Evanston’s artistic treasures are on full display at the Levy Senior Center

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Some works by Walter Burt Adams are protected by plexiglass at the Levy Senior Center. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave., is not known as an art gallery, but there is a treasure trove of “Evanstoniana” paintings housed there: a large group of works of art by Walter Burt Adams is exposed.

They belong to the Levy Senior Center Foundation and are more or less permanently loaned to the center, which is named after entrepreneur, philanthropist and benefactor Joseph Levy Jr.

Levy owned a number of Evanston business properties, including several car dealerships along Chicago Avenue. Walter Burt Adams, who had a small art supply store at 843 Chicago Ave., was one of his tenants.

According to the story, when Levy first tried to buy a painting from Adams, he was asked why he liked it, and when he couldn’t respond to Adams’ satisfaction, the offer de Levy was refused.

The two eventually became friends, however. When Adams couldn’t afford the monthly rent, he would often gift Levy a painting. Levy became a great admirer of Adams’ work and his best patron.

Judy London Newton, Levy’s niece and president of the foundation, told me that her family owned many Adams paintings. In fact, Newton, who along with her husband used to host family Thanksgiving dinners, said Levy would bring him an Adams painting every time he came.

Newton recently said of Levy, “He had a way of seeing the best in people. He befriended many, helped many, and often shared their talents and vision with others.

The painter and his work

Levy, via the foundation, still shares Adams’ fond vision of an earlier Evanston, a glimpse into a bygone era in America where time seemed to move more slowly than it does today.

A self-portrait of Walter Burt Adams at the Levy Senior Center. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Adams was born in 1903 in Racine, Wis., but grew up in Fargo, ND He moved with his family to Chicago in 1922 and to Evanston in 1931. He earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute from Chicago.

In Evanston, he opened an art supply store, first at 1615 Maple Ave., then on Sherman Avenue in 1948, and finally at 943 Chicago Ave., near Main Street, where he met Levy.

(This was when Good’s, at 714 Main St., was just a paint and wallpaper store. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Good’s began selling paint and art, then, after the recession of 2008, focused more on framing Merchandise closed in 2020, after 117 years in business, possibly affected by the arrival and growth in 2003 of Blick’s Art Materials, 1755 Maple Ave.)

Adams’ shop was not large. And he wasn’t a friendly person; in fact, he’s often been described as “cranky and a perfectionist,” said Eden Pearlman, executive director of the Evanston History Center. “But his relationship with Joe Levy was very important.” The history center has seven of Adams’ paintings.

A “devoted painter of the American scene,” Adams was a respected member of Chicago’s modern art community. He painted from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, but his best-known paintings date from the 1930s and 1940s.

Art collection originally exhibited at the bank

Adams did not own a car, so he painted sites he could reach on foot. Apparently he painted in the morning and worked in his shop in the afternoon. I remember seeing him when I was very young, with his easel and paints, working on a street corner in downtown Evanston. He could have been Evanston’s first outside painter.

There was no phone in Adams’ home or business, following a notorious fight with the phone company. As a teenager, I once bought some art supplies from his shop and found it a bit creepy. But the shop had to provide a fairly stable income.

In 1936, during the Great Depression, Adams was hired by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project to create 16 easel paintings of Evanston. Of these, it is reported that Adams considered eight “almost masterpieces” and eight “good pictures”.

The Levy Foundation owns and insures all of the Levy Center paintings, which first hung at Evanston’s First Bank & Trust on Church Street, where Joe Levy was a board member. The artwork was transferred to the senior center when the bank was sold to Byline in 2018.

Jill Schoenwetter, former Vice President of First Bank & Trust, said: “Customers loved talking about the paintings and their location in Evanston.” She added: “Joe was a great friend and supporter of the bank. He was full of ideas and interested in everything.

Several paintings by Walter Burt Adams are displayed above the shelves of the Levy Senior Center library. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The paintings are well displayed at the Senior Center. Although a few are too tall, the bookcases above the library and those in the Hackberry room and Bobby room, where they hang lower, are covered in plexiglass – a safe haven, I’m sure. sure. The reflections in the plexiglass make it difficult to see the brush stroke and the details of the paintings.

I don’t see old people vandalizing or stealing a painting – we know better at our age – so I wonder about the need for plexiglass. The professional installer, Roger Vandiver of Wilmette, did not respond to my inquiries.

The Levy Senior Center is, however, the perfect place to display these paintings, as many of us who belong to the center, or even just visit there, can remember the sets from back in the day, when they looked exactly like what Adams had painted them.

Beauty in the mundane

Evanston is known as a “Tree City USA” and Adams must have enjoyed painting trees in the summer. He handles them, in the sunlight and their cast shadows, well and with affection, it shows. My favorite of these works captures a view along Church Street, showing part of the original public library building (from 1908).

The Evanston Public Library has this painting by Adams, called May 1 (1952), which is on the fourth floor, a space not open to the public. Lea Hernandez-Solis, the director’s secretary, said members of the public can apply to see it.

I also love his El stop and overpass paintings, most of which were of Main Street and four of which are on display at Levy. These are my favorites. He saw the beauty in the mundane and the great color variation in cement underpasses, El platforms and alleyways.

“After the Flood” by Walter Burt Adams was created by constructing a grid according to the rules of Infinite dynamics, an instruction book he wrote for artists. Credit: Gay Riseborough

The weirdest painting in the Levy Center is both figurative and narrative – people flee what looks like a tsunami on the left, while planes explode in the sky on the right. It is called After the Flood.

Is it neither a commentary on war nor climate change, but an imaginary scene, made by constructing a grid determined by the rules of Infinite dynamics, an instructional book he wrote for artists that was never widely used. This explanation of the artwork was discovered in the archives of the Evanston History Center.

In 2019, the history center offered a bus tour of the Adams painting sitesNext a conference at the Levy Center by Pearlman, of the History Center.

Pearlman has a background in art history and taught it at the college level in Chicago. The bus tour was so popular that three had to be scheduled. Some of the places visited have remained as they were in the artist’s time, while other sites have disappeared or become unrecognizable due to redevelopments.

The paintings in the center for the elderly are not changed. Several hang in the Joe Levy Jr. Library and the Hackberry Room, with a painting and a print in the Bobby Room (the renovated and renamed Linden Room). The print is probably Adam’s best known – that of the old Place de la Fontaine. This print is labeled but unfortunately the other works are not.

The artist bid farewell to the city in 1977

I find the empty streets and sidewalks of Adams a bit lonely. Maybe he was alone too, certainly lonely. In the few landscapes where there is a character, it would have been a last minute touch – the details always come last. And rarely a face. His work has been compared to Hopper and, even more so, to Thomas Hart Benton.

I prefer to call Adams’ later scenes “building landscapes” as opposed to landscapes. I find them cold, too architectural, too perfect, no paint texture – I don’t feel the affection I can feel in the main street and more traditional landscape paintings.

Sunday morning – My farewell to Evanston, is one of these “landscapes”; a copy of it is in the Evanston Women’s Club. I haven’t found the original yet.

In 1977, the year of this painting, Adams moved to be with his son in Belen, NM where he continued to paint until his death in 1990.

In addition to showing his work in Evanston, Adams exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago 15 times between 1930 and 1942 in its annual Chicago and Vicinity shows. His work has also been shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Adams’ paintings are also found in many private collections and in Chicago public school collections.

I hope that Round Table readers, young and old, will visit the Levy Senior Center and enjoy a wonderful, nostalgic opportunity to view works of art.

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