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)

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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.

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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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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Lost Warehouse on Ashland Boulevard

You’d be hard-pressed to miss the news – a massive warehouse on south Ashland caught fire Monday night and erupted into a massive conflagration, closing several blocks of the street. The building’s interior was completely consumed in a glowing inferno that flared up again Friday and continues to smolder as of Sunday evening, even as the building is being demolished.

With its wood timber interior ravaged, and its brick walls coated with layers of ice from the firefighting efforts, the building was considered a total loss. What remained of the exterior walls was pulled down Friday and Saturday; by the time I found time to visit Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t much left to see.

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But amid the clamor of this disaster, and the relief that it comes with no loss of life or adjacent properties, relatively little attention has been paid to the building itself.  What history lay behind that beautiful Prairie-influenced facade?

The demolition revealed a major hint: when the sign over the front door came down, terra cotta letters spelling out “Pullman Couch Company” could be seen.

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Burned

An offshoot of the well-known rail car manufacturer, the Pullman Couch Company was a large furniture-manufacturing concern, one of the largest in the country, turning out bed davenports with chairs to match, living room suites, and other pieces. A 1914 ad for the Rothchild and Company department store proclaimed that the Pullman Revolving Seat Bed Davenports were “known all over the United States”.

The Pullman Couch stake on the Ashland manufacturing district began at 38th and Ashland, where a five-bay factory in unornamented brick at 3759 S. Ashland was erected in 1911, with an additional story tacked on two years later, both by district architect R.S. Lindstrom (ref).

In 1917, Pullman Couch purchased the empty lot to the north from the Union Bag & Paper Company (December 14, 1917 Tribune), whose 1915 building still stands at 3737 Ashland (S. Scott Joy, district architect – May 22 & 23, 1915 Tribune). In 1919, Pullman Couch filled in the lot with an expansion that doubled the size of their plant, and reskinned the front facade to present a unified building to the street, again to the designs of Joy. 

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The resultant building was a powerful Chicago School statement with Prairie School influences, with red brick piers separating broad expanses of windows. The piers are “pinned” to the roofline by ornamental cartouches, a visual technique used by Louis Sullivan in several famous commercial buildings, including Chicago’s Gage Building. Pullman Couch’s initials (PCCo) were integrated into the building’s ornament.  Lumber and Veneer Consumer waxes ecstatic about the plant’s use of new and innovative machinery in its manufacturing processes (ref).  IMG_8237

Pullman Couch also built the similarly-styled building at 3711 S. Ashland, with its prominent water tank tower, in 1915.IMG_1736

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Pullman Couch remained at this address through the 1950s.

By 1969, 3757 S. Ashland was occupied by the Howard Parlor Furniture Company, makers of upholstered furniture, founded in 1934 by husband-and-wife founders Peter and Rose Niederman. Ms. Niederman died in 1977; two years later, the company’s assets were liquidated at auction (Tribune June 10, 1979).

The final occupant was the Harris Marcus Group, a high-end lamp manufacturer, which remained from the 1980s until around 2003. The old factory had stood empty ever since.  It was threatened with demolition in 2010, boarded up, and still occasionally infiltrated by squatters.

The loss of 3757 Ashland is made all the more keen by its place in the Central Manufacturing District. The area has dozens of vintage manufacturing buildings, many spectacularly ornamented in a unified style. This is truly a district, not just in name or property boundaries, but in style. The gap left by this loss diminishes the whole.
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Priorities

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As you’ve likely read elsewhere, this lovely terra cotta clad building at 79th and Halsted had its western parapet collapse onto the street at the end of January. The entire building was subsequently demolished by emergency order of the city.

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By the time I was able to visit on the following Saturday, there wasn’t a whole lot left.

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What there was to see, however, was heartbreaking enough. Terra cotta pieces worth untold amounts of money were being smashed into rubble along with everything else. No salvage efforts were in evidence.

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Beautifully sculpted terra cotta was going into the trash, along with brick, structural members, and everything else. Untold amounts of landfill, untold amounts of lost invested energy and material… and what do they save?

The Coke machine.

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Granted, it’s a real vintage piece of work, with a 1960s geometry design and a sum cost of ten cents for a soda. The only brand names are Coke and Sprite; the rest are labeled “Orange”, “Grape”, and “Strawberry”.

But still. We save the Coke machine, and toss this in the garbage?

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Midwest MidCentury fights

save-our-midcentury

I’m duplicating this post across two blogs, because two parallel battles are being fought right now over MidCentury buildings in Chicago and St. Louis.

Prentice

In Chicago, a well-publicized fight has been going on for many months over the fate of the Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern University Hospital’s downtown campus. Prentice is a high-rise building by Bertram Goldberg, the same architect who developed the corn-cob Marina Towers on the Chicago river, and two other complexes in a similar idiom south of downtown. The building has been vacated by Northwestern Hospital, which originally expressed a desire to demolish it, though no plan for using the land has been developed.

In St. Louis, Midtown’s “flying saucer” building – originally a gas station, now a Del Taco fast food outlet – has been the center of a much swifter controversy, as the owner announced plans to demolish it and build a new retail building in its place. The St. Louis community immediately rose up in righteous grassroots wrath. Driven by an unholy alliance between MidCentury architectural preservationists and fans of Del Taco chain (a mainstay of late night food, particularly for students at nearby Saint Louis University), the issue has flared across local news and been debated at the level of the city council.

Several interesting parallels stand between these buildings and their champions. Both are from the 1960s, built of concrete, and defined by dramatic cantilevers and round forms. And both lend themselves to diagramatic simplification in the form of the line drawings up above – a simple, clear expression of the buildings’ big ideas, a clear illustration of the dramatic simplicity that defines them. Those two drawings summarize one of the big trends in Modernism – simple, bold design moves, with dramatic but carefully considered lines and proportions.

Such representations are eminently useful in getting people to see past the more transitory elements of the buildings. A number of St. Louis residents have commented about bad memories or experiences with Del Taco, and called for demolition – as if the building itself were responsible for the business within it. Likewise, Prentice has the maintenance issues one would expect of any building that’s approaching 50 years old, with stained and spalling concrete in need of cleaning and repair.

Finally, both buildings are fine examples of the growing need for Midcentury awareness and preservation. Nobody is building these things anymore – once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.