Three south side commercial streets

Years ago, I made one of my first trips to Chicago to pay a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio out in Oak Park. With that mission accomplished, my friend and I decided to see if we could make it down to the Robie House on the south side as well. I was driving, and elected to take a long, leisurely route through the city streets rather than jumping on a highway. It was on this trip that I discovered W. 18th Street.

W. 18th Street

I was sufficiently blown away by its endless ranks of 3- and 4-story commercial buildings, all seeming to date from the post-Fire years, that I made another trip down to Chicago just a week later, for the express purpose of paying a lengthy visit to this remarkable street.

Years later, the Pilsen neighborhood usually figures into my plans at least every few months. As a predominantly Mexican neighborhood, it’s home to scads of restaurants, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.

W. 18th Street

It’s also just a comfortable and friendly place to wander and photograph. The street is rich with details – signs, graffiti, ad hoc renovations, store displays, half-completed projects, murals, rusting fire escapes, and of course block after block of ornate vintage architecture.

Sacred and secular

Thalia Hall

In light of this commercially and aesthetically rich strip, I was surprised to find not one but two additional commercial streets nearby, both equal to W. 18th Street in architecture and culture.

The first one I encountered only this weekend. I was a bit tired and hungry, but the major buildings on this stretch of Cermak Road were just too amazing to pass up. I stopped the car and walked for an hour or so. The strip is west and a bit south from 18th Street.

Cermak Road

The prize find, and the building that compelled me to stop, was the old Marshall Square Theater, now called Apollo’s 2000.

"Apollo's 2000"

The building was, after a fashion, familiar to me from a striking photograph in Camilo Jose Vergara’s wonderful Unexpected Chicagoland, but not till I was standing in front of it did I have the “ah hah!” moment of recognition, when I saw the remorselessly vandalized goddess figure on the front facade, her face obliterated by a box beam ramming through it.

They punched that chick RIGHT IN THE FACE!!

A second theater, last operated as the West Theatre, stands a few blocks east. It’s not as ornate, but still lovely.

West Theatre

The neighborhood’s official names include South Lawndale and Little Village; demographically speaking, today it’s a westward extension of Pilsen, with a heavily Mexican-American population.

Cermak Road

Further west and south again from Cermak, W. 26th Street forms the core of the Little Village neighborhood. Founded and first settled by Eastern European immigrants, the area’s current name originated in the 1970s from its more recent Mexican immigrant population.

26th Street, Little Village

Pepe's Locksmith & Hardware

The street’s centerpiece is the former Atlantic Theater building, now converted to mundane commercial use.

Former Atlantic Theater

Mother Mary

Any one of these streets would be a marvel by itself; finding them all in such close conjunction is simply amazing.

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The Atlantic Theater, or what’s left of it

This gem of a building is located in the center of the 26th Street commercial district, in the core of the Little Village neighborhood. The area is a lot like Pilsen, but without all that pesky gentrification. There are no condos or hip coffee shops here, but you can find a wrought iron company and a place selling live poultry. And bridal shops. Lots of bridal shops.

Former Atlantic Theater

The building today is called the Atlantic Mall, but from its commandingly lush terra cotta ornament, it fairly obviously used to be a theater — the Atlantic Theater, unsurprisingly, built in 1917.

Former Atlantic Theater

It was gutted for a “mall” in the mid-1990s, sadly. The inside today doesn’t look like much. But the facade remains a centerpiece for the busy 26th Street corridor.

Former Atlantic Theater

Link: The Atlantic Theater at Cinema Treasures

Painting the town

Murals abounded on a late afternoon expedition to mid-south Chicago — on a Pilsen hot dog stand…

Pilsen hot dog stand

…on the wall of an adjacent building…
Pilsen mural

…and on the building of the Fellowship House, 844 W. 32nd Street in Bridgeport:
Fellowship House mural

The delightfully detailed mural covers the entire building, and is themed around the divisions people build between us and them, fellows and others. Bits of text drift among the surreal images, turning the building into a message against prejudice.

Fellowship House mural

Layin’ it on thick in Pilsen

This house sits on the 1600 block of W. 16th Street, right across from the magnificent St. Adalbert’s Church.

A house....

It’s a mini-Parthenon, grandeur wrought on the smallest possible scale. Or at least it wants to be grand. In truth…

....with delusions of grandeur.

…it’s a puffed-up ordinary gabled brick house, with a Classical facade sitting in front of it.

But I love it. It’s such an oddball among all the standard brick and wood siding, and it’s obvious that whatever else the owner was thinking, they really really wanted it to be special.