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Legend of the North Side

Project: Uptown Broadway, Chicago, IL

Architect: SPACE Architects + Planners, Chicago, IL; L. Jean Dufresne, AIA, principal

By Eve M. Kahn

Unverifiable legends persist about the Uptown Broadway Building on Chicago’s North Side. Al Capone allegedly built the place and ran a speakeasy in its basement, which extends deep below the Broadway sidewalks. But the truths about the Uptown Broadway are as interesting as the tales.

The Spanish Baroque 1926 building is engulfed in terra cotta depicting rams, musical instruments, military trophies, garlands, volutes, Medusas, fruit, fringed curtains and tasseled ropes. The roofline bristles with urns and Poseidons, and the building’s triangular footprint, which backs onto the Red Line elevated tracks, narrows to an improbable 9-in.-wide point.

The Uptown’s now-underappreciated architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager (1887-1965), was prolific and charismatic. He ran offices in Chicago, New York and Dallas, working in a variety of Classical Revival modes (and after World War II, he segued gamely into curtain-wall Modernism). His 1920s masterworks are as high profile as Cincinnati’s Carew Tower, Manhattan’s Roxy and Beacon theaters, and Chicago’s InterContinental hotel.

In 1921, American Builder magazine devoted a 33-page supplement just to his hotels. Ahlschlager wrote most of the articles, describing his own work as "exuding pride and comfort to the guests, and insuring efficient and profitable operation to the owner." He also revealed his shrewd cost-cutting measures, such as reusable, nail-less wooden forms for poured concrete, and lightweight, wood-veneer fireproof doors from a brand evocatively named Py-ro-no.

The Uptown Broadway, although it ranks as one of Ahlschlager’s smaller works (three stories, 20,000 sq.ft.), is a widely admired jewel box. "This commercial building is a visual encyclopedia, with human faces, animal heads, foliage, columns, and ribbons," raves the AIA Guide to Chicago. So the building’s rebirth during the past year, thanks to the respectful care of SPACE Architects + Planners, Chicago, IL, has been a cause for local celebration. Urban affairs bloggers have praised the property as "carefully restored to its former beauty," and reported as chunks of lost terra cotta were replaced and long-boarded-up windows and storefronts reemerged.

The project architect, L. Jean Dufresne, AIA, principal, had been admiring the National Register-listed landmark for years before the restoration assignment came in. "I’d always hoped to work on it," he said. The developer, Chicago-based @properties, bought it in 2004 from landlords leasing to a motley assortment of tenants, including a toy importer, a dentist, an exterminator and a disco called Club Equator. ("And there was even a squatter living in the penthouse when we started," Dufresne recalls.)

Past occupants had jammed vents and glass blocks into the second-floor casement window openings and covered up the storefronts’ arched diamond-pane windows. No one had maintained the basement waterproofing, "so there were regular waterfalls of leaks down the basement stairs," says Dufresne. Terra-cotta urns on the roof were cracked or missing, as were iron urns and fleurs de lis along the storefront cresting. The storefronts’ black glass spandrels had also vanished, and the granite storefront base "had face brick just stuck on – it looked like a bad ‘70s fireplace," the architect recalls.

Yet surprising quantities of Ahlschlager’s imaginative details nonetheless survived. In the lobbies alone, SPACE staffers found plaster and metal cartouches, Ionic pilasters, griffins, shields and rosettes alongside planes of veined marble. "It’s like this building has wanted to keep going, despite the damage," Dufresne says. "It’s the little engine that could."

The architects have commissioned terra-cotta patches and replacement urns from Lupo Building Maintenance in Chicago, and worked with Chicago Architectural Metals to repair the storefront cresting. New aluminum windows on upper stories have buff coatings to match Ahlschlager’s original casements and terra-cotta palette. In the lobbies and staircases, SPACE replaced the vintage asbestos flooring with black-and-white ceramic tile but preserved the wall reliefs, scrollwork, rope-twist balusters and oak-lined vitrines for displaying tenants’ wares. The contractor was Riis Borg Construction Co. of Chicago.

The architects gutted the rest of the interior, adding ADA-compliant restrooms and carving out a trapezoidal central shaft for a fire stair. The fire egress routes lead to either the main lobby on Broadway or a back alleyway tucked underneath the train tracks. "We wangled a 99-year renewable easement for that crawlspace from the transit authority," Dufresne says. "It took dozens of meetings and phone calls to get it all straightened out."

SPACE staffers also spent hours with city landmarks-protection officials, "who looked over our work with a critical eye," says Dufresne. Although the building is not yet an official city landmark, it is in the Uptown Square Historic District and listed on the National Register. "It’s protected from demolition," Dufresne explains, and its near-landmark status enabled the owner, who has invested $4 million in the project, to qualify for $1.1 million in Tax Increment Financing from the local community development commission.

More meetings with government bureaucrats were required to finalize the certificate of occupancy, since the owner hopes to rent the cavernous basement to a theater or nightclub operator. Ahlschlager’s thick brick walls and riveted steel columns "soundproof the room to the point that you can’t hear the trains going past," says Dufresne. His firm added a few more columns to reinforce some clear-span areas below the sidewalk, and in fact tore up and re-poured all the concrete on the sidewalk, inserting a new waterproof membrane to protect the basement.

During the restoration, SPACE kept probing for some proof of Capone’s presence onsite. "We researched everywhere we could think of," Dufresne says. "But it’s not like people who ran speakeasies would have ever filed paperwork for them and left a paper trail."

What is certain is that Capone’s gangs were constantly murdering rival gang members around the North Side, "and there was underground alcohol trafficking going on all over the neighborhood," the architect points out. The Uptown Broadway’s elaborate skin, he adds, has helped fuel rumors that a gangster was the original patron: wouldn’t someone like Capone have wanted imposing sea gods and military trophies mixed with theatrical curtain drapes on his speakeasy façade? The building’s design is so rich, Dufresne says, "and there’s so little surviving documentation, people have felt free to keep speculating." TB

 

 

 
 

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