V28-2 Ashland Avenue Looks Funny

Vol. XXVIII No. 2 - SPRING 2017

By LeRoy Blommaert

Ok, not the street, but some of the buildings on either side of it. Ever notice how some of the single family and small flat buildings along Ashland Avenue look different, that there is something that is just not quite right about them. It’s their porches. Instead of coming straight down in a perpendicular fashion from the front as most do, they often veer to the side, so that in walking up the stairs one would be parallel to the front of the building (see photo above). This variation is true not just for such buildings in Edgewater, but for many along Ashland to the south as well. Also, the parkways are very narrow, almost non-existent. The explanation for this is that Ashland was widened in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Originally, Ashland did not even go through to Devon. It is interesting to note that in the original Andersonville subdivision recorded in the early 1850s (Foster on the North, Clark on the East, Winnemac on the South, and Ravenswood on the West, according to today’s streets), Ashland looked more like an alley than a street, and did not continue north outside of the subdivision. Later, when it was extended north in much later subdivisions, it went only as far north as a point between Edgewater Avenue and Cemetery (now Rosehill) Drive, and did not even connect to the Drive. At least this was the case as of 1905, based on the Sanborn map of that year (see arrow below).

The widening of Ashland was part of a city-wide effort to widen certain streets to improve traffic flow. Automobiles were just coming into their own at the time. The thinking and planning began in the teens but often was not implemented until sometime in the 1920s. For Ashland, the objective was to have a 100 foot wide boulevard from 95th on the south to Howard on the north. The widening was done in sections. Because of legal objections from certain property owners, the section from Winnemac to Irving Park Boulevard was not completed until the late 1920s. Court action held up the project for some time.

Interestingly, the idea of widening Ashland dated much earlier than the teens. The Chicago Tribune reported on October 6, 1873, that Ashland was widened from W. Division Street to Milwaukee Ave, and again on December 11, 1874, that Ashland was widened 100 feet from Madison Street to the South Branch of the Chicago River.

So when was Edgewater’s portion of Ashland widened? Exact dates are difficult to establish, but it appears the widening was not completed before November 20, 1924, but definitely was completed by July 27, 1927. An article in the Chicago Tribune of November 20, 1924, about the planned Hagelin building on the south side of Foster between Clark and Ashland, states that: “Seventeen feet will be taken off of the Ashland avenue frontage through the widening of that thoroughfare.” Another item in the Chicago Tribune of July 27, 1927, about the widening states: “Three links in the avenue – Devon to Winnemac Avenue, Lake Street to the river, and 47th to 95th street – are already widened to 100 feet.”

Before it was widened, Ashland was a standard 66 foot wide residential street. A section of 17 feet was taken from the property on each side to increase the width to 100 feet. While part of the cost was financed by the issuance of bonds, part was financed by special assessments paid by owners of property on each side of the street – owners who had part of their property taken for the improvement (and asserted increase in value) which the widening was expected to achieve. [We have not been able to determine whether the owners received compensation for the land taken.]

Not all property owners were so fortunate as just having to give up part of their property and redo their front porches. For some it was the choice of demolition or moving their building back several feet to the rear of their lot. For the two-flat that stood at 802 Balmoral (what would be 1530 today), the only choice was demolition.

Today there are six two-flats on Balmoral just east of Ashland on the north side of the street. Originally there were seven. See the cut off building below.

For the owners of the mixed use two-story building at 5357-59 Ashland, the option taken was moving the building back on the lot – not a minor project. The building’s current owner, Thom Greene, remembers seeing a foundation under the street to the west of his building when the street was being torn up. The foundation of his building is concrete in the rear.

The most major moving project, by far, occurred south of Edgewater at Ashland and Leland. The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lourdes originally was located on the east side of Ashland, with the front facing west. It was “cut” in half, moved across the street and placed in a new direction with the entrance now facing north on Leland. It was also enlarged by the addition of a new section between the two original sections. The move has been considered by many as the greatest building moving project in Chicago’s history.

Apparently, moving a building or having to make alterations to it was not a rare occurrence. A review of the City’s permit index cards for properties in the 5300 block showed at least 13 permits marked “Sundry.” (See table.) Sundry were permits issued for other than new construction. In two cases (5352 and 5353), the cards were marked “foundation.” Unfortunately, the Sundry permits were not microfilmed, so one cannot tell for what purpose they were issued. However, it is rare to find so many Sundry permits for buildings in one block – and issued during such a narrow period of time.

In a subsequent article we will discuss the widening of other Edgewater streets including Clark Street.

Sources: Chicago Tribune digital archives, interview with Thom Greene, 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, City building permits.

Editors note: According to the Firemen who worked at the firehouse at 5358 N Ashland, when the city began removing the pavers from the original Ashland street, the firemen gathered them up and placed them alongside the building. When EHS purchased the building from the City several firemen came to tell us about how they saved the bricks. Then Gethsemane offered to set up the landscaping for the rear of the Museum using the best pavers from the street as part of a patio in the backyard. They were placed with their impressed sign Posten Block facing up. Typically this sign would have been facing the ground. But now they are there for all to enjoy.