Niels Buck, Edgewater Architect


Niels Buck, Edgewater Architect
by LeRoy Blommaert with research also by Marsha Holland
This is another in a series of articles about architects who designed buildings in Edgewater.
Niels Buck is unique among such architects in that not only was he an architect, but he was also a builder and a developer. He was also an Edgewater resident for the last 25 years of his life.
The Man
Niels Buck was born in Denmark. The date of his birth is uncertain based on the census data. The 1900 census shows him as age 26 and having born in March 1874, but with a son Frederick age 10. That would mean that he was 16 when his son was born….possible, of course, but unlikely. The 1910 census shows his age as 44, with son Frederick, age 20. The 1920 census give his age as 53. Based on these two censuses, it would appear that he was born in either 1866 or 1867, rather than 1874. The 1905 Book of Chicagoans however gives a precise date and place and lineage: He was born in Morse Denmark, March 24, 1866, the son of Christ and Cecil Buck.
The 1900 census shows that he emigrated in 1884, that he was married to Emma, that he had one son, Frederick, that he owned his dwelling, and that his occupation was that of architect. However, his Chicago Tribune obituary states that he came to America in 1873. The 1892 Chicago voter registration records indicate that he had been a resident in the state of Illinois for 12 years which would mean that he emigrated in 1880 or before. To complicate matters further the 1905 Book of Chicagoans states that he came to American when he was 17 years old, which would place the year of his emigration as 1883.
This 1905 Book of Chicagoans goes on to relate that he was educated in the public schools of Denmark and that he learned the carpenter trade near Copenhagan. Once in Chicago he was employed with A. H. Andrews & Co. as a cabinet-maker and was later with Jensen & Dryer as superintendent of carpenters and builders, and then studied architecture and became a member of the firm and general superintendent of Wheatley, Buck & Co. Beginning in 1893 he was in business for himself; however, in 1903 he was joined by Fred Schroeder forming the firm of Niels Buck & Co., contractors and builders. This source indicates that he was a Lutheran, a Republican, and member of the Chicago Automobile, the Oconto, and Ravenswood clubs.
In 1911 he again described himself to the “Biographical Dictionary” editor as “a Republican, a Lutheran, and a Mason,” and added that his principal recreation was motoring. In the mid-1890s, however, he had been an enthusiastic bicyclist. With six other similarly inclined “wheelmen” he formed the Oconto Club and found enough financial support to design and construct a 2-story club house costing $15,000. The club house, which included among other features a basement pool, a bowling alley, s dance floor and several parlors, was located on Marshfield Avenue either just north or south of Addison. No image, house number, or information on the fate of the structure so far has been found.
On April 13, 1889 he married Emma Ruber (Rubart, according to the 1905 Book of Chicagoans) in Chicago; she was 18 and he was 24. Together they had five children, three of whom survived, two boys (Frederick and Donald) and one girl (Adeleide). He died at age 62 on June 16, 1928, and at home.
Business and Home Addresses
He had just a few business and home addresses. Based on the City Directories they are
133 Clark
26 Walnut (1628)
125 LaSalle
113 Woodside (later renamed N. Marshfield, current number uncertain.
145 LaSalle
1907 Marshfield (3444)
3123 N. Clark
2401 Kenmore (5332)
5330 Kenmore
The street numbers shown in parentheses are the current street numbers.
His Work
The American Contractor database of Chicago permits issued in 1898 through 1912 shows that he designed 346 buildings during this period. That works out to 23 per year, or almost 2 a month and represented a considerable work product that few others surpassed. Of these, 78 were in Edgewater including 15 which were were designed for Edgewater’s founder, John Lewis Cochran, all in 1899. and all in his two subdivisions west of Broadway.
Thirteen of his commission were rated “orange” as potential landmarks in the city’s historic survey, of which five were on the 3800 block of Wilton (3804, 06, 10, 12 &14).
As was noted above, he was not only an architect; he was also a builder and built homes for his own portfolio to re-sell or, in his early years, for his partner, Frederick Schroeder. In fact of his 346 commissions he designed 93 for himself or his company, and 62 for his partner (almost half of his commissions during this period).
Most interestingly, he was also a developer, and he was responsible for at least two developments, one in Edgewater and one just north of Devon in Rogers Park. Both were developments of modest single family homes. The one in Edgewater was located on the north side of Bryn Mawr and both sides of Olive between Hermitage and Ravenswood. It consisted of 36 frame one-story bungalows and was begun in 1914. The one in Rogers Park was located on both sides of Arthur between Clark and Ravenswood. It consisted of 51 one story cottages. He did both of these developments with his second partner H.T. Becker.
In Edgewater his most noteworthy commission besides his bungalow development in 1914 was the one for the building at the southeast corner of Broadway and Bryn Mawr for Conrad Bristle in 1899. At the time it was, with 16 units, the largest apartment and largest mixed-use building in Edgewater. Interestingly all his 15 commissions for J. L. Cochran were in the same year.
In Uptown, he is credited with 36 commissions in the same 1898-1912 period. His most notable commission in Uptown came late in his career (1922), when he designed the new Rainbo Gardens banquet hall, which unfortunately no longer stands. The boldest of his non-construction business was acquiring ownership of the building and land of the Rainbo Gardens entertainment venue. It is not known when he made the purchase, but he told a Tribune reporter that he planned to transfer the title for the property from his own name to the Rainbo Gardens Company, of which he was the principal stockholder. He said this was being done to facilitate the complete remodeling of the facility, which reopened in June, 1922, under the management of Fred Mann.
Niels Buck had a number of other business interests beyond his residential building. Beginning in 1905, with Fred Schroeder he was at various times president or treasurer (and presumably part owner) of three coal mines located in Franklin County south of Carbondale, Illinois. In 1913 he and the other owners improved safety conditions by electrifying all aspects of the mining process. According to the 1923 Chicago Directory Niels and his oldest son Fred (who joined the business after WWI) were involved with the Advance Manufacturing Company (apparently a producer of kitchen equipment) in the early 1920s.
There is one thing he did that we are not aware of any other architect doing: He demolished his own house and the house next door which he has purchased and erected in its place a large 30 unit courtyard building into which he moved. But it was not just any of the apartments which became his new home, but one of the two fourth floor penthouses he had built. Each penthouse apartment had its own elevator, and the building had three built-in garages. The apartment building was built in 1924/1925 and has an address of 5330 to 5338 Kenmore.
Sources: Book of Chicagoans (1905) and (1913), Chicago Tribune digital files, Economist, Census records, City Directories.