Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wright in Maine: Maine Township Town Hall/Good Shepherd Community Church

The Front - now the back - of Good Shepherd
Interior of Church
A Chicago Sojourn features this distinctive building just outside of Des Plaines. Maine Township Town Hall was designed by Lloyd Wright and Eric Lloyd Wright, the son and grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built between December, 1958 and May, 1961.
Lloyd Wright at the church
The church was sited on two acres set aside from the Ballard Gardens subdivision by builder Godfrey Lindstrom. The design was evidently inspired by Lloyd Wright's famed Wayfarer's Chapel. The church displays an interesting break with the signature Wright connection to nature. While the Prairie style normally plays off its natural surroundings, here the natural connection was with a berm created on the site. The church featured a "living wall" that was actually set into the berm, such that the building appeared to be bursting forth from the ground, reaching toward the heavens; the extensive skylights highlighted this axis mundi between heaven and earth. Wright stated his aim here was to "lift on high, literally as well as figuratively, the site from the existing flat terrain; typifying the sense of elevation inherent in the religious purpose of the site and structures". Unfortunately, this being the mid-60s, others associated "set into a hill" with "bomb shelter".

Artist concept of completed church, none of which was built.

Three phases were planned for future growth, but the small Lutheran congregation never grew enough for the rest to be built. The first phase was the 200-seat church. It had room for a choir of 40, and an educational wing. The lower level featured a fellowship hall with kitchen, stage, and a teen lounge with pine paneling and a stone corner fireplace. The second phase would have doubled the church's size to 450 seats; and the third would be a wedding chapel atop a 30 foot ivy-covered mound, topped with a copper and stainless steel spire and cross.

Maine Township purchased the building in 1983 and continues to occupy it. In 1995, needing additional space, they enlisted Wright-trained architect Arthur Dennis Stevens (former partner of Don Erickson) to build an addition in keeping with the style. The berm was moved back away from the wall, to improve access.

Today the building continues to serve its community beautifully, and Maine Township has recognized it as a gem and works to preserve its unique home.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Des Plaines Villas

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 Ward R3PORT at 3rdward.org

The first thing that a first-time visitor to the Des Plaines Villas is probably the layout of its streets. As most 3rd ward residents can attest, the layout can be confusing and disorienting to the uninitiated. You have to know where you’re going. You enter at the corners and make a turn onto a curving street. It is a sharp break from the familiar grid.
Aerial Photo of the Villas, 1938

The Villas are a fluke of history. At first glance, most people would assume they were in a quintessential post-World War II subdivision. Large-scale subdivisions with non-grid layouts, limited access, and scores of ranch houses proliferated in this era. But appearances can deceive. Look closer, and you’ll notice Tudors, Bungalows, and Colonials. They reveal the true origin of the Villas in the late 1920s. The Villas was an early, large-scale speculative subdivision, and one of the prototypes for postwar subdivisions.

Some of the confusion in navigating the Villas might be that there is no geographical reason for the curves. They are unusually, rigidly geometric and not “winding.” While this may have made platting and sales easier for the developer, it has also made it difficult to keep track of where you are within the Villas. However, it also reduces four-way intersections, calms traffic, and makes the neighborhood more private. Villas residents don’t see cut-through traffic and speeding the way residents of Des Plaines Gardens (Jeanette, Margret, and 2nd) do.

The winding subdivision is often traced back to Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1869 designs for Riverside, IL. Like an English village, its streets followed the contours of the land and the Des Plaines River. Des Plaines’ existing street plans were essentially two grids on flat land. The downtown grid followed the diagonal of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, and the rest of the city was on a north-south grid. The first subdivision to break the grid with curving streets was Des Plaines Manor I in 1911 (Laurel, Arlington, Webford, Parsons, and Prairie) which was created in a triangular tract where the two grids intersect.  Cumberland, with its tuning-fork shaped entry and traffic circle was begun just after the Villas. The layout of the Villas may have been influenced by prominent planner John Nolen. The Villas were arguably the first auto-oriented development in Des Plaines. It was distant from the downtown and train depot. Its curving streets responded to speeding autos, and the limited access points and curves made walking distances longer.

Plat of the Villas

Des Plaines was growing in 1927 as the regional highways were built, Maine High School was being planned, and industry was blooming. The Villas were an ambitious project including water, sewer, concrete paved streets, cement sidewalks, ornamental street lamps, Norway elms, a 25-foot minimum setback and eight small parks (at the entry corners; these have been developed as home sites). Originally called Homerican Villas, the subdivision was created by a syndicate headed by Merrill L. Hawkins of Park Ridge who purchased 195 acres in the summer of 1927 for $265,000. As builders were planning Wolf Road, the Villas plan was to build the first 50 of 500 planned homes evenly spaced throughout the subdivision. Designed for beauty, all new houses would be subject to review by the Homerican Villas’ architect. The sales office was the Tudor-style building at 925 E. Thacker. 

The most elaborate homes would have been in the inner circle, with smaller houses on the edges. Had it been completed as envisioned, it would have housed a large proportion of the city, as it was the largest subdivision in the city at the time. While it has long been suggested that the Great Depression derailed the plans, it is important to note that the 20 homes completed (not 50) were built in 1927. Cumberland faced similar trouble. The developers may have been ahead of their time—and market demand—even before the Depression began.   Or it could have been the developer; Hawkins was found to control 14 companies which were quickly bankrupted in the Depression.
Diagram of the first fifty lots to be developed. In reality, only 20 were built, and not necessarily on these lots. Note the original landscaping plans and traffic-calming circles at intersections, as well as the wedge-shaped parks at corners.

The infrastructure of unused streets, sewers, and water would sit mostly unused for the next 20 years. The Villas became a burden on the city with few residents surrounded by wide-open blocks. The streets gained a reputation as a lovers lane, and children would play in the five incomplete homes. However, when suburbia bloomed after World War II, the Villas with its mature trees were ripe for the picking.

Manilow Construction, fresh from developing Park Forest - Chicagoland's prototype postwar planned community - purchased the 750 lots in 1952, re-platted them to 525 lots, and kicked off their $9.5 million project. Architect A.J. Del Bianco designed six different two and three-bedroom models with names like Briarcrest, Chesterton, Barclay, and Beaumont. They had all the state-of-the-art conveniences: white steel Youngstown Kitchens cabinets, waste disposals, high windows for privacy, colored tile, Kohler plumbing fixtures, and a flexible “all purpose room.” Almost immediately after the Manilow project began, the school board acquired the property for Algonquin and later Forest Schools, anticipating the families that would soon move in. 

The development was largely complete by 1953, and as Des Plaines rapidly grew in the next 15 years, much of it radiated from the nucleus of the Villas.

The Villas are unique in the region, and it is fitting that this summer we were able to celebrate its unique qualities with the first-ever bicycle race “Tour de Villas.” While it may never host a parade, few neighborhoods could accommodate competitive cycling like the Villas did.

Deval Interlocking Plant

This article appears in this month's Ward R3PORT at 3rdward.org
Click to enlarge!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Unbuilt Des Plaines: Plew's Triangle

Here's an interesting proposal for a shops, apartments, and gas station building from 1926, which would have been built where Giuseppe's La Cantina Restaurant now stands.

The building was proposed by the W.L. Plew & Co., which developed the adjacent Des Plaines Gardens subdivision, bounded by Algonquin, Lee, the Wisconsin Central, Thacker, and Second. Des Plaines Gardens was started in 1916 by E.B. Kendall, but didn't really take off until Plew took over in 1924. Much of the subdivision was built at that time, although it would not be completed until later. By the late 1930s the subdivision was renamed Westfield as more homes were built.

In the 1920s, new subdivisions often included a collection of neighborhood stores, for the convenience of 1- or 0- car households, as well as apartments. If you see an older store building in Des Plaines outside of downtown, such as the stores that used to be at Prairie & First, chances are it was part of a subdivision.

Unfortunately this triangle building was never built; instead, a few years later a single-story building containing six shops was built, which did have some Tudor style accents like a slate roof. In 1934 First Federal Savings & Loan, run by Mr. Plew, opened its doors here for the first time. First Federal is now part of First Midwest Bank. In 1963 Nick's La Cantina opened, which grew to take over the whole building, and now operates as Giuseppe's; it was fully remodeled in the 1990s, obscuring any trace of the original building.
Typify Good Old Days in New Building
Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1926
Back in the time of good Queen Elizabeth they built their homes and public buildings with high peaked roof, with timbered and beamed facings, and with other picturesque features that have made many romantic souls sigh for the "good old days" - at least architecturally. And then followed all manner of designs - many of which are to the eye as a bit of dust blown by the wind.
But now more and more we find our twentieth century real estate men passing up the current designs in building to go back to the days of long ago in planning new structures.
The latest instance of this is found in Des Plaines, where W. L. Plew & Co. have announced an extensive building program for this summer. Perhaps the most important unit of the program is a large apartment and store building which will be in the Tudor style of architecture.
Frazier, Blouke & Hubbard designed the structure, which will stand on a triangular plot at the intersection of Lee and Walnut streets. It is to have all the beams, high roofs, and plaster finish of the Elizabethhan days, but the owners are twiddling their fingers on their noses at the old timers to the extent of incorporating in it a gasoline filling station. But it must be confessed that the gasoline station, modern as it is, will be in harmony with the rest of the building.
The first floor will contain a number of stores for the use of the community and the upper two will contain kitchenette apartments, adding still another odd mixture of the ancient and the modern.
Previously: Unbuilt Des Plaines: The Arcade - Our first Superblock?