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Chicago is a city known for its large buildings, its Loop skyline dominated by monuments to a number of well-known companies who commissioned them and architects who built them. However, equally important to the cultural character of the city are the smaller buildings that exist at the far reaches of the city and even out to the suburbs, the neighborhood centers that help to define some of Chicago’s oldest communities. Churches, residences and schools all act as important markers of community and are integral when looking into the details of the daily lives of Chicagoans. For genealogists and historians looking for a visual aid to these lives, a great place to start is the Newberry’s Percy Sloan photograph collection.
Percy H. Sloan (1867-1950) was an art teacher in the Chicago Public School system for 34 years, during which time he took photographs of buildings throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs. Most of the photographs in the Sloan collection are presumed to have been taken by Sloan himself roughly between 1913 and 1941, and cover a wide swath of the city and surrounding area, going as far south as the suburb of Blue Island, as far north as Highland Park, with photos from almost everywhere in-between. In a time when amateur photography was still a nascent hobby, Sloan’s efforts to take and collect photographs from all across the vastness of the Chicago area come across as highly ambitious. The photographs in this collection, over 500 in total, provide an excellent chronicle of buildings that were perhaps less famous internationally than the skyscrapers that were then just starting to be built in the Loop, but no less important or stunning as architectural landmarks.
A large number of the photos that make up the Percy Sloan collection are of places of worship, reflecting the importance such buildings have played in building Chicago’s neighborhoods, where it was often the case that a Chicagoan could be defined by, for example, what parish they belonged to. Many of these churches and synagogues still exist in the same capacity as they did when Sloan first took the photos – among the buildings photographed that still exist today are the Holy Name Cathedral on north State St., and the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview.
Many of the church buildings still remain, but the churches and congregations that once existed there have changed, often to reflect changing makeup of a neighborhood. A Christian Science church at Marquette Rd. and Harvard Ave. in the Englewood neighborhood that Sloan photographed in the early 1900s now stands as a Baptist Church; a synagogue at the corner of Ashland Ave. and Polk St. is now in use as Greek Orthodox church. In many cases the buildings look almost identical today as they did in Sloan’s photographs, with only minor iconographic differences and exterior renovations in some cases. In still other cases, buildings have long been demolished since Sloan’s time, making them all the more important as a record of their existence.
Sloan’s collection also contains numerous photographs of neighborhood residences. Many of these photos focus on homes that have become definitive features of Chicago’s architectural landscape: the stately mansions of the Gold Coast and Hyde Park and the Frank Lloyd Wright-built homes of suburban Oak Park are all well-represented in the collection. However, while there are many homes with well-known names contained in the collection, Sloan went far and wide to document a variety of houses and residential styles, from the so-called “bungalow belt” of the city to the north shore and suburban areas. Almost all of these houses carry a simple label stating the architectural style of the building: “Colonial House”, “Art Nouveau Apartments” and “Spanish Mission House” are examples of the notes that Sloan scrawled on the back of each photograph, showing his interest in chronicling the diverse residential styles that were present in the city.
For anyone interested in Chicago history or the lives of people living there in the early part of the 20th century, the photos in the Sloan collection are an excellent visual guide to the structures and institutions that were an important part of everyday life for Chicagoans. In addition to churches and residences, Sloan photographed schools, libraries, monuments, bakeries and civic buildings, and even though people are almost completely absent from the photographs in the Sloan collection, the structures around which they lived their lives create a sense of a very habitable Chicagoland.
The Percy Sloan collection can be paged in the Special Collections Reading Room on the 4th Floor of the Newberry Library. The finding aid to the collection is available online. A map indicating the location of some of the buildings is also available.
By Matt Krc, Stacks Coordinator