Madison Street West, Part 1: 4042 W. Madison

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

Madison Street, west of Garfield Park – where to even start?! A grandiose commercial district, with landmark after landmark. Historically, it rose fast and fell hard; today it’s a tattered place, but still busy. Second- and third-tier businesses persist in buildings created for far richer occupants. We’ll take a closer look at some of them in the next few posts, starting with my personal favorite.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

The building at 4042 W. Madison Street is a genre-defying show stopper. A buff terra cotta facade rises three stories above the street to a magnificent crest. The ornamental style is an impure Art Deco – the line of fins recalls streamlining and the tall, thin masses of New York skyscrapers, while the eagles and floral ornament are more organic, more harmonious with traditional styling.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

The building was erected by Spiegel’s, a Chicago furniture seller who later morphed into a nationwide catalog house. Architects were B. Leo Steif & Co.; the firm also designed another Spiegel’s location at 64th and S. Cottage Grove at the same time (long since demolished) as well as a variety of apartment buildings around town. Mr. Steif (1894-1953) described the style as Spanish Renaissance and claimed the details were adapted from a town hall on the Spanish island of Majorca, though I don’t see it. Those fins sure didn’t come from Spain! As with most American architecture, it’s a free composition drawing liberally from many sources. The interiors were reported to be ornate and finely furnished as well. A small cable-suspended canopy over the entry has been lost.

The building opened on May 14, 1927, to no small fanfare – radio station WGES broadcast from the new store, an orchestra performed on site, and an airplane dropped cash-redeemable prizes onto the crowd. The roaring 20s indeed!

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

At some subsequent point, the building was expanded to the north, with a concrete-frame addition filling the lot all the way back to the alley.

Spiegel’s furniture business was bought out in 1932 by Hartman’s, a regional chain with over 30 stores.  By 1938, Kennedy Furniture Company was in business there instead. The biggest chapter of the building’s life began in 1939, however, when it was bought by the L. Fish Furniture company. A local chain with four locations around town and more elsewhere, L. Fish was founded in 1858 and was a long-lived Chicago institution. Their faded painted sign remains on the building’s west party wall today, above the ghost outline of a lost three-story building.

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

After a 44-year run on West Madison, L. Fish Furniture was bought out by North Carolina company Heilig-Meyers, Inc. in 1993. Heilig-Meyers closed its Chicago stores in 1999 and went bankrupt in 2000. It seems they’d already sold off this location, however, because in 1992 the current occupant opened: Dream Town Shoes.

Dream Town started in ironic circumstances. Named for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, it opened in the wake of the riots that followed the Bulls’ 1992 victory. The store’s owners suffered looting and a devastating fire at their older Diana Department shoe store, two doors east, but forged ahead nonetheless. Both stores have thrived and remain in business today, focused on the most trendy shoes. Dream Town even has an indoor basketball court inside the store!

L. Fish Furniture / Dream Town Shoes building

Research log:
1924 – Forrester and Schjoldager Jewelers – Jul 6 1924 ad for Navarre Pearls – either a prior building on the site or a wrong address.
1926 – designed and leased. Tribune article, October 3 1926
1927 – Spiegels opened – May 14 1927 display ad. Dec 11 1927 ad for Clements Jewel Electric Vacuum Cleaners.
1932 – Hartman’s – Apr 26 1932 help wanted ad for furniture salesmen. Open by May 20, per display ad.
1938 – Kennedy Furniture Co. – Mar 27 1938 ad for Stewart-Warner Ice Boxes.
1939 – L. Fish Furniture Company – Oct 1 1939 ad for Congoleum flooring (a Spiegel’s product, ironically.)

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

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)

Trim ‘n Tidy Cleaners: Dry Cleaning for the New Frontier

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Trim ‘n Tidy Cleaners at 5939 W. Higgins Avenue has been in business here for decades (since 1963, according to the Cook County Assessor’s database). And in all that time, this New Camelot Space Age creation has hardly changed a bit.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Is there anything this richly layered building doesn’t have? Outside, the vintage neon sign is capped with a quivering Googie blob, with cursive neon letters announcing the business’s name, the I’s dotted with starbursts.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Inside, it’s a library of Mid-Century tropes – the faux cast iron and lime green elegance of New Formalism, the horizontally cut sandstone walls typical of innumerable Atomic Ranch houses… and a terrazzo floor. Strange baldachin-like hangings “shelter” the counter, hanging on chains from the ceiling.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

The silvered, overstuffed, deeply-buttoned couch looks like it belongs on a space station, while the patio recliner below seems to be waiting for the Kennedys to sit down and have a cocktail or two in the sun.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Another starburst is emblazoned in the terrazzo floor, while the counters mimic the geometries often seen on suburban Chicago garage doors.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Outside, the building features a flying wing portico for sheltered drop-off and pick-up, supported by three angled metal tube beams. The whole thing is painted white for cleanliness – clean lines, clean spaces, clean clothes, clean lives.

Trim ‘n Tidy is still in business, though the inside is a bit of a mess, with plants and other accouterments scattered haphazardly about. The old neon sign is badly rusting, and the furniture probably needs to be reupholstered. For all that, the original glory still shines. The best renovation the place could have would be simply to move some plants and sweep the floor.

Trim & Tidy Cleaners

Cold Water and Hot Steel

I’d like to introduce the world’s largest integrated steelmaking complex, the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel works in East Chicago.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

I say I’d like to – but it’s just too big. Too much. Too hard to grasp. And more importantly, too tightly sealed to public access.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

All I can truly offer is a series of stolen glances, quick flashes gained by trooping doggedly around northwest Indiana over the years, over and over – testing the limits of every road, every shoreline, every park, every overpass, every parking lot. I’ve pushed my zoom lenses and my camera’s sensor to their limits, and probably turned the head of every security guard within a mile of the lake’s edge, for glimpses into this astonishing industrial kingdom of ash and fire.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Here I present the results.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
One of the facility’s several blast furnaces, where raw ores – fed in at the top, hence all the conveyor belts – are heated and combined into a liquid metal form. AcelorMittal’s website alternately states that there are 3 or 5 blast furnaces on the site.

I cannot say I understand this place, but I am fascinated by it. Flying over it in Bing’s aerial views, the vast size becomes apparent. Hundreds of acres of buildings, jammed one against the next. In true Chicago fashion, they are enormously long, repeating themselves endlessly bay after bay.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

What is now ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor began over a hundred years ago, as the Inland Steel plant. Inland Steel – now most famous for their landmark Modernist headquarters building in downtown Chicago – was formed in 1893, and began development on the Indiana Harbor Canal site in 1902. The business grew over the next 15 years to include a lease on a Minnesota ore mine and a lake freighter division, ensuring in-house control over supply and shipping of raw materials, an integration strategy that would be completed by World War II’s end and last into the 1990s. Across the 20th century, the plant would continuously expand and modernize, while producing a huge variety of goods – from railroad spikes to World War II materiel. Post-war, a large portion of its output went into automobiles. At its peak, 25,000 people worked at the plant. The company was purchased in 1998, becoming Ispat Inland. Mergers in 2005 and 2007 created ArcelorMittal, an international corporation that is the world’s largest steel company and current owners and operators of the facility.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

The huge complex is mostly sited on an artificial peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan, with the Indiana Harbor Canal running down the middle. Many acres are covered with buildings; the site is also criss-crossed with railroad tracks, roads, overpasses, material storage lots, and a huge variety of industrial structures. In the 2010 photograph above, the now-demolished Cline Avenue – aka Indiana State Road 912 – snakes its way around the inland portion of the facility. Marktown is visible at lower left; just out of the frame to the left is the giant BP refinery at Whiting.

The site is also a bottleneck for railroads as they muscle their way into Chicago; at one point, nearly half a dozen rail bridges crossed the canal. Only one remains in full-time service, but it sees heavy use, with multiple freight trains crossing it hourly.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Raw materials arrive primarily by boat; the wide mouth of the canal can handle full-size lake freighters and has docking space for several. Huge ore cranes lining both sides of the canal unload arriving ships.

I could gaze at this forever.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

One result of having such a huge complex is that outdated buildings and equipment are often abandoned in place and may stand for years, untouched, while business proceeds around them. It’s not like there are neighbors to complain! Large expanses of the site may deteriorate for years and even become overgrown.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Above: remains of an abandoned blast furnace alongside the canal in 2004. Already stripped of their support infrastructure, the hearths were dismantled shortly afterwards.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Above: remains of Inland Steel’s coke ovens and by-products processing plant. Inland ceased coke production in 1993, but the abandoned ovens still stand, with grass growing on the roof.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Long-abandoned ramp and trestle alongside Dickey Road. BP’s Whiting refinery looms in the background.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Half-demolished buildings can hang around for years:

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
An abandoned building in 2004.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
The same building – most of it, anyway – in 2013.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
Recycling steel is a major part of the contemporary steel business. Gondolas are stored here, full of scrap steel awaiting its fate in the arc furnace. The now-demolished Highway 912 overpass stands at right.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
Legions of criss-crossing electrical lines speak to the vast power requirements of the complex.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
And did we mention that there’s a significant work of architecture in the midst of all this industrial madness? The main office building on the site is a lovely 1930 work by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. It’s an Art Deco beauty in red-brown brick, with floral cartouches atop each bay and twin towers punctuating its skyline.

The steel industry has changed dramatically since its last great domestic peak in the 1970s. Automation has vastly reduced the number of workers required to produce a unit of steel, leading to devastating unemployment in mill-dependent towns like nearby Gary. Evolving technologies have rendered many US facilities obsolete, leading to the kind of abandonment seen here and there on the Indiana Harbor campus. And international competition has required steel companies to be agile and flexible to survive. Outsourcing coke production was just one of a number of maneuvers by Inland and its successors to survive the times.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Rolling mill buildings. In these and other buildings, the newly formed steel is pressed or rolled into bars and other shapes of uniform thickness.

Forgotten Chicago offered a tour of the Indiana Harbor Canal in summer 2013, which sailed right through the middle of the plant; no word yet on when a repeat tour might be offered. Till then, I have more photos of the plant at my Flickr space.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Open House Chicago – This Weekend!

Open House Chicago sites
Park Gables Apartments swimming pool

Hey Chicago architecture fans! This weekend is Open House Chicago, your chance to look inside dozens of beautiful, interesting, rare, odd, new, old and fascinating buildings all over the city – houses, apartments, factories, warehouses, historic office building lobbies, architecture firms, beautiful churches, and a variety of rarely-accessible spaces. Don’t miss it!

Open House Chicago sites
Our Lady of Lordes Church

Open House Chicago sites
Prairie Material Concrete Factory

Check out the full list of sites here. They are broken down by neighborhood, and in my experience – if you’re planning to make a full weekend of it – it’s best to stick with one or two neighborhoods a day. But however you handle it, just don’t miss it!

Open House Chicago sites
Second Presybterian Church

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.