Architecture at Decorators Supply

The title is just a joke. I had the rare opportunity to go on a private tour visit of the plaster-filled factory of Decorators Supply, a manufacturer of classical architectural details and significant figure in Chicago architectural history. They craft columns, pilasters, capitals, and a seemingly infinite list of ornaments out of plaster, wood, and a mold-able material called composite.

Significance of Decorators Supply

The architectural significance of this company is two-fold:

1. It is one of the city’s oldest continuously running businesses – over a century old.

2. They are one of few artisan makers that continues in the labor-intensive process of working composite.

First some background. Located in Chicago’s oldest neighborhood in fact, Decorators Supply began as a family-owned business in 1883. Really the business took off with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at which point it grew to fill an entire city block. For the World’s Fair they built decoration for theaters and store display cases. If you’ve ever seen the detail in the South Shore Cultural Center, once the Southshore Country Club, that is the work of Decorators Supply. (Pink Ballroom pictured here).

Other decorative makers existed at the time, but Decorators Supply differentiated itself with an innovation in making composite. Composite, or “compo” as they call it, was a mix of organic materials that could be molded rather than the more costly carving. This 350-year old technique originated in Italy, and Decorators Supply found their own special mix. Over the years it has included such ingredients as hemp fiber, glycerin, fish oil, animal glue, talc, and molasses. Originally it took three guys an entire three days to mix it, but now a machine helps.

Chicago Architectural History Decorators Supply

Where Do They Work?

The artisan company makes decorations for both interiors and exteriors, and composite only works inside buildings. Decorators Supply can re-make anything they ever made as they have all the molds. This means you could look up a lavish mansion that no longer exists and request to have the ornamentation that once was. With more than a century under their belt, Decorators Supply has a catalog with 25,000 different products. I figure it’s a good thing that turnover is low so they don’t have to retrain people often: the average employee stays 22 years.

In addition to the historic remnants of the molds, the factory shows all kinds of beautiful traces of its history. Workers punch in on a massive 70-year-old machine; a cast of the seal that they made for the Presidential Seal in the Oval Office hangs on one wall; and an almost thirty-year-old mayoral election sticker from Michael Bilandic looks like some have tried scraping it off. My favorite of this exclusive tour was a White Sox shrine, not due to any team loyalty on my part but rather because of its creativity Chicago Architectural Factory with Historyand seeming holiness glowing with the light of the window. During the special tour we had of the factory, I went wild with my camera. The interior spaces brim with natural light, and the various materials and craftsmanship made it easy to capture beauty.

And do you know of any interesting historic businesses that Chicago Detours should feature? Let us know!

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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