Does St. Charles have the best city hall in Illinois? I think it might. This luminous Art Moderne beauty was designed by brilliant oddball R. Harold Zook and his nephew D. Coder Taylor. A geometric octagonal tower sprouting out of a sleek streamline swoop that follows a jog in the Fox River, this is the good stuff. Two of Zook's major recurring motifs as an architect were chevrons and spider webs–look at that clock face and tell me that the madman didn't somehow combine the two to give the St. Charles Municipal Center a chevron spiderweb clocktower.
So, what's changed? Almost nothing–this thing looks fresh as hell 83 years after opening. Some of the neighbors and the landscaping, sure, but substantively that's about it. I guess the bridge over the Fox River is different? Notice the stone balustrades were replaced with metal ones that evoke the municipal building's chevrons.
The St. Charles Municipal Building was the pet project of Edward J. Baker and Dellora Norris, two of the luckiest heirs in human history, who donated the building to the town. They were the unlikely heirs to John Warne Gates’ barbed wire and gambling fortune. After John died, his son died, and his wife–Baker’s sister–died, Gates’ brother-in-law and niece inherited his fortune. This was kind of an exercise in vanity for Baker–according to Coder Taylor, Baker didn't particularly care what the town wanted or needed in a city hall–but what a vanity project it was.
Baker gave Zook & Taylor wide latitude here to create something special, but one of Baker's specific requirements was that the municipal building contain an industrial museum (which ended up the St. Charles History Museum). Zook and Taylor’s design leaned into manufacturing vibe, getting imaginative with their use of materials–not just marble and granite, but also lustron, aluminum, and abundant use of then-novel fluorescent tube lighting.
R. Harold Zook was one of Chicagoland's most singular architects, designing the monumental Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge as well as whimsical cottage-style single family homes in suburbs like Hinsdale and Riverside. Mayan-inflected Art Deco to undulating roofs on hobbit mansions–the guy had range.
D. Coder Taylor (the D. stood for...Darl???) finished his architecture degree in 1935, stumbling into the Depression-era labor market, and was lucky to end up with his uncle "Zookie". Zook's firm, who scraped through the Great Depression designing single-family homes–had their office in Chicago's Marquette Building. Together, Zook & Taylor worked on the new DuPage County Courthouse, amongst others, and Taylor eventually became his uncle's partner until he joined the military during World War II. After returning, Taylor joined Holsman, Holsman, Klekamp & Taylor, where he was involved in designing large postwar multifamily developments like Parkway Gardens in Greater Grand Crossing, Winchester-Hood Garden Homes in West Ridge, and the Lunt-Lake Apartments in Evanston. He then partnered with L. Morgan Yost, mostly working on residences in the North Shore or military housing for the US government, before forming his own firm in 1960.
The St. Charles Municipal Center was NRHP-listed in 1991 for its architectural quality, but by the 2000s the constant exposure to the Fox River had degraded the handsome lannon stone river wall and riverside platforms. Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates led the 2009-2010 restoration project, which won a Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award.
The cast bronze foxes on St. Charles' Main Street Bridge were originally installed in 1927, with one pair on the bridge's north side and one pair on the south side. Named after Charlemagne, they're the symbol of this city straddling the Fox River.
...clearly, the fox in the postcard faces a different direction than the one today. The bridge was rebuilt in 1997-1998–I think they must have swapped them during the re-installation, with the east-facing fox in this 1970s postcard now on the other side of the bridge.
- NRHP Registration Form
- Fascinating oral history with D. Coder Taylor from the Chicago Architects Oral History Project
- "Civic Offices, Museum and Carillion Promote a City" in Architectural Record, 1941
- "Many-Use Civic Building Has Fluorescent Lighting and Sound Amplifier" in The American City, 1941
- "A Municipal Building...Tubing Illuminated" in Signs of the Times: The National Journal of Advertising Display, 1940
- Interesting video on a Zook home in Riverside, Illinois
The St. Charles History Museum digitized this awesome footage from the building's construction and dedication in 1940.
The Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, R. Harold Zook's other masterpiece, designed with William F. McCaughey and opened in 1928.