Each year, the Open House Chicago weekend offers architecture buffs a look inside some of the city’s best buildings.
But until this year, no structures in Austin were on the list. That will change on Saturday and Sunday, when 11 buildings in the West Side neighborhood join hundreds across the city in opening their doors.
The annual event, put on by the Chicago Architecture Center, started in 2011. This year, it will provide a look behind-the-scenes at over 250 buildings in 33 neighborhoods across the city.
In Austin, one of those hidden gems on display is the Father August Tolton Peace Center, 5645 W. Corcoran Pl., operated by Catholic Charities of Chicago.
When the Austin Bank of Chicago, originally the National Bank of Austin, closed in 2017, the property was transferred to Catholic Charities “instead of seeing the building go to ruin or sit there vacant,” said Eric Rogers, manager of Open House Chicago. “So now it has turned into this hub for the community.”
The center offers parenting classes, employment programs and violence prevention services, among other assistance.
Other Austin structures on the Open House list include Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St., about a block north of the bank building, on the other side of the Green Line tracks; and Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, 601 S. Central Ave., about a mile to the south, next to the Eisenhower Expressway.
Christie Richardson, regional director of community relations at the Tolton Peace Center, hopes Open House allows people to see a side of the West Side they often don’t hear about.
“Though there is a stigma on the West Side, you won’t see that when you come on the tour,” Richardson said. “You will see beautiful edifices, a lot of landmark buildings and a lot of nice people waiting to welcome you into their place of business.”
The center has made few changes to the original structure, so visitors are reminded of the rich history of the bank at every turn, Richardson said.
Initially designed by Frederick R. Schock, the bank was built in three stages over 50 years. Schock, a prolific architect in the Austin neighborhood, also is responsible for many Victorian-style homes in the area, as well as a firehouse at 439 N. Waller Ave., according to the Chicago Architecture Center.
Opened in 1913, the bank was constructed around a 22-ton vault that’s still there, and still works — not that anything is kept locked up in it anymore.
Also, since electric lighting was less common then, large windows were placed on the east side of the building to maximize sunlight during banking hours. The interior features lots of marble and high ceilings.
In 1925, as the neighborhood became wealthier and business boomed, the first building expansion added a row of teller stations. The tellers were placed below a balcony, where their bosses could keep an eye on them. This middle section was designed with high ceilings and pillars to replicate the first section.
The last part, built in 1963, is in tune with the “Mad Men” style of that time. Rogers calls it a “pretty sweet” example of mid-century modernism, with lots of wood paneling.
There’s also, he added, “this two-story mural of the universe that I really love.” The choice of subject shouldn’t be surprising, given how space exploration had captured the public’s attention at that time.
Rogers said many factors go into which buildings are part of Open House. But it bothered him that Austin had not been featured before this year, because he knew the area had buildings worth the attention.
“This is an event that has a lot of power to change the perception of Austin by showing the amazing assets that are there … ” Rogers said. “My strongest advice to people is to go out to the neighborhoods and go see something in a part of town that you wouldn’t [normally visit].”