Category Archives: Community Development

Old Buildings, New Tricks: Workman’s Cottages on Claremont and Heath Avenues

1323 South Heath Avenue
1323 South Heath Avenue

Sandwiched between a rail embankment, Western Avenue and blocks worth of industrial storage in Chicago’s Near West Side are two small streets’ worth of fascinating 1880s Queen Anne workman’s cottages, on the 1300 blocks of South Claremont and South Heath Avenues. Widely attributed to be the work of architect Cicero Hine, and speculated to be an extension of an earlier development on Claremont Avenue , these cottages were added to Landmark’s Illinois Ten Most list of imperiled buildings in 2009 after two blighted cottages came up for the City of Chicago’s fast track demolition program, 1308 South Oakley Avenue and 1302 South Heath Avenue. With no plans for productive reuse and the potential for the cottage’s abandoned status to attract crime and illegal activities, both buildings were demolished in 2010.

With turned Aesthetic Movement decoration at corner eaves and near entryways, plaster ornamentation below rounded windows and playful variations on layout and decoration, these Victorian workman’s cottages are easy to like, and representative of a period where real estate developers worked with notable local architects, like Hine and his contemporary Normand S. Patton to design buildings that stylishly housed the laborers who would go on to build 20th century Chicago.

The two blocks of cottages have an odd secluded quality, a shuttered body shop protects their view from Ogden Avenue, and until ten years ago, the area to the north was comprised of industrial development, now a series of vacant lots with brick and concrete remnants still secured by chain link fences. Freight trains on the rail embankment produce a low, consistent hum. To the northwest is an all-too familiar, but eery site on Chicago’s south and west sides: an empty residential block completely devoid of houses that still retains its layout at ground level, including alleyways and concrete garage pads. In some areas the ground has settled to suggest the foundation of an atypical Chicago two flat.

Looking south on South Heath Avenue
Looking south on South Heath Avenue
North on South Claremont Avenue
North on Claremont Avenue
1317 South Claremont
1317 South Claremont

Every architectural investigation includes observing what’s not there as a key to understanding what is still present, and how to manage the remaining resources. Each of the extant cottages are located on tiny lots, and have little space between them, which makes the presence of the empty lots on South Claremont, South Heath and particularly South Oakley Avenue a stark contrast. Areas of loss here have been extreme, as historic aerial images of the area clearly show, in 1953, this area was three dense blocks of Queen Anne:

1953 aerial of Claremont, Heath and Oakley Avenue (via historicaerials.com.)
1953 Aerial View (via historicaerials.com.)
1973 Aerial View (via historicaerials.com.)"
1973 Aerial View (via historicaerials.com.)

Twenty years later, loss was still minimal, and the area remained dense. Between 1971 and 1975, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency surveyed cottages on Oakley, Heath and Claremont, and as the photographs of individual buildings show, many of them had made it out of midcentury madness retaining an incredible amount of integrity. The original building density and the historic character of the area, nearly a century old, had remained intact. So why not landmark the damn thing? It seems to have had all the right stuff for designation in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, buildings in Chicago’s loop with National significance were being demolished, an era preservationists wish to forget.

1300 North Oakley Avenue, demolished.
1300 South Oakley Avenue circa 1973, demolished (image via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency).
1327 South Oakley Avenue, circa 1973, demolished (image via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)
1327 South Oakley Avenue, circa 1973, demolished (image via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

The Near West Side found itself in the early aughts transitioning from an industrial area, into an area serving governmental organizations, the Illinois Medical District and further east, the University of Chicago. Surprisingly, it’s not until after 2000 that dramatic teardowns occurred. By 2002, the loss was substantial. Many of the buildings on South Heath Avenue had been demolished, with four to five lots in a row now devoid of buildings:

2002 Aerial (image via historicaerials.com)
2002 Aerial (image via historicaerials.com)
2013 Aerial
2013 Aerial (image via Google Earth)

In 2013, nearly all of the structures on Oakley Avenue had been leveled, and a boring three-story residential building had popped up in the middle of the block. One late 19th century building has remained, and over time it has developed a door to nowhere.

1340 South Oakley Avenue
1340 South Oakley Avenue

Perhaps the biggest loss here is that there was a time in history where these two to three blocks were at a confluence between integrity and recognition that was not capitalized upon by giving this area local or national designation. Many of the individual buildings were given an eligibility rating of “Orange” on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, conducted between 1983 and 1995. This ordinance provides the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development 90 days after the issuance of a building permit to explore preservation options, but in 2014; many of those identified have had their historic character compromised. So is this area eligible for landmark status in 2014? There are definitely better surviving examples of Queen Anne cottages throughout Chicago, with fewer teardowns and more integrity.

While it’s hard to make a convincing case for landmark designation now, the value in these two blocks may have an upswing. It’s a snapshot of what we do with old buildings. For over 130 years in Chicago, people have lived here and continuously changed these cottages to fit their needs. Through changes in the way we live, what we own, how we work and how we relax; these buildings have been altered over time to accommodate modern life. Working class people have been born, lived and died in these buildings. And they have hot rodded the hell out of them!

1307 South Claremont Avenue, midcentury faux stone cladding
1307 South Claremont Avenue, faux stone cladding
1333 South Heath, vinyl siding
1333 South Heath, vinyl siding
1315 South Heath, steel balcony, vinyl siding, window opening changes
1315 South Heath, steel balcony, vinyl siding, window opening changes
1339 South Heath Avenue
1339 Heath Avenue, steel balcony, vinyl siding, window opening changes (although that grill off of the 2nd bedroom is on point, in case you need to hook yourself up with a hot dog in the middle of the night.)

This area represents such a broad range of material and cladding changes, from wartlike faux midcentury stone on Heath Avenue, gratuitous late 20th century vinyl siding, and literally dozens of different fence types across decades. Perhaps the most interesting facade change is the addition of a balcony on the 2nd floor. Roofs are vinyl shingle, wood shingle and even hot tar. Leaded glass lights have been painted over, covered over, or in some places completely removed.

1321 and 1323 South Claremont Avenue
1321 and 1323 Claremont Avenue, various material changes
1301 South Heath Avenue
1301 Heath Avenue, lots of integrity, serious condition issues

A few cottages are derelict, 1301 South Heath in particular appears as if the last inhabitants left decades ago.

1301 South Heath, rear elevation
1301 Heath, rear elevation

In terms of integrity, many of these buildings original characteristics are cancelled out by the presence of an obtrusive modern element, leaving only a few with enough original elements to actually render them significant.

1302 Heath Avenue
1302 South Heath Avenue, vinyl siding, changes in window openings
1307, 1309 and 1311 Claremont Avenue
1307, 1309 and 1311 South Claremont Avenue, various material changes

It’s difficult to resolve this area’s once outstanding potential for preservation against its current condition, but perhaps there is a place within the study of architectural heritage that also includes the research and observance of vernacular, idiosyncratic changes that preservationists fight so hard to prevent building owners from actually living in the buildings they love, own and live in. Old buildings, new tricks indeed.

1330 Heath Avenue
1330 South Heath Avenue
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Chicago’s Temple of Doom: Some Bad Ideas for the George Lucas Museum

Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2014
Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2014
On April 17th 2014, The City of Chicago announced that it would create a task force to look into the best potential location in Chicago for The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, alighting rumors that after being rejected by the Presidio Trust in San Francisco, Filmmaker George Lucas had set his sights on Chicago as a potential location for what Lucas has referred to as “an anthropologocial museum of visual storytelling.”
One version of the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposed for Chrissy Field, The Presidio of San Francisco.  I'm hoping the caryatids are all Jar Jar Binks.
One version of the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposed for Chrissy Field, The Presidio of San Francisco. I’m hoping the caryatids are all Jar Jar Binks. Image via the San Francisco Gate.

At the Presidio, the creator of “Star Wars,” and “Indiana Jones” offered to build and self-endow a $700 million, 95,000 square foot museum to house his nearly $1 billion collection of artwork, ranging from paintings by Norman Rockwell, comics from Mad magazine, and digital stills from the movie Shrek. Lucas has loosely argued that the museum will draw young people to the area that would otherwise not be interested in the park, located just steps away from the Golden Gate Bridge. Lucas also offered this statement about the Bay Area on the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum website:

The Bay Area has always been home to forward-thinkers and artistic innovators-people who push to do things that haven’t been done before. Men like Eadweard Muybridge, Philo Farnsworth and Steve Jobs. Companies like Pixar, Adobe, and Facebook. There’s a history of invention here that’s as exciting as it is infectious. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here, why I raised my family here, and why I chose to start my own business here. It’s also why I chose this remarkable region for a new museum.

The Presidio was once the epicenter of military operations in the American West during World War II, but its history began as a military garrison in the 18th century. Many of the 800 some historic buildings, scenic vistas and wooded areas contribute to its’ status as a National Historic Landmark, a unique designation given to only 2,500 historic resources on the National Register of Historic Places. This idyllic location, bordering the shores of both San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, represents a unique partnership between the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust. The Presidio Trust Act calls for “preservation of the cultural and historic integrity of the Presidio for public use,” and since the park was spared from the auction block in 1996 many buildings have been restored, and brownfields sites cleared to make this a financially independent, desirable mixed use area with ample public space. The Presidio is also the home to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic and Lucasfilm’s online offices. So why was Lucas’s plan rejected if he already has a presence there?

Capture dar dar

The seven member board of the Presidio Trust shot down Lucas’s proposal in February, claiming that it just wasn’t right for the site, an eight-acre parcel known as Chrissy Field, an open space with waterfront access now used as a public recreation area. Similar proposals were also shot down, echoing the commitment of the Trust in terms of the Presidio’s integrity and sensitive development. Lucas isn’t done working on his plan to build a museum in his beloved California. An alternate location has been suggested by the Presidio Trust, and his hometown of Modesto has also expressed interest.

So why does Chicago care about bringing the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum Here? It shouldn’t. But we are coming up with dumb ideas anyways. Let’s discuss two of the worst ideas.

In true Chicago form, no discussion about the significance of the museum is able to happen without establishing a connection between George Lucas, the creative empire that is Lucasfilm, and Chicago. George Lucas’ wife is a native of Chicago. That’s it. There is no other connection. A sketchy Mexican bar in Pilsen didn’t inspire the Mos Eisley Cantina. He didn’t see Ewoks in the trees in Lincoln Park. The campus of Wilber Wright College didn’t inspire the interior design of the Death Star. Sorry.

Some have suggested that Grant Park would make a good location. There are some major problems with this. In 1836, public officials overseeing construction of the Illinois and Michigan Shipping Canal parcelled out the lakefront property that would eventually become Grant Park, legally designating it as “Public Ground — A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or other Obstruction Whatever.” This ordinance is perhaps one of the most well-known in Chicago, and while it has served to protect Chicago’s lakefront in the face of decades’ worth of development challenges there have been some narrow misses, the most recent one being the controversy surrounding the Chicago Children’s Museum’s interest in relocating to Grant Park in 2007. Public outcry created a public relations nightmare for the museum, and the plan was scrapped in favor of a new site on Navy Pier. Grant Park’s proximity to the Loop, the Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier might make this site an attractive but poor option for a museum once again, and any museum with a $700 million dollar budget behind it has ample room to navigate the legal tangles of Grant Park. This is not outside the realm of possibility considering Richard J. Daley was a supporter of the Children’s Museum Plan, and it might already have been suggested by the task force. The price could very easily be right if Lucas was to offer additional philanthropic funds that the City of Chicago could capitalize on.

Uptown Theatre, 2012.  Image via @blaservations

The Uptown Theater, located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, was designed by architects C.W and George Rapp for the Balaban and Katz theatre chain. The Uptown Theatre, built in 1925, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a notable Chicago Landmark. In what could possibly be one of the most unfortunate stories of long-term preservation by neglect, the Uptown has been dark since the J. Geils Band played a concert there in 1981. No immediate plans for demolition have ever faced the Uptown Theatre, but decades of deferred maintenance and its seemingly constant flux in ownership have kept the building under the radar of organizations like Landmarks Illinois. As recently as January, the Uptown Theatre had its heat turned off, and a 30-foot icicle had formed in the basement. This area of Uptown is a well-known TIF district, and with other smaller scale entertainment venues like the Rivera Theatre and the Green Mill located steps away, bringing the Uptown Theatre back as an entertainment venue similar or congruent to its original use seems like the ideal option. Mayor Emanuel himself even made comments after being elected regarding how he would like to see Uptown as Chicago’s newest entertainment district, but it never happened.

Friends of the Uptown have been lobbying hard via social media to bring the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum to the Uptown Theatre. Perhaps a former theatre housing a collection of artwork that has inspired and contributed to film culture is an alternate take on adaptive re-use, but that argument is a loose one. In Presidio, Lucas proposed a 95,000 square foot museum on what is essentially a raw land sight. How will the Uptown, at a paltry 46,000 square feet ever house that without extensive (and insensitive) renovations? Did we forget what we learned just a decade ago, when we turned Soldier Field into a spaceship? Uptown is a densely developed urban neighborhood, with little room for the infrastructural changes that will affect it once a $700 million, privately funded, nationally recognized museum comes to the area.

And what about parking? This museum will require acres of it, which means that the site chosen will haven an Atom bomb effect in terms of parking in the area. From a preservationist/planner/Urbanist standpoint, this means that buildings that may contribute to the scale or overall sense of place in an area, but aren’t technically or legally architecturally significant might be more financially viable as surface parking lots to their owners. This is a particular concern that should be put in sharp focus for those that believe the Uptown Theatre might make an ideal spot.

Despite already having Lucasfilm as their neighbor, the Presidio made the right choice in turning down Lucas’s plans for a museum in their backyard, and there are even fewer reasons for Chicago to say yes to a large-scale, high-traffic project that doesn’t relate to our existing culture here. The task force in Chicago will report to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in May on their ideal sites for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. Perhaps the “force will be with them” and the findings will conclude that the ideal site is somewhere on the planet Tattooine. Or California.

The City of Chicago has created a website where residents can submit ideas and recommend sites for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum. You can access it here.

St. Elizabeth the Brutal


Do you like Brutalism?

Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. In search of an answer, I went to the hospital.

Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center is a doozy of a Brutal building. Located just east of Western Avenue on Division in Chicago, it’s easily the tallest structure in a half-mile radius, and quite out of scale with the rest of Ukrainian Village (and out of context if one considers its famous neighbors, like Louis Sullivan’s iconic Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral) With its vertical concrete bastions, tiny punched-out windows and huge hoods looming uneasily, this building is so austere and so brutal it almost makes you want to question the sanity of the architect. Was this person intent on building a structure for health and healing, or was the architect inspired by his laundry hamper turned over an air-conditioning unit?

Brutalism is a design language that came about by rejecting the straightforward glass boxes of Modernist architecture by using materials such as poured concrete and coarse aggregate to express a type of crudeness, or even vulgarity. Brutalism tells it like it is; buildings are a mess of materials and complex systems. Rather than tucking ventilation units in the basement or behind decorative elements, the building becomes a visual expression for the way it actually works. Some of your least favorite buildings are likely in the Brutal style. Take the pugnacious Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan for example, which looks like it straight up hates itself. Wouldn’t you hate yourself if you looked like a Stair Stepper?

Or a pile of used air filters?

University Hall, Chicago, Il. Designed by Walter Nesch, 1963-1968

Or the blade of a Ped Egg?

Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium, Kagawa, Japan, 1962-64

Or a Satanic meat tenderizer throwing up gang signs?

The Former Cathedral of Christ the King, Kalamazoo, Mi. Designed by Irving W. Colburn, 1966.

Back to St. Elizabeth, the Brutal exterior gives way to a spectacularly similar interior, where the strong, solid lines and emphasis on material continue.


The Chapel inside was pleasant surprise, with vivid dalle de verre a dramatic contrast to the stark poured concrete, which seems to be the only concession of “pretty” here.

But is my knowledge of architecture clouding my judgment? Brutalism was never meant to compete with the Taj Mahal or your Grandpappy’s favorite old Queen Anne cottage, but it’s certainly distinctive, evenly if it’s distinctively disgusting. These buildings aren’t pretty, but then I couldn’t run speed intervals on the treadmill listening to Peggy Lee. That’s what Skrillex is for.

So the answer is yes, I suppose. I like Brutalism. I like that by serving materials and structure rather than a visually appealing aesthetic, Brutalism developed its own aesthetic that is true to the spirit of really great designs and designers. As Modern architectural heritage begins its journey into the realm of historic significance after years of falling victim to the wrecking ball because it wasn’t pretty or well-liked or Frank Lloyd Wright I can’t help but wonder; will I be the only spinster wacky enough to stand in front of the Chicago Landmarks Commission in 2030 in defense of St. Elizabeth?

Architectsploitation

Step right up, Folks!

Your local urban epicenter proudly presents a disgusting spectacle of unmarvled specticality. She’s big, bad, scary and oh boy, she’s been mad since White Flight! Drool at her blown out openings, her overgrown lawns, her burnt out ceilings. Gape and goggle at her missing pediments and copper piping. She’s the Nasty Queen of Newark, the Detroit Dead, the Chicago Crumbler, She is…

An abandoned, blighted building. And you can see her almost everywhere.

There is something oh-so-sexy about a derelict structure. Perhaps its’ inherent expressiveness makes you want to explore your art school kid side, taking brilliantly lit pictures using the rule of thirds. Perhaps it cries out to you to urgently document every aspect of it’s raw skeletal form, because it may not be there tomorrow. You can’t deny the visual merits of an abandoned building; the image is striking and powerful on film, and allows the photographer an easy way to make a statement that is almost always up to the viewer to interpret.

Or perhaps you don’t want to take pictures, but instead get all pronoun slaphappy; “They should restore that”. Who is this illusive “They” that seems to have so much power? Is there a Mr. They, international philanthropist able and willing to pump millions of dollars into “that”? Or a Republic of They? City of They? Theyville? How about National Trust of They? Why aren’t “they” taking responsibility? This unfocused blame leads absolutely nowhere.

Buildings cease to be used for a variety of reasons. A structure may have become physically obsolete, gone into foreclosure, or experienced fire or water damage. Building owners can die, be sued for virtually any reason, or be fined for permit violations, and all of these factors can cause a structure to be stuck in limbo for months or even years. Most municipalities have laws dictating that a building be reported by the property owner as vacant, and citizens can obtain information on abandoned properties via the Freedom of Information Act. Here in Chicago, information can be obtained primarily at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

Perennial recessions such as the one we are currently experiencing do have a bright side to Preservationists, though. Securing a building is expensive, but demolition is even more costly. This gives direlict structures the priceless opportunity to be reviewed for rehabilitation by building owners and developers once resources are more secure. Some may argue that this itself is a type of ‘preservation’. So snap away, with both your judgments as well as your D90s.

But is the exploitation of abandoned buildings bad for their future? In the case of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station, a 1913 Beaux Arts dinosaur that wouldn’t give in to the virtual eradication of passenger rail, adaptive re-use plans have ranged from the nonfunctional to completely wacky. Michigan Central has cast a bleak shadow on the City of Detroit since the last Amtrak train pulled out of the station in 1988. There is seemingly no end in sight, and like many abandoned buildings big and small, Michigan Central poses a substantial safety risk and physically manifests the worst qualities in a community.

The moral ground seems to be at the median of education, advocacy and realistic solutions for abandoned buildings of historic and architectural merit, because recognition and documentation are just a start. A fat lady can’t be a ‘fat lady’ forever. Sooner or later she’s going to want to make something of her life, like get a Masters of Science in Historic Preservation of Architecture.

Logan Square-off


In the spring of 2010, the Chicago City Council unveiled an ambitious $15.4 million plan for the 1930 Morris B. Sachs building, a Logan Square icon and the architectural anchor of the six-corner intersection of Milwaukee, Diversey and Kimball. With the assistance of Brinshore Development L.L.C. as well as the Chicago Department of Community Development the Sachs building (also known as the Hump building or ‘that other flatiron building on Milwaukee’) will be transformed into the Logan Square Community Arts Center, complete with affordable housing for artists as well as performance space.

The building, located at 2800 North Milwaukee was built in 1930 by Leichenko & Esser for entrepreneur Sol Goldberg, who redesigned the ubiquitous hairpin to include a ‘hump’ and a third arm in the center to better secure strands of hair. Goldberg’s invention is celebrated almost everywhere on the exterior of the building by way of a curious camel in low relief, surrounded in a deco-esque emanation of rays and waves. The building housed a variety of retail stores, and after the Morris B. Sachs department store opened in 1947 the name stuck for good.

Work on the Sachs building-ahem, the ‘Hairpin Lofts’ is well underway. The building has new double-hung windows, a reconstructed cornice and the whimsical camel reliefs have been given the proper treatment, too. All of this happening after two decades of vacancy, except for a Payless Shoe Source on the first floor.
This is all good and lovely in a “Save the Hill Valley Clocktower” sort of way. I like a good art deco structure for sure, but I can’t help but wonder how this radical transformation will affect the surrounding area, for better or for worse.
The Sachs Building is a contributing structure within the Milwaukee-Diversey-Kimball Landmark District, designated by the City of Chicago on February 9th, 2005. History aficionados can breathe a sign of relief; many of the architecturally outstanding gems residing from roughly Spaulding Avenue just past Diversey are relatively safe from the bulldozing effects of redevelopment.
All seven of the contributing buildings in the district are characteristic of commercial thoroughfares within a neighborhood setting. Built between the 1920’s and 1930s, these structures currently house shoe stores, clothing boutiques and discount outlets, with larger chain stores anchoring the smaller ones to the south.

2778 North Milwaukee (Gap Outlet)

3401 West Diversey (Foot Locker)

2800 North Milwaukee (Payless Shoe Source)

During the 1930s and 1940s, these three structures housed some of Chicago’s most important and well-known chain stores. The expansive windows and classical ornamentation of the Gap Outlet once housed a Goldblatt’s. The clean Deco lines of what is currently a Foot Locker once housed a F.W. Woolworth. And there is also the districts’ main attraction: The former Morris B. Sachs building.
In the past as well as today, this area is a lively commercial strip of shops, supermarkets and other businesses that fulfill the needs of those in the community.

There have always been lots of reasons to move to Logan Square. The picturesque boulevards are a welcome visual and recreational respite. The mixed-bag of cultural heritage is represented everywhere in Logan Square, from its’ Cuban cafeterias and Mexican taquerias to the elegant turn of the century greystones, inspired by the architectural styles of Germany, Poland and Scandanavia. Signs read in English, Spanish and in Polish, and in 2011 one can still go see a recently run film at the Logan Theatre for three dollars. There is also Johnny’s Grill on Kedzie, a neighborhood diner with counter service straight out of a Norman Rockwell pipe dream.

But put this in your pipe and smoke it: What is attractive to new residents of Logan Square is the non-existence of American Apparel stores, ALDO outlets and Forever Yogurts. Are we looking at images of the structures that in ten years will house American Apparels, ALDO outlets and Forever Yogurts? Will the Payless still remain relevant sitting beneath a community arts center?

So what’s the right thing to do? There isn’t a clear-cut answer. Should developers stop looking into changing the cultural architecture of a community? Should cool kids and artists simply stay put where they are? Should those that live in historic, older neighborhoods simply not expect to have clean, pleasant streetscapes and city services? Community development always seems to be at odds with itself, and ultimately someone’s going to get their feelings hurt. Put your gloves up, Logan Square. You are facing some fierce competition.