Chicago Mid-Century Modern: St. Lambert Catholic Church

Tucked away among the unassuming residential side streets of Skokie is the startlingly modern building of St. Lambert Church (architect Frank Polito, 1960.)IMG_0613

There is plenty of Mid-Century Modern in Skokie, but most of it is not on this level. St. Lambert is highly decorated and heavily stylized, inside and out. IMG_0899a

The lobby, for example, has stained glass doors and windows (with patterns unique to this part of the building), walls of red Roman brick, and  exuberant patterns of floor tile.  Stylized stainless steel railings and free-floating steps take visitors up and down, while built-in planters bring the indoors into the building.

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This beautiful textured glass window separates the lobby from the sanctuary.

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The sanctuary is large and open, with arched wood laminate beams creating a space with no columns. Behind the altar is a striking wall flecked with diamond-shaped windows, infilled with faceted stained glass.

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St. Lambert Parish was founded in 1951, and work on the building complex began in 1952 with what is now the school building. The cornerstone was laid on November 9. This first building was designed by architects Pirola & Erbach. The school closed in 2003, just shy of its 50th anniversary, due to dropping enrollment.

The main church building dates from 1960 and was dedicated in June 1961. Today the congregation has a large Filipino presence.

IMG_0869aThe colors, materials, the grid of geometric windows, and the suburban side street location all give St. Lambert a kinship with Milwaukee’s Holy Family Catholic Church.

Architect Frank F. Polito (1908-1967) was in practice from the mid-1930s until his death, working from an office on Michigan Avenue until 1938, then from the Mather Tower and finally from Lincolnwood. Among his other works are a Moderne 2-flat apartment at Asbury & Isabella in Evanston, several single-family homes in a variety of styles including a dozen on Chilton Lane in Wilmette,  the International Style Woodbine School in Cicero, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran in Niles (done in a style similar to that of Charles Stade),  and St. Anne’s Church in Berryville, Arkansas.

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The (adorable) Skokie Swift

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I’ve become fascinated with the oddball of the Chicago Transit Authority’s light rail system, the Yellow Line – aka the Skokie Swift. It’s such a mismatched, out of place beast that I have to stop and stare every time I come across it.

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The trains are just two cars, two lonely little tiny cars rolling along all by themselves like lost sheep, wandering innocently past suburban lawns and parks and back yards and arterial roads. They’re so cute! You just want to pinch their little metal cheeks.

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Whether it’s running at grade between 1950s backyards, flying above a river on a trestle, or roaring through a forest in a below-grade cut, the Yellow Line just leaves me wondering: what is it doing here? What are grungy CTA cars doing out in the June Cleaver suburbia of Skokie? Did they get lost or something??

The Swift is a relic of an aborted idea, back when people and governments hadn’t quite completely given up on mass transit. Surely light rail could find a way to work in the suburbs, right? And so this line was activated in the 1960s on 5 miles of semi-abandoned right-of-way that had passed from a defunct private transit company to the CTA. The Skokie Swift served a test bed to see what was possible out in the new suburban frontier. The notion was that a really fast, no-stops, no-frills run from a suburban center into Chicago could be a viable transit model.

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And it worked pretty well – better than expected, in fact. Ridership was higher than predicted, enough so that the train still runs every 10 minutes or so daily. But it wasn’t such a success that the model was replicated; the Swift remains a one-of-a-kind line in Chicago, rivaled only by the Purple Line for its strange intrusion into suburban woodlands.

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Part of the Skokie Swift’s fascination is that so many relics of the past remain in place. Much of the western half of the line still passes under the catenary poles that once held overhead wires, used when the line was electrified from above. The lines were taken down when full third-rail service was added in 2004, but the poles remain.

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And that little stub at right is the remains of a one-time station platform, now used only as a housing for electrical boxes.

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The right of way is also quasi-industrial, lined with huge power lines that give the line a sort of apocalyptic feeling. The train is taking you to wherever it is that all these electrical lines go, and when you get to that ominous, distant place, who knows what fate might befall you? Maybe you’ll be made into electricity, too.

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When you finally do reach the end of the line, it’s a surreal spot – a seemingly random point, surrounded by parking lots and light suburban commercial buildings, not enough to constitute a downtown or village center, or even much of a place at all.

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This humble bumper marks the very end of the CTA rail system.

Across the street, the power lines continue their relentless march northward, beckoning for an expansion of the line. That expansion is in the planning phases at present.

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The other part of the fascination is, as mentioned, how strangely out of place the Swift is. It’s a tiny train running through huge places, running on towering trestles and over hugely busy roads like McCormick. CTA cars mostly run in cramped quarters in the city – tight subway tunnels, or squeezed between residential streets with houses so close that residents can almost touch the track structure from their windows. Their compact, no-nonsense design reflects this, and looks very strange in all the open space of Skokie.

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And so the trains just look sort of… lost. I want to call out to the outbound ones: “What’s the matter, little fella? You lost? You looking for Chicago? You wanna go the other way!”

I find my feet down on Main Street

Main Street westward from Evanston has all sorts of interesting things on and around it. My favorite bit may be this trio of buildings in the 3400 block, in Skokie.

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They sit in a sea of Midcentury buildings – raised ranches on the surrounding streets, and 1950s shopping strips, with little 1-story commercial buildings like these across the street – the kind with stacked bond Roman brick and big plate glass storefront windows set at a slight angle from the sidewalk.

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First is this 2-story building at 3400 W. Main Street, designed as if it were a California ranch house – low pitched roof, overhanging eaves, glassy front walls. The building was finished in 1957, as commercial offices.

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Second is this contemporary structure, a modern metal building with a shipping container aesthetic, at 3412 W. Main Street. It’s home to a dentist’s office. There was a home builder at this address in the 1960s, but I doubt the building is any older than 1985. CityNews dates it to 1991.

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The most interesting is 3420 W. Main Street. Tribune ads identify this address in 1963 as home to Palco Builders, who were constructing California-style ranches out west in Lincolnwood and pulling in enough money to show up on the paper’s list of million-dollar sellers. By 1966, a tax service had appeared at the same address. Today it’s home to the Knowledge Systems Institute.

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The building might at first seem to be an ordinary 1960s office building, raised up off the ground on columns, Corbu-style. (Oh, sorry. Pilotis. A piloti is like a column, only it’s French.)

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But when you look close, you’ll find that the entire facade is covered with textile patterned concrete blocks.

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If I had to take a stab at the building’s parti – the big overriding idea that the designer had in mind – I’d call it a sort of ancient temple that an Alan Quatermain adventurer type (or Indiana Jones, but that character didn’t exist in 1963) might stumble across in some South American jungle. Pull the lever, and the stone facade creakingly splits and slides open to reveal the techno-wonderland within! Notice that everything in the facade opening is set back, and it’s all glass and metal. There’s even a top and bottom “rail” for the “doors” to slide on, visually speaking.

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These are the same blocks that I’ve written about on a couple of occasions. I still haven’t discovered where they come from. I have, however, found one other building that makes use of them, out west at 6121 W. Higgins Avenue. Not quite as mind-blowing, but still interesting!

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On this 1963 apartment building, they appear as a decorative element on the major facade.

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