Sunday, November 8, 2009

As you probably know, Chicago has a Demolition Delay Ordinance that stops building that the city finds to be historically or architecturally interesting from being torn down immediately when someone takes out a demolition permit on them. There is a required waiting period, which can be up to 90 days. Since this process began in 2003, it hasn't really kept that many buildings from being torn down (that's a subject for a future post) but it has brought to light quite a few architectural interesting tidbits of the city's history for a few weeks of investigation before they bite the dust. One of the two currently under review by the city is this house, located at 4722 North Winthrop. It's been on the review list for 60 days already, so presumably the Landmarks Commission found something interesting when they did some research on it. Curious, I set out to do some research myself.

It's a nice little frame Colonial Revival house built in 1899, and you can see that it looks pretty much original with its cool little Palladian window and porch. It doesn't seem to be in the best of shape, though. The architect was Harvey L. Page. He's not that well-known of an architect in Chicago, but he actually had a pretty interesting life. Generally a classicist but a conoisseur of all styles, he began his career in Washington, D.C. When H.H. Richardson died during the construction of the last house of his career, Harvey L. Page stepped in and finished the house capably in his style. In 1890, perhaps inspired by the opportunities of a great city rebuilding from a fire all at once, he arrived in Chicago. Throughout that decade, he built houses for several of Chicago's well to. This house was one of his last, as it was built in the same year that his firm went bankrupt and he left town. About 1905, we see him in San Antonio. His work, ever a potpourri, now echoes hints of the Spanish Mission Revival and Prairie styles. In 1913, he designed the Nueces County Courthouse, considered one of his greatest works and which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also apparently haunted:

Aside from the architect, the other thing that makes this house interesting is that it is a vestige of the past. Nowadays, it is located less than a block from the Lawrence Avenue Red Line station, an extremely urban location to be sure. Surrounded by large brick apartment buildings and three-flats, it feels a bit out of place. Originally, though, the property was a development by a land speculator, Lewis Cochran, that was to include mansions along the lake as part of a new streetcar suburb, not so different than Ravenswood was then or Wilmette is now. As you can see from this photo from 1897, the area was pretty rural back then.

(from Chicago ‘L’, by Greg Borzo, 2007)

So, this house sticks out because it was intended to be part of a community of mansions that never actually came to pass. When the Northwestern Elevated Company extended its line to Wilson Avenue in 1900 and to parts farther north in the 1920s, the neighborhood began to develop with densely-packed apartment buildings. In the first decade of the 1900s, it also began to develop as one of the city's premier entertainment corridors. With the Uptown Theater and the Aragon Ballroom came a deep urban vibrance. Fast-forwarding to modern times, presumably the reason the house is proposed to be demolished is either for a parking lot for the surrounding private schools or to put up a massive condo building. Neither one makes a lot of sense right now. There are already three parking lots on the block. Condos don't make a lot of sense here because the lot backs right up to a four-tracked part of 'L' that was built in the early 1920s, that runs 24 hours a day. They would be hard to market due to the noise (though, obviously, it is often done,) especially given the current state of the condo market. The only viable thing is perhaps the owners are planning a McMansion for the site. They are well within their rights to do that, but McMansions obviously don't belong in the city, and it's too close to an 'L' station to justify construction of a new single-family house in good conscience. The organization that wants to tear the house down is Apna Ghar, which is an Asian American women’s domestic abuse organization. I think the house’s current use, then, is as a shelter for battered women. There is nothing that makes it unfit for this use, aside from perhaps deceptitude, so obviously if their hope is to replace it, they should come up with a reuse plan instead.

My verdict: Architecturally, I’m not sure the case for its architectural significance is that strong, but there is some, and it’s still a cool little house and a hark back to the history of the neighborhood, AND most importantly, there’s nothing being built right now, and a vacant lot is not good for the neighborhood, especially since it is surrounded by them.

Posted by Posted by The Loosh at 9:53 AM