An old preservation victory: Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict

I discovered this ancient photograph hanging on the wall in a downtown Starbuck’s. It shows the Hotel St. Benedict flats, a Victorian era apartment building erected in 1882 at 40 E. Chicago Avenue. All too often, I find photographs like this and sigh wistfully, shaking my head that such a building could be built, and that it could be demolished.

In this case, however, I decided to step outside and reproduce the photograph, since the Starbuck’s in question is inside the Hotel St. Benedict Flats building.

Hotel St. Benedict

Astute readers will notice that the building lost its Wabash Avenue wing at some point – compare the number of dormers and entry canopies.

If I had to pick a favorite block in downtown Chicago, the St. Benedict apartments would be on the shortlist. A generous sidewalk, a healthy dose of shade trees, and plenty of outdoor seating, only steps away from a variety of major attractions, make this a popular low-key resting and gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. And then there’s the building itself.

Hotel St. Benedict

Such articulation! The massing of the building steps in and out as it goes along, but that’s just the start. Stairs climb up and down from the sidewalk, leading to chain sandwich shops above and basement bars and nail salons below. Life on the sidewalk, above it, below it: the perfect urban setting.

Hotel St. Benedict

Hotel St. Benedict

The Hotel St. Benedict Flats are not stylistically pure (the mansard roof with its copper trim is borrowed from the Second Empire style) but primarily it follows in the same Victorian High Gothic vein as Frank Furness’s buildings and Louis Sullivan’s earlier works. Characteristic details include flat stone elements with incised designs, both floral and geometric, and the polished stone columns supporting the massively oversized entry canopies. Massive weights bearing down on undersized columns is a recurring theme of High Victorian – see the entry of St. John Cantius Church, for example.

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

The Hotel St. Benedict Flats were never a hotel, but were an early apartment building, designed by architect James J. Egan. The building was made to resemble a group of rowhouses, to counter the unpopular perception of apartments (aka “French flats”) at the time. The effect is achieved through the stepped massing, while dormers breaking the mansard roof give a domestic air. It was named for a Benedictine order which occupied the site until the Great Fire in 1871. As marketed by William D. Kerfoot & Co in 1890, the building featured

Elegant Apartments of 7 or 9 rooms each…complete with steam heat, gas fixtures, mirrors, mantels, garbage and ash shutes [sic], and every convenience.

After its initial burst of marketing in the 1880s, it settled into a quiet life. In 1922, 6-room units were renting for $82.50 a month; a threatened 25% increase sparked a battle between the tenants and owner. A small 1923 fire forced 50 families out into the January cold for a night. Two different betting operations were busted in the basement storefronts in 1948. A parade of ordinary Chicagoans seems to have lived there: a World War II vet and a YMCA worker appear in various mid-century articles. The building presumably trended along with its Near North Side neighborhood, which suffered post-War malaise and decline, followed by a gallery- and retail-based revival beginning in the 1970s.

Hotel St. Benedict

The building was purchased by David “Buzz” Ruttenberg in 1980, who found it in run-down shape and had little interest in sinking money into it, given its size and condition. In light of the tremendous real estate boom on and around Michigan Avenue, in 1986 he applied for a demolition permit (alongside the Esquire Theater, which he also owned and whose Moderne interiors would be gutted in 1989), triggering a preservation war which would last almost a decade. The city landmarks commission rather inexplicably denied the building City Landmark status twice in the late 1980s. The building was in dire straits by 1990, when Ruttenberg had designs on its demolition and actively opposed landmarking the building (stating that the building’s commercial tenants had “changed this building dramatically. It’s not pristine. It’s unfit to be a landmark. It’s just an old building.”) Loyola University considered purchasing it to replace it with student housing; Ruttenberg wanted to put a parking lot on the site.

Preservationists refused to give in, however, and eventually a deal was reached.  In late 1994, Ruttenberg announced a $2 million plan to renovate the building, in a project led by historic properties developer Bruce Abrams. Working with the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the developers arranged a tax credit on the foregone value (ie, the additional money they could have made by demolishing the St. Benedict and building something new and bigger) that made the project viable.

Hotel St. Benedict

It’s hard to argue with the results! The building today continues to host rental apartments, now modernized and renovated. Below, the storefronts are thriving, and the city retains one of its finest old buildings amid the bustle of downtown.

Hotel St. Benedict Flats

Hotel St. Benedict

* Link: Cruddy text scan of the National Historic Register nomination form for Hotel St. Benedict

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The End of General Automation

On a recent visit to Chicago, I was shocked to see that the General Automation, Inc. building (3300 W. Oakton Street at McCormick) was gone. In its place, a generic big box style store selling flooring.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation’s building was one of the north shore’s most distinctive bits of Mid-Century design. It encompassed 75,000 square feet of offices and factory floor for a company that produced precision metal fabrications – machine parts, screws, etc.

General Automation, Inc.

Most of the architectural interest was in the curved office section facing Oakton. Concrete piers and panels framed pyramidal windows, in an elaborately framed facade. At the center, a pod-like vestibule welcomed arrivals to the futuristic building. Concrete pattern block screened the lower levels. The major face of the warehouse was lined with concrete panels, decorated with simple fins and a small incised circle on each panel.

General Automation, Inc.

According to the successor firm’s website, the General Automation brand began in 1935. A 1958 obituary for an employee (William Starr) lists the company at 900 N. Franklin Street, near what is now the Brown Line tracks downtown. In the 1960s, they moved to 1755 W. Rosehill Drive, in the former industrial corridor along the UP North Metra tracks.

General Automation, Inc.

In 1982, the company moved to its newly constructed digs at Oakton and McCormick. Yep, you read that right: the hyper-futuristic 1960s building is actually a 1980s building, at least according to the Life: Skokie Edition newspaper, which noted the company’s pending move in a November 1981 article. No word on the architect, alas, and no independent confirmation that I’ve been able to locate (I find the 1982 date difficult to reconcile with the building’s architectural style.)

In recent years, the company combined with three others to form HN Precision; the consolidated corporation specializes in precision-milled machine parts, serving a variety of industries including rail, oil and gas, automotive and more. Consolidation among the merged companies began in 2011, and the Skokie location closed circa 2012.

General Automation, Inc.

The building was sold at the end of 2013, stripped of its architectural exterior, and reclad to bland blend in with its surroundings.

General Automation, Inc.

General Automation, Inc. of Illinois should not be confused with an identically named company which, though based in California, also had significant operations in the Chicagoland area. This other General Automation engineered, sold, managed and maintained computer systems, from 1967 through the 1990s, under their own name and the subsidary California GA Corporation, with offices in Des Plaines and Bensenville. As far as I know, they did not have an awesome Brutalist factory building.

Of interest to industrial fans: the vacant lot across Oakton was once a natural gas facility, including three gasometers dating to 1911. They were demolished in the early 1960s; the site is currently undergoing cleanup of remnant contaminants.


1958: 900 N. Franklin Street (obituary of William Starr, July 8 1958)
1962-1968: 1755 W. Rosehill Drive (classified ad, May 27 1962 – inspector to check screw machine parts against prints; Aug 13 1965, Mar 20 1967, July 18 1968- inspector, screw machine job shop; Dec 15, 1968 – hand screw machines)
1972: 1001 Touhy, Des Plaines IL (classified ad, July 29 1972; want ad, April 29 1973. “Custom engineering”, “digital computers”, “mini-computers”, COBAL, Fortral and Assembly Language. )
1973: 1515 Jarvis Avenue, Elk Grove Village IL. Display ad, Dec 18 1973.
1979: California GA Corporation, a subsidary of General Automation, Inc. based at 1260 Mark STreet, Bensenville. Display ad July 8 1979. A 1978 ad lists the 1001 Touhy adress.
1980: address in Anaheim, California – “a leader in mini- and microcomputer based solutions systems”, including maintenance contracts, used equipment, spare parts, repair and refurbishment. Display ad, Sept 14 1980.
Life – Skokie edition (Weekend edition), Sec. 1, p1, 11/1/1981 – firm to move to Skokie in summer of 1982
1990: Anaheim, CA (December 11 article about purchase of Motorola computer systems)
1991 – 3300 Oakton – “parts for the military and for anti-lock brakes. (Tribune article, 1991)
1997 – Irvine, CA according to a Tribune article (Sep 28, 1997)

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.

Green on White, Volume 3 – A Baker’s Dozen of Bakery Brick

Another batch of white and green glazed brick storefronts – about a dozen total. At this point I have documented well over 50 of these buildings in and around the city, all featuring the same material and color pallet, and often the same style of design and ornamentation. And still no answer to the simple question of why! Why this color combination, why so many of them, why this style, why right in this one concentrated time period around 1920?

IMG_2894a741-749 W. 79th Street at Halsted. The westernmost of the four storefronts was the Auburn Park Library from the late 1930s until 1963. This building was next door to the corner commercial building demolished several years ago following a wall collapse.

 

Clark Street, Rogers Park7051 N. Clark Street, Rogers Park. Originally the Casino Theater, one of a legion of early theaters, most of which lasted only a few years before larger and more modern competitors overtook them. Cinema Treasures lists the Casino as operating from 1913-14; it was cited by the city in 1913 – along with dozens of other theaters – for a total lack of any ventilation. By 1919, it was a car dealership. In recent years, the building has lost a curved parapet wall.

Before this building went up, the site was home to Patrick Leonard Touhy, an early settler, businessman and land trader in the area, who married the daughter of Phillip Rogers, platted Rogers Park, and lent his name to one of the area’s major east-west arterial streets. Separated from his wife, Mr. Touhy lived at this address alone until he passed away in 1911; his house was demolished and replaced with the theater. His wife’s mansion, at 5008 Clark (old system, 7339 Clark new system) was torn town in 1917 and is now the site of Touhy Park.

Western Avenue

2241 and 2245 N. Western Avenue

 

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2403 W. Chicago Avenue – Liz’s Pet Shop, with thin triangular and diamond patterns surrounding a beautiful bulls-eye of stained glass above, and a completely altered storefront below. In the 1930s it was the office of Dr. Marco Petrone (1902-1966), a gynecologist and city Health Department inspector whose office also seemed to have a knack for attracting crime victims seeking emergency treatment. By 1945 it housed the Roncoli Grill.

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4230 1/2-4234 and 4236 S. Archer Avenue – two adjacent buildings with matching facades.

The lower, longer building on the right contains three retail storefronts; the peculiar 4230 1/2 address indicates that the third was shoehorned in at some point. 4234 was a Brighton Hobby store in the 1970s; recent occupants include the recently departed Vision To You, a pizza parlor, and a salon.

4236 S. Archer opened as the Crane Theater in 1916 – hence the grand archway; it operated as a theater into the 1950s. More recent retail tenants included a Color Mart wallpaper store in the 1970s, the Brighton Flower Shop until around 2007 (with a great neon sign), and the China Spa in 2008.

Both stores were refaced with modern red brick recently, first the theater in 2012 and then the storefronts on either side in 2013. All three came out much the worse – though at least the now-anomalous archway is no longer covered with a giant banner. The renovation included installation of bulbs into the long-disused sockets of the arch; the milky stained glass in the arched window appears to be an earlier addition by the short-lived China Spa. The current tenant, responsible for the red brick ruination, is the Gads Hill Center, a family and community support organization.

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6901 S. Halsted Street – green brick striping punctuated by terra cotta medalions. The building contains apartments above and four retail outlets at the street level. The Family Loan Corporation was a long-time tenant, from the late 1940s through the 1950s. A liquor store came later, in the 1960s.

 

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711 W. 47th Street – another curious specimen, a wood framed house tarted up with masonry accents at the street. The house is likely much older than the other buildings in this post, which likely date from the 1910s.

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IMG_0646a2209 W. Cermak Road, at far right – another apartment-over-storefront configuration. It was a music store in 1919, likely the first tenant. After that the storefront housed a series of doctor’s offices, including one who practiced there for many years before moving out in 1942. The address made headlines in 1977, as another physician operating there was one of several who carried a notable new type of glasses case that the Tribune reviewed. The same doc made headlines again in 1981 under less auspicious circumstances – he and another physician were busted for supplying drugs to street gangs. 

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3311 W. Montrose Avenue – Chicago Import, Inc. The storefront has been infilled with blonde brick, and the limestone panels in the center appear to be a Mid Century addition.IMG_9070a

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2107 N. Cleveland Avenue – Custom Hair Lounge + Spa – the green brick is merely a small accent amid handsome corbelling and an arched parapet wall, capped with limestone trim. It opened as a grocery store in 1919, and was the White House tavern in the 1950s (when an out of town patron tried to commit suicide in the restroom.) 

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6241 N. Broadway, Uptown – Green Element Resale. Like the Casino Theater, this building has lost its upper parapet wall – as evidenced by a geometric design that is abruptly sliced off at the roofline. It was the Leon Beloian Rug Company in 1981.

 

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3707 W. 26th Street. Civic Savings and Loan in 1957. Vanek Travel Service in 1960. Mena Mexico Travel Agency today. This is actually a storefront addition – there’s a wood frame house behind it, still in use as a residence in 1964 when Mr. Arthur Vanek, owner of the first travel agency, passed away. The green was painted over some time between 2007 and 2011.

 

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Diversey-Sheffield Building, 946-958 W. Diversey / 2801 N. Sheffield Avenue. Built in 1916, according to Chicago Architecture Info, this one featured an actual name emblazoned on the corner facade.  As with the Archer Avenue buildings, that facade was recently lost. According to the architect’s Facebook page, “the glaze on the brick was failing, the walls were deteriorating and the cornices falling off due to rust.” Modern brown brick replaced the 100 year old white glazed look. Its multiple storefronts have, and still do, housed a variety of tenants.

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IMG_8726aThe fate of the two refaced stores flags up a major issue facing all these buildings – the glazing tends to flake off as the buildings age, particularly if water gets into the walls (due to poor roof or parapet maintenance) and can’t get out (due to a variety of factors.) The glazing is the brick’s finished surface, and without that surface the brick decays faster. These buildings could become an endangered species if owners continue to defer maintenance.

The Mutilation of the Esquire

The Esquire Theater was a 1936 Moderne beauty at 58 Oak Street, just off the Magnificent Mile. Ultra-modern for its time, it retained its sleek, clean looks up into the present day.

Esquire Theater

Note the use of past tense. In 2012, the building was converted into a retail and dining complex, housing a mix of stores in keeping with the high-priced shopping along Oak Street. In the process, most of its facade – and its Streamline Moderne style – was obliterated.

Esquire Theater

The marquee, the mass of mottled dark granite, the checkerboard grid of the vertical sign supports, the grain elevator styled bulge of the auditorium – all gone.  In their place, more of the same bland minimalism that passes for elegance on Oak Street.

Esquire Theater

Esquire Theater

Considering the incredible elegance of the original interiors, it’s ironic that the owners chose to gut the building to accommodate top-tier retailers today. Those interiors were lost in a 1989 remodeling, but imagine recreating that space as a boutique mini-mall. That would be some high-end shopping!

Esquire Theater

Also lost in the remodeling: a couple of Victorian houses with Gothic detailing; they were demolished and replaced with a three-story building whose storefronts match the dullness surrounding them.

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Best. CVS. EVER.

This is the former MB Finanacial Bank building, 1200 N. Ashland Avenue, as it used to look.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

And here it is today, after a CVS moved in some time around 2010.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

Changes for the better – they unbricked the grand lobby windows! And the architectural goodness doesn’t end there. Just step inside…

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

No cruddy dropped ceilings or bland remodeling here – the CVS was simply dropped onto the existing banking floor, while all the architectural splendor around it was left intact.

The detailing of the bank lobby is magnificent. From the wood beam ceiling, to the plaster moldings, to the still-intact chandeliers, CVS has done a remarkable job of leaving well enough alone.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

The outside of this place is something special, too. Bas relief sculpture lines the walls between the arched windows. Check out the signs of the age – from a ship’s wheel to a winged car wheel.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

This handsome classical bank building was originally the Home Bank and Trust Company, designed by architects K. M. Vitzthum & Co. in 1925, and built at a cost of $1,000,000, with three floors of office space above. Home Bank was one of a spate of outlying banks opened in the years before the Great Depression, serving neighborhood needs – in this case the heart of Chicago’s Polish community.  Despite merging with Northwestern Trust and Savings, the bank was killed off by the onset of the Depression in 1930, and a successor bank – United American Trust and Savings – only lasted another year.

In 1934, a stable legacy began when the Milwaukee Avenue National Bank opened its doors at Ashland and Division, supported by over 2000 depositors from the previous bank on the premises. With a 1946 name change, it became the Manufacturers National Bank of Chicago, with its name shortened to Manufacturers Bank by 1984. A 2001 merger with Mid-City Bank created MB Financial, who soon built their own headquarters downtown.  The building was designated a city landmark in 2008; CVS opened its doors in 2011.

CVS at former MB Financial Bank

St. James Catholic Church – endangered on the south side

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Since 1875, St. James Catholic Church has stood watch over this section of the city on the prairie. But the remaining time of its vigil may be measured in mere months.

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The towering church stands at 2942 S. Wabash Avenue, housing a congregation founded in 1846. St. James was designed by prolific Catholic architect Patrick Charles Keely, whose designed hundreds of Catholic churches during a time of vast Catholic expansion in America, including Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral downtown.  St. James was built for an Irish congregation, replacing an 1853 building lost in the great fire, and was touted as the most expensive religious building in the city to that time. The October 10, 1875 cornerstone laying was preceded by a parade of Irish societies that stretched out over 2 miles and eventually brought an unruly crowd of 20,000 to the site. (Tribune Oct 11, 1875). Services were begun and the building was formally dedicated on May 23, 1880.

Designed in the French Gothic Revival architectural style, the exterior is suffused with beautiful stone carved details:

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St. James was badly damaged in a fire on December 21st, 1972. Many of the original stained glass windows were lost due to the firefighting efforts required to save the building itself. After the fire, parishioners rallied and funded the considerable repairs themselves, with no help from the Archdiocese.

The intervening 40 years have taken their toll on the venerable structure; electrical, heating and plumbing systems are outdated, and there is concern over the roof structure and the stone facade. After citations were issued by the city, the parish erected protective scaffolding around the church, closed it off, and began holding services in a secondary building next door. As Lee Bey recently reported, the Archdiocese wants to demolish the church this year. More recently, Gazette Chicago reports that a 90-day reprieve has been granted, as supporters try to rally interest in the building and possibly find a buyer. (With IIT within spitting distance, I can’t help wondering if they could become partners of some kind.)

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Lynn Becker puts all of this into a larger context, citing with his usual eloquence and insight the role of churches like St. James on the city landscape and the difficulties they face as congregations change and move away. His post also shares some of the grand churches that Chicago has already lost over the years, in a heartbreaking series of photographs.

The Archdiocese cites a cost of $12 million to get the building back into functional condition, vs. $5-7 million for a new building. But as I often tell people who complain about high costs of living in Chicago – you get what you pay for.  Will a $5 million building look like this? Will it even come anywhere close?

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$12 million is nothing to sniff at, to be sure. But what will the legacy be if that money is not spent? In ten, twenty, fifty years, what will matter more?

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