Undiscovered Gems: The Epitome of Modernism, Chicago Architecture Is Much More Than the Sum of Its Skyscrapers as We Found in Our Exploration of Its Lesser-Known Marvels

By Vitello, Barbara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Undiscovered Gems: The Epitome of Modernism, Chicago Architecture Is Much More Than the Sum of Its Skyscrapers as We Found in Our Exploration of Its Lesser-Known Marvels


Vitello, Barbara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

Chicago architecture is modernism personified and as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper, its stunning skyline is modernism's legacy. Yet you need only cast your eyes downward to discover there is much more to this city's architecture than its mountain range of glass and steel.

"Part of what marks Chicago is its exciting built environment," says Bill Hinchliff, docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and contributor to the "AID Guide to Chicago."

Few cities offer the tremendous variety of Chicago, says Hinchliff, who has taught courses on Chicago architecture, history and literature and conducted architectural tours of the city for more than 20 years.

"The city is exciting to explore because of its variety," he says. "There are important modernist buildings, highly decorative buildings, gothic universities, Victorian neighborhoods, neo-classical museums and a remarkable collection of churches and synagogues with every style of stained glass."

Today, with Hinchliff as our guide, we go off the beaten path for an exploration of Chicago's lesser-known gems.

Alta Vista Terrace: London comes to Wrigleyville

An intimate counterpart to the stately neo-classical mansions, Georgian row houses and modified chateaus of Astor Street is Wrigleyville's Alta Vista Terrace, a quaint stretch located several blocks north of Wrigley Field.

Built in 1904 by Samuel Eberly Gross, noted developer of working-class housing during the late 19th century, Alta Vista Terrace "seems to have been plucked out of London," says Hinchliff. "There's nothing else like it in the city."

The narrow block between Grace Street and Byron is a colorful stretch of 40 town houses (20 on each side) that recalls British row houses.

The colorful brick gives the street an overall cheeriness and the decorative facades, each of which mirrors diagonally those across the block, making this among the city's most and distinctive streets.

Elks Veterans Memorial: "The triumphs of peace endure"

Mention the Elks Veterans Memorial and you'll probably be greeted with a blank stare. Describe the majestic ivory-colored rotunda at the corner of Diversey and Lakeview, however, and eyes light up in recognition, proving that the extraordinary Elks Memorial at 2750 N. Lakeview Ave., may be among Chicago's most recognizable and least visited public spaces.

That may have something to do with the impact of modernism. Sleek, streamlined structures such as Mies van der Rohe's Commonwealth Promenade Apartments across the street - the epitome of the glass-and-steel movement - made buildings like the Elks Memorial seem quaint but hopelessly out-dated relics, says Hinchliff.

In recent years, however, the public has come to appreciate dazzling anachronisms like this one, especially in the wake of the six-year, $5 million renovation that restored the memorial to its original grandeur in 1997.

"It has been brought back to its original luster and it's a knock-out," says Hinchliff.

Built by the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks to honor members who served in World War I (and subsequently rededicated to include everyone who served in America's armed conflicts), the memorial opened in 1926 as a monument to peace.

Scarcely an inch remains unadorned in this highly decorative interior. Marble from 26 different countries and an array of murals decorate the interior. A dome made of 24 karat gold leaf and indirectly illuminated to create the illusion of natural light, tops a magnificent rotunda that includes 12 award-winning allegorical panels by Eugene Savage.

The reception room behind the rotunda is as opulent as its counterpart. Murals by Savage depict armistice and peaceful pursuits. The walls are made of rich oak from England and Scotland, and the vaulted ceiling is filled with paintings of flowers, cherubs (symbolizing the Elks service to youth) and mythic scenes. …

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