I find my feet down on Main Street

Main Street westward from Evanston has all sorts of interesting things on and around it. My favorite bit may be this trio of buildings in the 3400 block, in Skokie.


They sit in a sea of Midcentury buildings – raised ranches on the surrounding streets, and 1950s shopping strips, with little 1-story commercial buildings like these across the street – the kind with stacked bond Roman brick and big plate glass storefront windows set at a slight angle from the sidewalk.


First is this 2-story building at 3400 W. Main Street, designed as if it were a California ranch house – low pitched roof, overhanging eaves, glassy front walls. The building was finished in 1957, as commercial offices.


Second is this contemporary structure, a modern metal building with a shipping container aesthetic, at 3412 W. Main Street. It’s home to a dentist’s office. There was a home builder at this address in the 1960s, but I doubt the building is any older than 1985. CityNews dates it to 1991.


The most interesting is 3420 W. Main Street. Tribune ads identify this address in 1963 as home to Palco Builders, who were constructing California-style ranches out west in Lincolnwood and pulling in enough money to show up on the paper’s list of million-dollar sellers. By 1966, a tax service had appeared at the same address. Today it’s home to the Knowledge Systems Institute.


The building might at first seem to be an ordinary 1960s office building, raised up off the ground on columns, Corbu-style. (Oh, sorry. Pilotis. A piloti is like a column, only it’s French.)


But when you look close, you’ll find that the entire facade is covered with textile patterned concrete blocks.




If I had to take a stab at the building’s parti – the big overriding idea that the designer had in mind – I’d call it a sort of ancient temple that an Alan Quatermain adventurer type (or Indiana Jones, but that character didn’t exist in 1963) might stumble across in some South American jungle. Pull the lever, and the stone facade creakingly splits and slides open to reveal the techno-wonderland within! Notice that everything in the facade opening is set back, and it’s all glass and metal. There’s even a top and bottom “rail” for the “doors” to slide on, visually speaking.


These are the same blocks that I’ve written about on a couple of occasions. I still haven’t discovered where they come from. I have, however, found one other building that makes use of them, out west at 6121 W. Higgins Avenue. Not quite as mind-blowing, but still interesting!


On this 1963 apartment building, they appear as a decorative element on the major facade.


A ride up Martin Luther King Drive

Last weekend I found myself in Hyde Park on a pleasant morning, with nothing to do but ride my bike back home. I took a leisurely ride up MLK (King Drive? Every town has its own street honoring Dr. King, and they all have their own unique way of abbreviating the name), through the core of Bronzeville, where a multitude of historic architecture waits to impress and overwhelm.

MLK Drive
D. Harry Hammer House, 3656 S. King Drive, 1885 – William W. Clay

MLK Drive

MLK Drive

It being a Sunday morning, I stood on the sidewalk for a while and listened to Gospel music swelling from within the church at right, the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church. It’s a 1891 brownstone beauty in a Romanesque style, originally the 41st Street Presbyterian Church.

Metropolitan Community Church

MLK Drive

Graystone row houses

And the hits just keep on coming. House after house and block after block speak to the jaw-dropping wealth that landed here in the 1880s and 1890s.

MLK Drive

42nd and King Drive

Though the best parts of the avenue are residential, there are some impressive institutional buildings as well, several converted to churches. The Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company, a Kentucky-based firm, occupied a building sporting a neon sign that is rather at odds with the Beaux Arts facade. I have no clue if this building remains in use at all, but it doesn’t look like it.

MLK Drive

The Sinai Temple at 46th and MLK was begun in 1909 for a Jewish Reform congregation. Today it houses the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church.

MLK Drive

And there are some delectable slices of Mid Century Modernism, as well. Liberty Baptist Church has been documented by Lee Bay, though he doesn’t share interior photographs. I wasn’t feeling up to venturing inside, so that remains a future mission.

MLK Drive

Nearby, Illinois Service Federal Savings & Loan occupies a 1960s building that presents a wild facade of folded plates to the street. The bank has neighborhood roots dating back to the 1930s.

MLK Drive

The South Park Baptist Church leans toward the Streamline Deco end of the Modernism scale. It went up in 1953, to the designs of architect Homer G. Sailor.
South Park Baptist

Further north, the Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church leans a bit more toward the stock side of Midcentury design:

The avenue kind of explodes into a nothing-scape north of here, thanks to a lot of big redevelopment products that have brought grassy fields and parking lots to the areas just south of downtown.

Empty Midcentury on Broadway

Piser Weinstein Menorah Chapel, 5206 N. Broadway, aka Furth Chapels

Midcentury funeral home

It’s not a dazzling building, but its jumble of massing is intriguing. Each function of the building seems to have its own articulation, even its own facade material. And it’s hard to fully judge a Modernist building when the windows are boarded over.

The funeral home appears to have operated into 2002, before moving to a new location in Skokie. Since then it’s been vacant and boarded up, with a developer planning ot turn the land into new residential development.

Midcentury funeral home

Given its former use, the odds of this little Midcentury piece surviving are pretty slim. As detailed in an article in Chicago Real Estate Daily, the economic slowdown is the only reason the building is still standing.

Broadway at Foster

Doomed along with it is this vacant turn of the century apartment house with retail in the base.

I’m sure the would-be developers imagined a massive apartment/condo blockbuster building, similar to others that have gone up along other sections of Broadway in recent years. But with the scent of the money trail gone cold, couldn’t some thought be given to finding a new use for this little slice of 1960s style? Much of the lot is empty land. A small outbuilding is the only structure on the northern half of this large city lot — plenty of room for new and old to co-exist.

Less than the sum of its parts

Behold, the glorious NorTown Medical Building! (1963, N. California at Granville, aka the Gran-Cal Medical Center.)

NorTown Medical Building

It’s everything that’s wrong with MidCentury architecture, huh? Bland, dull, boxy, generic, right? Nobody put any thought or care into this one, did they?

Well, don’t be too quick to judge. Like many other things in Chicago, you have to look a little closer to find the interesting bits. Sometimes, the whole isn’t nearly as interesting as the little fragments that compose it.

Take the basement windows, for example. Rather than just plain glass or even just plain glass block, someone took the time to work out a little puzzle-piece pattern with two sizes of block to fill in this window. They didn’t have to; the standard block would have served just as well. This is purely a decorative gesture, a small act of whimsy.

Glass block puzzle

Likewise, a sign attached to the building combines three different geometric forms into a little floating composition. (yes, three – don’t miss the little arrow at the bottom.) I wager that the sign was something a bit more ornate when the building went up.

Cal-Devon Pharmacy

And the building’s limited budget is focused on welcoming the visitor. The sidewalk entrance is decked out with sandy flagstone and a truly eye-popping tile pattern in green, white and gray.

Entry details

Don’t you just want to reach out and touch it?

Tiles and stone

Turns out, this “plain” building even has a little bit of ornament!


Make what you will of the overall effect, but it’s hard to deny that earnest care was put into this building’s design, like so many other “generic” MidCentury Chicago buildings.

A Mid-Century Cornocopia

Western Avenue long marked the western boundaries of the city of Chicago. And today, it remains something of a dividing line — an identifiable centerline to the amorphous region where the city’s urban environment begins to weaken, falling apart into 1950s suburbia.

This means, however, that streets to the west of it have treasure troves of Mid-Century Modernism.

Most awesome showcase lamps ever.

The whole shooting works

Concrete pattern wall

Peterson Avenue, west of Western, offers one 1960s building after another, with a nearly complete array of the stock design elements and styles common to the period. Delicious details abound, easily overlooked as motorists zoom past at 50mph, but easily found if you make the trip by foot or bike.

Colored glazed brick, raised metal letters, funky stainless steel railings, crazy hanging lamps in the lobby, jagged fieldstone contained in limestone borders on brick walls… it’s all here.

Glazed brick

1960s stone and brick

Even the side streets offer the occasional find:

Apartment door

And sometimes, the MCM creeps east of Western:

One day, I'm coming back after dark for this shot.

There’s no knockout buildings out here, nothing to make a MCM preservationist stand on the mountaintops and shout; instead, there’s a collection of buildings that reinforce each other, crying out the optimism and elegance of the 1960s, achieving far more together than any one of them does alone.