May 12

House of the Day #83: 4448 S. Michigan Avenue

4448 S. Michigan Avenue. Built in the first decade of the 1900s. Was home to the widow of wealthy meatpacker John R. Hoxie. She died in late 1922, and the estate then sold the home to the Martha Washington Club.

The Martha Washington Club, a group of women auxiliaries to the Washington Park Hospital, started assisting with the rehabilitation of crippled children on the South Side in 1907. They opened their own care home here in 1926, with a capacity of 39 children. They purchased the house with $2000 down and a mortgage of $40,000, which was paid by 1938. It operated with no endowment and provided the bulk of care for no charge. In 1942, it moved to 4515 Drexel Avenue, former home of the Shedd family. It closed for lack of funds in 1954.

The house was then sold to Bethel A.M.E. Church, a notable African-American congregation that owns it and used the house as a Parish House for many years.

In 1948, the address surfaces in the news as a satellite location of the Abraham Lincoln School, a supposedly Communist-infiltrated school according to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Church caretaker Benjamin Ford was found murdered in the house in 1988.

Its current status and use is not immediately clear; it seems to be boarded up.

May 12

from atoms to molecules: end of the University of Chicago Research Institutes building

The Research Institutes building on the northwest corner of 57th & Ellis is being demolished to make way for a planned facility for a new molecular engineering program. Not a great architectural loss for the campus; Jay Pridmore’s guide dryly declares the 1950 structure by Schmidt, Garden & Erikson “nicely proportioned and inconspicuous”, saying that the designs “represent an architecture of subtraction in search of a legitimate set of modern ideas.” The building is, however, one of the last physical links to the university of Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project, hastily constructed after the war to facilitate the continued research of the great physicists of the era.

Apr 12

luxury co-ops on Rainbow Beach

A couple of South Shore’s notable luxurious co-op apartment buildings, both dating to 1928, stand next to Rainbow Beach, near the lakefront in the southeast part of the neighborhood. The Lake Edge, at 3017 East 78th Street, is an elegantly thin building, turning the length of its brick and stone façade towards the adjacent park.

It exhibits a fairly restrained ornamentation, with some carved stonework and patterns set in red brick. It sports a bronze plaque bearing the building’s name.

The ground floor is given over to common space, a timber-ceilinged promenade and sitting area with broad arched windows facing the park. It appears to be very well-maintained.

A few blocks away stands 2860 East 76th Street, also dating to 1928. Where the Lake Edge is subtle, this building’s terra cotta ornamentation is exuberant – on the side facing the park, anyway. It turns an ugly, concrete-framed side to nearby South Shore Drive, anticipating the construction of a neighboring building that never materialized.

The terra cotta extravaganza repays detailed inspection, full of elaborate figures and in a good state of repair.

Common spaces are comparatively scarce in this building, but, unsurprisingly, also heavily-ornamented. Unfortunately, the wood-paneled vestibule is marred by a plywood repair and several features that speak to an elevated concern for security.

South Shore isn’t the wealthy community that it was in the late 1920s, but these buildings are a handsome legacy of that era.

Apr 12

The Crandominium & The Shoreline: the grandes dames of 67th Street

67th Street is a dividing line, marking the northern edge of South Shore, the southern end of Jackson Park. A wall of dense urbanity marches right up to the edge of the golf course. Though they may be a bit faded, none of the park’s neighbors are as grand as the two great apartment buildings at 67th & Crandon. A mountain of red brick, twinned in scale and height, the two 1928 buildings are among the most monumental – and last – works of the neighborhood’s jazz age building boom.

On the corner, at 6700 South Crandon, stands the building now known as the Crandominium on the Lake. It was designed in 1927 by architects Quinn & Christiansen as a luxurious cooperative building, with 42 large residences. Great care was paid to aesthetics given the prominent location. The first three stories are faced in stone, with handsome brick and terra cotta accents on the 13 upper floors. Unsightly mechanicals are hidden in the penthouse level.

From early on, it was the home of prominent members of the upper middle class. Society columns frequently referred to various residents of the building, leaders in civic and religious organizations. Of course, not all the coverage was so positive. In 1933, a Dr. John Golden, a noted retired surgeon, plunged to his death from his 8th floor window. Given his penchant for vertigo, the death was determined to be accidental – but this didn’t stop the Tribune from publishing one of the more lurid diagrams I’ve ever seen in a newspaper.

By the 1950s, the penthouse was occupied by one Pierre DeMets, a restaurateur and owner of several tropical-themed clubs in the Chicago area. In 1951, his home was robbed, and the criminals made off with cash and jewels worth over $10,000 – a princely sum for the time.

In the 1950s, the neighborhood’s racial transition was beginning, and the suburbs beckoned to the elite who once populated this grand cooperative apartment house, and others like it. Amazingly, according to a 1976 Tribune article, the entire building was foreclosed upon by a lender that year – at which time only seven of its 42 units were leased and occupied! The building had a near brush with death; the lender considered abandoning it for the city to demolish. Market rents in the area, even for such enormous apartments, couldn’t justify the cost of needed upgrades and repairs – a half million dollars worth of new plumbing, tuckpointing, and the conversion away from coal heat. Amazingly, the lender instead decided to convert the building to condos, making a sizable investment, but one they expected to recoup. I don’t know if they did, but the building survives in a state of generally good repair to this day, a testament to their belief in the continued vitality of the neighborhood.

Immediately to the west, and joined to the Crandominium building with a concrete pergola and possibly a hallway between lobbies, stands the Shoreline (2231 East 67th Street). Also built in 1928, it is the work of architect Henry Holsman. It is sympathetic in style to its neighbor, but significantly more ornamented in the Gothic mode. Concrete grotesques and figures adorn the building, and they have unfortunately not aged well – a fact that has landed the building in court repeatedly.

This building, too, has an interesting history. Though intended as a cooperative when built, the advent of the Great Depression resulted in it becoming a rental building. In 1948, a corporation calling itself the Shoreline Cooperative purchased the building for $575,000 (less than half the 1928 construction cost of $1.125m), with the intention of converting the building. They claimed that 26 of the building’s 49 tenants had already contracted to purchase equity in the new cooperative corporation, and a further 12 had verbally agreed to do so. The rest had declined and would be evicted.

A wartime rent control law was still in effect at this time, and it gave states and localities extensive discretion as to its application (or even whether to enforce it at all). In Chicago, the authorities established a number of regulations, including one that held that, in order for a building transitioning to cooperative ownership to evict non-equity tenants, 65% or more of the owners must already reside in the building. In the case of the Shoreline, the regulator determined that this requirement was not met, and brought suit in federal court to prevent eviction of the renters.

Attorneys for the Shoreline argued that the rent control law was unconstitutional, and a federal district court judge agreed with them. Less than half a year later, the dispute found its way before the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court quickly found the wartime rent control act to be acceptable, regardless of the fact that it was not uniform in its application and delegated significant interpretive latitude to other levels of government. The conversion to cooperative management at the Shoreline went forward, but was undoubtedly slowed down by the adverse ruling.

Just like its neighbor, the building transitioned to condominium ownership in the 1970s. It retained many of its luxurious trappings, including doormen and a janitorial staff. Such staff were frequently unionized in Chicago at the time, despite their small numbers in each building – a requirement imposed by the other unionized trades who typically became involved during condo conversion work. By 1982, however, cost pressures prompted the Shoreline not to renew their union contract, and to hire security guards to replace the doormen at a lower wage. The dispute split the condo association, and drew newspaper coverage to the building, where legal fees quickly ate up the projected savings. Picketers marched to try to disrupt the daily lives of building residents – an action that may or may not have been legal, depending on whether condo buildings are considered residences or businesses, both of which they are, in a sense. The resolution of the labor dispute in this case is unclear in the records I have access to, but reporters noted that a tidal wave of similar disputes was on the horizon, as many other buildings, no longer beholden to the desires of powerful building trade unions, sought to save money by eliminating unionized house staff.

Today, the lobby of the Shoreline is a quiet sanctuary, elegant though perhaps dulled by a monochromatic white paint scheme. A doorman still answers the door – I didn’t ask him his union status. A ride up the elevator to the 15th floor transports you to one of the more extraordinary properties on the market in Chicago today: a two-story penthouse bungalow.

The penthouse is decked out with a 1990s sensibility, and also sustained a bit of water damage prior to repairs being made to the façade. It will need significant work to bring it up to a level befitting its, well, level.

The real star is not the nearly 3000 square feet of dubiously-laid-out interior space, however, but the absolutely amazing views! From windows in the living room, or from two different rooftop decks, the vistas are splendid.

As with so much in South Shore, the penthouse is an undervalued yet amazing asset, with a storied past, facing present problems – but with strong potential for a bright future. All it needs is the right people to make something happen.

Mar 12

a jaunt to Washington, DC: tourist traps and modernist transportation infrastructure

I was recently fortunate to travel to Washington, DC for work, my first substantive trip to the nation’s capital in well over a decade. The trip was mostly work, but I was able to sneak in some interstitial tourism. Of course, I hit some of the obvious sites, and was able to enjoy cherry blossoms at their peak.

I twice made use of Capital Bikeshare bikes to get to or from meetings or events, and am now more enthusiastic than ever about a similar program’s arrival in Chicago.

I met with several people at Union Station, a magnificent Daniel Burnham edifice.

The final picture above, of Union Station’s shopping concourse, is a fitting pivot to the things I was most excited to see in DC: its modernist transportation infrastructure! Harry Weese is credited with helping revitalize Union Station, but is of course better known for being the original architect for the Washington Metro subway system.

The aboveground Brookland-CUA station is charming enough, but the L’Enfant Plaza station is archetypal for the system. The entrance canopy, the coffered concrete tunnels, and the distinctive intersection of tunnels where lines cross are all exquisite to behold.

Less pressed for time at the end of my trip, I was able to take Metro back to the airport. I took the subway to Rosslyn, across the river in Virginia, and exited via an enormous slanted tunnel and the longest escalator ride I’ve ever experienced. The visual drama of the station wasn’t adequately captured in my photos, but the scale of the place made me nervous.

It was here that I had the worst transportation experience of my trip, when I unpleasantly learned that there is no simple correspondence between Metro and Metrobus fare media. (Finally, an advantage for the CTA!) I had ten minutes to somehow acquire exactly $6 in change for the express bus to Dulles.

Dulles is a beautiful airport, a jet-age masterpiece by the legendary Eero Saarinen. It quite literally soars. I was glad to have extra time to take some photos, although I am always nervous playing tourist in an airport.

Crossing this dramatically-lit walkway and descending to the AeroTrain, I headed to a new terminal, and thence back to Chicago, concluding a satisfying odyssey through DC’s modernist transportation infrastructure.

Mar 12

the earthly pleasures of Rockefeller Chapel

When one of the wealthiest families in one of the wealthiest countries in the history of the world builds a chapel, you expect it’ll be a nice building. Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago certainly is. I can hardly do the building justice, but here are a few quick highlights from a recent visit I paid to the building. Every time I’ve visited, I’ve made new discoveries, like the self-referential bas-relief carving pictured above, on the east entrance to the building.

The interior is an impressive space by any measure, with restrained stained glass, a beautiful mosaic ceiling, and elaborately-carved wooden details adorning the organ and rear balcony.

Most exciting to me, however, are the hidden spaces that can be accessed during a visit to the carillon: the space between the roof and the vaulted ceiling; the tower with its hundreds of thousands of pounds of bells; and the carillon console itself, where the carilloneur plays the bells.

A few more flights up the spiral stairs from the carillon cabin carry you to a wraparound walkway at the top of the tower.

I could spend hours taking photos from the top; the view is truly sublime. Here are a few of my favorite shots, but I hope to revisit more regularly and in different seasons.