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Sixteen Short Pieces on A City Neighborhood





[August 12, 2007] A walk through the pleasures and pains that form the texture of Chicago's Logan Square. [originally published, in much better-edited form, and with far more professional photographs, in the Chicago Reader, August 10, 2007, under the title, Between the Boulevards.

 -by Lynn Becker



1. Logan Square may be the only Chicago neighborhood with its own Statue of Liberty. For decades she’s been greeting the clients of the Liberty Bank for Statue of Liberty, Liberty Bank fo Savings, ChicagoSavings (2392 N. Milwaukee), standing guard over the steel-framed glass and mosaic-tile entrance. The building is an anomaly, a 60s design in a neighborhood that, as a general rule, doesn’t do modern. Take a walk down the street, south of California, and you’ll see what I mean.

2. The Congress Theater (2135 N. Milwaukee), opened in 1926, is one of the few survivors of a time when the movie palace was the YouTube of its generation. Today, the films, all-day, seven days a week, are long gone. But if you can still go there for one of its current schedule of concerts and occasional lucha libre matches, where you can check out the spectacular domed auditorium, Congress Theater, Chicagooriginally seating 2,900, and the massive, grand staircased lobby, a curious mixture of opulence and blank walls, as if the builders had run out of money.

It won’t cost you a dime, however, to stand on the sidewalk and enjoy arguably the best the theater has to offer, a the terra cotta facades featuring rich Baroque/classical ornamentation,a great pediment inhabited by supersized angels, bands of child 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.

Congress Theater, Chicago

3. 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 more humble than the Congress, the Logan is still showing movies nearly a century after its 1915 opening.

4. Further up the street the storefronts grow more ornate, though they’re primarily Woolworths, now Foot Locker, Logan Square, Chicagooccupied 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; 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 Foot Locker, the current occupant.
Morris B Sachs Building, Logan Square, Chicago

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.

5. 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 Illinois Centennial Monument, Chicago, Henry Bacon, architectseen in Paris. In the Parisian style, the square would function as a traffic circle, but what worked in 1871 in a time of horse-borne carriages and an 8-mile-an-hour speed limit doesn't translate so well into the era of the automobile.

Today, 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. The monument is offset to the west, so that the tall eagle is not even visible further down Milwaukee Avenue, which cuts the square in half.

6. Just northwest of the column is one of the square’s true architectural markers, the towering brick gothic Norwegian Memorial Lutheran Church (2614 N. Kedzie). Built by Gothic Norwegian Lutheran Church, Logan Square, ChicagoNorwegian immigrants in 1912, it’s the last church in Chicago offering services in that language.

7. 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:


8. 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 bus staging area, ChicagoLogan 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, originally a light near white, are darkened with grime and the residue of repeated and not entirely successful attempts to clean away graffiti. 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.

9. You couldn’t find a greater contrast than in another park laid out by Jenney a few Palmer Square, Chicagoblocks 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 both 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. The Chicago Park District is considering improvements that could include a crushed stone trail, more benches, and a new play area.

10. Logan Square is most famous, of course, for its boulevards and the mansions thatMansion, Logan Boulevard, Chicago 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.

11. 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 Rath House, George Maher, architectSchool to the boulevard.

12. But if you really want a break from the pomposity, check out the too-much isn't nothing 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 griffin-like cats guarding the front stoop and a cornucopia of other ingratiating strangeness. At Christmastime, things become every more exuberant. Seemingly every inch of the house is covered in light, and there's even a tiny ferris wheel with stuffed animals as the passengers. I've written previously on this house, here.

13. The real charm of Logan Square lies in what you find when you walk off the boulevards: simple tree-lined Logan Square Streetstreets 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.

14. Logan Square gets the little things right, whether it’s a lovely vest-pocket Neighbors Garden, at 2531 N. Sacramento:
Neighbors Garden, Logan Square
15. . . . or the vest-pocket sized Unity Park (2636 N. Kimball), with its charming mini fieldhouse and dayglo colored new playlot.
Unity Park

16. My favorite discovery in walking around the neighborhood is 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 its solid 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.  
Bernard Street columns

Read Harold Henderson's Chicago Reader history of Logan Square.

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© Copyright 2007 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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