Ask Geoffrey: 3/18

Let's Cross That Bridge When It Swings Shut


Geoffrey Baer tours a Miracle House, swings by a bobtail swing bridge, and makes some noise at a silent film studio in this week's edition of Ask Geoffrey.

There is a house on the northeast corner of Armitage and Nordica that has quite unique architecture for the area. Is there a story behind this home? And are those large white projections from the building some kind of flying buttresses? -- Laura Hall-Schordje, Mont Clare

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There is in fact a heck of a story behind this home, known as the “Miracle House” when it was built. The current owners graciously allowed our cameras into their home to show viewers the interior of this wildly futuristic house, which was built in 1954 to be the grand prize in a raffle!

The raffle was dreamed up by the nearby St. William Church as a way to raise money to build a new church for the parish. Architect Edo Belli of Belli and Belli designed both the new church for St. William and the Miracle House. People bought $1 tickets to tour the completed house, and the same ticket also entered them into a raffle to win the house. They also offered custom-made glass ashtrays as consolation prizes.

We spoke to Edo Belli’s son Jim, who runs the architecture firm today. Jim told us Edo was close friends with Cardinal Samuel Stritch – in fact, until the Miracle House all of Edo’s work had been designing Catholic institutions. Jim told us priests would often come to their house when Stritch was there for dinner in hopes of getting an informal audience with the Cardinal. One of those young priests was from St. William, and he pitched Belli the idea of the raffle. Edo asked for the Cardinal’s blessing before he began to draw up plans for a home big enough for a family of five, like his own family. And, according to Jim, as local suppliers and businesses got word of the plan, donations began to pour in. In the end, the house was built entirely with donated labor and materials, including Edo Belli’s design. General Electric provided appliances to create an all-electric home. Legendary Chicago retailer Sol Polk donated the interior furnishings and agreed to promote the house raffle nationwide. Chicago Bridge and Iron donated all the steel in the house, including the stainless steel arms (not buttresses) from which the house is suspended.

The raffle turned out to be a roaring success. According to Jim Belli, enough money was raised in the raffle to build not just the church, but the rectory, convent, and school too. When it was time for the drawing in 1955, Hollywood actress and St. William alumna Kim Novak came back to Chicago to pick the winning ticket at a gala event. A member of the St. William parish ultimately won the home, and over the last 60 years, the house has only changed hands a couple of times.

The current owners, David Scheiner and Margaret Creedon, bought it in 1999 and say they love the house’s local celebrity and enjoy sharing it with the neighborhood for community gatherings. And as an interesting side note, David Scheiner has another claim to fame. For many years, he was Barack Obama’s physician!

While on a boat tour of the North Branch of the Chicago River, we went by a swing bridge. It's just south of Cortland Avenue and can be seen from the Cortland Avenue bridge, but only the fixed part. What's the story of the bridge? Is it the last remaining swing bridge in Chicago? -- John Kirby, Arcadia Terrace

A swing bridge is one that doesn’t go up and down like our famous drawbridges, but instead swings to the side to allow boats to pass. The bridge in question is actually not the only swing bridge left in Chicago, but it’s definitely a very unusual design.

     The bridge is rather unpoetically named Bridge Z-6. It’s a still-active railroad bridge that crosses the Chicago River’s North Branch very near the old Finkl steel factory just south of Cortland. The 1899 bridge was designed by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad’s Superintendent of Bridges and Buildings, Onward Bates, and built by the American Bridge Company. What makes it so unusual is that the North Branch takes a sharp turn there, nearly 90 degrees, and it’s also quite narrow, which made it a challenging location for a swing bridge. Normally, a swing bridge rests on a pier in the middle of the river and swivels 90 degrees to let boats pass on either side, but the river is too narrow there to put a pier in the middle and still leave room for boats. Also, the 90-degree bend in the river means one end of a typical symmetrical swing bridge would always block the river no matter which direction it turned. Thus, the only solution was to put the hinge point on shore. This is called an asymmetric, or “bobtail” design, and it basically means Bridge Z-6 swings open like a gate via a turntable mechanism on shore.

As for the other swing bridges still in existence, if you float just a few blocks south on the Chicago River, there’s actually another bobtail swing bridge at the northern end of Goose Island. Bridge Z-2 at Cherry Avenue and North Avenue was built a couple of years after Z-6 when Goose Island was heavily industrial. Today, Z-2 is no longer moveable, but it is still used by trains. It has been restored by the Chicago Department of Transportation, and is now a pedestrian and bike path as well as a rail bridge.

There are several working railroad swing bridges crossing the Sanitary and Ship Canal on the south side.  Within the city limits, three more traditional center pier types are at Kedzie Avenue near 35th Street, Lawndale just east of 35th Street, and just east of Cicero Avenue.

Finally: here at Ask Geoffrey headquarters, we look out for bridge fans and rail fans alike! Take a ride on the Chicago Terminal Railroad with engineer Brian Rose and conductor Kyle Kimpel as it travels through the industrial corridor along the eastern bank of the Chicago River.

The Essanay Studios’ website mentions that the studios were once used by WTTW. Do you know what that was for? -- Cheryl Borgeson, North Park

WTTW did in fact use the Essanay Studios as recently as 1994, when we shot a show called Love In Four Acts partly at Essanay. The production featured four dance works made expressly for television by four different Chicago choreographers. And WTTW even briefly owned the building – more on that in a bit.

Essanay was one of America’s earliest silent movie studios. You can still see the fancy entrance to Essanay on Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood. It’s a city landmark although it’s no longer a film studio. The studio’s biggest claim to fame is that Charlie Chaplin worked there, albeit for only one year. Chaplin made one film at Essanay, His New Job, in 1915, and left the studio when his one-year contract was up.

Essanay was founded in 1908 by America’s first film cowboy, Bronco Billy Anderson and businessman George K. Spoor. Spoor’s and Anderson’s initials – S and A – formed the name of the new studio. Together, they created a factory for making films, pumping them out like sausages – over 1,400 in its 10 years. Essanay became home to stars like the cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin and heartthrob Francis X. Bushman, billed as “The Handsomest Man in the World.”

The end for Essanay in Chicago came in 1918, when the company merged with three other filmmaking companies and headed for the more film-friendly climate of California. The studio where all these stars worked passed through a series of owners over the decades that followed, including WTTW, which owned it briefly in the ‘70s and used it for a couple of shows, most notably a puppet show called The Adventures of Coslo. WTTW sold it to a theatrical drapery and rigging company in 1973, but that wasn’t the last time a WTTW production saw the inside of the Essanay Studio.

Today, the Essanay property is St. Augustine College, which uses the old silent studio as a classroom and auditorium. You’ll still find the vaults where volatile movie film was stored in the basement.

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