Part One: When It All Began
“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”
Art and Old Town first said "I do" in the 1840s when a group of German immigrants spread out from their settlement on Clark Street and moved northward toward Fullerton Avenue. Armed with hammers, saws, two-by-four wooden planks, and machine-made nails they built their first homes—one and one-half story, balloon frame structures that were destined to have a significant impact on the history of architecture. Now some may say they were just simple cottages. I believe they were works of art. Here’s why.
The early cottages were not designed by architects or built by construction firms. They were fashioned by the people who would live in them, and they exhibited a kind of elegance that defies time. Built in a style and on a scale that seems human, they are true to the living patterns of the people, not lifeless expressions of machined art. Called balloon frame cottages, all of the exterior vertical structural elements consisted of single studs which extended the full height of the frame. The four wall studs were two by four; the floor joists two by twelve. Floor joists were fastened by machine-made nails to the studs. The builders were able to put them together with nothing more than a hammer, a saw and some nails in about two weeks. In time, they were even given their own architectural designation—Chicago style. The name says it all.
These cottages filled the streets of Old Town until 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed every one of them (although there are a few who declare their houses survived the fire—they didn’t.) There was one house on the fringe of Old Town that did survive—the home of Richard Bellinger at 2121 N. Hudson. Bellinger put blankets on the roof and climbed up and down a ladder pouring on bucketsful of water from his cistern. He and his brother-in-law also set up a bucket brigade to bring in water from what was called the Ten-Mile Ditch just east of his home. They battled the flames all night long, and by morning, the danger had passed and we have one treasure dating back to 1871. A plaque on the front façade commemorates the house’s survival.
The Art of Crilly
Let’s move ahead a few years now, to 1885, when Daniel Crilly, a Southside developer, bought up the land between Eugenie and St. Paul from Wells Street to North Park. He cut a street through the center of the property which he called Crilly Court and built twelve row houses on the west side of the Court and a group of four apartment buildings on the east side. His intention was to construct a planned community, leasing the houses to young married couples with children and the apartments to persons connected with the arts—and that is just what he did.
A Poet, A Painter, and Hollywood by the Lake
Most of you have probably heard of Eugene Field (1850-1895). He was a poet who wrote such children’s classics as Wynken, Blynken, and Nod; The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat, and Little Boy Blue. He was also a journalist for the Chicago Daily News, known for his column “Sharps and Flats,” about the artistic personalities of the day. His father was a brilliant attorney who represented Dred Scott in the famous Dred Scott v. Sanford case. Field lived, for a time, in the Crilly Apartments and wrote many of his masterpieces there, contributing to Old Town’s early status as an artistic community. There is a statue honoring Field in Lincoln Park called Dream Lady, after his poem Rock-a-By Lady. If you haven’t seen it, do go have a look. It’s beautiful.
The Rock-a-By Lady from Hushaby Street
Comes stealing; comes creeping;
The poppies they hang from her head to her feet,
And each hath a dream that is tiny and fleet—
She bringeth her poppies to you, my sweet,
When she findeth you sleeping!
Shortly after Field’s tenure in the Crilly Apartments, the movies brought their artistic presence. George Spoor, a producer/director, decided that Chicago would be a good place to make movies. He brought in Charlie Chaplin, the biggest star of his day, to star in his first full-length comedy. As an aside, Charlie went shopping on State Street and bought his trademark baggy pants, bowler hat, cane, and floppy shoes.
While Charlie did not actually live in the Crilly Apartments, he hung out there with his co-stars Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery (who were married there), and America’s heart throb, Francis X. Bushman, for whom the gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo was named.
Along with these stars came the famous Keystone Kops who drove pedestrians on Wells Street crazy by running up and down bumping into anyone and everyone, and cross-eyed Ben Turpin, another silent movie favorite.
All of these stars added luster to Old Town’s image and cemented its place in artistic history.
The Greatest Commercial Artist of the Mid-Twentieth Century
Haddon Sunbloom (1899-1976) lived in the Crilly Apartments after the movie crowd moved out—but his impact on Old Town art was far greater than theirs. While his name may not be immediately recognizable, what he created is. Let’s begin with his greatest creation of all: the Coca Cola Santa--the Santa Claus we all know and love. That big, jolly man in the red suit with a white beard didn’t even exist until Haddon Sunbloom painted him in 1931. Before that, Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf. Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew him for Harper's Weekly in 1862 as a tiny gnome-like figure who supported the Union.
Then came Haddon Sunbloom who was commissioned by Coca Cola to do its Christmas Santa. Using as his inspiration Clement Moore’s “Night Before Christmas”, Sunbloom brought into being the roly-poly, whiskered Santa we know today. He also created the Quaker Oats Man and Aunt Jemima. In fact, more than any other artist of the mid-twentieth century, including Norman Rockwell, Sunbloom defined the image of the American Dream in pictures. So thank you, Haddon Sunbloom from all of us, especially those of us who live in Old Town.
Next: Dick Latham, the King of Industrial Design and the Denizens of Crilly Court
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times