BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The current exhibition at the Old Town Triangle Art Center at 1753 North Park Avenue proves that it’s never too early for a community to embrace its artists. Home to the Old Town Art Fair, named the number one art fair in the country for the second year in a row (by artfaircalendar.com), Old Town has a magic that invites even the youngest artists to express themselves. Against a backdrop of mostly brick nineteenth century houses, many of which have been captured by artists of bygone eras, the neighborhood is Chicago’s Montmartre.
At the opening of the new exhibit, entitled OTTA Youth: Art from Old Town Triangle Kids, neighbors (and a few neighborly dogs) gathered to offer congratulations to the young artists. There we encountered Shirley Baugher, the near-North neighborhood’s historian and author of The Hidden History of Old Town, At Home in Our Old Town: Every House Has a Story, and Our Old Town. She was just the right person to describe why Old Town has been an artists’ mecca since its inception.
What is it about Old Town attracts artists?
Old Town is a little like the Left Bank of Paris or Greenwich Village in New York. The historic houses offer a charm and a glimpse into history not found in most other Chicago neighborhoods. The shops are small and accommodating. We all came for the same reasons: we like the peace and quiet, the trees and grass, and the freedom to be ourselves.
We go to festivals at the Buddhist temple and are lulled to sleep by the tolling of St. Michael’s bells. We stop whatever we are doing and trot halfway down the block to admire a neighbor’s dog, or cat, or baby. We hibernate during the winter and rush outdoors in the spring to catch up and greet newcomers who have moved in while we were indoors.
Shirley, who are some of the famous artists who have called Old Town home?
Francis Chapin, one of the foremost watercolorists of the twentieth century, had a Menomonee Street studio. Ivan Albright, whose works grace Chicago’s Art Institute, and who painted the masterful Picture of Dorian Gray, produced his macabre masterpieces on Ogden Avenue, within a stone’s throw of Chapin’s studio.
The writer Eugene Field lived and wrote here. Henry Rago, a brilliant poet, wrote in an apartment on North Park. Newspaper editor and author of Yesterday’s Chicago, Herman Kogan (father of the equally renowned Rick Kogan) also lived in the North Park Apartments, as did Slim Williams, the last survivor of the Alaskan Gold Rush.
In his apartment on Crilly Court, artist Haddon Sunbloom created the image of Santa Claus as we know it. And Dick Latham, one of the most brilliant industrial designers of all time, lived across the street from Sunbloom in one of the Crilly Court row houses. Among Dick’s creations is every conceivable kitchen utensil for the Eco company, as well as the smokestack on the Queen Mary, the Greyhound Bus Scenicruiser, Hallicrafters’ SX radio receiver, and Borg Ericson’s model 1500 “Flight” bathroom scale, listed by Fortune Magazine as one of the top five hundred designs of all time. He also designed a line of Rosenthal porcelain.
You have told me before that some of Hollywood’s most famous silent stars, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, and Francis X. Bushman, lived in Old Town while filming for the Essanay studios in 1915. I can imagine that some of the Keystone Cop shots took them right by where Second City is today on Wells Street. Much of the Old Town architecture is still the same as it was in Chaplin’s day. How has the neighborhood been so well-preserved?
The early movie stars, including all the Keystone Cops, definitely brought a kind of cultural cachet to the neighborhood in the early days of the last century. In the grand scheme of things, Old Town is not a famous neighborhood. It was started by German farmers and craftsmen who planted cabbages and built simple homes here. We have no single residence that approaches the architectural triumph of the Glessner House, Henry Richardson’s residential masterpiece on Prairie Avenue. But there are five Louis Sullivan row houses on Lincoln Park West, and images of the row houses on Crilly Court can be found at Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Our residents are a close-knit group with a dedication to preserving the neighborhood’s architectural integrity. Architects like Harry and Kitty Weese and Walter Netsch have lived in Old Town and contributed greatly. That neighbors succeed in these common purposes is due to the diligence and determination of the Old Town Triangle Association, a non-profit organization founded in 1948. The neighborhood has been protected by landmark status since 1977.
The Old Town Art Fair in June has not only been called the “number one art fair in the country” but also one of the five Chicago festivals that “you should plan a visit to Chicago around” by US News and World Report. How did the Art Fair get started?
Begun in 1950, it is the oldest juried outdoor fair in the nation. It was called the Old Town Holiday and was really conceived as a neighborhood party. Neighbors, friends, and a few outsiders participated, but it is nothing like the Art Fair we know today. Anyone could enter and there was no jury. Participants displayed art on fences and tables on Lincoln Park West and its two adjacent alleys. Seventy neighbors showed everything from crocheted potholders to high-quality oils and watercolors. The event was such a success that the fairs continued.
In 1954, the name was changed to the Old Town Holiday Arts and Crafts Fair, and in 1963, it received its current designation. As the fair grew in size and prestige, the selection process became more sophisticated. Entries came under the scrutiny of a jury of professional artists, which enhanced the quality of the exhibitions and brought in many of the current features, including a balanced offering of sculpture, painting, ceramics, jewelry, leather works, and mixed media. There are currently more than 250 artists from the United States, Canada, and Europe who participate. Lynn Smith and former Alderman Vi Daley will head the Fair for the second year in a row this year on June 10 and 11.
What appeals to you most about living in Old Town?
Old Town gives me a sense of belonging and a sense of familiarity. Every house is familiar, every tree an old friend, and every neighbor a part of my family. It occupies a special place in my heart and in the hearts of everyone who is fortunate enough to have lived here.
Neighbors were obviously having fun congratulating the young exhibitors at the opening January 15 including Cole Hanover, pictured above, and the nine-year old Aviva, not only a painter but a budding cartoonist.
OTTA Youth: Art from Old Town Triangle Kids runs through the end of January at the Leslie Wolfe Gallery at the Old Town Triangle Art Center (1753 N. North Park Avenue). Hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 am until 5 pm and on Saturdays, from 10 am until 1 pm. Barbara Guttmann serves as Executive Director and welcomes guests from around the world to this historic Old Town artists’ mecca. For further information, call 312-337-1938.