Category Archives: Style – Neo-Romanesque

Historic Architecture: The Cobden (1892), Charles S. Frost, 418-424 W. Belden Avenue, Chicago, Illinois.

The Cobden, 1892, 418-424 W. Belden Ave., Chicago, IL. 6/2014

The Cobden, a Richardsonian-Romanesque flats-above-storefront building that has anchored the northwest corner of busy Clark Street and residential Belden Avenue since 1892 was designed by architect Charles Sumner Frost (1856 –1931) of the firm of Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931) and Frost.

Born in Maine and trained as an architect in Boston, Frost moved to Chicago in 1882. When The Cobden was built, Frost was 36 years old and at the beginning of a new stage in his early mid-career. Cobb and Frost designed and began construction of the Potter Palmer mansion (1882-1885) at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive (demolished in 1951). The Cobden, two miles to the north in Lincoln Park along the Lake Michigan shore, was built in a burgeoning residential area at 418-424 Belden Avenue.

The Cobden is greatly influenced by the Richardsonian-Romanesque style which was prevalent among young architects in the 1880’s and 1890’s before the onset of the Beaux-Arts revival. Adapted to a residential-commercial street in a neighborhood outside Downtown Chicago, The Cobden shows the characteristics associated with the Richardsonian Romanesque style such as clear, strong picturesque massing, round-headed arches, clusters of short squat columns, recessed entrances, richly varied rustication, blank stretches of walling contrasting with bands of windows, and cylindrical towers with conical caps embedded in the walling.

The Cobden, in its bays and a prominent central gable that breaks above the roofline, presented an attractive architectural variety on Belden Avenue.

In 1897 Charles S. Frost married Mary Hughitt, the daughter of New York railroad tycoon Marvin Hughitt (1837-1928), the president of the Chicago and North Western Railroad. When the partnership of Cobb and Frost ended in 1898, Frost partnered with Mary’s sister’s husband, Alfred Hoyt Granger (1867-1939). Granger came to Chicago also from Boston (he was born in Ohio) and designed The Art Institute Building on Michigan Avenue in 1893. Frost and Granger were known for their designs of train stations and terminals such as the LaSalle Street Station in 1903. In the first decade of the 20th century, Frost and Granger designed over 100 buildings for the Chicago and North Western Railroad, including the massive Renaissance-Revival style Chicago and North Western Terminal which opened in 1912 (and demolished in 1984 to make way for the Ogilvie Transportation Center in Downtown Chicago).

When the Frost and Granger partnership ended by 1912, Frost began to work independently and designed in 1916 the Navy Pier Auditorium. Following his father-in-law’s death in 1928, Frost retired from his architectural practice at the end of the same year. After designing hundreds of public, commercial, and residential buildings, mainly in Chicago, Charles S. Frost died in 1931 at 75 years old.

Charles S. Frost in 1920.

SOURCES:

Alice Sinkevitch, AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2004, p. 196.

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume XVII, 1920, pp. 336–337.

Chicago’s Oldest German Parish (1852): St Michael Church in Old Town.

FEATURE image: The great tower of St. Michael Church on the Near North Side of Chicago identifies the Old Town Triangle historic district.

The bell tower of St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue. Until the mid-1880’s this church tower was the tallest building in Chicago.

In 1876, five years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that ravaged the city, the rebuilt St. Michael Church raised five new bells into the tower. They were cast by McShane Company. The tower’s four-sided clock was installed in 1888. Atop the steeple, the twenty-four-foot tall cross weighs over a ton.

By John P. Walsh

The story is told that if you can hear the five 2-to-6-ton bells peel from the 290-feet-tall tower of St. Michael Church you live in Chicago’s Old Town. Yet it depends on which way the wind is blowing.  

St. Michael Church is one of Chicago’s oldest parishes and church buildings. It was founded by German Catholics in 1852. From their arrival in the 1830s and 1840s until World War I, German immigrants of all faiths made up Chicago’s most numerous nationality.

German immigrants soon migrated out of downtown Chicago and about two miles north to North Avenue. The east-west thoroughfare became known as “German Broadway.”

This European immigrant community expanded to eventually settle a four-mile square area that was called “North Town.” St. Michael Church was situated in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman and brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey had immigrated to the United States in the 1830s from Saarland in western Germany.

Michael Diversey
St. Michael Church stands on land donated expressly for the purpose of building it by successful German-American brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey emigrated from Germany in 1830, and by 1844 he was a Chicago alderman. The church is named after the wealthy beer maker’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel, whose limestone figure stands in the high niche on the façade (see photograph below). Diversey’s so-called Chicago Brewery, first established in Chicago in 1839, grew to become one of the most extensive establishments of its kind in the West.

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The church building is built of red brick with limestone trim in the Romanesque style. Construction started in 1866 and was finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was virtually destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire along with its North Town neighborhood. Only the church’s exterior walls remained. Using these existing walls, the fire-gutted St. Michael Church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1873. Ashes from that infamous conflagration can still be seen in the church’s basement.

main entrance

Gabled three-portal main entrance was added to the façade in 1913 by a Chicago architect. The architectural design harkens back to the cathedrals of Europe.

St Michael Church, interior.
Interior St. Michael Church, Chicago.

In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s total population was around 30,000 making it the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States.

Ten years later, in 1860, right before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had nearly quadrupled and ranked in the nation’s top ten largest cities.

Chicago’s Catholic Church hierarchy in the middle of the nineteenth century was mostly Irish. These English-speaking bishops relied on religious orders to handle a tidal wave of non-English-speaking immigrants to Chicago, including the Germans.

In 1860, the St. Michael Church parish was entrusted to the Redemptorists, a religious order founded in in 1748 in Italy. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the St. Michael Church in Old Town that stands today. Over 170 years later, the Redemptorist order continues to shepherd the parish.

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A mosaic of Saint Michael the Archangel in the floor at the entrance of the church. “Archangel” is a title that signifies he is the leader of all God’s angels. 

The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one of the many religious images—others in stone, wood and paint—that constitutes the interior and exterior decoration of  St. Michael Church. St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude, and the Book of Revelation. St. Michael the archangel is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Daniel where in the first instance he helps the prophet Daniel and in the second he is linked to the “end times” of the world. In the Epistle of Jude, St. Michael the archangel guards the tombs of Eve and Moses and combats Satan to protect these holy sites. In the Book of Revelation St. Michael and his angels do battle with the “dragon.” St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.

The High Altar

The Main Altar of the Angels in St. Michael Church dates from 1902.

The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. The motivation for the church’s extensive redecoration in 1902 was its Golden Jubilee as well as one expression of the parishioners’ decided prosperity by the later 1890s.

In that Jubilee year, the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. Though there are five altars in St. Michael Church, the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward from practically anywhere in the church. Crowning this painted construct—which is so heavy that it required a new local foundation to be dug for it—is the figure of St. Michael the Archangel described in the Book of Revelation. The angel is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. St. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul are also depicted in wood. Smaller human figures depict the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols—specifically, the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). All five altars were made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings.

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Annunciation window (detail), 1902, Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich. St. Michael Church, Chicago.

In 1869 the St. Michael Church building cost over $130,000 to build which is approximately $2.65 million today. After the fire the repairs in 1872 cost an additional $40,000 plus unknown amounts of insurance money–or upwards of $700,000 today. Reconstruction did not include the stained glass windows which were installed in 1902. For a history of the stained glass in St. Michael church go to: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2016/05/10/angels-in-stained-glass-1902-complete-st-michael-church-in-old-town-chicago/.

Anointing of Jesus by Mary Magdalene (detail), 1902, Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich. St. Michael Church, Chicago.

The anointing of Jesus in Bethany by the sinful woman, traditionally the Magdalene. Though the story varies in certain details, all four gospels relate the anointing set in a house for a meal and a woman who pours expensive ointment on Jesus to which someone objects.

In regard to the ointment, Mark’s account (14:3) records that it is the purest of spikenard which was very expensive costing over a year’s wages (Mark 14:5).

Spikenard was grown in India, China, and Nepal and known in ancient Rome where it was used as a cooking agent. By the time of Jesus, in the early Roman Empire, spikenard was used primarily in perfume.

In 2020, the spikenard plant is part of Pope Francis’s coat of arms. He uses the image of the plant as does the Latin American church, as a symbol for St. Joseph.

Luke’s gospel speaks of Jesus’ feet being anointed by a woman who had been sinful all her life and who was crying (7:38). As her tears fall on the feet of Jesus, she kissed and wiped his feet with her hair.

The iconography of the woman’s actions in the Gospels has traditionally been associated with Mary Magdalene though none of the biblical texts specify her as the story’s subject.

Coat of Arms of Pope Francis (2013-). According to the Vatican, the image of the plant to the right of the star on the blue background is spikenard and represents St. Joseph.

St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago.
Christmas angels (detail), 1902, Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich. St. Michael Church, Chicago.
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Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich in 1902 for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee, the tall and thin stained glass windows —the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design— depicted biblical and other scenes and drew on centuries of craft and technique.

As with other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuated the use of Gothic-style glass in Chicago’s Old Town Roman Catholic church.

Carved pulpit, St. Michael Church.
Carved pulpit. St. Michael Church, Chicago.
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Ceiling mural. St. Michael Church, Chicago.

Central nave ceiling mural includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists: Winged Man (Matthew); Winged Lion (Mark); Winged Ox (Luke); Eagle (John).

Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts and perhaps is inspired by a scene painted in the 15th century in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice.

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Pieta. St. Michael Church, Chicago.

Copy made around 1913 of a 16th-century Swabian-style Pieta.

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The Sacred Heart side altar to the east side of the main altar honors Jesus’s apparition to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690).  Statues depict St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) and St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), founders of religious orders.

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Side altar honors Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help whose image was important to Saint Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists who were the religious order pastors of St. Michael Church from its start. Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) gave this specific icon to the Chicago Redemptorists in 1865. After the Great Fire, it was picked out of the charred embers. Having survived intact in the rubble, it was taken as a sign to rebuild the church building and later set the icon into this nearly Indo-Chinese-style retable.

The history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in a new American city that was itself rising as the City of the Century. Chicago in less than 50 years developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States.

Between 1874 and following World War I, Chicago’s rapid emergence on the world stage was accompanied by Deutschtum (or “Germanness”) in its culture.

While Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the Kaiser’s defeat in 1918 in the European war signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago. Their cultural hegemony in Chicago was virtually completely dismantled by the start of World War II.

Sources: G. Lane and A. Kezys, Chicago Churches and Synogogues; P. d’A Jones and M.G. Holli, Ethnic Chicago; D.A. Pacyga and E. Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods; D. McNamara, Heavenly City; St. Michael Church website.

Photographs by author taken on February 13 and 17, 2013; and May 6, 2016.

More of St. Michael Church, Old Town, Chicago? Please see: