The Architecture of Hot Dogs, Hamburgers and Custard

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Ain’t no two ways about it – this town’s got a thing for hot dogs.

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Henry’s Drive-In – 6031 W Ogden Ave, Cicero; opened circa 1955.  See some photos of the building’s original state here; it was later remodeled out of its fantastic Modernist style, most likely in the 1970s.

Wolfy's

Wolfy’s at 2734 W. Peterson, opened 1966. The building is a totally plain brick box with faux mansard, but the sign is worth writing home about!

The hotdog stand – and its various associated roadside cousins – has a long and rich history in Chicago and its surroundings. From full-sized diners to small custard stands with no indoor seating, the roadside stand rose in lockstep with the automobile, and diversified into an infinity of styles and programs.

How to tie together this group of buildings? They are not united by architectural style, not by venue or menu, certainly not by ownership. Most – nay, all – of these hot dog stands and hamburger carryout joints are independently owned and operated.  Some have been around for decades. Their breed is certainly diminished from days of yore, but not yet vanished.

They are less than a full restaurant. Floor space is minimal – small size is a common factor among most roadside stands. Ambiance and seating are optional. You do not come here for a fine dining experience; you come to gorge on greasy deliciousness.

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Arnie’s Dog House – 1503 Indianapolis Boulevard, Whiting, Indiana

In a blue collar town like Chicago, passions run deep about cheap eats. I am no food critic, nor a foodie, nor even much of a greasy spoon aficionado. (I’ve never even had the famous Chicago style hot dog because I don’t like onions, or mustard, or peppers – and,  horror of horrors, I like ketchup.  You may excommunicate me at your leisure.) So – we’ll just stick with the architecture and history end of it. There’s plenty to dive into.

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Terry’s Red Hot – 1554 N.  Larrabee. Check out some of their food offerings here.

One recurring style for roadside is the plain white box – intentionally simplified, with clean, neat lines reflecting the ideal of a clean, modern dining experience.

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Muskie’s Hamburgers – 2878 N. Lincoln Avenue. The business opened in 1986, but the building has been there longer. No word on where they got that fantastic neon sign.

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Al’s Italian Beef – 169 W. Ontario at Wells. Open by 1989, perhap earlier.

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Snappy Service System, 1141 N. Ashland – part of a Missouri-based hamburger chain that expanded widely in the 1930s.  They signed the lease for this location in 1936.  Later this was La Pasadita, a taco stand, whose yellow paint concealed the white tile for many decades until its removal in 2013. This info and more from The Chicagoist

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One of the city’s most revered greasy spoon joints is the Diner Grill, 1635 W. Irving Park Road. You’d never know it today, but the building is actually two old Evanston streetcars parked side by side in 1935, now so covered over and remodeled that hardly a hint remains of the building’s origins. Today it carries some hints of Mid-Century streamlining, particularly in the long band of windows and the shallow-pitched roof.

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Bill’s Drive In – 120 Asbury, Evanston.  Opened circa 1960. The glazed block, flat roof, wall of windows, and sanitary-yellow color are classic Mid-Century roadside.

A second style of hot dog & hamburger stand is much more chaotic than the examples above. These are the places where less is truly a bore, so pour on the more! Signs, more signs, lights and still more signs festoon these colorful if incoherent little buildings.

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Duks Vienna Red Hots, 636 N. Ashland. Originally a wide-spread Chicago chain called Donald Duks until the Walt Disney corporation sued them,  this location opened in 1958. 

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Shelly’s Freeze – 5119 N. Lincoln Avenue. Located at the south end of Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row, this was originally a Tastee-Freez franchise, open by 1974 at the latest.

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Harlo Grill – 2400 W. North Avenue, Melrose Park – a glass walled serving area with a terrific old neon sign out front. Open by 1957, this is a 24 hour diner with a full menu.

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Susie’s Drive Thru, 4126 W. Montrose – a 24-hour greasy spoon. Originally a Tast-e Hast-e location, it became Susie’s in 1974.

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Murph’s Place – 3930 W Montrose Avenue. Closed in 2012. 

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Hamburger Heaven – 281 N. York Street, Elmhurst – opened in 1948, this stand is known for its ice cream and its Richardson Root Beer – and perhaps for that fabulous sign on the roof. Official site is here.

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Then there are the really stylized places – the ones where, through nostalgia or lucky preservation, the vintage roadside look is in full effect.

Superdawg Drive-In

Superdawg – 6363 N. Milwaukee at Devon Avenue, opened in 1948. Superdawg is arguably the region’s most famous hot dog stand due to its flamboyant color scheme, 1950s geometry, liberal use of neon, and of course the terrifying anthropoidal hot dog cave man on the roof.

Be Careful What You Wish For.

True fact: both him and his demure hot dog ladyfriend have TWO FACES, one on each side. They’re not just humanoid foodstuffs; they’re Janus-faced monstrosities watching your every move.

You wanna know the truth about the anthropomorphic hot dog cave person?

The original building and its expansion were designed by co-owner Maurie Berman. The current look of the restaurant dates from a 1999 renovation and restoration, but largely retains the look of the place from the 1950s. Likewise, carhops still bring your order out to your car while you wait – though you can also go inside and order at the counter.

Our last two stops are part of a tradition more common to Milwaukee than Chicago: the frozen desert stand. In Milwaukee, several such stands still survive, selling frozen custard in the summer months. They’re considerably rarer in Chicagoland. They’re characterized by a single-slope shallow-pitched roof that rises dramatically over the front serving area, which is walled in glass, and an overall small footprint.

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Carvel Ice Cream, 7301 N Milwaukee, Niles – opened by 1957, the original franchise lasted into the 1970s. By 1986 it was a Hayes Family Ice Cream Bar, and a year later it was a Dairy Bar. Most recently Taqueria Los Cuates, a Mexican restaurant which closed in 2013.

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Yellow Submarine, 6825 W. Archer Avenue – now closed. No info on its previous incarnations; the building’s style clearly dates it to the 1950s or early 1960s.

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Midcentury preservation

Talk about your perfect storm for losing a piece of architecture! This building on S. State Street has it all: it’s in a busy area, it’s a retail facade, and it’s Midcentury in origin.

133 S. State Street

It’s slated to be remodeled into something forgettable. Blair Kamin wrote a an excellent summation of the who, what, why, and why-it-shouldn’t.

Mixed Use Midcentury

New Urbanists like to make a fuss over the notion of a mixed-use building, touting it as a revival of a long-lost art. While the basic, common-sense notion of people living and working in close proximity certainly did fall out of favor in the 1960s through the 1980s, it never really vanished entirely. And at the height of the 1950s suburban building boom, small-scaled mixed use was actually surprisingly common in Chicago’s southern and western neighborhoods.

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Harlem Avenue

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Main Street, Skokie

“Mixed-use” generally implies some combination of office, retail and residential, and that’s generally what you’ll find on these commercial buildings. Some feature apartments above storefronts, with generous porch space marked by wood or decorative metal railings.

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Cermak Avenue

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Western Avenue – more photos here

Others feature upstairs space of a less clear nature. Behind those walls could be office space, either separate or joined with the retail space below, or living space.

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Bryn Mawr

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The most exciting ones share a similar design vocabulary of materials and style, with an emphasis on angles: angled brick wing walls, angled panels of Roman brick with limestone borders, angled wood roof overhangs.

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Cermak Avenue

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63rd Street – Midway Lounge

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63rd Street

You can find a crop of one-story, single use commercial buildings in the same neighborhoods that use the same design vocabulary, with angled sections of facade and roof overhangs, often trimmed in red wood or red Roman brick.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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

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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.

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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!

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

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Paneled Storefronts Again

Every week on our blog we choose a theme, and then bring you a variety of different buildings on that theme.

This week: revisiting old posts.

Act 2: More 1940s Storefronts.

Sometimes I find that just the very act of posting a blog entry generates more information. Just putting the post out there gets me thinking more about the topic, and maybe I think of a place to research that I missed earlier, or just realize that I need to take a closer look at the building itself. And of course, readers post comments. Sometimes they’ll know the answer to a question, or have the architect’s name, or – as in this case – they’ll know where to look to find more examples of the buildings I’ve just posted.

Both of these porcelain enamel panel storefronts are near Roscoe Village, and in fact one of them I’d photographed before, and then totally forgotten about it.

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The history of this Belmont Avenue storefront can literally be read right off the facade. Currently it’s home to a pub called Hungry Brain. Before that, it housed a laundromat, its applied letters leaving faint outlines. Originally, it had an attached neon sign, whose lettering was not legible.

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Orange Garden has obviously been a Chinese restaurant for a long time, what with the vintage neon sign. Combined with the stainless steel fluting and the porcelain panels, this storefront’s a real winner!

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And then, once I started looking for it, I realized that the panels, and the oatmeal texture porcelain enamel in particular, are everywhere. There’s a stretch of Broadway where three buildings in a row have paneled storefronts.

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One of my favorite Clark Street facades is made of metal panels:
Bell Auto

And then there’s this spectacular multi-store example on S. State Street:
Blue Star Auto

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With its battered neon sign, flaking painted signs, and 1940s-style blue paneled facade, Blue Star Auto Store is worthy of a whole post.

And just to round out the set, here’s one more black Vitrolite facade. Belle Kay on Lincoln Avenue is now home to LuLu’s vintage clothing store, and a more appropriate reuse I cannot imagine.

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And “belle” is indeed the word to describe that angular font.

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Vitrolite, sadly, isn’t a very good material for meeting the ground. It’s a type of glass, and glass snaps and shatters when anything hits it hard enough.

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Finally, a quick update on Erickson Jewelers in Andersonville: A banner announces that it will become a Potbelly’s location. The metal lettering has been removed to allow replacement of some of the Vitrolite panels. The neon sign has also been removed, hopefully / presumably for repairs. I’m hoping both elements will be coming back. The Intarwebs remain silent on the matter.

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Streamline Theaters

Today we visit four vintage theaters from the golden era of theater design, all of them beautifully restored in recent years.

Skokie Theater

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Our first stop is the humble little Skokie Theater, on Niles Center Road in downtown Skokie. The Art Moderne facade is a later addition to a circa-1916 building. After many years as a movie theater of varied genres, today this little gem serves as a small-scale (140 seats) concert venue.

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Of particular interest, the facade shares elements with both the styles I posted last week – the low-budget commercial Deco/Streamline storefronts, and the paneled WW2 storefronts.

  • Skokie Theater web site
  • Skokie Theater at Cinema Treasures
  • Wilmette Theater

    Also on the north shore, this little theater is the most humble of the bunch. Its main interest is that it shares the same porcelain enameled panels as most of the 1940s storefronts from last week.

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    The Wilmette Theater is part of the Metropolitan Block, a World War I-era building that got a partial face lift during the Depression.

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    Lake Theater

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    A fully-illuminated theater is something that should be seen by both day and night. Sadly, I haven’t made it out to Oak Park in the daylight since finding this remarkable Deco waterfall.

    The Lake Theater (on Lake Street, natch) dates from 1936 (architect Thomas W. Lamb). The spectacular marquee remains fully illuminated, as does the vertical theater name sign, which lights up letter by letter, top to bottom, before blinking off again. Inside, the theater has more recently become home to salvaged artifacts from other Chicago theaters that no longer stand.

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  • Lake Theater at Cinema Treasures
  • Official history at Classic Cinemas
  • York Theater

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    The York Theater (York Road, Elmhurst) looks sharp by day… but it’s at night that this facade truly comes alive.

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    Curved neon follows the sensuous lines of the facade, uniting the building and its marquee into a single entity. The structure was only 14 years old in 1938, when architect Roy B. Blass replaced its Spanish-influenced facade with a new, ultra-up-to-date facade in the Art Moderne style.

    Like the Lake Theater, the York is owned by the Classic Cinemas company, who have taken superb care of both places and runs on a business model of celebrating historic theater design. Also like the Lake, the York has survived into the present as a viable first-run theater by gobbling up adjacent retail space for conversion to additional theater screens. Combined with the triplexing of the original auditorium, this has brought the York up to a total of nine screens.

    If you visit the York and your timing is right, you can also visit the offices of the Theatre Historical Society of America – they’re located in an upstairs office right next to the theater.

  • Official history at Classic Cinemas
  • York Theater at Cinema Treasures
  • 1940s Storefront Facades

    We cap off our little survey of commercial Art Deco with a style that’s not really Deco: the circa-World War II paneled storefront.

    Lincoln Tap Room
    Lincoln Tap Room – Lincoln Avenue

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    Western Automatic Music – Western Avenue

    R.V. Kunka Pharmacy
    R. V. Kunka Pharmacy – Archer Avenue

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    This one, on Armitage, actually has more in common with the corner Deco buildings from previous posts. But the colors are more 1940s-style.

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    Kiltz’s Bakery – W. 63rd Street

    Kiltz’s shares a material and finish style with the next two, a sort of smooth-finished texture with a lumpiness to it. For a while it fooled me into thinking it was terra cotta, but if you walk up and tap it, you’ll discover that it’s a hollow metal panel with a baked-on coating, presumably a form of porcelain enamel.

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    Parkway Cleaners and Taylors – Diversey Parkway

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    Ed & Erv’s Centrella Food Mart – Touhy Avenue

    Parkway and Ed & Erv’s also share enough design elements to make them look like the same designer’s work. The white polished cleanliness of the designs is highly fitting for their occupants.

    At the other end of the health spectrum, the Rothschild Liquors chain became their own mini-genre of storefront, all paneled in red and finished out with stylish neon signs:

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    717 East 87th Street

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    1532 West Chicago Avenue

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    425 East 63rd Street

    A quick Google search turns up two more Rothschild stores with facades of the same vintage, one in red, one in white.

    And finally, the black Vitrolite panel storefront, exemplified by two fine northern city storefronts:

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    Erickson’s Jewelers, Clark Street in Andersonville

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    Paul J. Ouetschke & Co., Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square

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    Unlike the baked metal panels above, Vitrolite is basically a form of glass, about a quarter inch in thickness, and sadly prone to breaking under impact.

    And with those dimensional letters, we’re clearly on the path to full-blown Midcentury. Bring it on!