Some Walter Burt Adams artworks are protected by plexiglass at the Levy Senior Center. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave., is not known as an art gallery, but there is a treasure trove of “Evanstoniana” paintings installed there: A large group of Walter Burt Adams artworks is on view.

They belong to the Levy Senior Center Foundation and are on more or less permanent loan to the center, which is named after entrepreneur, philanthropist and benefactor Joseph Levy Jr.

Levy was the owner of a number of Evanston business properties, including several car dealerships along Chicago Avenue. Walter Burt Adams, who had a small art supply store at 843 Chicago Ave., was one of his tenants. 

As the story goes, when Levy first tried to buy a painting from Adams, he was questioned as to why he liked it, and when he couldn’t answer to Adams’ satisfaction, Levy’s offer was refused.

The two ultimately became friends, however. When Adams couldn’t meet the monthly rent, he often gave Levy a painting. Levy became a great admirer of Adams’ work and his best patron. 

Judy London Newton, Levy’s niece and the chair of the foundation, told me her family owns many of Adams’ paintings. In fact, Newton, who with her husband used to host the family Thanksgiving dinners, said Levy would bring her an Adams painting every time he came. 

Newton recently said of Levy, “He had a way of seeing the best in people. He befriended many, helped many out and often shared their talents and vision with others.”

The painter and his work

Levy, via the foundation, is still sharing Adams’ affectionate vision of an earlier Evanston, a glimpse of a bygone era in America when time seemed to move more slowly than it does today.

A Walter Burt Adams self portrait at the Levy Senior Center. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Adams was born in 1903 in Racine, Wis., but raised in Fargo, N.D. He moved with his family to Chicago in 1922 and to Evanston in 1931. He earned a bachelor’s in fine arts degree from the School of the Art institute of Chicago.

In Evanston, he opened an art supply store, first at 1615 Maple Ave., then on Sherman Avenue in 1948, and finally at 943 Chicago Ave., near Main Street, where he met Levy.

(That was back in the day when Good’s, at 714 Main St., was just a paint and wallpaper store. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Good’s started selling art materials and then, after the 2008 recession, focused more on framing. Goods closed in 2020, after 117 years in business, possibly affected by the 2003 arrival and growth of Blick’s Art Materials, 1755 Maple Ave.)

Adams’ shop was not large. And he was not a friendly person; in fact, he was often described as a “curmudgeon and a perfectionist,” said Eden Pearlman, Executive Director of the Evanston History Center. ”But his relationship with Joe Levy was a very important one.” The history center owns seven of Adams’ paintings.

A “dedicated painter of the American Scene,” Adams was a respected member of Chicago’s modern art community. He painted from the late 1920s to the early ’70s, but his best-known paintings are from the ’30s and ’40s.

Art collection initally displayed at bank

Adams did not own a car, so he painted sites that he could reach on foot. Apparently, he painted in the mornings and worked in his shop in the afternoons. I recall seeing him when I was very young, with his easel and paints, working on a street corner in downtown Evanston. He might have been Evanston’s first en plein air painter.

There was no telephone in Adams’ home or in his business, following a notorious fight with the phone company. As a teenager, I once bought art supplies at his shop and found him a little scary. But the shop must have provided a somewhat stable income.

In 1936, During the Great Depression, Adams was hired by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration to create 16 easel paintings of Evanston. Of these, it is reported that Adams considered eight to be “near masterpieces” and eight were “good pictures.”

The Levy Foundation owns and insures all the paintings in the Levy Center, which first hung at First Bank & Trust of Evanston on Church Street, where Joe Levy was on the board of directors. The artworks were moved to the senior center when the bank was sold to Byline in 2018.  

Jill Schoenwetter, former vice president of First Bank & Trust said, ”Customers loved to talk about the paintings and their locations in Evanston.” She added, “Joe was a great friend and supporter of the bank. He was full of ideas and interested in everything.”

Several Walter Burt Adams paintings are displayed above the bookshelves in the library of the Levy Senior Center. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The paintings are well displayed at the Senior Center. Although a few are too high, above bookcases in the library, and those in the Hackberry Room and Bobby’s Room, where they are hung lower, are covered with plexiglass – a security accommodation, I’m sure. The reflections in the plexiglass make it hard to see the brushwork and details of the paintings.

I don’t see seniors vandalizing or stealing a painting – we know better at our age – so I question the necessity of the plexiglass. The professional installer, Roger Vandiver of Wilmette, did not return my requests for information.

The Levy Senior Center is, however, the perfect place to exhibit these paintings, as many of us who belong to the center, or even just visit there, can remember the settings back in the day, when they looked just as Adams painted them. 

Beauty in the mundane

Evanston is known as a “Tree City USA” and Adams must have loved to paint trees in the summer. He handles them, in the sunlight and their cast shadows, well and with affection – you can feel it. My favorite of those works captures a view along Church Street, showing part of the original public library building (from 1908).

The Evanston Public Library owns that Adams painting, called May 1 (1952), which is on the fourth floor, an area not open to the public. Lea Hernandez-Solis, secretary to the director, said members of the public can make a request to see it.

I also love his El stop and viaduct paintings, most of which were of Main Street and four of which are on view at Levy. They are my very favorites. He saw beauty in the mundane and great color variation in the cement underpasses, El platforms and alleys.

“After the Flood” by Walter Burt Adams was created by constructing a grid according to the rules of Infinite Dynamics, an instructional book he wrote for artists. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The strangest painting at the Levy Center is both figurative and narrative – people are running away from what looks like a tsunami on the left, while airplanes explode in the sky on the right. It is called After the Flood. 

Is it neither a comment on war nor climate change, but an imaginary scene, done by constructing a grid determined by the rules of Infinite Dynamics, an instructional book he wrote for artists that was never widely used. This explanation for the artwork was discovered in the Evanston History Center archives.

In 2019, the history center offered a bus tour of Adams’ painting sites, following a lecture at the Levy Center by Pearlman, of the History Center.

Pearlman has a background in art history and taught it at the college level in Chicago. The bus tour was so popular, three had to be scheduled. Some of the locations visited have remained as they were in the artist’s day, while other sites have either disappeared or have been made unrecognizable due to redevelopment.

Paintings at the senior center are not changed out. Several hang in the Joe Levy Jr. Library and the Hackberry Room, with one painting and a print in Bobby’s Room (the renovated and renamed Linden Room). The print is probably Adam’s best known – of the old Fountain Square. That print is labeled but, unfortunately, the other works are not.

Artist bid farewell to city in 1977

I find Adams’ empty streets and sidewalks a little lonely. Maybe he was lonely too, certainly solitary. In the few landscapes where there is a figure, it would have been a last minute touch – details always come last. And rarely a face. His work has been compared to Hopper and, even more so to Thomas Hart Benton.

I prefer to call Adams’ later scenes “buildingscapes,” as opposed to landscapes. I find them cold, too architectural, too perfect, no paint texture – I don’t feel the affection I can feel in the Main Street and more traditional scenery paintings.

Sunday Morning – My Farewell to Evanston, is one such “buildingscape”; a print of it is at the Evanston Women’s Club. I haven’t  located the original yet.

In 1977, the year of that painting, Adams moved to be with his son in Belen, N.M., where he continued to paint until his death in 1990.

Besides showing his work in Evanston, Adams was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago 15 times between 1930 and 1942 in its annual Chicago and Vicinity shows. His work was also shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Adams’ paintings can also be found in many private collections and in the collections of the Chicago Public Schools.

I hope RoundTable readers, younger and older, will visit the Levy Senior Center and take advantage of a wonderful, nostalgic, art-viewing opportunity.

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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  1. Gay, thank you for honoring the legacy of WB Adams in this article. I used to love standing in line at First bank Evanston because I got to see these paintings – and I’m sure they were in mind when I started walking the streets looking for places to paint- Mark Cleveland

  2. Lovely article, I’m definitely going to go out of my way to see some of these pieces. I’ve painted a few recognizable spots in Evanston such as Dawes House, and Grosse Point light house. I understand the artistic affinity.

  3. What an interesting article. I really like the personal touches based on your experience w the artist. I look forward to seeing these works.