The Cornell Store & Flats is an extremely rare example of a commercial building by one of the most famous practitioners of the Prairie Style of architecture, Walter Burley Griffin. Tim Samuelson, City of Chicago’s Cultural Historian, has called it one of the top 25 most significant buildings of any kind in Chicago, yet it remains unknown to many city residents.
Located in the South Side neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing, near the intersection of 75th Street and South Chicago Avenue, Cornell Store & Flats is situated between a train line, viaduct and a concrete retaining wall, making it almost hidden in plain view. It has suffered years of deferred maintenance and neglect. Since its long-time owner passed away in recent years, its ownership has been in a constant state of limbo, including a period in demolition court in 2016.
Our sister preservation organization, Landmarks Illinois placed the building on its list of most endangered places in 2016, but its future remains uncertain and its condition continues to deteriorate. A handful of potential buyers have emerged, but none of their plans have come to fruition. Preservation Chicago hopes to continue to attract attention to this important historic building in hopes of encouraging its preservation and reuse.
The Cornell Store & Flats was built as an investment property by the estate of Paul Cornell, a real estate developer and the “Father of Hyde Park.’ Cornell was also an early developer of Greater Grand Crossing. Cornell died in 1904 and his heirs hired Walter Burley Griffin to design a building that would stand as an architectural landmark on the thriving 75th Street commercial corridor and would provide the family with a steady income stream of retail and residential rents.
Walter Burley Griffin was an Oak Park native and contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright. Griffin worked for the first five years of his career (1901 – 1906) in Wright’s studio, and was a project supervisor for notable works such as the 1904 Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York. After establishing his own practice, Griffin is best known for creating a master plan for the Australian capital city of Canberra.
In addition to the notable pedigree of its namesake and designer, the Cornell Store & Flats is also an unusual building typology in Chicago. The ground-floor retail space had a glass storefront facing 75th Street, with four apartments above, arranged around a light court in the center of the building. The light court had a glass block floor, in order to let light pass into the center of the retail space below. Unlike most mixed-use buildings, where all entrances and design detail are confined to the street-facing side, Griffin’s building is equally finished on both front and rear elevations. Chicago
The rear facade features a second entrance to the residential units, with a round arch over a second-story entrance to the courtyard space. This design took advantage of the building’s large lot, allowed for a deeper and more monumental structure, and permitted more natural light into both retail and residential spaces.
The streamlined ornament, obscured entrances, skillful brickwork and masonry, and emphasized horizontal characteristics of the Prairie Style of architecture are illustrated in both primary and secondary elevations of the building. Brick pilasters extend upward along the front and rear facades, with recessed paired windows between the pilasters. The horizontal appearance is emphasized by Roman brick and limestone lintels and sills. The long flat roofline is capped by an unbroken limestone platform supported by the pilasters which seems to hover and float just above the parapet wall. The original 75th Street storefront glass has been enclosed by a brick and glass-block wall, but the rear façade remains largely intact, behind a fence and piles of debris. Recent visits to the building’s interior indicate that modifications to the light court could be reversed as part of a restoration effort.
THREAT & RECOMMENDATIONS:
The neighborhood surrounding Cornell Store & Flats has suffered serious economic disinvestment in recent decades, and it is now one of very few remaining buildings of the once bustling 75th Street commercial corridor. The train lines that give the Grand Crossing neighborhood its name are also physical barriers that isolate this building from the urban fabric around it. After years of neglect and uncertain ownership, the building is in precarious physical condition and in urgent need of a new owner with plans for its development. Redevelopment of the Cornell Store & Flats would not only preserve this remarkable piece of architecture for future generations, but it could serve as a proud landmark for the Greater Grand Crossing community.