What's That Building? The Woodruff Arcade

What's That Building? The Woodruff Arcade

On a busy corner where Sheridan Road turns north at the intersection of Broadway and Devon, there's a two-story building that from the outside looks like dozens, if not hundreds, of Chicago's conventional retail buildings from the early part of the 20th Century. Crain's Chicago Business reporter Dennis Rodkin takes us inside.

The 94-year-old shopping center's nondescript entrance just south of Devon Ave. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

It's mostly red brick, with long limestone sills beneath the first- and second-floor windows and along the roofline. It's not covered in colorful terra cotta or Prairie-style banding in the brick, the sort of thing you see on other old commercial streets in the city, such as Irving Park Road. There are no frills or flourishes, other than the pair of urns that stand over each of the entrances, one on the north side along Sheridan and the other on the west side on Broadway. At each of those entrances, there's an enlarged stone plaque that says "Woodruff Arcade."

Only when you go inside can you tell that this is not a conventional commercial building. The inside is, essentially, laid out like the thousands of indoor shopping malls that would be built decades later: two levels of stores, with a long skylight hanging overhead, and a second-floor, walk-around balcony that overlooks the floor below.

Woodruff Arcade, downstairs facing east. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

Woodruff Arcade, facing east, upper tier. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

The Woodruff Arcade was built in 1923, one of only a handful of enclosed shopping arcades built in Chicago, and it's probably the only one that's still standing. And according to news reports and neighborhood preservationists, it may not be standing for much longer. 

The arcade is a style of building that you would expect to have been more popular in Chicago, with our horrible winters, but it doesn't appear to have caught on. That's in part because the layout puts some tenants at a disadvantage: They don't have a street front exposure for showcasing their wares. They'd have to rely on their street-facing neighbors to draw in customers that they could then capture. The layout was more suited to a single-owner department store like Marshall Field's, which used window displays outside to draw shoppers in to all its departments.

In 1922, W.J. Woodruff received a building permit from the city for his arcade, according to the Edgewater Historical Society. Architect Herbert Green designed a handsome but utilitarian red brick building that opens up inside with iron staircases, large interior windows into the internal courtyard, and that big skylight. The interior is largely the same as the Westminster Arcade, believed to be the country's first indoor shopping center built almost a century earlier in Providence, Rhode Island in 1828. But the Westminster, now known as the Providence Arcade, has a showier exterior, like a pillared Greek Revival temple. It was converted to micro-apartments in 2013.

But that arcade had to be saved because it was a National Historic Landmark building, thanks to its status as the nation's first use of the indoor shopping concept and its handsome exterior. The Woodruff Arcade doesn't have either distinction, and the area around it in Edgewater and Rogers Park is booming, with Loyola University's expansions, apartment and retail buildings that cater to Loyola, and other condo and apartment construction in the vicinity.

In December, a couple who had owned the Woodruff Arcade since 1987 sold it for $4.5 million. The buyer is a development firm connected with Doruk Borekci, whom I couldn't locate. The phone number at his office in Schaumburg has been disconnected, his website provides an email address that sends back 'undeliverable' messages and some phone numbers in Turkey that don't answer.

The 94-year-old shopping center's nondescript entrance just south of Devon Ave. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

In February, DNAinfo Chicago reported that many of the two dozen tenants had received letters saying they have to vacate their space by the end of 2017, leading people in the neighborhood to speculate that the arcade building will be torn down and replaced with a taller building.

In February, Dan Luna of 48th Ward Ald. Harry Osterman's office told DNAinfo that the office had seen some potential plans for the site, but that "nothing concrete" had come about yet. Now, four months later, Luna said the alderman would not comment for this segment. No applications for demolition permits have been filed yet, according to the city's permit portal.

The Edgewater Historical Society has been trying to rally support for preserving the building with a "Save the Woodruff Shopping Arcade" space on its webpage and a petition drive aimed at convincing Osterman to protect the building.

John Holden, who's part of the historical society, would like to see the building retained as a community asset, perhaps with cafes and other social businesses in its inward-facing stores. He attended a friend's memorial service in the interior galleria a while back and said that most of the guests were surprised and charmed to find what was inside. It's a hidden gem, he said, "designed for smaller merchants, an anti-CVS style."

On the other hand, CVS is a tenant that made the rehab of the old MB Bank building on Ashland in the Polish Triangle viable. Not to mention Walgreen's in the Noel State Bank building on Milwaukee in Bucktown. Both of those were more stately buildings by far, but maybe that kind of retail conversion is in the offing for the Woodruff Arcade. Or maybe micro-apartments, like in Rhode Island. There's a university across the street, after all.

Trouble is, we just don't know because at the moment nobody's saying.