The eyeslit window apartments

If you’ve ever driven west on Foster, out toward Harlem Avenue, you’ve surely noticed these two remarkable apartment buildings, standing on the angled block where Foster Place briefly splits off from Foster Avenue.

5133 N. Neva Avenue

7111 W. Foster Place - front

They are 5133 N. Neva Avenue (top) and 7111 W. Foster Place (bottom). Built around 1964, they were designed by one Lee N. Romano, a planner, designer and builder who ran his own eponymous company, founded in 1950. They seem to be his most notable buildings, as very little information can be found about him otherwise. But hey, a guy could do far worse than to leave these MidCentury explosions as a legacy.

Eyelid window

Those unmistakable eyelid stained glass windows set the tone of the place. They reappear as a motif in several spots, like the fake balconies…

Eyelid window faux balcony railings

The main entry doors…

Eyelid window doors

…And even the interior doors, which have their own miniature version of the big window.

Eyelid window doors, along with eyelid window doors

Those big windows cast a beautiful light into the tiny lobby space on a sunny day. It’d be hard to live here and not get a little smile on your face every time you walked out the front door.

Eyelid lightbeam

They didn’t seem to know just what to do with the backside, but hey, who in Chicago ever does? Lacking a better option, they made it into a little courtyard with a castle wall fence thing. Why not?

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Little boxes on the prairie

Berwyn Ave

Oh, it was a glorious day when I found this place!

IMG_2939

8500 Berwyn

8700 Berwyn

IMG_3016a

These scenes all come from a single neighborhood, on Chicago’s northwestern fringe. Most of the area is in Chicago proper, with a chunk belonging to the suburban municipality of Norridge. The area consists of three half-mile squares bounded by East River Road on the west, which curves into Montrose on the south, Bryn Mawr to the north, and Cumberland Avenue on the east.

For some reason, one of the most difficult things to find on the internet is a map that clearly shows municipal boundaries. Google and Bing are both equally useless in this regard. I’m fairly certain about the Chicago/Norridge part, but some of this area may be in a township or village or city or Chicago neighborhood (or all four) called Harwood Heights. A town or neighborhood called O’Hare might also be involved.

What I can tell you, without qualification, is that this is the largest and most amazing MidCentury neighborhood in Chicago.

3-flats

If you want to educate someone on MCM Chicago in just five minutes, take them here. It has all the essentials: the glass block. The 3-flats. The 6-flats. The raised ranch/bungalows. The door handles. The blonde brick. The wood pattern doors. The garage door designs. The metal railings. It’s even got split-level ranch houses. And it has all this in droves. Entire blocks were constructed to identical plans, then festooned with all the varied decoration that 1960s Chicago could muster. The result: a bizarre landscape of endless repetition and endless variety. Every building is alike, yet no two are alike.

And what else do you build, apart from 3-flats?

Perhaps the most amazing part is that, from what evidence I’ve been able to gather, this incredibly unified neighborhood was designed and built by a multitude of unrelated architects and contractors. I would have expected to find one giant firm churning out the same plan again and again. Of the 10 or 15 addresses for which I have an architect or builder’s name, there are almost as many designers’ names attached. Certainly single builders put up runs of buildings, perhaps even entire blocks, but no single entity guided the creation of the area. I am still researching this and will have a more detailed post soon. Ish.

Jet Age living

6-flat with random rubble stone

The bulk of the area went up in the mid- to late-1960s, though there is some indication that the construction continued into the early 1970s.

St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church

Again, that’s St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the background there, another future post topic. Promise!

MidCentury Suburbs Part 6: A catalog of housing types

The city of Chicago exploded into the 1950s and 1960s. Thousands and thousands of houses and apartments rose up on the ever-expanding urban frontier, in a remarkably unified ensemble of styles. There’s endless variation in the architectural details, but a great deal of it happens within a small range of fundamental building types.

The Bungalow/Ranch
MidCentury bungalows

Chicago’s famous “Bungalow Belt” began rising before the World Wars, but didn’t stop when the World Wars were over. The Bungalow simply cast off its original Craftsman-styled details and traded them in for MidCentury ones. Red-brown brick, stone lintels and quoins, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired art glass, semi-octagonal bay windows, Spanish tile roofs, dormer windows and heavy eaves disappeared.

Midcentury Bungalow

In their place came blond and orange brick, built-in planters, decorative wall panels of rough stone or elegant Roman brick, glass block, picture windows, geometrically designed front doors, patterned storm doors, and stylish door hardware.

These houses are compact and efficient, sitting tidily on a rectangular foundation, one story over a raised basement. The most classic style has a low-pitch roof with a hipped gable — not quite the flat roof that High Modernism demanded, but a valiant attempt to minimize the roof’s impact while maintaining the practical advantages of a pitched roof.

I’m honestly not even sure if “bungalow” is the right term for them. They certainly aren’t ranch houses, however, and I’ve never seen the word “cottage” used to describe a Chicago house.

Midcentury Bungalow

Midcentury Bungalow

The Townhouse
Also known as the rowhouse, the townhouse does exist in MidCentury garb, but it’s not an easy housing type to spot in the wild. They’re so unusual, in fact, that I hardly have any in my archives, and the ones I do have look more like they came from the Northwest woods than the northwest suburbs.

Evanston townhouses

Townhouses consist of individual housing units sharing common side walls, but with no units above or below, and each with its own entrance. MidCentury versions are usually either one or two stories high (older versions go even higher), and are commonly arranged perpendicular to the street, with two rows facing a common courtyard.

Evanston townhouses

The 3 Flat
The 3 Flat is a Chicago classic: three (sometimes 2 or 4) apartments vertically stacked, accessed by a stairwell on one side. Though there are plenty of pre-War examples, it’s the MidCentury version that really codified the style and made it Chicago’s own.

W. 55th Street

The standard version — and there’s hardly any example that isn’t the standard version — is two stories over basement. The basement may be a third apartment, or just a basement (that’s the 2-flat version; the 4-flat version pretty much disappeared after World War 2.) Huge picture windows for each unit are requisite, projecting an image of clean, bright, modern spaces.

The stairs most often entered through a shared doorway, often under a little porch roof. Occasional variants will have two doorways. Endless decorative variety surrounds the doorway. I’ve seen planters, curved stairs, ornate ironwork in the railings and porch columns, glass block patterns, and an assortment of storm doors. And of course the doors themselves were the canvas for some brilliantly creative carpenters. Solid angled walls sometimes surround the entry, in stone or brick, occasionally with light holes poked through them.

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

The stairway is most commonly illuminated by a large panel of glass block. Sometimes it’s divided into strips. More rarely, colored blocks are used to create patterns. A handful feature sculpture panels in place of the glass block, favoring the outward appearance over natural light.

8100 S. State Street

3 Flats

3 flats with pizazz!

Stoney block apartments

The 6-flat
Three-flats are generally long, narrow buildings, their short ends facing the street. For longer lots, the floor plan could be turned sideways and then mirrored, resulting in the 6-flat apartment building, two stacks of three apartments all sharing a common stairwell.

6-flat with random rubble stone

The 6-flat shares many decorative styles with the 3-flat. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the broad street-facing side walls of the 6-flat frequently become the canvas for decorative elements, such as stone panels and decorative lamps. The stairwell illumination panel became more creative as well — colored glass block is more common on 6-flats, as are bottle glass and panels of translucent colored plastic.

6-flats were often paired with a mirror-image twin, both perpendicular to the street, with access from the street and alley via a pair of sidewalks.

twin 6-flats (Harlem Ave?)

3-flats often presented only a front facade to the street, with most of the building wrapped in cheaper Chicago common brick. 6-flats, with their entrances on the broad face, usually don’t have that luxury; perhaps aided by the economy of scale, they often had much more extensive decoration than their smaller cousins.

6-flats, west side

Harlem Avenue 6-flat

Harlem Avenue 6-flat

The types pictured above are perhaps the most iconic Chicago style, but this flexible building type had several variants. A popular south side version features recessed balconies for each living unit, with the brick walls protruding from the body of the building to provide privacy, separation, and enclosure.

south side 6-flat

south side 6-flat

6-flats can have their broad or narrow faces against the street; the entry can be on or off the street in either configuration.

6-flat

southwest side 6-flat

The X-flat
Just as the 6-flat is a doubled 3-flat, so could additional units could be strung together to match the length of any lot, to make a 9- or 12- or whatever-number-you-want-flat building. The example below strings together three 6-flats for a total of 18 units.

12-flat

On narrow lots perpendicular to the street, a small L-leg at the end of the lot could also provide additional floor area, closing off the block and creating a sort of half-courtyard.

Rogers Park

A longer L-leg could give the unbuilt portion of the lot enough presence to hold a street corner, as on these Belmont Avenue-area 9-flats.

Belmont Avenue 6-flat

Belmont 6-flat

As with other types, mirroring the building could result in a court-yard like setting, such as this pair of 9-flats on S. Cottage Grove.

S. Cottage Grove

From the mirrored-pair, L-shaped X-flat, it’s a short step to connect the two buildings, resulting in the courtyard building.

The courtyard walkup
The courtyard apartment transcends architectural styles, being a common feature of every 20th Century Chicago landscape. In its MidCentury guise, it is essentially a series of 3- and 6-flats linked together by a connecting wing.
That wing could be a small extension of the corner apartments, or it could be a whole stack of 3 or 6 apartments with their own shared entrance.

West side

They frequently feature balconies, which tend to be rare on their smaller counterparts.

The wings could be thickened up as well, essentially forming two 6-flats at the street.

60s apartments

Mid-Century apartments

The breezeway apartment
I have no proof, but I strongly suspect this style was imported lock stock and barrel from California and Florida. Where else would it be considered a good idea to have the hallways on the outside?

Ugly on the whole, yet made of awesome pieces.

Single breezeway building

These are essentially single-loaded corridor buildings — a hallway with rooms on one side only. Instead of enclosing the hallway, however, it’s left open to the elements, doubling as a porch and public gathering space. It’s a great idea in mild climates. In Chicago, however… well, I have to wonder how much salt they have to dump on those walkways in the winter.

The stairwells are more sheltered, typically open only at their entrances; sometimes they have one or more doors. Their massive stone or brick faces are the usual points of decoration for the building.

Breezeway apartment

W. Foster apartments

South side breezeway building

Again, mirroring this long, thin style results in an enclosed courtyard. In the instance shown here, free-floating catwalks connect the breezeways of both buildings.

Twin breezeway building

Beyond these types, the next step up is the Four-Plus-One, covered in careful detail over at Forgotten Chicago. It’s essentially a corridor/elevator building, floating over a covered parking area.

There are other types as well: split-level ranches, “flying-wing” roof single families, and taller elevator/corridor buildings. These types, however, tend not to share the common design vocabulary of the flats and bungalows, making them more distant cousins of the types listed here, and not as distinctively native to Chicago.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

Last week, while traveling about, I decided to take a detour south of Touhy near O’Hare. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

Sandwiched between Bryn Mawr, Cumberland, Lawrence, and East River Road is the largest concentration of Chicago’s distinctive MidCentury Modern developer style buildings that I have yet to find. It is essentially half a square mile of nothing but MidCentury — bungalo-style cottages to the south, 3-flats in the middle, 6-flat apartments to the north. The capstone is in the southeast corner, where St. Joseph’s Ukranian Catholic Church rises high above its surroundings (watch for a separate post on that, as soon as I can manage to get inside the place.)

St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church

What caught my attention on a followup visit was a theme I’ve noticed before — the simple creativity of the designers who planned all these nigh-identical buildings. You may think they all look alike, but truth be told you’d be hard pressed to find two that are actually identical.

3-flats

There are numerous points of detail, each with several different options, offering perhaps hundreds of different options within the limited framework of the style.

A catalog of this one block of three-flats on Winnemac Avenue includes:

* Stone panel. Options: framed panel, or longer panel that wraps the building’s front corner. Total options: 2.

* Stone. Options: white, green, gray, brown. (All these 3-flats feature rubble stone, as opposed to the carved flagstone found elsewhere, which would add another 3-4 options. The stone also appears nearby in black, though not on this block.) Total: 4.

3-flat entry detail

* Entryway decor. Options: small stone panel, 3 concrete blocks. (Not found on this block: the innumerable configurations of glass block used all across Chicago.) Total: 2.

* Front door. Options include at least 4 different highly ornate designs: tall double star, full-length triangle, paired diamonds, angled flower. There are at least a dozen more popular designs around Chicago. Total: 4.

* Storm door. Options: 3-panel, ironwork, standard. 3-panel comes in a rainbow of colors: clear, orange, green. It’s probably that more storm door (and front door) options have been lost to alterations over time. Total: 5.

* Ironwork canopy supports. Options: X-braced (more modern and geometric) or curli-cues (more organic, softer.) Curli-cues come in straight column or broad screen options. Matching balcony railings are optional if you have a flat canopy roof. Total: 4.

* Stairwell glass block. Options: full panel, 3 narrow panels. Like the entryway decoration, a nearly infinite range of block types, colors, sizes, and patterns can be found across Chicago. This block very conservatively restrains itself to two patterns, in a single block style (Sculpted Glass Module Leaf design.) Total: 2.

3-flat
8527 W. Winnemac Avenue. Wrapping stone panels, brown stone, 3-paneled stairwell glass block, geometric canopy supports, standard storm door, large triangle front door, small stone panel entry decoration.

There are 26 3-flats on this block. But combining their different variations gives us 2 x 4 x 2 x 4 x 5 x 4 x 2 = 2,560 possible combinations.

Twenty-five hundred variations!!

Yeah, good luck finding two that are exactly alike!

And what else do you build, apart from 3-flats?

Wild Western Midcentury

In architecture, the dominant image from the 1950s and 1960s is Modernism. Clean lines. Forward thinking. Leaving the past behind. The embrace of technology. Machine purity. The march of progress. The future!

Stoney apartments

The middle decades of the Twentieth Century are more complicated than that, however, and like all aspects of culture, architecture too had quite a few contradictory influences.

Chicago’s MidCentury building stock, simple though it may seem, draws from a broad range of cultural influences. The clean and largely unadorned lines, the glass block (a very modern material), the broad picture windows, and the minimalist, geometric decoration, are the influence of High Modernism.

Diamond pattern

Jet Age living

(The windows, by the by, are the clearest evidence that Chicago builders were not really interested in the high ideals of Modernism. Modernists proclaimed the liberation of the wall from structure. The wall could be anything, they said: glass, metal panels, whatever building materials were at hand. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than at the corners. Corners traditionally were solid, as they had to hold up the building; Modernists delighted in having windows wrap the corner, showing the world that the wall was a free-floating object, rather than a load-bearing mass. Chicago builders, however, almost never used this design trope — perhaps because, underneath the Modernist trappings, their buildings were still fairly traditional wood-framed structures sheathed mostly in Chicago common brick. The back sides of many Chicago MCM apartment buildings look exactly like their pre-War contemporaries whose backs face the Elevated in the older parts of town.)

The Prairie School brought in elements of horizontality and natural forms and materials — the rough fieldstones and boulders that adorn the walls of countless MidCentury apartments in Chicago, and perhaps the more organic forms seen in the sculpted glass blocks common on the south side. The stones, however, can also be seen as evoking several other ideals: the rough terrain of the desert southwest (freshly accessible at the time via the nation’s growing highway system), and the volcanic rocks of Hawaii and Polynesia (also seen in the thriving Tiki culture of the time.)

8100 S. State Street

Lots of rubble

Random rubble wall

Random rubble wall

Plant life is another part-and-parcel of Chicago Midcentury. The ideal Chicago bungalow or three-flat has meticulously sculpted shrubs growing outside of it, or perhaps an evergreen.

Random rubble stone

It's still the frontier!  Honest!!

The contemporary style of the New Formalism had a heavy hand as well. It can be seen in the form of repeating arch shapes (including the very same fieldstone wall decorations), stylized lamps strategically placed as objects of elegant, isolated adornment, and in the cream-and-brown color palette of a certain brand of suburban houses.

Arches

Proper.  Mannered.  Olde Tymey.

Geometry

Mini-globe lamps!  In fluted amber!

But beyond all these contemporary influences, the past played a role as well. America being a relatively young country, two great periods of glory stand out and seem prominent in the mind of the 1950s: the Colonial era and the Old West.

Old West nostalgia was at a peak in the 1950s, driven by Western flicks at the movies and a surge of television shows. Perhaps it makes a certain amount of sense: with the closing of the frontier passing out of living memory, it would become much easier to romanticize that wilder, untamed time. The ongoing space race was sold to the public under the guise of “The New Frontier”, but the old frontier was just as easy for builders to evoke.

Well, pardner, I do reckon we could maybe rent'cha an apartment hereabouts.

This building on Estes is perhaps the most flagrant example imaginable. It has faux shutters (nowhere nearly big enough to cover that very modern picture window), faux clapboard siding, the obligatory old-styled lamps, and a metal-relief eagle. An eagle!

Any doubts that I’m misinterpreting this should be dispelled by the laundromat sign right up the street.

The Washing Well sign

The apartment on Estes is not alone, though. On Touhy near the lake, a series of townhouses features the same eagles, along with shutters and pedimented porch roofs perhaps intended, along with the red brick, to evoke Colonial America. Their layout — pairs of rowhouses facing each other along a common courtyard, perpendicular to the street — is quite modern, but their trappings are purely backward-looking.

The stockade!

And look at that fence! If that isn’t intended to call out images of frontier forts, nothing is.

The most ubiquitous Old West element of Chicago MidCentury, however, is the wood number plate. Proper capital-M Modernists would never used a serif font on their buildings. Serifs were decoration, decoration was The Enemy, and lettering was Arial font or some equally minimalist font, or nothing at all.

The men who built Chicago, however, were not Proper Modernists. Thousands of apartments and houses have their house numbers proclaimed on little strips of wood with ragged edges seemingly meant to look like jagged splinters, as if this were a random chip left over from splitting firewood, with curved and serifed fonts.

Number plate and rock inset

Number plate, 8" glass block

Number plate, storm door, front door

All these elements were thrown into the pot, swirled around, boiled down, and distilled by architects and builders who clearly knew how to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. They were selling an image: Modern elegance, life on the suburban frontier, clean but natural design. And sell it did, as testified by the thousands of buildings that went up in the Chicago MCM style and still stand today.

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.

W. 55th Street

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.

55th Street oddity

Despite variable weather, I took a cross-city bike ride on Memorial Day, starting from my Rogers Park home and eventually arriving at the Midway Airport Orange Line station around sunset. In between, I beheld many wonders and made great discoveries. Oh, wait’ll you see this crazy Midcentury church I found!

But that will have to wait on better photographs; daylight was already fading by that point. Today, we have a somewhat more mundane discovery: some typical 1960s apartments, on Komensky Avenue at 55th Street. Ordinary stuff, right?

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

Wrong! Look at the stairwell facade, above the door. Normally this portion of the facade has a glass block window wall, usually with a couple of vents. More decorative/funky versions have my beloved colored glass block, or even colored plastic panels for a low-budget stained glass effect. But instead, this little row of buildings got…

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

…sculpture! Bas relief carvings, probably in limestone, on a background of stone panels.

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

We’ve got a nude, bald man playing a flute, and a running guy with a winged helmet. Some sort of mythological theme? That theory gets obliterated by the third relief, a butterfly.

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

And just to throw more confusion onto the fire…

5500 S. Komensky Avenue

…the fourth one isn’t an image at all, but a sort of compass points cross.

Nearby, I also found another pair of apartments with an extra-heavy dose of colored glass block. Lovely!

W. 55th Street