One of Chicago’s most intriguing buildings from the 1940s sits on an isolated patch in the West Loop, mostly hidden from view by elevated Metra tracks and a Kennedy Expressway exit ramp.
But if you make your way to this spot at 509 N. Union Avenue, you’ll find one of the most dazzling pieces of Art Moderne architecture in the city — The Salvation Army building.
Art Moderne, known for streamlining and curves, is an offshoot of Art Deco. You can see those curves in the way a pair of 19th century red brick loft buildings are joined by blonde brick columns and a five-story “zipper” of glass blocks.
Inside that glass-block zipper is a staircase lined all the way up with fireproof enamel brick. Those materials, multicolored linoleum floors and a sleek chrome handrail give the stair tower a wonderful retro look that has barely changed in almost eight decades.
In the 1930s and ’40s, the Chicago headquarters of The Salvation Army, which oversaw an 11-state region, hired Chicago architect Albert Fehlow to build a series of Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings in Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Paul, Minn., and Elgin, Ill.
But Fehlow didn’t build on Union Street in the West Loop. Sometime in the ’40s or ’50s, he remodeled the building, adding the sleek Art Moderne flourish between red brick buildings, one six stories and the other five.
Those two buildings date to the 1890s and were built as the Braun & Fitts Butterine factory.
Butterine is an early name for margarine. At the time, the margarine makers were underdogs against the powerful dairy farm lobby — and were subjected to very high taxes if they dyed their naturally white product yellow to look like butter.
John Jelke, one of three founding partners of Braun & Fitts, came up with a marketing strategy so whiteness wasn’t a problem. He developed an early version of the waxy packaging that sticks of butter and margarine are sold in now, created a mascot (a Dutch girl in a bonnet and clogs), named the product Good Luck Margarine and published recipes that used margarine.
In 1916, chewing gum king William Wrigley Jr. bought out the successor to Jelke’s firm. In 1930, Wrigley donated the two buildings to The Salvation Army, which operated it as the New Start Lodge for jobless and homeless men. It was later renamed the Wrigley Lodge.
Major Kendall Matthews, who works for The Salvation Army, said men could get “soup, soap and salvation” all in this building. There are still traces of a ’40s-style “canteen” that served nonalcoholic drinks. Much of the space looks like a 19th century factory, with brick floors, concrete ceilings and support beams in large open rooms.
Today the building holds a Salvation Army thrift store and donation sorting center.
In 2019, The Salvation Army put the property up for sale. Matthews said the Army only uses about 25-30% of the space and wants to combine this operation with another in Lincoln Park.
While a new owner might tear down the building, which doesn’t have landmark protection status, Matthews said he hopes the “layers of history” are instead repurposed.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.