Thursday, September 8, 2011

Burton Place

The alley between 155 and 161 Burton Place -- notice the eclectic collection
of brick, stone and tile that make up the space (JWB, 2011)

One of the joys of walking around any big city comes when you leave the level sidewalks and the glassy buildings and bump up against a place or two that resists the tug of the present day, a place that shouts its uniqueness over the roar of the city.

One such place in Chicago is just off LaSalle Street, opposite Sandburg village.  It’s a tiny little street, cut off from Wells to the west by a cul-de-sac.  Originally called Carl Street, it is Burton Place, a street with a dozen or so houses on it, a street that leads you away from the noise of LaSalle and into another time, a time when eccentricity was tolerated, the gin was bootlegged, and the good times seemed as if they would go on forever.

Plaque outside the entrance to 155 Burton (JWB, 2011)
Carl Street had been around since at least the time of the Chicago Fire in 1871, but our story begins in August of 1927 when the Chicago Tribune reported that Sol Kogen bought a three-story residence at 155 Carl Street from Mrs. Antonia Radieske.  Mr. Kogen’s intention was to turn the home, which sat on a 64 x 127 foot lot, into a “studio building” and on its completion to “take up residence in it.”

Kogen teamed up with Edgar Miller, a friend he had met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1917, and they began the work of turning the street into an eclectic collection of artists and creative types.  Miller was a natural choice . . . he was an artist of some repute, especially noted for his batik creations.  A series of Miller paintings, “Love Through the Ages,” still hangs in the Tavern Club at the top of 333 North Michigan Avenue.

Together, with no outside help, the two men began to change 155 Carl Street into nine duplex studios.  They decorated the space with hand carved oak, hand painted windows, and individualized parquet floors.  Their approach was simple – finish an apartment, rent it, and use the rent money to begin work on the next one.

151 West Burton Place, just off busy
LaSalle Street (JWB, 2011)
The idea caught on.  In the mid-1930’s the Giulani’s took over an old rooming house at 151 West Carl.   William Giulani had been an opera singer at the Metropolitan, and the couple, with advice from Kogen, used glass from the Swift Bridge at the Century of Progress World’s Fair to cerate huge, curving windows that lend an art deco feel to the building.   The Guiulani’s also used broken bits of tile collected from what was left of the fair to cobble together tile floors for the stairways and halls in their apartments as they renovated and leased them, one by one.

By the end of the 1930’s five more buildings had been purchased and remodeled.  On the north side of the street seven families formed a collective that purchased five houses and began rehabbing them.  Among those involved was Clive Rickabaugh, a talented set designer, and Carl Peter Koch, an actor.

Other artist-types involved in the transformation of Burton Place were Eddie Millman, a muralist, noted for a number of W.P.A murals, including a $29,000 commission for the St. Louis Post Office; Jesus Torres, a specialist in metalcraft and an interior decorator for the Pullman Company; Taylor Poore, President of the Chicago Art Center; and Russian-born Boris Anisfeld, an artist and set designer who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1929 to 1957.

Windows, old and new, are a part of
160 West Burton (JWB, 2011)
You can still see the original window locations at 160 West Burton, a house that was built in 1887.  This residence sports several sculptural plaques by Edgar Miller, just as 155 West Burton does across the street.  The AIA Guide to Chicago indicates that Kogen duplicated the original plaques without Miller’s permission and installed them on several Burton Place homes.

In its 1942 article on the colony on Carl Street, the Tribune observed, “Between the 15 property owners in the block exists a unity which is rare . . . Three hundred residents of the block celebrate Halloween, New Year’s eve, and Christmas together.  Ever since the first studios were built, it’s been the custom to have an outdoors barbecue on Christmas Eve.  Every one from the block joins the fun . . . Some years a pig is roasted.  Other years it’s a lamb.  Sometimes both revolve on the glowing spit.  Sweet potato pies, salad and coffee are set on a long wooden table deep in the shadows under the protecting roof of an archway.”

An Edgar Miller piece from the first days of the
Artist's Colony on Burton Place (JWB, 2011)
Leave LaSalle Street, walk halfway down Burton Place, and peek through an open gate or through a conveniently placed hole in a wall . . . try and imagine what those days must have been like.  Days filled with laughter and the smells of roasting pork and sweet potato pie, all of it held together with the comfort that must have come from knowing that all your neighbors were your best friends.