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Women in Architecture: Isabel Roberts

As part of our ongoing “Women in Architecture” series, we’re spotlighting one of America’s most overlooked architects. As one of only two women in the original Prairie School, Isabel Roberts immediately became an inspiration for women architects in the early 20th century. Learn more about her riveting life and career below: 

The Life of Isabel Roberts

Isabel Roberts was born on March 7, 1871, in Mexico, Missouri. Her parents were natives of the eastern coast; her father was a mechanic from Utica, New York, and her mother was from Prince Edward Island, Canada. Growing up, Roberts and her family moved often; traveling from Missouri to Providence, Rhode Island, to South Bend, Indiana. 

The Isabel Roberts House, by Frank Lloyd Wright Studio, 1908

At 18 years old, Roberts moved to New York City, where she studied architecture at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers from 1899-1901. The atelier was the first in the nation to teach architecture with the principles used by École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Architects Emmanuel Louis Masqueray and Walter B. Chambers founded the school to forge more rewarding educational and professional opportunities for women in architecture at the time. 

Notable Works and Achievements  

In 1901 after completing school at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers, Roberts moved to Illinois to take a position under Frank Lloyd Wright in his Oak Park office. She worked with Wright alongside a team of six others, which included Marion Mahony Griffin, the only other woman in the group that would become known as the Prairie School. 

Eola Park Bandshell, Ryan and Roberts, 1924

Roberts’ impact while working for Wright is commonly underestimated as she contributed her design expertise to various projects, primarily after he left Oak Park for Europe in 1909. Some of her most notable projects include K.C. DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana – a commission for a friend of the Roberts family – the Laura Gale House in Oak Park and the Stohr Arcade Building in Chicago. 

St. Cloud Veterans Memorial Library, Ryan and Roberts, 1923

Commissioned by Isabel’s mother, Mary, the Isabel Roberts House in River Forest, Illinois, was another of Roberts’ illustrious designs with Wright. Completed in 1908, the home’s intricate arrangement contained a warm brick hearth at its core and utilized a mixture of half-story levels to connect living areas. The Prairie School design featured other innovative additions for the time, including a vaulted ceiling, diamond-paned windows and a grand octagonal balcony.

Tales from Wilmette: How an old laundry became a center for pioneering climate research

As the town of Wilmette continues the celebration of its 150th anniversary, it stands to reason that its rich history is full of fascinating stories and quirky characters. One such story comes to us from the annals of the Wilmette Historical Museum (WHM), which published a fascinating article entitled, “The Cold War on Washington Street,” detailing how Wilmette’s SIPRE – the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment was founded. The article’s author, Patrick Leary, retired from the WHM in 2020 after a 21-year tenure as its curator. As the piece unfolds, Patrick explains:

“By 1950, as American troops fought in the Korean winter and the chill of the Cold War settled over the world, U.S. Army planners had come to realize that they needed to know much more about the icy regions that lay between America and the Soviet Union. Most urgently, they needed to know how to build things – roads, radar stations, underground bunkers, airfields, missile silos – in places where the ground is forever frozen, the ice is a mile deep, and the snowfall never melts. This intensive research program required a special laboratory like no other, and in 1951, the Army found just the right place for it: an abandoned laundry at 1215 Washington Avenue in Wilmette, half a block west of Green Bay Road.

They called it SIPRE – the Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment. As a location, Wilmette had the advantage of being within easy reach of researchers at Northwestern University, while the sturdy, three-story structure itself, with its big rooms and alley-side garage, well suited the Army’s purposes.”

Wilmette’s old SIPRE location at 1215 Washington Ave in Wilmette

Patrick explains how the SIPRE staff of civilian scientists and engineers set out to understand polar conditions. They carried out their work by analyzing ancient ice crystals taken from the depths of glaciers in the Greenland ice cap that were mined during summer expeditions and shipped by refrigerated plans and trucks to the lab on Washington Street. SIPRE’s work continued in Wilmette for ten years, during which time the staff grew from 17 to more than 80, and its footprint expanded to new office space in the Odd Fellows building and a lab in Evanston. In 1961, SIPRE relocated to Hanover, New Hampshire near Dartmouth University when it merged with another agency to become the Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory.

The history of this fascinating organization comes to life through Patrick’s thoughtful reflections on how a unique moment in world affairs and America’s response intersects with Wilmette’s own story. You can read the full story here.

Lakeview’s Hidden Architectural Treasures

Filled with an appreciation for arts, culture, and everything in between, Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood is home to some of the city’s most brilliant and iconic buildings. Forever inspired by the architecture surrounding us, we’ve been out and about to spotlight a few of the many architectural treasures found near our newest development, Optima Lakeview:

Landmark Century Cinema

Landmark Century Cinema, one of the neighborhood’s most opulent structures, opened its doors in 1925 at 2828 N Clark Street. The structure, originally named Diversey Theater, was designed by Edward Eichenbaum of Levy and Klient, a prominent architectural firm that was known for their theater designs at the time. The stunning theater was built with a Spanish Baroque Style façade which has remained in excellent condition throughout the building’s life.

Throughout the building’s nearly century-long existence, it has undergone several renovations and name changes. In honor of the Century of Progress World Fair hosted in Chicago from 1933-34, the building became the Century Theater. With the name change came a complete remodeling of its interior space, which introduced various Art Deco elements to the theater. 

In 2000, the Landmark Theater Chain bought the property, prompting the name change to Landmark Century Cinema. With the purchase came further restorations and renovations across the historic structure. Today, Landmark Century Cinema exhibits its original Baroque terracotta facade and updated neo-Art Deco interior. 

The vibrant interior of Schubas Tavern

Schubas Tavern

What was once a beloved tied house – a bar created to serve only a single brand of beer – is now a historic tavern featuring some of Lakeview’s most stunning interior and exterior architecture. Built by architectural firm Frommann and Jebsen, Schubas Tavern originated as a Schlitz Beer tavern in 1903.  

The company operated the tavern for over 80 years until the building was bought by Schubas in 1989. With restoration at the front of their minds, Schubas refreshed the historic bar’s 30-foot Brunswick mahogany bar, tin ceilings, walnut wainscoting along with exterior fixtures that included the famous Schlitz globe logo. Often frequented for its showstopping concerts and events, one of the most significant renovations for the building was its timber performance stage, which has been host to a variety of big names, including Janelle Monet, Billie Eilish and The Nationals.

The bar’s newest architectural addition, Tied House, exhibits a modern reinvention of the iconic tavern. The new restaurant and bar utilizes traditional tavern materials, including brick patterns, copper accents and ceiling tiles, while transforming them in a modern fashion. 

The Classical Revival Style façade of the Marshfield Trust and Savings Building

Marshfield Trust and Savings Building

Dramatically rising from its compact triangular lot at 3325 N Lincoln Ave, the former Marshfield Trust and Savings Building showcases various unique architectural elements that still radiate today. The historic bank building was constructed in 1924 by Architect William Gibbons Uffendell and Contractor Arthur Brundage, who would later become President of the International Olympic Committee.

The lanky flatiron building, which utilizes Classical Revival Styles of architecture, showcases an ornate terracotta exterior that features various elaborate designs. Two-story arched windows stretch along both sides of the building’s façade and meet in the middle to reveal the building’s main entrance, which is framed with an eye-catching bracketed cornice above its doors. 

With the opening of Optima Lakeview fast approaching, we couldn’t be more thrilled to continue showcasing what makes our new vibrant community so special.

Optima Communities: Exploring Wilmette’s Rich History

With groundbreaking underway for Optima Verdana in Wilmette, IL, we’re discovering this vibrant community and all it has to offer — including its rich history.

Bordering Lake Michigan and located 14 miles north of the Chicago Loop, Wilmette is recognized as one of the most prestigious communities in the nation. It started as a small settlement on Chicago’s North Side in 1872 and by the mid-twentieth century, it emerged as a distinctive, desirable suburb with unique vitality, extraordinary walkability along tree-lined, brick streets and a character all its own. 

Fast forward to today, when Wilmette, with a population of nearly 30,000, has fully matured into a vibrant community. Small businesses and lively restaurants flourish, each bringing a refreshing offering to this thriving, 21st century livable village. The lakefront, parks and gardens are all within easy reach. Culture abounds with music, theater, art and cinema. And the Wilmette schools are considered among the best in the country.  

As luck would have it, 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of Wilmette. As celebrations for this important milestone continue throughout the year, Wilmette is proud to showcase its reputation as future-facing while showing a deep appreciation for the past, including a host of events that shine a light on its delightfully eclectic history.

Bahá'í House of Worship
Bahá’í House of Worship

Mark your calendars…

To start the sesquicentennial year, all are welcome to the Wilmette Historical Museum’s  annual meeting and lecture via Zoom. John Jacoby, former Village President and Wilmette Beacon columnist, will discuss his recent book Wilmette at 150, a collection of essays on Wilmette. Mr. Jacoby’s talk will explore the lost landmarks of Wilmette. Learn about the stories of the significant buildings and other structures that are no longer in existence, including some of the oldest in Wilmette, such as the Big Tree and the Unity Church. Hear fascinating tales of Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit to the North Shore, the German POW camp in Harms Woods, the colorful history of No Man’s Land, the perseverance of world pushup champion Chick Lister and Public Enemy Number One Baby Face Nelson’s demise on Walnut Avenue.

You can stay connected to all the sesquicentennial happenings on the Wilmette at 150 website. And to attend the meeting and lecture, which will take place Sunday, January 30, 2022, from 2:00pm – 3:30pm,

Register HERE.

Chicago Modernist Gems: A Visit to the Schweikher House

As we continue to discover Modernist treasures in and around Chicago, we came upon the work of Paul Schweikher, a visionary architect who studied, lived and worked in Chicago between 1938 and 1953. It’s a welcome surprise that Schweikher House, his home and professional studio, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and are open for public tours.

About the Architect

Paul Schweikher graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Colorado Boulder and moved to Chicago to study at The Art Institute. In the 1930s, he began a collaboration with George Fred Keck, a visionary Modernist architect known for his design of the House of Tomorrow at the Century of Progress International Exposition. Equally impressive, Schweikher’s work was included in a major architectural exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933, the Work of Young Architects in the Middle West. Schweikher went on to establish an architectural practice in 1934; it was in this practice that he designed some of his most celebrated commissions including the David B. Johnson House (Chicago, 1936), Emerson Settlement House (1939, Hinsdale, IL) and Louis C. Upton House (1950, Paradise Valley, AZ).

After being named chairman of the Yale School of Architecture in 1953, Schweikher became head of the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture in 1958 and retired in Sedona AZ in 1970.

The Schweikher House

Schweikher built the house in 1937-38, after being inspired on a trip to Japan to study the country’s architecture. As both his private residence and his professional architecture studio, the building reflects a unique amalgam of Prairie, Japanese and vernacular architecture — with a strong modernist underpinning.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive
Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive

The one-story, T-shaped house was a complete remodel of an old barn situated on a 7-½ acre plot of farmland on the outskirts of Chicago in Roselle, IL. Schweikher chose common materials including brick, red cypress wood and glass to reflect his interests in sustainability and engineering. He designed the interior as distinct areas for sleeping, living and working, connected to allow for a constant flow of natural light and air. He built a massive fireplace in the living room to establish the house’s character, while giving the Chicago common bricks center stage. Inspired by the Japanese minimalist architecture he had seen on his travels, Schweikher included a passive solar room, exposed wood beams, built-in furniture, a soaking tub, concealed storage in the paneling in each of the rooms, and shoji screens throughout the building. 

After nearly a decade of serving as the Schweikher home and studio, the house was featured in the May 1947 issue of Architectural Forum magazine. By that time, the surrounding gardens designed by Franz Lipp, one of the country’s foremost landscape architects, had matured magnificently. In 1948–50, Schweikher made a series of additions including a formal studio that cantilevers over the large back yard and connects by a breezeway to the main building. 

In 1953, when he took up his new position at Yale, Schweikher sold the home to Martyl and Alexander Langsdorf. Over the ensuing decades as owners and occupants, the Langsdorfs maintained the building and grounds with meticulous care, and spearheaded the effort to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. In 1999, they sold the Schweikher House to the Village of Schaumburg in 1999 so it could be preserved as a public house museum, allowing this treasure of timeless architectural value to be experienced, enjoyed and learned from by all.

Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive
Photo courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Hedrich Blessing Archive

Scheduling a Visit

The Schweikher House is located at 645 W Meacham Road in Schaumburg, IL. Tickets to docent-led tours can be purchased online; a reservation is required.

Chicago Skyscraper History: the Merchandise Mart

Chicago has earned its place on the architectural map with endless distinctions, including being home to the tallest building in the world for 25 years and to numerous acclaimed architects like Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony Griffin and Jeanne Gang. But did you know that it’s also home to the world’s largest commercial building? Today, we’re taking a look at the history of the city’s beloved Merchandise Mart

How It Came to Be

As dated infrastructure (like the abandoned railroad yards in the downtown area) proliferated in the early decades of the 20th century, more and more land development opportunities opened up. In hopes of beautifying the frontage along the Chicago River, Marshall Field & Co. announced their purchase of one of the largest available sites, at the junction of the River’s branches. The company began construction in 1928 and when the Merchandise Mart opened in 1930, it achieved the company’s dream of becoming a dedicated wholesale center for architectural and interior design vendors and trades serving the entire nation. And, with 4 million square feet on 25 floors under a single roof spanning two city blocks, it became the largest building in the world.

Merchandise Mart, Courtesy of Jeremy Atherton

TheMART was imagined as a city-within-a-city. Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the architects behind the structure’s streamlined look, took inspiration from traditional Art Deco architectural elements, including ribbon piers to define windows, setbacks and pavilions atop each corner to disguise the bulk of the building. Marshall Field himself was involved in the building’s design; his love for art inspired him to employ Jules Guerin to create 17 murals on the interior lobby’s frieze. Each mural details trade throughout the world and depicts the products, transportation and architecture of 14 countries.

TheMART was also a monumental experiment in state-of-the-art engineering and modern materials. At a cost of $26 million, it took advantage of construction techniques normally used in the building of big dams and employed nearly 5,700 workers at the height of the Great Depression.

theMART in the Modern Era

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, theMART faced a handful of modernization projects. One was designed by Helmut Jahn to connect the building with the Apparel Center located across Orleans Street with a pedestrian bridge. The building was LEED Certified Silver in 2007, followed by LEED Gold Certification in 2013 and in 2018.

In recent years, as the contract furniture industry has evolved from a focus on a wholesale hub and independent manufacturer showrooms, the Mart has repositioned itself as a destination for innovation, creativity, technology and entrepreneurship. Rebranded “theMART,” the building remains the world’s largest commercial building, and has become home to a host of changemakers, including Motorola Mobility, 1871, Yelp, PayPal and MATTER, as well as Fortune 500 companies Conagra, Allstate, Kellogg, Beam Suntory, and Grainger.

Art on theMart, Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition, Monet and Chicago, April, 2021

Today, theMART continues to celebrate an appreciation for architecture and art. The building now hosts a digital art display popularly known for “Art on theMART,” to showcase the work of prominent artists on the south façade of the structure. 

With our love for all things “forever modern” at Optima, we are proud to have this magnificent example of design innovation and tireless reinvention in our midst.

Exploring Lakeview’s Theatre District

Lakeview’s deep appreciation for the arts and support for its thriving creative community are just some of the many reasons we love the neighborhood. In anticipation of Optima Lakeview’s upcoming opening, we’re taking a walk through one of the community’s most vibrant sectors, the Belmont Theater District

Star-studded Location

A collaboration between the Lakeview and Lakeview East Chambers of Commerce in partnership with local theaters and businesses, the Belmont Theater District functions as a critical supporter of the immense talent that calls the Lakeview community home.

Located in the heart of Lakeview, the theater district pulses with lively energy through more than 20 theaters that line the streets surrounding Belmont Avenue. Its prime location is within walking distance to hundreds of shops and restaurants, making it the perfect spot to spend quality time with friends, family and everyone in between. The historic venues, some of which are nearly a century old, all bring their own unique contributions to the theater district. 

Standout Performances

With more than 100 live shows every week, visitors can find everything from world-class performances to hole-in-the-wall comedy shows. In the midst of this abundance and variety, the Belmont Theater District — the largest theater district in Chicago — is home to a few showstopping venues and performances that stand out from the rest. 

The Blue Man Group performing at the Briar Street Theater.
The Blue Man Group performing at the Briar Street Theater

One of the neighborhood’s most beloved venues, the Briar Street Theater has provided a constant source of entertainment since its opening in 1985. The renowned theater has hosted several famous guests, including Sada Thompson and Dorothy Loudon, and displays artwork created by Van Gogh and Picasso. Since 1997, it has been the home to the iconic Blue Man Group act, which continues to delight audiences of all ages with its stage productions that incorporate many kinds of music and art, both popular and obscure.

The Music Box Theater found on North Southport Avenue has been standing for nearly a century, making it one of the oldest theaters in the neighborhood. The venue originally opened as a single-screen theater playing everything from independent films to Spanish and Arabic language films. Today, the ornately-designed theater operates as an art-house and revival cinema and is recognized as the largest full-time operating film theater in Chicago. 

The interior of the Mercury Theater, Courtesy of the Mercury Theater
The interior of the Mercury Theater, Courtesy of the Mercury Theater

Other iconic venues in the community include The Playground Theater, which showcases the Chicago-born art form of improvisation, and Mercury Theater, where melodramatic musicals and plays ranging from Sister Act to Clue are enjoyed by all. 

With a shared appreciation for the arts and community, we couldn’t be more excited to become an official member of the Lakeview community and can’t wait to explore more of the charismatic neighborhood.

Lakeview’s Holiday-Themed Pop-Ups

With the holiday season comes vibrant lighting, extravagant decorations and joyful crowds. And in these gleeful times, Lakeview is one of the best neighborhoods to partake in festive celebrations. The annual Wrigleyville Wonderland, Chicago’s largest pop-up event, draws visitors from near and far, but Optima Lakeview residents and those living in the area have prime access. 

The beloved tradition returns this year to celebrate the holidays with 20 show-stopping Lakeview locations. Each bar brings its own unique twist on a festive theme. Visitors are promised fully decorated spaces filled with costumed performers, cheery music and holiday-inspired food and drinks throughout the season.

The participating bars will be sure to fulfill your craving to celebrate the holidays over the next few weeks and some long after the start of the new year. Check out the list of Wrigleyville Wonderland’s participants below:

  • The Country Club, 3462 N. Clark St., its original holiday pop-up runs through Feb. 1.
  • Deuces, 3505 N. Clark St., Santa Baby Christmas Bar runs through January.
  • Diver at the Park, 3475 N. Clark St., promises a Tulum holiday inspired experience.
  • Gallagher Way, 3635 N. Clark St., featuring Wrigleyville’s Christkindlmarket.
  • The Graystone Tavern, 3441 N. Sheffield Ave., a Hanukkah themed pop-up, running through Jan. 2.
  • Houndstooth Saloon, 3369 N. Clark St., inspired by the famous Griswold family, running through Jan. 10.
  • HVAC Pub, 3530 N. Clark St., the holiday pop-up runs through Jan. 15.
  • The Irish Oak, 3511 N. Clark St., a mash-up of St. Patrick’s Day and Hanukkah, Leprechanunaka,.
  • Wrigleyville Kilwins, 3519 N. Clark St., serving its 25 Days of Chocolate pop-up through Dec. 31.
  • Lucky Dorr, 1101 W. Waveland Ave., the festive Lucky Lodge pop-up is open through Dec. 31.
  • Moe’s Cantina, 3518 N. Clark St., inspired by the beloved holiday classic The Grinch and Whoville. 
  • Casey Moran’s, 3660 N. Clark St., has transformed into Rudolph’s Christmas Bar, open through Dec. 30.
  • Mordecai, 3632 N. Clark St., the annual holiday pop-up bar, Mistletoe, runs until Dec. 30.
  • NOLA Bar & Kitchen, 3481 N. Clark St., its Very Cajun Christmas pop-up runs through Jan. 20.
  • Old Crow Smokehouse, 3506 N. Clark St., featuring a festive Santa’s Workshop pop-up.
  • Rizzo’s Bar and Inn, 3658 N. Clark St., the holiday-themed pop-up features local singer John Vincent at 7 p.m. Thursdays and 5 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 30.
  • Roadhouse 66 Gas N’ Grill, 3478 N. Clark St., the Jingle Junkie pop-up is open through Jan. 8. 
  • Stretch Bar & Grill, 3845 N. Clark St., its Elf’d Up pop-up runs through Jan. 8.
  • Underground Lounge, 952 W. Newport Ave., inspired by the Island of Misfit Toys, the pop-up is open through Jan. 31.
  • Vines on Clark, 3554 N. Clark St., the holiday pop-up transports customers to an Apres Ski vacation.
The Graystone Tavern’s Hanukkah themed pop-up features traditional food and drinks options with a twist
The Graystone Tavern’s Hanukkah themed pop-up features traditional food and drinks options with a twist

With Wrigleyville Wonderland officially open for the season, don’t miss out on savoring the delicious festive food and drinks served at each immersive location. While some of the pop-ups run through February, others will end with the beginning of the new year. And, due to the popularity of the favorite tradition, many of the participating businesses are reservation only, so make sure to check their availability before making plans for a fun evening out. 

Chicago’s Christkindlmarket

One of the city’s most festive traditions, Chicago’s Christkindlmarket, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season. The holiday favorite celebrates culture and is beloved by locals and tourists alike. And, since the celebration can be found in two locations this year, at Daley Plaza downtown and Gallagher Way in Wrigleyville, residents at Optima Lakeview and Optima Signature have prime access to the festivities just blocks away from their door.

History

Visitors have flocked to Chicago to visit the Christkindlmarket since its founding in 1996, and today, the festival attracts more than one million visitors every year. The unique outdoor market takes inspiration from one of the first outdoor exchanges of its kind from 16th century Nuremberg, Germany, which shares its namesake. 

The festival embraces its Germanic heritage and brings international charm to a local scale. Traditional architecture mirroring the original outdoor markets is key to the Christkindlmarket locations, and transports visitors into a winter wonderland. Entangled in the classical architecture are ropes of vibrant lighting, garland and other merry trimmings, giving the market an extra spark of life. 

Crowd favorite hot pretzels at the Christkindlmarket, Courtesy of Benita Gingerella
Crowd favorite hot pretzels at the Christkindlmarket, Courtesy of Benita Gingerella

Visiting

For those who make the trip to Chicago’s Christkindlmarket for its 25th anniversary, expect a lively environment in both locations — abundant in holiday spirit, jovial music, festive activities, eccentric shops and traditional cuisines. 

At the market’s Daley Plaza location, an alpine-themed heated dining area allows guests to unwind and feast on delicious foods and drinks from various food trucks, including German beer, brats, pretzels, Belgian hot chocolate and apple strudel, among others. Wrigleyville’s Christkindlmaket brings even more seasonal festivities — some traditional and some less so — with its ice skating rink, ice bumper cars, curling, holiday movies, wreath-making workshop and other curated activities.

Handcrafted nutcrackers fill a vendor’s stand, Courtesy of Benita Gingerella
Handcrafted nutcrackers fill a vendor’s stand, Courtesy of Benita Gingerella

Exclusive vendors, both local and international, also fill the grounds at each location, selling their own authentically made gifts. Everything from intricately-carved nutcrackers to hand-knitted mittens can be discovered within both markets. 

A truly transformed landscape, Chicago’s Christkindlmarket is the perfect tradition to take part in this winter, whether you find yourself downtown or in Lakeview. Regardless if you’re searching for an entertaining winter activity, uniquely crafted gifts for family and friends or just looking to take in the crisp winter air, consider this your one-stop-shop. 

Daley Plaza’s market is open through December 24 from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. most days, and Wrigleyville’s market is open through December 31 from 3 p.m. – 9 p.m. most days.

 

Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright

Chicago is fortunate to have a rich architectural tradition. From the city’s first skyscraper built in 1885 to the transcending towers that look over the urban landscape today, architecture is at the forefront of Chicago’s role as a world-class city. At Optima, we are grateful to be part of an ecosystem that appreciates thoughtful and purposeful design. In the spirit of celebrating some of Chicago’s most prominent architects, we are delighted to see an exhibition at Wrightwood 659 that brings two magnificent lost buildings, designed by luminary architects to the public.

Romanticism to Ruin: Two Lost Works of Sullivan and Wright can be seen at Wrightwood 659, located just south of Optima Lakeview. This collection offers a glimpse into the rich history of two buildings designed by renowned architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis H. Sullivan. Though few connections are evident between the two structures at first glance, a deeper dive uncovers the rich relationship between the Garrick Theatre in Chicago and the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo.

Photo of the Garrick Theatre
The Garrick Theatre, 1891, Photo courtesy of The Richard Nickel Committee and Archive

Reconstructing The Garrick

At the time of its completion in 1892, the Garrick Theatre, with a capacity of 1,300 seats, was among the tallest buildings in Chicago. Sullivan and his firm partner, Dankmar Adler, designed the exquisite structure to reflect the German heritage of its original investors, but made every development choice with careful thought for the theatre’s visitors. As the historic structure faded with time, its decline accelerated, and in 1961, amid much controversy and disagreement, the theatre was razed and replaced with a parking structure.

Reconstructing the Garrick uses stencils, fragments, drawings, photography and narrative to bring the lost architectural treasure back to life. Some of Sullivan’s most opulent designs for the Garrick included numerous terracotta portraits of well-known German men of the arts that protruded from the Theatre’s upper floors. Fragile ornamentation and vibrantly-colored plasters consisting of gold, jade and salmon, salvaged before and after the building’s demolition, are on view as part of the exhibition, offering access to delightful details of this grand structure that have been long-forgotten.

Photo of the Larkin Administration Building
Larkin Administration Building, 1934, Larkin Company photography collection

Reimagining the Larkin

Razed in 1906, the Larkin Administration Building, owned by Darwin D. Martin, was Wright’s first commercially-designed structure and allowed him to apply his innovative and pioneering techniques to a much larger scale. The building, designed and constructed for the Larkin Soap Company, was groundbreaking in its own right as a center where all of the company’s products were both manufactured and mailed. However, at the forefront of Wright’s mind was designing for workability.

Wright and Martin both understood that an ordered, well-lit and harmonious environment would champion the workers. The five-story red brick building included numerous modernized mechanics, including air conditioning, built-in desk furniture and suspended toilets. Wright designed most of the building’s furniture himself, and many pieces are on display within the exhibition. Deemed by critics and architects at the time as the finest commercial building in the world, the Larkin also seamlessly unified technology with the nature that surrounded it with its rooftop garden, recreation areas and water lily ponds.

Unlike the Garrick, after years of deterioration, there was little fight to save the Larkin. However, today both buildings hold greater significance than ever before. The Gerrick and the Larkin prove how transcendent architecture is defined not only by its material and look, but also by the lasting impression it stamps into history.

Romanticism to Ruin is currently open to visitors Fridays and Saturdays through the end of December 2021. You can reserve tickets to the exhibit here.

 

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