Can architecture save West Garfield Park?

February 27, 2012

On a cold Sunday morning, the tall and golden Midwest Apartments--a refurbished 1926 beauty--rises gloriously above a light underbrush of trash along Madison Street. It is a reminder of what the West Garfield Park neighborhood once was. And can be again.

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The 14-story building was once the Midwest Athletic Club. And today it is among the most handsome affordable housing complexes in the city. Designed by Michaelson & Rognstad, the Beaux Art styled building would be as comfortable at Madison and Michigan overlooking Grant Park as it is at Madison and Hamlin on the western edge of Garfield Park. The architecture is just that good.

Look at this entrance:

West Garfield Park is best known for its long-standing high crime rate and seemingly entrenched poverty.  What is lesser known, but worth investigating: The West Side community, particularly in and around its Madison/Pulaski business district, has managed to hold on to some pretty good commercial architecture from the neighborhood's heyday.

The Madison/Pulaski shopping center, though tattered, still resembles a miniature downtown with high quality early 20th century commercial buildings. And the district still has bustle and commerce even though it looks desolate in my photos (I took them at 7am on a Sunday because the natural light is better.) Here, 3940 W. Madison--maybe a former bank building--on the northeast corner of the intersection holds up well despite that unfortunate three-story (!) boot ad tacked on to its side and a misguided modernization that claimed a row of second-floor windows:

There are more good buildings along Madison for about a block or two west, although many have been lost. An ornate eight-story bank building by D.H. Burnham Jr., son of Daniel Burnham, at 4008 W. Madison was wrecked by the city in 2002, for instance. Meanwhile, take a look at the detailing on the upper floor windows at 3940 W. Madison.

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But there is cause for concern at Washington and Pulaski. The vacant 85-year-old Hotel Guyon, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985, is vacant and partially boarded. No demolition permits have  been applied for, which is good--but no construction permits have been sought either. So what was once one of the swankiest hotels outside of downtown--WFMT once had a transmitter atop the Guyon--just sits, awaiting fate:

The hotel was designed by Jens J. Jensen, who was no relationship to the famed landscape architect Jens Jensen, by the way. And speaking of WFMT, here's what the Guyon looked like in better days, crowned with the station's crazy broadcast antenna:

Like Midwest Apartments, the quality buildings of East Garfield Park are not just remains a time before white flight and the 1960s riots. They are the foundations upon which--with preservation and reinvestment--this community can be rebuilt.