Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District
Peterson Avenue between Pulaski and Oakley
c.1950 to c.1970
The Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District extends over approximately a two-mile distance that stretches from North Park to West Ridge. Consisting mostly of low-rise structures that today house dentist and doctor offices, dry cleaners, schools, and even a fire station, the Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District is an overlooked collection of Midcentury Modern architecture in the City of Chicago.
Peterson Avenue’s Midcentury buildings were developed over the course of about three decades, with construction spanning from the late 1940s to 1970. Until the start of this period, Peterson Avenue was largely undeveloped, consisting of service stations, billboards, the occasional 1920s storefront or apartment building, and empty fields. However, that changed with the post-WWII construction boom that spurred a surge of development across Chicago’s North and Northwest Sides. During and after this period, Peterson Avenue’s sustained growth saw the look of sophisticated modernism positioned the district as a gleaming, contemporary destination for Chicago’s Northwest Side businesses.
While Peterson Avenue was not a formally planned development, many of the buildings lining the corridor were erected by a handful of developers and builders, many of whom also had their offices nearby. As they grew Peterson Avenue from miles of empty lots to one of the most sought-after neighborhood commercial districts in Chicago, the developers recruited a mix of architects, both well- and lesser-known, to further enhance the commercial offerings in the community. Some of the more recognizable names that left their mark on Peterson Avenue during this period are A. Epstein & Sons, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Perkins & Will, Paul Gerhardt, Jr., and Henry L. Newhouse II (son of prolific Chicago architect Henry L. Newhouse).
Today, Peterson Avenue’s Midcentury Modernist buildings are threatened by a host of issues and threats stemming from neglect, unsympathetic alterations, abandonment, and demolition. Many significant designs have been razed, with one recent example being The Sapphire Building at 2800 W. Peterson Avenue, despite calls by Preservation Chicago to adaptively reuse the structure. The Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District is also not protected by Chicago Landmark status, nor are any of its structures listed in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. As a result, Peterson Avenue’s history relating to Chicago’s commercial expansion on the Northwest Side in the middle of the 20th century and the significant architectural movement it represents are in danger of being lost.
The Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District is today threatened by a number of issues, all of which are eroding the architectural character of this historic streetscape. Peterson Avenue is suffering from a number of vacancies which leaves these significant buildings neglected and vulnerable to vandalism or weather damage. Two of Peterson Avenue’s most architecturally significant buildings, 2300 (1963) and 2606 W. Peterson (1958), appear to be currently vacant and exhibiting considerable signs of damage that will likely worsen until action is taken by the current or new owners to mitigate this decay. Prolonged vacancies also leave Peterson Avenue’s buildings at risk of prolonged exposure to poor weather where a lack of heating maintenance results in burst pipes and water damage, as evidenced by a recent occurrence in which water was seen leaking from multiple floors of currently vacant 2320 W. Peterson (1967).
Heavy alterations have continued to shape the appearance of the Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District, moving buildings further away from their original condition and chipping away at the district’s cohesion. One of the most prominent examples of this erosion is The Office Center at 2534-2544 W. Peterson (c. 1956): a remarkable fusion of Miesian Modernism with the elegance of the Hollywood Regency style complete with a towering obelisk, the building offered luxe office space inside of a polished stone and glass facade. Today, the building is nearly unrecognizable, with much of its original materials removed or replaced. Likewise, the courtyard office building at 3300 W. Peterson (1960) has lost its original sawtooth canopy which was the structure’s most prominent feature. Throughout, the loss of original signage, light fixtures, surface materials, and landscaping and their replacement with contemporary, unsympathetic substitutions lessens the visual power of the Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District.
Demolition has also been an ever-present danger to the Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District. Many of the district’s most impressive designs have been lost over time, some as recently as last year. The demolition of the Newhouse-designed Sapphire Building (1966) at the corner of Peterson and California Avenues, has been the most high-profile demolition in recent years. The Perkins & Will-designed Peterson Bank at 3232 W. Peterson is possibly the biggest loss: a beautiful brick structure that exemplified the evolving look of Modernism at the start of the 1970s. The building was demolished in the 2000s and today the land is a parking lot. The dual demolitions in 2019 of 2900 W. Peterson (1949), designed by Henry L. Newhouse, and 2906-10 W. Peterson (1956) eliminated one of the district’s few fully intact Midcentury streetwalls, replacing them with one-story offices of similar or lesser square footage. As buildings in the Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District continue to remain unattended, partially vacant, and unrecognized, demolition will become an even more pressing threat in the future.
Preservation Chicago enthusiastically endorses the creation of a Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern Landmark District. By establishing an all-encompassing district that honors and protects these significant structures, we can prevent unchecked demolition from further harming and erasing the district’s continuity and cohesion. A Chicago Landmark designation could also ignite widespread interest in the district, helping to revitalize and find new tenants for these endangered or abandoned structures. Furthermore, Landmark status could allow for property owners to apply for Adopt-A-Landmark funds which would aid in the necessary restoration and maintenance of these structures, many of which are 60 to 70 years old.
In some instances, a Chicago Landmark designation should be potentially considered for building interiors in the district. Offices like the Holistan Building (c. 1964) at 2545 W. Peterson, the Cardamil Building (1960) at 2600 W. Peterson, and the Furst & Furst Building (c. 1963) at 2300 W. Peterson all feature intact lobbies with floating staircases, terrazzo floors, and interior courtyards that are representative of the elegant amenities used to entice businesses to Peterson Avenue from across Chicago. These spaces symbolize Peterson Avenue’s Midcentury allure and should be strongly considered in any future landmarking efforts. Preservation Chicago also believes that the Midcentury Modern structures found along California Avenue from Peterson to Glenlake as well as Lincoln Avenue between Peterson and California are very much an integral part of the district and demonstrate how widespread Modernism came to be in the area’s development during the 1950s and 1960s.
Cities across the United States are celebrating their Midcentury architectural heritage through the creation of landmark districts. The Miami area boasts two separate Midcentury Modern historic districts: the Morris Lapidus/Mid-20th Century Historic District in Miami Beach and the MiMo Biscayne Historic District in Miami. Both districts honor the impact that Midcentury Modernism had on their respective areas’ development, acknowledging them as important historic resources meant to be celebrated and understood. Elsewhere, areas like Las Vegas’s Beverly Green Historic District and New Jersey’s Wildwood Shores Resort Historic District, along with dozens of landmarked buildings in Palm Springs, are all testaments to the long-lasting legacy of Midcentury Modern architecture in America. The Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District is an essential part of this legacy and deserves to be recognized with the same enthusiasm seen in other American cities.
However, a pervasive unawareness of Midcentury Modernism’s status as a historic architectural movement continues to threaten the existence of buildings from this era. Midcentury Modernism’s effect on the built environment stretched from the vistas of the Hollywood Hills to small town American main streets; its impact cannot be overstated. Yet, there remains a belief that it is too recent and lacks the ornate signifiers of other more easily recognizable historic styles, like Queen Anne or Art Deco.
One way to tackle this issue here in Chicago is to update the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS) used by the city to classify buildings by historic importance or significance. There are many issues with the CHRS, one of the most glaring being that at the time of its completion and publication in 1996, the survey only covered Chicago’s built environment up to 1940. Today, nearly 30 years later, the CHRS has never been updated, meaning that over 80 years of Chicago’s architectural history is deemed potentially unworthy of historic consideration, including every building in the Peterson Avenue Midcentury Modern District. By updating the CHRS, the City of Chicago can grant decades worth of Chicago buildings the ability to be placed on a 90-Day Demolition Hold in response to a demolition request, while also acknowledging that Chicago’s architecture during the second half of the 20th century can be just as important as that which came before it. Chicago’s accomplishments in Modernism, Postmodernism, New Formalism, and Brutalism are celebrated worldwide, yet in the chapters of the CHRS, these accomplishments remain unacknowledged. Updating this survey, the guide by which historic buildings in Chicago live or die, will permanently establish that these significant sites, such as Peterson Avenue’s wealth of Midcentury Modernism, are important, that they matter, and like other buildings on the CHRS, that they are worthy of preservation.