Skokie Fairview

At the southwestern border of Skokie lies this peculiar little pocket of neighborhood. It is isolated by design, with several roads just not going through to the nearest artierials like Pratt and Niles Center. Thus, it’s a really easy little corner to miss.

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I’ve posted garage doors from this area before. The neighborhood is home to some particularly idiosyncratic MidCentury ranch houses, the kind that can’t make up their mind whether they represent western frontier living, or Jackie Kennedy and Camelot fashion. They all went up in the mid- to late-1960s, hot on the heels of the 1964 creation of Coyle Park, now Norman Schack Park. They were built by Shaf Home Builders (still in business today), though the Tribune archives are stubbornly unforthcoming about the company. Shaf offered home models that went by slighly outlandish names such as the “Cleopatra”, the “Queen Cleopatra” (the “ultimate in Colonial elegance”) and the “Casa del Encanto”, some of which were built here.

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Those houses are the main attraction, or so I thought. On a whim, I passed by a second time recently… and discovered just how odd are the houses in this little corner of southwest Skokie.

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The big showstoppers are this trio of brick houses, with clear Art Deco influences. The tidy, compact footprint and the brickwork style both point to the inter-war years, and the hand of a professional architect. The Cook County database at CityNews, however, dates it to 1962. 1962?? This doesn’t look anything like 1962. BlockShopper.com dates the group to 1948, and another site says 1946, both of which make a lot more sense.

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The databases have the rest of the block as going up between 1940 and 1950. Those houses follow the same small-footprint plan, but only the first floor is sheathed in brick. Ranch house touches are added in. The separate mass of the entryway, and the raised brick stripes at the corners, peg the entire block to a single designer and make the buildings relate to their more high-minded neighbors on the corner.

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Then, a block north, amid some typical raised ranches, sits this lovely 1950s house.

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…which has a grown-up cousin amid all the Shaf Builders strangeness nearby.

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It’s a real box-of-chocolates neighborhood, well worth a repeat visit.

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I haven’t paid much attention to certain segments of Chicago’s Midcentury developments. I tend to focus on the ones with that unique Chicago style. But there are whole neighborhoods in the Chicago suburbs built in Mid-Century idioms that came from California and the southwest. They should be familiar to any Midcentury fan. Low-pitched roofs, preferably making big sweeps across most of the house, are the most obvious element. Recently I’ve stumbled onto a couple of these clusters.

Golden Acres subdivision

There’s no grand entryway to call your attention to this development. You just wander around the erratic curving streets, and after a while you start to realize that there’s some cool stuff going on in the ranches and split-level houses around you.
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This is Golden Acres, a subdivision erected by Chesterfield Builders in 1960-1961. Chesterfield, headed by Arthur Zaltzman, built hundreds of houses around Skokie, Niles, Glenview and elsewhere. Chesterfield Builders was already putting up low-slung, low-pitched-roof ranch houses in the northwest suburbs by 1951, and they subsequently showed up repeatedly in the Tribune list of million-plus dollar developers, which means they were putting up easily a hundred or more homes a year.

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Watch for the flaired-out planters wrapping around portions of these split-level houses. It’s a recurring element unique to this development, and it gives the houses a distinct 1960s flavor.

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There are a few other house types mixed in as well.

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Those last two designs shows up hither and thither across Niles and Skokie, if you find yourself in the right neighborhood.

And now that you’re familiar with the neighborhood, I just have to share the magnificent Chicago Tribune advertisement that trumpted the opening of the development. From July 22, 1961:

chesterfield builders golden acres opening ad
(As always, click for the larger version.)

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From this, we learn that at least one of the house models, and presumably many or all of them, were designed by William B. Baime, architect (1928-1996).

We also learn that a hybrid between the Ranch and the Split-Level was known in builders’ circles as the “Splanch”, which sounds more like a gross-out sound effect than a house.

Sunset Manor Executive Homes

Greenwood and Central Roads, Glenview

Shortly before they built the single-family Golden Acres, Chesterfield put up a more dense multi-family set of buildings, begun in 1960, in a small corner of the same parcel. Here, four-unit buildings disguised as gargantuan California ranches are tightly packed at right angles to the road, with shared common green space all around them.

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I have to wonder if “Executive Manor” is some sort of coded language that these were meant for unmarried businessmen. Buying into the development meant buying into a Home Owners Association which regulated and managed grounds maintenance.

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The buildings are arranged along two L-shaped roads, a configuration which leads to a very picturesque set of interior spaces within the block. As a result, there’s some wonderful differentiation of space going on in Sunset Manor. Subtle cues in the size of paths, combined with the old standby of backyard fencing, let you know exactly where public space ends and private space begins.

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Unknown development

The Sunset Manor model worked so well that it was reused at least two other times. A much more orderly iteration can be found just south of Golf Mills shopping center, off Ballard Road. The biggest difference, besides being set on neatly gridded streets, is that here the center section is only 1 unit.

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You might think that this rigid arrangement would stifle individual creativity. You’d be happily wrong.

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Chesterfield Garden Estates

The ultimate refinement of the apartments-in-a-giant-ranch-house design was the Chesterfield Garden Estates development. Here, Chesterfield Builders had a lot more room to work with, so instead of sitting face to face, most of the buildings are arranged in horseshoe shapes around enormous shared lawns.

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Chesterfield Garden Estates is in Niles, off Shermer Road, south of Dempster. Its presence is announced by a pair of large, curved brick walls, which announce the development’s name in huge metal letters. This was a lucky break for me – it made finding info on the place incredibly easy.

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These are, of course, multi-unit buildings, with four townhouses in each building. The end units are are split level, though you’d never guess from the design of the front. The two-level unit in the middle is “the popular Georgian design”.

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The development was opened in 1961, and is centered around a small park which originally included a swimming pool (long since vanished.) The park is actually much smaller than the shared lawns that many of the buildings face. Sales rep Leo Krasny states in a Tribune article that he had been building such townhouses for several years, and they were popular in part because of the included landscaping.

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Oh, and the full name of the place is actually Chesterfield-in-Niles Garden Estates. Just in case you got confused and thought you were in a London exurb.

The Chesterfield Builders developments are all doing quite well as they approach their 50th birthday. All the units look occupied, there are no maintenance issues, and the greenery on the grounds has developed nicely. There’s no reason to think they won’t stand for another 50 years.

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!