August 27, 2005 Saturday, Page 1
An Airstream on a roof?
By Kelly Kennedy
Tribune staff reporter
Looking out the window on the Brown Line elevated train, passengers can glimpse the sleek
aluminum casing of a 1960 Airstream trailer perched on the roof of a four-story building just
north of the Montrose Avenue stop.
"I can't figure out why it's here and if anyone occupies it," said Ben Coulter, gazing past a
purple-painted smokestack toward the rooftop oddity, which he often points out to friends.
"They're obviously not using it to travel."
"Wow. Is it a studio?" asked Janice Dillard, a librarian taking the train. "Airstreams are not
cheap, so it must be for something special."
Rebecca Wilson, a student at Roosevelt University, named a practical reason for placing a
camper on a roof: "With the limited space in Chicago, it's probably hard to find a place to park
Erin Chikaraishi, a student at Loyola University Chicago, assumed it was a "funky piece of art."
"It's kind of weird," said Caleb Frankel, 16, who like Coulter lives in the neighborhood. "I'd
make it into a lounge area, I guess. It's kind of a cool-looking vehicle, so it'd be fun to have a
party or two."
Frankel, as it turns out, is closest to the mark.
The trailer belongs to architect Edward Noonan, who uses it as an employee lounge and, in the
past, has cooked gourmet meals on the Airstream stove for open-air parties.
"I love Airstreams, and I love penthouses," he said.
The building, at 1807 W. Sunnyside Ave., houses an architecture co-op called Chicago
Associates Planners and Architects. The Airstream on the roof stays open in the summer for
anyone working there who might want to have lunch or be inspired by the view over the city.
A plaque over the trailer door reads: "Gentle Annie Stafford Pavilion and Conference Center,
Erected 13 May 1989." According to local lore, Sunnyside Avenue is named after Stafford's
19th Century brothel, the Sunnyside Hotel.
The Airstream is obvious to anyone riding the `L' but can be difficult to see from the
road--even for those who work in the building.
"I had no idea there was an Airstream on the roof," said Joseph Czyz, who works at Steve
Curtis Design on the first floor. "I walk to work, and I always see people looking up there, but
I had no idea."
When Noonan was renovating the building as office space in 1989, he rented a crane to lift the
camper onto the roof. "I didn't want to haul an Airstream across the country to go do things,"
Noonan did ask the city about zoning rules, he said. But there were no laws about putting
Airstreams on roofs. "They laughed at me and told me to get out of the office," he said.
As the crane lifted the Airstream into the air, it came up level with the Brown Line just as a train
"It looked like the back end of the train had come off the tracks," said Noonan's wife, Eve.
"You could see the conductor turning around trying to figure out what had happened."
"He shook his fist at us, then started laughing," Ed Noonan said. "Within two minutes, the CTA
police were in the front yard, but the Airstream was already on the roof."
The whimsical scene offers a glimpse into the world of Ed Noonan. His 50-year career as an
architect spans everything from creating a cloister for nuns to his latest project, Tryon Farms in
northern Indiana. There, residents live near a working dairy farm, their wastewater is filtered
naturally through a swamp, and they have a choice of living in farmlike homes or houses with
grass roofs built into berms.
"We try to find something and turn it into something cool," Noonan said. "Any fool can do
remodeling in a Victorian or a great-looking building."
His father, T. Clifford Noonan, an architect for Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, was the
chief architect for the State Department building in Washington. Ed Noonan's approach has
been less traditional.
His co-op put three train cars into the Terra Cotta Industries building in Chicago so employees
would have a cool place to eat lunch, and turned Marywood High School in Evanston into a
They created an Evanston shopping center, at 824 Custer Ave., where artists sold their work
from public walls, a woman brought in a pot of soup every day and went home when it sold
out, and another woman sold plants by lining them up the sides of a public staircase.
"Ed's driven by having an idea or a commitment to something and making it happen," said
Noonan's partner, Thomas Forman.
"Which brings us back to the Airstream. The trailer on the roof was a little bit of something
different for people in this urban office. It makes it a good place to be, and you can do that in
Steve Curtis said he often lunches in the rooftop break room.
"It's not as shiny as it used to be," he said, as he pointed out the peeling laminate cabinets and
then produced a cloud of dust by pounding on a built-in sofa. "There used to be a big party up
here every year."
There hasn't been a barbecue for a while, but the trailer still has tales to tell.
"There are some pretty crazy stories floating around, but who knows if they're true," Curtis
said. "Ed was giving a tour of the building once, and there were two people inside, well, you
Noonan remembered that story. "All I said was, `Don't mind us,'" he said.