THREATENED: Facade Alterations Considered for the former Continental Furniture Building in Wicker Park Landmark District.

1425 N. Milwaukee Avenue Black Vitrolite Sign Band, Photo Credit: Google Street View
1427 and 1429 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Photo Credit: Google Street View

More renovations are coming to the Milwaukee Avenue Chicago Landmark District between North Avenue and Division Street. The former Continental Furniture building will be renovated with first and second floor retail with offices above. Continental Furniture/Meyers’ Furniture closed its door in 2015 after 63 years in business. The upper floors had been used for storage with their windows filled with glass block.

Continental Furniture Building is actually three contiguous buildings all fronting Milwaukee Avenue. All three are “Contributing Buildings” to the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District, a Designated Chicago Landmark District approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in 2008. 1427 N. Milwaukee Avenue is a four-story red-brick building built by George Strauss in 1887 with a decorative pediment reading “C. Strauss – 1887”. The adjacent 1425 N. Milwaukee Avenue is also a four-story red-brick building built in the 1880’s with a series of concentric masonry circles. The adjacent two-story red-brick was built in the 1910s and has lost its decorative cornice.

The buildings were purchased by Realterm, Maryland-based real estate firm in August 2017 for $3.7 million. In June 2018, a construction permit was issued for approximately $1.5 million worth of renovations, including brick masonry facade repair, replacing the glass block from the upper floor, and installing new two-story high storefront windows.

“We saw it as an opportunity to take a beautiful building from the late 1880s and restore it back to its original glory,” said John Tsiskasis, vice president of acquisitions for Realterm.“We’ve been working through designs and landmark commission to get [the renovations] approved. It’s going to look very different from what it looks like now. When we get new windows in, the storefront will look a lot taller,” Tsiskasis said. (Hauser, Block Club Chicago, 7/11/18)

Preservation Chicago applauds the developer’s interest in restoring the building to its “original glory”. However, the idea of making it look “very different” from its current historic appearance and radical changes to the current scale and massing of the historic storefront by adding two-floors of storefront glass to make it “look a lot taller” are directly contrary to the objective achieving its “original glory”.

Of the approximately 150 contributing buildings in the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District, the Landmark Designation Report specially highlights this cluster of buildings for the visual consistency.

“Despite the comparatively small size of these commercial buildings, surviving groupings of 1870s and 1880s buildings visually convey the “unbroken front” of commercial blocks that T. A. Holland observed in 1875 Directory of the Avenue. Good examples of these groups can be found from 1425 to 1439 N. Milwaukee Ave.” (Milwaukee Avenue Historic District Landmark Designation Report, May 3, 2007, Page 18)

The immediately adjacent twin “J. Jensen Building” located at 1429 N. Milwaukee is a nearly identical match to 1427 N. Milwaukee with matching cornices, window openings, and decorative limestone sills. Despite modifications to the second floor window openings at 1427 N. Milwaukee, the original matching red brick and ornamental limestone sills extend the visual continuity.

The twin “J. Jensen Building” is not included in this project. According to Alisa Hauser in the Block Club Chicago, “Decibel Audio, a turntable and audio store next to the former furniture storefront at 1429 N. Milwaukee Ave., will not be part of the planned renovations, as the former owner of the furniture store still owns the portion of the building rented by Decibel and the southern half of the furniture store.”

The trio of buildings was building was unified as the Continental Furniture Building with a consistent, elegant, 1920’s, art deco, Vitrolite black and white glass storefront sign band located between the between the first and second floors. This is a high-quality storefront material that can be restored and should include as part of the renovation plans. If this historic material from the Designated Historic Landmark District’s Period of Significance from 1877 to 1929 is removed, then any new storefront must respect the historic massing and dimensions of the historic façade.

Preservation Chicago generally supports the renovation of this trio of Milwaukee Avenue commercial buildings; however the proposed storefront details illustrated in the rendering are inappropriate to the character of the historic buildings and the greater Milwaukee Avenue Corridor.

Despite the addition of a tree to attempt to hide this detail in the development rendering, the new second floor storefront is jarring in its contrast to the adjacent “twin building” at 1429 N. Milwaukee Avenue. By respecting the original building massing, the development team can avoid, what one observer commented, the “clownish appearance of a building wearing its pants up too high”.

While there are some examples of second floor retail uses on Milwaukee Avenue, there almost no examples of a two-story storefront anywhere on the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor and within the Designate Chicago Landmark District. The existing historic masonry window openings are large and were designed to maximize natural light, and would accomplish nearly the same development objective without compromising the historic integrity of the building.

Preservation Chicago encourages the City of Chicago Commission on Chicago Landmarks and developer Realterm to respect the historic appearance of these important contributing landmark buildings and modify their redevelopment plans accordingly to honor the building’s historic appearance.

Additional Reading
Renovation Of Former Furniture Building In Heart Of Wicker Park Finally Underway, Alisa Hauser, Block Club Chicago, 7/11/18

Milwaukee Avenue District Landmark Designation Report, Commission on Chicago Landmarks, May 3, 2007

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