Roughly 20 cyclists gathered behind the fieldhouse at Revere Park (2509 W. Irving Park Rd.) on Saturday morning, the starting point for an architectural and historical bike tour of Northcenter. Little did the riders know they had already arrived at the first point of interest.
The site of a former brick factory, the park once served as a clay pit and then garbage dump before the land was rescued by the River Park District in 1921. The story mirrors that of much of Northcenter, according to Lee Diamond, guide for Chicago Velo’s Neighborhood Bike Tours.
“Northcenter grew up far from wealth,” explained Diamond. In the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, demand for brick construction skyrocketed. Brick factories popped up along the clay-rich Chicago River and the people who made the bricks needed a place to live. That place ultimately became what we now know as Northcenter.
The laborers built solid, sturdy homes with their own hands — bungalows and Victorians that have stood the test of time — creating a sense of stability that carries over to the present day. Northcenter is a “wonderful success story of a small neighborhood,” having eclipsed parts of the city with tonier backgrounds, said Diamond. (For the purpose of the tour, “Northcenter” refers to a larger area designated by the University of Chicago, stretching from Montrose to Diversey and Ravenswood to the River.)
The tour wound its way from Irving Park down side streets we’re all more than a little familiar with — Cuyler, Berteau, Wolcott, Belle Plaine, Hoyne, Leavitt, Byron and Eddy — gradually meandering its way south to Roscoe Village. Leading the pack, Diamond demonstrated the easiest way for riders to turn left onto Lincoln at its dread convergence with Irving Park and Damen – act like a car, but only when you’ve got two dozen other cyclists to back you up — all while maintaining a Geoffrey Baer-lite commentary on the ways in which Northcenter, without being remarkable, is thoroughly notable.
Though the Orange Garden (1942 W. Irving Park Rd.) boasts Chicago’s oldest neon sign and is the city’s oldest Chinese restaurant, the majority of the area’s homes and businesses lack the architectural pedigree of, say, Oak Park’s Frank Lloyd Wright structures. Their value lies more in the glimpse they offer into the neighborhood’s past.
Mixed-use buildings, of the kind often found on corners or along Roscoe Street’s retail corridor (think Rudy’s Bakery), illustrate earlier residents’ practice of maximizing resources: neighborhood grocery store or bar on the ground floor, living quarters for the owner’s family above, with the potential for an additional rental unit. Blocks of row houses on Eddy and Cornelia, a rarity on the North Side and one of the tour’s most charming revelations, exemplify economies of scale when creating housing for a large working class community. Though each home features a unique facade, the interiors are identical, said Diamond.
At Larchmont and Ravenswood, Diamond pointed out the former Bell & Howell headquarters (Howell invented the film projector), now converted to lofts. Erected in 1929, the building was designed by Pond and Pond architects, brothers who took on commissions for commercial projects in order to subsidize their other stream of work, creating settlement houses, including a few for Hull House.
What Northcenter may lack in the “wow” factor of its housing, it makes up for in the elegant details of its public buildings. No less than one of Wright’s disciples, Hermann von Holst (who headed up Wright’s firm while the boss flitted off on a romantic adventure), designed a ComEd power station at Waveland and Lincoln, signifying the attention once lavished on even the most utilitarian structures.
Diamond also led riders past a number of Chicago Public Schools, including Jahn Elementary, 3149 N. Wolcott Ave. Envisioned by Dwight Perkins, one of the founders of the Prairie School of architecture, Jahn displays the horizontal lines and earth tones favored by its designer. “He left a great mark on Chicago, particularly its schools,” Diamond said of Perkins, who at one time or another in his career held the position of chief architect for CPS, Cook County and the State of Illinois.
The Hamlin Park fieldhouse, 3035 N. Hoyne Ave., is another Perkins building. The park is named after perhaps one of the biggest footnotes in American history, Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president.
After passing through Clark Park (Riverview, we hardly knew ye), Diamond brought the tour to its final highlight: Lane Tech College Prep High School. “It is amazingly large,” he said of the massive Tudor revival, designed to resemble a college campus, with skylights that afford natural light.
Having revisited Northcenter as it existed in the early half of the 1900s, riders then circled back to the beginning: Revere Park on a July afternoon in 2012.