Fashion history resurfaces downtown – briefly

A sign from the past, visible earlier this week. “I was shocked.” That’s how Jim

A sign from the past, visible earlier this week.

“I was shocked.” That’s how Jim Nash, with the Farnsworth-Hill property management company, describes his reaction when workers rehabbing the 708 Church Street building earlier this week uncovered a sign from years gone by.

“Milburns,” the sign said, above a window and some plywood window coverings.

That 708 Church storefront most recently housed Market Fresh Books. It’s being fixed up as the new home for American Mattress, currently on Davis Street. But what the heck was Milburns?

Well, according to the Evanston History Center, Milburns was a women’s sportswear store from 1937 to 1949. Nash says when Milburns went out of business, it was replaced by another women’s clothing store, Brooks Fashions.

More recently it was Uncle Dan’s Outdoor Store for 20 years, and then the bookstore.

708 Church, Nash says, was built between 1923 and 25 on what used to be parkland owned by Northwestern University. Connected “wings” were constructed between 1927 and 29.

Nash says the building was originally designed to be eight stories tall, but was capped at two floors when the Great Depression hit.

Several years ago, there was a plan to put a far bigger building on the site, a 35-story commercial and residential tower. But what would have been the tallest building in Evanston never happened, as City Council refused to give the developer a time extension for the planned development in 2013, and the project died.

708 Church was one of many buildings designed by architect John Augustus Nyden, who was apparently the go-to guy if you were putting something up in Evanston a century ago. For example, he also designed the Hahn Building, just south of 708 Church with frontage on both Orrington and Sherman avenues.

The History Center says Nyden designed multiple buildings in Evanston and Chicago, eight of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The three in Evanston are the Fountain Plaza Apartments on Hinman Avenue, the Westminster on Hinman, and Stoneleigh Manor on Michigan Avenue.

Nyden also collaborated with sculptor Leonard Crunelle on the Victory Monument in Chicago, a tribute to an African-American National Guard unit which served in World War I.

As for 708 Church Street now, Nash says the move of American Mattress to larger quarters shows that Evanston is starting to come back from the pandemic. Nash says his company already has four other retail businesses moving into currently empty properties.

“We think it’s picking up based on the leases we’ve signed,” he says.

Plywood covers the sign today.

The Milburns sign, visible for just a few days, now is underneath plywood as part of the American Mattress renovations.

“It’s covered now and will be left intact,” says Nash, “as a time capsule.”