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Preservation of the Recent Past
Just as they fought to save Victorian era building that were not appreciated in the 50s, we are now faced with the challenge of identifying and protecting the modern buildings of the mid-20th century that now seem obsolete to us today. In addition to individual buildings designed by architects, builders used plan books available at bookstores and libraries, or offered a few architect-designed home styles to construct modest dwellings in large-scale land developments. Prompted by the housing shortage following World War Two, the number of contractors in Aurora grew from only three in the late thirties to over 69 in the late fifties. Some of the companies included P.A. Thrall & Sons, Inc., J.N. Little & Son, Wm. Rahn & Sons, Clayton H. Stoner, Fred Gates Construction, Charles Carson, LaVerne Weber, Magnuson Construction Company, and Banks and Wegman (later R.C.Wegman Construction Company).
The following are some of the buildings and structures that we have only begun to identify as exceptional examples of architecture and design from the recent past that represent their specific eras. They will help to understand this period of our history and development, and provide tangible examples of this history for future generations.
The Carl Kaufmann House, 1956
305 South Edgelawn Drive
The Kaufmann house was built in 1956, and designed by Albert R. Belrose. According to a relative of the original owner, Carl Kaufmann, Belrose was previously employed by the Chicago architectural firm of Perkins and Will. It was built by contractor N.S. Abens at an estimated cost of $50,000.00.
The Goldman House
430 South Evanslawn Avenue
The Marshall and Shirlee Goldman house was designed by Keck and Keck and built in 1951. George Fred Keck was born in Watertown, Wisconsin. He studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and architecture from 1915-1920 at the University of Illinois. Before starting an independent practice in 1926, he worked for D.H. Burnham and Company, and for Schmidt, Garden and Martin. From 1923-24 he taught at the University of Illinois. With Laszlo Maholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes, he founded the Institute of Design in 1938 in Chicago. His brother, William, who was also born in Watertown, graduated from the U. of I. In 1931. After college, the younger Keck joined his brother’s architectural firm, and became a partner in 1946. A former owner indicated that the architect spent several days living with the owners before designing the house in order to incorporate their lifestyle into the design. Features include a large span of full height windows to bring the outdoors inside; flat roof; use of natural materials; and built in storage facilities. Other innovations include a series of louvered openings to allow fresh air inside, located behind doors on the outside walls. A variation of the open plan allows areas to be closed off by sliding doors.
The Lester Kaufman House
1414 Garfield Avenue
The Kaufman house was constructed in 1953 at an estimated cost of $42,000.00. The original owner was Lester Kaufman, and the contractor was Ivan L. Anderson. The architectural firm, Marx, Flint, and Schonne, was from Chicago, and Samuel A. Marx also designed the furniture for the house. Marx (1885-1964), born in Natchez, Mississippi, received his bachelor’s degree in 1907 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, until 1909. When he returned to the United States, he attracted national attention for his elegant hotel and residential interiors. Marx, who was a trustee and a member of the Board of Governors of the Art Institute of Chicago, also served on the advisory council for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Lustron Homes
Aurora has seven all-steel Lustron houses (named for “luster on steel”). The idea for a pre-fabricated steel house was developed in 1949 by Carl Strandlund, an industrial engineer, in response to a need for G.I. housing after WWII when housing was in short supply. They were produced on an assembly line and made of two-foot square panels of porcelain enamel on steel for both the exterior and interior walls. Even the roof shingles, door jambs, corners and gables were made of porcelanized steel. Because of this, the homes are practically maintenance free. Other features include many built-in steel cabinets, shelves, closets and dressers. Only 3,000 were manufactured in the United States before the government-backed loans to finance the company were called. A woman who owned her Lustron house on Rosedale for 50 years said that she was able to travel all over the world because her only maintenance expense in that time was a new furnace. Another woman said that when she and her husband went through the model house and he was crazy about it. He liked the idea that it was low maintenance and it was nicely decorated. She was used to the apartments in Chicago where the halls were long and dark with doors on both sides. The apartments didn't seem like a home, but the Lustron model was so open and nice, they both loved it. The agents for those homes were in the offices where she worked in Chicago. The name was L. J. Sheridan and Company located at 175 W. Jackson. She went to see them. They had 6 models all together, and they decided on one and built it in Aurora on Galena Boulevard for $9.000.00.
Sears Mail Order Houses
Between 1908 and 1940, homebuyers were able to order houses through the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog that assembled like jigsaw puzzles. The company’s Modern Homes Department offered about 450 ready-to-assemble designs from mansions to bungalows. Aurora is a haven for Sears homes because they were common in railroad communities. All of the components were shipped by rail cars, and purchasers unloaded their “homes” to transport them to the construction site. The price in the first 1908 catalog ranged from $650 to $2,500, and included plans, specifications, blueprints and materials – down to the nails! Sears even financed the homes. An owner in Aurora recently found a letter in the attic giving the original homeowner slack on mortgage payments during the Depression. In 1940, Sears issued its last Modern Homes catalog. While the Sears home conjures up the thought of pre-fab, they were not, and included quality materials, built in cabinets, hardwood floors, bay windows and other details ready for installation. The following are a few of the over 140 Sears homes found in Aurora. For more information, see Building Aurora: Sears Houses in Aurora, Illinois.
528 South Avenue,
1024 Second Avenue
506 S. Elmwood
807 New York Street
The Northgate Sign
The large sign at the Northgate Shopping Center with the neon lights ending in starbursts is a painted metal structure that was constructed in the 1950s. While electricity allowed signs to be illuminated in the early 20th century, new styles were created as the century advanced, including space age symbols in the 1950s with the fascination with outer space . Neon was another twentieth-century contribution to the signmaker’s art. “Neon,” coined from the Greek word for “new”, is a “new gas”, has the useful property of glowing when an electric charge passes through it. Encased in glass tubes it allowed signmakers opportunity to mold light into a variety of shapes, colors and images.
Yet another profound influence on signs from this period is the rise of the automobile, and businesses vying for the attraction of motorists on major auto thoroughfares. This resulted in a significant increase in height and vibrancy to attract the speeding motorist.
All of these influences are evident in the Northgate sign, which was designated a landmark through Aurora’s sign ordinance. It was designated because of its unique qualities, and as an icon from the 50s that has transcended its conventional role as identifier for vehicles. It is now valued because it has become a part of our collective memory of a bygone era.
Pure Oil Gas Station c.1940
260 S. Lake Street
The English Cottage style gas station was designed by C. A. Petersen in 1925 in response to his findings that “many people in discriminating residential neighborhoods objected to a service station nearby”. It gave Petersen the idea of designing a cottage type of station that would blend into and harmonize with a residential neighborhood. His design also met the needs of early gasoline companies who were trying to expand and hold their markets by developing uniform styles that would be easily recognized by passing motorists. The English Cottage station served Pure Oil well until it was abandoned in the 1950s. According to Petersen, this resulted in Pure Oil dropping from being number one to near the bottom of the pile.