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Between the Boulevards
An architectural tour
August 10, 2007
Logan Square may be the only Chicago neighborhood with its own Statue of Liberty: for decades she’s been greeting the clients of Liberty Bank for Savings (2392 N. Milwaukee), standing guard over the steel-framed glass and mosaic-tile entrance. The building itself is an anomaly, a
60s design in a neighborhood that, as a general rule, doesn’t do modern. Take a walk down the street, east of California, and you’ll see what I mean.
The Congress Theater (2135 N. Milwaukee), opened in 1926, is one of the few great old Chicago movie palaces still in business—though its business is a different sort than it was designed for. If you feel like going to a concert or a lucha libre match (the theater’s usual fare these days; see the Logan Square music listings in this issue) you can check out the spectacular 2,900-seat domed auditorium inside, but it won’t cost you a dime to enjoy the view from the sidewalk. The terra cotta facades feature rich Baroque/classical ornamentation, with supersize angels in the great pediment, bands of young musicians dancing in panels set atop the tall, arched windows, and guardian falcons perched atop pilasters stacked with scenes of trumpeters, lute players, mermaids,and flamingos.
Between the Congress and Logan Boulevard, Milwaukee Avenue is a motley succession of retail buildings more utilitarian than stylish. That changes when you get to the Logan Theatre (2646 N. Milwaukee) and the commercial strip that extends to the north. Far humbler than the Congress, the Logan is still showing movies (see listings) nearly a century after its 1915 opening. Further up the street the storefronts grow more ornate, though they’re primarily occupied by discount shops, even at the intersection of Diversey, Milwaukee, and Kimball, once the neighborhood’s retail crossroads. On one corner, what was once a three-story Goldblatt’s department store is now a Gap outlet (see shopping listings); the upper-story windows have been filled in with glass block. Across the street, above the entrance of a two-story art deco structure, the remnants of the name Woolworth seep through the signage for a Foot Locker. The six-story headquarters of Chicago clothier Morris B. Sachs—who once claimed, “I sold Dick Daley’s mother the first pair of long pants for Dick. Without me, where would he be?”—is now vacant, save for a Payless Shoe Source on the ground floor. The building is a protected landmark, and the city is seeking proposals for its rehabilitation.
Unfortunately the neighborhood’s namesake Logan Square, where Milwaukee, Logan, and Kedzie meet, may be one of the neighborhood’s least successful components, a gracious green space that’s both isolated and isolating. It was laid out in the 1870s by William LeBaron Jenney as part of a system of boulevards he hoped would echo those he’d seen in Paris. In the Parisian style, the square would function as a traffic circle, but what worked then doesn’t work so well now. Fast-moving cars have tipped the balance against pedestrians. There’s no direct access to the square from the west, where part of the boulevard has been converted into a parking lot, and large no-man’s-land triangles of crumbling concrete further cut off the square to the north and east. At the center is the Illinois Centennial Memorial Column; nearly 70 feet tall and topped by an eagle, it was designed by architect Henry Bacon (of Lincoln Memorial fame) with a circular base of reliefs by sculptor Evelyn Longman.
Just northwest of the column is one of the square’s true architectural markers, the towering brick Gothic Norwegian Lutheran Church (2614 N. Kedzie). Built by Norwegian immigrants in 1912, it’s the last church in Chicago offering services in that language. Next door is a marker of a much different kind: the side wall of a five-story building that once housed Grace’s Furniture and is being turned into a Cheetah Gym. The wall has been painted entirely black, save for this repeated inscription in blood-red lettering: rent this space. call david. 773-728-7777.
In the shadow of the church steeple is an annex entrance to the CTA subway station. Until 1970, what is now the Blue Line terminated at an elevated platform at Logan Square. When the line was extended, the platform was replaced with a subway stop. Originally bright and spacious, over the years it’s become a gloomy grotto. Many lighting fixtures no longer function and its glazed brick walls, once nearly white, are darkened with grime and graffiti residue. Above the station is a truly misguided relic of the 1970s: a huge bus staging area that at all but rush hours is a barren concrete wasteland.
You couldn’t find a greater contrast than in another park laid out by Jenney a few blocks to the south. Palmer Square Park, an uninterrupted seven-acre green space bounded by Kedzie, Humboldt, and Palmer boulevards, is everything Logan Square isn’t. The cars play nice with the pedestrians. There’s lots of shade from the towering elms and maples and plenty of room for catching some rays. In August it’s the site of an annual arts festival (this year’s is this weekend), and the Chicago Park District is considering improvements that could include a crushed stone trail, more benches, and a new play area.
Logan Square is most famous, of course, for its boulevards and the mansions that line them. You’ll find many along Kedzie, but pride of place goes to Logan Boulevard, a mile-long procession of grand homes, from the column to the Kennedy, that remains remarkably intact today. It’s a museum of limestone facing, dressed to impress with all manner of European detailing from Romanesque to Norman and everything in between.
It wasn’t until 1907 that architect George Maher struck a more modern note here with the John Rath House (2703 W. Logan), which brought the elegant, clean lines of the Prairie School to the boulevard. But if you really want a break from the pomposity, check out the house kitty-corner from the Rath at 2656 W. Logan. The owners of this beautifully restored but fairly simple brick-and-frame number have taken it over the top into the realm of glorious kitsch: there’s a copy of the Eiffel Tower in the side yard and a turquoise birdbath with bronzed birds in the front, along with a pair of griffinlike cats guarding the front stoop and a cornucopia of other ingratiating strangeness. At Christmas its extravagant decorations draw crowds.
The real charm of Logan Square lies in what you find when you walk off the boulevards: simple tree-lined streets of unassuming homes with well-kept gardens: mix and match graystones, brick two-flats, workingman’s houses with pitched roofs and wide porches. None of them hold any great architectural pedigree, but the parts meld into an exceptionally graceful and inviting whole. Logan Square gets the little things right, whether it’s a lovely vest-pocket Neighbors Garden (try 2533 N. Sacramento) or tiny Unity Park (2636 N. Kimball), with its charming minifieldhouse and new playlot.
My favorite discovery in walking around the neighborhood was the 2400 and 2500 blocks of North Bernard. It’s not a row of mansions or architectural landmarks, just a completely comfortable urban space, a promenade of big old houses with ample verandas framed in columns in a profusion of styles: Romanesque, Corinthian, Doric, Queen Anne, Prairie. It may not be great art, but it’s great urbanism, a reminder that there’s more to city living than being a pinball in a crushingly dense, hyperactive enclave. Away from the main drags, Logan Square is all right.
Logan Square Preservation hosts its 26th annual walking tour of homes and gardens along Logan Square’s boulevards on Saturday, September 8, from 10 AM to 5 PM. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 the day of the tour. For more information, call 773-252-4859.
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