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.

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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

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.

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  • Riverside Museum online tour
  • National Register of Historic Places nomination form
  • The Trail of Churches, Part 1 – St. John Cantius

    One of my earliest impressions of Chicago, driving in from the north, was the string of grand churches visible from the Kennedy Expressway. I visited a few of them in my early explorations of the city. Then my attention wandered away, further afield to the mid-century suburbs and south side, and I never really got back to these near west side neighborhoods… until recently. Lately I’ve been on a mission to visit all these landmark houses of worship, a loose grouping that I have dubbed the Trail of Churches.  A glimpse from the Sears Tower should show why the name fits.

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    At top-center, the domed roofline of St. Mary of the Angels. Below it, St. Stanislaus Kostka, with the highway swerving to avoid it.  At far left, the low twin towers of Holy Trinity Polish. (Not visible, but close to Holy Trinity are the abandoned St. Boniface, and the very much active Holy Innocents.)  And at bottom-center, just peeking into the frame, is the taller tower of St. John Cantius.

    These four are among the city’s most spectacular religious buildings. Stick around and we’ll go on a tour of each one in turn. Today: St. John Cantius Catholic Church.


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    St. John Cantius (1893, architect Adolphus Druiding) was raised by the huge community of Polish immigrants that populated the near west side. Petitioning the nearby mother church of St. Stanislaus Kostka, they were granted their own parish in 1892. The work of raising a church building began at once; the final product was dedicated in 1898, flanked by a contemporary school and rectory. (Ref)

    After its booming early years, the parish followed an arc of decline and revival. The downturn began in the 1920s with Ogden Avenue’s construction through the area, and bottomed out in the 1960s after the Kennedy was rammed through the neighborhood and innumerable residents fled. Decline began to reverse in the 1980s with the reintroduction of more traditional Mass attracting new congregants; the church’s fortunes have reached a magnificent new peak today as the building was renovated and restored in 2012. Today the church offers the traditional (pre-Vatican II) Mass in Latin, and has a strong emphasis on sacred music and art.

    Architecturally, St. John Cantius Church is a hybrid of styles. The massive, dour exterior combines Classical elements – such as a flattened Greek temple front  with quasi-Corinthian columns – with heavy, blocky stone that gives it some kinship with the Romanesque. At the entryway, “squashed” columns call out a lineage that includes ancient Greeks, Renaissance Italians, and contemporary Victorians. They emphasize the  sheer massiveness of the building – as if at any moment they might snap and bring the whole thing tumbling down. Their smooth shafts are a moment of machine-like precision bursting out of a mass of roughly split rock. This sort of perversity was common among Victorian architects, who delighted in twisting expectations.

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    The interior lives up to the church’s official desigation of its style as “Baroque”. The modestly proportioned columms support pediments and seem a touch too large, intentionally “off” for dramatic effect. Huge arches spring from these dainty supports, a dazzling display of engineering.

    Nearly every surface is gilded, sculpted, or painted.  In a lesser setting it might be gaudy – but here, the glory of the decoration simply matches the grandness of the space.

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    The sanctuary is enormous. Soaring columns support vast round arches. The crossing is of tremendous proportions.  The overall effect is of a open, lofty, airy space – a welcome respite during Chicago winters, which can leave a city resident feeling perpetually imprisoned in the small rooms of their house or apartment.

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    St. John Cantius is a golden space – it shimmers with browns and yellows, and blues and greens punctuate its murals and stenciling, but it is the golds which leave the deepest impression. The 2012 restoration has left the space in immaculate condition. Column heads and brackets are gilded in gold, and thanks to recent renovation efforts they gleam spectacularly.  Even the stain glass reinforces the golden hued tones.IMG_2201a

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    The reredos behind the high altar is a Mannerist confection, with clustered columns supporting a split pediment with a rounded arch pediment in the middle. A small round skylight brings light down onto it from above.

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    At the time of this writing, the old organ is being replaced by a new one; blue sheeting covers the balcony space where the new instrument will be installed.

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    The church is heavily laden with statues of saints and apostles; they are tucked away in the various side chapels and even in the stairwells.

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    The pulpit is a fine example of the church’s Baroque Revival style – its wooden stairs snake sensuously around a column, to an intricately carved wood speaker’s stand with an even more elaborate sounding board overhead.

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    Together with its school (1903) and rectory (1901), St. John Cantius Catholic forms a grand and amazingly intact group of turn of the century architecture.

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    The lovely rowhouses of Evanston

    The rowhouse form never caught on in Chicago. With limitless room for expansion and an endless supply of timber from the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan, the city that sent the wood balloon frame upward to fame had little use for conjoined party wall housing. Older East Coast cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston packed their houses cheek to jowl (the former two in particular are completely dominated by red brick rowhouses).

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    Instead, Chicago’s landscape is dominated by free-standing brick two- and three-flats, brick apartments, and wooden balloon-frame single family cottages – closely packed, but never touching. New, teeming Chicago offered the working man a chance at his own house and perhaps a break from the ingrained, stratified ways of the older cities. The scattered rowhouses  that were built, therefore, exist more as curiosities and experiments, rather than shapers of the urban landscape. Those experiments took a particularly interesting form in the inner-ring suburban town of Evanston.

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    1401-1407 Elmwood Avenue – Stephen A.  Jennings, Architect; 1890

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    1209-1217 Maple Avenue – Holabird & Roche, Architects;  1892

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    1101-1113 Maple at Greenleaf – Seth  H.  Warner, Architect; 1892

    South of downtown Evanston, these three sets of rowhouses are standouts on streets already notable for their lovely houses. These were not the mass-produced meatgrinder products that local builders churned out in the industrial East Coast cities. These were high-class, high-design buildings meant to integrate with their tony suburban neighborhoods, without the neighbors batting an eyelash. The 1890 building is almost pure Shingle Style; the 1209 Maple building is predominantly Queen Anne; the third building splits the difference, with turrets alongside shingle-clad hipped gables.

    As the National Register form notes, they achieved this by striving for the appearance of single-family homes. The two Maple Avenue examples are particularly successful in this regard, using Queen Anne elements of bay windows, projecting turrets, and generous entry porches, as well as gabled roof ends, to break down their massing to a single-family scale.

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    The Shingle Style building at 1401 Elmwood is a bit more anomalous, as its massing is in tension with itself. The massive hipped gable roof suggests a single large building, while the small corner arched entrances and scattered bays and gables suggest the smaller scale of a single family home.

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    In addition to their compelling beauty, these three rowhome groups suggest the possibilities of dense suburbanism – that it need not be unattractive or stifling; that we can use land intelligently and rationally as well as attractively.

    The most beautiful street in Chicago

    I may be devoted to Mid-Century style now, but my first true architectural love was High Victorian Gothic – the kind of heavy, massive, overly ornate, slightly surreal stuff that Frank Furness imprinted on the Philadelphia area and imparted to Louis Sullivan before the latter decamped for Chicago. I was introduced to it through the late Tudor Gothic Revival style of Washington University’s campus, and became intimately acquainted during a three-year stay in Philadelphia.

    You never forget your first love, and so I am deeply stirred when walking down the 500-600 block of West Fullerton Parkway. For my money, these two blocks comprise the most beautiful street in all of Chicagoland.

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    The green stone Gothic house at left is 616-618 W. Fullerton.

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    626 W. Fullerton (left) and 620-624 W. Fullerton – the centerpieces of the block (650-646 under the pre-1909 numbering scheme). 624 was home to Dr. & Mrs. Clarendon Rutherford in the 1890s into the 1920s; in the 1950s , a doctor at nearby Children’s Memorial Hospital resided there. In the 1920s Mr. Louis O. Kohtz, resident of Chicago since the 1860s, lived next door at 620.

    Oh, there are plenty of close competitors, some right in the same neighborhood. The parallel streets just north and south, for example, offer similar scale and architecture. I could cite other streets in Old Town, near DePaul, in Rivernorth, Little Italy’s Taylor Street, Roscoe Village, even Jackson Boulevard east of Ashland. Yet too often these streets are violated by later intrusions, which may be of interest themselves, but tend to detract from the overall effect.

    On 500-600 Fullerton, by contrast, you can – however briefly – submerge yourself in an architectural dream straight out of the 1880s.

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    And it’s only those two blocks. Just east, a massive 1960s apartment tower shatters the ambiance, and Clark & Fullerton is crazy, lively, bustling, thrilling, but not especially beautiful. In the other direction, the trees run out, and the hulk of Children’s Memorial Hospital is even more of a period architecture buzzkill.

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    What is it about these two blocks?

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    Trees, for starters. No city block can be truly and completely beautiful without mature shade trees. Fullerton has them in abundance – massive, tall and aged, they gently shelter the sidewalks, forming a roof over the outdoor space. For pure picturesque beauty, great trees are vital for a great street. The western point where the shade trees end is exactly where the two-block dream world also ends.

    The trees are supplemented by a wealth of greenery on the ground – bushes and miniature gardens abound, amply demonstrating that a yard does not need to be large to be beautiful.

    Next is the architecture. It is all of a period, though it is not of a single style  – it is a mish-mash of ornate, elaborate Gothic derivatives, Romanesque, and Queen Anne, with twoPrairie Style apartment houses thrown in for good measure. Hints of the influence of Richardson, Furness and  Sullivan can be seen. Queen Anne woodwork gives many homes elaborate porches and entryways. Terra cotta detail abounds, from floral ornament to sculpted lintels.

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    620-624 Fullerton – architect Theodore Karls

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    610 Fullerton

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    540 Fullerton

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    Porches and stoops provide a welcoming, layered approach to each house. Public, semi-public, semi-private, and private are all delineated in the space of a few feet. No one can own a house here without being aware of how his house contributes to the whole, and how much much the whole enhances the value of his own property. Houses follow a common setback line, a common entry height. The entries themselves are elaborate and inviting. This is urban design par excellence.

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    Two Romanesque Revival churches provide punctuation and community – Church of Our Savior…
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    …and Lincoln Park Presbyterian:
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    Both of which will be covered in a future post.

    And finally, there’s context. These blocks don’t stand in isolation – they are, rather, the culmination of many blocks of beautiful houses on lovely streets. The beauty of these streets is enhanced in the mind by the knowledge that you can’t take a wrong turn off of them. Any way you go, you will be further rewarded.

    A small book could be written on the history of 500 & 600 Fullerton. The addresses appear with high frequency in the social pages of the Chicago Tribune, in the who’s who books of turn-of-the-century Chicago, and in the city’s 1990s inventory of its historic resources. Remarkably, they do not appear to be part of a National Register district, despite the proximity of the Sheffield Historic District – possibly the neighbors declined to be registered.

    Lake Street Church, Evanston

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    Lake Street Church is Evanston’s oldest (designed 1872 by architect Cass Chapman) and, for my money, the most beautiful. It’s Victorian Gothic – tall, narrow windows with pointed arches, and a general sense of verticality. The exterior is a simple affair of plaster (not original; when opened, the building’s brick walls were exposed), with only a few bits of ornament emerging at the corners.

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    The simplicity without anticipates the elegance within. The sanctuary is a space defined by dark wood and stained glass in the earth-hued range of tones that inspired both the Prairie and Arts and Crafts movements.

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    The element that most defines the space is the 2nd-level gallery, which wraps nearly the entire space. According to the head usher, it originally wrapped the entire space until a later remodeling (confirmed by a Tribune article from the building’s 1875 opening.)

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    The head usher shared a couple of other interesting tales. This was the church of Jimmy Carter’s daughter, so the President and his wife would occasionally attend services. This would bring the Secret Service pouring in, of course. Being a community church, most of the congregation was recognizable by face to its ushers. A stranger in the gallery turned out to be one of the agents.

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    Lake Street Church was originally the First Baptist Society of Evanston, organized in 1858. Today the church is the oldest public building in Evanston, and an officially designated city landmark.

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    A later addition forms a courtyard space north of the sanctuary, and contains offices and meeting rooms. The stone Gothic design works well enough with the older building, but lacks its powerful and charming Victorian verticality.

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    A ride up Martin Luther King Drive

    Last weekend I found myself in Hyde Park on a pleasant morning, with nothing to do but ride my bike back home. I took a leisurely ride up MLK (King Drive? Every town has its own street honoring Dr. King, and they all have their own unique way of abbreviating the name), through the core of Bronzeville, where a multitude of historic architecture waits to impress and overwhelm.

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    D. Harry Hammer House, 3656 S. King Drive, 1885 – William W. Clay

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    It being a Sunday morning, I stood on the sidewalk for a while and listened to Gospel music swelling from within the church at right, the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church. It’s a 1891 brownstone beauty in a Romanesque style, originally the 41st Street Presbyterian Church.

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    Graystone row houses

    And the hits just keep on coming. House after house and block after block speak to the jaw-dropping wealth that landed here in the 1880s and 1890s.

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    42nd and King Drive

    Though the best parts of the avenue are residential, there are some impressive institutional buildings as well, several converted to churches. The Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company, a Kentucky-based firm, occupied a building sporting a neon sign that is rather at odds with the Beaux Arts facade. I have no clue if this building remains in use at all, but it doesn’t look like it.

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    The Sinai Temple at 46th and MLK was begun in 1909 for a Jewish Reform congregation. Today it houses the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church.

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    And there are some delectable slices of Mid Century Modernism, as well. Liberty Baptist Church has been documented by Lee Bay, though he doesn’t share interior photographs. I wasn’t feeling up to venturing inside, so that remains a future mission.

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    Nearby, Illinois Service Federal Savings & Loan occupies a 1960s building that presents a wild facade of folded plates to the street. The bank has neighborhood roots dating back to the 1930s.

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    The South Park Baptist Church leans toward the Streamline Deco end of the Modernism scale. It went up in 1953, to the designs of architect Homer G. Sailor.
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    Further north, the Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church leans a bit more toward the stock side of Midcentury design:
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    The avenue kind of explodes into a nothing-scape north of here, thanks to a lot of big redevelopment products that have brought grassy fields and parking lots to the areas just south of downtown.