Architectural gem hidden in Plain Sight at Waveland and Lincoln Avenue

by Peter von Buol

A Com Ed power substation at 1834-1838 W. Waveland Ave. is among a group of buildings located throughout the city that local architectural preservationists want the city of Chicago to include in a proposed Thematic Chicago Landmark District.

Designed by German-American architect Hermann V. von Holst, the Prairie-Style building was completed prior to 1920. While some of Chicago’s electrical substations are quite large, the substation at Waveland and Lincoln is of a more modest size.

“It became a prototype for the smaller community substation. Its design reflected the Prairie-Style movement and the influence of architects such as Dwight Perkins, John Van Bergen, Walter Burnett Griffin and especially, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Von Holst was in charge of Wright’s office while Wright was out of the country,” said Ward Miller, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, a local non-profit that supports architectural preservation.

“Built with a [unique] hip roof, the Waveland substation includes decorative polychromed tile-work. It could easily qualify for the proposed thematic landmark district that would recognize many of von Holst’s industrial substation designs,” said Miller.

The substation was among the many designed by von Holst. Many are still in use and serving their original function. Today, von Holst is best-known as having been the architect Frank Lloyd Wright chose to lead his architectural-firm in 1909. Confident his firm’s work would continue with von Holst in charge, Wright had made the decision to leave his family and to go to Europe. Well-respected by his peers, von Holst’s architectural career spanned from the 1890s to the 1940s and it included many prominent commissions.

According to Miller, the creation of a thematic landmark district would be the most logical way to preserve the best examples of the different eras and styles of the city’s electrical substation. The district would include buildings throughout the entire city. Still in use, the 1834-1838 W. Waveland Ave. electrical substation is one among the best-preserved.
The building is currently listed as orange-rated (the second-highest category slated for preservation) on the city of Chicago’s official Historic Resources Survey (CHRS). That survey analyzed the historic and architectural importance of pre-1940 buildings, objects, structures, and sites. Over the course of 12 years of fieldwork, CHRS surveyors identified 9,900 properties in the city as having some historical or architectural importance.

Electrical power in Chicago began in the 1880s. Originally, multiple power companies served the city. In the 1890s, utility-baron Samuel Insull acquired many of these small companies to form a single entity, Chicago Edison. That company eventually changed its name to Commonwealth Edison and today is known as Com Ed.

Insull’s first substation was opened on the Near North Side in 1899. Substations are especially important because they convert the power generated at large generating plants to home-use voltage. These facilities have always been located in an area nearest the largest load demand. Beginning in 1901, Insull constructed purpose-built facilities. These substations created efficiencies in power-generation and power-distribution. As a result, electricity became affordable for everyone.

At the time of its construction, the innovative design of the 1834-1838 W. Waveland Ave. substation was sending a subtle message to neighborhood residents. In a very visible way, and without using words, Commonwealth Edison projected the idea that electrification was going to be a positive development for a community.

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