Architecture was booming in Chicago in 1927: art deco monuments like the Palmolive Building, the Medinah Athletic Club (now the InterContinental Chicago hotel), and the Pittsfield Building were going up downtown, while in Grant Park, the city's "front yard," Kate Sturges Buckingham was honoring the memory of her brother Clarence with a modest 133-jet fountain. And in Old Town, a couple of art-school dropouts were carving a wheezy Victorian mansion into artists' studios. That may not sound like the stuff of architectural record, but the 17 intricately detailed apartments Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller created were unlike anything Chicago had seen before, and they're unlike anything it's seen since.
Kogen and Miller met in 1917 at the School of the Art Institute; both quit soon after. Kogen moved to Paris and Miller apprenticed with artist and craftsman Alfonso Ianelli for four years and made a living on commissioned work, including murals, sculptures, and stained glass windows. The two men reconnected after Kogen returned to Chicago in 1927, intent on rehabbing old buildings for use as studios the way he'd seen artists do in France. He bought the three-story house at 155 W. Carl Street (now Burton Place) and enlisted the help of Miller, who's credited with most of the design and contracting work. They recruited like-minded local artists and craftsmen, including muralists John Warner Norton, Edgar Britton, and Edward Millman and Mexican immigrant Jesus Torres, who got to live in the studios as they worked on them.
The magic of Carl Street Studios, as the complex is still known, begins at the motley mosaic of colored tiles and pavers outside the entryway, a lintel interrupting a brick wall. Just inside is a goldfish pond and the tall, narrow courtyard, punctuated by mosaics, frescoes, hand-carved doors, stained glass windows, outdoor stairways, and hanging vines. You feel like you've just stumbled onto some fantastic undiscovered back street in a European village.
The individual residences are just as lively. Kogen and Miller collected funky stuff and salvaged scrap and crafted what they needed to create a crazy quilt of materials and form. Larry Zgoda, a local stained glass artist who met and worked with Miller in the 1980s, says Miller "lived a life drenched in art, and he created... romantic, creative places that are drenched in pattern and color and the texture of their elemental materials."
Miller moved from unit to unit as work progressed at the complex, and his spirit is embodied in the peculiar details of each: a plaster-walled staircase with brightly colored treads, heavy wood paneling carved with a chevron pattern, a portrait of a weasel in stained glass. (Miller grew up in Idaho and had an abiding love of nature.) Many of the fixtures, including desks, benches, and even toilet paper holders, are built in. You probably wouldn't build anything like it today—the stairs were steep, the showers and kitchens tiny.
"It was like living in a sculpture or in a piece of living cultural heritage," writes Karalyn Monteil via e-mail; she lived in units 5 and 10 in the early 1990s. "Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller touched every millimeter of that building—every handrail, every window ledge, every soap dish holder."
Andrew Rebori, who designed the sway-backed Ontario Street stable that became Channel 2's studios (among other buildings that have since been landmarked or should be), was listed on city documents as the consulting architect, though he's quoted in the AIA Guide to Chicago washing his hands of it: "Yes, I was the consulting architect, but only when I was consulted, which was damned little." Rebori died in 1966; as late as 1993, the year of his own death, Miller maintained that the studios were still a work in progress.
Kogen and Miller worked on several other buildings together—including a cluster at 1734 N. Wells—before going their separate ways in the mid-1930s. And while Miller is responsible for more public work, including the limestone bas-reliefs at Northwestern's Technological Institute, the Carl Street Studios best demonstrate the artist's imagination and talent for freehand architectural composition.
Keith Stolte has lived at Carl Street for ten years, long enough to become accustomed to the zaniness. But every day he still discovers something new. "It could be a unique pattern in a painted pane of glass in the towering stained glass windows that dominate the apartments," he writes in an e-mail. "It could be the carving of a bird or some other animal in one of Edgar Miller's or Jesus Torres's hand-carved doors that I had not noticed before. It could be an artistic synergy at play between two or three exotic tiles near each other that you notice momentarily and may never notice again."
"It was the cosiest place I've ever lived," writes Karalyn Monteil, who's run through some 15 apartments in Paris since. "I still dream of buying an apartment there one day, and I have always told my friends and family: when I die, I want my ashes sprinkled in the little goldfish pond at Burton Place."v