UPDATE: According to neighbors and preservationists, the threatened building at 159 W. Burton Place was sold last week to a buyer who intends to preserve it. The announcement, posted August 15 at the neighbors’ website, Save Our Story, Save Our Street, is here.
UPDATE: On July 29 the city building department posted its approval of the demolition permit for 159 W. Burton Place, effective July 28.
There’s a classic Chicago question looming over a precious block in Old Town these days, and it goes like this: Which will come first, the city landmark status, or the demolition permit?
It’s an urban development High Noon, with preservationists on one side, a real estate investor on the other, and a big clock ticking.
West Burton Place is an odd little street between LaSalle and Wells, just south of North Avenue. Stumble onto it, as you might during an Old Town stroll, and you’re in for a surprise—it’s as if you’d turned a corner and stepped into a slightly weirder world.
On the southeast side of the block the neighborhood’s stately Victorian mansions are for the most part overtaken by an eruption of art deco and art moderne architectural fantasy. The first things you’re likely to notice are the moderne bookends: at the corner of LaSalle the stark white Theophil Studios, with stacked rectangular and large circular windows, and at the alley midblock its equally geometric sibling, attributed to architect Andrew Rebori. Between them, among a few other structures, is the sprawling Carl Street Studios, a warren of artists’ work/live spaces built in the late 1920s and early ’30s (when the block was called Carl Street) by artist and developer Sol Kogen and his partner, the extraordinarily versatile art deco artist and craftsman Edgar Miller.
What you see of the Carl Street Studios from the street is a quirky brick wall behind which is a maze of tile-studded sidewalks, carved wooden doors and staircases, stained glass windows, narrow passages, and a pair of courtyard gardens with koi ponds. Starting in 1927, Kogen and Miller, who met at the School of the Art Institute a decade earlier, turned a single rundown mansion—said once to have been the home of notorious Chicago mayor Fred A. Busse—into 17 one-of-a-kind artists’ apartments loosely modeled on the Montmarte studios Kogen had admired during a sojourn in Paris. The project attracted many other artists, including Jesus Torres and John W. Norton, who lived in and/or worked on the apartments, mostly using reclaimed materials, and it became the fertile hub for the larger arts community that eventually made Old Town famous.
(For more about all that, check out the Edgar Miller Legacy website, and Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home, a gorgeous tome by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams, with photographs by Alexander Vertikoff.)
The Carl Street Studios and the artistic homes that flourished around it are essentially unchanged since 1940. The block still attracts artists and art lovers—”self-selecting preservationists,” as one of them put it—and those I’ve talked with say they didn’t expect anyone who bought into this block to change its character. They didn’t pay much attention when a building at 159 W. Burton Place sold quickly last spring, and they were taken by surprise earlier this month when they received notice that a developer was preparing to demolish it. One of the few remaining Victorians on that part of the block, the three-flat on a double lot stands directly west of the Carl Street Studios and bumps right against its art moderne neighbor on the other side.
That got the residents’ attention. They don’t want to lose a structure that tells the story of how the block was transformed, and they say what they’ve seen of the builder’s plan—for a modern condo building like so many others going up around the city—would be jarringly out of place there. They’re also seriously concerned about vibration and other potential damage from the demolition.
West Burton Place is on the National Register of Historic Places, but unlike a city landmark designation, that won’t protect it from demolition. Amy Keller, executive vice president of the Chicago Art Deco Society and a Carl Street Studios resident, says that “neighbors are rapidly assembling the necessary documentation” to seek landmark status for the block.
The developer is Sebastian Barsh, of Castlerock Properties, who paid $1.3 million for the property. He’s been meeting with the neighbors, but declined to comment. At press time, his demolition permit had not yet been granted.
Keith Stolte, an officer on the Carl Street Studios condominium board, says that residents want the developer to “at least keep the front and side facades” of the building. The neighbors have a website, an online petition, and support for their endeavor from both Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois.
They’re hoping to be on the agenda when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks meets next, on August 6. If the commission makes a preliminary recommendation in their favor before the city building department grants the developer’s demolition permit, the redbrick Victorian at 159, like every structure that helps tell the West Burton Place story, will be protected—at least for now.
And if not, is there a 21st-century Edgar Miller around? v
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the correct spelling of Edgar Miller’s partner in building the Carl Street Studios. It is Sol Kogen, not Kagan.