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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Alvin Hoffberg’s Courtyard Townhouses

“Every visitor says these are Chicago’s most beautiful and unusual town homes.” – August 7, 1957 Chicago Tribune classified ad

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Midcentury builder Alvin M. Hoffberg brought a unique twist on the townhouse to Chicagoland in the 1950s. The Midcentury townhouse is a rare beast indeed, but it does exist, and Hoffberg planted several variations on a similar theme in Rogers Park and Evanston. He developed a series of one-story rowhouses ranged around a long, narrow courtyard.

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Several decorative features make it obvious that these buildings are all by the same builder, but it was a classified ad for 1338 Main Street, shown above, that finally gave me the builder’s name.

(Just so we’re all on the same footing – a townhouse, in US parlance at least, is the same thing as a rowhouse – an individual dwelling unit that shares party walls on at least one side with another home, but has its own individual entrance at the ground. In the 1950s, “townhouse” probably would have sounded much more cosmopolitan and appealing than “rowhouse”, with its connotations of crowded cities and industrial workers’ housing.)

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1338 Main Street shows up in a delightful little classified ad in the 1954 Tribune, advertised as a group of California-styled ranch townhouses:

“Very de luxe [sic] and unusual, on 1 floor, with full basement and roofed patio. Landscaped and decorated to suit. Tiled Youngstown kitchen, colored fixtures in tiled dual bath. Ample cabinets and wardrobes, many other features. Carpeting, utilities and rumpus room opposite. Fine residential area, close to all transporation, shops, schools and recreation.”

Hoffberg went on to use this design in several more locations around Evanston and the far north end of Chicago.

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239-45 Custer (Evanston) appears in the classifieds by 1963. Unlike the Main Street group, they’re built over a raised basement, which also raises up the courtyard – an extra measure of privacy and separation from the street.
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This design pops up several more times around the neighborhood, such as 135 Callan:
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135 Callan, Evanston

These were advertised as 5-room townhouses, approaching completion in 1955 with prices ranging from $180 to $195 a month:

“For discriminating people who desire the utmost beauty, privacy and comfort, each a complete de luxe home in a choice residential area clos to shops, express “L”, bus and train. Spacious rooms, huge wardrobes, snak bar, dispolsa, and de luxe utilities area few features.”

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7374-80 and 7382-88 Winchester, named “Park Terrace”, stands in Chicago’s city limits. Like the Main Street group, 7376 Winchester was advertised in 1959 with an emphasis on its fabulous rumpus room. Alvin M. Hoffberg, builder could be contacted at 6131 N. Sheridan.

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A variation on these designs stands nearby in northern Rogers Park, marked by an entry gateway.

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This is 7323-29 Damen (or maybe just 7327 N. Damen); at any rate, it’s the Park Damen Town Homes. A resident of this site died in 1958; I have to wonder if his home was sold to make way for this building, which a real estate agent lists with a 1960 date of construction (CityNews says 1957, but they can be real wonky sometimes.)

This group has a twin to the east, the Park Patio at 7342-44 and 7346-48 Winchester (where, perhaps not coincidentally, another owner died in 1960.)

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Not only does it have the same sloped bay windows as the wood-siding buildings, it’s got the same little cutesy development name in the same kind of cutesy font as the Park Terrace up the street.

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Hoffberg drew on a very distinct vocabulary of design ideas and facade materials: Flat roofs; picture windows set in square, boxed-out projecting bays or sloping walls, finished in wood siding and usually painted red or brown; rough-faced limestone banding at the windows; small patches of red Roman brick or flagstone; blonde brick.
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Hoffberg had a second design, seen above, that was useful for narrower or shallower sites, consisting of a simple twin or duplex design – two houses, 1 party wall. 729-31 Brummel Street, above, is a typical example. The building opened in 1956.

Here’s a virtual duplicate at 738-40 Mulford Street:
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And another near-duplicate at 238-40 Custer, across the street from one of the courtyard townhouses. This one opened in September 1960, and was constructed by Elston Builders.
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And here’s the same idea again at 806-08 Mulford Street:
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A third variation is a bit more free-form, with no courtyards.
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244 Elmwood at Mulford Evanston – appears to have been standing by 1959; possibly by 1956.

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700-706 Shaw

Both of these occupy corner sites and are paired with a duplex building, apparently a response to a square site.

“Distinctive 5 room apartments with a distinctive address built for discrminating tastes” — Tribune classifieds, 1955

Like most developers from the 1950s and 1960s, Alvin Hoffberg wasn’t exactly a celebrity figure, so there’s not a lot of info about him. Mr. Hoffberg shows up in 1947 as VP and general manager of Leonard W. Besinger & Associates, Inc., working on a group of homes in Park Ridge (bounded by Devon / Talcott / Cumberland / Glenlake / Vine), designed by architects Marin J. Green and William Kotek. Then came his run of indepdent buildings in the mid-1950s. And then, poof, nothing. Silence. Whatever became of Mr. Hoffberg, he didn’t make any more headlines after the early 1960s.

There are some other buildings in the area that share similar materials, particularly that rough limestone trim and red Roman brick combo, and some indications that Hoffberg worked with a few other companies.

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314-16 Callen, for example is a co-op apartment building that dates to 1954, was put up by the Town Development Co., and was advertised using his distinctive vocabulary.

And 1601-09 W. Lunt, dating from 1964, is credited to Bannon-O’Donnel (realtors or builders, it’s not clear), but has all the hallmarks of a Hoffberg design.
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And these buildings are right across the street from the Elmwood/Mulford group, and use the exact same materials.
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301 Elmwood, Evanston

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300 Sherman, Evanston

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301 Elmwood detail…

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….and a detail from a known Hoffberg design across the street.

“Sensationally different – California one story – designed in the modern trend, for discrminating couples” – Chicago Tribune classified ad, 1955

Early Modern / Midcentury Moderne apartments

Early modernism for the masses took the form of sleek brick boxes, with windows at the corners and raised bands of brick for ornament.

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6014-6024 N. California, 1948. The Tribune indicates that this was the George Eisenberg Unit, a “child treatment center” for foster children run by the Jewish Children’s Bureau. In later years, the building became an apartment complex. By 2007, when I shot these photos, it was tired, run down and vacant.

With the land slated for a condo product, the building was demolished around 2008. The condos (a sad historicist pastiche compared to this elegantly simple building) never happened, of course.

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Granville Gardens, West Ridge – more info here.

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Wolcott Gardens – 4901-4959 N. Wolcott Avenue, 1939, architects Michaelsen & Rognstad. This project started as soon as Granville Gardens finished. Like that project, Wolcott Gardens was backed by Federal government loan guarantees.

If you’ve ever ridden Metra’s Union Pacific North line, you’ve seen the backsides of this complex, which sprawls for an impressive length near the Ravenswood stop.

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The courtyards are fenced off, sadly. The buildings are arranged to form a giant U-shape running along the back of the block, with two smaller U-shapes nestled within it – an ingenious layout that takes advantage of the long, narrow, and rectangular site plan.

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301-11 Custer, Evanston – a near-total mystery! I can’t find it in the city/county database. A classified ad announces the building’s opening, with units ready for occupancy in March 1948, also naming the building as the “Custer-Mulford Apartments”, at 301 Custer, and operated by Draper and Kramer, Inc.

One other thing about Moderne? It looks GREAT at night.
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7375-83 N. Winchester – the Pottawattomie Park Apartments

Four sets of courtyard apartments, in two pairs, sit on the 7600 block of Winchester in Rogers Park. They’re all the same design, though the pair on the west side of the street has been badly remangled with super low-budget tack-on metal balconies.

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7328-36 N. Winchester

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7314-22 N. Winchester – ugh!! Those doors!

On the east side of Winchester, however, the other pair remains gloriously intact, with its thin metal-framed windows still in place.

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7363-71 N. Winchester – the Pottawattomie Park Apartments

At the street, the complex features beautiful brickwork, half-turned stacks and raised bands that beautifully complement the corner windows.

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The whole group seems to have gone up in 1953, though the Chicago CityNews site is pretty confused, listing one as dating to 1898 (!!) and listing seemingly outdated addresses for the east-side buildings. Plans for the buildings were announced in the Tribune in 1949; they were part of a large group of apartments privately constructed with FHA loans.

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

Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!

A long while back I wrote briefly about the strange Midcentury 3-flats on Kominsky at 55th Street, with their low-relief sculpture panels in place of the usual glass block over the stairwells.

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I was already aware of another set of sculpture plaques just around the corner, a trio of charmingly chintzy “See No Evil” monkeys at 5516 S. Pulaski.

MidCentury See, MidCentury Do

Speak No Evil

Then I found a third set of plaques, this time on three breezeway apartment buildings on Division near Concordia University:

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The name plate above the “Hear No Evil” monkey (7213 W. Division) reads “The Alexandrian”, as if someone thought they could convince students they were moving into a Colonial-era Grecian mansion.

This batch definitively ties the first two together, sharing the common background elements of a rising sun and a strange “cobblestone” pattern. The Concordia University set also led me to the story behind the monkey sculptures. And the story is… there is no story.

An article from the Chicago Tribune, dated June 24, 1956, is titled “No Reason, But Monkeys Adorn Dwelling Units”. General contractor Angelo Esposito explains that the sculptures were added to the Division Street apartments for no other reason than to generate buzz about the company’s latest buildings, and likewise for sculptures added to previous developments. No mention is made of who did the actual designs.

Esposito and Company, Contractors, were headquartered at 1515 N. Harlem Avenue, and got their anonymous sculptor’s work on at least one more building, a large breezeway apartment at 1305 N. Harlem Avenue, just south of North Ave:

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Harlem Avenue, I think.  In Oak Park.

It may look like a duplicate of the flute player on Komenski, but it’s actually a completely new rendering of the exact same pose. Likewise, the Concordia monkeys are completely new sculpts of the same idea used on the Pulaski building.

Other likely Esposito buildings feature geometric abstractions. One can trace a path of repeated design elements from the fourth member of the Komenski/55th group…

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

…to this 55th Street area 3-flat…

Somewhere southish

…to another 3-flat around 95th Street.

Somewhere around 95th Street

Past that, it gets more and more dodgy. Did they do “The Treehouse”, an apartment at 8101 S. Maryland Ave.? The sculpture and the building do fit the style; notice those gray stone stripes.

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How about this 6-flat at 7322 N. Harlem in Niles? Could be, but the connection’s more tenuous.

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Angelo Esposito’s company did not come to a happy end. In 1960 a bankruptcy suit was filed against the builder, and over a dozen buildings in states of partial completion were put in the trusteeship of the court and sold off, including “two 4 story apartments in the 900 block of Pleasant avenue; a completed one storey office building at 6807-09-11 North av.; a partially finished residence at 1115 N. Harlem av.; a completed two story apartment house at 1111 N. Harlem av.; and a completed one story commercial building at 6817 North av.” Others included 7026 North Avenue, 1915 Robincrest Lane in Glenview, unnamed properties in Niles, and a partially constructed “mansion” at 936 Ashland Avenue in River Forest, a “stately shell” of a house that quickly became a reputed neighborhood nuisance in its unsecured condition (city inspectors found no particularly egregious conditions at the house.)

Reinforcement

Last post, I made a protracted and over-detailed claim that basically, builders were stealing ideas from each other left and right in the 1960s. Here’s a simpler argument for the same idea: look at just one recurring decorative element, and see how many different builders you can find who used it.

I’ve chosen the horizontal band of stone, set in a brick wall. There’s no reason to think this particular element is inherently obvious or necessary; you can look at other buildings in the photos and see a dozen other ways to use field stone, and I can make up plenty more out of my head.

5223 N. East River Road
5223 N. East River Road – Redelco Corporation

6173-6175 Northwest Highway
6173-75 Northwest Highway – Losacco and Springston Builders

6847-49 and 6853-55 Olmsted
6847-49 and 6853-55 Olmsted – Guiffre Brothers

7418 N. Harlem Avenue
7418 N. Harlem Avenue – Parisi Brothers Construction Co. Inc.

7610 and 7614 W. Belmont Avenue
7610 and 7614 W. Belmont Avenue – Nick S. Theodorau, architect. No word on the builder.

No master plan, no guiding hand

After long study and research, I have reached a conclusion: there was no single guiding force that created the Chicago Midcentury style. It was simply an amazing confluence of factors.

When I first noticed how prevalent this style was, the most obvious thought was that, perhaps, a single large builder developed huge swaths of Chicago. But I have encountered dozens or hundreds of builder names. The O’Hare neighborhood, which I marveled at recently, makes a great case study, containing many homogeneous blocks. Consider, for example, this three-block stretch of Berwyn, lined with nigh-identical 2-flats:

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At a glance, these buildings are totally homegenous. They share identical massing, height, footprints, and unit layout (stairs on one side, two stacked units, giant picture windows.) Yet a careful look at their details shows that each builder did things a little bit differently, and had their own distinctive details that they used and re-used.

Take these buildings by the Relias Building Corporation, for example:
8359 and 8361 W. Berwyn Avenue
8359 and 8361 W. Berwyn Ave. The glass block design on the right is used on many Chicago MCM buildings.

8356 W. Berwyn Ave.
8356 W. Berwyn Ave

8300 block north, W. Berwyn Avenue
The 8300 block, north side. 8356 from the previous shot is at left. Notice the brick vestibule walls of each successive house – the first is the same as 8356, the next is a variation, and the next is a variation on the variation, and uses the same stairwell/glass block details as 8359 and 61 from the first shot. It’s a good bet that Relias built this entire block.

But they sure didn’t build the next two blocks!

8426 W. Berwyn Avenue
8426 W. Berwyn – Forest Lane Builders

8410 W. Berwyn
8410 W. Berwyn Avenue – Forest Lane Builders

8400 Block of W. Berwyn
And here’s what stands between the two Forest Lane buildings. The repeating porch wall design makes it almost certain that the three center buildings, and the ones at the far right, were by a single builder. Could it also be Forest Lane? Sure. One of them even re-uses the glass block design from the first Forest Lane building. A look at an aerial view on Google Maps reveals that every building shares the exact same curved sidewalk design, too, meaning the whole north side of the block is probably Forest Lane. But that wall detail… didn’t we just see that a moment ago, on a building by Relias? Did Forest Lane build on the Relias block, or did one company just swipe a detail from the other?

Across the street, another company was busy. Below are two buildings by Frank J. Munao, a wealthy builder who also happened to be into horse racing. He was so prominent, in fact, that some hoods attempted to extort money from him in the early 1950s by threatening his wife and children. They wound up going to jail instead, and Mr. Munao went on to grace Berwyn Avenue with these 2-flats:
8455 W. Berwyn Avenue
8455 W. Berwyn Avenue

8435 W. Berwyn Avenue
8435 W. Berwyen Avenue

Given that distinctive concrete pattern block over the stairwell, it’s a certainty that he also did these:
842? W. Berwyn Avenue
8423 W. Berwyn

8439 W. Berwyn
8439 W. Berwyn

8461 W. Berwyn
8461 W. Berwyn

And the same shape repeats here, minus the pattern block:
8427 W. Berwyn Avenue
8427 W. Berwyn Avenue

So this whole side of the block is probably Frank J. Munao & Son, Inc.

One block west, and we’re still in solid 2-flat territory, but with still more builders:

8555 W. Berwyn
8555 W. Berwyn – C.O.R. Construction Co.

8540 W. Berwyn Ave.
8540 W. Berwyn Avenue – Larry J. Pontarelli & Sons, Inc.

And so, in short, we’ve got three solid blocks of nothing but nigh-identical 3-flats…. by at least five different builders.

Further west on Berwyn, the 2-flats give way to 6-flats. Like the previous area, these buildings are rigorously aligned, and very similar in massing and style… but by a multitude of builders.

5222 N. Reserve Avenue
5222 N. Reserve Avenue – McNerney-Goslin, builder. They did a row of 5 or 6 buildings on this block.

5231 N. Reserve Avenue
5231 N. Reserve Avenue – David J. Cahill

5241 N. Potawatomie Avenue
5241 N. Potawatomie Avenue – Relias Building Corp.

8639 W. Berwyn Avenue
8639 W. Berwyn Avenue, SW corner of Berwyn and Potawatomie – aka 5240 N. Potawatomie. Ferlette Builders & Realty Co. Both this and the previous building (right across the street, and seeming to form a gateway with their prominent lamps) share New Formalist influences, but are by different builders. Clearly one of these buildings is reacting to the other.

Most of these 6-flats, spanning three parallel streets, align so perfectly that you can look through the gaps between them and see through corresponding gaps in two more blocks of identical buildings. And every decorative trick on these buildings shows up on other buildings by other builders. These different builders were clearly borrowing from each other and trying to work together.

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I have no solid explanation, though, for how this incredibly unified style came to be. As we’ve seen, a single builder was buying up a whole block, or large chunks of one, and stamping out the same designs. Zoning codes explain some of this homogeneity within neighborhoods, requiring similar dwelling unit types on blocks, setting setback limits and perhaps height restrictions as well. None of that, however, explains why a six-flat at 7600 N. Harlem Avenue (Parisi Brothers Construction Company) should look just like a 6-flat at 7724 W. Belmont Avenue (Nick S. Theodorau, architect) or one on 5200 N. Potawatomie.

The availability of affordable building materials is a likely factor – blonde brick, for example, was obviously cheap at the time. Brickmakers were experimenting with new cuts and colors at the time, as can be seen on many of these buildings. Many common components were catalog elements, such as the fancy doors and escutcheons and various kinds of glass block, and would have been readily available to any builder. Certain stone types that occur again and again were probably cheaply available as well, perhaps bought in bulk by local suppliers and sold to many contractors.

And then there was probably some good old fashioned peer pressure – all the cool kids are building modern-style apartments. Don’tcha wanna be cool? Builders are risk-adverse by nature; if they were building modern-clad buildings by the hundreds, it had to mean they were popular with the public. Certainly some of these elements were copped from famous designers of the day, and there was also a variety of cultural influences at work, too.

8700 Berwyn

Despite all the explanations, it’s still a remarkable convergence. These factors, and perhaps others still unknown, combined to produce a distinctive Chicago style that appears all over the region, and to my knowledge, nowhere else.

(For the record, most of the builder and architect data comes from a series of real estate advertisements run throughout the 1960s by the Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company, touting the merits of gas heating and appliances. Names of architects appear far less frequently than names of builders, but there is still plenty of variety.)