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Land of the Loft

Notes on the South Loop streetscape

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You can read the history of Chicago in the buildings of the South Loop. They show in their bones the successive identities the area has taken on since the Great Fire of 1871: enclave for the city's super-rich, great rail center, manufacturing district, publishing and printing hub, crowded slums welcoming African-Americans of the Great Migration, and the gentrifying boomtown. Though many of the mansions and industrial buildings have been torn down, a wealth of interesting structures endures. Some are mentioned in Martha Bayne's article; here are some of the other sites that reflect the neighborhood's rich character and history.

There is, for example, the wandering Clarke House, built in 1836 when its location at Michigan and 17th was a remote outpost of the settlement of the city, still a year away from being incorporated. After the Civil War the house was moved to 45th and Wabash; in 1977 it traveled to its current location (1855 S. Prairie), and it's now a museum open to the public. Designed in Greek Revival style, complete with columned portico and central cupola, and commanding expansive grounds, the Clarke House's evocation of antebellum Chicago offers a startling contrast to the solid wall of town homes on the opposite side of Prairie Avenue.

Architect William LeBaron Jenney was a bon vivant who, according to Louis Sullivan, loved to tell a good joke. Humor and architecture don't always go together, but at Jenney's steel-frame 1896 Morton Building (538 S. Dearborn), twin eight-story stacks of bay windows are hoisted aloft by a pair of sculpted atlantes (that's the plural of Atlas, don't you know). Their nether regions squared off and tied up in bows, they stand straight as pilasters at either end of the third floor. Bearded and ripped, they seem to be scowling a bit at their burden.

Before the advent of television, Chicago boasted hundreds of movie theaters, from grand palaces like the Chicago and the Oriental down to small neighborhood houses as ubiquitous as 7-Elevens. The South Loop was Film Row, where in the 1930s and '40s the major Hollywood studios built outlets that serviced those theaters, providing them not only with prints of features, shorts, and cartoons but with everything from lobby cards to light bulbs—even popcorn. Film Row survives today only in the name of the screening room at Columbia College (see Movies under "Street Level").

The imposing limestone, art deco-detailed Columbia College Dance Center (1306 S. Michigan) was once home to Paramount Pictures; the restaurant Zapatista (1307 S. Wabash) occupies a building built for Warner Brothers; and the restaurant Opera (1301 S. Wabash), a simple modernist structure with a curving glass block entrance, was originally the Chicago headquarters of Universal Studios.

The fabled City of New Orleans crossed from Union Station to the southbound Illinois Central tracks on rails along the Saint Charles Airway, a viaduct just north of 16th Street that splits the South Loop in two. The study of rapid transit known as the Chicago Central Area Plan calls for its demolition. But there's also blue-sky talk of using it to connect the commuter stations west of the Loop with the Michigan Avenue-McCormick Place corridor. Will the past become the future?

That certainly won't be the fate of the Roosevelt Road Metra Station, at the south end of Grant Parkits replacement is scheduled to be completed before this year's up. The commuters cringing in the winter winds as they cross the long, exposed walkways, the women catching their heels in the broken wooden planks, won't shed a tear. But take a moment while you can to appreciate the old station's decrepit splendor. See the leaning timbers strain to carry the walkway's endless trestle forward; feel the toll of time in the warped, bleached planking and covered-over windows of the squat station house, the shards of tar paper over the corroded eaves.

And speaking of the toll of time, the next time you walk by the vacant lot at 630 S. Wabash, pause a moment to ponder the fragility of Chicago's architectural heritage. This lot is all that's left of Louis Sullivan's and Dankmar Adler's pioneering Wirt Dexter Building, an 1887 landmark that freed up interior space with vertical cast iron beams that ran up the outside of the building in the rear. You used to be able to see those remarkable perforated columns when you rode past on the el, but in the fall of 2006 a worker using an acetylene torch to dismantle a boiler in the basement started a fire that destroyed the building. The Web site of the Chicago Landmarks Commission calls the Wirt Dexter an "irreplaceable link in the chain of work of one of the nation's most important architectural partnerships."

Until 1956, when it merged with Presbyterian (which later merged with Rush) and moved to the near west side, St. Luke's Hospital was a major South Loop presence. It survives as the Trevi Square condo complex at 1439 S. Michigan, a classically detailed 1908 structure rehabbed in 1995. Now balconies cling like barnacles to the sides of the large central courtyard. A penthouse apartment occupies a former operating room.

The South Loop is full of turn-of-the-20th-century loft buildings, many converted to residential use. One of the best is the 1909 Munn Building, now the Loftrium (819 S. Wabash), whose wide windows make for an extremely light and open facade. The street-level windows and entrance are surrounded by intricate cast-iron ornament in the Louis Sullivan style. Just down the street is the former Fairbanks Morse and Company building and showroom, now the Fairbanks Lofts (900 S. Wabash). Floors three through seven have conventional windows between simple brick piers, but along the first two floors there's an almost continuous strip of glass framed in cast-iron ornament, complete with asparaguslike columns, tall, thin, and topped with flowering capitals.

With the South Loop booming, new residential skyscrapers are sprouting everywhere. One of the earliest—and the most handsome—is 2003's Vue20 Condominiums (1845 S. Michigan), a 20-story tower with an elegant curtain wall and a projecting steel cornice by architects David Brininstool and Brad Lynch. Pappageorge/Haymes's 23-story Museum Park Place (1841 S. Calumet), rising like a red-striped mountain behind the mansions of Prairie Avenue, is bigger, not better. But they're all about to be overshadowed by the X/O Condominiums at 17th and Prairie. Two glass-walled towers, one 45 stories high, the other 34, they bend and flare as they rise. Architect Lucien Lagrange, channeling the modesty of Frank Lloyd Wright, promises on a signboard, "My Finest Achievement."v

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