Chicago’s Midcentury Moderne

Chicago builders, as I’ve harped on before, would glom on to just about anything in designing their mass produced buildings. The International Style and Art Moderne were no different; they served as inspiration for a series of buildings across Chicagoland in the 1950s and early 1960s. Combined and agglomerated into the already-developing local builder style, these buildings form a mini-style of their own. Call it Chicago Midcentury Moderne.

This set of photos is all single family houses and small multi-family apartments, but there are also larger apartment buildings in a similar style, which I’ll cover in another post. The construction dates are all from the Chicago CityNews site, whose accuracy can be on the variable side – but I’m betting they’re all in the right ballpark, at least.

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6549 W 28th Street, Berwyn – 1952

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2820 W. Glenlake, 1950

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2854 W. Berwyn, 1956

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2926 W. Fitch, West Ridge – 1944?? I’m not sure I buy that.

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5776 W Ainslie at N. Menard Avenue – 1956

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9301 S. Winchester, Beverly – 1952

It doesn’t seem to be a hugely appreciated genre; there’s not a word about any of these buildings online. I’ve previously photographed a small group of similarly-styled houses in the Fairview neighborhood of Skokie.

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MidCentury Suburbs Part 7: Modernize your garage door!

The garage door was yet another point of elaborate decoration for the MidCentury home. It provided a broad canvas for designers to decorate; in the 1950s and 1960s, the automobile was newly risen to its place of supreme importance, and its home was something to be celebrated — as was the design innovation of the attached garage, a new luxury for most home buyers at the time.

Raynor Door, based not far from Chicago in Dixon, IL, was a major vendor of both doors and the patterns for them.

Two patterns were particularly prevalent, and can still be found by the dozens today:

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Midcentury garage door

Midcentury garage door

But the designs ranged all over the place. Asymetrical patterns were common:

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Another common theme involved a series of small, repeating patterns instead of one big one:
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Such small patterns were often another reflection of the Old West influence on Chicago’s MidCentury suburbia, as seen in this rope-like pattern:

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Midcentury garage door

Small patterns didn’t have to cover the whole door; they could form a border pattern instead:

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In the age of Kennedy’s Camelot and the attendant New Formalism, you too can be a king!
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With your very own caligraphy-styled monogram!
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Or you can just be stunningly modern, classy, and geometrically smooth.
Midcentury garage door

Midcentury garage door

Or exuberantly modern…
Midcentury garage door

You can shout your modernity to the world!
Midcentury garage door

Midcentury garage door

Or you can quietly wait for the world to notice it.
Midcentury garage door

There is no end to the patterns. Still more may be seen at my Flickr account.

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.

Midcentury Suburbs Part 5: Fabulous Escutcheons

Those fantastic Midcentury pattern doors needed hardware to match, and companies like Schlage and Kwikset were happy to provide them. (Both companies are still major door handle manufacturers four decades later.)

The two open-backed designs below are both from Schlage, dating back to 1956: the Manhattan and the Continental, respectively.

Ring plate

Squared ring

Schlage, by contrast, went for the starburst designs, including the two below.

Starburst with a round backing plate

Starburst

Heavy round designs were also common, simple but massive plates with textured patterns.

Basic round & heavy

Complex round

And then I’ve encountered a few that are seemingly unique, elegant patterns of unknown inspiration and as-yet undetermined manufacturer.

Onassis fabulous

Equilateral polygon

Some kind of Aztec thing or something

Finding these bits of hardware takes a bit of diligence, a lot of peering into the shadows and past the trees and bushes and screen doors. They don’t pop out like a spectacular building does. It’s rare that a good photograph can be taken from the public right-of-way (once or twice I’ve indulged in a little benign trespassing to get the shot!), so getting a good capture is all the more rewarding.

Don’t Fight It

I am perpetually amused by buildings whose owners fight against the building’s basic nature. When it happens to great and significant buildings, it’s a tragedy, but when it happens to ordinary and common structures, it can be a bemusing commentary on tastes and desires.

It's an Olde Weste garage

Here we have a suburban Midcentury garage rendered in wood. The car door is a grid of squares. The side screens are a grid of squares. To this simple, clean composition has been appended Olde West “shutters” and a wood flower box. It apparently wasn’t enough to be living in the inner suburbs; the trappings of a frontier existence were needed.

I BELIEVE I AM LOOKING AT THE PARTHENON

Out on Touhy at the highway, Studio 41’s interior design store apparently couldn’t be seen in a MidCentury commercial building. So, a little Greek Classical makeup was applied, apparently in the hopes that four columns and an architrave would hide the grid of recessed brick, the polished granite panels, the massive storefront windows, and the total lack of any other applied ornament.

Is that a Greek Classical commercial awning I see? Perhaps a Greek Classical internally lit plastic sign, as well?

We're living in the country!

Fan that I am of Chicago’s MidCentury builder vernacular, I was a bit flabbergasted by this one. Three sculptural panels have been applied over the stock triple glass block openings by the front door. They could be original, especially given how neatly they fit into the openings, but it seems to run counter to the aesthetic. What’s definitely not original is that thin little wreath, attempting to bring rustic flavor to a Modernist stew.

Home Depot special

This is a form of abuse endured by many MidCentury buildings in Chicago. The original wood doors age, get damaged, or just wear out. Rather than repair or refinish them, owners find it easier (or cheaper) to pitch them out and install a low-cost door from Home Depot. Unfortunately, those doors are made for contemporary starter castles out in the far suburbs. They look very out of place alongside the geometric details and clean lines of MidCentury Chicago. Many of the original doors aren’t terribly special — just a square or diamond opening in a flat wood door — but it damages the building’s look, and probably a few spectacular doors have been thrown out because of this trend.

Um

And then there’s this. I don’t know what it is, where it came from, or what its creators were thinking, but it’s certainly unique. It’s a suburban-scaled micro-mansion, with two-story columns flanking its miniscule entry porch, but that’s just the start of the story. It’s got floral wrought metal scrollwork, images of birds and horses and eagles, and (not pictured) a Victorian greenhouse appended to one side. It’s got decorative brick patterns around the windows, and quoins at the corners. Quoins!! Round-topped faux-dormers break the roofline, there are flattened-arch-topped windows below, and on the far right (again not pictured) is a full-blown Palladian window.

It seems to be a mish-mash grab bag of about fifty architectural ideas, all thrown in together in the fervent belief that an assembly of beautiful parts would surely result in a beautiful whole. I can’t say I agree myself, but it sure is interesting to look at!

Mid-Century Suburbs Part 4: Storm door funk

I promise I’ll get off the MCM kick shortly. But for now…

Below is a sampling of the standard Chicago Mid-Century storm door. It’s got a solid bottom quarter panel, and a three-part upper section, with two sidelights flanking a clear central panel. The sidelights typically sport an applied geometric pattern, or a translucent, textured, colored plastic panel. The frame is built with stainless steel, polished to a mirror shine. Sometime the main panel is a series of movable slatted windows, allowing the storm door to double as a screen door.

Storm door

Storm door

Storm door

Storm door

Mid-Century storm door

Much like the colored glass blocks, they appear all over Chicago, as if one builder or manufacturer had a chokehold on the entire industry. They’re mostly on suburban-style ranch/bungalows, but I’ve even seen them on houses with medieval stylings, where they look strangely out of place.

Storm door

With the right elements, though, they’re a key part of the Chicago mid-century look.

Storm door, with railing and colored glass block

Mid-Century Suburbs, Part 2 – Oh, those fantastic doors!

I’ve been temporary debilitated by an eye problem; while I’m recovering, let me dig into the archives for some material I never got around to posting. First up: the long-ago threatened promised follow-up to my first post on Chicago’s inner-ring, Mid-Century Modern suburban buildings.

Mid-Century door

The 1950s and 1960s loved their geometry. Even the most ardent Mid-Century Mod hater must surely concede the awesomeness of the fantastic designs built into the doors of these otherwise common inner-suburban Chicago apartment buildings.

Mid-Century door

Mid-Century door

Mid-Century door

Mid-Century door

Mid-Century door

The builder vernacular in Chicago even had its own custom storm door style, shown here in shiny mirror-polished stainless steel, with two narrow side panels and a large central panel.

Mid-Century door

Variations would typically include geometric patterns on the narrow panels, or different shades of colored, textured plastic.

South suburb screen door