartments to the north. The capstone is in the southeast corner, where St. Joseph’s Ukranian Catholic Church rises high above its surroundings (watch for a separate post on that, as soon as I can manage to get inside the place.)

St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church

What caught my attention on a followup visit was a theme I’ve noticed before — the simple creativity of the designers who planned all these nigh-identical buildings. You may think they all look alike, but truth be told you’d be hard pressed to find two that are actually identical.

3-flats

There are numerous points of detail, each with several different options, offering perhaps hundreds of different options within the limited framework of the style.

A catalog of this one block of three-flats on Winnemac Avenue includes:

* Stone panel. Options: framed panel, or longer panel that wraps the building’s front corner. Total options: 2.

* Stone. Options: white, green, gray, brown. (All these 3-flats feature rubble stone, as opposed to the carved flagstone found elsewhere, which would add another 3-4 options. The stone also appears nearby in black, though not on this block.) Total: 4.

3-flat entry detail

* Entryway decor. Options: small stone panel, 3 concrete blocks. (Not found on this block: the innumerable configurations of glass block used all across Chicago.) Total: 2.

* Front door. Options include at least 4 different highly ornate designs: tall double star, full-length triangle, paired diamonds, angled flower. There are at least a dozen more popular designs around Chicago. Total: 4.

* Storm door. Options: 3-panel, ironwork, standard. 3-panel comes in a rainbow of colors: clear, orange, green. It’s probably that more storm door (and front door) options have been lost to alterations over time. Total: 5.

* Ironwork canopy supports. Options: X-braced (more modern and geometric) or curli-cues (more organic, softer.) Curli-cues come in straight column or broad screen options. Matching balcony railings are optional if you have a flat canopy roof. Total: 4.

* Stairwell glass block. Options: full panel, 3 narrow panels. Like the entryway decoration, a nearly infinite range of block types, colors, sizes, and patterns can be found across Chicago. This block very conservatively restrains itself to two patterns, in a single block style (Sculpted Glass Module Leaf design.) Total: 2.

3-flat
8527 W. Winnemac Avenue. Wrapping stone panels, brown stone, 3-paneled stairwell glass block, geometric canopy supports, standard storm door, large triangle front door, small stone panel entry decoration.

There are 26 3-flats on this block. But combining their different variations gives us 2 x 4 x 2 x 4 x 5 x 4 x 2 = 2,560 possible combinations.

Twenty-five hundred variations!!

Yeah, good luck finding two that are exactly alike!

And what else do you build, apart from 3-flats?

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Wild Western Midcentury

In architecture, the dominant image from the 1950s and 1960s is Modernism. Clean lines. Forward thinking. Leaving the past behind. The embrace of technology. Machine purity. The march of progress. The future!

Stoney apartments

The middle decades of the Twentieth Century are more complicated than that, however, and like all aspects of culture, architecture too had quite a few contradictory influences.

Chicago’s MidCentury building stock, simple though it may seem, draws from a broad range of cultural influences. The clean and largely unadorned lines, the glass block (a very modern material), the broad picture windows, and the minimalist, geometric decoration, are the influence of High Modernism.

Diamond pattern

Jet Age living

(The windows, by the by, are the clearest evidence that Chicago builders were not really interested in the high ideals of Modernism. Modernists proclaimed the liberation of the wall from structure. The wall could be anything, they said: glass, metal panels, whatever building materials were at hand. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than at the corners. Corners traditionally were solid, as they had to hold up the building; Modernists delighted in having windows wrap the corner, showing the world that the wall was a free-floating object, rather than a load-bearing mass. Chicago builders, however, almost never used this design trope — perhaps because, underneath the Modernist trappings, their buildings were still fairly traditional wood-framed structures sheathed mostly in Chicago common brick. The back sides of many Chicago MCM apartment buildings look exactly like their pre-War contemporaries whose backs face the Elevated in the older parts of town.)

The Prairie School brought in elements of horizontality and natural forms and materials — the rough fieldstones and boulders that adorn the walls of countless MidCentury apartments in Chicago, and perhaps the more organic forms seen in the sculpted glass blocks common on the south side. The stones, however, can also be seen as evoking several other ideals: the rough terrain of the desert southwest (freshly accessible at the time via the nation’s growing highway system), and the volcanic rocks of Hawaii and Polynesia (also seen in the thriving Tiki culture of the time.)

8100 S. State Street

Lots of rubble

Random rubble wall

Random rubble wall

Plant life is another part-and-parcel of Chicago Midcentury. The ideal Chicago bungalow or three-flat has meticulously sculpted shrubs growing outside of it, or perhaps an evergreen.

Random rubble stone

It's still the frontier!  Honest!!

The contemporary style of the New Formalism had a heavy hand as well. It can be seen in the form of repeating arch shapes (including the very same fieldstone wall decorations), stylized lamps strategically placed as objects of elegant, isolated adornment, and in the cream-and-brown color palette of a certain brand of suburban houses.

Arches

Proper.  Mannered.  Olde Tymey.

Geometry

Mini-globe lamps!  In fluted amber!

But beyond all these contemporary influences, the past played a role as well. America being a relatively young country, two great periods of glory stand out and seem prominent in the mind of the 1950s: the Colonial era and the Old West.

Old West nostalgia was at a peak in the 1950s, driven by Western flicks at the movies and a surge of television shows. Perhaps it makes a certain amount of sense: with the closing of the frontier passing out of living memory, it would become much easier to romanticize that wilder, untamed time. The ongoing space race was sold to the public under the guise of “The New Frontier”, but the old frontier was just as easy for builders to evoke.

Well, pardner, I do reckon we could maybe rent'cha an apartment hereabouts.

This building on Estes is perhaps the most flagrant example imaginable. It has faux shutters (nowhere nearly big enough to cover that very modern picture window), faux clapboard siding, the obligatory old-styled lamps, and a metal-relief eagle. An eagle!

Any doubts that I’m misinterpreting this should be dispelled by the laundromat sign right up the street.

The Washing Well sign

The apartment on Estes is not alone, though. On Touhy near the lake, a series of townhouses features the same eagles, along with shutters and pedimented porch roofs perhaps intended, along with the red brick, to evoke Colonial America. Their layout — pairs of rowhouses facing each other along a common courtyard, perpendicular to the street — is quite modern, but their trappings are purely backward-looking.

The stockade!

And look at that fence! If that isn’t intended to call out images of frontier forts, nothing is.

The most ubiquitous Old West element of Chicago MidCentury, however, is the wood number plate. Proper capital-M Modernists would never used a serif font on their buildings. Serifs were decoration, decoration was The Enemy, and lettering was Arial font or some equally minimalist font, or nothing at all.

The men who built Chicago, however, were not Proper Modernists. Thousands of apartments and houses have their house numbers proclaimed on little strips of wood with ragged edges seemingly meant to look like jagged splinters, as if this were a random chip left over from splitting firewood, with curved and serifed fonts.

Number plate and rock inset

Number plate, 8" glass block

Number plate, storm door, front door

All these elements were thrown into the pot, swirled around, boiled down, and distilled by architects and builders who clearly knew how to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. They were selling an image: Modern elegance, life on the suburban frontier, clean but natural design. And sell it did, as testified by the thousands of buildings that went up in the Chicago MCM style and still stand today.

The Courtyard Apartment

Some of architecture’s most basic building designs are a series of letter shapes: there’s the L-shaped building, perfect for building out an urban corner. There’s the T-shape, a front facade with a trailing hallway. And there’s a Chicago classic, the U-shaped apartment building.

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The U-shape confers several advantages on the building. It allows a developer to build two full wings all the way out the edge of the lot, while creating a courtyard space in the middle. The courtyard space guarantees that, no matter what goes up around your building, light and air will always reach the apartments. The courtyard itself can become a great amenity, serving as a beauteous passageway, an urban garden, a shared lawn, or a secluded place of tranquility and beauty.

For these reasons, the U-shaped courtyard apartment building is extremely common in Chicago. They come in all sizes, colors, and flavors. The buildings can be elaborately ornamented…

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…or utterly plain.

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Likewise, the courtyards themselves can be a pure, untainted lawn….

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…or an incredibly elaborate garden.

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Sometimes, the architecture itself is the attraction…

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..and sometimes it’s just a backdrop for what’s happening on the ground.

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Courtyards can be long and narrow…

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…or impressively wide.

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They can be defined by buildings as short as two or three stories…

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…or by buildings as tall as you care to go.

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Sometimes they’re just a space you pass through on your way home…

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…while others invite you to linger and relax.

Casa Bonita Condominiums

Some are open to the street, relying on psychological barriers to keep out intruders…

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…while others have had more direct obstructions added over the years…

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…and some were designed with seclusion in mind right from the start.

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The courtyard can even be defined by more than one building:

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And that building can be clad in any architectural style, from Spanish Revival to Tudor Gothic to MidCentury Modern.

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It’s an incredibly versatile concept, adaptable to changing times and tastes. And the power of numbers allows great ornament and elaboration; in a city whose everyday architecture can be Spartanly plain, courtyard apartments are often among a neighborhood’s most noteworthy and beautiful buildings.