Finding Chicago’s Hidden Modern Gems

by guest author, Jean Follett, Interim Executive Director of Landmarks Illinois

For an architectural historian there is nothing more fun than finding hidden gems in familiar places. There are three places near my house in Hinsdale that make me smile every time I go by them, although I have been unable to identify an architect for any of them. They exemplify all that is best about suburban Chicago: we have an astonishing range of well-built, well-planned post-World War II housing, commercial structures and planned developments. If you are looking for a compact brick bungalow, a sprawling ranch, a mod 60s house with a butterfly roof or a series of handsome brick 6-flats with cast concrete or colored tile ornamentation, you can find all of these and more in a neighborhood near you. If you browse through the Recent Past survey on the Landmarks Illinois website you will find plenty of amazing churches, storefronts, banks (who doesn’t love the round bank in Brookfield with its shiny blue bricks and stainless steel external frame?) and civic buildings to go along with all this mid-century-modern residential development.

International Style office building at 240-250 Ogden Avenue in Hinsdale. Photo by Jean Follett

Although our blog has been emphasizing what is not Mies or Mies-inspired, it’s important to remember that the International Style and the purity of line and structure that Mies achieved remained influential in Chicago. In 1960 a compact International Style office building was built on Ogden Avenue in Hinsdale. It offers a startling contrast to its red brick Georgian Revival neighbors. Although the architect is not known, the style of this building is instantly recognizable: a pair of sleek, rectangular, steel and glass boxes run perpendicular to Ogden Avenue.

Looking into the courtyard under the connecting bridge at 240-250 Ogden. Photo by Jean Follett

They are connected at the 2nd-story level on the street front of the building by a steel and glass bridge that cantilevers out over the commercial spaces below it. Visitors to the small offices contained in the two “boxes” enter underneath the bridge into a narrow, landscaped courtyard that is flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows and flat gray doors set within thin stainless steel frames.

A 1977 addition to the east, that houses a rug cleaning facility, maintains the spare gray lines of the original building. At night the globe-shaped lights placed at regular intervals on both sides of the courtyard give this building an inviting glow. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to love a Miesian building!

LaGrange’s own “mini-Kimbell” at 901 West Hillsdale Avenue. Photo by Jean Follett.

Another little gem of the western suburbs is what I like to think of as the mini-Kimbell Museum. If you are not familiar with the Kimbell—it was designed by famed architect Louis Kahn in 1966 and completed in 1972 in Fort Worth, Texas. Its thin concrete arches remain elegant and iconic forty years later. These arches are clearly descended from Roman barrel vaults and their shape—what’s known as a cycloid—although first named by Galileo in 1599, continued to cause arguments among mathematicians throughout the 17th century. It must have been nice for Kahn, a genius himself, to have the Romans and Galileo behind his design ideas.

Detail of arches at 901 West Hillsdale. Photo by Jean Follett

At 901 W. Hillgrove Avenue in LaGrange stands a building that was built in 1960 using similar concrete arches. It’s a tiny building—just 1600 square feet—squeezed into its mid-block lots. But its beautiful limestone and copper detailing and airy little courtyard are eye-catching. It’s serene and provides a fascinating mid-century design solution on this small suburban lot alongside the train tracks.

To me some of the most interesting examples of post-war housing are the low-rise apartment complexes of the 1960s. They are usually well built and thoughtfully planned: with buildings laid out in rhythmic ranks, or in zig-zag formation so no apartment dweller needs to look directly into her neighbor’s window, or surrounding a community building and a small (always small) swimming pool. If you want to see some great examples you can drive down Mannheim/LaGrange Road just south of the Eisenhower Expressway or Pershing Avenue in Glen Ellyn. I especially like the details that builders used to distinguish one building from the other. It might be a cast concrete panel with a low relief. It might be a thoughtful mixture of different colored bricks. Or it might be a façade panel of small, colored tiles. On the Pershing Avenue buildings these panels are quite large. Or it might be overhang variations at the main entrance. All these thoughtful details give 1960s buildings character and presence, despite their ubiquitous yellow and pale red bricks.

Apartment building at King Arthur Court in Westmont. Photo by Jean Follett.

One of my favorite apartment complexes is King Arthur Court, south of 55th Street in Westmont. Originally this development stood on unincorporated land, which is where nearly all multi-family construction of the 1960s took place in DuPage County. For some inexplicable reason all things historically British were popular in this area in the 1960s, with Robinhood Ranch and King Arthur Courts just two wonderful examples.

Turquoise window frames and amber glass at King Arthur Court. Photo by Jean Follett.

With 15 2-story apartment buildings arrayed around a large pond, a small community building and pool, King Arthur Court (now called King Arthur Apartments) manages to find the balance point between repetitiveness and variety.  The complex, although partially visible from busy 55th Street feels like its own little world. Its buildings are all long, low yellow brick blocks with Chicago-style windows and outdoor staircases concealed behind turquoise-framed panels of amber glass. Each apartment has an outdoor entrance.

Landscape at King Arthur Court with row of silver maples. Photo by Jean Follett.

Although their materials and general appearance are the same, the 15 buildings vary in size from 14 to 22 units. The smallest building is 10,500 square feet and the largest is 16,600 square feet which means that the apartments are very much the small GI Bill dimensions (around 750 square feet per unit) that were typical at this period. Parking and garages are located behind the buildings, and keeping the parking out of sight rather than in front of the buildings really improves the quality of this complex.  Even the rows of silver maples that were planted 50 years ago and now provide a leafy canopy around the circular drive of this large development, are very indicative of its 1960s construction date. The broad lawns, mature trees and overall arrangement create a peaceful environment and make the development feel much less dense than it actually is.

It’s important to realize that not everything in our built environment that gives us pleasure is big or fancy or by a recognizable architect (although most buildings are, in fact, architect-designed). May was Preservation Month and this year’s theme was America’s Hidden Gems. Have a prowl around your neighborhood to find Mies or not-Mies that makes you smile.

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One Response to “Finding Chicago’s Hidden Modern Gems”
  1. John Cramer says:

    Great post, Jean! I hope this blog gets folks rethinking modern buildings — Mies or not — in their own communities.

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