In her 10 years working as a tour guide and writer for Rick Steves’ Europe, Amanda Scotese learned a lot about how to uncover a neighborhood’s most interesting historical points.
Scotese, who later returned to Chicago to start her own tour company, Chicago Detours, recently shared her approach in a talk on “Understanding Everyday Landscape and Architecture in Chicago Neighborhoods” at Logan Square’s Comfort Station (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.)
Instead of skyscrapers and landmarks, Scotese is most interested in the “vernacular architecture” of cities and how even the most mundane elements of our landscape can have surprising messages to tell us about ourselves and the ways we live.
With an eye on Logan Square’s own particular architectural patois, Scotese offered some tips to help decipher a neighborhood’s hidden past.
1. Look for old signs—neon, honorary, and “ghosts”
Signs can tell you a lot about a neighborhood’s past, said Scotese. She often looks for old neon signs and “ghost signs”—billboard-style advertisements for defunct businesses that have faded away over the years—to get a sense of an area’s history.
“For example, the Grace Furniture sign on Milwaukee Avenue harkens back to the days when the street was full of homeware and furniture stores,” Scotese said.
She also loves the honorary street signs that dot some intersections, since they often pay homage to everyday people who were important to the community, such as local politicians, business owners and spiritual leaders.
However, signs can also be misleading. Scotese was admiring a ghost sign at a bar recently when she realized it had only been painted to look faded in order to add a vintage feel to the building.
2. Consider how the streets affect the neighborhood
The way that local streets run can also offer clues to a neighborhood’s history.
There are some odd street layouts in Logan Square, which in some instances are the result of early developers building up tracts of land without regard for their surroundings, she said. In other cases, whole towns like Pennock, Jefferson and Maplewood were annexed into the neighborhood and brought their streets with them.
Milwaukee Avenue, which runs through Logan Square at a diagonal, has also affected the urban fabric and resulted in some oddly shaped buildings, such as those that have a “triangle edge” and buildings that look like they’ve been cut in half.
“The old department store buildings, like the Hairpin Lofts, are cool examples of how the diagonals create different shapes of building,” she said.
As a historic but fast-growing neighborhood, Logan Square also has an especially eclectic mix of homes and buildings, she said. You can have a wood-framed, working-class home from the 1800s situated next door to a contemporary, glass building.
At the end of the day, Scotese favors older buildings, like Logan Square’s Fireside Bowl, which she said has the best historic bar in the neighborhood.
“For the context of architecture, this building is so cool because it is a rare example of late 1940s art deco in Logan Square,” she said. “The sleek font, the cream and red panels, and the classic ‘Bowl’ sign are super special. I also love the pink bathroom—it transports a lady to another era.”
Logan Square’s Comfort Station, where Scotese gave her talk, is also unique. Just nine of these were built in Chicago parks in the 1920s, she said. Only two remain today.
3. Lawn ornaments, decorations express individual tastes
Scotese also appreciates the way that lawn ornaments and decorations can be a presentation of people’s individual tastes.
These can run the gamut from religious icons like Madonna statues to cute (or creepy) garden gnomes, mushrooms, deer and more.
“People who look at our cultural relationship with objects say that lawn ornaments are a message to others that we have money to spend on things we don’t need,” she said. “Or if there’s a bunch of trash in a lawn, that’s just as much of a message,” she said.
Scotese will be giving her next talk on Ten Big Ideas That Make Chicago Its Own Kind of Town from 1-2 p.m. at the Comfort Station on Sunday, Oct. 27. More information is available here.
Featured photo: Tom Vlodek