Greece in a Box

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While photographing the northeast corner of my much-beloved O’Hare neighborhood, I started to noticed something funny. An inordinate number of the 1960s apartment buildings prominently featured a Classical-styled sculpture hanging out in front of them. It was one of those shocking little moments when you realize that you’ve somehow not seen something even though it was right in front of you the whole time.

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(That last photo, by the way, is a building I didn’t share earlier, a Midcentury courtyard apartment with a bizarre Frankenstein mish-mash of parts, including a Classical pediment next to a two-story asphalt-shingled mansard roof, wood siding, brick siding, picture windows and tacked-on balconies. Yikes!)

A skim through my considerable photo archive turned up quite a few more of these lawn sculptures scattered around the city.

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W. Gunnison

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The garden statues don’t appear to be recent add-ons. Sometimes, the building itself is designed to accomodate some kind of decoration. And a couple of designs (the water-carrier with a vase on her shoulder, and another water carrier holding a single smaller jug) show up in front of multiple buildings, making it more likely to be of the same vintage as the buildings themselves.

The question remains, then: What the hell?? Were Chicago builders trying to convince their clients that they were actually living in some sort of new American acropolis by dropping a bit of Greek lawn art in front of it?

Well, maybe. Mid-Century builders were not at all hesitant to slap on anything that they felt created a resonant image with home buyers and renters. The western frontier and the colonial era are both well-represented in Chicago’s 1960s style. So why not add in some Grecian statuary? Was America not the modern living embodiment of Greek ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality?

And a statue, unlike a fountain, doesn’t require any messy, expensive pipes.

Still, it’s another one of those strange convergences. How was it that so many buildings wound up with the same statues?

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St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic Church

It’s been my experience that the Eastern branches and populations of Christianity (Greek Orthodox, Ukrainian, Russian) really don’t care much what the outside of the church looks like – they’re sticking with traditional styles on the inside, no matter how bizarre the resulting contrasts may be.

And so it is with St. Joseph Ukrainian Catholic (1975, architect Zenon Mazurkevych), another one of those churches that seems like an alien spaceship that landed from another world. Even though it is surrounded by MidCentury houses and flats, their conservative style does nothing to prepare you for this rocketship of a building.

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On the outside, it’s almost entirely concrete and glass. A large central dome is surrounded by a dozen reflective glass tube towers, each structured in tiered concrete and topped with a smaller gold dome, representing Jesus and his disciples. The only ornament consists of small crosses atop each dome.

Inside, however, it’s a completely different story.

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Ornate and rich, the traditionally styled artwork is impressive in its complexity, but it simply doesn’t work with the barebones nature of the building. It doesn’t even try.

There’s no hiding the modern structure of the space, of course, but the iconography sure as heck tries!

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Turn away from the center, and a few bits of Modern style reveal themselves, undiluted by the traditional artwork. The only contemporary decoration is the lamps in the tower, and they have not been maintained, as many of the globes are broken and missing.

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It seems like a surprisingly simple space, but in truth that’s a result of the clashing art styles. In a properly decorated building, art and architecture merge into one entity. Here, however, the art exists separately from, and in opposition to, the building that contains it. Neither enhances the other, leaving both feeling incomplete and lacking.

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It’s a bit baffling why a congregation would choose such a space age building design, then do a complete about-face on the interior. It’s a disappointment, as the exterior is truly mind-blowing. And there are plenty of churches where the artwork would be a beautiful enhancement of the interior volumes – but this is not one of them.

St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church

Reinforcement

Last post, I made a protracted and over-detailed claim that basically, builders were stealing ideas from each other left and right in the 1960s. Here’s a simpler argument for the same idea: look at just one recurring decorative element, and see how many different builders you can find who used it.

I’ve chosen the horizontal band of stone, set in a brick wall. There’s no reason to think this particular element is inherently obvious or necessary; you can look at other buildings in the photos and see a dozen other ways to use field stone, and I can make up plenty more out of my head.

5223 N. East River Road
5223 N. East River Road – Redelco Corporation

6173-6175 Northwest Highway
6173-75 Northwest Highway – Losacco and Springston Builders

6847-49 and 6853-55 Olmsted
6847-49 and 6853-55 Olmsted – Guiffre Brothers

7418 N. Harlem Avenue
7418 N. Harlem Avenue – Parisi Brothers Construction Co. Inc.

7610 and 7614 W. Belmont Avenue
7610 and 7614 W. Belmont Avenue – Nick S. Theodorau, architect. No word on the builder.

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.

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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.)

Little boxes on the prairie

Berwyn Ave

Oh, it was a glorious day when I found this place!

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8500 Berwyn

8700 Berwyn

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These scenes all come from a single neighborhood, on Chicago’s northwestern fringe. Most of the area is in Chicago proper, with a chunk belonging to the suburban municipality of Norridge. The area consists of three half-mile squares bounded by East River Road on the west, which curves into Montrose on the south, Bryn Mawr to the north, and Cumberland Avenue on the east.

For some reason, one of the most difficult things to find on the internet is a map that clearly shows municipal boundaries. Google and Bing are both equally useless in this regard. I’m fairly certain about the Chicago/Norridge part, but some of this area may be in a township or village or city or Chicago neighborhood (or all four) called Harwood Heights. A town or neighborhood called O’Hare might also be involved.

What I can tell you, without qualification, is that this is the largest and most amazing MidCentury neighborhood in Chicago.

3-flats

If you want to educate someone on MCM Chicago in just five minutes, take them here. It has all the essentials: the glass block. The 3-flats. The 6-flats. The raised ranch/bungalows. The door handles. The blonde brick. The wood pattern doors. The garage door designs. The metal railings. It’s even got split-level ranch houses. And it has all this in droves. Entire blocks were constructed to identical plans, then festooned with all the varied decoration that 1960s Chicago could muster. The result: a bizarre landscape of endless repetition and endless variety. Every building is alike, yet no two are alike.

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

Perhaps the most amazing part is that, from what evidence I’ve been able to gather, this incredibly unified neighborhood was designed and built by a multitude of unrelated architects and contractors. I would have expected to find one giant firm churning out the same plan again and again. Of the 10 or 15 addresses for which I have an architect or builder’s name, there are almost as many designers’ names attached. Certainly single builders put up runs of buildings, perhaps even entire blocks, but no single entity guided the creation of the area. I am still researching this and will have a more detailed post soon. Ish.

Jet Age living

6-flat with random rubble stone

The bulk of the area went up in the mid- to late-1960s, though there is some indication that the construction continued into the early 1970s.

St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church

Again, that’s St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the background there, another future post topic. Promise!

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?