Farewell to the Western-Belmont Overpass

Looking west on Belmont toward the Western Overpass

Looking west on Belmont toward Western

If you’ve been around Western and Belmont lately, you’ll know that the overpass there is gone.  The viaduct that carried Western Avenue over the intersection was built in 1962, to aid traffic flow at the adjacent Riverview amusement park.  Riverview closed five years later, but the viaduct stayed in place.

Looking north on Western toward Belmont

Approaching the Overpass—looking north on Western toward Belmont

In 2013 the city decided to tear down the crumbling structure, rather than replace it.  I wrote about this in one of my last WBEZ stories.  Now they’ve finally gotten around to doing so.

Under the Overpass--looking north on Western toward Belmont

Under the Overpass—looking north on Western toward Belmont

Most planners didn’t worry much about aesthetics a half-century ago.  Or if they did, they argued that form must reveal function, without any sort of artificial embellishments.  I always thought this was just an excuse to cut costs.  Let’s face it—the overpass here was ugly.

View east on Belmont from the Western Overpass

View east on Belmont from the Western Overpass

I’d already taken a number of photos on and around the overpass in 2011, and I ran a couple of them with the article.  I’m posting a few more now, because they will have some historic significance.  Two of the vistas will never be available to you again—unless you get a snorkel lift.

View southeast on Clybourn from Western Overpass

View southeast on Clybourn from the Western Overpass

Plans for the revamped intersection certainly look good on paper.  I do wonder what traffic will be like here in the future.  Only time will tell whether we have now gone too far in the other direction, and sacrificed function in favor of aesthetics.


Then and Now, Sheridan-Irving Park

1947--Sheridan Road @ Irving Park, view north

1947–Sheridan Road @ Irving Park, view north

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

Our location south of Irving Park is one of four places where Sheridan Road crosses the Howard (Red Line) ‘L’.  Both a streetcar and a double-deck bus are visible in the older photo.  The 2600-seat Sheridan Theatre is just up the block, on the left.

The Sheridan Theatre was converted into a synagogue in the 1950s, and later reconverted into a movie theater featuring Spanish language films.  The apartment building that replaced the Sheridan is slightly set back from the property line, so that today the bell tower at St. Mary of the Lake Church is visible.  A few modern high-rises can also be seen in the distance.


Then and Now, Madison-Clark

1960--Madison Street @ Clark, view east

1960–Madison Street @ Clark, view east

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

In the older photo, the Morrison Hotel is visible along the south side of Madison Street.  The original 1925 building was expanded several times, until the facility had a total of 2210 rooms.  The 565-foot tall tower made the Morrison the tallest hotel in the world.

The Morrison was demolished to make way for the First National Bank Building (now the Chase Tower) in 1965.  At that time, the Morrison earned another record—the tallest building ever torn down.


A South Side Project (5-17-1954)

As early as 1950, the Chicago City Council approved clearing twelve sites for new public housing.  Today the Chicago Housing Authority announced plans for a new project called Stateway Gardens.

The area covered eight blocks in the Bronzeville neighborhood, bounded by 35th, State, Pershing, and the Rock Island Railroad embankment.  The current housing was mostly frame shacks.  It was one of the worst slums in the city.



The CHA had already acquired a number of rubbish-filled lots.  Meanwhile, the city was working to clear the garbage as quickly as possible.  Officials wanted to begin building the new units before the end of the year.

Most of Chicago’s public housing was low-rise, no more than one or two floors.  Stateway Gardens was going to be different.  The planners wanted to have plenty of open space, to give the feel of “a suburb in the city.”  So this housing would be high-rise—eight towers of 16 floors each, for a total of 1,648 apartments.

Stateway Gardens was only the first stage of a bigger program.  The CHA wanted to clear the State Street corridor all the way south to 63rd Street, though nothing was definite yet.  If more projects were built, they would likely follow the Stateway Gardens model.  High-rise housing on landscaped plazas was the fashionable trend in urban design.



Later critics have claimed another agenda was at work.  East of the Rock Island tracks, nearly all the residents were African American.  The neighborhoods to the west were White.  Maybe the new public housing projects were an attempt to keep Black people on “their side of the tracks.”

If the South Side projects were really an attempt to isolate African Americans, then we’re looking at some real historic irony.  This date—May 17, 1954—is the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision banning segregated schools.

Stateway Gardens was completed in 1958.  CHA followed with the Robert Taylor Homes on the tracts to the south.  Both high-rises projects were torn down in the early 2000s.


Chicago’s Sons Prepare for War (5-13-1917)

A little more than a month had passed since the United States entered the Great War.  The country had joined Britain and France in the fight against Germany.  Now Chicagoans were heeding President Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy.”

At Fort Sheridan in the northern suburbs, over 2,000 men assembled to begin officers’ training.  For three months they would be instructed by Regular Army personnel.  Then the new officers would be placed in charge of various units, such as engineers, artillery, infantry, or cavalry.
Uncle SamLeadership was more prized than formal education.  “We would like to have [officers] who have good training in handling men,” the fort commandant said.  “The man who has bossed a section gang is worth as much or more to the Army than a man with a Ph.D. degree.”

On this first day, the officer trainees were measured for uniforms, took a lesson in semaphore signaling, and did a liittle marching.  They would get their rifles in a week.  Morale at the fort was high, though the men had one complaint—the electricity in the barracks wasn’t working, so they had little chance for off-duty reading.

Back in the city, Army enlistments were heavy.  The war in Europe had been dragging on for three years.  Americans had been reading stories about German outrages.  Now it was time to teach those villains a lesson!

At one recruiting station on the Northwest Side, 187 men took the Army oath in a single day.  The line of men waiting to sign up stretched for a full block down Milwaukee Avenue.

These new privates were young Poles.  Some were American-born, but many had just become citizens.  The Polish soldiers had a double motivation.  Besides fighting the enemies of the United States, they also saw a chance to help Poland win its independence.

Navy Recruiting Station, 610 S. State St.

Navy Recruiting Station, 610 S. State St.

While the Army was overwhelmed with volunteers, the Navy was having trouble filling its quota.  Just yesterday, more than 150 men had applied at the Navy recruiting station, but only 52 were accepted.  The rejects had bad eyes, bad teeth, flat feet, or other physical problems.

The Great War—today known as World War I—lasted until November 1918.  The United States  entered the conflict with a peacetime military of 200,000.  That fighting force eventually grew to 4.3 million.  American intervention was the decisive factor defeating Germany and winning the war.



Story of a Fire (5-10-1911)

Fires were always a threat in Chicago.  Even after the big one of 1871, the problem continued.   In many areas of the city, the lots were 25-feet wide, and the houses were frame with tarred roofs.  Often there was a second wooden shack hugging the rear of the property.  Fires started easily and spread quickly.

0--Back of Yards

On this date, another major blaze broke out on the South Side, in the crowded Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood.  At about 3 in the afternoon, a bunch of neighborhood kids decided to burn an old mattress in the alley behind 4500 South Laflin Street.  The day was hot, dry, and windy.  Sparks flew, and set a barn on fire.  Then a house, then another house.

Soon most of the block was blazing.  A dozen fire companies rushed to the scene.  Water pressure in the area was always weak—-the nearby Stock Yards took a lot of water for everyday business—-so the firemen had trouble getting a strong spray onto the flames.   The fire spread.   The whole neighborhood seemed likely to go up.

Mary McDowell

Mary McDowell

Over on Gross Avenue, Mary McDowell and her cohorts at the University of Chicago Settlement House swung into action.  As the fire blazed, dozens of people emptied into the streets in panic.  While the firemen continued to battle the blaze, the settlement workers took charge of calming the frightened mob.

Within thirty minutes of the first alarm, the Settlement House had been turned into a relief station.  As one newspaper put it, McDowell’s team “stemmed the stampede, soothed the scared, and bandaged the burned.”   They reunited the remnants of separated families.  They fed the hungry.  They found shelter for the newly homeless.  One of the settlement nurses rushed into a burning building and personally rescued seven babies.

At length, the fire was put out.  Twenty buildings had been destroyed and 150 people left without homes.  Remarkably, no one had been killed.  The fire-fighters had done their usual, splendid job.  And now the U of C settlement workers were also recognized as “heroines” for bringing relief to the victims.

Today, the Stock Yards are gone.  The University of Chicago Settlement House is also gone.  But Gross Avenue, where the settlement once stood, is now called McDowell Avenue.


Benjamin Marshall, Architect

In Chicago, architects have been celebrities. Sullivan, Adler, Wright, Mies van der Rohe–the names come easily to mind. There is also Benjamin Howard Marshall. Though not as well-remembered, he left a lasting imprint on the city.

Marshall, Benjamin

He was born into a wealthy South Side family in 1874. As a boy he loved animals and would often smuggle pets into school. Once he brought a pony to church. Ben Marshall would always do things his own way. He was charming enough, rich enough, and talented enough to carry it off.

While he was in high school, Marshall was impressed by the grand buildings of the Columbian Exposition. He decided to become an architect. Rather than waste time in musty academic studies, he apprenticed himself to a local design office. He became a partner there at 21. A few years later, he opened his own firm.

Marshall specialized in large public buildings. His first major commission was the Iroquois Theater in 1903. The theater was destroyed by fire in less than a year, with a loss of 602 lives.

Tragic though it was, the Iroquois fire had little effect on Marshall’s career. In 1905 he went into partnership with Charles E. Fox. Over the next two decades, Marshall & Fox designed such classic structures as the Blackstone Hotel, Lake Shore National Bank, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, South Shore Country Club, and the Drake Hotel. The partners also built many stylish apartment buildings along the Gold Coast.

Marshall cut a flamboyant figure. He designed much of his personal wardrobe, which included elaborately ruffled shirts, flowing ties, and–for the golf course–a large sombrero with built-in ventilators. He drove a white, customized Packard convertible. On one occasion, he threw a party for the entire cast of the Ziegfeld Follies. He had money and he spent it, all the while giving the impression that if he didn’t have it, he would have spent it anyway.

Marshall's 1550 North State Apartments

Marshall’s 1550 North State Apartments

The 1550 North State Apartments is a fine example of Marshall’s style. Its opulent Second Empire design suggests it might easily have been placed on the Champs Elysees, and in fact, Marshall labeled his plans in French. When the building opened in 1911, it was considered the height of luxury.

Each of the twelve floors had only a single apartment, a living space of 9,000 square feet divided into 15 rooms. The rooms facing east and north had magnificent views of the lake and Lincoln Park. The windows were fronted with iron balconies. Even the appliances were special–the kitchen ranges had three broilers, two gas and one charcoal, “so that steaks and fish need never be prepared on the same broiler.”

Marshall lived in the 1550 building for nine years. Then he erected a combination home and office in Wilmette. This complex included an entire room from a Chinese temple and an architectural studio large enough to accommodate a staff of forty-five. The property was so lavish it was listed as an attraction in Chicago guidebooks.

In 1936 Marshall sold his Wilmette holdings and retired to a suite in the Drake Hotel. He died there in 1944.   Today the Benjamin Marshall Society educates the public on his life and works.  This May 15, the society will celebrate “Big Ben’s” 142nd birthday with a gala at the Marshall-designed Drake Hotel.



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