Lately, after having been schooled by architecture & design educator Jen Masengarb on the topic, I have had a mini-obsession with Sanborn Fire Maps in Chicago. She obtained a set of maps for the area around my apartment in Logan Square for 1896, 1921, and 1950 and helped me (and some other nerds) analyze these treasures.
The thing that interested me most about these maps were the changes in land use through time. We all know there is often a lot of heat around how we use the landscape to serve our needs. One element that I think is often lost in these discussions is a simple, towering, fact: things change.
In land use discussions, we tend to constuct narratives that go back as far as make sense to us or support our arguments. But seeing these plain maps, with no judgements applied, and the context of time stripped from them, makes us see another view that really doesn't have anything to do with us. And that is refreshing to me.
So the first area I zeroed in on was the Mega Mall block– the 2500 block of North Milwaukee Avenue. Here it is in each map:
Mega Mall Block, 1896
Mega Mall Block, 1921
Mega Mall Block, 1950
The number one/ most obvious observation here is how underpopulated the area is in 1896. There are basically a set of empty lots, waiting to be built upon. Like a sad suburban subdivision with no chance of success. It reminded me of this shot I took of vestigal driveway curb cuts in Charlotte, NC:
By 1921, there was some action on the block. The Milshire Hotel (2525 N. Milwaukee Ave) was there by then. It's still standing, still serving:
The Milshire is an interesting place from the outside. Here's a snip from a TripAdvisor review from someone who's been on the inside:
I've stayed at some run down places all over the world, but this place takes the cake. First off it is a brothel, and filled with meth/crack heads. I have no idea how this place passes any inspections. I was going to a couple of shows at the Congress theater, and this place is the closest place to it, so…
The second thing I noticed was that there are no less than 13 auto dealers on this block by 1921. Here's the map, viewed large, so you can see yourself. Some of these shops are on 25-foot long lots. There are also lots of repair shops on the street behind Milwaukee (north of WIllets and Sacramento). Many of the structures from these auto dealerships (including the Mega Mall) remain. One can easily picture the bricked-up portion of this building as a picture-window showroom at 2511 North Milwaukee:
Who knew that it used to be the Western Avenue of Chicago? I had no idea that the auto industry was even that robust at this time– big enough to support 13 dealerships on one city block. But since the first auto assembly line was in 1913, the timing pretty much makes sense.
The next thing worth mentioning is the movie theaters. In 1921, it seems there was a large movie palace– the Rio Theater at 2540 N. Milwaukee– in the empty lot north of the Mega Mall next to where the Blue Line goes underground northbound.
Rio Theater, 1921
One thing I don't understand is the Logan Square Theater, directly across the street to the east at about 2547 N. Milwaukee:
Logan Square Theater, 1950
Part of this is clearly the Logan Square Affiliated Physicians Building (2551 North Milwaukee Ave), pictured here, from the other day:
Logan Square Theater, 1950
But what I don't understand is if the buildings to the north are part of the theater as well. I think this may have to do with the way the maps start and end. Here's the large version of the 1950 map for your perusal. Very little had changed since 1921, it seems.
Here's my full set of recent photos of the block here. This block is going strong– many new restaurants, and even a new structure at the Mega Mall:
One day at a time, Logan Square lovers.