Chicago Architecture Foundation Special Pivot Arts Festival Tour of Uptown – Imagining a Paris on the Prairie


“Imagine what we now call Uptown in 1840.  What you’d see would be farmland poised for the next decade’s migration of the more posh to a lakefront suburb away from the hustle and bustle of the city…”


That’s how Chicago Architecture Foundation tour guide and docent Polly Sippy began our special look at Uptown as part of the Pivot Arts Festival.  In part, Pivot Arts Festival hopes to reclaim Uptown’s Vaudevillian past to the present day. 


Our tour started at the former TCF bank on Wilson, where in fact, festival workers were readying for that evening’s performance by punk marching band Mucca Pazza among others. 

This former TCF Bank was used as a vaudeville theater from 1909-1922, before becoming a bank.


To many Uptown visitors, its history of hosting more single room occupancy hotels than anywhere else in the city may be what stands out.  But look farther back in history and you learn that Uptown’s origins, and many of its structures, trace back to a time when having a summer place there was akin to Northerners having a winter place in Sarasota. 


Today Uptown can claim to be the most diverse community in the city.  Its more recent past as the place where Chicago’s Native Americans and worn out miners located is barely seen in the mix of races and ethnicities that now inhabit Uptown.    Sippy shares that in the 50’s and 60’s Uptown was uncharitably called ‘hillbilly haven’.  


According to Sippy, things are rapidly changing in Uptown now as then, with real estate values climbing 58% since 2002. 


If the more progressively minded people who want to steer this gentrification in more humane directions have their way the local denizens of Uptown will not be displaced.  Hmmm….  A laudable goal but not one we’ve seen realized elsewhere in the city.


But to understand the architecture we find in Uptown we do need to dial back to that before when Uptown was the place “to be”.  The secret of Uptown’s prior “hipness” from the 1800’s through the 20’s of the last century had a lot to do with the four-mile dry zone around Evanston.   Rumor had it that Al Capone’s crew kept booze on Lake Michigan ships and simply piped it into the Uptown “watering holes”.

It was the fashionable Uptown Store created by Loren Miller, a contemporary of Marshall Field, which gave Uptown its name.  Miller was an innovative merchandizer who made sure to change the windows quite often in what later became the Goldblatt Department Store.  This means to drive foot traffic to his store was at that time a relatively innovative concept.


The largest building in Uptown is restored and in good repair, the McJunkin Building formerly housing an ad agency. 


Many entertainment centers remain in Uptown. For starts we see the promise of the UptownTheater (in the Register of Historic places since 1986), which brags an acre of seats

and the nearby Riviera and Aragon Ball Rooms—both concert halls to this day.


Almost as soon as Uptown was established Vaudeville’s decline began, and the area lost a main driver of its growth. Post WW2, changing tastes in music also fed the decline, with the nail through the coffin probably being the invention of TV.  


If today’s aldermen in the area and Pivot Arts have their way we will see the rebirth of an entertainment-centered community revival.  Take a good look at the buildings and you can see that there is still a lot to work with.


Especially keep an eye on the ubiquitous terra cotta decorative detail that speaks to Uptown’s former and potential future glory.  Terra cotta was seen as THE way our city could compete with the much-marbled fashionable centers of Europe.  When you study these terra cotta details you are seeing the dreams of our forebears who wanted Uptown and Chicago to be the “Paris on the Prairie”.


Sound farfetched?  With a gorgeous lakefront steps away and Millennium Park, Picassos and more just down the road apiece, and the abundant creative energies of the Pivot Arts organization and it could very well be that Uptown will get a second chance… 



Note: Special thanks to Linda Winke, Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Uptown Tour Director for fact checking this article


Photos:  Peter Kachergis





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