The ruins and sundry of Washburne Trade School

I photograph a lot of abandoned buildings, and have been doing so for somewhere between 15 and 20 years. I can’t say I’ve never found a romantic aspect to decay, nor can I deny finding architectural decay a fascinating subject for photography. The slow falling out of place of things, nature’s patient labor of unbuilding, creates visually rich patterns that naturally stir the soul and raise all manner of questions about the ultimately transient nature of our built world.

Washburne Trade School

But photographing the ruination of the American cityscape has always had a social dimension for me. I consider it my ongoing and ever-present mission to document endangered architecture – to call attention to its plight, and to save its memory even if I can’t save its form. I haven’t always been disciplined about sticking to that principle, but I try. If I’m going to post a photo of building ruins, it better be because I want to call attention to that specific site, to a building’s history, to its architecture, its style, its neighborhood – something beyond just LOOK BUILDING FALL DOWN, I MAKE PURTY PICTURE.

In recent years, the popularization of “ruin porn” has given new dimensions to the ethical issues surrounding urban abandonment and decay, especially when considered in conjunction with the wide spread of urban gentrification. Alongside the earnest preservationists decrying the collapse of great buildings, a generation of urban explorers and their internet audience seems to revel in decay for its own sake. Again, I’ve been on a number of urbex jaunts myself, and can’t deny the fun and the thrill of it – but I try to come away with more than just pictures of stuff that’s falling apart.

Washburne Trade School

The Internet is one big race to the bottom, though, and what was a niche culture ten years ago, shared on a few discussion boards, is today a vigorous source of clickbait for lowest common denominator sites like Buzzfeed and UpWorthy. Even this could have been used as a chance to educate and motivate, but instead these sites give us vapid headlines about the “strangely haunting beauty” of decay (or “beautiful and chilling images of abandonment”, or “the 30 most astounding abandoned places in the Solar System”, or whatever other collection of adjectives are making the rounds this week), which lead to isolated single images with minimal context. The state of things in ruin is treated as an aesthetic experience; people shake their heads, briefly wonder what the world’s coming to, and then click on with their lives.

Whichever way you choose to interpret the cultural and economic insanity that has allowed multitudes of fantastic American buildings to be abandoned and destroyed over the decades, there’s no shortage of photographs of the results online.

Washburne Trade School interior

So when I decided to do a post on Chicago’s late, great Washburne Trade School, I had to stop and think for a moment. What am I trying to achieve here? Because at Washburne, decay – ludicrous, profligate, wasteful, narratively rich decay – was half the point.

I settled on two things as a focus:
1) Washburne was a cool building.
2) Washburne was full of insane crap.

In the process of illustrating these two points, I may include photographs of ruins. Hopefully they’re good photographs, and if they make the ruins look beautiful, well, don’t confuse a beautiful photograph with a beautiful state of affairs. Washburne should not have been abandoned, should not have been left to rot, and should not have been demolished – not in a sane world. Alas, our world is frequently certifiable, and Washburne is no longer with us.

Enough prelude! On with the show!

Washburne Trade School

TREATISE #1: Washburne was a cool building

Washburne Trade School stood at the southwest corner of 31st and Kedzie. The school was contained in a massive complex of buildings, taking up the rough equivalent of three city blocks.

The historical basics: the buildings were originally home to the Liquid Carbonic Corporation plant, manufacturer of soda pop fizz. The huge red brick building with the classic Chicago tower dates to 1910 (architect: Nimmons & Fellows); the Streamline Deco office building to 1935 (architect: S.D. Gratias). The Chicago School District bought the buildings in 1958, spent a million bucks renovating them, and installed Washburne at the location, consolidating many programs in one place; there  it stayed till it closed for good in 1996 (the school’s renowned chef training program survives as the Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute, part of the City College system.) The buildings were left abandoned until their 2008-09 demolition.

The primary building was a huge concrete structure with brick facing, with two long 4-story wings at a right angle. Where they met stood a tower with faintly Prairie School accents, of a style that can also be seen on a few Rogers Park apartment buildings (and probably elsewhere): horizontal bands of stone, square piers, shallow arches, and cubic volumes.

Washburne Trade School

The rest of this marching monolithic mass of building, however, was pure Chicago School: concrete frame with brick cladding. Minimal ornament. Huge windows between narrow brick piers made up its bulk, and a simple overhanging roof element capped it off without elaboration.

Washburne Trade School

To the west, a totally prosaic annex was tacked on in 1936 for bottling machinery assembly and metalwork; I never photographed it intact, but Google Streetview shows it to be an unremarkable concrete frame infilled with industrial windows.

Washburne Trade School

To the east, the school was connected by two skybridges to the former Liquid Carbonic Corporation office building, a Streamline Deco edifice with an inwardly-curved main entryway (echoed by a more modest building across the street that survives to the present.)

Liquid Carbonic Corporation buildingWashburne Trade School

Washburne Trade School

THE Liquid Carbonic Corporation

The Streamline building was already 2/3rds gone when I arrived on the scene in 2008 – but by chance, I’d snapped a few shots of it while driving by in 2005, while it was still intact.

An expansive garage stood on the block-interior side of the main building, gone before I ever got there; its outline appears on the main building.

Washburne Trade School

This was classic Chicago School architecture, as Preservation Chicago notes – impressive for its size, for its architectural purity, for its unabashed hugeness. Not as famous or glamorous as the skyscrapers of the Loop, buildings like Washburne nonetheless made Chicago what it was and is – a sprawling hub of manufacturing, a modern city that sprang up out of nothing and spread like wildfire across the prairie. They were landmarks of their neighborhoods, sources of jobs, and iconic images for the city. With huge windows, concrete structures and open floor plans, they should lend themselves readily to adaptive reuse – but they have fallen in alarming numbers.

Washburne Trade School

The Washburne buildings were demolished because… well, nobody seemed to have a good answer at the time. The ol’ E-word was apparently batted around some – you can justify tearing down anything you don’t like by calling it an “eyesore”, and you can justify calling it an eyesore basically if anything at all is wrong with it, regardless of how simple it would be to fix it. Broken windows? EYESORE! Tear it down, quick! (And pray nobody ever breaks a window on your house.)

Another driving factor was desire for green space. Normally I lobby against this desire tooth and nail, because most American cities have far too much green space, not too little – but Little Village actually does need a park. And they will get one – just… not on the Washburne site, it turns out. A huge brownfield site designated Park No. 553 – closer to a sizable residential population, incidentally – will instead be turned into public green space.

In fact, the Washburne site is still sitting vacant five years after the demolition was finished.

Saint Anthony Hospital has stepped with a pretty fantastic program for the site, announced in 2012 – an 11 story hospital building, some smaller wellness-related buildings, some retail, and a modest public park. It is as good a project as anybody could want for such a site  – urban, modern, dense, mixed use, integral to the community – and it’s an economic engine that will likely offer spillover benefits to the area around it. The city is well on board and a design team was announced last year; hopefully further progress will follow soon.

Washburne Trade School interior
Seriously, look at the light in that room. Magnificent. Who wouldn’t want that?

TREATISE THE SECOND: Washburne was full of insane crap.

I mean it. The school’s buildings were absolutely loaded to the hilt with crazy, wacky, random, quirky stuff, the likes of which you’ve never seen in all your life. Visiting it was a non-stop stream of “what the hell?” moments.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Some of it was bizarre by virtue of age. With a history on the site going back to 1958, some of the materials had become quite dated by the time the school closed. Even the most modern of equipment would have been over a decade old by the time the building came down, but everything left behind was likely quite a bit older.

Washburne Trade School interior

1970s style font

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

1960s style sign

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior
Gloriously dated curtains

Washburne Trade School interior

Other portions are just strange by virtue of being inside a classroom. Framed-up mini-buildings, random plasterwork, set-like storefronts lining the hallways, disassembled automobiles, massive saws, metalworking machines – the range of things found inside a trade school is massive.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Odd juxtopositions abound as students practiced their craft using the building as a test subject. You never knew what style or material of decoration you might find in a room or a hallway.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

Again, not to romanticize decay, but… the abandoned site was a big ol’ playground for any number of urban adventurers, and part of me is sad over its loss for that reason alone. Explorers of all stripes – taggers, architects, photographers, historians, urbexers, perhaps an odd New Years Eve celebrant or two – wandered the rotting hulk, leaving their mark or documenting their passage.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School interior

And finally, there’s just the volume of stuff left behind in the building. Chairs, desks, equipment, lockers, projects, cabinets, shelves, machinery, hardware, tables, signs, posters, pamphlets, books, computers – a huge amount of paraphernalia was simply left where it stood. Other explorers, arriving sooner, found even more, some of which they carried out with them.

Washburne Trade School
Mr. Henley didn’t even bother to erase the blackboard! (And what kind of phone number is that? And how long is this class, anyways?)

Washburne Trade School

Washburne Trade School
No home for a circa-1970 PA system in a new school? Blasphemy!

Of course, when you think about it, the motivation to bring a lot of it along to a new location is pretty lacking. New building usually equals new equipment, and anyway, plenty of the stuff was heavily dated by the time Washburne closed. There’s no telling how much gear did leave the building along with its occupants.

Washburne Trade School interior

Washburne Trade School

Forgotten Chicago has a terrific post on the opening and the closing of Washburne, with a lot more historical detail than what I’ve posted. A simple Google search will also bring up plenty more photos of the school’s dilapidated interior in the years before was razed – amazingly, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Thanks to Chicago’s prolific architectural exploration community, you can still spend hours wandering the halls of this lost landmark in digital form.

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Down by the Riverside!

Nearly due west of the loop, between Berwyn and Brookfield, you’ll find a grace note along the Metra line – the beautiful planned suburb of Riverside.

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Riverside was laid out in 1869-71 by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux.  Its ample parkland, 100×200 foot house lots, and curving streets and paths were a world away from the crowded, industrialized inner city of the time. About 50 houses (of which only a handful remain today) went up before the Panic of 1872 brought things to a temporary halt. Additional houses went up in the following decades in a variety of styles.

As a National Register of Historic Places site, Riverside has been amply researched and documented; there’s not much I can add factually. But Riverside is exactly the kind of knock-your-socks-off place that got me started writing this blog, the kind of place that a casual tourist would be unlikely to find, the kind of place I’m hoping to stumble across when I wander out beyond the Loop. So I share it here in an act of pure, unabashed enthusiasm.

Riverside is home to several Frank Lloyd Wright houses, two historic water towers, a lovely city hall, several important commercial buildings, many beautiful turn-of-the-century homes from a highly pedigreed register of architects, and even a few Mid-Century buildings of note. It was also the home of Louis Sullivan’s Babson House, lost in 1960.

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Hoffman Tower, 1908

This castellated tower stands alongside the Des Plaines River, on a stretch of road that is a sort of “back door” to Riverside. This route is how I’ve always approached the town, coming off of Ogden Avenue.

The adjacent dam was removed in 2012, and the river re-channelized.

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Water Tower (1871) with adjacent pump house and well house (1890). Architect William LeBaron Jenney.

Major commercial and public buildings:
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Riverside Improvement Company Building, 1871 – architect Frederick C. Withers. The development’s first commercial building.

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The Driver Block, 1891 – architect Charles Hallam

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Riverside Town Hall, 1895 – architect George Ashby

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Riverside Public Library, 1930 – architects O’Conner, O’Conner & Martin

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Central School, 1897 – architect Charles Whittlesey, with later addition

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Riverside Presbyterian Church, 1879 – architect John C. Cochrane. Much of the stone in this church comes from an 1869 church on the same site, destroyed by fire.

A sampling of notable residences:
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Schermerhorn Residence, 1869 – architect William LeBaron Jenney

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Dore Cottage, 1869 – architects Olmsted, Vaux & Co.

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Prairie Houses
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Avery Coonley Residence, 1908 – architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This landmark Prairie Style house is the centerpiece of a whole estate, including the servants’ quarters and the stables & garage seen below.IMG_6120

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Coonley Playhouse, 1913 – architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Originally a school for educating the Coonley children.

IMG_3037Thorncroft Residence, 1912 – architect William Drummond – as home for teachers in the Playhouse school, it was yet another part of the Coonley estate.

This short set of photos doesn’t even include all the highlights; an entire day could be spent exploring every corner of this fantastic architectural wonderland. There are buildings I haven’t even gotten to myself, including another major Frank Lloyd Wright house and a surviving Louis Sullivan house (a service building for the Babson estate which is significant in its own right – 277 Gatesby Road if you’re looking!) For any architecture fan in Chicago, a trip out to Riverside, IL is an absolute must.

IMG_3092aLinks:

  • Riverside Museum online tour
  • National Register of Historic Places nomination form
  • Elmwood Park’s Sullivanesque Bungalows

    In 1926, developer John Mills launched Westwood – an ambitious bungalow development in suburban Elmwood Park, due west of the Loop. Mills & Sons oversaw the construction of homes as well as the improvements to the entire holding, with streets, alleys and sidewalks all going in at the same time. In full swing by 1928, the Westwood development was one of the largest single developments the city had seen and would, when finished, include 1,332 homes and cover many blocks, with what is now known as Conti Parkway as its civic center.

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    The bungalows are handsome and solid – they look terrific over 80 years after their construction – but nothing new or groundbreaking for their time. Mills & Sons’ work would be just a larger-than-average notch in the Bungalow Belt were it not for an unusual decorative decision: these are, perhaps, Chicago’s only Sullivanesque bungalows.

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    The terra cotta trim was supplied by the Midland Terra Cotta Company (1), 105 W. Monroe in the Loop. Midland Terra Cotta made an entire line of Sullivan-inspired stock ornament. Their work wound up on quite a few of Chicago’s commercial buildings, though of course the Leiber-Miester was given no credit and, undoubtedly, no compensation. The intent was simply to make the buildings more “ornamental”, in the words of Midland’s own design drawings. Whereas Sullivan carefully integrated his ornament to enhance and reinforce the big idea of the building – developers just dropped it in because it looked nice.

    And, well, doesn’t it?

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    Blocks of catalog ornament were used to accent window surrounds, the heads of arched basement windows, porch columns, and simple expanses of brick wall. The ornaments are a ubiquitous marker of John Mills’ Elmwood Park bungalows, clearly delineating the extent of his development.

    Mills & Sons took pride in their work, touting the “colorful terra cotta trim” and high-quality face brick in their advertisements. Pride could not save them from the onset of the Great Depression, however, and the company went into receivership in 1932, based on a motion filed by the Hydraulic Press Brick company. The company survived, however, and would go on to build wartime housing further west in the early 1940s.

    Note 1 – Chicago Tribune display ad, March 11, 1928 – Mills & Sons Westwood. The ad lists all the major suppliers of building components including brick, hardwood floors, fireplaces, door hardware and much more.

    The coolest city hall ever!

    I was just driving along one day, tooling along minding my own business, when up pops this crazy lookin’ thing.

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    It’s a lovely Prairie style building, with the unmistakable fingerprints of Frank Lloyd Wright’s idiosyncratic style, the kind that outlasted him and can be seen scattered here and there in Wisconsin. And in fact, it turns out that it was designed by his son, Lloyd Wright, along with his son, Eric Lloyd Wright. (Thanks to Bright Lights, Dim Beauty for having that link handy.)

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    It’s been the the city hall of Maine Township since 1983, but before that it was the Good Shepherd Community Church, begun in 1957 on land set aside by a suburban developer.

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    I couldn’t get inside, of course, but I did manage a tantalizing glimpse through the rear (formerly the front) windows.

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    Robie House to close for renovation

    Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Robie House is slated to close for extensive interior renovations starting in November, as announced publicly in a neighborhood newspaper today.

    New Era for Robie House

    "And so this is the view that Mr. Goodman wound up with."

    The house is currently open daily for volunteer-led tours. Renovation at the house has been ongoing for several years; visitors to the house witness the construction in progress, and at times various rooms have been closed off and unavailable. The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which operates the house, recently secured a $5 million dollar loan, allowing renovations to speed up. However, the expanded construction schedule means that the house will be completely closed off for the first time since tours began nearly ten years ago.

    Much remains unknown about the operational changes that are planned when the house re-opens; the article from the Hyde Park Herald speaks of not re-hiring the current guest services staff, and mentions the possibility of “all-day events” and renting the house out. How this will affect public access to the house (which, after preservation and restoration, is the Trust’s primary mission), and how it will affect the Trust’s goal of operating the house as a museum, remains to be seen.

    It appears the house may be closed for well over a year, based on a 2010 re-opening date mentioned in the article.