Site Visits

Letterforms and signage at the Illinois Railway Museum by Serhii Chrucky

Prior to my most recent visit to the Illinois Railway Museum, a graphic designer friend asked me to make an inventory of the most compelling letterforms that I could find. The museum is known for its extensive collection of bus and rail stock dating back to the mid-19th century, but it also functions as a de facto sign museum. Many different categories of signage are represented here, including neon, enamel, plastic, button copy, metal relief, stone relief, and hand-painted. Zooming in on this wide array of signage acts as a modest transit-related typography source book.

This sign for the Santa Fe railroad sat atop the Railway Exchange building in downtown Chicago until 2012 when it was replaced with a sign for Motorola. The museum acquired the sign in 2016, and it is featured prominently at the entrance.

This sign for the Santa Fe railroad sat atop the Railway Exchange building in downtown Chicago until 2012 when it was replaced with a sign for Motorola. The museum acquired the sign in 2016, and it is featured prominently at the entrance.

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Reflective button copy on a “railroad crossing” sign.

Reflective button copy on a “railroad crossing” sign.

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Chicago Surface Lines Bus Stop sign.

Chicago Surface Lines Bus Stop sign.

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“The 400” was a passenger rail line operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities, so named because it traversed 400 miles in 400 minutes.

“The 400” was a passenger rail line operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities, so named because it traversed 400 miles in 400 minutes.

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The South Shore Line is one of the last interurban passenger rail lines still operating in the United States.

The South Shore Line is one of the last interurban passenger rail lines still operating in the United States.

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These deep purple enamel signs adorned Chicago Transit Authority stations for decades. They were removed gradually beginning in the 1950s, until the last one was removed in the early 2000s. I saw it before it was taken down…somewhere I have a photo of it in situ.

These deep purple enamel signs adorned Chicago Transit Authority stations for decades. They were removed gradually beginning in the 1950s, until the last one was removed in the early 2000s. I saw it before it was taken down…somewhere I have a photo of it in situ.

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The North Shore Line was an interurban that ran from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee until 1963.

The North Shore Line was an interurban that ran from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee until 1963.

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Detail of one the North Shore Line’s “Electroliner.”

Detail of one the North Shore Line’s “Electroliner.”

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James R. Thompson Center by Serhii Chrucky

With the James R. Thompson Center set to go on sale in the next two years, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation placing the building on its 11 most endangered list, I thought now would be a good time to post the images I’ve made of the building so far. Here’s hoping that Helmut Jahn’s monument to transparent governance in the city that works is not remodeled into unrecognizable oblivion.

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Chicago Tribune Freedom Center by Serhii Chrucky

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Since 1981, the Chicago Tribune has been printed at the Freedom Center, an immense plant situated on a 30 acre site near the corner of Chicago and Halsted. This may end soon as there are plans in place to demolish the plant in favor of a mixed-use mega-development tentatively called "River District." I've documented as much of the exterior as possible before any work has begun. I'm going to do one more round of this, and then if demolition and redevelopment do indeed occur, I intend to photograph the entire transformation. More to come.

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Indiana Welcome Center by Serhii Chrucky

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The Indiana Welcome Center is a surprising example of Post-Modern architecture, unexpectedly situated off of Interstate 80, five miles from the Illinois border in southern Hammond. It opened in 1999 as the Lake County Interstate Visitors Information Center and was designed by a Valparaiso-based firm called Design Organization, Inc., who were eventually acquired by Shive-Hattery in 2012.

Design elements of the building symbolize four distinctive aspects of the multi-faceted geography and economy of Northwest Indiana. The pillars marking the entry evoke the smokestacks of the nearby steel mills and oil refineries, most notably BP-Amoco in Whiting and The U.S. Steel Works in Gary. The cascading aluminum siding that covers the exhibition hall suggests the ebb and flow of waves on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. This element is juxtaposed with a rolling concrete wall bisecting the circular form of the entire building, reflecting the terrain of the Indiana Dunes to the east. Finally, the southern facing side is capped by a tall (non-functional) silo, symbolizing the largely agricultural economy to the south.

The jump-cut interplay of varied symbolic elements is in line with the strain of Post-Modernist architecture practiced by Stanley Tigerman, Michael Graves, and Robert Venturi, but was built at least a decade after that style faded out of fashion. Perhaps it took this brand of Post-Modernism a long time to move into the heartland. Or perhaps it was the best design solution to communicate the aims of the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau, telling the story of the region in a single structure. It stands nonetheless as an idiosyncratic example of very late Post-Modernism, rare in this part of the country, and an unexpected surprise to visitors passing through Northwest Indiana.

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Cobbler Square Lofts by Serhii Chrucky

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Cobbler Square Lofts in Old Town is a renovation of a Dr. Scholl's shoe factory, completed in 1985 by Kenneth Schroeder & Associates. The factory had consisted of twenty buildings within two square blocks, built between 1880 and 1965. A few of these buildings were demolished during renovation, but the overall character of a multi-generational factory complex was retained. There are three internal courtyards designed by POD, Inc. (a California-based landscape architecture firm) set off-axis 45 degrees to the street grid.

The main entrance on Wells street is a cutaway into the facade of the 1959 factory building, with a glazed atrium in red and blue steel providing a sense of grandiosity as one enters. I believe that in the near future this atrium will be of particular interest from a preservation standpoint. It is an example of Hi-Tech, a sub-style of Post-Modernism, that was uncommon in Chicago during this time period.

Architect Kenneth Schroeder described the design aesthetic as "layering the new against the old," and that was certainly achieved. Thirty five years since the renovation, there isn't a feeling of rupture. Rather, the additions made in 1985 fit seamlessly into the exisiting fabric. If disused factory buildings had any hope of surviving the changing economic and social conditions in large American cities, some kind of modification was necessary. Here, it was done in a manner that added to the richness of the pre-existing built environment. When it soon comes time to reassess Cobbler Square Lofts, it is this point that should be at the forefront of our considerations.

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