Thursday, February 28, 2008

On and around Drexel Boulevard

I've been neglecting the south side lately, so here's some views from Drexel Boulevard.

Drexel is a grand urban parkway, divided by a huge strip of grass and trees, which starts just north of the University of Chicago. It looks like a major thoroughfare till you reach its northern end and find that it goes nowhere, petering out around 39th Street. On and around its short length, however, there's a lot of magnificent architecture and interesting urban sights, remnants of its heyday as a home to some of the city's wealthiest citizens.

French.  Definately French.
I have no idea what this chateau-like building was originally, or even what it is today.

Apartments, block after block
Before it becomes a full boulevard, Drexel is thick with apartment blocks.

Victorian row

Abandoned railroad embankment
This abandoned railroad embankment once crossed the area on a bridge, now long vanished.

Modernist tile mosaic
The orange windows are pretty awful, even by my Mid-Century Modern-loving standards, but the tile mosaic is lovely.

Drexel dies without warning into Oakwood Boulevard. Take a left and cruise west, and you'll find a couple of striking churches:

Blackwell Memorial African Methodist Church

South side church

South side twin

Just a bit west and north of that, they're tearing down huge numbers of old public housing buildings, including a lot of low-rise stuff that really ought to be reconditioned instead -- but that's a post for another day...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Devon Avenue changes

The recent posting of the Chicago 7 endangered architecture list left me in some confusion over just what the threat to Devon Avenue was. Sunday I took a stroll down Devon to shoot some documentation photos, and by chance found a bit of information.

Rockwell Square Residences
Rockwell Square Residences

The Chicago 7 list shows a rendering of a strange building at 2556 W. Devon Ave., but gives no indication of what it is -- new builing? Teardown? Reskin? Turns out it's a new 30-unit condo development, "Rockwell Square Residences". It's got a garage built in, and commercial space for lease at the sidewalk. If I'm reading the rendering correctly, the narrow end will face Devon, while the prominent and boldly-colored longer facade will face Rockwell, a residential side street. I like the forms, and I'll be beside myself if they actually decorate it with all that color.

Devon Avenue

Most importantly, the land was already vacant before this project surfaced, serving as a surface parking lot.

Viceroy of India
Viceroy of India Restaurant

The Avenue's most impressive Modernist building is this streamline confection in concrete, now serving as a restaurant. The view above is from early 2006; but today, the building looks like this:

Devon Avenue

The vertical sign and street-level awning have been removed, and the facade has gotten a coat of white paint with maroon highlights, as well as some patching and repairs. Once I got past the shock of the long-exposed concrete being covered up, I have to admit that the change looks pretty good, and stays true to the spirit of the building's form, if not the designer's exact original intent. My one real complaint was that it no longer matches its concrete contemporaries to the east and west:

Devon Avenue

Devon at Western

Devon Avenue

The Wallen Block

Devon Avenue

The Devon Building
The Beaux Arts-styled block starting at 2501 W. Devon was actually three buildings, hidden behind a unified series of facades. With a recent fire, however, it's been tragically reduced to two buildings, with a painful gap between them.

March 2006, looking southeast:
Devon Avenue

February 2008, looking southwest:
Missing tooth

The building's demolition is a serious loss for urban design in general -- this was a magnificent and imposing block, and unless the facade was salvaged for reinstallation, whatever eventually fills the gap is unlikely to match it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lawrence Avenue demolition

Okay, Chicago architecture fans, it's time for a quiz! The question:

Which of the following is most likely to keep a building from being demolished?

A) Lavish, beautiful terra cotta ornament and decorative brick patterns
B) A series of occupied storefronts bringing in rental income
C) A location on a major thoroughfare, ensuring those businesses will continue to thrive
D) Easy access to a major public transportation service like the Brown Line L
E) A total lack of any obvious structural or facade problems
F) All of the above

Picked your answer? Good. If you answered "G), none of the above", congratulations! You truly know how Chicago works!

Meet the former Metro Theatre building, 3308 W. Lawrence Avenue:

Metro Theatre Building

Built in 1925 as the Terminal Theatre, it's integral to the wonderful commercial row facing the Brown Line terminus station across Lawrence.... though it won't be for much longer.

Lawrence Avenue

The theater closed long ago, its lobby converted to retail space. Those businesses seem to have been doing quite well, judging from the remnants they left behind. Every storefront was occupied -- the upstairs too. In 2006, the auditorium suffered a collapse and was demolished. The commercial portion of the building, which wrapped around it, appears to have soldiered on regardless.

Metro Theatre Building, before

Metro Theatre Building, after

Nevertheless, the siren call of money-grabbing condos was apparently too much, and the beautiful building is being destroyed, slicing a gash into the previously unbroken string of ornate early 20th Century buildings on these blocks.

Ornamental lintel

The tenant spaces appear to have been evacuated in a big hurry. Displays, ad posters, neon signs, and even some merchandise remain behind.


This is a beautiful and richly ornamented building. It features a two-tone brick pattern alternating thin and thick bricks in running bond. It is lavishly endowed with cream-colored glazed terra cotta ornament, none of which has been salvaged from the remaining portion of the building.

The demolition is a diminution of the public realm, and a real loss for Lawrence Avenue and Chicago at large. What a shame, what a shame.

- The Metro Theatre at Cinema Treasures

Ornamental dude

Friday, February 22, 2008

Run down and real

In a downtown that has heavily sanitized itself in the last 20 years, the 400 block of S. Clark Street is one of the last really seedy-looking places left.

400 S. Clark Street

This little run of 4 turn-of-the-century buildings is home to such fine establishments as the Royal Pawn Shop, the Ewing Annex Hotel (MEN ONLY), a nameless liquor store, Sports Tap & Grill, Shark's Fish & Chicken, and Coco's Deep Fried Lobster. None of the buildings look like they've been significantly altered since Truman was president, and their businesses are the sort which tend to dangle at the economic rope's tail end.

The buildings are grimy, still coated with the layers of smoke and soot which were common in cities before World War II. They're likely the same way inside -- shabby, untouched, dark, grungy. It gives them an aura of age, a presence which, in the eyes of my generation, translates to that rarest and most precious of qualities: authenticity. We can look at such buildings and realize that so much of the city once looked like this, that this is a small window into America's urban past. People my age can look and romanticize it, and moan when the inevitable condo conversion occurs -- we never had to live like this.

400 S. Clark Street

As is often the case with low-end businesses, heavy signage is equated with prosperity. Every surfaces is painted or bedecked with brightly colored signs in plastic and vinyl.

400 S. Clark Street

The foreboding presence of the Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center (a high-rise, concrete, triangular-shaped jail) across the street is likely a big reason the block remains as it is, and even that may not last. Already the rising tide of economic fortune is lapping at this block's shores -- right next door, a 5th vintage building has been converted to a nightclub. To the south, and across the street, massive parking garages have replaced whatever contemporary neighbors the buildings once had.

It's a fair bet that within a few years, the march of lofts and condos will find its way here, too.

400 S. Clark Street

Thursday, February 21, 2008



On N. Broadway Street (Broadway Street? Nobody noticed the redundancy there?) near Rosemont sits this series of concrete slabs, remnants of commercial buildings long gone. Most are undifferentiated gray, but this one bears the terrazzo imprint of the long-ago business that it housed. The sloped cursive letters, the material, and the sea-green color suggest a date of birth in the 1950s or early 60s.

Such fragments always raise up questions, thoughts that drift in like ghosts: who was Cushman? What did he or she sell? When did they move in; when did they leave? What happened to them? Could they have envisioned that their elegant entryway would be the only thing remaining from all their hard work, the last indication that there had once been a thriving business here? With such a permanent marker at the door, would they be surprised that their building had not lasted longer, its life instead proving to be vanishingly brief?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Northern Clark Street, Rogers Park

It's ungodly cold out, which means I haven't been getting around town too much lately. To kill the time, I figured I'd post a bit about my own little corner of Chicago.

Clark Street, Rogers Park

As it makes its way north through the city, Clark Street's density goes up and down. There's the hyper-active area around Wrigleyville, then a dead zone. Andersonville, then another dead zone. Then comes Rogers Park, the last stop before Evanston.

I wish I could say this part of Clark Street is pretty, but it ain't. It's tacky, cheap, lowbrow. But "pretty" isn't everything; the area is also thriving, vibrant, bustling and active. These blocks pack more cheap Mexican restaurants per acre than maybe anywhere else in the city, and almost as many small grocers.

Clark Street, Rogers Park

This section of Clark is heavily Hispanic, but the surrounding neighborhoods of Rogers Park are pretty well integrated. I pass all kinds of people on my way to the store and the post office. It's comfortable, safe, but not sanitized.

Clark Street, Rogers Park

The stores are a riot of color and activity, signs jammed over the sidewalk and windows packed with merchandise. Trucks are constantly unloading, cars are everywhere, students and kids and parents are always passing by.

Clark Street, Rogers Park

Clark Street, Rogers Park

Just off of Clark may be found this little gem: the Jewel Laundry Building, a white glazed terra cotta confection trimmed with Sullivanesque ornament.

Clark Street, Rogers Park

It's exceptional because there aren't really many other stand-out buildings here. In fact, there's nothing special here at all, nothing in particular worth seeking out -- the entire district as a whole is what's special, the living, pulsing vibrancy of an urban neighborhood that's doing well.

Clark Street, Rogers Park

Clark Street, Rogers Park

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Graceland Cemetery

It's not exactly obscure, but Graceland Cemetery, located along Clark on the city's north side, does constitute a kind of urban dead zone (ha!), a massive bump separating Wrigleyville, Uptown and Andersonville. A brick wall topped with barbed wire surrounds the 119 acres of gently rolling greenscape, hinting at a history of needing to protect itself from the crush of the city around it. Within the walls, however, awaits a pastoral Victorian funerary park quite at odds with the roaring L to its east and the urban hustle all around.

Graceland Cemetery

Within, many famous Chicago citizens are interred, including quite a few of architectural interest: Louis Sullivan; his 1960s champion, preservationist Richard Nickel; Mies van der Rohe; Daniel Burnham; his partner John Wellborn Root; and many others.

Graceland Cemetery

Sullivan left his mark on the place with two tombs, including the famous Getty Tomb; the rest of the headstones, memorials and mausoleums are likewise rich in ornament and style, if not originality.

More than anything, it's an oddity among the furiously insistent urban madness of Chicago, which historically has had a tendency to devour whatever non-commercial entity got in the way of its relentless development.

And it's still an active cemetery! For as little as $2,600, you too can be laid to rest there, in the considerable empty land that still remains.