Modern in the Middle: Brick, Glass, and Steel - Brick and Modernism

Words: Cass Stern

Words: Cassandra Stern
Photos: Brick of Chicago Tour, Roman_Makedonsky

Deep below the Earth’s surface, at this very moment, minerals and clay lay in wait to become bricks, the literal building blocks of architecture. Around the turn of the twentieth century, bricklayers continued building structures with some incredibly breathtaking designs. This is the book’s topic, Modern in the Middle, co-authored by Susan Benjamin and Michaelangelo Sabatino. Each page takes readers on a visually striking journey through midwestern brick styles and design. 

Before 1929, classic Chicago Common Brick style was called “not handsome,” a quick and cutting quip from brick connoisseurs who preferred a more uniform style with tight joints. As modern architects reached back into history for inspiration, styles evolved to feature waffle press designs, iron-flecking shines, and even intentionally discolored styles like Flash Brick. Most notably, the Frank Lloyd Wright Hyde Park House and the Edith Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, showcase twisted takes on modern style, serving as stepping stones for the architecture in Benjamin’s and Sabatino’s book. Using more contemporary materials, including glass and steel, these designers created a visual timeline of architecture’s evolution. 

Will Quam, our tour guide, calls Chicago “a brick town,” and he could not be more accurate. The book focuses on this fact, situating Chicago in the artful middle ground between domestic architecture and high-level design such as the aforementioned Wright and Farnsworth structures. This concept of the ‘middle’ also functions in terms of its geographic location and middle-class clients. Every page in this stunning book brings to the forefront every piece of architecture that serves to make Chicago what it is: a living gallery. 

Fisher House 


The first house on the tour is Winnetka’s Catherine Dummer and Walter Fisher House, built in 1929 by the architect Howard T. Fisher. Sabatino calls Fisher’s goal with this structure a “new ethos,” speaking to its personality, which stands out with the design of a modern garage, a flat roof, and terraces that provide gorgeous views. The house gives its occupants plenty of fresh air access, a novel concept at its construction time. Influenced by Howard Van Doren, another native Chicago architect, this house features brick and Orencia, giving the expressive facade a unique kind of glow in the sunlight. The faceted corner gives way to a bay window effect without projecting, giving the house a pleasant balance of function and striking visuals. 

Duban House 

Source: By Teemu08 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Green and Henry Duban House is our second stop, a 1930 structure in Hyland Park designed by the architect Henry Duban. Featuring another unusual yet gorgeous garage with a flat roof and brick cladding that contrasts the steel elements. Buried within the battle deck and the juxtaposition of materials, we see a nautical reference key to understanding the European modernist influences. The ribbon window allows the eye to grace over the facade effortlessly, giving residents an uninterrupted connection with the natural scenery surrounding it. Nicknamed the Battle Deck House, the shapes reminiscent of a ship’s deck also contrast the modern-minded steel floors, inspired by the city’s skyscraper designs. Equally radical for its time and visually striking, this house has more than earned its place in Sabatino’s and Benjamin’s book. There is a novel level of informality with the structure, featuring ample living space for the maids and butlers that would have undoubtedly lived on such an affluent property alongside residents. However, this house kicked off a new age of living without such help. 

The white brick might strike viewers, but the bricks themselves are Chicago Common Brick with a lime whitewash, a sort of stain that seals in moisture. This emphasizes the brick’s texture, allowing it to take up the spotlight as a Mediterranean influence and function as an organic quality of the house. This comfortably brings us to our next house, the Sylvia Valha, and Francis Benda House. Built in 1939 by Winston Elting of Riverside, this house showcases the architects’ understanding of pre-modernist design’s artful craft. With utilitarian structures such as a maid’s room and large south-facing windows to soak up the winter sunlight, Elting is playing with Riverside’s ‘railroad town’ influences while connecting the residents with nature by way of the aforementioned windows. This house also features tumnus brick, a variety of common bricking with lovely tones throughout, reminiscent of a frosty green forest. As opposed to perforated bricks seen in today's structures, the traditional style celebrates brick as “both a modern and traditional material,” says Sabatino. Nowadays, homeowners function as stewards of the house, responsible for taking care of the building to preserve its beauty. Sabatino has first-hand experience as the current owner of this house. 

Source: Brick of Chicago Tour

The third stop of our tour is the Dorothy Miller and Paul Schweikher house, built in 1938 with additions made in 1949. Standing in Schaumburg, Illinois, a hop and a skip outside of Chicago proper, this house was constructed when the surrounding town was still farmland full of reaching fields from whence the architects took organic inspiration. The house’s natural elements speak to the modernist style typical at the time, wherein the brick continues on the interior. Lovingly called “junk” brick, this has its merit as a stylistic choice of using gritty, porous brick, which to stunning effect on one of the four grandiose fireplaces. Viewers can see the fine knife and wire marks used to create texture, mimicking the surrounding nature’s organic erosion. Notably, Schweikher had a significant Japanese influence after an international excursion, which led to his use of redwood beams juxtaposed next to the brick. Schweikher writes about this trip and these influences, citing fresh wood’s aroma after a rainstorm, the comfort of leaves, and the warmth the wood brings into a space. In 1948, an addition was built on this house, a cantilevered section to open the room into Schweikher’s studio. 

Source: Brick of Chicago Tour

Our next stop is the Isabella Gardner and Robert McCormick House, built in 1952 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of Elmhurst and designed as a prototype for an open carport single-story pavilion. Surrounded by reaching trees and flourishing nature, the beige brick is reminiscent of modernism, acting as a hard break from the traditional German style of van der Rohe’s roots. In abstraction from its natural qualities, the brick’s sand-like features tie the artful masonry into the overarching organic theme. With a brick infill on a cement structure, the strong English bond, the juxtaposition of structural forms become more than functional, becomes ornamental. By combining more traditional forms with novel forms, van der Rohe’s final piece functions as a testament to the beauty of the abstract.

McCormick House 


The Elizabeth Hunt and John Moutoussamy House in Chatham on Chicago’s south side is our next stop, built in 1954 by architect John McChesney Chatham. Moutoussamy, having family roots in the French Caribbean, chose to go with a more modest style for his house as it rests in a suburban area surrounded by mid-century houses. The city’s codes and restrictions did not make the construction of this house easy, but it became an icon of Chatham homes. As one of IIT’s most notable graduates of color, Moutoussamy cites some Mizian influence in his construction. Featuring metal-lined windows and a yellowish brick, one row of headers and six rows of stretchers line the outer walls for a simple structure with understated elegance. 

Moutoussamy House


Staying nearby in Chatham, the Joan Henderson and George Johnson House is the next stop of the tour. Designed by Louis Henry Huebner and James C. Henneberg in 1963, this house is an example of California modernism, featuring a style of informality similar to the aforementioned Duban House. White wood beams reach from the house into the surrounding landscape in a gorgeous yet straightforward gesture. Typically, architects focus on the house’s front facade, as was the norm in early twentieth-century design; however, this house has a private side entrance, forcing viewers to peek all around the property to take in the design fully. The expressive brick features a velour texture, in which the brick is extruded with wire to create a more even face. The mortar beds and uniformly raked, and perpends are flush against the wall, creating a visually exciting style. 

Joan Henderson and George Johnson House


Our next stop is at the Margaret Berman and Paul Lurie House of Evanston. Built in 1974 by architect James Nagle, this single-story house sits in a small lot surrounded by lush greenery and crawling ivy. The budget for this house was relatively low, but a viewer would never know. With a private side entrance, the brick was used in a movement away from the abstract shapes and a more personal interpretation of cultural influences. The larger perforated bricks used are of a utility size, giving the facade a commanding presence that demands viewers’ attention. 

Source: Brick of Chicago Tour 

The Netsch House in Old Town Chicago, designed by Walter Netsch and built in 1974, is our next stop. Netsch was a senator and a gay rights activist, and the house showcases the intentional use of boxy design and organically discolors brick. Surrounded by historic buildings from the nineteenth century featuring bright red brick, this house stands out, and the artistry flows into the interior as well. Split concrete block lines the inner walls, a microcosm of the geometry found throughout. The modernist style relies on traditional materials used unconventionally, making this house a fully conceptualized break from stylistic norms at the time of its construction.

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