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Historical Ads: The Rents, Innovations, and Pitches of Yesterday

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It didn't start in the 1950s, but a second or third wave of rapid residential change in the Near North set in then— bringing more people to its gilded sidewalks via high-rise rentals. You're unlikely to find a more succinct expression of the stylistic clash between 19th Century mansion and modernist slab than in the above rental development ad. Funny thing is, the depicted 120-unit building never came to pass at 100 E Erie— a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District building stands there instead. Densification did arrive, of course, and the mansions and neat townhome rows were chopped up by rental and condo towers, giving us the sometimes-absurd character of River North and the Gold Coast.

High-rise rental marketing took on a very different tone a just a few more blocks inland from the North lakefront, and on the South and West Sides in the 1940s-1970s. Low-rise districts were "slums" or—better yet—the gleaming city's "dirty backyards", a pandemic crying out for clearance. This "progressive" CHA housing poster, designed to whip up popular support for urban renewal projects, chides the South Side's housing stock as built for one-twentieth the actual population (20 families to a house... really!?), and the West Side's for being intermingled with industry. There's a degree of truth to both, but, as society came to learn, some serious ulterior motives were at play.

Another trendy rental housing innovation in the early-to-mid-1900s was the apartment hotel— more of a lifestyle choice than a symptom of transience. Designer mid-rise hotels littered the North and South Sides, usually within spitting distance of the lake. Uptown had more than its share—and does still—and the above ad announces the arrival of the swank 10-story Chelsea Hotel which, according to the local blog Wilson Station, required its early clientele to book rooms monthly to avoid transients. Rates when the hotel opened in the mid-1920s were $50-100/month (about $700 to $1,400 in 2013 dollars; for a single room with a bath). Jesus People USA bought the downtrodden 360-room property in 1990 and restored and restocked it with an "intentional Christian community". Other Far North apartment hotels of this vintage are usually thought of as mangy SROs, now eyed for their conversion potential to middle-class rentals. The city keeps churning.

Another brand of apartment hotel emerged in the city's toniest neighborhoods a little bit earlier than their spread the the Far North Side. One such place was the Hotel Shoreland, in what was then a very affluent Hyde Park. Curbed readers may recall our periodic coverage of the Shoreland and its new buff & shine conversion to conventional apartments. The 330-unit building (down from 1,000 hotel rooms) just reopened this fall after being pressed into U of C dormitory service for a few decades prior. Rents will generally range from $1,150/month for a studio to $2,000 for a two-bed with some outliers at the high end. Contrast that with the single-room luxury hotel living afforded "noteworthy clientele" for about $240/month at the Shoreland's 1926 opening and you have something unexpected in this day and age— a decline in rent in real dollars over the long term. We'll bet, however, that you'll find a fair bit of that in Hyde Park.

It's high time we learned what one S.T. Cooper did for Kenwood and the city back in the day. Per this newspaper clipping celebrating the builder's championing of the City Beautiful and newfangled creature comforts like the "sun parlor", we learn that three-flats and small apartment blocks touched down in a big way in early 1900s Kenwood, some in especially dense configurations like along parts of Drexel Boulevard. We also learn that Murphy beds were a selling point in the 1910s; that fireproofing was not something one took for granted; and that ad copy had at least as much half-truths and bluster as it does today. Two rooms and a bath rented for $30 and up in 1917 at 47th & Drexel, which in 2013 dollars is a delectable $545.

Back to the Gold Coast and a 1914 ad for new apartment building construction: $500K for an eight or nine story luxury apartment building with units of 12 to 14 rooms each and monthly rents of $420 to $500. Sheesh, some folks can't even crack that rent today. As with any development brief, the reported product didn't match the actual one— the 18-story Robert DeGoyler high-rise that touched down at the southwest corner of Elm & LSD in the next decade.