Recently we had the opportunity to get behind the gate of the mysterious Carl Street Studios and take a look around, touring a few of the many stunning units, as well as the windy and maze-like courtyard. If you have never experienced a tour past the the ornamented wall and mosaic-studded sidewalk on Burton Place, you can still take a peek through a small window to the koi pond and turn your head up to the incredible structure as it juts out of the neighborhood like a (beautiful) sore thumb, adorned with hand-carved window boxes and deco-style masonry work.
Most people know of Edgar Miller by way of the Carl Street Studios apartment complex in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. Even if you haven't heard of Edgar Miller before, if you have walked past the building, you have not mistaken it for anything within the realm of the ordinary. Through the late 1920s and well into the 1930s, Miller and his collaborators Sol Kogen, Jesus Torres, and many others, completely reimagined urban artistic life in Chicago by deconstructing an old Victorian mansion and repurposing it into what would become live-work artist studios and a ready-made artists community. Kogen wanted to create an American version of the Parisian studios that developed around the turn of the 20th century, fostering an artistic renaissance in the neighborhood and the city. Carl Street Studios created creative spaces complimented by the communal network of a gated, multi-unit complex. For most of the property's lifespan, it has served as a nexus for hundreds if not thousands of artists, writers, poets, and thinkers, not to mention actors, musicians, and activists.
Beyond the collective memories of the oddly shaped construction, the courtyards and the koi pond, and the byzantine walkways, outdoor staircases, and roof decks, the thread that ties all the multifarious groups of people together is the hauntingly beautiful artistic detail supplied to the building by Edgar Miller. Would the place be quite as memorable if it weren't for Miller’s handcrafted art? All the etched and carved animals, the human figures painted and sculpted into the walls like visiting gods bestowing good luck and a good time to all who enter those walls -- it is the art that makes the heap of bricks so loved and cherished by everyone who has ever lived in or visited it. If not for the art, would the building still be standing, considering how otherwise “unprofessionally” it was constructed?
So out of place with the rest of its surroundings, save the small little block it sits on and clearly influenced, many people wonder how such a place, reminiscent of a European enclave, could have ever come to be built in Chicago, the urban avatar of the modern architectural movement. Yet its unlikeliness is merely historical amnesia, as Chicago from the early 1900s through the 1930s was a hot bed of revolutionary cultural development.
While the city’s Near North Side is known today for chichi Michigan Avenue and multi-million dollar penthouses, in Edgar Miller's youth it was teeming with bohemians, artists, hobos, and radicals. Bars and meeting halls of the area, most notably the Dil Pickle Club, were more than watering holes but places of political and revolutionary debate for notable American thinkers and writers.
The cast of regulars often included famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, labor champion Emma Goldman, authors Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, and Ben Hecht, social work pioneer Dorothy Day, playwright Theodore Dreiser, and poet William Carlos Williams. H.L. Mencken even described Chicago of the 1920s as the literary capital of the U.S. It is out of that context that Edgar Miller, already a well-known and respected artist and designer, launched into the Carl Street project, only a mile north of the Dil Pickle in the sleepier North Town neighborhood (now Old Town).
Is it any wonder that this building was constructed during a period of such boundless creativity? Miller and his collaborators entered into the project with the noble and progressive goal of infusing a building with art for art’s sake, incubating an artistic and cultural innovation center in an otherwise heavily industrial and economically-oriented city.
Miller often spoke of never receiving payment for his many years of work on the project, though he did live rent-free from time to time and more importantly used the project as a tabula rasa for all his art experiments and ideas. His materials were provided and a crew of supporting artists and craftspeople surrounded him. Looking back on this time, Edgar often spoke of the sheer thrill of taking on the audacious endeavor that was Carl Street (and his other handmade homes), and that being plenty of motivation for him.
It must also be noted that it was erected in spite of many financial obstacles, including the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted nearly a decade. Materials were often acquired cheaply from warehouses looking to unload their inventory or for free from demolition sites. Rumor has it that some materials were even scavenged from sites of building fires, so long as the material wasn't damaged beyond the point of reuse. In a sense, Miller and Kogen were inadvertent pioneers in sustainable and green design, making use of every possible material, down to the very last broken tile fragment.
Some would say the building is a work of art. Surely it is a formidable combination of art and architecture, at any rate. It is truly a unique and one-of-a-kind treasure tucked away in an unassuming cul-de-sac in Chicago, continuing to be cherished and maintained by its owners and tenants for going on a century now.
To see more of our pictures, check out our photo gallery here: http://www.edgarmiller.org/carl-street-studios