4 Plus 1 again

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I wanted to talk a bit more seriously about the Four Plus One apartment buildings, beyond the level of just fawning over their entry canopies. Four Plus Ones got a bad rap even in their own day, and they aren’t much more beloved today. Eventually, residents of Lakeview fought them to a standstill in the early 1970s.

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The big concerns about Four Plus Ones were three-fold: insufficient parking, increased density, and a change in the character of the residents. The last charge is the most interesting to me. Opponents maintained that 4-Plus-1 apartments attracted transient types – singles, young men, workers, all of whom had no attachments to the neighorhood and therefore had no incentive to maintain and improve it. It’s an interesting argument, but it smacks of NIMBYism. Where else are these apparent undesirables supposed to go? Somewhere else!

As for the parking argument, well… quite a few of these buildings were slotted in between pre-war apartment buildings of equal or greater size – buildings that had no off-street parking at all. Nobody seems to raise an eyebrow at this.

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“Cheap construction” was another charge leveled at the 4 Plus 1 (by no less an authority than the AIA Guide to Chicago Architecture). But it’s a relative term – brick veneer was never a cheap finishing material, even in the 1960s. And a demolition photo from Forgotten Chicago reveals that concrete block infill was also used, both as as a firebreak between units and also as the structural element of the exterior walls. Today, concrete block with brick facing is the gold standard of bearing wall and light frame construction.

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Underneath the brick, these buildings are actually wood-framed; to be sure, concrete framing would have been more pricey, but would it have made any difference to the buildings’ appearance? Zoning codes required an upgrade in framing construction above four floors, so it was simple good economics to stop at that level and build in a more affordable material. If they’d been less “cheap”, they’d have gone higher, been bigger, and thus amplified the neighbors’ other concerns. How this makes the buildings “cheap” – in the derogatory sense, not economic – isn’t clear. “Cheaply constructed” seems a pointless slur rooted in aesthetic dislike.

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But hey, aesthetics aren’t an invalid concern. Apart from their space-age concrete canopies and screen walls, there isn’t much to these buildings as seen from the street. And if you didn’t like a design once, you’re unlikely to like it 50 more times. That’s not much of an exaggeration; principal Four-Plus-One architect Jerome Sultan recycled some of his designs to an almost comical extent.

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525 Stratford

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532 W. Roscoe

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540 W. Roscoe

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530 W. Aldine

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441 W. Barry

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528 Oakdale

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The painted concrete artistry of Jerome Soltan

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6201 N. Kenmore

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6011 N. Winthrop

I have a deep, dark, dirty, dangerous secret to share with you all:

I like the Four-Plus-One.

There, I said it! I said it and I’m proud! I’m not taking it back!

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5617 N. Kenmore Ave.

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5940 Kenmore Avenue – “Thorndale Beach West” – probably Jerome Soltan

Why do I like them? Well, c’mon. How could anybody not like buildings with entrances like these?

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1060 W. Hollywood Avenue – Jerome Soltan

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6110 N. Kenmore Avenue

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6250 N. Kenmore – the same design as 6110 Kenmore

I don’t have an architect’s name for the vast bulk of these buildings, but when I do, it’s almost always Jerome Soltan. Somewhat infamous as the original and most proliferate developer of the Four-Plus-One apartment building, Soltan distinctive style is stamped on nearly every 4-Plus-1 in the area south of Loyola University, where most of these buildings are located. He may or may not have designed them all, but his influence can be seen in every one.

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5411 N. Winthrop Avenue

Need I point out the delightful creativity of the entryways? Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re certainly expressive.

Obviously, some of them crop up more than once. Soltan wasn’t at all ashamed to recycle his designs, just so long as they weren’t on the same block.

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5620 N. Kenmore – “The Chalet” (of course it is!) – Jerome Soltan

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5450 N. Winthrop Ave. – presumably Jerome Soltan again

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6134 N. Kenmore Ave

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6972 N. Sheridan Road – Jerome Soltan

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6246 N. Kenmore – Canisius Hall, Loyola University – again, presumably Jerome Soltan

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5851 N. Winthrop

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6610-6628 N. Sheridan

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6825 N. Sheridan – Jerome Soltan

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6307 N. Winthrop Avenue – Xavier Hall, Loyola University

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6128 N. Kenmore

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6011 N. Kenmore

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5953 N. Kenmore (left) and 5949 N. Kenmore (right – “Thorndale Beach East”, Jerome Soltan

Kenmore Avenue, Chicago

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6030 N. Kenmore

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5833 N. Kenmore

Sculpted concrete blocks

Within the span of a week, I discovered two totally separate uses of an unusual architectural product, a sculpted square concrete block inscribed with an artistic pattern of rectangular shapes.

Sculpted concrete block detail

This example is used on the entry overhang of a four-plus-one apartment building on northern Ridge Avenue in Evanston, where its use vaguely evokes the image of an Aztec temple emerging from the jungle.

835 Ridge entryway

The same design is used on the stairwell decoration panel on a 3-flat on 55th Street near Midway Airport.

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In both cases, rotating the block allows its complex patterns to overlap and interweave between blocks, erasing the distinction between the individual blocks and obscuring the fact that this is simply one design repeated over and over.

The design brought to mind a certain Rogers Park apartment building, and sure enough, one of the geometric forms on its wall is the very same block:

Funky apartment building

The recurrence of the blocks suggests that these were a product from a catalog, rather than the custom design I originally imagined. If so, were there other designs? Who manufactured them? Were they used by the same architect in all three cases? (N. S. Theodorou designed the Rogers Park building.)

The blocks certainly owe a heavy debt to the concrete textile blocks used by Frank Lloyd Wright in several of his California houses. Considering the 1950s fascination with the glamor and style of California living, the connection isn’t too surprising.