Second Federal Savings sets sail

Second Federal Savings

Architect W. Steven Gross designed this skeletal sailing rig of a building in 2000, for local bank Second Federal Savings. It’s a renovation of an existing one-story building, tricked out with metal fins and panels designed to screen the rooftop mechanicals (something all-too-often forgotten by designers and builders) and give the building some street presence. And oh does it ever!


The two-tone purple has faded in the decade since its construction – the lighter tone, in fact, is almost lost. But the form remains as striking as the day it was built.


With roots going back well over a century, Second Federal Savings specializes in lending to the Hispanic community, and has been instrumental in building up the Little Village area over the last few decades. This building, at Archer and 43rd, is their third location; they also occupy a Mid-Century building on 26th Street and a 1996 building by Mr. Gross on Cermak Avenue.



Northbrook Part II: Contemporary Modern

Continuing a look at some of the better buildings in this far-out Chicago suburb.

Northbrook Public Library

It hovers delightfully by day, and glows like a lantern at night. The Northbrook Public Library is the town’s most notable “downtown” building, only a block away from the old village center, adjacent to the Postmodern village hall and overlooking a public park.


The top floor reading and stacks room is wonderfully light and airy, with the exposed tube steel structure holding up the roof. The curved pipe trusses blossom from their columns like plant life. The whimsical light fixtures are a rebuke to the older section’s staid heritage.


Frye Gillan Molinaro Architects, Ltd. designed this delightful space in 1999. It is an eastward addition to an uninspiring 1960 building, exploding outwards and making you forget all that boring low-budget Miesian repetition. Inside, the two buildings are almost seamlessly joined as one.


It’s worth noting at this point that this portion of Northbrook – in and around the “downtown” – is comparatively compact and livable, compared to the surrounding sprawl. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the streets are nicer, and you can walk to the train station, the library, or the small knot of stores. It’s a different world from the Northbrook that most people experience, which is on massive arterial roads like Dundee or Lake-Cook.

The Pointe in Highland Park

Maybe better known by their street name – Prairie Court – this cluster of Modernist houses stands along Lake-Cook Road, across from Northbrook Court mall (and technically in Highland Park, but it’s all about the same thing.) Two of the planned 17 units remain unbuilt – hit by the recession, perhaps – but the remainder stand in neat rows of gleaming glass and precisely finished concrete.


They feature hugely generous glass walls, built-in balconies with projecting roofs, and punched-opening windows in the concrete walls that are echoed by the low screening wall along Lake Cook Road.


They contain one giant WTF moment: a completely ordinary suburban ranch house that, from all appearances, went up at exactly the same time as all the other houses. Seriously… why would anyone who wanted this house choose to put it here?



3150 Commercial Avenue

This late-1970s warehouse recently got an attention-getting marker tacked on to its front. Those giant pieces of steel aren’t holding up anything but a small glass entry canopy, but they definitely make this faceless tilt-up concrete building a lot more interesting.

In the background, a new water tower is under construction; as of this writing, it’s just about completed on the outside.

Greek Feast – by Georgie V

This prominent landmark at the corner of Dundee and Pfingston opened in 2010, designed by architect Brett Karson. The stainless-steel-clad cylinder is a stylized version of a gyro roasting on a spit, while the accompanying blue elements recall the colors of the Greek flag. The shallow-pitched roof, with its two intersecting vertical elements, recalls the 1950s atomic ranch homes which dot the nearby side streets.


Much to my amusement, the restaurant has been embroiled in parking lot wars with the shabby strip mall surrounding it. In a place like Northbrook, is parking really so difficult to come by?

Crate and Barrel

Is it fair to include a national chain in a survey of local buildings? Perhaps so, considering their corporate headquarters is just a few miles down the road. Yes or no, the fact remains that Crate and Barrel puts up rather nice buildings, and this outlot structure at Northbrook Court is typically handsome.


Lipson Alport Glass Associates

A startling building on Waukegan Boulevard, home to a package-design company. The visible portion is an addition onto a previously-existing warehouse. Opened in 2003. Architect: Valerio DeWalt Train Associates


The contrast between the solid second story and the entirely glass ground floor would be interesting enough, but the building goes a couple of steps further. The north end floats off the ground, hovering above low-lying drainage areas; together with the south-end offset, it creates the impression of two overlapping bars that have been knocked off-center.


Oh, and the ground floor tilts.


It’s not just an illusion; and it is not just the outside. The interior floor, for reasons that Architectural Record left unexplained when they covered this building in May 2004, has a 4-5 degree cant. I cannot imagine how the architect talked the client into this – and I am certain that’s how it worked, for no client would request such a thing. “Yeah. We need tilted floors. When I drop a pencil, I wanna see it roll.” Clients don’t do these things.


Whatever the reason, it sure is a treat to look at, day or night.

  • Building project portfolio
  • 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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.)


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




    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.


    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!


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


    Aren’t you just a little bit curious?

    For years, I held the section of Golf Road that slides under I-90/94 in a degree of reverence. Seen from the highway, it seemed like a little downtown, a place where great and interesting things must surely be happening. What gave it this mythical aura? One and only one building: the Optima Condominiums, a veritable floating city that hovers over this stretch of crowded highway.


    I do have to wonder what kind of perverse, photographer-hating architect orients his building so that the best views are from the highway.


    But that’s no slight against the building’s non-highway-facing facades. From almost any angle, Optima Old Orchard Woods is an incredible mass of glass-walled homes, layered and piled upon one another in a magnificent symphony of space and materials. If ever there was a building to convince doubters of the merits of glass facades, this is it. It’s a structural feat as well, with cantilevers in every direction and even a massive multi-story bridge in the middle.




    The Optima building is in a tense location: on one side, the roaring Edens Expressway, one of the most traffic-choked Interstates in the nation, with the suburban detritus of the Skokie Golf Mills area beyond it. On the other side, a Forest Preserve – undisturbed wildlands coursing like a green river through the suburbs.


    Impressive by day, this building truly comes alive at night, with facades that are an ever-shifting checkerboard of light and dark.




    Like its cousins in Evanston, the Optima Old Orchard derives much of its sense of place by piling inhabitable spaces one on top of the other. The breezeway roof is a sun balcony. The pool is on the second story and looks over the entry court. Balconies and terraces are everywhere.


    With only one small retail store in the base, it’s not quite a self-contained city (nor is it terribly urban – there’s no rail transit anywhere closeby). But it does a good job of looking like it!

    Aren't you just a little bit curious?

    (The title of this blog post, by the way, comes from a rooftop banner which adorned the building for a time. Intended to stir up the interest of potential residents, it instead came across as a plaintive plea for attention, perhaps explaining why it didn’t last very long.)

    Showing the love for Optima

    Evanston has had a trio of sophisticated, contemporary-styled condominiums go up in the last few years, all of them by the Optima design and development company, with architect David Hovey at the helm. They share a number of traits: a Modernist sensibility that is neither over-the-top nor inhumanely cool; a propensity for glass facades; and the ability to slot neatly into urban lots of virtually any size.

    Optima Towers

    The best, or at least the most interesting for me, is the Optima Towers building.


    Undulating elevations of blue-tinted glass are broken up into a myriad of forms, with bright orange metal balcony railings further enlivening the view. The staggered profile alone is nice, but what really makes this building sing is the multiple layers of space around its base.


    Two stories of balconies and dwelling units flare out over the street, hovering above a “wrapper” of stores. Indoor and outdoor spaces interweave, overlap, and all contribute their activity to the atmosphere of the street. This is a wonderful way to build up a street.

    In back of the building, the delightful complexity continues, as a narrow slot of space acts as a garden courtyard, with a waterwall fountain in the back. This serene space offers a layer of separation from the bustle of downtown Evanston.


    Ironically, despite its name, it’s the shortest of the three.

    Optima Views

    The connection between the Optima Views building and its smaller Towers cousin is obvious. They use exactly the same orange-painted metal balconies, and share a similar aesthetic of carefully angled plans. Optima Views is a much bigger and taller building, however.


    This broadside view of the south elevation is not the building’s best face. As you move around it, however, different views arise. The building changes shape completely, becoming a slender, jagged monument of glass and concrete.



    It was this view that made me wonder if Mr. Hovey was perhaps taking some inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower.

    Another point in common with Optima Towers: a slick ability to turn even the most neglected, leftover space into something pleasant and desirable, as with those shadowed corners that became intimate balconies.


    The entryway is more straightforward, given the much larger space available to work with.


    Optima Horizons


    Optima Horizons is a Herculean block of glass and steel, an entire city block of dwellings lifted into the sky. The multiple levels of parking make its porches a bit detached from the city life about them, but it’s hard to argue with the notion of a mini-forest 4 stories up in the air. Like much about these buildings, it’s just plain cool.

    With the largest and most open site of the three, Optima Views also got the biggest entryway.



    With so many condos and renovations adding clumsily tacked-on balconies, I have to comment on how much I like the way the Optima buildings handle their outdoor space. Even when the balconies protrude from the building, they never feel like separate, intrusive objects. Quite the contrary: the buildings’ compositions would be significantly diminished without them.


    Coming up next time: Optima’s magnus opus in Skokie.

    Contemporary Infill


    There’s often a lot of groaning and moaning about new construction in the city. Pretty much anything that gets built has someone that hates it. Contemporary design gets decried as “awful glass boxes” or “metal and glass monstrosities” (just try Google-searching either phrase.) Sometimes the criticism has real merit, but I’ve heard such slurs used against buildings that I thought were excellent.


    Meanwhile, this stuff is what you get when you don’t encourage contemporary modernism. Faux-historicism is rightly denigrated by architectural purists as “watered down” and wishy-washy – even the ardent opponents of glass-box design must realize that there’s something unsatisfying about a brick-skinned condo with a few quoins and keystones tacked on.

    Consider the two designs above – interesting facade compositions, and wonderful recessed porches, but what’s up with the random bits of stone? Is it supposed to be a Pullman row house? Are we meant to take the square columns and thinly banded stone as a contemporary Prairie style? Why the red brick? Is there any actual history of this area using red brick for… well… anything?

    To do historicism right takes money and it takes serious architectural intention, neither of which are high on the priority list of your typical city developer. And even if you get it right, you’re left with an anomaly, a building out of time, a testimony that we live in a era that has failed to produce a great architectural style of its own.


    So, let us celebrate those fleeting moments when the architectural spirit does prevail. Chicago is dotted with infill houses in the truly contemporary style, where buildings become grids, and the grids are then pulled apart, cut open, sliced, diced, turned, flipped, snipped, slipped and zipped. This is architectural play – contemporary architectural design at its best. It takes a committed designer to do it well. Chicago is lucky to have so many excellent examples.


    On the bottom, a classic Chicago house, deconstructed. On the top, a Frank Ghery Lite composition.



    The classic contemporary modern infill home – a flat front facade seems to have slipped loose from its moorings, leaving an open strip of shadow. This move generates a bit of mystery – what’s inside that shadow? What materials are beyond there? Can you occupy that space?




    At a glance, a “glass box” – oh, the horror! But just look at how space flows through it. The bedroom is a box within a box, suspended over the living room with its own windows looking out onto the double-height living space that faces the street – and its own curtains to provide privacy when desired. On the right, the staircase seems to rise forever.


    Two floating planes and a solid chimney tower make a plan block box into an engaging composition.



    Thickened wall planes have become one of the architect’s most potent weapons. Somewhere along the line, architects seem to have gotten over their obsession with making walls thinner and thinner… thus liberating them to make the wall into an actual object, or a thing with physical substance – something to contrast with all that glassy openness.


    Likewise, the construction of a building as a series of overlapping shapes – interconnected boxes clad in different materials – has become a common form of architectural play.





    I’m not normally a big fan of standing seam metal panel as a cladding material. Usually it looks cheap and ugly. Architects give it way too much credit in general; when it’s hailed as a material of the future, I find the future to seem very bleak indeed. Here, however, it’s brought vividly to life with color, contrasting delightfully with the red brick. Another clever move is changing the directions of the seams to match the colors and harmonize with the window orientation.

    Houses of METAL

    Here’s a pair of show-stopper houses up in Evanston, at 1216 and 1220 Main Street.


    On the right: MetalHOUSE(1), developed by architect Andrew J. Spitz as his own house in 1985.

    On the left: MetalHOUSE(2), a recently-constructed successor.



    The original house, clad in anodized aluminum, features a live/work studio on the lower floor.

    Cool and stylish are the watchwords here. Little details reinforce the whole, such as the gravel sideyard separating the two houses, or the harmonizing house number sign.



    I certainly cannot claim to understand or even necessarily agree with the architectural philosophy behind such buildings (nor the erratic nonstandard punctuation, spelling and capitalization that architects are so in love with.) There’s definitely an impractical side to constructing things with lots of weird angles and random corners, and my first thought on seeing any such building is, does the roof leak?

    But it’s a seductive vision. These houses are totally cool to look at and, I’d wager, equally cool to live in. According to the houses’ site, they incorporate numerous green design features, including passive solar heating and plenty of natural light. The interior photos show a series of absolutely lovely spaces. And at 25 years old, MetalHouse1 is looking great.


    It’s hard not to wish for Spitz’s vision to consume the entire block. How awesome would it be to drive past an entire row of these confections? It would rock hard. It would be righteous. Possibly even… METAL. \m/