MAKING THE CASE TO SAVE A PLACE IMPORTANT TO THE HISTORY OF PROGRESSIVE DESIGN
Standing at the corner of Northwest Highway and Elm Street in Park Ridge, IL is a rather unimpressive looking building emblazened with the name "Audrey's" in white script letters. It may look boring in outward appearance—but appearances can often be deceiving.
This building was once the home and studio of artist and designer Alfonso Iannelli. It was also a place where amazing people regularly created absolutely amazing things for almost 50 years. Most likely, this building will be torn down in the near future to make room for something new.
The cynic would respond: "So what. Why does it matter? It's happened a hundred times before to buildings with more architectural significance: Midway Gardens, the Larkin Building, the Imperial Hotel, the Babson House, the Chicago Stock Exchange—the list goes on and on. What makes the Iannelli Home and Studio so special that it should be saved?"
The current story about the Iannelli Home and Studio weighs heavily against its being saved: This visually bland building has been altered over the years making it difficult for someone who looks at it to see any worth. Alfonso Iannelli is a relatively unknown artist compared to larger-than-life personalities like Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis H. Sullivan. Worst of all, the horrible economy works against the odds of anyone having the money to save it and restore it.
When the story is presented like that, things seem grim for the building's future. But this naysayer's story isn't the whole story—it's not the whole truth. If we look beyond first impressions, conveneient excuses and balance sheets, we would find a different story about this place altogether. A more amazing story that provides a rich and clear picture as to why this structure is important.
I asked Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the City of Chicago, to help tell the real story about what makes the Alfonso Iannelli Home and Studio so special. He was kind enough to provide some information and a host of unique images associated with the people and events that make this building matter.
Living and working at the site until his death in 1965, Alfonso Iannelli became a central figure in Park Ridge's thriving art colony of the era. In 1919, Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli purchased a home and former blacksmith shop which dated back to Park Ridge's early years as a brickmaking center.
(An early Barry Byrne sketch for the Iannelli Studios complex)
With the assistance of the Iannelli's friend and longtime architectural collaborator, Barry Byrne, the blacksmith shop was transformed into a multi-disciplinary studio where many notable architects turned to develop sculpture and decoration for their projects.
(Left: Studio interior circa 1940. Model of horseman is for replacement sculpture for St. Martin's Church in Chicago. Right: Another view of the Studio interior from 1940.)
Within its walls, projects were created for a roster of clients that included Barry Byrne, George Grant Elmslie, John Lloyd Wright, Holabird & Root, and many others.
The studios also created art and display projects for Chicago's Century of Progress world's fair in 1933-34, as well as many classic home appliance designs for Sunbeam, Oster and other manufacturers.
(Left: A close up view of one of the entrances of the Electrical Group building at A Century of Progress International Exposition in early 1933, a few months before the opening of Fair. Image via Century of Progress Records, 1927-1952, University of Illinois at Chicago Library. Right: Patent for electrical iron designed by Alfonso Iannelli in 1933. Image via Google patent search.)
Studio assistants included: Bruce Goff, who at times lived at the complex. Edgar Miller, whose talents in blending art and architecture were honed while working there. Margaret Iannelli, Alfonso's wife and influential graphic artist and illustrator whose talents contributed greatly to the growth of Progressive design. And Ruth Blackwell, talented artist and illustrator in her own right.
(Left to right: Architect Bruce Goff(on left) and unidentified man at the entryway of the connector between the house and studio circa 1935. Edgar Miller at Studio in 1924 while working on plaster models for terra cotta on Barry Byrne's St. Patrick's Church in Racine, Margaret Iannelli (right) unidenfied (left) Fons Iannelli (lower middle) circa 1920.)
All of this information taken together as a whole reveals that between 1920 and 1965, the Iannelli Studios in Park Ridge was the place where Chicago's creative architecture found its art.
So why does this place matter? It looks bland now, but that is just a superficial veneer covering the true magic of the place. It may have been altered since it was occupied by Iannelli, but there exists a rich archive of photos, drawings and original blueprints which could be used to restore the building back to what it once was.
It's true that Alfonso Iannelli and his studio's contributions are one of the best kept secrets in the story of Modernism. Saving the building becomes a fantastic opportunity for Park Ridge to proudly tell this gripping story and its connection to their town.
The economy may be bad, but that is the perfect time to invest in civic improvements when resources will go farther and subsequently bring an interested public to your town to spend time and money.
We've only shared a small glimpse of the entire story of the amazing things created at this humble little building. In historical imporance and uniqueness, the Iannelli Home and Studio is to Park Ridge what the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio is to Oak Park. If restored and presented to the public in a way that inspires people, it could become a vehicle of education, civic pride and potential revenue. One day, it could be known as a destination for people from all over the world who are interested in the roots of American Modernism. In short, the Iannelli Home and Studio is a place worth saving because it is a place that matters. pm
:: Learn more about Alfonso Iannelli at the ArchiTech Gallery
:: Contact Landmarks Illinois and let them know the Iannelli Home and Studio should be saved
:: If you live in Park Ridge, contact the Historic Preservation Commission and voice your concern
:: Visit the Kalo Foundation website and contribute to the campaign to save the Iannelli Studios
Special thanks to Tim Samuelson for information, photos and support. Opening photo credit: Jennifer Johnson, Sun-Times Media.
Eric O'Malley is a co-founder and contributor to PrairieMod. He lives with his wife in the Little Red House, a Mid-Century Modern ranch in suburban Chicago. You can email him at [email protected]