Urban Serendipity

Open House Chicago is a free public festival that offers behind-the-scenes access to 150 buildings across Chicago, organized by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The event joins one held in New York and other American cities that occur in October and are intended to showcase little-known locations to residents and visitors.

Ten days ago, I went to my first Open House Chicago event, visiting the Brewster Apartments at 2800 N. Pine Grove. It was designed by Enoch Hill Turnock in 1893, and originally named the Lincoln Park Palace. The Open House website described the building as including a manually operated caged elevator and suspended glass-block walkways, with a photo that had a very European vibe.

I was surprised by what I found when I got there. The exterior is definitely “Romanesque Revival” style, just as the website described it, meaning (among other things) that the façade texture is heavily rusticated stone.

Brewster Apartments

Brewster Apartments

But as I entered the building, it reminded me mostly of the Monadnock Building, whose first (northern) half was completed in 1891.

This is an interesting study in compare-and-contrast. The northern half of the Monadnock has load-bearing masonry walls which effectively defined the height to which a masonry building could be built. The thick walls are perforated by windows that are “mere holes cut in this huge shape,” as the AIA Guide to Chicago puts it. It was this lack of ornament around the windows that contemporary observers found most remarkable.

Monadnock Building

Monadnock Building

If you look closely at the Brewster Apartments, you can see that amidst the distractingly rough texture of the walls, the windows are punched through the walls as “mere holes” without the heavy ornament that is typical of the “Romanesque Revival” style. In effect, the Brewster building is a transitional design, meaning that it takes some design tropes from earlier trends, and combines them with some new ideas presented in the Monadnock Building.

Comparing the interiors of the two buildings is also illuminating. Within the Monadnock’s stone exterior (to quote again from the AIA Guide), “ a freestanding staircase spirals down from the brilliance of the skylit sixteenth floor to the dark lobby cut lengthwise through the ground floor. Around this open stairwell a light structural grid sustains stacks of rental floors.”

Monadnock Interior Staircase

Monadnock Interior Staircase

By contrast, behind its apparently load-bearing facade, the Brewster’s steel frame construction is wrapped around an atrium design “which resembles bridge construction” (to quote the AIA Guide again).

Brewster Apartments Interior Staircase

Brewster Apartments Interior Staircase

So I’ll now think of the Monadnock as a heavy exterior with a somewhat lacy interior; and the Brewster as a heavy traditional exterior fronting a steel frame around a surprisingly industrial atrium.

Buildings – like neighborhoods and cities – are full of visual surprises, if you look. And Jane’s Walk Chicago is meant to help everyone do that!

Monadnock Building photos are courtesy of DePaul University Libraries.

2 thoughts on “Urban Serendipity

  1. Love the open houses each year. but so much pressure to see ALL 150. which of course is impossible. but it looks like CAF for the most part is NOT reinventing the wheel each year and so if one is patient and does a few every year on both days, eventually all can be visited. of course, many of the spots are open all the time–ie, lobbies, public buidlngs, houses of worship, etc–but of course, sans interpretive materials and docents. but better than never seeing these places at all… so i keep the list from the CAF handy and try to go to the ones i can in between official open house weekend….

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