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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The Terrorists are Clearly Winning

WHEREAS, The City has determined that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire for fair market value those four certain parcels of real property located in the vicinity of Midway Airport [including] Midway Parcel 150, commonly known as 5600 – 5608 West 63rd Street…The Parcels are being acquired by the City for public purpose and use, namely, as a Runway Protection Zone or a Runway Safety Area, or both, as recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”)…It is hereby determined and declared that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire the Parcels for public purpose and use in furtherance of the City’s ownership and operation of Midway Airport…If the Corporation Counsel is unable to agree with the owner(s) of a Parcel on the purchase price…then the Corporation Counsel may institute and prosecute condemnation proceedings in the name of and on behalf of the City for the purpose of acquiring fee simple title to the Parcel under the City’s power of eminent domain.

Did you get all that?

Let me reparse it: the city wants to buy up this building and tear it down.

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As first reported by Blair Kamin, this is in the name of creating/expanding a “runway buffer zone” around the south side’s Midway Airport.

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I am, by my nature, a conservative person, in the purest sense of the word: I believe in conserving things. I believe in using what you have, instead of throwing it out. I believe in adapting, repairing, restoring, re-using. I abhor the waste of physical resources.

When charged with the awesome responsibility of managing a resource as vast as Midway Airport, however, people have an unfortunate tendency to think in grandiose terms. Plans are made by drawing on maps, made from a God’s-eye perspective, rather than from the point of view of persons on the ground. If the plan’s not big enough, just move some lines, gobble up a little more land. In the so-called City of Big Shoulders, virtually any scheme can be superficially justified by trotting out Daniel Burnham’s threadbare aphorism about how one should “make no little plans”.

Or maybe I’m looking at it backwards; perhaps this is petty bureaucracy run amuck, an old-fashioned case of government CYA – following the letter of FAA standards, no matter what, because if you don’t, someone could come around pointing a finger at you.

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Regardless, here is a plan that has certainly stirred my soul, though not for the better.

Midway Airport, like it or not, is located in the city. Not even in the suburbs, but in the city – right in the middle of it. It is landlocked. And like all such institutions, it has a civic responsibility to be a good citizen, to work with what it’s got and work with its neighborhood, rather than tossing it out or grabbing up more.

Midway Airport by night

Unleashing the threat of eminent domain upon one’s neighbors, regardless of what the FAA recommends, is not being a good neighbor.

The author of the original letter also mentions a fear that a terror attack could be unleashed on the nearby National Guard station from the building’s upper windows. I am unable to source this comment; however, if it is true, it is absolutely the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Even if these hypothetical terrorists actually gave a crap about Midway Airport (hint: they don’t, especially not with internationally famous O’Hare right up the road), why on earth would they try to attack an obscure National Guard post that nobody can even knows is there? These would have to be the most ineffectual terrorists ever. Even if somebody did want to blow the place up, what’s to stop them from just lobbing some grenades over the fence instead?

This is the kind of panic-stricken “thinking” that prevailed in the days after 9/11, when people talked about making skyscrapers airplane-proof. You don’t make buildings airplane-proof; you prevent planes from flying into buildings. And you don’t tear down the neighborhood to protect it; you adapt your behavior to avoid endangering it.

Purple Hotel on the Wane

The unmistakable, can’t-miss-it building at the corner of Touhy and Lincoln has housed a number of different hotel chains over the decades, but it has long been known by its most obvious description: The Purple Hotel.

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March 2006

Planned as the Hyatt-Lincolnwood, the Hyatt House-Chicago broke ground in January 1961, on the site of the Allgauers Fireside restaurant at Lincoln and Touhy, destroyed by fire in 1958. One year later, on January 17, 1962, the Hyatt House opened with a ballroom, conference spaces, an outdoor pool, and a million dollar Ray Foley restaurant. Architects for the hotel were Hausner and Mascal, with Freidman, Alschuler and Sincere designing the restaurant.

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April 2008

The place did fine into the 80s, when it was sold by the Hyatt and began a series of name changes. The Purple Hotel monicker was finally made official in 2004 by an independent operator.

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Through it all, the Purple Hotel has acquired a rather legendary history in the annals of sleepy Lincolnwood. It was a swinging hot spot in its early days, hosing a variety of performers. In 1983, it was the site of the gangland execution of a mobster. Just a few years ago, convictions were handed down regarding sex parties held at the hotel. And most recently, its rampant building code violations forced the hotel to close in 2007, and have since made it the subject of considerable legal wrangling, as the city of Lincolnwood moves to have it demolished.

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April 2008

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August 2010

In the meantime, the Purple Hotel has gone downhill, fast. The pool courtyard is choked by weeds growing six feet tall. Windows are broken. Doors are kicked open. Carpets are torn out. The interior partitions are rotting, and mold is reportedly all over the place.

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The hotel does have some architectural value, as Lee Bay recently pointed out. The exposed structure gives it a nice rhythm, and those massive windows on the guest rooms just don’t get done anymore. A few elements here and there give it some added 60s funk, not least of which are the titular glazed purple bricks themselves.

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To make it work as a hotel, an operator would have to think way beyond the norm. This building, hanging out in the middle of nowhere in terms of public transit, amenities and attractions, is a non-starter as a standard hotel. The only hope, marketing-wise, would be to capitalize on the building’s funky style and swinging history, and go all-out with a completely crazed renovation. Either total Mid Century classic 1960s style – maybe even a 1950s streamline mode – or else a completely contemporary treatment rendered in shades of purple. Purple neon, purple understair lighting, purple translucent backlit panels, curving purple reception desk, an internally glowing purple bar with bottles lining purple-backlit glass shelves.

Is Lincolnwood ready for an over-the-top celebration of its own history? Somehow I doubt it.

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  • Purple Hotel at American UrbEx blog
  • Purple Razed? – Lee Bay
  • The Eyesore That Is the Purple Hotel – Skokie.Patch.com
  • The Purple Hotel – Global Traveler Blog
  • Decrepit Purple Hotel Outstays Its Welcome – Sun-Times
  • Midwest MidCentury fights

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    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.

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    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.

    Midcentury preservation

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

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

    Loyola says goodbye to an old… friend? Acquaintance, maybe?

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    I’ve seen quite a few campus buildings meet the wrecking ball, mostly at my own alma mater but elsewhere as well. But seldom have I seen a campus demolition greeted with such a quirky, open, mixed bag of emotions as that of Loyola University’s Damen Hall.

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    From the layman’s perspective, Damen Hall is the quintessential 1960s building – big, bland, banal, ugly, and horrible. Designed with no operable windows, looming massively over everything around it, utterly bereft of ornament – Damen is a hard building to love. Students and faculty likened it to a radiator, a toaster, and a prison, and it’s hard to argue with those assessments. Even I, the all-things-Midcentury guy, never bothered to get a full-body shot of the place in life, only snapping a few details that caught my eye. Demolition prep work is well underway, so it’s a bit late now.

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    But despite its reputation as a monstrous pile of awfulness, Damen’s impending demolition has inspired an outpouring of affectionate commentary from the Univesity community.

    While the building was still in use, a 3-minute video tour was produced, a sardonic pastiche of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that manages to be informative, fond, wry and hilarious all at once. The University ran a contest to see who should be the last Loyolan to leave the building and lock its doors. The building has its own Facebook page, lamenting its own impending demolition and missing the days when students filled its corridors and strange elevator system.

    Much of this is probably just the result of the building as a shared experience, a minor trial that most students had to endure at some point in their career. But I’d like to think that underneath it all, there’s some wisps of appreciation for the building’s genuine merits, for it did have a few.

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    For starters, those marching concrete columns are a powerful statement, and the play of light across them is beautiful. I never saw that massive auditorium, but as shown in the video link above, it’s a stunning piece of Midcentury space.

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    And then there’s the front lobby. The lobby and its grand tile mosaic mural was one of my first Midcentury discoveries in Chicago. There wasn’t much to the space: the mosaic on one side, two wall of glass on the other, a row of vintage seating that Mies van der Roes would have welcomed on the IIT campus.

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    “Wonders of Creation” is a 1966 work designed and executed by Melville Philip Steinfels. The mural is a delight, an abstract plunge through the natural sciences as filtered through a 1960s lens.

    Loyola University Chicago

    The mural is gone now, bare concrete block walls left in its wake. It will be relocated to Loyola’s medical campus, in the inner southwest suburb of Maywood.

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    You can see more details of the mosaic, and read the artist’s thoughts on the work, in the Loyola Nursing School’s Annual 2008 Report. The main Loyola campus, meanwhile, will be diminished for its loss.

    A coda: I’m not too keen on the new building that will go up in Damen’s place, either; it’s a historicist replica that mockingly apes the oldest buildings on campus, rather than bringing any new ideas to the table (this is marketed as “complimenting” the older buildings.) Designed to be ultra-modern in technology and function, it hides those attributes as though they were badges of shame. Resorting to this sort of neo-historicist pastiche, as so many other universities now do, is a sad admission that our age has nothing of substance to say in built form; all we can do is copy ideas from a hundred years ago, badly.