General

Knocking along ‘The Street of 40 Doors’

From the Saturday, Oct. 8, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Knocking along ‘The Street of 40 Doors’

The WISCH LIST

Oct. 8, 2011

In the Windy City, River North is known for its popular restaurants, the Loop for its soaring skyscrapers and the Gold Coast for its luxurious nightspots.

And Wrigleyville? Well, besides bad baseball, it’s also known in large part for its streets.

Most famously, Clark, Addison, Waveland and Sheffield.

But just a couple of blocks north of those legendary avenues that border Wrigleyville’s namesake ballpark, sits a much lesser known thoroughfare that’s nevertheless one of the most unique in all of Chicago – and perhaps my favorite of them all.

Welcome to Alta Vista Terrace, nicknamed “The Street of 40 Doors” and known as the only stroll in Chicago that instead feels like a walk through London – and the lookingglass.

(Don’t worry, I’ll explain.)

Running vertically on one city block due north of Wrigley Field between Byron and Grace streets, Alta Vista Terrace is described by the Chicago Architecture Foundation as a “landmark block unlike any other in Chicago.”

Created in 1904 by prolific Chicago developer Samuel Eberly Gross, who built more than 10,000 homes in and around the city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the genesis behind Alta Vista Terrace came about when Gross, during a trip to Europe, fell in love with the series of row houses that he encountered in London’s Mayfair district.

The charismatic developer, who once went to court claiming that Edmund Rostand stole the idea for Cyrano de Bergerac from his comedy, The Merchant of Cornville (Gross won the lawsuit), was struck with the unique idea of recreating a bit of merry old England back across the pond.

Gross was reportedly worth as much as $5 million at the time, and after returning home to Chicago, he decided to sink a chunk of his fortune into an empty block of property that he owned on the city’s North Side.

By paving an unusually narrow thoroughfare – reportedly the first in Chicago to feature asphalt – down the middle of the block, Gross created a skinny street he named Alta Vista Terrace. He then commenced with the construction of 40 small, single-family row houses – 20 on each side – that were situated on lots measuring just 34 feet wide and 40 feet deep, considerably smaller than the city average.

The exteriors of Alta Vista Terrace’s homes were then designed in 20 different styles based on elaborate architectural adaptations, including Doric and Ionic wood pilasters, Gothic arches, Palladian windows, stained and leaded glass fanlights, bay and bow windows and various decorative woodwork.

The end result was a striking streetscape that today boasts a series of tiny, garden-filled front yards and minimal automobile traffic. But none of that is what makes the Alta Vista Terrace so unique.

Rather, what truly sets the street apart is that each row house duplicates the one sitting diagonally opposite it on the other end of the block, with only minor variations.

In other words, walking down Alta Vista Terrace is literally like walking through a mirror where every home has an identical sister living down the street. A historical marker on the street corner notes that, “The distinctly human scale creates a unity and harmony rarely found elsewhere in the city.”

Since 1971, the Alta Vista Terrace District has been a designated Chicago landmark. And, in my opinion, it’s a designated must-see, as well.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16, the Chicago Architecture Foundation will be holding its final hour-long walking tour of Alta Vista Terrace of the year. Tickets, which cost $13 online or $10 in person (if available), can be purchased at caf.architecure.org.