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.