Architecture and Disaster and History and Irving Park and Signs and The Hidden and Theaters24 Apr 2016 08:01 pm

I ran this on my regular blog, Gentleman Unafraid, a few years ago and realized it’s perfect Steppes of Chicago fodder. So, here it is.

Built in 1909, the Grayland Theater (3940 N. Cicero) was one of several small silent age movie houses in Chicago. Calledneighborhood theaters (according to the fascinating Jazz Age Chicago site), these tiny showplaces skimped on fripperies like balconies, pillars, and ornamentation, and were strictly built to hold a hundred (or fewer) people for an evening at the flicks. When the gloriously decorated, multi-seated movie palaces rose up not so long after, they drained away customers, leaving the neighborhood theaters to wither away. Eventually, most closed their doors. Yet, when compared to the palaces—which have, with the exception of a lucky restored few, been left to crumble or fall before the wrecking ball—an impressive number of neighborhood theaters survived—albeit in slightly mutilated form. Most, in fact, have been remodeled and re-purposed, usually serving as churches or stores.

The Grayland is one semi-survivor. Situated in Irving Park’s Six Corners shopping district, and currently housing Rasenick’s, a work and outdoor wear clothing store, the building doesn’t betray its cinematic past at first glance. Up close, the elements kind of come together. Notice the sedately ornate cornice (a familiar Chicago combo of egg and dart and dentil molding), the former marquee (I’m guessing), and some nice grillwork framing the front window and door. Well, that might not be original, but it still looks pretty cool). The building is, otherwise, in no way outstanding, but it has its Chicago working-class charm. It was built to serve a purpose, not win architectural awards. I came across an account stating that the building was designed by architect William Ohlhaber, who was also responsible for the insane Hermann Weinhardt house in Wicker Park, but that remains to be seen. The theater doesn’t show up on any notable building sites, but while Ohlhaber wasn’t in the league of Sullivan, Burnham, or Wright, he’s still interesting, designing a number of buildings and owning land in West Palm Beach, where he frequently summered.

A few Saturdays ago my friend Pat and I went to watch a Universal monster film festival at the Portage Theater (which, I’m guessing, didn’t help the Grayland’s business back in the day) a block north on Milwaukee. I asked Pat if he’d mind if we stopped by the Grayland. He had no problem with that and mentioned he might even be in the market for some work wear. Entering the store, we walked up an inclined entryway into a large room stuffed with coveralls, safety shoes, and various shades of plaid. As I figured, very little of the original interior remained. A drop ceiling had been installed, and the walls were (if I recollect) wood paneled. A fellow who had worked at the store since 1978 (I think his name was Rich), and who knew a bit about its past, told me the screen was most likely originally located at the front of the store, but the wall had long since been removed. He showed us around a bit, pointing out places where the drop ceiling panels had been removed, revealing a typical, charmingly patterned tin ceiling. I got the name of the store and building owners, so stay tuned for more information. Maybe they’ll let me crawl around a little.

Trolling through the Tribune’s archives, I turned up a few small but juicy chunks of history about the theater. The only record of a film shown at the theater I’ve come across are a series of ads for a whaling film called Down to the Sea in Ships. It starred a young Clara Bow and a little-known silent age honey named Marguerite Courtot. An early blockbuster, Down to the Sea in Ships was heavily promoted not only at the Grayland but also the Rivoli theater on Elston (currently the Muslim Community Center).

What I discovered next, however, is a perfect example of why I love research as much as I love writing. It’s the little surprises; the things that never occur to you; the unexpected tales that pop up during a humdrum review of microfilm or, in this case, online scans. While I’m positive I’m breaking a cardinal rule of journalism by extrapolating from a single article, I’m not sure what else I can do. An afternoon at the library might turn up more information, but I somehow doubt it. The local neighborhood newspaper has only been in business since the 40s, so no luck there either. Maybe I’ll try the store owner and a few local oldsters too, but… Well, heck, let’s get on with the story.

Albert Schmidt was unhappy with his recent purchase.

It was October 26, 1926, and he’d just called the previous owner of the Grayland Theater, Samuel Wertheimer, telling him to get over to the place as soon as possible that night. He was having a problem with the ventilation system, and he needed Wertheimer to come over and explain the cockamamie—or whatever expression they used back then—thing to him.

Wertheimer, we must assume, was wary. Schmidt purchased the Grayland only a week before for $4,000. While business was reportedly good—a film was showing when the two men met that day, shortly after 3 p.m.—it wasn’t paying off fast enough. Whether he truly thought he’d recoup the money in that short a timeframe is open to debate, but according to Wertheimer, Schmidt quickly got cold feet and had asked him twice already to back out of the deal. “Nuts to that banana oil, pally! 23 skidoo!” we can only assume Wertheimer said.

It seems Wertheimer cared enough to answer a few questions about the ventilation system’s operation, though. So maybe the bad blood flowed only on one side. Wertheimer showed up in the Grayland’s lobby, then followed Schmidt to the basement. Schmidt indicated the vents, which Wertheimer inspected closely before turning to see… Schmidt standing there with a revolver.

As Wertheimer tells it—and we only have his word for it—Schmidt drew a bead and shot him twice as he tried to run away. Maybe it was dark down there or maybe Schmidt was just a piss-poor shot, but the reluctant theater owner only managed to wing his target, putting a bullet apiece in Wertheimer’s arm and leg. An assumedly distraught, or at the least stressed, Schmidt shot himself, didn’t miss, and died.

Fueled by adrenalin and fear, Wertheimer ran up the stairs, out of the theater, down Cicero Ave. to a local doctor, who bandaged him up while he waited for the cops to arrive.

But that’s not where the story ends.

During the movie, a number of patrons heard the shots, and ran out of the theater (without running into Wertheimer, I suppose). One called the cops. As so often happens during stressful situations, the person making the call got the facts wrong, and instead of reporting a shooting/suicide, this nameless individual reported a riot. Two people had been shot by an unknown assailant, he or she said, and the gunman had barricaded himself in the basement. Seven squads of cops mounted up, armed for rioting bears with guns and “tear bombs,” piled into their cars and headed for Grayland. Some of the cops made it to the theater to discover the cooling corpse of Albert Schmidt.

Others did not.

One of the squads headed west on Addison, sirens howling and lights blazing. Meanwhile, Cecil Chapel, his wife, and and two kids were heading north on Lincoln, probably returning to their northwest side home on Kedvale. Both, according the article, got the yellow light, and both continued driving through the intersection. They collided, adding a bit more blood and broken bodies to the story. Officer Walter Riley, 28, was critically injured and died on his way to the hospital. Meanwhile Chapel and his family, as well as officers Thomas Alcock and George Hennesy were seriously injured. No further details on what became of them, though an accompanying photo made it clear things didn’t look good for Alcock (“AUTO VICTIM. Sergt. Tom Alcock, near death from injuries received in crash”). Ripples expanding outwards from a central pebble of violence cast by Albert Schmidt (listed in his obituary a few days later as having “died suddenly”).

Is anyone else thinking of the opening sequence in Magnolia?

Sadly, the Grayland’s basement was filled in during rehab back in the 50s—at least that’s what the Rasenick person told me. On a more amusing note, the aforementioned 1920s article referred to the theater as being built in “the old style.” Times change.

More info to come, if I come across it.






Architecture and Art and Columbian Exposition02 Mar 2015 07:52 pm



My parents recently moved out of their southwest suburban home and into smaller digs nearby. While they’ve given away or moved most of their worldly possessions out of the old house, my dad’s den—a 30 x 30 foot room he created by bisecting our basement with a wall—has yet to be fully cleared out of his sizable collection of books, movies, and other things. Dad said I could take what I wanted, which I’ve been doing for the past two years (it’s a large collection), and we plan to donate the rest to whoever will take several hundred paperback cartoon strip collections, hard cover classics, coffee table books about war and art, and such like. It’s been a long, slow job,  but along the way I’ve made some fun discoveries.

One of these was a hardcover book, minus its dust jacket and slightly water-damaged, called Among the Folks in History. It’s a collection of single-panel comics created by cartoonist Gaar Williams. I didn’t recognize the name, but his style was reflective of cartooning in the 20s:

* Lots of detail—every stick of furniture, gas jet, and piece of horse tack is rendered.
* A dozen dialogue balloons often issuing from characters in every part of the panels.
* Archaic and impenetrable expressions and interjections popped up repeatedly (“If you want those skirts to grow longer, girl, you better stick some sugar in your shoes!”).
* And, of course, the occasional bit of racism or sexism history’s folks chortled over back then.

Among the Folks in History’s premise was simple. Williams illustrated his memories of the good old days in Gilded Age Richmond, IN. Men with handlebar mustaches, bowlers,  and sleeve garters, and bouffant-bearing women clenched into swan-bill corsets interacted with newfangled contrivances, played mandolins in the parlor, chewed the fat around pot-bellied stoves, rode horse-drawn wagons to sundry fetes, and fretted over now obsolete customs and manners. Williams had a very nice upbringing in affluent Richmond where everything in the house undoubtedly rested on a lace doily. Everyone in his strips is nattily dressed, hanging out in barber shops, noting the new milliner in town, or gathering on the porch in the late evening to watch the night crocuses bloom. The jokes are less corny than opaque for lack of modern context, but then again the strip is less comic and more a series of memory nuggets created to remind folks in the 20s and 30s about those less hectic days.

Williams himself was one of those individuals greatly celebrated in his time but mostly forgotten now. He attended the Cincinnati Art Academy and the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually, he became the staff artist for the Chicago Daily News and later the Indianapolis News as an editorial cartoonist. It seems he didn’t like the work too much—though sources indicated he most often took the side of the “common man” in his cartoons—and later moved to Chicago, finding a job at the Tribune.

Among the Folks in History became his new gig (though he was also the creator of the strips “A Strain On The Family Tie,” “Silky,” and “Zipper”…none of which you’ve probably heard of unless you’re a comic historian…which I am not). Williams’ work appeared in 39 newspapers, until his death at age 54, June 15, 1935, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in his car while  parked on Michigan Ave. His wife and a female friend rushed him to nearby Passavant Hospital (which eventually merged with Wesley Memorial to become Northwestern Memorial), but he passed away only hours later. Accounts indicated that his death came as a shock, and he was greatly missed by his family, friends, and peers.

His legacy, sadly, did not endure. While the work of colleagues like Martin Branner (Winnie Winkle), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), Frank King (Gasoline Alley), Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Frank Willard (Moon Mullins), and his friend, the “Dean of American Cartoonists”, John T. McCutcheon (who wrote a nice foreword for the collection) has since become part of the American historical and cultural landscape, Williams’ name and strips can only be met with a puzzled “Who?” (Side note, check out this amazing Tribune promotional video of Williams and the above-mentioned Tribune cartoonists at work, presumably in the Tower. Also, prepare yourself for the unsettling vision of the real-life fellow who inspired Gasoline Alley’s Walt Wallet).

Too bad. the man did nice work. And for the purposes of this blog he provided a few interesting “outsider” views of the Windy City. The Columbian Exposition figures into several strips, though it’s mostly spoken about by the characters, either on their way to the fair or newly returned. However, Williams provided one nice view of the Statue of the Republic in the Court of Honor, while one of Daniel Chester French and Edward Potter’s bulls and goddesses stands by (more here on that). Click to enlarge.





I do wonder which “castle” Williams’ referred to in the below strip. Most likely the digs of Mr. and Mrs. Potter and Bertha Palmer, formerly on 1350 N. Lake Shore Dr.? Or maybe Beverly’s Irish Castle, now the Beverly Unitarian Church? I may search for more comics by Mr. Williams to see what other city scenes he might have rendered.


Architecture and Churches and Fraternal Orders and Loop and Old Photos20 Jul 2014 10:57 pm

Scans of photos from the Medinah Temple Magazine. I bought a bound edition of the Shrine’s newsletters at their auction in 2000. A few buildings are missing, and the ones that are still standing just look dirtier. Click to enlarge.




shriners_0002 shriners_0004


Architecture and Chicago and Demolition and Loop11 Jul 2014 04:01 am


















































Architecture and Art and Chicago and Logan Square and Loop and Louis Sullivan and The Hidden10 Jul 2014 06:03 pm

When not committing crimes against humanity, Hitler committed smaller ones against aesthetics. But while we owe him thanks for rendering toothbrush mustaches eternally unsavory, the man was a semiotic son of a bitch for taking the innocent swastika—a millennia-old symbol associated with power, energy, luck, divinity, and the life-giving sun—and turning it into a symbol of unfathomable evil. Argue all you want by citing which way the arms spin, Native American handicraft, and disconcerting/hilarious vintage photos, when most people see that crippled cross, their heads will fill with visions of jackboots and death camps. Naturally, that makes it all the more startling when the symbol turns up in our local architecture.

Until Hitler and his thugs reversed and dubbed it the Hakenkreuz (“hooked cross”) the swastika was a perfectly nice symbol. Historically and worldwide, it pops up in every culture. Deriving its name from the Sanskrit svastika—meaning “well-being” per Merriam-Webster—while modern folks immediately picture a cross with four branches bent at 90° angles, “turning” rightwards, the swastika comes in assorted shapes and sizes. You’ll find it in Buddhist and Hindu rites and temples; British heraldry; ancient Greek, Trojan, and Roman buildings and mosaics; native American arts and crafts (where it’s known as the “whirling log” among the Navajo); and, in its allegedly oldest incarnation, a 10,000 year old carving on a Ukrainian mammoth tusk. Sometime between the 1890s and 1920s, the symbol began to appear in company logos, clothing, medals, and elsewhere across North America. Architecture did not go unstamped.

There’s no hard and fast reason why the swastika became so popular back then. Contemporary archaeological digs may have had a hand in it, as 1890s and 1900s discoveries spurred revivals in decoration and forms. Explorations of the Pharaohs’ tombs in 1920s Egypt inspired Chicago’s Graceland and Rosehill Cemeteries’ obelisks, pyramids, and sphinx-attended mausoleums and tombs, and more eye-poppingly at the Reebie Storage Warehouse on North Clark Street. Swastikas were likewise carried over with the day’s humdrum obsession with neoclassicism/Italian renaissance revivalism. Rich folks requested their own (fingers crossed!) eternally standing Egyptian, Roman, and Greek edifices, so architects of the day carried over the conceits of the aforementioned styles. Others probably supported the symbol’s status as a good luck symbol—but why we don’t see horseshoes, four leaf clovers, and rabbit feet around town is unclear. Perhaps the swastika, like egg and dart patterns and dentils, was a simple yet striking way to decorate borders, friezes, and cornices. It may well be that people just thought the swastika looked awesome—though not in the way today’s racists do.

Tastes shifted. Sometime in the 20s, European nationalist groups adopted the symbol. Among these was the National Socialist Party, regrettably headed by a leader with art school background. Imagine the dismay of the world’s designers, companies, and architects, who’d placed swastikas every which way before Hitler came to power (though some showed feisty adherence to their brands). During the build-up to the war, materials with swastikas on them were often destroyed in shows of patriotism, while post-WWII the stigmatized swastika was obliterated or redesigned on many public and private buildings. Not everywhere. Cost, tradition, and a lack of angry protesters and the desire to deface public structures saved some swastikas—and it probably helped if they were the “good” left-rotating kind. Detroit’s Penobscot Building, for example, features a Native American tribute motif with legitimate, left-rotating swastikas.

In Chicago there aren’t many swastikas adorning public structures, but they’re there if you look for them. And you HAVE to look—usually up and out of the way.

Tessellating friezes are the most common way for the swastika to hide in plain sight in the Windy City. The proper term is the meander or Greek key design. Most often meanders appear in structures from the 10s and 20s, usually running the building’s perimeter a floor or three up amidst less memorable ornamentation. The middle building in the Gage Group (24 S. Michigan Ave.) features one, which most people probably miss while gazing at Louis Sullivan’s facade next door at 18 S. Michigan Ave. Evidence of Chicago architectural firm Holabird and Roche’s National Socialist sympathies? Not in the 1890s when they were built.





Columbia College’s Congress-Wabash Building (33 E. Congress Building), designed by Alfred S. Alschuler (who turns up later in this article), not only has a stylized swastika pattern but a set of terra-cotta Roman fasces for good measure.


Metropolitan Tower (formerly the Straus Building when constructed in 1924 by the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White) at 310 S. Michigan Ave. features another Greek key border, though these are broken up by squarish flower ornaments. The Tower is a swirl of symbology that would keep any conspiracy theorist awake at night. Aside from the swastikas, the building is capped by a pyramid topped by four bison statues holding a 20-foot glass ornament in the shape of a beehive on their backs. The “beehive, “symbolizing industry, is actually a multifaceted light fixture containing six 1,000 watt bulbs. Unless you have binoculars, none of this is viewable from the ground, but the beacon’s glow continues to burn blue each night.





Meanwhile, in an opposite corner of the Loop, the Builder’s Building (222 N. LaSalle) bears markings similar to the Metropolitan Tower’s. Not surprising, since they shared a firm in Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Perhaps they bought in bulk.


Elsewhere, at Navy Pier, Bubba Gump shrimp-seeking tourists may double-take at the meandering swastikas decorating the towers of the Charles Sumner Frost designed building (1914). Only a few are visible, the rest of the frieze covered by a shield ornament.



Arguably, Greek key/meanders are swastika-inspired, perhaps, but not swastikas proper. Some meanders go without the distinctive broken cross shape (see the Marquette Building’s second floor for an alternate pattern).


Those seeking singular swastikas, however, must crane their necks to see them. The Baha’i House of Worship up in Wilmette is one place. It features swastikas (closer to fylfots than Hakenkreuz) toward the tops of its nine pillars, representing both Buddhism and Hinduism and sharing each pillar with a Christian cross, Hebrew Star of David, Muslim star and crescent, and the Baha’i nine pointed star.

Back downtown, the Bank of America Building’s (230 S. Clark St.) meanders periodically turn into left-spinning swastikas, with two set off at each corner. Once again, another 20s building (1924) built by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White.



At the northeast edge of the Loop, we find an even more surprising swastika-decorated structure. Fans of Perfect Strangers—may God forgive you—will recognize Balki and Cousin Larry’s workplace the “Chicago Chronicle,” in Alfred S. Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building (360 N. Michigan Ave). Credit sequence footage and cutaway shots likely never showed the men gaping up with shock at the very distinct swastikas in the meander running across the building’s Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue sides. At the time of writing, most of the swastikas are covered by trellises, but if you stand beneath them on the Wacker Drive side you can see a few. Alshuler, interestingly, was a student of Dankmar Adler’s, and also designed several Chicago synagogues (among other buildings), including the sanctuary for Hyde Park’s ‪KAM Isaiah Israel‬ synagogue.




If there’s a category for “lost” swastikas, Huehl and Schmidt’s 1912 Medinah Temple (600 N. Wabash Ave.) would head it. The Shriner clubhouse’s floors once featured good luck swastikas inlaid in the floor tiles before being carpeted over at some point. I recall visiting and seeing them in the late 80s. Photographic evidence has yet to turn up, but the swastikas have been noted elsewhere. I have no idea if Bloomingdale’s preserved them under the current flooring, and I doubt a phone call would garner further information.

Leaving downtown (and aside from the Baha’i House of Worship mentioned above) swastikas are scarce. Who’s to say how many were demolished, painted, or bricked over before and after the war? However, two surprising examples stand out in Logan Square. One house that likely continues to startle passers- and drivers-by is 2711 N. Kimball. A cheerful little red-bricked building with a charming peaked facade and not one but eight chipper little swastikas skipping above the lower cornice. The house was built in 1906, and while I’m no expert, owing to Logan Square’s formerly large Scandinavian population, I’d say it was designed by some jolly burgher to emulate architecture from the old country.



A similar house turns up a few blocks away on Central Park Ave. Built in 1916 or 1920 (sources vary), it’s basically the same design, though it lacks 2711 N. Kimball’s panache. The peaked facade is absent, the bricks a duller shade, and the swastika in the southeast corner is weirdly muddled. A failed attempt to eliminate the symbol’s stigma? Not the first, and probably not the last, attempt to do so in this town or elsewhere.



Architecture and Chicago and Irving Park and Jefferson Park and Mayfair26 Jun 2014 07:08 pm

Examples of lovely light green terracotta and/or brick around the Mayfair, Jefferson Park, and Old Irving park neighborhoods. Click to expand. I’ll try to dig for more information.












Architecture and Aurora and George Grant Elmslie and Outside Chicago and Preservation11 Aug 2013 05:21 am

I’ve mentioned George Grant Elmslie, Louis Sullivan’s former draftsman, here and elsewhere before, particularly noting one of his smaller working buildings, the Peoples Gas Irving Park Neighborhood Store at 4839 W. Irving Park Road.

Elmslie is best-known as the man who festooned Adler and Sullivan’s buildings with fractalizing terra cotta and cast-iron explosions of leaves, flowers, and other elements, bringing rapturous glissandos and arpeggios to Sullivan’s architectural operas. After leaving Sullivan, Elmslie started a firm with William Gray Purcell (about which more here). When that partnership dissolved, Elmslie went on to collaborate with other architects, but also worked through his own company, George G. Elmslie & Associates. Aurora, IL, as it turns out, holds the largest number of Elmslie’s commercial buildings in one place. All were designed in the 1920s, and though most experienced some unfortunate alterations over the decades, they remain mostly intact and feature Elmslie’s later, more subdued, but no less lovely, ornamentation.

Included below are photos of Elmslie’s German-American National Bank, Old Second National Bank (particularly amazing), Keystone Building, William H. Graham Building, and Healey Chapel. I’ve thrown in a few photos of Leland Tower/Leland Hotel (I knew nothing about its impressive history as the former tallest building outside of Chicago and a recording studo location for such blues performers as Sonny Boy Williams I, Robert Nighthawk, Jazz Gillum, Big Joe Williams, Washboard Sam, Tampa Red, and Yank Rachell), and Aurora’s Paramount Theater for good measure. Who would have thought the location of Wayne’s World would be so culturally rich?

Architecture and Chicago and Lincoln Park and Louis Sullivan and Preservation10 Mar 2013 05:28 pm

I drove over to Wells Street to take pictures of the former location of the Ripley’s Believe It…or Not! Museum for an upcoming post. On the way back I stopped by several Adler and Sullivan buildings I’d yet to visit. If you didn’t know already, the best time to visit buildings and snap pictures is early Sunday morning. Even the busiest streets have plenty of parking and no sidewalk traffic.

Here are several still standing structures erected by A&S in the early days of their partnership. Most are located in Lincoln Park. Wish the weather had cooperated a bit. I’ll return another, brighter day.

1826–34 N. Lincoln Park West, Row Houses for Ann Halsted


440 W. Belden, Ann Halsted House



2147 N. Cleveland Ave., Leon Mannheimer House



2310-12 N. Lincoln Ave., Ferdinand Kaufmann Store & Building



IMG_8114 IMG_8115





Architecture and Englewood and History and Old Photos06 Mar 2013 12:20 am

Another picture from the same book.


Architecture and Chicago and Old Photos and Signs and Uptown06 Mar 2013 12:17 am

Found in a 1980 book about layout and design. Highly inaccurate caption (those cars look 70s to me), but I’d love to know if this is Uptown and when. It might be somewhere along Milwaukee Ave. Click to embiggen? Great signage!


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