Ross Martens and Darren Oberto outside Alley Gallery, in Bookman's Alley.

Part 1 in a series

There are almost 50 businesses and individuals working out of the buildings along the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue in Evanston, including the building that housed the former Varsity Theater – where The Gap and Mattress Firm are currently – up to the building that houses the Starbucks on Sherman. As a proposal for a new development in that location was put forth, and then withdrawn, Evanston residents became aware and were surprised by the number of businesses, and were curious to know more about them.

Through a series of profiles that will run in this and upcoming issues of the RoundTable, our readers will have the opportunity to learn more about those businesses and individuals that would have been displaced by the development, and about the buildings themselves. The series, On, above and behind Sherman Avenue, will also include portraits of those interviewed and will highlight some of the buildings’ architectural features.

Poulos Black P.C., 1724 Sherman Ave.

“How many people are as lucky as me with all natural light, and windows that can be opened and look out on a courtyard?” asked Suzanne Poulos. “There was a big tree out there that finally fell; now I’m watching a new one grow.” Ms. Poulos was speaking about her corner in the second story office at 1724 Sherman Ave. in Evanston, where she works with her husband, Michael Poulos, at Poulos Black P.C.

Since 1980, Mr. Poulos has practiced law in the space, offering a wide range of services. Mr. Poulos said, “Lawyers are so specialized now. It used to be that you would form a lifelong relationship with your attorney, who would cover all your legal needs. We still do that.” He found his first client while walking along the block in from of the building, just after taking the Illinois Bar Exam. “I was wearing a three-piece suit and carrying a briefcase, when a woman stopped me and asked if I was a lawyer.” Mr. Poulos said. “I replied that I was, and she became my first client. I met another client the same way and represented him for 25 years. That’s the kind of thing that can still happen on a street like Sherman Avenue, that wouldn’t in an isolated building or office park.”

For six years, Mr. and Ms. Poulos also produced “The World,” a shortwave AM and FM radio program, out of the office. The show was broadcast to the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, and was ranked by the Review of International Broadcasting as second only to the BBC Newshour among daily broadcasts in North America.

Mr. Poulos is a second-generation Evanstonian, who lived in downtown Evanston while growing up. He said that many of the beautiful buildings that he remembers in downtown have been demolished and replaced with buildings that lack architectural character or beauty. He said, “One of the exceptions is the Chase Building [1601-1629 Orrington Ave.]. Even though the old State National Bank building, a beautiful building, was torn down to build it, what they put in its place is in the International Style, well-proportioned and balanced.”

Talking about the building his office is in, at 1724 Sherman Ave., Mr. Poulos said that many of the original details had been removed from the interior by a developer in the 1970s, but that stained glass windows and other details had been installed to make the building aesthetically pleasing. “The exterior has the original masonry, beautiful brickwork patterns that you don’t see in construction today. It wasn’t just throwing up a wall of bricks,” said Mr. Polous.

As Mr. and Ms. Poulos explained the views out of the windows on each side of their office, they pointed out details on other buildings, talked about the people they have known on the block over the years and considered its future.

Ms. Poulos said, “I think the millennials will turn the tables. They’re not in it to make money or to add another building to their portfolio, like so many developers. I feel positive about the future of this block.”

Alley Gallery, 1712 Sherman Ave.

“Darren and I inherited [the Gallery] from Chris, though we’re not any relation to him,” said Ross Martens, referring to his business partner Darren Oberto and the original founder and owner of Alley Gallery, Chris Caravaggio. Mr. Martens said that Mr. Caravaggio had subleased the space from Roger Carlson, the founder and owner of Bookman’s Alley, which closed in 2013 and was reopened as Bookends and Beginnings. “There was just a handshake [between Mr. Caravaggio and Mr. Carlson], no written lease or anything.”

Mr. Martens and Mr. Oberto talked about Mr. Caravaggio. “Chris was such a . . . beatnik is not the right word, but bohemian,” said Mr. Martens. Mr. Oberto said, “He never wanted to make money off the business, he wanted people to have this creative experience.” Mr. Martens and Mr. Oberto explained that Mr. Caravaggio was interested in science and astronomy and conducted his own experiments. “Right where we’re sitting there was a giant heavy ball hanging by a wire, and another smaller ball hanging right next to it, and a laser pointer that shot and hit mirrors and went down” said Mr. Martens. “He was trying to measure gravity. We all take it for granted, but he was messing around and measuring it for years.”

Mr. Caravaggio opened the business in 1985, Mr. Martens began working for him in 1997, Mr. Oberto came in 2002, and Mr. Caravaggio passed away in 2010. Since that time, Mr. Martens and Mr. Oberto have offered archival framing and mounting for art of every sort. They have also honored Mr. Caravaggio’s memory by keeping alive some of the traditions he started, including using the gallery space for a range of creative work and experiences. They also have a daily lunch together just as they did when Mr. Caravaggio was alive. Mr. Oberto said, “In the afternoon we often have a board meeting, which consists of playing a board game.”

When asked how customers experience the space, Mr. Oberto said, “When I’m walking out of the alley, people don’t know that I’m associated with the shop and I hear them say things like, ‘Wait until you see this place. It’s right out of Harry Potter . . . or from Paris or something.’ I’ve also seen someone get down on their knee and propose here.”

Speaking about the building where the gallery is housed, Mr. Martens and Mr. Oberto explained, that while they would like to do more research, they have been told that the building may have housed a blacksmith shop and have found information that indicates it was once an upholstery shop. Explaining that it has long been a creative, arts-oriented space, they talked about the acoustic qualities in the space and about the music events they have hosted and that they have made. “We come in here with our guitars and ukuleles because of the sound,” said Mr. Martens about the space that is generally used for art shows. They also talked about the architectural elements of the space, including the front windows for the shop, which were made from doors that were originally located in Union Station, in downtown Chicago.

While Mr. Martens and Mr. Oberto were relieved that the recent development proposal was withdrawn, they said that there is still uncertainty because the land lease comes up for renewal in 2022.

Ned Schaub

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...