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 1: Most Likely You Build Your Way (and I’ll Build Mine)

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9801-9811 S. Kedzie Avenue, Evergreen Park

In the 1960s, Chicago builders loved do to the same thing over and over and over. You’ll find the same architectural elements on buildings scattered all across the city and its suburbs. One of my old favorites: baby blue glazed brick panels, accents and piers, laid in a stacked bond, on a background of cream, beige or tan brick in running bond. It’s used on dozens of mid-century apartment buildings from Evanston to Burbank and beyond; there is a particularly heavy concentration of them in Rogers Park and West Ridge.

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Here we’ll look at a group of a dozen or so that share many distinctive elements: corner piers; rectangular ornamental groups of blue brick, sometimes outlined in limestone; sculpted glass blocks;  long, vertical, open rectangles of blue brick with single blue bricks floating in the center; and windows grouped into horizontal bands by limestone surrounds, with the intervening space filled by blue brick.

Whether you just skim the pictures or read every detail, bear in mind the old question I’ve raised again and again on this blog: was it one designer cranking out variations on a theme, or was it multiple designers copying and adapting ideas from each other?

SPOILERS: I found almost no evidence of a common point of origin. However, at best I have only the names of “builders” – which could simply mean the contractor who constructed the building using plans from an independent architect, or a design-build development company with an in-house architect, or even a real estate development company who contracted out all aspects of design and construction to others. It’s entirely possible that a single architect sold drawings to multiple developers and construction companies, and equally possible that several architects swiped details from one another. Several “builders” were responsible for multiple similarly-styled buildings on the list, but multiple builders can also seen using the same details and styles as each other.

You can see most of the basic decorative elements on our first example, below:

2740 W. Pratt Blvd.
2740 W. Pratt, West Ridge – Chicago. David W. Schultz Co., builder; opened by 1965.

Vertical piers of blue brick punctuate the building’s bays. Decorative elements include the open rectangle of blue brick above the entrance – a motif found on several other buildings around the Rogers Park area, in a variety of brick colors. A large section of blank wall is dressed up with a grid of square blue panels floating on a field of cream brick.

1322 W. Chase Avenue
1322 W. Chase Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago. Opened 1965, by Birger Construction Co., replacing a converted house previously on the site. Birger also did  an apartment building at 7621 N. Sheridan that uses the same corner-pier vocabulary, but in reddish-orange brick. 

This building and the previous one share similar entry detailing as well as the blue corner piers. The “tower”  – a raised bay marked by colored piers on both sides – lends interest to the building’s massing.

 

Paulina
6116 N. Hermitage Avenue, opened 1964, with studio, 1- and 2-bedroom apartments; operated at the time by the McCarthy Management Corporation. No word on the builder.

This is a third building with corner piers. Sculpted glass block marks the entryway, as well as a tiny folded plate canopy. It also shares the same “tower” massing as the previous building, as well as nearly-identical window treatment – windows rimmed by a limestone band, with blue brick in the surrounded wall space.

Ohhhh, snazzy.
Stacks and angles

 

Somewhere on Paulina.
4850-4856 N. Paulina Avenue – opened by 1966, by Luna Construction Co., replacing a house on the site (previously home to a family whose four sons all served in World War I.)

A U-shaped courtyard building. The piers, the open rectangle, the folded plate entry canopy, and the banded windows all recur. There’s also a band of colored brick near the roofline, looking a bit like a sweatband on a jogger’s forehead which becomes a cross motif at the courtyard.
Cream & blue courtyard!

 

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7256 N. Bell, Rogers Park – Chicago. J. & H. Construction Co. builders, 1967.

Piers and a grid of squares recur from previous buildings. The balcony railings are similar to those at our next stop…

7241 N. Claremont Avenue

7241 N. Claremont Avenue, West Ridge – Chicago. Opened in 1962, replacing a 4-unit apartment building on the same site.

In addition to the prominent blue corner pier and “tower” massing, banded windows, outlined rectangles of stacked-bond brick, and sculpted glass block modules over the entryway, this one features lovely matching metal balcony railings. The entry canopy is probably not the original. If my dates are all correct, this would seem to be the prototype for the others in this group.

The vertical bands of glass block over the entryway recur on our next two buildings:

1635 W. Touhy
1535 W. Touhy, Rogers Park – Chicago. Open by 1968, possibly by 1965.

Piers, banded windows, glass block entry. The grid of stripes is a variant on the grid of squares seen earlier. It is echoed in the bands of glass block over the entry, whose verticality is further emphasized by the unusual decision to turn the blue brick on end.
YAY!

 

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1631 W. Farwell, Rogers Park – opened in 1964. This site follows a familiar historical arc for the time period – in April 1963, a doctor living at this address passed away. In August, the “old house” and its lot went up for sale for $26,000. Thirteen months later, the new building was ready. 

A particularly stylish example with multiple stepbacks as it moves back through its lot. It breaks with the others by banding its windows vertically. Lots of decorative activity, from the framed rectangles to smaller unframed squares, curly-cue canopy supports, and glass block at the stairwell.
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The vertical bands of brick and glass block are nearly identical to those at 1535 Touhy, but banded and with plain clear block in addition to the colored geometric ones.

 

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1918 W. Touhy Avenue, Rogers Park – opened 1966. It was under the same rental management as the previous building (1631 Farwell).

A much simpler example with banded windows and a grid of rectangles.

 

 

1615 W. Touhy
1615-17 W. Touhy, Rogers Park – Chicago. Doesn’t appear in the classifieds until 1971, which would make it rather a latecomer, but would also perhaps explain the unusual gabled roof.

Piers, banded windows (minus the limestone outlines), open rectangle at the entry, grid of unframed rectangles.

 

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7555 N. Oakley Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago. Open by 1965, M. Chapelski Construction Co. builders.

A dark-blue variant with simplified detailing, south of Howard Street. Piers, a stack of framed rectangles, banded windows.

 

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7418 N. Oakley Avenue, Rogers Park -Inside, 6 apartments: three 1-bedrooms and three 2-bedrooms. No word on the builder, but in 1963 it was owned by the First National Bank of Skokie.

Very nearly the same building as the previous one, with the more common light blue accents, right down the street. Piers, banded windows, and framed rectangles recur from previous buildings; the vertical stripes on the side are new.

 

IMG_16304744-46 N. Paulina, opened in 1967.

Folded canopy, corner piers, and the open rectangle. The lack of banding at the windows leaves the front facade feeling disjointed and ad hoc.

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There are some buildings – again, around Rogers Park – which use the same decorative vocabulary, but in different shades of brick.

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2700-2704 W. Pratt Avenue, West Ridge – Chicago. A 15-apartment building opened by 1967; builder David Schultz, who also built the blue-toned one across the street.  Familiar elements include the piers, the grid of rectangles, and the open rectangles over the entries.
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2001-2007 W. Touhy  Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago, open by 1968.

A third building by David Schultz; this one uses the piers, and the same sweatband/cross banding seen at 4850 N. Paulina. But that building was put up by a different company!

 

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1844-1846 W. Birchwood Avenue – an 11-apartment building open by 1967; builder Sam Toporek Construction Company. Piers and the open rectangle.

 

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1813-1819 W. Touhy  Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago. Open by 1966; builder: Sam Toporek Construction Company, same as the previous building. Piers, grid of rectangles, sweatband, open rectangle.

 

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 1534-1536 W. Farwell  Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago; opened by 1968. Builder: Louis Bender.  Piers, grid of framed rectangles, open rectangle.

 

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1623-27 W. Greenleaf Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago.  Piers, grid of unframed rectangles, open rectangle.

 

IMG_00511538-40 W. Chase Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago. Open by 1966; builder M. Chapelski Construction.  Piers, grid of unframed rectangles, open rectangle.

So, taking the open rectangle as a sample, we’ve got at least five different builders (Schultz, Bender, Luna, Chapelski, Toporek) using the same ornamental detail. Did they share an architect, or just an idea?

 

Returning to our color theme, there are plenty of blue-on-blondes which don’t use the distinctive design vocabulary outlined above. Some examples:

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8308 Kilpatrick Avenue, Skokie IL

A suburban outlier that is also a design outlier, this building demonstrates how the features seen before aren’t necessary or unavoidable, but rather were intentional decisions. Here we have no corner piers, no glass block, no brick rectangles, and no banded window groups. Ornament is instead formed by raised vertical stripes and grids of single blue bricks between the windows. Is it merely chance that this building is far away from the others in both style and geography?

Here’s one more outlier, down in Berwyn:

Cermak Road
Kenilworth Arms Apartments, 6850-54 W. Cermak Road, Berwyn – a 1959 building by George V. Jerutis & Associates builders.

This one uses the blue brick in a completely different way, framing and outlining windows groups with it.  The white panels appear to be some kind of plaster or stucco, and might not be original.

Many other buildings beyond the core Rogers Park group use the same material palette and color scheme, though without the distinctive sense of style and fewer recurring design elements:

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7744 N. Eastlake Terrace, Rogers Park – opened in 1963, advertised by Sunset Realty.

This elevator building features both vertically and horizontally banded windows; the entry is marked by glass block and a dimensional Flemish bond brick pattern. The little baseball cap brim overhang on the outer bays also hearkens back to the core group.
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Just south of Warren Park
2155 W. Arthur Avenue, West Ridge – Chicago, south of Warren Park. 

Awkward massing, but the horizontal bands of accent brick give it some style.

West Ridge - Granville Avenue
6117 N. Mozart Avenue – Chicago

This building limits itself to one big flashy move, as its blue brick window bands wrap around the most visible corner. Like almost all these buildings, the blue brick is laid in a stack bond rather than the running bond used on the common brick; here especially it adds some geometric punch to the fields of blue.

 

Lest you think all this is a given, or somehow obvious: there are some which are almost painfully dull, almost willful in their refusal to ornament beyond the bare minimum. What do you think of a building that only does the bare minimum?

1628 W. Touhy
1628 W. Touhy, Rogers Park – Chicago

1236 W. Touhy, or thereabouts.

1236 W. Touhy, Rogers Park – Chicago

Lawrence Avenue
5710 W. Lawrence Avenue, Portage Park – Chicago. Opened 1964. Vertical window bands, diamond patterned doors and not much else. The gabled roof looks bizarrely out of place, like it landed from another city.

 

Below are a trio of larger and slightly older buildings that used the blue-on-blonde color scheme before any of the previous buildings did. Naturally, like the no-effort ones above, they don’t follow the Rogers Park vocabulary, but they show the color scheme in a slightly earlier incarnation.

Evanston - Ridge
737 Ridge Avenue at Madison, Evanston – opened in 1960 as “Madison Tower Condominium”.  It was meant to be condos, but was rented out as apartments, not going full condo until 1976. The developer at the time noted that the building was “a bit ahead of its time” regarding the then-new condo concept.

A rather dreadfully plain building, which uses blue glazed brick to infill the space between window bands in the projecting windows bays.

Not sure if this one counts.

6107 N. Kenmore – today it’s the Sacred Heart Friary, home of the St. Bonaventure Province of Conventual Franciscans. In 1959 it opened as The Charleroi, an apartment building of 1 bedrooms and efficiencies advertised by Meister-Neiberg & Associates. It’s not clear when the friars moved in, but they renovated a ground-level space as a chapel, with small stained glass windows.

A blue accent at the corner, smaller blue accents at the entryway. The brick here is not stacked bond.

 

N. Kenmore Ave

Kenmore Place, at 6012 N. Kenmore – a 4-Plus-1 near Loyola University. Appears to have opened 1958, which if correct would make it the oldest building in this set.

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This one doesn’t even feature blue brick – just 1×1 mosaic tile in three bordered bands between the windows – but still follows the same color scheme to infill the space between windows in its large projecting bays.

You might think this is enough of a single color scheme to last a blog for a lifetime, but dear reader, you’d be mistaken. Tune in next week, when Blue on Blonde plugs in, sells out and goes commercial!

The Stripes Make It Go Faster

One of my favorite Mid Century Chicago decorative motifs is also among the simplest: patterns of overlapping vertical and horizontal bands, usually done in contrasting colors of brick, on the building’s walls. It’s a simple and stylish way to dress up a large wall space with no windows, particularly one on the building’s street frontage. They’re most powerful when used on a completely blank, flat, rectangular wall – a bold mass with a bold pattern inscribed on it. Often the accent brick is a bright color with a glazed finish, contrasting with the matte background brick around it.

These geometric patterns show up on MCM buildings across Chicagoland, but especially on the south side and inner south suburbs. Sadly, I was not able to uncover much about these buildings’ builders or designers, but there are some definite correlations among disparate sites that raise the old question of whether a single designer was repeating their style, or multiple designers were copying one another.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 7859 S. Rutherford Street at 79th, Chicago Ridge. Inevitably, those fantastic Mid-Century doors have been replaced by something cheap and inappropriate, some time during 2011-2012. This building is one of a row of four along 79th Street, and the last to retain its original entryway configuration. All four give street addresses for the side streets, rather than for their primary entries along 79th Street. Chicago Mid-Century apartment building   Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 10200, 10216, 10232 S. Crawford (aka Pulaski) Road, Oak Lawn – opened in September 1960, this trio of breezeway apartment buildings features a blank wall at the street, providing some measure of protection against the noise of busy Pulaski (aka Crawford); the geometric pattern serves as adornment for what would otherwise be an unfriendly gesture toward the street. These apartments are located only a block from Saint Xavier University and are home to many students. Chicago Mid-Century apartment building The backs of the same buildings features simple vertical stripes in a corresponding spot facing the alley: Chicago Mid-Century apartment building Chicago Mid-Century apartment building     Chicago Mid-Century apartment building The Riviera Apartments – 9739 S. Kedzie / 9732-9742 S. Troy Avenue, Evergreen Park. Opened 1962. Another breezeway building, with ornamental patterns on the end walls and the sheltered exterior stairwells.  Large light blue band, small red rectangle, connecting black stripes – if it is not the same designer as the Crawford buildings, then it’s at least someone who noticed them.  Chicago Mid-Century apartment building Chicago Mid-Century apartment building     Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 1436 W. Farwell Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago, built by 1964

1131 W. Lunt 1125-1131 W. Lunt Avenue, Rogers Park – Chicago – opened 1963, replacing an “8 room brick” house that had stood on the lot previously. Developed by L & L Builders as luxury condominiums, when condos were a brand new commodity. The developers, apparently unaware of the doings down at south Kedzie, billed this building as “The Riviera Condominium at the Lake”.  (Or maybe they knew all too well, but figured nobody from that deep on the south side would ever venture up this far on the north side!)Chicago Mid-Century apartment building

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building Deanville Condos at 9105-9111 S. Roberts Road, Oak Lawn – a pair of back-to-back walkup buildings with lower-level garages between them. Here, the vertical band is made of lava rock. Seemingly of a later vintage than the previous buildings, this pair also makes dramatic use of a quasi-mansard roof over the entryways.Chicago Mid-Century apartment building

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 6616 S. Stewart Avenue, Englewood – Chicago. The entryway is marked by a pattern of colored geometric glass block.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 2030 N. Cleveland Avenue, Lincoln Park – Chicago, opened 1963. Perhaps the simplest possible iteration of the motif, but accented with a grid of raised bricks. The raised brick grid is itself another common Mid Century architectural motif that appears on many buildings across the region.

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 5439 S. 55th Avenue at 25th Street, Cicero  – a unique example that uses concrete panels to form its decorative pattern.

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 4343 W. 95th Street at Kostner, Oak Lawn, opened 1963. A variation on the theme, with thicker vertical bands and glass block accents. The color pattern is very similar to the alley wall of the Crawford/Pulaski buildings.Chicago Mid-Century apartment building

Some designs dispensed with the horizontal accents altogether, instead using a simple column of stacked brick banding.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 6148 Gage Avenue, Rosemont  

 

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building 9600? -9610? N. Greenwood Avenue, Niles – almost certainly the same builder as the previous example. The style is startlingly similar to that used on S. Harlem Avenue by Western Builders.

Chicago Mid-Century apartment building10425 & 10433 S. Longwood Lane, Oak Lawn – again, top to bottom vertical brick bands on a blank sidewall.

6-Flats on South Harlem

“HONESTY

SINCERITY

QUALITY

WORKMANSHIP

SERVICE”

Around the corner from Cermak Plaza, just north on Harlem Avenue, stands a remarkable run of 1960s apartment buildings – almost 50 of them, standing for four blocks in an unbroken row. With a range of cladding and ornament applied to a long series of virtually identical buildings, they are an almost perfect catalog of the decorative vocabulary of Chicago’s mid-century builder vernacular.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

These buildings are primarily the work of one builder: George V. Jerutis & Associates, who put up most of the row between 1958 and 1961.  A 1985 Tribune article gives some details of Mr. Jerutis’s life: a Bridgeport native born in 1924, Jerutis was a prolific builder in the Chicago area; by his own estimates, his firm constructed 15,000 buildings of all kinds in the 1950s and 1960s, touting itself as “Chicagoland’s largest multiple builder”. In the early 1970s, he moved out of building and into land development, spreading out into other states around the country.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

This building is one of three triplets in the row – the same design repeated a few lots apart, at 1909, 1921 and 1931 S. Harlem. Several others repeat the same design but with brown or orange brick instead of blue.

In their advertising, Jerutis & Associates repeatedly emphasized the quality of their work and materials, as well as the high value one could obtain by purchasing one of their buildings. Reading between the lines, it appears that most or all design was done in-house, though if a buyer got in early they could choose the design style, brick, colors, etc.

“We have and will continue to practice what we PREACH. YOU – our customers have made us the largest multiple builder in Chicagoland because we give you more for each dollar you spend.” – Tribune ad, May 22, 1960

Harlem Avenue 6-flats

1919 S. Harlem – stacked orange Roman brick spandrel panels on the sides; raised brick patterns on the ends

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

The entryways use a number of devices common to single and multi-family buildings of the era – glass block as a decorative sidelight, geometrically patterned column-screens, built-in planters, and wood doors with delightful patterns.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

 

At least five buildings in the row were built by another company called Western Builders. Their generic name does not lend itself to online searching, but the buildings are easily picked out by their vertical stripes, made of stacked Roman brick:

Harlem Avenue 6-flats

1847 S. Harlem Avenue. The geometric glass blocks seem to be a more ornate response to this building’s prominent corner location.

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

 

A handful of buildings in the row appear to be by other builders, differing in style and not appearing in the classified ads:

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats

Harlem Apartments – a sort of O’Nassis Modern pastiche at 1817 S. Harlem.

Harlem Avenue 6-flats

 

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1809 S. Harlem and its twin neighbor feature 1×1 mosaic tile panels in an abstract pattern. These also appear to be by another builder.

 

Harlem Avenue 6-Flats1801 and 1805 Harlem are a break from the usual model; instead of 6-flats, they are two-level breezeway buildings. Built in 1960, they are not Jerutis products.

Elmwood Park’s Conti Circle

If one boils the annals of urban planning down to a decade-by-decade analysis, it is so very frequently the 1950s and 1960s that must lay claim to the biggest disasters, the most egregious screwups.  Yet in Elmwood Park, it is the 1970s where good planning abruptly veered off-course.

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Elmwood Park, if you’ve never been there, has at its center Conti Parkway, a broad circular boulevard that loops around a circular park. Around the outside of the park, commercial, civic and apartment buildings form a ring around the street. A layer of angled parking comes next, then the road, then the circular space in the center.

The styles of the buildings that line the Conti Parkway circle range back to its construction in 1926 by real estate developer John Mills (who also laid out the surrounding streets and built hundreds of bungalows on them, accented with Sullivanesque catalog ornament.) Buildings continued to rise on the parkway into the 1960s – each following the curving border of the street, reinforcing and building up this delightful space. Pre-war and Mid-Century Modern alike acknowledged and respected the form of the street and contributed to the grand outdoor space.

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It is a disarmingly charming space, where buildings of all architectural stripes rub elbows quite comfortably.

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Then something went haywire. In the early 1970s, the city of Elmwood Park, desiring certain recreational amenities and not having any other open land at its disposal, decided to redevelop the central park with a Civic Center and new library. This might have been a fine thing, if the result was worthy of the space – but it was anything but.

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The two buildings that went up on the north and south ends of the circle make no effort to respect the curving plot of land they sit on. Instead, by dropping rectangular buildings and spaces onto a round site, the complex manages to obliterate the maximum amount of land, leaving only shreds of uselessly awkward shaped lawns around the corners. The buildings themselves, rather than being an appropriately monumental or definitive capstone to decades of development, are completely forgettable.

Compounding the problems, a pool and aquatic complex was squeezed between them in the 1990, stamping out whatever open space remained. Fences and loading docks further slice and dice what was once freely accessible public space.

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The damage didn’t stop there; in recent decades, the southwest quadrant of the parkway has been further further diminished by poorly placed driveways for a fire station, the village hall, and a parking lot. A new library – replacing the one on the circle –  makes a rather ham-handed attempt to acknowledge the circle, with a series of stepping corner setbacks that leave an awkward-shaped concrete “plaza” facing the circle – a poorly defined open space masquerading as an architectural response to the parkway.

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Around the same time, the historic village hall’s front facade – a simple but dignified Classical-influenced design – was buried under a misshapen mass of 1970s brick, presumably to add an accessible entrance.  The same design sense went into the fire station next door, along with the same obliviousness to context – three broad driveways slice across the sidewalk, along with a parking lot.

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Unsurprisingly, trees now line the edges of the Conti Circle park space. They conceal the awkwardness within – the buildings trying so hard to become non-entities. Unable to come up with anything worthy of being seen, the village erected something that desperately tries to be invisible.

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For all that, Conti Parkway continues to charm. A stroll around its perimeter is a pleasant experience indeed – but what sad irony that it is the fully developed urban side of the street that offers the most inviting space.

An aside – Conti Parkway was originally known as Broadway; it was renamed Elmwood Parkway by the 1930s. It was renamed again in 1973 for the village’s then-mayor – over his veto!

Links:

UPDATE, May 20 2014: I noticed this post getting a large number of views. While poking around online to figure out why, I came across an interesting study of Conti Circle and its environment: Conti Circle Revitalization Plan. Still no idea where all the hits are coming from, though!

Mid-Century Townhouses

Rowhouses were the basic building block of many East Coast cities, but (as I’ve mentioned before) the classic rowhouse never really caught on big in Chicago. Here on the open prairie, with the abundant timber of northern Wisconsin in easy reach, the wood balloon frame took off, and with it the detached single-family worker cottage.

After World War II, however, the humble rowhouse got a makeover, and a second shot at success in Chicagoland. No longer the building block of the inner city, it became a more affordable alternative to those looking to make their home in the newly rising suburbs. The new rowhouse was clothed in mid-century Modernist garb and rechristened as the more market-friendly “townhome”. Construction of these units reached a fever pitch in the late 1950s.

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At its core, a townhome or row house is basically two or more houses that share vertical walls. Each unit has its own private, exclusive entrance – no shared stairwells. Each unit touches the ground. Beyond that, there were no rules in the post-war era.

Pre-war rowhouses had commonly been two to four stories high; post-war could be two stories, split levels, or even a single story, with or without basement. No one would mistake a pre-war rowhouse for anything other than what it was – but post-war townhomes were often dressed up to look like larger apartment blocks, colonial mansions, or rambling split level ranch houses.

Rather than forming the basis of canyon-like streets, Modernist townhouses were very often set perpendicular to the street, with garden-like courtyards between them.

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Flat roofs, brick and flagstone facades, and broad picture windows are common elements.
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More creative iterations might emulate the shapes of courtyard apartments…
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…or go the other direction, and disguise multiple row homes as a single gigantic split-level ranch, as did Chesterfield Builders.IMG_2621a

When I first thought about the idea of a Mid-Century rowhouse, I thought they must be rare. But to the contrary, they’re quite common. Once you start recognizing them, they’re everywhere. I know of four different sets of them within two blocks of my home.

Like other forms of mid-century Chicago architecture, a sort of builder vernacular emerged, presumably as builders borrowed ideas, inspiration and perhaps architects from one another. The typical 1950s Chicago townhouse can be described thus: two stories above ground with 4 or 5 units. Brick cladding except at the corners, where wood or cut stone forms an accent, along with a corner-wrapping picture window. The building mass is slightly offset at its midpoint, creating another chance for a corner picture window. Buildings are paired off facing one another across a walkway and small yards, creating a shared courtyard.
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Some of the more interesting developers and their works include:
Skokie Townhouse Builders, Inc. – headed by Ronald Dreyfus and Robert Krilich, this company put up several developments with simple Modernist facades.
* A cluster of 9 buildings at 9505 Gross Point Road in Skokie.
* A cluster of 13 buildings at 10081 Frontage Road, north of Old Orchard in Skokie
* 5839-5845 Lincoln Avenue, Morton Grove – a group of five, set perpendicular to the street:
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* 4702-4740 Main Street, Skokie – a group of eight on the north side of the street, perpendicular to the road, with a handful of additional buildings are on the south side of the street including one at Patrick & Main, 2 more at 4716 Main, and 3 more at 4712-4716 Washington.
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Dunbar Builders – the company of Herbert Rosenthal, who essentially brought the condominium to Chicago and the United States. Billing their developments as “Townhouses by Dunbar”, this company erected several groups of Modernist buildings:
* 2505 Howard at Maplewood – a large group of Modernist townhomes, 35 total, along Birchwood, Jerome, Maplewood and Rockwell streets. Opened in 1960.

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Of special note is the extreme similarity of Dunbar’s designs to those of Skokie Townhouse Builders. Both feature the same slight jog in the building footprint, with a first-floor overhang and brick walls giving way to wood paneling at the corners. To this mix, however, Dunbar Builders adds a massive chimney of gray Lannon stone on the narrow end of the building, as well as some additional details.

The Howard-Maplewood development uses a variety of elements and color – red, orange and beige brick; brown, red or white siding; ashlar or rough cut stone chimneys. The lines of the large corner picture windows at the living room are visually reinforced by built-in planters. First-floor overhangs run the length of the buildings’ fronts.
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This examples above and below both retain their original thin steel frame windows on the corner unit.
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* 6900 Ridge at Farwell & Morse – A group of 6 buildings with a pleasing staggered placement, thanks to Ridge’s angle relative to the street grid. Opened in 1960.
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* 6100 Ridge – 9 Modernist buildings along Norwood Street and Hood Avenue, along with 5 more in a Colonial style across the street. Opened in 1960. They use the same Modernist design as the 6900 Ridge development.
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* Grand & Prospect at Dempster, Niles – a full-block cluster of twenty 5-unit buildings.

Joseph Rush Realty and Management Company:
* Ridge Court Townhouses – 5 buildings at 7500-7508 N. Ridge, 1959. Variegated beige brick with flagstone at the corners, openwork wood frame faux overhangs at the first story, shallow pitched roofs, and vertical brick entry screens with small openings. This development replaced an abandoned farm house that had stood on the site for a hundred years.
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Builders unknown:
* 1000 Dodge Avenue, Evanston – twelve buildings perpendicular to the road. Opened by 1957, and built as rental housing. They could easily be by Dunbar Builders; the level of detailing is comparable.
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* 8401-8431 Lotus Avenue, Skokie – a group of twins – two units per building – lining one side of the street.
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Related posts:

Searching for Architecture in Northbrook

As a preface to this post, I had written out a fairly long rant about how much I hate suburbs in general, and Northbrook in particular. But my M.O. on this blog is to celebrate, not denigrate, so we’ll skip all that and get straight to the point: even a far-flung exurb like Northbrook has its moments.

Part 1: 20th Century Northbrook

Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism – Lake-Cook Road
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Fitch, Larocca & Carrington Inc., finished 1973 for a congregation dating back to 1954.

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses – Pfingston and Maria Avenue
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A tiny confection rendered in Brutalist language. The building was designed in 1967 by architect Salvatore Balsamo, and built by members of the congregation over the next two years. It’s still in use by them today. Having designed it to be built primarily by unskilled labor, Balsamo commented in the 1970 Tribune that “the unions and building department did not bother the workers because the project was a house of worship.”

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CitiBank – Lake-Cook Road
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A giant square roof hovering over a transparent body below. The roof extends to shelter the drive-through ATMs in one unified swoop. The bank building went up in the mid-1970s as home to First Federal of Chicago.

The bank is an outparcel of the adjacent Northbrook Court, a development fought tooth and nail by neighboring Deerfield, but opened nevertheless in 1976. The mall was designed by Architectonics, Inc., who also worked with developer Sears on another mall in Joliet.

Great Lakes Structural Steel
237 Melvin Drive
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A plain warehouse with a bold International Style office building up front, built for a company relocating from Skokie. The style has been tweaked a bit, making it a bit more flamboyant than orthodoxy might have allowed – and allowing the original tenant to show off the effectiveness of their signature product. 1969, by the local firm of Alper & Alper.

Ironically, it’s now home to HDO Productions – a company that provides large event tents.

AA Service Co. Heating and Cooling – Anthony Trail
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This shockingly dramatic arch was once an airport hangar for Sky Harbor Airport. Dating from 1929, it was opened to great aplomb in the days when the Northbrook area was far more sparsely settled. An incredibly stylized club house and control center stood to the south on Dundee Road, but did not survive the Great Depression which closed the airport. Abandoned and vandalized, the clubhouse was torn down in 1939 and the field re-opened as a training center, largely for military pilots. After three decades of use as a popular private airport, Sky Harbor closed in 1973 in the face of rising land values, to be replaced by light industrial development.

The original hangar building was abandoned for a few years but survives to this day, now housing a heating contractor. In an utterly bizarre arrangement, it now has a narrow two-story seafood restaurant tacked on to its side.

The Courts of Northbrook
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Opened in 1988, the Courts stand directly west of the shopping mall of nearly the same name. What I like about this place is that it’s such a great model for a suburb. It’s nothing particularly special or overwrought; and yet, it shows how pleasant a neighborhood can be when the right architectural tools are used to control space. This is not some high-falutin’ architect’s theoretical experiment – any developer could come up with this place if they put their head to it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an enlightened development, this is the work of the Optima Inc. company architect David Hovey.

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The enclosed porch is an especially nice touch. What a pleasant place to sit and read on a sunny day!

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360-370 Lake Cook Road

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Lacking any name, this low, long building hunkers down under its wonderful green metal roof and behind its low brick walls, scowling out at the rushing traffic on Lake-Cook Road. Inside, a pleasant courtyard greets visitors.

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And wander around a bit, and you’ll find the requisite 1950s ranch houses, still looking fantastic 50 years after they were built.

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Following on 1950s houses came 1960s churches.

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And the story doesn’t stop here… next time we’ll look at some more recent additions to the landscape.