What Division Street’s ‘instant landmark’ apartment tower means for Wicker Park

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It’s been called quirky, playful, “an instant landmark.

But more importantly, the gleaming 11-story apartment tower at 1611 W. Division signals a turning point for the Northwest Side’s Polonia Triangle, bound by Ashland, Milwaukee and Division. Once the center of Chicago’s Polish community, the plaza deteriorated into what the Chicago Reader in 2007 called “Wicker Park’s dirty doorstep.”

This month, residents began moving into the 99 rental units at 1611 W. Division, across the street from the Polonia Triangle, paying between $1,495 and $3,295 a month. Rent doesn’t include parking — the building doesn’t have any for its residents, just 15 outdoor spaces for its commercial tenants. Residents are expected to make use of the Division Blue Line station, three nearby bus lines, and the Divvy bike station at Ashland and Division.

A 90-by-27-foot concrete wall on the building’s exterior will host art installations sponsored and run by Intelligentsia Coffee, which is opening a shop on the ground floor by early next year. Jamie McNally, of the building’s development team, says the installation will rotate every six months and the first may appear as soon as November.

Though the silver and black high-rise looks nothing like anything else in the neighborhood, Wheeler Kearns principal Jon Heinert says it’s what the site needed.

“There was a risk that we felt that we needed to take, given the prominence of the site and the nature of this neighborhood,” he says. “We just didn’t feel that this site really deserved a conventional building.”

For the “uniquely minded individuals” they hoped the building would attract, Heinert says Wheeler Kearns envisioned a staggered window pattern and a “bent, angular facade” with reflective silver panels designed to play differently with the sun in the morning and afternoon. He also says the firm wanted to create something that could be seen in different ways from different distances.

Wheeler Kearns also considered the landmark Home Bank and Trust building across the street. The six-story, classical revival-style building was built in 1925 and was recently restored to house a CVS and, in its basement vaults, The Bedford restaurant.

“The massing of [1611] is fairly cubic, and that’s very much like the bank building,” Heinert says. “It’s kind of a blocky building. We were very much looking to take this otherwise blocky proportion and really exaggerate the verticality of it.”

Scott Rappe, principal at architecture firm Kuklinski and Rappe, headed up efforts by the East Village Association, which includes the Triangle, to get a transit-oriented, mixed-use development at the 1611 site.

“They’ve done some very unusual things in breaking the facade, sort of folding the facade. Gives it a very dynamic sense,” Rappe says. “And the way the panels are two colors and create sort of a vertical movement on the facade is fascinating.”

He knows the building may not be everyone’s cup of tea — yet.

“It’s probably going to take some time for everybody to sort of appreciate it fully,” Rappe says.

Next, he hopes to see the greater Triangle further “activated” for use beyond its Blue Line stop, an effort he says is underway with farmers markets and events organized by the Polish Triangle Coalition.

“It’s probably going to take a couple of years of low-level activity for people to see that it’s a place that they want to do more than simply pass through,” Rappe says.

Reviving the area may also require more changes in the housing market, says Greg Mack, president of local design and build firm GMD.

“There’s still a lot of old housing stock around here that needs to be knocked down, and people coming in with newer buildings,” he says. “A lot of old, very run-down buildings [where] there’s no reason to fix them up — they’re just a mess.”

Mack sees 1611 W. Division as good design, and a good sign.

“I like it a lot. It’s very unusual architecture,” he says. “It’s a much needed shot in the arm around here, that’s for sure.”

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