If you walk down the Oak Street Retail Corridor your eye may be caught by fancy brand names, people with impossibly polished skin, and the place where Governor Blagojevich used to get his famous hair famously cut before now getting clipped at a federal pokey in Colorado. But if you look beyond what is commonly seen to what is not commonly seen, you will see two things: architecture and history.
The stores that line this retail strip were once residential mansions where toast was buttered for Chicago’s upper crust. Over the last 20 years their numbers have become fewer as the Chicago-style mansions-turned-storefronts are being replaced with boring brick and glass boxes.
113 East Oak Street, the three-story neighbor of the 57-story One Magnificent Mile is one of the first of these old homes you come across when you turn off of North Michigan Avenue. In a letter to his constituents, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly announced that the more than 100-year-old current building will be replaced by a new structure. A generic one that would fit in fine in Peoria, or Madison, or Fort Wayne, but does befit its location, neighborhood, or city.
The new 113 will be 44 feet tall and lose a floor, coming down to just two stories.
You might think that these old buildings would have some kind of legal protection, but for the most part they don’t. Only the double-bay structure at 54 East Oak Street has any sway. Even it is merely Code Orange, which these days means demolition crews only have to wait the amount of time it takes a seagull to steal a potato chip from a Montrose Beach picnic before going to town on the building.
It’s not surprising that these stoic former homes are destined for the dumpster. Owners hate them because taxes are high and they’re expensive to maintain. Retailers hate them because they weren’t designed to be stores and so have limited window space. Customers hate them because they don’t want to hoof it up three flights of stairs when they’re shopping. And the shopgirls hate them because the doors are no match for a Chicago winter, there’s no storage space or lunch room, and it can take 20 minutes to walk halfway around the block to take out the trash.
So if you do find yourself in this corner of the city, walk slowly and imagine each of these stores as the home it once was. Soon they will only live in your memory.