As the roaring 1920s crescendoed, the near North Side neighborhoods of Chicago were undergoing remarkable economic, demographic, and cultural changes that would help to shape a lasting identity for the city as a whole. Edgar Miller and his compatriots — a youthful group of artisans, craftworkers, journeymen, and visionaries — made up a bustling epicenter of creative activity who collectively steered major trends within the growing Chicago art scene.
a bustling epicenter of creative activity who collectively steered major trends within the growing Chicago art scene
The project of the “handmade homes” by Miller and his creative partner, Sol Kogen, was a noble experiment to concentrate the up-and-coming talent of Chicago into a more communal and equitable setting. The near North Side neighborhoods were in flux, with single-family and luxury housing being pushed out farther from the city center. The working class residents and day laborers still had trouble affording the extravagant rent prices for the homes in the areas that would become the Gold Coast and Old Town. The artist studio project was an innovative endeavor that would transform the old Victorian houses into multi-unit living complexes and allow these spaces to become centers to showcase and share art as studio workspaces. Miller and Kogen planted the seeds for these hives of creativity where they could afford to buy into a neighborhood that had fallen on hard times.
Within twenty years, the Old Town neighborhood was a hub for artistic influencers and countercultural movements. Inspired by Montmartre-style eclecticism, the buildings caught the eye of enthusiasts and designers excited by the merging of pre-modern artistic styles and modern architecture. Since their construction, they have been a regular site of interest for visiting artists, musicians, and creatives from all over the world.
Artists and innovators who spent time visiting the studios during the early years, many of whom were close to Miller, included Grant Wood, Buckminster Fuller, John Norton, Jane Addams, Ivan Albright, Tellulah Bankhead, and Sally Rand, among many others. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo also visited the studios in the 1930s when they were passing through Chicago on the way to a mural commission in Detroit. By the 1950s and 60s, musical artists like Muddy Waters and Sun Ra gave informal performances in the studios, and activists, writers, and social reformers like Fred Hampton, Studs Terkel, and Harold Washington visited the studios, then owned by activist and philanthropist Lucy Montgomery. David Garroway, Roger Ebert, and Boris Anisfeld also all lived in the studios during the 1950s and 60s.
Housing over two dozen artists, designers, writers, and creatives of all types, the studios became the heart of a neighborhood embracing radically progressive values when the rest of America was still reactionarily conservative.
Old Town is often forgotten as a center of Chicago’s LGBTQ scene during the 1950s to 1970s, long before before Boystown existed. In fact, Old Town’s community of gay life, which was more out in the open than previous generations, was the result of a migration from a previously thriving LGBTQ community in Towertown. Named for its location around the Michigan Avenue water tower, Towertown was the center of arts and radical thought from the late 19th century through the 1920s. It can only be presumed that many of the artists working in and around the handmade homes were themselves sexually liberated individuals, and were precursors to the more formal political movements that began to emerge in the mid-20th century.
Zac Bleicher founded Edgar Miller Legacy in 2014 with the mission to preserve the late 20th century artist Edgar Miller’s artistic and architectural works; to advance the historical research of the artist’s accomplishments; and to build programs for the public to access and learn from Miller’s inspirational aesthetic. Bleicher’s interest in Miller and his art began through his late uncle, Mark Mamolen, a preservationist who helped rehabilitate Miller’s architectural masterpieces in Chicago. As part of his role within Edgar Miller Legacy, Bleicher continues to manage the growing archive of Miller’s work and history and to find new ways to tell Miller’s story. Bleicher has a BA in American History, Art History, and Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Edgar Miller Legacy
Edgar Miller Legacy is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Miller’s art and the “handmade homes” he created in Chicago. We work to promote Miller as an overlooked artistic genius; to encourage study and research of his life and body of work; to act as a resource for educational institutions and organizations; and to provide inspirational experiences within Miller-designed spaces. Our programs, events, and tours allow visitors to experience Miller’s works as they were designed to be shown. Visit our site at edgarmiller.org to donate and help support our ongoing efforts and to view upcoming programs available to the public.
For more on Edgar Miller, check out the website.