Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People

Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review

August 27, 2015 by

For this review of a book on Chicago architecture, we take a look at Out of the Loop, a collection of essays from the Vernacular Architecture Forum that explores Chicago’s architectural landscape from the view of our neighborhoods. Various scholars put together these essays in tandem with the tours that they offered for their 2015 conference, held this past May here in Chicago. So just to let you know, this will be a little bit more of a scholarly post.


Let’s start out with a definition of “vernacular architecture.” People have some different interpretations. Historically a lot of the art history and architectural history of scholarship has been the creations or consumptions of those in power, such as mansions, churches, or castles. More recently scholarship has turned to also include the lives of everyday people, and that’s what studies of vernacular architecture speak to.

Vernacular buildings can be residential, industrial or agricultural (like barns) and usually they are not designed by any famous architect. Some people say that vernacular has to be unique to the materials and conditions of the local environment, like igloos of Canada. Others would say that vernacular architecture is simply more commonplace, like the mass-produced architecture of a Route 66 gas station. Though its design is not necessarily locally sensitive, it reflects culture.

So I got pretty excited about this book as it comes close to our approach to architecture on our interior architectural walking tours or bus tours of Chicago neighborhoods. I like to point out the extraordinary qualities of ordinary buildings, like why houses look sunken below street level in certain areas of town. On our new “Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour” I point out how the multiple diagonal streets of Bridgeport defy the grid because they were built before the layout of the city, and these streets were designed perpendicular to the river, which had been the focal point of the street layout. I was excited to the conference and this book as providing me with rich new fodder for my stories of Chicago history as a tour guide.

The writers for these essays, who range from community figures to urban planners to historians, take very interdisciplinary approaches to their topics. Concepts span sociology, geography, history, art history, and anthropology (like our tours!).

I love how VAF Chicago’s conference chair Virginia Price opens the book: “What binds VAF participants is a methodology grounded in the investigation, analysis, and interpretation of the ways the built environment shapes – and, in turn, is shaped by – human experience.” This is the stuff I live for!

This more cultural approach to understanding everyday architecture is a newer idea, and thus the field of vernacular architecture seems to be trying to solidify its identity. Many of the essays – while informatively written – simply share facts about the buildings, such as their location or materials, rather than directly reflecting upon and processing the ways in which buildings and urban space are actually used by human beings.

Terry Tatum’s breakdown of Chicago residential building types, such as bungalows or courtyard apartment buildings, is helpful for outlining the forms and materials of the homes on regular Chicago neighborhood streets. Insights into the cultural forces that have shaped these buildings would help it better fit within the studies of vernacular architecture.

For example, we can consider how the ways we use a common Chicago house dictates the building’s form. Many Chicago homes have the kitchen in the back of the house so that there is easy access to the back yard (where there may be a garden) and also the alleyway, where the trash is taken out. While it seems mundane to a Chicagoan, this is not always the case in other cities. Or I wondered, did people respond to a workers cottage versus a greystone? Was a standalone cottage the dream of the working class man or still not enough? What messages do these buildings say to both its inhabitants and those looking at them from the outside?

A chapter on Little Italy also focused on churches and mansions, leading me wondering more about the definition of “vernacular architecture.” It does, on the other hand, address the Jane Addams Home, a 1938 housing project.

jane addams little italy museum of public housing

A 1938 housing development in Little Italy.

While the essays could use a more binding approach, the content of the book makes it an excellent addition to both scholars or aficionados of Chicago architecture and neighborhoods. Chapters dig into big ideas in Chicago history and planning, like our grid layout, the Chicago Union Stock Yards infrastructure, or religious buildings. Then other chapters go into specific neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Little Italy to Devon. There’s quite a fascinating story of how Lawndale went from a predominantly Jewish community to what a sociologist called a “hyperghetto.”

The Hull-House essay by Lisa Junkin Lopez and Heather Radke contrasts the dystopia of tenement homes with the utopia of the Jane Addams Hull-House Settlement. They detail who lived in the buildings and the functions of the spaces in order to ultimately make a clear statement of the ties between the architecture and culture: “Hull-House reformers resisted and confronted gender-based oppression through this utopian reimagining of the space and meaning of home.”

When buildings are seen not as mere objects but instead as reflections of our own cultural identities, the study of architectural history becomes deeply human. For me at least, this is the definition of “vernacular architecture.”

–Amanda Scotese

Chicago Detours Executive Director

Posted in Architecture, Chicago history, Chicago Neighborhoods, History | Comments Off on Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review
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Epic Anniversary Party and New Food Tour Recap

August 11, 2015 by

This past Saturday we had our 5-Year Anniversary Bash with the preview of our new Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour. In short, it was epic. We started our new food tour and celebration with check-in at the historic Berghoff restaurant.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

People mingled over drinks before we introduced the evening and shared some of the great beer history of the Berghoff. Above are Kate Joyce (left), photographer who took many of the beautiful tour photos that appear on our website, and Jenn Harrman (middle), our first full-time office manager who came into town from Nashville for the occasion. In the background on the left is Paul Durica of Pocket Guide to Hell.

chicago food tour berghoff

We were completely sold-out with our partners, associates, staff, private and public tour clients, and all our friends and family. For our new food-tour-meets-bar-tour, I was one tour guide and Elizabeth (pictured here) was the other. She is awesome.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Then we loaded up our two 39-passenger busses. We talked about the South Side, Bridgeport, and saloon history on the way down to the neighborhood. The tour portion of the event included a cruise down Lituanica Street, once home to a big community of Lithuanians. We discussed of everyday architecture, like workers cottages and former groceries and taverns, and ran into to Bruno’s Bakery for some Lithuanian bread for everyone to taste.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

One bus had their drink stop at Schaller’s Pump, and the other inside Shinnick’s. These are bars where drinking anything but cheap beer just doesn’t make sense.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Then we had our dinner stop at Johnny O’s. You have to go through the liquor store to get to his secret super-’70s bar that’s attached.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Johnny, who manages his liquor store and hot dog stand with his sons, has had his establishment here since 1970. Back then Bridgeport was bustling with industry, when workers were frequenting the many taverns in the neighborhood. He got his hands on the Ramova Grill sign when it closed a few years ago, and there are some great news clippings from a pretty funny White Sox debacle that involved Mayor J. Daley (you’ll have to come on the tour to find out).

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

Blues musician Fruteland Jackson joined us, too. You may recognize him from our Jazz, Blues and Beyond Tour by Bus. He gets on board and teaches tour guests how to play blues harmonica.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tour

People ate their choice of Chicago hot dog or Mother-in-law sandwich. There was also a ton of french fries and fried veggies.

After touring the area of Bridgeport where people lived, ate and drank, we went a little south of the neighborhood to the industrial area, once home to Spiegel’s and Wrigley’s. We also dug into some meatpacking history on the way to see the Union Stockyards Gate from 1865.

food tour bar tour private party private groups south side chicago food tourThe busses rolled through the Canaryville neighborhood on our way to a Gilded Age mansion in Bronzeville, which is the Welcome Inn Manor B&B. Here we had more food, beer, and a presentation before indulging in cake. Everyone found a party space, whether on the front stoop, in the many grand rooms of the mansion, or in the backyard, where we had a bonfire going.

Everyone was having such a good time that we have just about no photos of the afterparty at the mansion, or the “after-after party” in the Game Room of the new Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. If you have any photos to share, please send!

We received press from WGN Radio, Chicagoist, and the Chicago Tribune, among other publications. A thanks to all who hosted us, including the Berghoff Restaurant, Schaller’s Pump, Shinnick’s Pub, Johnny O’s, and Welcome Inn Manor.

And thank you to those who came to our 5-Year Bash and helped make it such a success. And also thanks to those who came in spirit. It was really a blast!

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in Chicago history, Detours, Food, History, Neighborhoods, News | Comments Off on Epic Anniversary Party and New Food Tour Recap
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Celebrating Five Years in the Group Tour Business

July 20, 2015 by

We are pretty excited for our 5-Year Anniversary Bash on August 8. If you’d like to join us for this special celebration, you will get a taste of our new “Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour,” which is the latest addition to our roster of tours for private groups. An abbreviated version of the tour will allow us time for a special bonus stop – a reception at a Gilded Age mansion in Bronzeville.

welcome-inn-manor-minIt’s been quite a journey! We have gone from a solo operation to a team of six. We developed more than 15 private group tours of architectural interiors, jazz and blues, Chicago neighborhoods, and historic bars. We are one of very few Chicago tour companies to maintain five stars on both Yelp and TripAdvisor. Our public and private group tours have hosted thousands of curious guests. We seamlessly executed large group tours for as many as 225 guests at the same time.

We also designed a Pedway map, received press from around the world, had numerous public speaking engagements including a PechaKucha, collaborated with incredible colleagues, supported community initiatives, and explored fascinating nooks and crannies of Chicago.Historic bar crawl pub tour

We couldn’t have done it without the support of our private tour clients, public tour guests, DMCs and event planners, partners, collaborators, friends and family. Thank you!
We look forward to many more years of creating enriching content and experiences of Chicago’s incredible history and architecture with you.

This blog post shows the more outward accomplishments of Chicago Detours over these years. Closer to our 5-year bash date, I will be posting a more personal perspective on the rewards and challenges of running a small group tour business.

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in News, Travel | Comments Off on Celebrating Five Years in the Group Tour Business
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A New Farmers Market and the Old History of South Loop

June 23, 2015 by

Thursday marks the beginning of a new farmers market in the South Loop, an area of the city full of interesting history. Located at the Second Presbyterian Church, the South Loop Farmers Market will feature family farms, artists, food businesses as well as children’s activities and a cultural performance program. The South Loop has gone through tremendous changes over its history, and the new Farmers Market is another sign of such a currently vibrant neighborhood.

south loop farmers market logo

Before Chicago was even a city, the bloody Battle of Fort Dearborn happened on the beach by 18th Street. Chicago’s currently oldest house, the Clarke House, was built in the area in 1836. It’s now a museum.

The now historic district of Prairie Avenue started as an Anglo Saxon Protestant neighborhood in the 1850s, rising to be home to some of the most predominant figures in early Chicago history. Marshall Field resided here, as well as George Pullman, famous for physically raising up the street level of downtown from the swampy land and more so, his high-class train cars. The community had giant mansions with custom-made Tiffany stained glass windows, and the wealth of the residents helped support the building of gorgeous architecture of the churches, including the Second Presbyterian.

tiffany stained glass mansion south loop

Architectural stained glass detail in South Loop mansion

The neighborhood changed with the increase in train traffic nearby, and high society diva Bertha Palmer and her husband Potter Palmer (think Palmer House Hotel) decided to move to the North Side after the Great Fire of 1871. The rest of the Gilded Age wealthy residents followed her lead in the late 1800s. Starting in 1910, many of the mansions were being torn down. The area had become mostly trains, train traffic, rail yards, and factories.

South of downtown Chicago was home to small and mid-size manufacturing for many decades. Then in the 1970s, it became apparent to Mayor M. Daley that in order to keep downtown Chicago as a vibrant destination for business and visitors that people had to actually live close to the Loop. Redevelopment pushed out manufacturing and brought in high rise residential buildings and eventually townhouses. In the ‘90s old factories and warehouses were converted to condos.

bridgeport bakery

Savory pies from Pleasant House Bakery

Today the South Loop is Chicago’s second wealthiest neighborhood after the Gold Coast. The new South Loop Farmer’s Market will be held every Thursday from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM beginning June 25th through October 8th 2015. Located in the parking lot adjacent to  the Second Presbyterian Church of 1936 S. Michigan Avenue, the delicious vendors include Pleasant House Bakery, Yoberri, Spirit Tea, Brockway Farm, Not Just Cookies, Belli’s Juicer, and Chocolat Uzma Sharif. There will also be collaborations with Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation, which is located in the former Chess Records Studios that we visit on our Jazz, Blues & Beyond Tour for private groups. Performances will also be held monthly among the famous stained glass windows of the Second Presbyterian Church.

Posted in Architecture, Chicago Neighborhoods, Contemporary Chicago, Food, History, Neighborhoods | Comments Off on A New Farmers Market and the Old History of South Loop
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Best Books on Chicago Architecture

May 21, 2015 by

People often come on our Chicago architecture walking tours and then get inspired to learn more and ask, “What are some of the best books on Chicago architecture”? Here is a list of some of the quintessential books for learning about Chicago architecture and how the city developed into a mecca for urban planning.

AIA Guide to Chicago This book is a standard reference for anyone wanting to learn about Chicago buildings. Is there an old brick building on your block that intrigues you? Or a very new development that you are wondering about? You can look it up in this book and the buildings most notable for their architecture and history will have brief write-ups that explain the year built, architect, and striking characteristics about the architecture. This book also gives some great overviews of neighborhood history.

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon. This is a book written by an expert in environmental history. Wait, what’s “environmental history”? Basically Cronon chronicles how the growth of the massive metropolis of Chicago consumed the natural resources throughout the midwest. It’s like Chicago gobbled up anything from the Great Plains to Northern Michigan. This book blew my mind. While it isn’t necessary focused on architecture, it explains the roots for how Chicago could become such a mecca for buildings.

Constructing Chicago by Daniel Bluestone. This seminal work proposes that…gasp…Chicago development wasn’t purely fueled by commerce, but also cultural forces that shaped the city. I really like how the chapters divide the landscape of Chicago thematically, as Bluestone explores park designs, civic buildings, and churches, too. This book on Chicago architecture ultimately gives you an entirely new perspective for the social and cultural forces that have shaped how the Chicago landscape looks today. 

Lost Chicago by David Lowe. So often our desire to learn about Chicago architecture comes from the buildings we see, but what about all the buildings long gone? The city changes and grows, and part of that process is demolition. This book of Chicago architecture shows beautiful photographs of the buildings and spaces that we wish were still around. Your heart will drop seeing the gorgeous grand bar that was lost as the side of Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building was torn off for the creation of the Congress Street Expressway in the 1950s.

Start with these necessary books on Chicago architecture, and then we can start talking about books on Chicago architects, such as Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright.

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

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Woman-Owned Business Receives Phone Call From 1952

May 20, 2015 by

You won’t believe the phone call my employee received this morning. It seems to have come from about the year 1952.

First, let me give you a little background. As a female business owner, I don’t think often about the disparity of female to male business owners and the horrible statistics you hear about women making less money. I’m too busy running my tour company, Chicago Detours, to be burdened by such things. I have better things to do as a small business owner. I need to get curious people to join us on our walking and bus tours of interior architecture, Chicago neighborhoods, jazz and blues, and historic bars. Regular priorities for me as Executive Director include pulling off our marketing campaigns, reconsidering our competitive strategies, managing a team of tour guides and employees, or just taking out the office trash.

Today I remind myself how lucky I am to live in an age in which such a precious opportunity to have a woman-owned business is open to me. Today, I believe we received a phone call that somehow got wires crossed from the year 1952. I don’t want to deal in any kind of slander campaign, so I’ll keep it vague. The following audio clip comes from my full-time employee, Pawel, on the phone with someone trying to sell us advertising. The speaker just cannot believe that a woman-owned business could actually exist…”Does she work with her husband?” You can listen below.

As I come upon celebrating Chicago Detours’ five-year anniversary, and five years as a woman-owned business in Chicago, I consider this ridiculous conversation as a gift to be grateful for what I have achieved. This short audio clip surely made me laugh.



— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director

Posted in Contemporary Chicago | Comments Off on Woman-Owned Business Receives Phone Call From 1952
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NeoCon Chicago: A Mecca For Interior Design

May 1, 2015 by

Long before I became a Chicago local, my first ever visit to Chicago was for the international interior design convention, NeoCon, which takes place every year in June at the Merchandise Mart. This was when I fell in love with Chicago and found myself in awe of not just the city, but its buildings, especially the massive Art Deco building that is “the Mart.” As a student of interior design, I tried to take in as much of the city and the convention as possible, including collecting countless free product samples that still live in my parents house back in St. Louis. With these fond memories I decided to look into the history of this building, interior design, ad the NeoCon convention.

merchandise mart chicago art deco

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

First of all, lets talk about the building that houses NeoCon. Taking up a full block, the Merchandise Mart was once the largest building by square footage in the world. It is still in the top 50 and has claim to its very own zip code. Architects Graham, Andserson, Probst and White designed the building in the Art Deco style and it clearly represents Chicago architecture as a combination of three building types: a warehouse, a department store, and a skyscraper. These building types were chosen because merchandising giant Marshall Field and Co. built the Merchandise Mart as a wholesaling facility for the growing needs of their retail empire. On the south side of the building along the river, you will see his patina bust proudly displayed as part of the “Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame.” His face is joined by other department store moguls such as Frank Winfield Woolworth and Aaron Montgomery Ward.

merchandise mart hall of fame marshall field chicago

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

Having researched the history of Marshall Field and Co. for our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour, I also knew that Marshall Field’s on State Street had once had an entire model home on the 7th floor with all the latest furnishings of interior design. This made me wonder if there was any connection between the department store and the interior design convention.

The profession of interior design grew out of the sale of furniture. As prosperity increased in the mid to late 19th century, furniture companies expanded their lines to include full lines of home furnishings in a number of different styles. Because of this, furniture manufacturers came to be considered advisors of the latest interior fashions and even began offering amateur design services to customers. In addition, retailers like Marshall Field found that displaying these lines in model home showrooms in their department stores was a valuable advertising tool.

The retail and furniture manufacturing industries eventually separated from the industry of interior design and decoration, but its roots are still there. Showrooms are still one of the most tangible and effective tools in selling design products from furniture to wallpaper. So it’s natural that a building and a city so tied to that early industry has become the home to one of the largest trade show in contract interior furnishings in the world.

The Merchandise Mart was designed for retail and design showrooms. It was once the largest producer of trade shows in the country. Architects Graham, Andserson, Probst and White designed it as “city within in a city,” a concept later used by other architects including Bertrand Goldberg for his Marina City and River City, both right here in Chicago. To satisfy the needs of trade show attendees the building included a number of modern amenities like restaurants and lunch counters, a beautician, optician and a barber. And because the building once had its own zip code, a post office serviced tenants. It is still there today along with many of these amenities.

merchandise mart neocon chicago interior design

Photo Credit: Jenn Harrman

The first NeoCon was held in Chicago in 1969 and coincided with the American Institute of Architects convention and is now a must-do event for designers across the country on its own. Thousands of exhibitors and many permanent showrooms fill the floors and floors of the Merchandise Mart for three days every June. And now we are gearing up for NeoCon 2015, June 15-17!

— Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide


Posted in Architecture, Chicago history, Contemporary Chicago, History, Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Four Chicago Lighthouses

April 1, 2015 by

When one thinks of architecture in Chicago, lighthouses might not come to mind.  But Chicago, long a preeminent American port, has an extended history with these vital, vertical structures.

I recently had the opportunity to hear a fascinating talk by Chicago lighthouses expert, Donald J. Terras.  Terras is the author of Grosse Point Lighthouse: Landmark to Maritime History and Culture (Windy City Press, 1996) and Lighthouses of Chicago Harbor: Their History, Architecture and Lore (Windy City Press, 2006).

The first area lighthouse was constructed at the mouth of the Chicago River, years before the city incorporated. The 1831 structure had some problems, though, and soon collapsed.  Its 1832 replacement was forty-feet high and stood near Fort Dearborn.

Chicago’s first lighthouse was also the first on the Great Lakes.  As of 1848, there were 59 lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Chicago lighthouses were crucial for navigation; they marked dangerous passageways as well as harbor entry points. Hundreds lined the Great Lakes, but lighthouses became obsolete with modern navigational technology.

With the opening of the Illinois and Michigan canal in 1848, Chicago became the connecting point between the eastern seaboard and the Mississippi River… and soon, the nation’s busiest port. The first lighthouse quickly proved inadequate for such traffic.

Made of iron and in an octagonal design, the second Chicago lighthouse was built in 1859 out on the end of one of the newly built piers and was intended to be more visible and useful than the old lighthouse, which was by this time relatively hidden behind other structures inland. But the octagonal tower had its challenges, as well: its light was often obscured by the thick smoke from steamers and nearby factories.

After the Great Fire of 1871, the Lighthouse Board decided to build a substantial masonry lighthouse 13 miles north of Chicago at Grosse Point in Evanston. Completed in 1872, this Grosse Point lighthouse superseded Chicago’s. Ships relied heavily on this navigational aid; once spotting it, they would hug the shore down to the Chicago harbor. The Grosse Pointe lighthouse still stands today and they seasonally offer historical tours.

In the 1880s, a breakwater was built to protect Chicago’s harbor. Plans began for a new, powerful lighthouse for the Harbor of Chicago, which, the Lighthouse Board proclaimed, “was the most important on the lakes, with a greater average number of daily arrivals and departures during the season of navigation than any other in the United States…”  The new lighthouse was to stand at the mouth of the river, not far from where the original lighthouse was located.

The city was also preparing to shine before all the world during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The lighthouse was under construction during the World’s Fair, completed just as the Exposition was ending. A state-of-the-art Fresnel lens that had been on display at the Fair was then installed in Chicago’s harbor lighthouse, illuminating for the first time on November 9, 1893. The 1859 iron lighthouse was put out of commission.

And this 1893 structure is the lighthouse we see in Chicago’s harbor today, now designated a Chicago landmark, and still active, though now automated.   The lighthouse was moved and altered in the early 20th century: when the breakwater was extended, it was relocated to its new southern tip in 1918.  Along with its three-story keepers living facilities, a fog signal building and boat house were attached to it.  (An interesting note about the need for a fog signal: according to lighthouse expert, Donald J. Terras, Chicago was once a much foggier place; due to climate change, there is significantly less fog today.)

The Chicago lighthouses may be considered among the defining works of architecture that grace our city, though often overlooked in lists of Chicago sightseeing.

For more information about American lighthouses from enthusiasts who’ve ‘done’ them all: Lighthouse Friends

Lighthouse Facebook groups: Lighthouses and United States Lighthouses

And The American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee, a non-profit corporation dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of American lighthouses.

— Wendy Bright, Professional Tour Guide

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Devon: History and Diversity in Neighborhood Architecture

March 25, 2015 by

In honor of our special “Detour” on Devon Ave. this Saturday, let’s talk about Chicago’s South Asian community along this Northside street. One of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods and one of the most culturally rich Chicago neighborhoods is West Ridge, (sometimes referred to as West Rogers Park), and more specifically the bustling commercial district along Devon Ave. What I like most about Devon and West Ridge, outside of the amazing Indian food of course, is how the neighborhood architecture along the street is representative of the community’s changing diversity over its not so long history.

cultural tours devon avenue food tour

Guests trying on clothes on a tour with Spice of Life Tours

Like many other neighborhoods in Chicago, West Ridge began with sparse residential development of early settlers around 1850 and grew with the development of commercial areas during the early 20th century. The first concentration of commercial development in West Ridge began along Devon Avenue near Western Avenue and Devon became the community’s main, thriving thoroughfare. It continues to be the primary commercial district in the neighborhood and is now home to over 72,000 Chicagoans from a large range of ethnicities including Russian, Polish, Indian, Pakistani and Korean.

Although known now for its Indian and Pakastani restaurants and businesses, Devon was first settled by German and Luxembourgian farmers in the 1830s and 40s before being annexed into Chicago in 1893. Then German and Scandanavian laborers from the brickyards began moving into the neighborhood following the expansion of Western Avenue northward in 1899. It was not until the population boom after World War I that major development in the area would come.

In anticipation of this development boom, developer Henry B. Rance started West Ridge’s first real estate firm, the Prudential Realty Company in 1920. He built the Prudential Building still standing today at 2345 W. Devon by 1927. Although its architecture has received a less than sensitive face lift, the original ornate Gothic Revival style is represented in the Devon Building just next door at 2349 W. Devon. Often the case for the buildings on Devon, many of the original structures have been torn down, refaced or given a first-story-facade facelift.

While preservation has not been a consideration with many of the buildings in the commercial areas of West Ridge, it gives us a cool opportunity to see the cultural development of the neighborhood as reflected in the built environment. Surprisingly, development along Devon continued through the Depression years of the 1930s. You can see 1930s-style glass brick in some of the simple facades and upper stories.

The next major building boom along Devon happened after World War II when returning veterans came to the neighborhood along with a growing Orthodox Jewish community. As you drive or stroll down Devon, there are still remnants of this era in its history from the mid-century modern architectural influences on buildings such as Par Birdie Foods grocery store and the Cine Theater turned Viceroy of India banquet hall, to the repurposed Jewish synagogue at 2040 W. Devon. And the neighborhood continues to say that it has the most concentrated Orthodox Jewish community in the city.

devon avenue chicago jewish community

Photo Credit: From Chicago’s Far North Side: an Illustrated History of Rogers Park and West Ridge by Neal Samors, Mary Jo Doyle, Martin Lewin and Michael Williams

More recently beginning in the 1970s, the Assyrian, Russian, Korean and more specifically the Indian and Pakistani communities became a more predominant presence along Devon. This group has completely redefined the commercial street which can be seen in the altered first-story storefront facades of almost every building. Cary’s Lounge is quite possibly the last remaining original storefront on the street and dates back to 1923. From the prism-glass transom to the recessed entry, stepping inside Cary’s is a bit like a step back in time in this Chicago neighborhood. And if you are lucky enough to be a lady, the women’s restroom has a mural of the historic neon signs that used to be found along the street, in the neighborhood, and even a few from elsewhere around the city.

We have a few spots left for this Saturday, March 28 with our Spicy Devon Spring Tour. In addition to looking at the architecture and history of the neighborhood, we team up with Mohammad of Spice of Life tours for a great cultural experience along with lots of food.

So the next time you head up to the north side for the best Indian food in town, take a look around the street. Look at the architectural details. Just as we do on our Historic Chicago Bar Tour, you can see the history of the people and the owners in every feature of the architecture, which ranges in style from Renaissance Revival and Tudor/Elizabethean Revival to Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern. Over 40 different languages are spoken here and those melding cultural influences can be seen everywhere you look. Behind all the signs and the lights, the architecture truly shares the story of the people who have called West Ridge, Devon Avenue, and this nook of Chicago home.

–Jenn Harrman, Tour Guide

Posted in Architecture, Chicago history, Chicago Neighborhoods, Neighborhoods | Comments Off on Devon: History and Diversity in Neighborhood Architecture
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Chicago Architecture, Love and History in Paris

February 12, 2015 by

As romance comes upon us for Valentine’s Day, the world’s most romantic city – Paris – comes to mind. I’ve traveled there several times, and have found that these two cities that I love have had a historic relationship relationship together. We are going to talk about a few architectural and historical ways that Chicago has found its way into Paris.

Fast forward to modern times and the most obvious architectural link that Paris has to Chicago is what many consider to be the thorn in the Parisian skyline: Tour Montparnasse. The postmodern skyscraper you see here is the only in Paris, and of course Chicago is arguably the birthplace of the skyscraper. In 1973, the Tour Montparnasse opened as the tallest office building in Europe at 59 stories. Just to put it in perspective, that same year Chicago gets the Sears Tower–tallest building in the world at 108 floors. While people may think of a kiss under the Eiffel Tower, a kiss on Valentine’s Day from a soaring place can be romantic, too.

The Tour Montparnasse skyscraper was conceived as urban renewal of an otherwise artistic, outdated neighborhood. It is built above a train station to provide offices, shopping, et cetera.  We discuss a similar, perhaps slower renewal project of Block 37 on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour. Years later, the same developers of Montparnasse brought Chicago the Smurfit-Stone building. In keeping with our theme of love for Valentine’s Day, let’s note that this building is also called “Crains Communications” and more colloquially, the”Vagina Building.”

After the Tour Montparnasse opened, Parisians were outraged at this architectural affront to their otherwise very historic skyline. This resulted in a new ordinance limiting building height to seven stories. This ruling only further sentenced the Tour Montparnasse as sole thorn. The necessity of the ordinance and the tower are both in continual debate. Can you imagine such a reaction and it’s result in Chicago? I don’t think I could even list the skyscrapers that would be missing from our skyline if we had given up on buildings over seven stories for the past forty years.

The neighborhood of Montparnasse is known for its artists, poets, theatre people, and writers of all sorts, many with Chicago ties. In the cafes on its boulevards, you could have discussed “isms” with Simone de Beauvoir. Years later, she met Chicago writer Nelson Algren in Chicago. The two fell in love and he visited her here.

You also may have ran into Ernest Hemingway, who hails from the Chicago area, in the Montparnasse neighborhood or just north in the Latin Quarter. On a late night stroll, I toured a few facades of his former homes, one of which shares the glory of being with poet Verlaine died, as photoed here.

Look out for more on how Paris has a presence in Chicago…

— Elizabeth Tieri, Tour Guide

Posted in Architecture, Chicago Art, Chicago history, Chicago Loop | Comments Off on Chicago Architecture, Love and History in Paris
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