In a recent article the plaza at the south-east corner of Davis and Orrington was singled out as an outstanding public open space. This is how it came about.
The plaza is embraced on the east and south by buildings tall enough to feel protected with simple quiet facades. On the first floor good food stores open onto it and the foliage of trees allows sunshine to filter in while still providing shade. The unfenced planting beds and the low bordering walls invite passers-by to sit down. The plaza is an island of calm at a busy intersection.
The history of the plaza is fascinating. The old three-story corner building where Henry Chandler’s business originated, and where the plaza is now, was built sometime prior to the turn of the century and was not constructed very well. When Mr. Chandler decided to build in downtown Evanston he was only able to acquire the lots on each side of this corner building. The five-story ‘L’-shaped structure was completed in 1930. It was the stock market crash in 1929 that prevented Henry Chandler from going up to ten stories as initially planned. He hoped that eventually the corner building would be vacated by Walgreen’s, and that he could tear it down and build an infill.
At that time Chandler’s was the book and supply store for Northwestern students. It also sold typewriters, office furniture and sporting goods. It handled ticket sales for local events in addition to newspaper distribution. It offered art classes and had a toy department as well as a golf driving range.
Mr. Chandler selected Edgar Ovet Blake as architect for the ‘L’-shaped building. Mr. Blake had studied design at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris. He specialized in residential buildings, most of them built in Evanston.
The five-story Chandler building is a reinforced concrete building with Indiana limestone cladding in Tudor spirit. The casement windows are of steel and the storefronts are framed in copper.
The current owners, the Davis Street Land Company, that also commissioned the two adjacent buildings along Davis, found that the three-story corner structure not only did not match in floor levels the surrounding ‘L’-shaped building, but was structurally unsound as well. To tear it down was the right decision, to leave the lot as an open plaza was generous and brilliant.
The pre-cast concrete re-facing of the ‘L’ is simple and harmonious with the street facades. The architect for the project was Holabird and Root with Gerald Horn as chief of design and Nick Bilandic as structural engineer in charge. The collaboration of the City of Evanston staff, namely Carlos Ruiz and Dennis Marino must be applauded. But most of the compliments go to the Davis Street Land Company, the owners, for a brilliant and generous decision in an urban setting, and for maintaining the plaza – that remains private property – in an examplary manner.