Monday, June 28, 2010

New! Incomparable! Striking! (in every respect.)


I haven't paid much attention to certain segments of Chicago's Midcentury developments. I tend to focus on the ones with that unique Chicago style. But there are whole neighborhoods in the Chicago suburbs built in Mid-Century idioms that came from California and the southwest. They should be familiar to any Midcentury fan. Low-pitched roofs, preferably making big sweeps across most of the house, are the most obvious element. Recently I've stumbled onto a couple of these clusters.

Golden Acres subdivision

There's no grand entryway to call your attention to this development. You just wander around the erratic curving streets, and after a while you start to realize that there's some cool stuff going on in the ranches and split-level houses around you.

This is Golden Acres, a subdivision erected by Chesterfield Builders in 1960-1961. Chesterfield, headed by Arthur Zaltzman, built hundreds of houses around Skokie, Niles, Glenview and elsewhere. Chesterfield Builders was already putting up low-slung, low-pitched-roof ranch houses in the northwest suburbs by 1951, and they subsequently showed up repeatedly in the Tribune list of million-plus dollar developers, which means they were putting up easily a hundred or more homes a year.



Watch for the flaired-out planters wrapping around portions of these split-level houses. It's a recurring element unique to this development, and it gives the houses a distinct 1960s flavor.



There are a few other house types mixed in as well.







Those last two designs shows up hither and thither across Niles and Skokie, if you find yourself in the right neighborhood.

And now that you're familiar with the neighborhood, I just have to share the magnificent Chicago Tribune advertisement that trumpted the opening of the development. From July 22, 1961:

chesterfield builders golden acres opening ad
(As always, click for the larger version.)


From this, we learn that at least one of the house models, and presumably many or all of them, were designed by William B. Baime, architect (1928-1996).

We also learn that a hybrid between the Ranch and the Split-Level was known in builders' circles as the "Splanch", which sounds more like a gross-out sound effect than a house.

Sunset Manor Executive Homes

Greenwood and Central Roads, Glenview

Shortly before they built the single-family Golden Acres, Chesterfield put up a more dense multi-family set of buildings, begun in 1960, in a small corner of the same parcel. Here, four-unit buildings disguised as gargantuan California ranches are tightly packed at right angles to the road, with shared common green space all around them.



I have to wonder if "Executive Manor" is some sort of coded language that these were meant for unmarried businessmen. Buying into the development meant buying into a Home Owners Association which regulated and managed grounds maintenance.




The buildings are arranged along two L-shaped roads, a configuration which leads to a very picturesque set of interior spaces within the block. As a result, there's some wonderful differentiation of space going on in Sunset Manor. Subtle cues in the size of paths, combined with the old standby of backyard fencing, let you know exactly where public space ends and private space begins.


Unknown development

The Sunset Manor model worked so well that it was reused at least two other times. A much more orderly iteration can be found just south of Golf Mills shopping center, off Ballard Road. The biggest difference, besides being set on neatly gridded streets, is that here the center section is only 1 unit.




You might think that this rigid arrangement would stifle individual creativity. You'd be happily wrong.




Chesterfield Garden Estates

The ultimate refinement of the apartments-in-a-giant-ranch-house design was the Chesterfield Garden Estates development. Here, Chesterfield Builders had a lot more room to work with, so instead of sitting face to face, most of the buildings are arranged in horseshoe shapes around enormous shared lawns.




Chesterfield Garden Estates is in Niles, off Shermer Road, south of Dempster. Its presence is announced by a pair of large, curved brick walls, which announce the development's name in huge metal letters. This was a lucky break for me - it made finding info on the place incredibly easy.


These are, of course, multi-unit buildings, with four townhouses in each building. The end units are are split level, though you'd never guess from the design of the front. The two-level unit in the middle is "the popular Georgian design".


The development was opened in 1961, and is centered around a small park which originally included a swimming pool (long since vanished.) The park is actually much smaller than the shared lawns that many of the buildings face. Sales rep Leo Krasny states in a Tribune article that he had been building such townhouses for several years, and they were popular in part because of the included landscaping.


Oh, and the full name of the place is actually Chesterfield-in-Niles Garden Estates. Just in case you got confused and thought you were in a London exurb.

The Chesterfield Builders developments are all doing quite well as they approach their 50th birthday. All the units look occupied, there are no maintenance issues, and the greenery on the grounds has developed nicely. There's no reason to think they won't stand for another 50 years.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Franklin Park MCM

This towering MidCentury office building, at 9401 Grand Avenue in Franklin Park, looms over the low-rise suburbia and industrial facilities surrounding it.


Completed in 1960, it's a bit of hybrid - a 1950s design with 1960s colors. It was long the administrative headquarters of the Chicago-based Motorola company, who originally housed over a thousand office and technical workers within it. The building fronted a manufacturing operation that made TVs, radios, and stereo products; other divisions of the company worked on auto parts. An auto lift delivered cars to a 14-bay garage on the 2nd floor, made for testing car radios. A Chicago real estate blog also claims that it had a private executive auto elevator for the company president.

Motorola Annual Report 1960, when the building was brand new

Motorola moved to Schaumburg in 1976. A 1980 ad places the Matsushita Industrial Company at the Franklin Park address. In a later life, the building was known as the O'Hare branch of Telecom Central, with a sign that still stands in front of it.


Today the Motorola Building stands vacant, draped with a gigantic banner promising a total reskin and conversion to apartments. A sales office sits on the parking lot next door. The venture began in 2006 and has since collapsed. The site doesn't appear to be online; meanwhile, online rumors swirl of conversion to HUD housing.


Architecturally, maybe it's just as well. The conversion calls for a complete top to bottom reskin that would completely alter the character of this startlingly Modernist building. The rendering doesn't quite look like the soggy historicalisticismist mush that has infiltrated so many Chicago neighborhoods (no developer ever touts the merits of living like it's 1915; their condominiums are unfailingly examples of "modern living". Yet somehow, no building is allowed to reflect this reality on its outside!)

IMG_8158 copy

In fact, the longer I look at the details of the rendering, the more I think it's pretty good, particularly if that's not red brick on the ends. Still, the question remains of why it needs to be done at all.


Is the building in its current form a masterpiece? Historically significant? No, of course not. But in equal measure, there's nothing wrong with it, either. It has a powerful presence on the street, and gives a clean, presentable public face to all the industrial buildings behind it.


Of particular concern to me is the fate of the two concrete sculptures at the doorway. Stylized, abstract, and curvaceous, they recall the same sort of abstract works seen in certain Chicago apartment lobbies. I have no clue what they're supposed to represent - the evolution of mankind and his telecommunicative abilities, perhaps? - but I love 'em.


Now, there will inevitably be those who decry the building as an "ugly hulk" or "banal" or "bland" or "awful" or a thousand other pejoratives. To them, and to those who have attacked other Modern buildings that I cherish, I say: just look away. Just don't look at it, if it's that awful. Spare us the onslaught of reskins and re-dos, and save the Midcentury for those of us who can appreciate it, both today and tomorrow!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Machines for Living


It's not just that the occupants of this Northbrook home own three vintage cars. Nor is it the fact that all three cars, including a 1964 Imperial, a 1966 Chrysler Newport, and a 1966 Chrysler New Yorker, are operational.


No, it's the fact that they park them in front of a set of patterned Midcentury garage doors of the exact same vintage as the cars themselves that makes me grin with delight every time I see it. Long may they run!



Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Photo Special: The Remains of Bensenville

Orchard Avenue, August 2009

Orchard Avenue, April 2010

Orchard Avenue, June 2010

With clearance obtained, the demolition of Bensenville has proceeded with astonishing speed. Two months after the work began, every single house is gone. The only survivors are a 1920s gas station, and the apartment complex at the east end of the area.

View east from Orchard Avenue

North of Irving Park, the land is almost clear of everything except streets.

Orchard Road

Garden Avenue

Garden Avenue

Okay, sure, I would have photographed those railings anyway, 'cause they're poetic and pathos-evoking and all that... but mainly I photographed them because they were the only identifiable landmark left on this side of the road.

South of Irving Park, there's a lot more rubble. Some foundations remain, and piles of salvaged scrap metal remain in the streets.


Garden Avenue

Pershing Avenue