Monday, December 22, 2014

6961 N. Greenview, 1904

I have a special affection for the remnants of early neighborhood development, especially when it contrasts with the surrounding development.  It's really not hard to find these examples, even in the most densely built neighborhoods.  And I'm especially fond of buildings which have been enlarged and expanded irregularly and awkwardly.

This gable-front farmhouse at 6961 N. Greenview is sandwiched between a complex of courtyard apartments on Lunt and mixed-use development on Morse.  The assessor estimates its construction date as 1904, which seems about right to me.  I had hoped that the map chronology would show a constant enlarging creep, but the building really only assumed its current form some time after 1951.

The exterior has been redone a number of times, and currently has a stucco finish at the first floor and aluminum siding above.  The oriel window on the second floor and the steel casements on the first both suggest the 1950s.  A rear addition reaches out to attach to a 1-car garage. It sits on a lot that doesn't seem quite big enough to allow profitable redevelopment, so I expect this oddity to stick around for a good long time.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (historic) and the City of Chicago Zoning Map (current)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

West Loop Column Capitals

Column capitals were once very functional.  They signified where the structural load of a building was transferred into the column and down to the foundation.  Typically the capital would be broader than the column to make this transfer more effective.  As buildings became larger more robust structural systems were needed and columns became mainly decorative, although still useful (and popular) in a design sense.  But once free from structural constraints what should  a column look like? The West Loop area has an enormous variety of column ornamentation for building types which hadn't even been conceived until relatively recently.  Many column types have been adapted to these industrial and warehouse buildings.

Cast Iron Column Capital at 210 N. Green

To the right is a cast iron column capital found on a former meat packing building built in 1904.  Cast iron is a great material for decorative uses, since it can be molded into almost anything.  Complex elements like this were typically fabricated from separate pieces that were bolted (or welded) together.  This one uses a number of classical details, such as dentils, egg and dark molding, an oddly shaped keystone, and oak twigs bundled together into a fascia.   It also has some strap-work trim in a diamond pattern.  Although many cast iron columns support a portion of the facade to allow storefront openings, this building has a reinforced concrete structure.   The shaft of the column is only a couple of inches thick.  Interestingly, there's a stone version of the same capital on the upper floors.

Terracotta Column Capital at 564 W. Randolph

The column to the left is kind of a masterpiece. It's an engaged octagonal column, with geometric ornamental mixed with classical details.  The radiating brackets are decorated with Greek keys, and over-sized dentils hang from the bottom.  I don't know whether to describe this as Art Deco, Prairie, or Classical.  Which is kind of the point. This column encloses the steel which actually supports the building.  And again, this is a relatively delicate ornamental material sculpted to match the scale and muscularity of this 1930 warehouse building, but without resorting to established stylistic schemes.

Terracotta Capital at 150 N. Clinton

This column is the strangest one yet.  There's a stepped molding at the top of the column, and a bizarre terracotta medallion below.  The column itself is edged with scalloped terracotta bands.  This one doesn't even pretend to have structural pretensions.  I can't really figure out the ornamentation scheme.  Are those classical festoons arranged on a platter?  Perhaps this is a Louis Sullivan inspired design run amuck  Maybe Art Nouveau...  Again, this is found on a large warehouse building from the 1930s.

Some more column capitals to follow at some point...

Monday, November 3, 2014

Rogers Park Roofscape

This is another view from the Rogers Park Metra platform looking to the northeast.  I posted another view to the southeast a few months back, which can be viewed here.

I'm becoming more interested in rooftops and alleys, maybe because they reveal design relationships which are more complex than what's viewed from the street, and allowing some investigation into the nuts and bolts that create a streetscape.   Views across the rooftops are like x-rays, revealing service spaces, private retreats, and structural detail all interlocking with each other.

For some reason I did a colorized version.  Which really doesn't add much information, but looks kinda cool.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Movie Theaters in Rogers Park and West Ridge, Part 2

The previous entry is this series was posted back in November of 2012 and you can link to it here. It primarily focuses on the small nickelodeons and neighborhood theaters.  This post was begun and then abandoned, although I can't remember why.  At this rate the next entry is due in 2016...

Number of seats are taken from Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.
Movie theaters in Rogers Park and West Ridge can be divided into types based on their architectural characteristics, but also by number of seats. Nickelodeons like the Casino and the Morse accommodated anywhere from 300 to 750 people.  Neighborhood theaters like the Adelphi and the Ellantee could seat more than 1000.  Movie palaces could accommodate from 1,500 to more than 4,000.  But sometimes you can't beat a graph. 

I think of movie palaces like wooly mammoths or sabre-tooth tigers.  They grew to enormous sizes, yet depended on the perfect environment in order to survive.  Movie palaces provided affordable entertainment in a beautiful surrounding. And in the Chicago summer it didn't hurt that you could enjoy air conditioning long before this was readily available.  But the buildings began to age, and the profit margins began to shrink.  New movie theaters were more likely to open in areas with generous amounts of parking.  Many elaborate theaters went into a long decline that ended in demolition.
Howard Theater, 1917.  1621 W. Howard
A major burst in movie theater creativity occurred in the Howard Street commercial district.  This
area was a transit hub between Chicago and the North suburbs, and supported a strong commercial and entertainment district after its annexation to Chicago in 1915. At the time you couldn't buy liquor in nearby Evanston, but the merchants along Howard Street were willing to remedy the situation.
From Heating and Ventilating Magazine, 1919

The Howard Theater was designed by Henry Newhouse and built in 1917.  It was soon acquired by Balaban & Katz. The building contained a row of commercial spaces with residential units above and had a seating capacity for 1,625.   Originally the entire brick and terra cotta facade was illuminated with integral lights, including two domed towers which must have been visible throughout the district.  Its ornamentation could perhaps be described as baroque Classical Revival.  The theater was closed some time in the 1970s.   In 1999 the auditorium portion of the building was demolished and the remainder was converted into rental units.

Norshore Theater, 1925. 1763 W. Howard

In 1925 the Norshore Theater located just to the west of the elevated tracks.  It contained 1,748 seats and also had a facade of brick and terra cotta trim.  Portions of the front facade slanted back from the street slightly.  This had the effect of funneling people towards the theater entrance.  At the marquee there were tall terra cotta piers with large signs, visible from east and west.

The ornamentation of this theater was more restrained than that of the Howard Theater.  One source (  identifies this as the work of Rapp & Rapp, and the style as French Renaissance Revival.  It was also noted as being operated by Balaban & Katz.  It does seem odd to have two large Balaban & Katz theaters a block away from each other.  The demand for movies at this time must have been breathtaking.  But it wasn't to last.  This theater was demolished in 1960.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Typology of Chicago Alleys

Primary Alley
Because of its reliance on the grid Chicago has been called one of the most right-angled cities in the world.  This may be true, but it doesn't mean that its development has been simple or monolithic.  Like any urban feature, the grid responds to the needs of those who use it.  Sometimes this is subtle, but there are some examples of grid flexibility in Rogers Park which are worth investigating.
The neighborhood of Rogers Park was incorporated as the Village of Rogers Park in 1878, but many of the earliest lots were subdivided in 1872 and 1873 and reflect a more suburban scale and character, with generous frontage and depth.  The area was annexed to Chicago in 1893 and the extension of city services and utilities led to steadily increasing development and density.  Many lots intended for purchase in the 1870s were subdivided to make them more attractive for the modest homes that came to the neighborhood in the 1900s and 1910s.  But the new lots still needed alley access, especially with the increasing popularity of the automobile.

Primary Alley Leading to Secondary Alley
Residential street right-of-ways are normally 66 feet wide in Chicago.  This reflected the length of the surveyor's chain, and established the modular dimensions of a typical residential block, which is 660 feet in length (10 chains) by 330 feet wide (5 chains).  Typical pavements are 32 to 34 feet from curb to curb, allowing for two lanes of parking and two lanes of traffic.  Streets with less than 30' of pavement were converted to one-way streets after 1967.  This was done following a particularly bad blizzard, which I'm grateful to have missed.

Grassy Private Alley
Typical alleys range from 16 to 20 feet.  Rear structures are set back 2 or 3 feet from the alley right-of-way, making the clearance a bit wider. Just like streets, alleys are owned and maintained by the city.

When a platted area is cut into smaller parcels a secondary alley will often become a part of that subdivision.  These are narrower, but are also public right-of-ways.  As fire-fighting equipment has become larger it's no longer acceptable to create these narrow alleys.

Private Alley Resembling Driveway
Private alleys are basically access roads carved out of the lots within the subdivision.  Several properties may own a portion of a private alley.  Because they're privately owned the city has no responsibility to maintain them.  Often these remain unpaved, or paved with gravel.  They can easily be mistaken for driveways.  Or if the owners decide they're no longer necessary they might disappear entirely, existing only on paper.

An easement might provide vehicle access like a driveway, or it might be intended to preserve access to light and air.  These are also the result of a private agreement recorded to the property.    I had no luck spotting the one easement contained in my study area.  But if anyone ever wants to be build a garage on top of it I'm sure it will again float to the surface.

The base maps for this post were developed from 80-acre maps on the City of Chicago's website and the 1937 edition of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps accessed through the website of the Chicago Public Library.  Information about the public right-of-way reference CDOT's "Street and Site Plan Design Standards," also available on the City of Chicago's website.  All the sketches above are all taken from the study area.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Random Places in Lorain, OH

These images were developed from reference photos taken by my wife as we were visiting my hometown of Lorain, Ohio over the 4th of July.

It's strange to be a tourist where I grew up, but kind of nice, too.  It makes me realize how differently I look at the city.  Some of the patterns start to make sense, revealing things about a place which had once been so familiar that I never really saw it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

200 Block of N. Peoria, Chicago

West side of Peoria, North of Lake
Surprisingly, this lucrative blog does not constitute my sole means of support.  I work in the Historic
Preservation Division within Chicago's Department of Planning and Development.  Since January I've been working with our consultants to develop a document which analyzes the architectural character of a pending historic district and creates some recommendations on how to best retain that character in light of future changes and new developments. 

This illustration is something I put together in my spare time (mostly over lunch) to be placed on the cover of that document.  I've simplified it significantly, but I think it captures some of the interest of this area. The two buildings on the left are 1890s, while the one on the right is c. 1910.  This area has been in constant use by wholesale food industries since 1850.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

2328 W. Touhy, 1932

I've always been fascinated by isolated storefronts tucked into residential areas.  Some of these are very successful, but most struggle away from the major commercial corridors and foot traffic.  Chicago has plenty of these first floor commercial spaces scattered throughout the city, remnants of a time when a corner store was a necessity.  The one-story stucco box at Touhy and Claremont has seen better days, but there it remains, looking for a new tenant after that print shop folded. 

Northeast corner of Touhy and Claremont in the West Ridge neighborhood

Many of these areas you can track to the 1923 Zoning Code of Chicago.  When this ordinance was adopted most major streets received commercial designation, but odd little neighborhood intersections were also zoned commercial.  With adoption of the 1957 Zoning Code these were scaled back, but in places which developed according to the earlier code you'll find a variety of enclaves, ranging from odd little strip malls to elaborate Victorian storefronts. Often several of these will be clustered together.

So why would only the north side of Touhy be zoned commercial?  I'm guessing that the map formalized conditions which existed  prior to 1923 as much as it guided future development.  Want to know where to put commercial?  How about where it's already been built? Who's going to complain about that?

On one hand, it's difficult for these buildings to become the focus for a neighborhood.  On the other hand, sometimes they do. Just take a look at the commercial buildings at a typical stop on the Red Line. 

I would hate to see these little neighborhood nodes disappear.  Sometimes they become perfect incubators for unusual businesses.   Areas which are less desirable often have lower rents, and there's where you might find artist's studios, storefront theaters, used book stores, and coffee bars. These are the things which give a neighborhood texture and variety, and make city living a bit more awesome.

Anyone want to start a grocery co-op in an old print shop?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

View from the Rogers Park Metra Platform, 2014

My view from the southbound Metra platform at Greenleaf and Ravenswood, where I wait for the 7:20 every weekday morning.    In the background is St. Jeromes Church and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (former Masonic Temple).  Presented here without further annoying commentary. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

West Ridge Architecture #7, Modest Modernism on Jarvis

In 1945 a group of architects got together at the editorial offices of Arts and Architecture magazine to develop a program of residential housing that they hoped would define the shape and form of post-war living.  The results were the Case Study Houses, which were published in that magazine from 1945 through 1964.  These were intended to make use of new materials developed during war-time, to be easily duplicated, and of course, to be affordable.
Entenza Case Study House #9, 1949 (Eames and Saarinen)
3128 and 3130 W. Jarvis, 1957
These prototypes generated a lot of interest.  With some exceptions high-style modernist variations on the single-family home never filled the new neighborhoods and suburbs of post-war America.  The building industries didn't instantly adopt new materials and construction methods and the American public reaffirmed its long-time preference for traditional styles of architecture.  Some of these modernist homes were built, but generally they were unique, built for a specific site and client.   That's not to say some builders and developers didn't make periodic forays into what is now considered the mid-century modern style.
Above are two homes which make a nod towards the steel and glass aesthetic of the Case Study homes.  But just a nod.  Like you might nod to someone at the bus stop who looks familiar.  Take note of the large windows, the off-set canted roofs, the clerestories, the rectilinear orientation, etc.  But also note that nothing is too far out of line from what is seen on the more traditional-styled colonials of the same period.  The picture windows are just picture windows, not floor to ceiling glass.  The flat roofs are just stick-built roofs with projecting eaves, not steel cantilevers.

The building industries did modernize after WWII, but not in the way proposed by Arts and Architecture.  Instead the industry standardized traditional construction elements (roofs, floors, walls), which could be combined like Legos and cheaply assembled block after block.

As much as I admire the Case Study homes they really seem huge compared to what can be fit onto a standard Chicago lot.  Each of these homes on Jarvis are on a 30' x 124' lot.   But I like how they mirror each other, giving the impression of a much larger, symmetrical home. And their alternating use of brick and permastone make them look unified, but not identical. They probably haven't drastically transformed the lives of the people who have lived there, but I doubt the Case Study houses did that either.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

West Ridge Architecture #6, Cottages on Troy

1900 Block of W. Estes
Gable front cottages may be the oldest housing type in Chicago.  You can find them throughout the city, ranging from simple frame buildings to highly elaborate versions covered with trim and brackets.  Builders never really stopped creating cottages, right up to the present. To the right are some frame cottages built around 1905 by a single builder. Frame cottages were well suited to narrow city lots, and could be easily expanded and remodelled.

As styles and materials changed the cottages changed as well.  Generous steps and front stoops became somewhat narrower and less generous.  As air conditioning became more common full-width porches gave way to projecting bays.  But long rows of similar cottages were still being developed by small builders wherever inexpensive lots could be found.

The area of West Ridge north of Peterson and West of California developed primarily after WWII, and the standard cottage design takes on some mid-century modern details.

Some of my favorites are the cottage which incorporate recent materials (permastone) and 1920s design elements (Tudor Revival entrances).  The projecting bay windows are very common on homes of this era, as seen in previous posts about Georgian-styles homes.  They allowed a maximum of light into the living room and created an interior focal point.

I haven't yet found historic floor plans for these cottages, but I imagine the second floor is well suited for children's bedrooms.  A few cottages dormer out this space, but those could be later alterations.

Most of these homes are unaltered, but the multi-pane colonial windows have often been replaced and many have lost the ubiquitous shutters.  The projecting bay is perhaps the most ornamental element, and this has often changed out the standing seam metal roof for standard asphalt shingles.

These lots on Troy were originally subdivided in 1923 and are a bit wider (33' frontage) than the standard 25' Chicago lot.  Interestingly, I didn't find any of these which were able to squeeze a driveway through, or locate a garage in the front.  They're really just a bit too small to make that work.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hot Waters, Lorain, OH

When we were kids we had a limited wandering range, which was basically a half-mile from the house.  Within that half-mile there were certain activities we could do without supervision.  One of those was fishing with our plastic Zebco rods.  This was a thankless task, which sometimes resulted in catching large, inedible fish.  Hot Waters was the best place to do this. 

The waters were “hot” because of the effluent from the nearby Ohio Edison electrical plant, which loomed over the crumbling docks.   In the winter the place surged with fish attracted to the warmth.  We would sometimes go “snagging” which involved  ripping a large tripled barbed hook through a dense mass of fish.  It was not very sportsmanlike…
This is the little bait shop where we would buy minnows and worms. We would scoop our own minnows from a large aluminum tank, which was often the only fish I would catch.  Their real business was probably selling ice and beer to the boat owners who would launch from this area.

With the recent demolition of the electrical plant and the opening up of the lakefront I wonder how this area will be used now.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

West Ridge Architecture #5, Split-Level Homes

When looking at common homes it's sometimes tricky to separate the form and the style.  The buildings I've focused on in my previous West Ridge posts could probably be described as cubical 2-story single family homes with colonial-revival detailing.   A split-level homes is a major shift in the structure of the home, even thought it may incorporate traditional or modern stylistic details.  The other houses were drawn in elevation, but these homes have to be shown in perspective to convey their more complex massing.

Split-level homes typically have three levels-- a finished basement for recreation and relaxation, a first floor for family activities (meals), and a second floor for bedrooms.  The privacy levels of the home are directly related to the height above grade.

The second floor is a half-story above the main living area.  By shifting this floor towards the street the architect could achieve a grander look.  Shifting it to the rear screens the space, resulting in a more modest appearance.

There's an interesting group of these split-level homes on Morse, just west of California.  The entire block was subdivided in 1953, and the generous 42' frontages lend themselves to the wider housing type.

Some of these have gently sloping hipped roofs with deep eaves for a more traditional appearance.  A few have modern looking combinations of shed and flat roofs and large areas of glass.

The entire block has alley access, but several of the homes have attached front garages accessed by a sloping driveway.  Because these are single-car garages they don't completely dominate the front of the home, but their prime location makes a strong statement about the importance of the car to the household.

Locating the garage in the front yard also prioritizes the private space of the backyard, which can only be accessed through the home.  But the alleys remain as a constant reminder of the older urban pattern surrounding the new type of home.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Oak Park House

Here's a donated drawing I completed for another silent auction.  Angela volunteered me for this one, but I think it turned out fine. I believe this is on S. Humphrey Avenue in Oak Park.  Reference photos were taken by the owner.  If something is close to home I like to see it in person, but it's not a deal-breaker.

Monday, January 13, 2014

P & S Restaurant at Touhy and Western

This is part of my re-posting effort  to celebrate the beginning of a new year!  Originally posted August 11, 2010.

In general there's always been a lot of interest in old neon signs.  But writers and photographers tend to treat them as if they're works of art, picking and choosing the most interesting and intact examples.  But for some reason I'm always drawn to the crummiest, most deteriorated signs.  In that vein I'd like to focus on just one.
Western and Touhy is a busy intersection in West Ridge.  As a pedestrian you feel distinctly second-rate to the cars whizzing past.  On the southeast corner is a Baker's Square,  on the northwest is Lakeshore Surgery, and on the southwest corner a Marathon gas station.  All three have their own attached parking and auto-oriented circulation.

But on the northeast corner is a sad-looking 2-story yellow-brick building with apartments above and commercial spaces below.  The assessor dates it at 1928.  It has a vaguely English look, castellated, with few gothic stone ornaments.  Many of the storefronts along Western have been infilled with artificial stucco.  The commercial tenants are typical storefront businesses-- a cell phone store, grocery, computer service, hair salon, etc.

In the 1920s a burst of optimism flung buildings like this to cheap land at the edge of the city and beyond, with the expectation that more development would fill the gaps in between.  Of course it didn't work out that way due to an inconvenience known as The Great Depression.  Most of the nearby lots didn't develop until the 50s and 60s.  And even then it never achieved the density common to older commercial corridors in Chicago.

The sign for the P&S Restaurant has seen better days.  Most of the neon has cracked off and the letters haven't been repainted in decades.  Rusting chains keep it from swaying in the wind.  It's only a matter of time until the steel supports fail and the sign will have to come down.  I would like to say that it might be repaired, but I'm guessing that won't be likely.

It's a relatively simple combination of oval, trapezoid, and scalloped band.  It wouldn't surprise me if there had been an arrow at the termination of the band pointing to the restaurant.  The organization of the information is fairly typical-- name, function, and amenities.  If I had to date the sign I would guess early 1950s.  The signs in the 40s were generally simple boxes, and the signs in the late 50s became progressively more exuberant.  This is not an exuberant sign.

In general, signs like this are evidence of the growing car culture.  On the highway it makes sense to have a large, illuminated sign.  The speed of the experience and the viewing angles require a sign large enough to interest the driver and give them time to pull over and park.  But this format is not particularly functional for a corner building with a zero setback to the street and no associated parking. 

Initially I thought that this sign may be a relic of a time when the surrounding development allowed this building to operate as an auto-oriented strip.  A glance at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of the area (1937, 1941, 1950 and 1951), showing mostly greenhouses and gas stations, seems to support this.  Only as the surrounding areas became built-up with apartments and businesses did the 1920s typology of the building limit the effectiveness of the sign to attract drivers which could actually take advantage of a quick stop at a diner. 

But that can't be the entire story, since so many of these signs can be found in areas which have always been densely urban.  Auto-oriented development and advertising permeated the commercial landscape after WWII, and there are many good examples of this in Chicago.  For my purposes it's not much of a jump to suspect that the old main street businesses would have attempted to present a more modern (neon!) image to the customers they were afraid of losing.  When it came time to modernize they didn't choose to paste up gold leaf letters on the storefront.  

While the stand-alone auto-oriented businesses could place their sign on a pole out front and go as crazy as they wanted, the traditional buildings were stuck with slapping these signs onto aging structures with a variety of steel connections.  Some of these attachments are reminiscent of a torture chamber, and aren't particularly sensitive to existing ornament.  As much as I like these signs, there's typically a glaring difference in scale and and an uncomfortable relationship with the building on which they're mounted. That said, I would be sad to see it removed.

I don't normally reference books in this blog, but I have to nod to Lisa Mahar's excellent study, "American Signs:  Form and Meaning on Route 66."  This is a brilliant graphic manual for understanding, categorizing, and dating this type of signage.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Storefront at 6962 N. Clark, 2006

Around the new year many blogs post their most popular entries.  Great idea!  But instead, here's one of the least popular entries, posted originally on 9/5/06. According to the counter this was viewed 11 times in the past 7 years!  Still, I do like the image...

With the the days getting shorter my evening walks with Felix have gotten much darker. I find myself drawn to the strangely organized and uncomfortably configured storefronts on Clark. Half the time I can't figure out what they're selling. This one is crowded with cheap strollers and plastic toys. I think it's a dollar store, but the windows are so unappealing that I've never wanted to go inside. The same confusion and disarray makes it a pretty good subject for a drawing.

Isn't there a non-profit group that teaches small businesses how to make the best use of their display areas? If not there should be. Most windows in my neighborhood are so crammed with stuff you can't even see inside the store.

So I've been taking photographs of these storefronts. I'm not sure where it's leading, but it's a good opportunity to play around with color.  This is a combination of Prismacolor markers and color pencils.

Note:  This storefront has been completely replaced since this was written.  I kind of miss it, even though it was falling apart.