The Northway Hotel

On a Labor Day visit to Chicago, I was taking a long, long walk up Milwaukee Avenue, when I suddenly began to see one terrazzo storefront floor after the next – a whole run of them. All of them mid-century renovations. All of them vacant. All of them ringed with original 1920s ornament. I was intrigued! I had arrived, of course, at the amazing 6-way intersection of Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball.

Milwaukee at Diversey
Photos from September 2015 except as noted

This handsome wedge of a building has held down this lot since 1928. Designed by the architectural firm of Rissman & Hirschfield, it was designed around the hotel-apartment model that would eventually be known as the Single-Room Occupancy hotel.

Red brick makes up the bulk of the building, with cream terra cotta marking key points on the roofline as well as the recessed entryways to the residential portion. The ornament follows a Spanish Renaissance Revival pattern – curvaceous, lush, almost dripping like stalactites.

Milwaukee at Diversey

Milwaukee at Diversey

The recessed entryways occur on both street facades, with the tiny residental lobby running through the building.

Milwaukee at Diversey
September 2008

Erected by the Northwest Building Corporation at a cost of $1,100,000 (on bonds valued at $700,000, CT Oct 2 1935), the Northway opened in April 1928 (CT classified) as an apartment hotel offering furnished 1- and 2-room units with Pullman kitchens, tiled bathrooms, and “24 hour switchboard, refrigeration, gas, light, maid service”. The El, two trolley lines and a bus line offered easy transport to the Loop and elsewhere. As built, it contained 100 furnished rooms (CT Oct 2 1927) as well as a dozen storefronts at street level. Though SRO hotels are often associated today with life on the skids (or just barely off of them), they were once a common and perfectly respectable means of housing. Early tenants here included newlywed couples.

Rissman & Hirshfield were a prolific Chicago architectural firm, designing many apartment buildings around the city including several highrises along the lakefront. Principal Leo S. Hirschfeld (1892-1989) was an Armour Institute graduate, and later became lead principal of the firm. Through various changes, the firm endures today as Fitzgerald Associates.

Northwest Building Corp. went bankrupt and wound up in court on racketeering charges; in the early 1930s the building’s ownership passed to the 3335 Diversey Building corporation. In 1939 it was sold to Albert I. Appleton. By 1952, it was being advertised as the Diversey West Hotel, a name it would retain at least into the 1980s, when it was modified to the Diversey West Apartments.

Milwaukee at Diversey

Milwaukee at Diversey

The building’s many storefronts give it a rich commercial presence at the street. The original ornamental borders survive at most of them, an extreme rarity for a pre-World War II building. On the Milwaukee Avenue side, several of the storefronts underwent mid-century renovations to modernize them, most likely in the 1940s when terrazzo was at the peak of its popularity as an entryway material.

Milwaukee at Diversey

Milwaukee at Diversey

Milwaukee at Diversey

Milwaukee at Diversey
July 2008

The corner storefront, at the base of the building’s prow, has had a number of tenants over the decades:
– 1931: Washington Shirt Co.; still there in 1949
– 1979: Bresler’s 33 Flavors Ice Cream; still there in 1985
– 2009: Costa Alegre Mexican-American restaurant; closed in 2011

Other stores present in 2009 included a furniture & electronics store and barber shop on the Diversey side, and a cell phone store, salon, jewelry store, boutique clothing store, shoe store, and a money transfer outlet on the Milwaukee Avenue side.

Milwaukee at Diversey
The Diversey Avenue facade in July 2008

Around 2011, the building’s fortunes took a turn when ownership was taken over by M. Fishman & Company. Fishman’s company began a long process of renovating the apartments as leases ran out over the course of several years. In a story common to SROs in gentrifying areas, renters faced significant rent increases as their leases came up for renewal (1, 2, 3, 4), compelling many to leave. At street level, the storefronts have been systematically emptied and are likewise undergoing renovation. Marketing materials promote the storefronts as available for rent; most of the former businesses seem to have closed up rather than relocating.

Milwaukee at Diversey

Madison Street West, Part 3: Slip Coverin’ Away

Any respectable commercial street has gone through some cycles of renovation and rejuvenation. In the decades after World War II, that often meant putting a new facade on your building – sometimes tearing off the old completely, but sometimes taking a cheaper route and just hanging something new right on top of the old, an approach known as the slipcover.

West Madison is no exception; some of its seemingly unremarkable storefronts have quite a bit of history behind them.

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4019 W. Madison Street (Shoe Avenue): Two upper floors hide behind that checkered brown granite facade.  A parade of businesses has occupied the building, sometimes more than one at once. Articles from 1941 and 1987 both mention people listing it as their residential address, as well. Businesses I could find, and dates they were definitely there, include:

  • A. Rost and Son shoe store, 1917-1920
  •  Wormser Hat Store, 1930-1940
  • York Women’s Apparel, 1943
  • Jerome Millenery Store, 1948-1962 – the building was renovated by architects Lowenberg & Lowenberg in anticipation of this store’s opening, giving it its current Modernist facade. The upper floors used for making women’s accessories by hand, seemingly run as a separate business, the Una Harvey Shops. Lowenberg & Lowenberg was a prolific architectural firm whose successor is still in business today; the company also worked on the iconic University Apartments in Hyde Park, several sumptuous high rise apartment buildings, the Colony Theater on 59th Street, and a similarly radical recladding job on a building right near my old home in Rogers Park.
  • Two Legs Inc. – 1953
  • Today: Shoe Avenue Family Shoes.

4021 W. Madison Street (Maybrooks) – a two story building, either built or re-built in 1951. A one-story garage and store – visible in the postcard below – stood on the site originally.

  • Keen and Howe clothing store – 1915
  • E. Newman Paint Company – 1924
  • A. Rost & Son – 1927 (moved from next door!)
  • Father & Son shoe store – 1942-45
  • Lynn Niles Shoes – 1946-1950
  • Bond Clothing Store – opened Nov 30, 1951; operated at least through 1968. Their opening seemingly triggered the replacement of the original structure with the present one.
  • Maybrooks – For Men and Women – 1986-2011
  • Present: YOLO Ladies Ware & Shoes, since ca. 2012

 

4027 Madison Street (aka 4025-29 W. Madison) –  James Burns, architect; Henry Ericsson Co., general contractor

4025-29 W. Madison
Postcard view – compare with the previous photo

Towering above the 1- and 2-story stores around it, this blank-walled hulk was designed in 1910 and built by 1911, for the Keelin Fireproof Warehouse Company. On the east party wall, a faded ghost sign still announces the original occupant with a barely-legible “Keelin’s Storage Warehouse”. Fireproof storage warehouses are a whole genre of buildings in Chicago (and the topic of a future post). Like most, this one – also known as the West End Storage Warehouse and the Keelin Brothers Warehouse – was built of reinforced concrete, with steel doors and minimal windows (illuminating only the corridors), and a facade of pressed brick. It’s among the simpler of its kind, with its already minimal ornament now lost to age and a mid-century rehab that covered the facade with a grid of square tiles.

West Madison Street, Chicago

The Keelin brothers were a prominent business family with their hands in coal and grain interests. Two of the brothers were indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges in 1921. Architect James Burns (ca. 1858-1933) was a Chicago practitioner, active from the 1890s into the 1920s, and the designer of various houses, flats, stores, factories, and most prominently, several significant Catholic churches: St. Columbanus on E. 71st, St. Gertrude’s in Rogers Park (Burns’ neighborhood), and St. Keven at Torrence and 105th.

In 1912, the address made small-headline news when a 14 year old boy died in the building while trying to exit its elevator.

Gold Point Hosiery Stores leased the ground floor in 1928 and converted it into a retail storefront; they remained there at least through 1930. In 1947, the building was sold, and O’Conner and Goldberg leased the entire building, opening a new store at the location which lasted from 1949 into the 1960s. This major turnover was likely the point at which it gained its  new Mid-Century facade of square panels.

In recent years, the storefront has been home to Cisco NYC, a high-end clothing and shoe store specializing in hip hop culture. Cisco NYC got some unwanted attention in late 2014 when it became the latest victim of a string of smash-and-grab robberies happening all around the city. A gang of thieves used a mini-van to smash through the store’s gated front entrance at 4am on a November night; 20 masked robbers poured into the store, stripped it of thousands of dollars worth of a single brand of designer jeans, and escaped within three minutes. Despite the devastating loss, the store was soon open again and joined in a local Madison Street tradition of opening on Christmas Day.

 

3932 W. Madison (Catholic Charities)

West Madison Street, Chicago

Appears to have been built in the 1920s. Today it’s covered in polished granite panels, a massive frame surrounding 2 stories of windows with a sheltered balcony, and accented with a two-part stainless steel sign. 65 years after the new facade was added on, it still looks terrific.

  • 1925-1930 – Apex Stores (refrigerator dealers)
  • 1936-1963 – Apollo Savings and Loan, who remodeled the building into its current form. Grand re-opening for the renovated structure was November 16, 1950. Apollo moved downtown in 1963, before imploding in 1968. They sold the building in 1967.
  • 1967 – Headquarters and later Credit Union of the Christian Action Ministry
  • Today – The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago / WIC Food CentersIMG_4786

 

4126 W. Madison Street (Green Star Groceries)West Madison Street, Chicago

This sad little two-story building was built around 1927. It’s barely visible in its original form in the background of this photo of the Marbro Theatre, which stood next door until its 1964 demolition. With its pale green color, the slipcover screams early 1960s.

  • 1926 – Fignter(?) Scott Co. (furniture finishing? hardware?)
  • 1930 – Western Radio & Electric Stores
  • 1932-34 – Lee Radio Stores / Lee’s Radio Shop / Lee’s Radio & Refrigerator Store
  • 1935 – Straus & Schram (Lee’s had moved a few doors away. Or it’s a typo.)
  • 1938-42 – Singer Sewing Company
  • 1956-63 – Little Dutch Mill Candies
  • Most recently – Green Star Super Market Groceries

Due to a text resolution issue (4126 looks a lot like 4128 to an OCR scanner), this address is almost entirely overshadowed in the Tribune archives by the Spiegel store that operated next door.

 

4034 W. Madison – City Sports Shoes & Sportswear

West Madison Street, Chicago

Sometimes slipcovers are just a flagrantly bad idea – they make a building look worse to begin with, and that’s before they start falling apart and exposing bits of the vastly superior facade they hide. Such is the case here, where column capitals and ornate shield emblems in colored terra cotta have forced their way out from beneath a plain grid of rectangles, painted over in white.

  • 1934-36 – Grossman’s shoe store
  • Burt’s shoe store – Burts – then a subsidary of Edison Brothers Stores – opened an outlet at this location in 1937 with a $25,000 “modernization program”, which seems too early to have been the date of the slipcover. In 1956 the chain changed its name to Bakers, in keeping with their shoe line in other cities, and continued on here through 1962.
  • 1971 – Mary Jane Shoes
  • 1977 – A.S. Beck Shoes
  • Today – City Sports Shoes

And finally, a note about some of the trends I’ve seen in researching these places. First is turnover – many stores only last a few years before vanishing. Some of it is just the economy – it’s almost guaranteed a small store present in 1929 will be gone by 1932, wiped out by the Depression. Similarly, many stores had good long runs from the late 40s into the 1960s or early 70s, boom years for the city. Even then, many beloved retail institutions were really only around for a couple of decades.

Second is consistency – if a storefront started off as a shoe store, it was very likely to stay a shoe store, even as ownership and names changed repeatedly. Clothing stores stayed clothing stores – Cisco NYC, for example, is continuing an almost 90 year tradition of clothing sales in that space.

Third is the abruptness with which a business can vanish. A tempting assumption is that the advertising budget was the first thing to go when times went sour. Many places ran weekly display ads for years – until suddenly they’re just gone from the Tribune, no going out of business notice, no clearance sales, no nothing. Just – poof! Gone!

 

Research log for Keelin’s Storage Warehouse:

  • 1910 – The American Contractor, September 10 1910 p. 30 col. 1 – notice of drawings on file and bids being taken
  • 1912 – Tribune article, Sept. 20
  • Assessor: 1914; CityNews: 1947
  • Appears in “The Transfer and Storage Directory” of 1916.
  • Sold: April 13 1947 article (erroniously gives date of construction as 1900)
  • Gold Point Hosiery Stores – leased Feb 1928 (real estate transaction article); display ad April 9 1928 (4027), through 1930
  • O’Conner and Goldberg – short article Sep 1 ,1949; display ads through 1966
  • 4126: Cook County Assessor puts the date at 1932; CityNews Chicago says 1927; Realtor.com says 1926.

 

The End of General Automation

On a recent visit to Chicago, I was shocked to see that the General Automation, Inc. building (3300 W. Oakton Street at McCormick) was gone. In its place, a generic big box style store selling flooring.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation’s building was one of the north shore’s most distinctive bits of Mid-Century design. It encompassed 75,000 square feet of offices and factory floor for a company that produced precision metal fabrications – machine parts, screws, etc.

General Automation, Inc.

Most of the architectural interest was in the curved office section facing Oakton. Concrete piers and panels framed pyramidal windows, in an elaborately framed facade. At the center, a pod-like vestibule welcomed arrivals to the futuristic building. Concrete pattern block screened the lower levels. The major face of the warehouse was lined with concrete panels, decorated with simple fins and a small incised circle on each panel.

General Automation, Inc.

According to the successor firm’s website, the General Automation brand began in 1935. A 1958 obituary for an employee (William Starr) lists the company at 900 N. Franklin Street, near what is now the Brown Line tracks downtown. In the 1960s, they moved to 1755 W. Rosehill Drive, in the former industrial corridor along the UP North Metra tracks.

General Automation, Inc.

In 1982, the company moved to its newly constructed digs at Oakton and McCormick. Yep, you read that right: the hyper-futuristic 1960s building is actually a 1980s building, at least according to the Life: Skokie Edition newspaper, which noted the company’s pending move in a November 1981 article. No word on the architect, alas, and no independent confirmation that I’ve been able to locate (I find the 1982 date difficult to reconcile with the building’s architectural style.)

In recent years, the company combined with three others to form HN Precision; the consolidated corporation specializes in precision-milled machine parts, serving a variety of industries including rail, oil and gas, automotive and more. Consolidation among the merged companies began in 2011, and the Skokie location closed circa 2012.

General Automation, Inc.

The building was sold at the end of 2013, stripped of its architectural exterior, and reclad to bland blend in with its surroundings.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation, Inc. of Illinois should not be confused with an identically named company which, though based in California, also had significant operations in the Chicagoland area. This other General Automation engineered, sold, managed and maintained computer systems, from 1967 through the 1990s, under their own name and the subsidary California GA Corporation, with offices in Des Plaines and Bensenville. As far as I know, they did not have an awesome Brutalist factory building.

Of interest to industrial fans: the vacant lot across Oakton was once a natural gas facility, including three gasometers dating to 1911. They were demolished in the early 1960s; the site is currently undergoing cleanup of remnant contaminants.


1958: 900 N. Franklin Street (obituary of William Starr, July 8 1958)
1962-1968: 1755 W. Rosehill Drive (classified ad, May 27 1962 – inspector to check screw machine parts against prints; Aug 13 1965, Mar 20 1967, July 18 1968- inspector, screw machine job shop; Dec 15, 1968 – hand screw machines)
1972: 1001 Touhy, Des Plaines IL (classified ad, July 29 1972; want ad, April 29 1973. “Custom engineering”, “digital computers”, “mini-computers”, COBAL, Fortral and Assembly Language. )
1973: 1515 Jarvis Avenue, Elk Grove Village IL. Display ad, Dec 18 1973.
1979: California GA Corporation, a subsidary of General Automation, Inc. based at 1260 Mark STreet, Bensenville. Display ad July 8 1979. A 1978 ad lists the 1001 Touhy adress.
1980: address in Anaheim, California – “a leader in mini- and microcomputer based solutions systems”, including maintenance contracts, used equipment, spare parts, repair and refurbishment. Display ad, Sept 14 1980.
Life – Skokie edition (Weekend edition), Sec. 1, p1, 11/1/1981 – firm to move to Skokie in summer of 1982
1990: Anaheim, CA (December 11 article about purchase of Motorola computer systems)
1991 – 3300 Oakton – “parts for the military and for anti-lock brakes. (Tribune article, 1991)
1997 – Irvine, CA according to a Tribune article (Sep 28, 1997)

Trim ‘n Tidy Cleaners: Dry Cleaning for the New Frontier

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Trim ‘n Tidy Cleaners at 5939 W. Higgins Avenue has been in business here for decades (since 1963, according to the Cook County Assessor’s database). And in all that time, this New Camelot Space Age creation has hardly changed a bit.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Is there anything this richly layered building doesn’t have? Outside, the vintage neon sign is capped with a quivering Googie blob, with cursive neon letters announcing the business’s name, the I’s dotted with starbursts.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Inside, it’s a library of Mid-Century tropes – the faux cast iron and lime green elegance of New Formalism, the horizontally cut sandstone walls typical of innumerable Atomic Ranch houses… and a terrazzo floor. Strange baldachin-like hangings “shelter” the counter, hanging on chains from the ceiling.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

The silvered, overstuffed, deeply-buttoned couch looks like it belongs on a space station, while the patio recliner below seems to be waiting for the Kennedys to sit down and have a cocktail or two in the sun.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Another starburst is emblazoned in the terrazzo floor, while the counters mimic the geometries often seen on suburban Chicago garage doors.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Outside, the building features a flying wing portico for sheltered drop-off and pick-up, supported by three angled metal tube beams. The whole thing is painted white for cleanliness – clean lines, clean spaces, clean clothes, clean lives.

Trim ‘n Tidy is still in business, though the inside is a bit of a mess, with plants and other accouterments scattered haphazardly about. The old neon sign is badly rusting, and the furniture probably needs to be reupholstered. For all that, the original glory still shines. The best renovation the place could have would be simply to move some plants and sweep the floor.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Wallpaper Buildings

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1048 N. Marshfield Ave. at Cortez

Robert Venturi famously grouped the ornamentation of buildings into two types: “The Duck”, a building with an iconic and usually literal exterior shape (named for a souvenir shop on Long Island built in the shape of a giant duck), and “The Decorated Shed”, a constructed box with ornamental systems applied to it – exemplified by the Gothic cathedrals with their huge ornamental facades standing in front of vast warehouses of religious space.

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Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, 3121 W Jackson Boulevard

Nearly all common Chicago architecture falls squarely into the second group, to the extent that the city’s architecture is often a structural system with a layer of cladding and ornament applied to the front, visible in the most literal (and sometimes comical) of ways. My own shorthand for these is “Wallpaper Buildings”.

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2900 N. Mildred Avenue at W. George Street. This is the back and side of a massive U-shaped courtyard apartment. At left, the facade continues on minus the structure without missing a beat, adding one last bay to shelter the rear stairs from the street. We are not meant to notice the disconnect.

When you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. It makes you think about the nature of a building, of construction and design. Is architecture a frame with an elaborate weatherproof sculpture in front of it? Is it still architecture if you remove the frame? What happens when the sculpture ceases to be sculptural, or ceases to have mass, or ceases to have decoration? The story of the Wallpaper Building, its evolution over the years, is the story of architecture itself.

Most Chicago buildings are meant for urban settings, where the front facade is more visible than the sides or back. As a compromise between cost and quality, builders would load up the front facade with higher-grade materials and most if not all of the building’s ornament. The sides and alley-facing walls usually were built of beige-colored Chicago common brick, a softer, cheaper, lower-quality material than the highly finished brick used on the front.

Polish housing

1363 N. Bosworth. This building does a double downgrade. The front facade (above) is the most heavily composed side, with stone and heavily articulated finish brick; the side comes second, with a lesser grade of brick but still ornamented with considerable corbeled brickwork; the utterly plain backside (below) is done in Chicago common brick.

Polish housing

Sometimes, though, the sides and back weren’t nearly as invisible as the designer would like to imagine. My favorite example is in Buffalo, New York (where Louis Sullivan’s towering Guaranty Building has two insanely ornate sides facing the streets… and two completely plain brick wall sides facing the alleys) but there are plenty of similar instances in Chicago. The idea, obviously, is that a tall neighbor would eventually cover up the sides not facing the street. Sometimes it might have even worked out that way.

And sometimes it didn’t.

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A view north  from the Wilson Red Line stop in Uptown shows no less than 5 buildings with decorative facades and unornamented sides.

The design strategy was not limited to low-budget buildings. Some of the city’s most ornate and lavish buildings switch over to cheaper common brick on the sides. Many feature bay windows projecting from the common brick sides, a pointed acknowledgement that the sides are indeed visible and always would be.

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2424-2428 N. Geneva Terrace, Lincoln Park

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 1547 N. Dearborn Parkway, Gold Coast – an 1891 mansion by architect August Fielder, still a private residence. Yours for only $13.75 million!

The approach was more successful with mid-block buildings on neighborhood streets, where a builder could count on having similarly scaled neighbors only a few feet away from his sidewalls.

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3000 block of S. Bonfield Avenue, Bridgeport

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2700 block of S. Wallace Street, Bridgeport. The exposed wall bears a faded ghost ad for long-vanished Selz shoes brand, possibly a reference to the Selz Good Shoes Lady.

At some point, this common design response changed from an adaptive strategy to a default setting, used even when it didn’t make a lot of sense. Hence the full-lot houses in many neighborhoods with their plain brick sides exposed for all the world to see. A more cohesive design approach might have found a middle-grade material to use on all sides while evening out the cost between expensive front facade brick and cheap common side brick, or just left off the front facade upgrade altogether, since in these cases it only serves to call out the lower quality materials adjacent to it. But builders of the time just weren’t rolling that way. Why? I have only guesses.

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1329 W. Chicago Avenue at Throop, West Town

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1500 N. Walton Street, West Town

Polish housing

1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac, West Town – Chicago

All this stuff drove the early Modernists crazy. They couldn’t stand the notion of buildings having hierarchy, fronts and backs, important sides and secondary sides, decorative skin and hidden structure. To the most dogmatic among them, these things reflected the hierarchies of unjustly stratified societies, the moral decay that precipitated the First World War.

Today, of course, we take a different view. The ornate facade is seen as a gracious gesture, a polite and noble contribution to the public space of the street. Decorating the front of the building is about living up to social norms and expectations, treating your neighbors well, showing respect for the people around you, saying “hello”, enhancing the public space.

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1901 N. Bissell Street at Wisconsin, Ranch Triangle – Chicago

It does still raise the question, though: why is the person riding the Red Line or walking through the alley somehow less deserving of social graces than the person on the front sidewalk? Is the Bridgeview Uptown Bank building a gracious neighbor, or a dowager in a hospital gown, with the backside hanging open and flapping in the breeze, mooning the rest of the world?

The disconnect between the artistically designed components of a building and the bulk of its mass was a driver of Modernist philosophy, as its young masters sought to design buildings as complete entities – respectfully and properly clad on all sides, among other things. There would be no hidden back; all sides of the building would be forever visible as it sat on its site in splendid isolation.

UofC Law Library

University of Chicago D’Angelo Law Library, Eero Saarinen, 1958

 

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The Esplanade Apartment Buildings at 900-910 Lake Shore Drive, Mies van der Rohe, 1956 – essentially an expansion of his famous 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments from 1949, next door.

Structure and cladding would become one. The facade ceased to be a thing of mass, of sculpture, of elaboration, of separation; it became a mere cladding, a pattern, an expression of the structure that lay just beneath it.

Pre-war buildings are sometimes subjected to “facadectomies”, with everything but the decorative front wall torn down and a new structure erected behind the old facade. It’s physically possible because old masonry facades are structural entities, capable of carrying their own weight even if they weren’t structurally integral to the building behind them.

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The facade of the Fine Arts Building Annex, 421 S. Wabash Ave, suspended in place after the rest of the building was demolished in 2010. It was subsequently had a new Roosevelt University building grafted onto it from behind.

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Group facadectomy on the 000 block of S. Wabash Avenue, 2008

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Citizens State Bank of Chicago, just off Lincoln Avenue, creatively remade into loft apartments circa 2007.

Chicago’s had its fair share of them, though usually the city’s ethos is just to knock everything the hell down and start over, because, hey, history don’ make money, know what I’m sayin’? An anyway, all dem old things is old, y’know? (By comparison, stronger preservation laws mean the practice is absolutely rampant in downtown Washington DC, where almost no pre-war buildings remain in their original state.)

No orthodox Modernist building could survive such an operation. Take down the building and the skin has to come with it.
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The IBM Building – 330 N. Wabash Avenue, Mies van der Rohe, 1969

You do not tear down the building while leaving behind a Modernist facade; if you were interested, though, you could rip off the facade while keeping everything else, and transform the building into something different. This possibility was painfully rendered evident during the recent demolition of Prentice Hospital.

Prentice Hospital

Prentice Hospital
The “pedestal” portion of Prentice was a steel and concrete frame supporting a thin, non-structural outer skin.

However, late Chicago Modernists, as I’ve discussed before, weren’t always adherents to orthodoxy. Finish brick on the front, common brick on the side – step away from the Loop, and the old patterns rolled right on into the 1960s.

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1111 W. 47th Street, Back of the Yards – Chicago

There’s beauty to be found in both approaches, and some part of me admits: a neighborhood street with a solid wall of elaborate facades is a lot nicer than a more middling approach. Who cares about those side walls anyhow? Some of Chicago’s most beautiful streets have been created this way. It’s not orthodox or pure… just pretty. Pleasant. Human. “Pretty” may sound vapid, but it’s hard to argue with “human”.

Modern construction techniques, however, have come down firmly on the side of the structure-and-skin approach.  One might say that the thin-skinned buildings of today are more covered in something akin to wallpaper than ever before – layers of thin and varied materials, each serving a particular function – sub-structure, moisture protection, framing, insulation. To build a structurally self-supporting facade – a facade with significant mass, heft and depth – requires a massive material, like stone, brick or concrete. Stone is too expensive to transport, cut and lay up; brick has been reduced to just another facade material, just another form of thin skin. Nobody’s managed to use concrete block in a way that doesn’t look hideously ugly, the lessons of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block phase apparently having been forgotten.

The last stand of the facade-as-mass approach could be found in Brutalism, since poured-in-place concrete is the last massive material that can be affordably transported. The style died out with the 1970s, when architects found that almost nobody liked the look of exposed concrete (except architects). It is currently one of the most hotly contested architectural styles around as its buildings age into their 40s and 50s, their structural skins flaking and spalling in the weather; beating up on it online is currently in vogue with folks everywhere.

Chicago never had many Brutalist buildings, and as of 2014 it has one fewer still.

Prentice Hospital Most significant remaining examples are likewise Bertrand Goldberg designs.

The Vic Theatre

The Vic Theater, 3145 N. Sheffield Avenue, Lakeview; architect John Pridmore, 1912

With the passing of Brutalism, the victory of attached skin over embedded mass is complete; the Modernists have had their way – though it was via the economies of materials and labor, rather than a triumph of philosophy. The Wallpaper Building as described above is now a relic of a bygone age.

Blue on Blonde, Part 3: Brick-Skin Pillbox Flats

I’ve never been shy about loving the Chicago Mid-Century 3-Flat**. I love how within such a simple form there are endless varieties of decor – variations on materials and colors, with ornament ranging from glass block to elaborate wood doors, ironwork porch columns and built-in planters. I love how you can find entire blocks of the things, marching along with a repeating rhythm – same height, same width, same spacing, same setback, same design vocabulary – and no two are the same.

I’ve found only a handful that use the blue-on-blonde brick color scheme. They are simple creatures; the only place the blue brick appears on these buildings is in horizontal panels between the main windows. The standardized blue-on-blonde vocabulary that appears all over Rogers Park is not used on these structures. There are no corner piers, no grids of squares or single bricks floating on a field of beige, no horizontal or vertical bands – just a couple of big panels that work to group the large picture windows into a single element. 3-flats have their own vocabulary of style, and the blue brick becomes simply one option out of a whole range, rather than the basis for a group of elements.

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3006 W. Touhy Avenue, West Ridge – Chicago. Opened by 1964. This one had its blue brick covered up or replaced with some kind of Permastone-like facing between 2009 and 2011.

That’s not to say there’s nothing else going on on these buildings. They have a variety of massing elements, main doors, storm doors, stairwell decorations, and entryway variations. It’s just that none of those elements are distinctive to the blue-on-cream color scheme; they all appear on all kinds of 3-flats in all kinds of colors and materials.

Archer Avenue
3919 W. 47th Street – possibly 1961 by Wiercioch Brothers. A delightful assemblage of parts – raised piers, gray flagstone at the door, angled brick canopy walls, an angled canopy roof, and rainbow-hued plastic windows over the stairwell.

Nevertheless, builders retained this color combo quite consistently. Blue accent brick always shows up against blonde or tan primary brick – as if every designer was choosing from a set palette or a common catalog. It’s not that it wouldn’t work with other colors; it’s just that nobody tried it. (The inverse did happen on occasion – I’ve seen exactly one yellow-on-blonde building in the same style, and a couple of orange-on-blondes and tan-on-blondes. But they are quite rare by comparison.)

And anyway, this color combo does look pretty sharp – very fitting for the dressed-up era of JFK and Mad Men.

 

West Ridge - Granville Avenue
6229 N. Whipple Street, West Ridge – Chicago. With a stylish Moderne building next door.

West Ridge - Granville Avenue
6052 N. Fairfield, West Ridge – Chicago. Opened 1965. 

Very often, they’d drop a garage door down in the basement, rather than having a full basement or third apartment. This sometimes created rather awkward front yards.

Just off of Touhy
3321 W. North Shore Avenue – with a garage in the place of the basement. This building faces a near-twin directly across the street.

West Ridge - Granville Avenue
6049 N. Richmond, West Ridge – Chicago. Opened 1964.

 

West Ridge - Green Briar Park
6100 N. Artesian at Glenlake – curiously, the entry door is on the side of the vestibule, facing the away from the main facade.

Main Street, Skokie
3510 W. Main Street, Skokie – opened 1964, by Birger Construction, who did another blue-on-blonde at 1322 W. Chase. It sports the same kind of colored plastic windows as the 47th Street building. 

If blue-on-blonde flats are uncommon, then single family houses using the scheme are vanishingly rare – to the point that this is literally the only one I’ve ever documented.

Somewhere out west.
5300 N. Melvina Avenue – western single-family. It’s a lovely little raised ranch house, with blue lining the doorway and connecting the basement windows with the large picture window above, and a couple of decorative colored glass blocks by the door. The blonde brick is Roman brick – longer and thinner than the normal 4×8 brick.

One final side note – in researching all these buildings, I finally figured out that advertisers back in the day referred to the blonde brick as “yellow brick”. It’s not really yellow, but I guess the name made more sense to people; it shows up in many real estate ads, so it must have been considered virtuous – clean and modern, if I had to take a stab at it.

 

** I use “3-flat” to mean both 3-flats and 2-flats, because for discussion purposes they’re the same thing – two stories above ground, one half-basement level below. Whether that lower floor is a standard basement or another apartment generally doesn’t have any influence on the building’s massing and decorative style.

Blue on Blonde, Part 2: Stuck Inside Chicago with the Glazed Brick Blues Again

Devon Avenue

A blue-brick accent at the Devon Avenue storefront of Rosen’s Morseview Drugs. Note the vertical stacking pattern of the bricks, as well as the deeply troweled, straight-edged mortar line between them, both of which emphasize the geometric quality of the pier.

The blue-on-blonde brick combo, so common on multi-family residential buildings, can also be found on a few commercial and mixed-use buildings here and there. Three of them are on Devon Avenue:

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6404 N. Richmond Avenue / 2936-2938-2942 W. Devon Avenue – largely a plain box, this mixed-use building has two levels of apartments over retail at the ground floor. The brick shows up in a few framed panels on the side street, and, more interestingly, in the side walls of the shallow balconies. 

Devon Avenue

2955 / 2957 / 2959 W. Devon Avenue / 6347/6357 N. Sacramento Avenue – opened in 1962. Four stores with one level of apartments above. 

The colored brick pops up a lot more on this one, showing up in a window band, turning a corner, and covering all the building’s retail-level columns, piers and storefront bases.  Limestone trim frames the upper level.

This building has been home to Rosen’s Pharmacy (and its successor, Rosen-Morseview Pharmacy) since the building’s opening. It moved in from across the street, where it had operated since at least 1949.  As a bonus, here’s a shot of the fantastic Rosen Morseview Drugs neon sign shining bright, as it still does to this day; it is the last surviving vintage neon on Devon Avenue.

Devon Avenue

Devon Avenue
3120/3122/3124 W. Devon Avenue / 6401/6411 N. Troy Street – opened by 1960, when the real estate dealer for the building – Bernard Katz & Co. – moved in to have larger quarters. They had previously been located about 9 blocks east; they remained here until moving to Skokie in 1978.

The building is a close sibling of the previous one, with one level of apartments over four retail outlets, one on the side street and three on the main avenue. Also repeating are the blue brick piers and storefront bases at street level, the banded windows, and the limestone framing; this time, however, there’s a far more harmonious composition of windows, infilled not with the usual blue brick but with matching blue pattern blocks.

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These two buildings have a pair of close cousins out on Bryn Mawr, in the commercial district that’s sandwiched between the North Branch on one side and the old TB sanitarium on the other.

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3412-3420 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue – appears in one of People’s Gas ads, nailing its date down to 1963. Architect Irwin A. Sugarman, an Armour Institute graduate in practice since the 1930s; builder Broadway Construction Co.

The building form is the same – 12 solid-walled apartments over 5 glass-walled storefronts – but the color scheme is inverted. Glazed white bricks form the piers, the infill panels, and the base of the storefronts, while a dull blue brick is the primary wall material. The doorway to the apartments upstairs is dressed up with 1×1 mosaic tile and a snazzy mid-century door.

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3401-05 W. Bryn Mawr / 5552 N. Kimball Avenue – open by 1963.  The address made headlines in 1982 when a resident claiming to be a sea captain, and to own a vessel in Florida, offered to transport local residents’ relatives from Poland. The cops arrested him in a full captain’s outfit.

The color scheme here becomes cream-on-blonde, but the form is the same. This building has lost the piers, and the windows are inexplicably smaller than their decorative brick surrounds, leaving L-shaped patches of cream brick.

 

California, south of Devon
6329-6331 N. California, south of Devon – opened 1965?

A sad and tattered little specimen. Three piers of blue brick demarcate two bays, with angled storefronts between; the building is utterly bereft of ornament or interest otherwise. Those actually are a couple of apartments over the stores, accessed through a little door in the right-hand storefront bay.

 

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6259 W. Touhy Avenue, Chicago –  1966.

Taking a big leap west, we come across this lovely specimen on the northwest city limits. The blue brick accents the building multiple times: at a single window band on the second floor, on a couple of outlined rectangles on the side, on a pier at the entrance, and in a delightful little geometric design over the door that combines brick elements and geometric glass block with limestone frames. The primary brick is a much dirtier blonde than on previous examples.
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Howard Street
4348-4356 W. Howard at Kostner – open by 1965

An unusual mixed-use building. At ground level, the building is currently home to four storefronts including the Kostner Korner convenience store, a dry cleaners, a barber shop, and a daycare center. Above, it houses four breezeway apartments with front and back access, reached by a single-run stairway projecting out from the building; thanks to that stair, it has a most curious relationship with the storefront building next door (4346 W. Howard), as they share a wall and are both part of the same daycare business. Somehow I missed their symbiotic relationship when I was standing in front of them and hence never got a shot showing them both, but from the Google Streetview it’s obvious, and makes it seem likely they went up together.

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The railings, and the screen separating the apartment balcony from the roof of the one-story building, are particularly lovely.

Howard Street

Reflecting the walk-up vocabulary of the Rogers Park buildings, blue brick is used in a corner pier, accent stripes, window bands, and ornamental rectangles, all in stacked bond. The awning overhang has been painted to match, approximately.

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And that’s not all. Tune in next week for Blue on Blonde part 3, when we’ll be bringing it all back home!