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.

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Green on White, Volume 3 – A Baker’s Dozen of Bakery Brick

Another batch of white and green glazed brick storefronts – about a dozen total. At this point I have documented well over 50 of these buildings in and around the city, all featuring the same material and color pallet, and often the same style of design and ornamentation. And still no answer to the simple question of why! Why this color combination, why so many of them, why this style, why right in this one concentrated time period around 1920?

IMG_2894a741-749 W. 79th Street at Halsted. The westernmost of the four storefronts was the Auburn Park Library from the late 1930s until 1963. This building was next door to the corner commercial building demolished several years ago following a wall collapse.

 

Clark Street, Rogers Park7051 N. Clark Street, Rogers Park. Originally the Casino Theater, one of a legion of early theaters, most of which lasted only a few years before larger and more modern competitors overtook them. Cinema Treasures lists the Casino as operating from 1913-14; it was cited by the city in 1913 – along with dozens of other theaters – for a total lack of any ventilation. By 1919, it was a car dealership. In recent years, the building has lost a curved parapet wall.

Before this building went up, the site was home to Patrick Leonard Touhy, an early settler, businessman and land trader in the area, who married the daughter of Phillip Rogers, platted Rogers Park, and lent his name to one of the area’s major east-west arterial streets. Separated from his wife, Mr. Touhy lived at this address alone until he passed away in 1911; his house was demolished and replaced with the theater. His wife’s mansion, at 5008 Clark (old system, 7339 Clark new system) was torn town in 1917 and is now the site of Touhy Park.

Western Avenue

2241 and 2245 N. Western Avenue

 

IMG_1172a
2403 W. Chicago Avenue – Liz’s Pet Shop, with thin triangular and diamond patterns surrounding a beautiful bulls-eye of stained glass above, and a completely altered storefront below. In the 1930s it was the office of Dr. Marco Petrone (1902-1966), a gynecologist and city Health Department inspector whose office also seemed to have a knack for attracting crime victims seeking emergency treatment. By 1945 it housed the Roncoli Grill.

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4230 1/2-4234 and 4236 S. Archer Avenue – two adjacent buildings with matching facades.

The lower, longer building on the right contains three retail storefronts; the peculiar 4230 1/2 address indicates that the third was shoehorned in at some point. 4234 was a Brighton Hobby store in the 1970s; recent occupants include the recently departed Vision To You, a pizza parlor, and a salon.

4236 S. Archer opened as the Crane Theater in 1916 – hence the grand archway; it operated as a theater into the 1950s. More recent retail tenants included a Color Mart wallpaper store in the 1970s, the Brighton Flower Shop until around 2007 (with a great neon sign), and the China Spa in 2008.

Both stores were refaced with modern red brick recently, first the theater in 2012 and then the storefronts on either side in 2013. All three came out much the worse – though at least the now-anomalous archway is no longer covered with a giant banner. The renovation included installation of bulbs into the long-disused sockets of the arch; the milky stained glass in the arched window appears to be an earlier addition by the short-lived China Spa. The current tenant, responsible for the red brick ruination, is the Gads Hill Center, a family and community support organization.

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DSC_0156a

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6901 S. Halsted Street – green brick striping punctuated by terra cotta medalions. The building contains apartments above and four retail outlets at the street level. The Family Loan Corporation was a long-time tenant, from the late 1940s through the 1950s. A liquor store came later, in the 1960s.

 

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711 W. 47th Street – another curious specimen, a wood framed house tarted up with masonry accents at the street. The house is likely much older than the other buildings in this post, which likely date from the 1910s.

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IMG_0646a2209 W. Cermak Road, at far right – another apartment-over-storefront configuration. It was a music store in 1919, likely the first tenant. After that the storefront housed a series of doctor’s offices, including one who practiced there for many years before moving out in 1942. The address made headlines in 1977, as another physician operating there was one of several who carried a notable new type of glasses case that the Tribune reviewed. The same doc made headlines again in 1981 under less auspicious circumstances – he and another physician were busted for supplying drugs to street gangs. 

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3311 W. Montrose Avenue – Chicago Import, Inc. The storefront has been infilled with blonde brick, and the limestone panels in the center appear to be a Mid Century addition.IMG_9070a

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2107 N. Cleveland Avenue – Custom Hair Lounge + Spa – the green brick is merely a small accent amid handsome corbelling and an arched parapet wall, capped with limestone trim. It opened as a grocery store in 1919, and was the White House tavern in the 1950s (when an out of town patron tried to commit suicide in the restroom.) 

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6241 N. Broadway, Uptown – Green Element Resale. Like the Casino Theater, this building has lost its upper parapet wall – as evidenced by a geometric design that is abruptly sliced off at the roofline. It was the Leon Beloian Rug Company in 1981.

 

IMG_8966a
3707 W. 26th Street. Civic Savings and Loan in 1957. Vanek Travel Service in 1960. Mena Mexico Travel Agency today. This is actually a storefront addition – there’s a wood frame house behind it, still in use as a residence in 1964 when Mr. Arthur Vanek, owner of the first travel agency, passed away. The green was painted over some time between 2007 and 2011.

 

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Diversey-Sheffield Building, 946-958 W. Diversey / 2801 N. Sheffield Avenue. Built in 1916, according to Chicago Architecture Info, this one featured an actual name emblazoned on the corner facade.  As with the Archer Avenue buildings, that facade was recently lost. According to the architect’s Facebook page, “the glaze on the brick was failing, the walls were deteriorating and the cornices falling off due to rust.” Modern brown brick replaced the 100 year old white glazed look. Its multiple storefronts have, and still do, housed a variety of tenants.

IMG_8723a

IMG_8726aThe fate of the two refaced stores flags up a major issue facing all these buildings – the glazing tends to flake off as the buildings age, particularly if water gets into the walls (due to poor roof or parapet maintenance) and can’t get out (due to a variety of factors.) The glazing is the brick’s finished surface, and without that surface the brick decays faster. These buildings could become an endangered species if owners continue to defer maintenance.

The Terrazzo Entryways of Chicago

Sherman Shops

Sherman Shops – 3113 Lincoln Avenue. Now the Kabbalah Centre, this was originally an part of a clothing store chain with dozens of stores across the Midwestern and Southern states, including more than 20 in Chicagoland. This one was open by 1940.

Look down in the right parts of town, and you’ll see them – stylized, stylish lettering in the pavement outside of a store, usually proclaiming the name of some long-gone business – maybe a well-known regional chain, maybe a one-off store that has drifted into obscurity.

2514 Devon - *LLAY'S

2514 W. Devon Avenue. In 1938 this was home to Robertson & Co., “The House of Liquid Tiling”, “the modern finish” for woodwork and walls; they left some time after 1944. By 1949, Gollay’s, Inc. had moved in, imprinting their name on the entryway. Gollay’s was an interior decorator and furniture store for “lamps, gifts and occasional furniture”. The founder, Charles Gollay, passed away in 1955; the store continued as Gollay’s Gifts. Gollay’s Lamp and Gift Shop ran a Going Out of Business sale ad in early 1962, and by 1964 they had been replaced by J.C. Cooper, a men’s clothier (later David Cooper, Inc.) which lasted into the late 1970s. Most recently it was home to Bombay Electronics, which has since gone out of business. Today the entry is partially covered by an alteration to the storefront as well as a thin concrete coating that has mostly been removed (or worn away). The legible portion of the name reads “LLAY’S” and gives the street address.

Terrazzo is a pourable substance with fragments of a material – marble, stone, etc. – embedded in a cement-like adhesive, then ground smooth after it has set. Thin metal strips are used to create patterns by separating different colors or materials.  The material enjoyed widespread popularity at midcentury, peaking in the 1940s when it appeared in numerous storefront entryways. They were added to many styles of buildings – both older buildings with post-War remodelings at street level, and on newer, smaller commercial buildings, almost always in conjunction with a modern style of storefront. They aren’t always fancy; they may be as simple as a solid color with no design at all.

photo

A typical terrazzo entryway on Devon Avenue. Photo courtesy of Joan Sillins.

Chicago had dozens, if not hundreds, of examples, many of which survive today. They can be tough to spot, though – you won’t see them if you’re driving or even biking; you have to be on foot. They are very frequently hidden by door mats, sometimes obscured by display racks or shelves, and occasionally covered up entirely by later remodelings. But their durable nature means they are rarely removed – in fact, in almost every case, they far outlast the businesses that they advertise.

Anchor

3433 W. Fullerton Avenue – an anchor inscribed on a stylized letter “B”. Home to a tavern in 1955 (license revoked in 1961 because it was reportedly “a hangout for sexual deviants”, 1960s-speak for a gay-friendly bar.) Now the Acapulco Night Club, opened in 1987.

Milwaukee Avenue is one of the city’s most architecturally rich streets, and one of the best  for finding terrazzo entryways. Along its considerable length may be found many markers of successful commercial strips – jazzy storefronts, elaborate neon signs, and many stylish terrazzo floors.

Feltman & Curme

Feltman & Curme shoe store – 4049 N. Milwaukee, Portage Park neighborhood. In 1926, this had been Frost’s Men’s Shop; by 1929, it was a Loblaw Groceteria, a grocery chain with many outlets across the city; by 1934, a Jewel food store, which lasted until 1940. The spectacular storefront was installed when Feltman & Curme moved in circa 1941, and is similar to an outlet on State Street which got a full-page grand opening ad in 1942.  This entry and the one next door (below) harmonize but are not the same design at all. Both speak of the streamlined elegance common in commercial settings before World War II. Feltman lasted through 1955, and the real long-term beneficiary of their superb taste was Siegel’s Shoe Store, who had taken their place by 1958 and lasted well into the 1980s.

Bernard's

Brandt’s Shoes – 4047 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Portage Park neighborhood. In 1926 this was a Wurlitzer musical instrument store; by 1928, a Lyon and Healy radio store, which seems to have closed in 1932. In 1938, the social pages mention a “Goldammer’s Garden recreation” here, in connection with a bowling tournament. By 1940, Brandt’s Shoes had opened here, the most likely candidate for having installed the stylish terrazzo floor and display cases; they were replaced in 1947 by Kinney’s shoe store and most recently by Bernard’s Electronic Outlet.

This particular motif – a circle with offshooting lines, which can represent several letters including B, D, J or P  – was common enough that I recently saw the same design on a floor in Washington DC.

Nu-Dell

Nu-Dell Apparel Shops – 1341 N. Milwaukee – a local clothing store chain, in business here by 1940, replacing the W.L. Douglas Shoe Company which had operated here previously since the 1920s. Now Milwaukee Furniture. A razor-thin sans-serif font gives the air of 1940s moderne, as does the off-yellow color. Another Nu-Dell terrazzo floor exists on Archer Avenue.

Wein

Wein’s Department Store – 2994 N. Milwaukee, open in 1959 but surprisingly absent from the Chicago-Tribune. Later Buen Hogar Furniture, now closed.

M.J. Petrie

M.J. Petrie – 2768  Milwaukee Avenue – part of the Petrie Stores chain of women’s clothing shops; later Rainbow Shops – now Shoe Source Shoes and Clothing. A scan of the classified ads pegs this location to a 1946 opening. The simple style and the use of initials hearken back to the conventions used on modest commercial buildings of the 1880s and 1890s.

Though it’s not as rich a source of terrazzo floors as Milwaukee Avenue, there are still a few to be found in the vibrant Little Village corridor along 26th Street.Malina

Malina apparel, 3625 W. 26th Street – first appears by 1951; lasted until 1971. Now Happy Dollar Plus. The stripes give it a bit of Streamline flare, an effect diminished by the revised storefront which covers part of the design.

Three Sisters

Three Sisters, 3407 W. 26th Street – originally a clothing chain, opened here in 1948 and still in business in 1960; now Game Time Soccer Store.

A third hot spot for terrazzo entries is Archer Avenue, a lengthy boulevard running diagonally southwest, from the edge of downtown to far out into the countryside. Along the way, it passes many neighborhoods and holds an almost endless parade of fascinating architecture – and so many terrazzo storefront floors that I was originally going to limit this post to Archer Avenue only.

Archer Avenue Terrazzo
Brighton Specialty Shop – 4220 S. Archer Avenue – now Courrier Agency Insurance Group. This clothing store was in business here from 1942 to 1959, give or take. Sadly, this one’s days are numbered; the owner of the building’s current business plans to have the surface patched and repaired, then painted over with his company’s own logo.

Archer Avenue Terrazzo
4241 S. Archer Avenue – Nu-Dell Apparel. The name is covered up by the welcome mat; the brick is newly applied. Nu-Dell operated here from at least 1935 to 1956. In the 1980s, Palatine Draperies was here. Today it’s home to Gabrielle’s, a florist.

Archer Avenue Terrazzo
4271 Archer Avenue – originally a men’s clothing store, which only appears in the Tribune archives in a series of crime reports involving stolen clothing. Now an auto insurance company.

Archer Avenue Terrazzo
4243 Archer Avenue – originally Katz Exclusive Millenery, a local chain of women’s fashion accessory stores with several outlets around town, founded in 1921. This location opened in 1944.  Their run here lasted through the 1950s; Katz went out of business when its founder Samuel Katz retired in 1964. Now Lucy’s Women and Men’s Wear.

Archer Avenue Terrazzo4249 S. Archer Avenue – A Mid-Century storefront marked by a stylized O shape in the pavement and lot of turnover in occupancy. It’s not clear who installed the entryway. In 1929 it was Brighton Park Clothiers. In the mid-1940s it housed a Spiegel catalog order store, followed by a Grayson clothing store starting around 1947. By 1960, Flagg Brothers Shoe Store; by 1972, O-Kay Shoes was here. Today it’s the campaign headquarters of Jesus Garcia, Cook County 7th district commissioner.

Archer Avenue Terrazzo
Archer Motor Sales – Established 1944 – 3945 S. Archer Avenue. W.K. Archer Motor Sales was in business by 1926; in 1944 they relocated to this new building to sell Fords, lasting through 1957; the next year they were replaced by Power Ford Sales, Inc, who remained there until at least 1968. Now Image Hand Carwash and VP Real Estate.

Malina Shoes

Maling Shoes  (not to be confused with Malina clothing stores) – 4269 S. Archer  – a chain with several outlets around the city; this one opened in 1946 and remained in business here until 1974. Now Cannella School of Hair Design

York

York – 4315 S. Archer Avenue. York Women’s Apparel moved in in 1947. Today it’s conjoined with the building next door, which was an A&P grocer from the 1930s into the 1970s. Now Snow Discount Carpets. The font is a classic no-nonsense typeface used on many International Style buildings in the 1940s and 1950s.

Neisner's

Neisner’s – 4255 S. Archer  – Neisner Brothers was a nationwide chain of five-and-dime stores; “your neighborhood 5 and 10” had opened this location by 1951. The chain closed in the 1970s. Now Archer Discount Furniture Store

Archer Avenue Big Store

Archer Avenue Big Store – 4181-4193 S. Archer Avenue – originally a local department / dry goods store (with a given address of 4187 Archer) –  founded in 1922, operating at this address by 1939, and still going 50 years later. Founder John Brdecka passed away in 1990. The location is now Zemsky’s Uniforms. The stripes are adhesive anti-slip strips, not part of the original design.

And finally, the quasi-famous entryway of Cushman’s on Broadway – proof that a terrazzo installation can outlast not only the business that commissioned it but also the building that housed it.
Cushmann's

Cushman’s Rug Cleaners – 6310 N. Broadway – this carpet cleaning business moved in from a couple of blocks south around 1948. In 1971 a Cantonese restaurant named China Doll moved into the space; in 1984, Santino’s on Broadway, an Italian restaurant, moved in; in 1986, a nightclub called The 86 Club; by 1987, it was back to Chinese with the Bik Har restaurant and lounge. Some post-1990 disaster leveled half the block. In the last few years, a community garden has sprouted up on the slab of the demolished building.

Cushmann's

Terrazzo entries leave no clue as to their creators. Plenty of contracting and flooring companies could install them, and there’s no evidence regarding who did what job – though it seems possible that several of the more stylish ones may have come from a single designer.

I am acutely aware that this is a rather woefully incomplete list, but as they say, sometimes you go to blog with the photos you have, not the photos you wish you had. I don’t have shots of some of Chicago’s most interesting and impressive terrazzo installations, including the “What Petersen Promises, Petersen Does” on Belmont, the Art Deco patterns on the patio of the Davis Theater, and any number of the entries on this Flickr set, which includes some real beauties both in Chicago and elsewhere. If you need an excuse to take a long stroll when the weather lets up, head out to one of the city’s grand commercial streets and treat yourself to a day of terrazzo hunting.

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.

Polish housing
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.

Polish housing

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.

Polish housing

Polish housing
1362 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

Polish housing
1363 N. Bosworth Avenue at Blackhawk

Polish housing
1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac

Polish housing
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.

Polish housing
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.

Polish housing
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.

Polish housing
1725 S. Ashland Avenue at 18th Street

Polish housing
1400 N. Noble Street at Blackhawk

Green on White, Chapter 2 – More Bakery Brick Facades

Back in April I posted a collection of buildings facades made with white glazed brick and olive green accent brick.  At the time, I put up every one I was aware of.  But as often happens when you have 65,000 digital photographs of a city, sometimes things get lost. I’ve since found and tagged more such buildings – a LOT more.

Sadly, what I have not found is further information on the architectural style or its manufacturers and designers.  As usual, though, I’ve included some of the anecdotal histories I’ve found among the Chicago-Tribune archives and elsewhere.

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3760 Fullerton Avenue at Hamlin – west of Logan Square

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3740-46 Fullerton Avenue – west of Logan Square

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1111 W Wilson Avenue – Uptown – most recently home to Rokito’s Mexican Streetside Kitchen. 

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The Greenleaf Building, Wilmette – home to 9 separate storefronts. The building appears to have gone up in two parts, with the eastern portion replacing a house in 1912. The 1137 Greenleaf storefront housed a Western Union telegraph office from the 1930s into the 1960s, then the Butt’ry Tea Room & Pastry Shop from 1979 until circa 2010.   At 1141 Greenleaf, the storefront housed a tire shop in 1920, Bob’s Radio Shop in 1925, a belly dance studio in 1973, and a coffee soup & sandwich shop today. 

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2906 Central Street, Evanston. This curious case appears to be a 1910s storefront with a later second-story addition. On top of that, a 1960s storefront renovation added a flagstone base under the display window, and an angled entryway.

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741-743 W. 79th Street at  Halsted – built by 1917.

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3650-52 W. Chicago Avenue – Near West Side. Built by 1917, when it was home to J. Faust, dealer of Emerson records. (Records as in 78 rpm singles, with such famous tunes as “He’s Had No Loving for a Long Long Time”, “Some Day I’ll Make You Glad”, and “How Are You Goin’ to Wet Your Whistle?”)

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3814 W. 26th Street – Little Village. Now the 26th Street Medical Center. Built by 1915, this was a family-owned building and business from its construction until the end of the 1970s.  The first name associated with it is Vaclav M. Urbanek, in 1915; V.M. Urbanek & Son were listed as one of the many undertakers called upon to serve the victims of the steamship Eastland disaster that year. His son Edward Urbanek became an undertaker and seems to have opened a full-fledged funeral home around 1930 – possibly when the anomalous first floor facade was added.  A snazzy mid-century side entrance came later still. Funerals were held here in the Urbanek Funeral Home until 1970; by 1981 it was a doctor’s office.

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3916 W. 26th Street – Little Village – Taquerias Atotonilco has occupied the space since the 1980s.

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3519 W. 26th Street – Little Village

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4226 W. 26th Street / 4222 W. 26th Street – Little Village

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1011 N. Western Avenue

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949 N. Western Avenue – Ricky’s Deli

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1730 W. 18th Street  (orig. 756);  1726 W. 18th Street (orig. 754) – Pilsen.  The left-hand building was built by 1912. 

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1623 N. Milwaukee Avenue – Wicker Park – Red Hen Bread. A 1912 ad shows the National Bedding Company at this address. In 1923, Sigman’s Music Store, a short-lived piano dealer, is advertised. Only 2 years later, ads show the Western Brass and Iron Bed Company at the address. Today, fragments of a demolished neighbor cling to the party wall.

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1657 W. 47th Street, Back of the Yards – La Baguette Bakery

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4601 South Marshfield Avenue, Back of the Yards – a curious brick upgrade to a much older building otherwise sheathed in wood siding.

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5048 S. Indiana Ave. Occupied by 1918 – when some inhabitants were arrested for gambling.

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1467 E. 53rd Street at Harper,  Hyde Park. The corner retail store was originally home to a branch of Mesirow & Jacobson Pharmacy, who in 1921 were proud distributors of “Yeast Foam Tablets – A Tonic Food”, and four years later were selling “Vapo Chlorine” as a surefire protection against influenza. By 1940 a grocer occupied the space. 

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4200 W. Madison

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2149 W. Division Avenue – Nabi Cleaners.  Real estate ads show that the upstairs apartments retain some rather lovely woodwork.

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11021 S. Michigan Avenue, Roseland.  In the 1920s, the Peoples Store, a general store.  In the 1940s and 1950s, a Firestone tire dealer.  In the 1970s, a TV store. From the early 80s, Major Motor Auto Supply, whose signs still adorn the party wall, along with a painted over sign in front that remains faintly visible today.
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Chicago’s Coal Fired Power Plants

Chicagoland’s biggest power plants  – particularly Fisk, Crawford and State Line – are fascinating behemoths. They are madcap assemblages of machinery and ad hoc construction, as tall as a skyscraper, with additions and alterations accumulated over many decades of operation. All three started from a core of massive, pre-Depression, low-rise masonry buildings, embellished with varying degrees of architectural detail; all three exploded upwards as part of LBJ-era expansion programs.

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Today, all three are facing closure due to their outdated coal-burning systems, which – despite improved burning techniques and pollution controls – make them the largest point sources of air pollution in and around Chicago. But for me the single uniting factor for them all is something far more mundane – the red-painted metal cladding, with International Style ribbon windows, that distinguishes their Mid-Century additions.

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Those additions are mostly built as vertical additions to existing older buildings; they accommodate huge multi-story boilers and burners that used innovative technology to wring more value out of every pound of coal.

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There are other stations of similar styling in Joliet (above) and Waukegan, and even a smaller one by the lake in Winnetka, of all places – but for now we’ll stick with the big three, so prominent to travelers on the Skyway and the Stevenson.


Fisk Generating Station

The Fisk power plant is seen by many as the bane of Pilsen. Located between Cermak Road and the Ship & Sanitary Canal, it closely abuts the thriving Mexican-American neighborhood to its north.

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A tiny sliver of the original Fisk buildings can be seen from Cermak:
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But for the most part, they are buried under layers of additional buildings, additional machinery, and later remodelings.

Fisk was built by Commonwealth Edison beginning in 1902. Named for an obscure, now-vanished side street, the new power house was one of the largest in the world at the time, and was expected to cost $6 million. Expected to serve electric-powered railroads as well as homes and businesses, the plant marked the Edison Company’s move to become the area’s premier provider of electricity, under the leadership of celebrated mogul Samuel Insull. It was hailed as a wonder of the world upon its opening a year later, with its 14 massive turbines attracting the attention of visiting engineers. It was also hailed as a boon to the community’s air quality, concentrating energy production in a single location with “smokeless smokestacks”.

Coal originally arrived by train; it was mechanically unloaded and fed to the boilers; the ash was automatically removed in similar fashion. The degree of efficiency and automation was a marvel of the age. The massive turbines powered generators featuring nearly-frictionless shafts supported on a bed of high-pressure oil.

The original buildings, of red pressed brick, featured a turbine hall of “white enamel brick and white ornamental tile”, with a “floor of imported tiles”, all brightly lit.

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Over the following decades, Fisk steadily expanded (its original buildings were built with temporary walls allowing further linear expansion.) A major expansion project was undertaken in the late 1930s, including a new switchhouse to govern how the plant’s output was distributed.

A new turbo-generator was installed in 1950, generating steam at almost twice the temperature of the older units, at a cost of $20 million, along with two 110-foot high boilers; its 150,000 kilowatt output dwarfed the original turbine’s output of 5,000 kW.

In 1959, another new turbine surpassed that one, with an output of 305,000 kilowatts, powered by 16-story high boilers.  The new boilers included electro-static precipitators, intended to remove 98% of the ash from the boiler output before it ever left the plant. Known as Unit 19, this is essentially the same system operating in the plant today.

The red-clad portion of the Fisk plant was almost certainly built to accommodate these gargantuan boilers; either 1950 or 1959 would be a plausible match stylistically. Similar projects were underway at the other stations around the area.

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Today, Fisk and its sister Crawford are owned by Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International. Since the early 2000s, Fisk and its fellow coal-fired plants have come under attack from community activists and environmentalists, with government studies identifying them as major sources of pollution and health risks to the communities around them. The state of Illinois ruled that the plants must be cleaned up or shut down by 2013; both Fisk and Crawford will suffer the latter fate, with closings planned for the end of this summer.

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Crawford Generating Station

If the sight of Crawford power plant rising up over S. Pulaski Road doesn’t impress you, I can’t fathom what would. Crawford’s bulk rises some thirteen stories above the street, in an area dominated by single-story construction and low-rise industrial.

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Like Fisk, it is located along the Ship & Sanitary Canal, giving it an easy source of water and a convenient means of obtaining coal. The site has no external rail service; coal arrives entirely by barge, and is carried by a series of conveyors into the plant for burning.

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Crawford began construction in 1923 and opened in 1925, taking its name from Crawford Avenue (the street, but not the plant, was later renamed Pulaski Avenue.) Its initial capacity was for 500,000 kW, provided by three gargantuan Westinghouse turbines (two built in Pittsburgh, one in Scotland.)

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One of the units was replaced in 1958 by a 205,000 kW generator, powered by a 14-story boiler, necessitating the vertical expansion of the plant.  The new stories were capped by two massive electrostatic precipitators, still prominently in place today. Work began in 1956 and was capped by a 375-foot smokestack. A second expansion began before the first was even finished, with a 305,000 kW generator going into service in 1961 and replacing the last of the older generators. These two generators remain in service today. A 1990 switch house fire at the plant caused a blackout of considerable size, leading to sporadic looting in some poorer parts of the city.

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The Crawford power house is viewed by its Little Village neighbors with much the same enmity as Pilsen feels toward the Fisk plant. Its 1960s technology is unquestionably a major point source of air pollution (though in fairness, the nearby Stevenson expressway can’t be much better for air quality.) And like its sister plant, it is scheduled for closure later in 2012 in the face of a State mandate to clean up or clear out.

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State Line Generating Station

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The State Line power plant is named for its peculiar location, just over the Indiana state border in Hammond, Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Initial plans for the plant began around 1921, with the purchase of 15 acres of land – the Eggers estate, owned by a German immigrant since the 1860s – by electric power magnate Samual Insull.  Additional dumping and dredging expanded the holding to 90 acres. The plant was formally announced in 1926, to be built by its own dedicated company, which would then sell its power to various Insull-related companies such as Commonwealth Edision.

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State Line Generating Station opened on the very eve of the Great Depression, in September 1929; its three Unit I turbines whose combined output totaled 208,000 kW – surpassing every plant in the country apart from Fisk and Crawford. Its handsome original buildings were designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, in a stock brick factory style, sited on artificially created land.

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The plant’s coal fuel supply arrives entirely by rail; in the 1960s, a dedicated 100+ car train began running from the Lynnville coal mine in southern Indiana to State Line. The lakeside site is used solely for its access to the large amounts of water needed by the boilers – up to 700 tons of water were needed for each ton of coal that was burned, and plants of this scale could consume a ton of coal every minute.

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State Line Generating Station

Unit 2 was constructed in 1931. The plant expanded in 1955 (mostly likely when the red-clad Intenational Style highrise portion was added) and again in 1962 with a new 340,000 kW generating unit, bringing the plant’s total capacity up to 900,000 kW. At its peak the plant had 6 massive stacks; only the two newer ones remain today.

State Line Generating Station

State Line is famous for a number of things – its odd location and name, its prominent visibility from the Chicago Skyway, its beautiful main gate. It is a designated National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark for its original Unit I turbine group, from 1929 until 1954 the largest in the world, and still in service until the late 1970s, when it and Unit 2 were retired.

State Line Generating Station

Commonwealth Edision sold State Line in 1997 to Southern Co. of Atlanta; a year later the plant was in the news for a massive explosion in the coal-handling area that injured 17 workers.

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It later passed to Mirant Corporation, then more recently to Virginia-based Dominion Resources in 2002.

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Faced with dropping energy prices and stringent environmental regulations from the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rules, State Line shut down in early 2012, with shutdown work continuing through the end of June. On June 26, a completed sale of the plant to BTU Solutions of Texas was announced – a firm specializing in refurbishing and demolishing old power plants. An article in the NW Indiana Times states that “the deal was structured to ensure demolition of the former plant.”

State Line remains the most architecturally significant of the three, with the least amount of alteration to its original buildings. Its 1950s expansion was built alongside the original buildings, rather than on top of them as at Crawford, and it contains the most considered detailing of the three. The move to demolition is both rash and unfortunate – a building this size must surely have other uses in such a heavily industrialized area.


Power plants, like large hospitals, tend to acquire layers and layers of complex history, changing and evolving radically to keep pace with time and technology. The result is an aggregate that is is fascinatingly complex – and far more than the sum of its parts. The complexity is the very thing worth preserving.

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I have yet to see a closed hospital complex be treated in a way that recognizes this fact. St. Louis’s City Hospital was stripped of over half its buildings, leaving the remainder feeling naked and exposed. Even the most generous of the farcical plans for Chicago’s Michael Reese had it stripped down to just two isolated buildings; today the one survivor is a bizarre anomaly, a single link from a vanished chain.

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If it is so hard to see the preservation value of old hospital buildings – generally built with some eye toward aesthetics – then I fear deeply for these venerable but prosaic complexes. Even if they are not hazardous waste sites – even some unlikely savior sees their massive interior spaces as a potential benefit – it is almost certain that they would be stripped of their layers of history and alteration. The functional machinery, layered and piled on, will be demolished, leaving only a few selected buildings, returned to a pristine state of faux history.

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But that is a best case scenario. More likely they will simply be demolished, top to bottom, and Chicago’s once-mighty industrial landscape will be all the more diminished.

Mexican Grocery Store signs

They come in a rainbow of colors (mostly neon, entirely bright), and you can find them all across the city, from Pilsen and Little Village to Logan Square to Rogers Park.

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Near West Side

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Little Village
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Rogers Park

Chicago has tons of Mexican grocers – there are three within a block of my residence alone – and a disproportionate number of them advertise with signs just like these.

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The style is universal: wavy lines top and bottom, in bright neon colors. Huge blocky numbers for the price, in red. Smaller font for the letters, but still in a bouncy, informal, chipper mood.

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Like the builder’s Mid-Century style, it’s one of those cases of curious convergence. A quick chat with our local grocer reveals that they get them from varying places, sometimes making them themselves, and sometimes hiring guys to do it. I’ve seen the stamps of at least two different sign makers on these posters, though most of them remain anonymous.

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Why are they all the same style? Is it demanded, expected, or simply unexamined? Does it relate to some deep cultural strain, or is it just a thing that is?