Fire this time: A midcentury modernist motel is lost

March 8, 2011

It doesn't rank up there with the Pilgrim Baptist Church fire or other conflagrations that have robbed this city of its architecture, but the recent loss of the Lake Motel at 90th and Stony Island is worth noting.

An extra-alarm fire knifed through the two-story motel on the western edge of the Pill Hill neighborhood last Saturday, injuring eight people--including a firefighter. The fire burned for hours. A Chicago Fire Department spokesman said the building is a total loss.

The blaze together with years of unsympathetic alterations spells the end of what was once a rather cool modernist roadside motel. Built in 1958 as the Seville Motel, the building originally boasted a mod color scheme, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows and an eye-grabbing neon sign that touted the conveniences of air conditioning, television and a switchboard.

Much of its old self was still there in 2003. It was as if a bit of Rat Pack-era Las Vegas landed on the South Side:

About six years ago, the motel lost its original name, those big floor-to-ceiling windows and those colors. The redo made the motel more functional, but awfully plain. The wing over the parking lot--giving the motel a T-shape--would come down a couple of years after I took this photo:

 Is the loss of the Lake Motel a first-class preservation emergency? Nope. Not yet. But its a reminder  that a class of visually-interesting, but secondary modernist buildings like this one--motels, gas stations, dry cleaners, professional buildings, and the like--have reached the 50-year mark and are tomorrow's potential landmarks.

If they manage to survive.