Fred A. Miller Flats
[Fred A. Miller Flats (1897) /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
1895 was a big year for Chicago's expanding northwest side. The West Side Metropolitan Elevated Railroad opened their line to Damen Avenue in Wicker Park in April of that year and inaugurated their Humboldt Park branch - which ran along the alley just behind North Avenue - in May. When the ribbon was cut at the grand opening of the Damen Avenue station, the surrounding community was fairly developed, but it hadn't been entirely built-out, and a number of investors saw opportunity in those vacant city lots.
[Fred A. Miller Flats, 1646 N. Leavitt Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Fred A. Miller was one of the people who saw profit potential in the rapidly filling-in neighborhood. The El provided quick transport for office workers commuting into downtown Chicago. Wicker Park had its fair share of upper-middle-class residents as well as lower income working class inhabitants. But if Miller built the right kind of building, he might attract the commuting businessman who couldn't afford a grand single family home just yet, but might pay a premium for a first-rate apartment flat. Miller purchased a wide city lot on North Leavitt Street in 1896 just as construction on architect Charles Thisslew's stone-fronted building was coming to a close on the lot next door. If Miller was going to attract the type of tenant he was aiming for, his building would have to match the standard set by Thisslew's Bedford stone facade, and perhaps even surpass it in some way. Many builders used pressed brick for their building's face since it was a cheaper than an entire stone facade, but in a market where first impressions count, Miller went with stone and added a few attention grabbing decorative flourishes to boot.
[Fred A. Miller Flats, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Bedford stone was the brand name of a limestone quarried in nearby Indiana. The towns of Bedford and Bloomington, Indiana were the hub of the nation's calcium carbonate rock. A lucky stroke of geographical history had placed the two on top of one of the highest quality limestone deposits in the world. The many million-year-old compressed calcium had something going for it that was hard to beat - the rock could withstand temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees fahrenheit which made it extremely popular in places like Chicago and its fire legacy. But it didn't come cheap, and was considered to be an "aristocratic" building material. And the country's aristocratic architects took to it like bees to honey. Some of the largest, most prominent houses in the U.S. were covered in Indiana's oolitic limestone, including the Vanderbilt houses in New York and Asheville, and grand Chicago homes, like the Bordens on Lake Shore Drive, and the Kimballs on Prairie Avenue. In 1895, a consortium of businessmen in Chicago and New York formed the Consolidated Stone Company after having purchased nearly all the Bedford-Bloomington quarrries, and raised prices. The average cost of a 25 foot wide facade increased by $150 to $300 depending on the height of the building. Even so, Miller paid the piper for his elegant street facade and offered the latest in modern, urban living. 1,500 square-foot apartments with oak floors and trim, steam heat, gas cooking, and - electricity - all within a ten minute walk of the El. The large single floor apartments have been divided in two, but Miller's costly stone front still presents itself with a blue-chip exterior.
See more neighboring housing choices at: Caton Street, Chicago; one of Chicago's last remaining grand limestone mansion facades at: Piano King; and an earlier "flat" building at: The Houghton Apartment Flats, Chicago.