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Book review: “Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929-1975” by Susan S. Benjamin and Michelangelo Sabatino

Pauline Saliga, executive director of the Society of Architectural Historians, echoes Etta James to say “at last” to the arrival of Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929-1975 (the Monacelli Pres, $60, 343 pages). But this comment in her foreword to the book isn’t a criticism.

Instead, it is a recognition of the decades of work by historians, architects, preservationists and others to research the facts and develop the insights about a half century of home-building in the Chicago region that made possible this book by Susan Benjamin and Michelangelo Sabatino. 

Modern in the Middle is an important examination, Saliga writes, into “the question of how midcentury modernism manifested itself in the Chicago area; how it looked and was experienced, who its innovators were, and what the highpoints were.”  It is also a significant counterbalance to the overemphasis in architecture history on tall buildings and large projects.

Indeed, there is a sweet serendipity to the publication of this book in the same year as Chicago Apartments: A Century and Beyond of Lakefront Luxury by Neil Harris and Teri J. Edelstein, an expanded second edition.  That book’s original publication in 2004 filled a gap by telling the history of how the residential towers along Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore came to be built, both as a group and individually.  Now, in Modern in the Middle, Benjamin and Sabatino fill a similar gap by detailing the modernistic forces at work in the creation of home designs that sought a new and vibrant architectural language.

Not the same language

Don’t get the idea, however, that it was the same language.  Rather, the architects of the 53 houses in Modern in the Middle were finding their own innovative and eclectic ways to imagine the single-family American home.

The mid-20th century was, in home design, a time of hybridity in the United States, and Sabatino writes, “It is against the backdrop of an evolving debate shaped by complementary and sometimes competing ideas about modern architecture that the houses in Modern in the Middle are presented and analyzed.”

He notes that, although modernism most often is associated with the use of a great deal of glass, myriad building materials and technologies, traditional and radical, were employed in homes of this era, and he cites several examples:

“Architect Harry Dubin’s ‘fireproof’ Battledeck House in Highland Park (1930) abandoned wood as a conventional structural building material in favor of a hybrid steel and load-bearing common-brick-and-concrete-block system. The first house designed by Howard T. Fisher in 1935 for Ellen Borden and Adlai E. Stevenson II in Libertyville was prefabricated (steel panels) and was replaced by another more conventionally built wood house designed by Perkins, Wheeler & Will (1938).”

“The Giants in the Room”

Looming over midcentury architecture in Chicago were Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van der Rohe, described by Benjamin as “The Giants in the Room.” These two architectural geniuses and innovators, who respected each other, are, she writes, “the ‘masters’ who directly or indirectly influenced nearly every subsequent Chicago modern residential architect of note.”  She adds:

“Because of Wright’s established reputation in Chicago dating from his Prairie School years, his presence was persistently felt — sometimes his ideas were embraced, sometimes rejected, considered old school, but rarely ignored.  Mies brought a fresh perspective captivating many young architects when he settled in Chicago in 1938.”

Both sought to be organic in their designs, but with different goals in mind, as Phyllis Lambert, an architect quoted by Benjamin, explained:

“For Wright, it meant that buildings grow out of the ground, whereas for Mies it pointed to the relationship between the tip of a finger and the finger as a whole, the finger to the forearm, and so on — a proportional relationship of parts to the whole as well as among parts of a whole to one another.”

Homes by the “Giants”

Among the 53 homes in Modern in the Middle is one by Wright and one by Mies.

In 1939, Wright designed for his friends Kathryn Dougherty and Lloyd Lewis a split-level home in Libertyville that, the authors write, was “vastly different and more spatially complex than those built later through the Chicago region after World War II.”  They add: “He consistently blurs the relationship between the exterior and interior spaces, creating a push-pull of interlocking volumes.”

The Mies-designed home came 12 years later and was constructed on the banks of the Fox River in the small town of Plano in Kendall County, about 50 miles southwest of the Loop, for Dr. Elizabeth Farnsworth — “among the most written about and photographed twentieth-century residential buildings.”  The authors explain:

“The reasons behind this enduring interest are interconnected: awe for the intrinsic architectural qualities and its out-of-the-ordinary response to the site, as well as the controversial client-architect relationship that has generated intrigue among generalists and specialized observers.”

The chapters on the Kathryn Dougherty and Lloyd Lewis House, the Farnsworth House and the other 51 residences are admiringly presented with clear, direct prose and contemporary photos and images of the structure.

Odd wrinkles

As important and strong as Modern in the Middle is, it features, nonetheless, a couple odd wrinkles. 

The references above to the Ellen Borden and Adlai E. Stevenson II House and the Kathryn Dougherty and Lloyd Lewis House are examples of the effort that Benjamin and Sabatino make to avoid the longtime practice of identifying a house simply with the name of its usually male owner. 

That’s an honorable goal, but I’m not sure how the women of that era would feel.  Many wives of mid-century America — actually, I imagine, most — liked being known by their married name and would find it weird to be identified by their maiden names in this way.

Another quirk in the book is Sabatino’s assertion that the “middle” of the title, not only refers to Chicago as being in the middle of the nation and to the mid-century time period, but also to “the income status of many of the clients (middle- and upper-middle class) who commissioned the houses and appropriated the modern movement born in Europe that was typically associated with housing for the working class.”

I think this is a stretch.  Looking through the pages of Modern in the Middle, it’s seems clear that most if not all of the book’s 53 homes were more costly to construct than the run-of-the-mill custom-made residences of that era.  For one thing, the unusual materials and techniques would have meant added expense.  For another, my suspicion is that, during these years — as today — only the most affluent members of the middle class would have been able to pay for an architect to design any sort of home.

Geography is another argument against this middle-class label.  More than half of the homes in the book (54 percent) are located in Chicago’s north suburbs, the area’s greatest concentration of wealth — Highland Park, six; Evanston, five; Lake Forest, four; Wilmette, three; Glencoe, two; Lake Bluff, two; Libertyville, two; and Bannockburn, Long Grove, Northfield, Waukegan and Winnetka, one each.  In fact, only six of the book’s 53 homes are in Chicago: two in the Chatham neighborhood, two in Hyde Park, one in Beverly and one in Old Town.

These, however, are minor complaints.  It’s good to finally have Modern in the Middle.  It provides an important insight into mid-20th century Chicago and its suburbs — and into the art of the region’s landscape.

At last!

Modern in the Middle by the numbers

Modern in the Middle provides an interesting geography of where innovative buildings were being constructed throughout the Chicago region from 1929 to 1975.  Here are the numbers:

Houses by region (53 houses):

•        North suburbs, 29

•        Northwest suburbs, 8

•        Chicago, 6

•        South suburbs, 5

•        Southwest suburbs, 3

•        West suburbs, 2

Chicago houses by neighborhood (6):

•        Chatham, 2

•        Hyde Park, 2

•        Beverly, 1

•        Old Town, 1

Suburbs with two or more houses (33):

•        Highland Park, 6

•        Evanston, 5

•        Lake Forest, 4

•        Geneva, 3

•        Wilmette, 3

•        Barrington, 2

•        Flossmoor, 2

•        Glencoe, 2

•        Lake Bluff, 2

•        Libertyville, 2

•        Olympia Fields, 2

Suburbs with one house (14):

•        Aurora

•        Bannockburn

•        Blue Island

•        Elmhurst

•        Hampshire

•        Harvard

•        Lemont

•        Long Grove

•        Northfield

•        Plano

•        Riverside

•        Schaumburg

•        Waukegan

•        Winnetka


Patrick T. Reardon


This review originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 12.17.20.

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