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Chicago Real Estate and Architecture Experts Share the Stories of Their First Apartments

Earlier this week, readers had the opportunity to share their renter horror stories and as Renters Week 2015 comes to a close, we reached out to a handful of local real estate and architecture experts to tell us the stories of their first Chicago apartments. These are the people who have built their career by telling the stories of Chicago's buildings and neighborhoods, but everyone has had to start somewhere. From humble beginnings in scrappy apartments to living in historic downtown high-rises, these are the stories of those who live and breath Chicago every day.

Blair Kamin


Architecture Critic, Chicago Tribune
The Patricians, 401-411 W. Fullerton, a handsome but faded prewar apartment building near Clark and Fullerton (across the street from a Mies building that I could never afford). I rented a one-bedroom with a skyline view and far too much nighttime noise from Clark Street. I think I bought some earplugs. The best thing about the apartment? What was outside: The bustling neighborhood, the zoo, the park and the lake. Oh yes--back then (in the late 1980s), there was no fancy rooftop deck.

Ben Schulman


Communications Director, AIA Chicago
My first apartment in the city was in a beautiful, yet crumbling old Germanic doublewide three-flat in Lincoln Square. The area at the time still seemed defined by its Eastern European and German heritage, and those old brown and orange Lincoln Square markers, welcoming visitors to the few, relatively-moribund commercial strips in the neighborhood, dotted the streets. The apartment itself was fantastic. It was a large three bedroom with a nicely-sized kitchen and bedrooms and a huge living room painted a soft pink. It had immense bay windows that looked over Western Ave. and offered a wonderful view of the pigeon shit-stained Abe Lincoln statue in front of the Walgreen's on the corner. All for the incredibly reasonable price of $330/mo for the smallest room in the unit.

The building's foundation was sinking, its plumbing was pretty much corroded, and after the Lincoln Park porch collapse in 2003, the building was cited for numerous violations. Like a lot of the traces of what one might call the "old neighborhood," the building is gone now. But I've nothing but fond memories of the place.

Chris Bentley


Midwest Editor, The Architect's Newspaper
My first apartment was a matchbox-sized, fourth floor walk-up next door to a fantastic dumpling house in New York's Chinatown, frequented by transient college friends and a lot of cockroaches. My first place in Chicago was considerably nicer, if cold. I had a third-floor walk-up in a historic residential development on Carmen Avenue in Andersonville, which I chose in part because it put me within walking distance of The Green Mill. I lived by myself and spent a lot of time at Uptown and Andersonville bars escaping work as a grad student at Northwestern. But I enjoyed the apartment itself. It had a sizable bedroom and closet, tucked next to a bathroom that opened off a thin nexus of the floorplan that doubled as the vestibule. West facing windows at the other end of the living room, which was ample—maybe why the previous tenant had abandoned a few end tables there—and painted curiously blue-gray. The kitchen adjoined through an archway and was painted an overly sunny bright yellow. I usually left through the long, slender kitchen, walking past a makeshift dining room and down the fire escape into the alley.

I still love the neighborhood and make it up there sometimes from Logan Square, where I've been for the last three years. But I don't get to the Green Mill as much as I'd like to.

Steven Dahlman


Publisher, Loop North News/Marina City Online
My first and only apartment building in Chicago is Marina City. I've lived in three units here. The last two were nice. The first, in 2005, was a modest studio unit. I had rented it sight-unseen and when the real estate lady took me up to see it, there was a big pile of trash in the middle of what I would call "The Great Room." I turned to her and said, "What's not to love? I'll take it."

The first few days were a bit awesome because my furniture and stuff from Minneapolis had not yet arrived. I had nothing to do except explore the city. I put up large maps of Chicago so I could learn where everything was. The guy who lived across from me in the other tower would see this and mused that I was "the mad bomber" and used the maps to plot my next target.

One day, some maintenance guys came up and said there was a leak in pipes in my wall and I'll be darned if they didn't hammer out a large hole in my wall that was like that for many days.

I didn't know a lot of people here and wasn't extremely sure what I'd be doing for a living, so it was definitely one big adventure for me.

David Matthews


Downtown reporter, DNAinfo Chicago
My first Chicago apartment was the top two floors (the attic counts, right?) of a house on Southport across the street from Schubas. The apartment was big, but I shared it with three friends from high school, including one who slept in my room's "closet." That sounds like a raw deal for him, but he got a window facing the street while I slept in a totally enclosed space (re: attic) we likened to a coffin. We loved the place though, and it was a great party spot that was cheap for the neighborhood (my share was around $550/month for everything). We all moved out two years later (2011), but I still enjoy reminiscing whenever I walk by the place. I'm pretty glad I have a window in my room now though.

Ian Spula


Real estate reporter, Chicago Magazine
My first Chicago apartment was quite the upgrade from Brooklyn living (I took my lumps there and in other cities). That's probably why my girlfriend, now wife, and I stayed nearly four years. It had a wall of south windows, a big Chicago porch, appliances of normal size, and was strangely vermin-free! We also loved the common roof deck—a Chicago staple as we'd quickly learn, and an area where New York goes wanting, whether by code or callousness. The neighborhood was West Town, or to be more precise Noble Square, and the stroke of luck that landed us there put me near the city's geographic center and in range of almost every part of town I would need to study for my first job in journalism—editing Curbed. It's my nature to hang out in other people's hoods more than my own, casing the backstreets by bike. This time it opened up a new career. My drama- and agony-free living situation solved one pesky variable, and I found I could belong in this town.

Wayne Lorentz


Editor, Chicago Architecture Blog
My first Chicago apartment was in 2003 in the awkwardly named Skyline Century of Progress at the corner of Lake and Wells in The Loop. Tribune was transferring me to Chicago and when I got off the Blue Line from O'Hare at Clark and Lake, I went out the wrong exit, saw the "Now Leasing" sign, took a tour and signed up. The apartment was on the 25th floor. They called it a penthouse. It was really an 800-square-foot convertible. 200 of those square feet were a very long hallway with no windows or doors that led to a dead end. The noise from four L lines (there was no Pink back then) below my window was deafening for the first few months, but you get used to it. I didn't think I'd need flood insurance but one day the pipe that goes to the sprinkler holding tank on the roof burst and filled the place with water.

I stayed there two years enjoying fabulous transit access for exploring my new city and the views of sunbathers on the roofs below. Then I moved on to a string of other buildings including Presidential Towers, The Shoreham, Aqua and the John Hancock Center.

Chuck Sudo


Reporter, Bisnow
My first real apartment in Chicago was a 350 square foot studio apartment at 4220 N Ashland Ave., in North Center (although I believe it was still called Lakeview back then). I rented it when I returned to Chicago after I was honorably discharged from the Navy in March 1994. The rent was $350/month and that stretch of Ashland was not as gentrified as it is now. The building was a former SRO in the 1920s and the designers re-purposed the dumbwaiters as cabinets. What I'll always remember about that studio--and was the main reason I rented it--was it had an in-wall Murphy bed. The mattress had seen better days so I replaced it and I could always stow the bed inside the wall whenever I had company over or threw parties (which was often). I spent two and a half years in that apartment. Studios in that building now rent for $720/month.

Bob Goldsborough


Elite Street columnist, Chicago Tribune
My first rental was a two-bedroom, vintage second-floor apartment in Evanston, while I was in graduate school. The apartment was above Beck's Used Books (so, not the Beck's Bookstore that everyone knows that is on Clark Street). It had unusually large rooms and high ceilings. It was one of two apartments in the building, whose first floor also housed a barbershop and a T-shirt store. Both apartment units were typically rented to Northwestern University students. My roommate and I actually can't remember our rent amount, but we do recall that it was rather cheap. Although Evanston hardly had a hardscrabble downtown at that time, there were several less-than-desirable aspects to the area, including long lines in front of the unemployment office across the street, which my roommate and I both viewed as a harbinger of life after graduating! And there was one morning where I woke up to go down the stairs to get the morning paper and I discovered a homeless guy sleeping on our staircase. But perhaps the quirkiest aspect of the apartment was the fact that the bookstore owners' adult son actually lived (illegally) in the back of the store. He'd sleep on a mattress on the floor. How Evanston city inspectors didn't figure this out, I don't know, but he'd keep a light on on the floor of the store at night. One night, my roommate and I were punchy from studying late into the night, so we started hacky sacking (it was a thing back then) in the apartment's kitchen at 2AM. Fearful that we were actually being physically attacked, the bookstore owner's son buzzed our unit, trying to be sure that we were OK.

The location really was second to none – it was close to both the Davis Street Metra stop and the L, and it was a short walk from Northwestern. And downtown Evanston even back then had a decent number of restaurants (anyone remember the Pineyard?). Plus, it was near other neat things – a Rose Records was right around the corner, which was great when I wanted to stand in line one Saturday morning to try to buy good concert tickets at Rose Records' Ticketmaster outlet (remember doing that?). And there was a White Hen Pantry just a few doors away – which was great for the night that I had company over to watch TV but didn't have anything in the fridge. I took drink orders from everyone, disappeared down the stairs and within minutes had returned with everything that everyone wanted to drink! We also were a few doors from a funeral home, but for whatever reason, that didn't really creep us out. On the second floor of the building immediately to the north of us, across a narrow gangway, was some kind of research or polling firm; we could easily look out of our (little-used) dining room windows and see employees from that firm on their breaks in that building, smoking out the window.

After a year of graduate school, my roommate and I both earned master's degrees. With no immediate jobs, we each moved back out to our parents' homes in the suburbs for a short time.

Nikki Snodgrass


Media Relations and Social Media Manager, Chicago Architecture Foundation I moved to Chicago from the suburbs where I grew up; about 35 miles west of the city. I was halfway done with college at DePaul University and knew that I'd need to live in the city to work in the industry I was interested in (which at the time, was anything comparable to Random House), and I was tired of taking the Metra into Chicago four days a week and working at a bar until 2 a.m.

While I spent time in Chicago over the years, I wasn't particularly familiar with the neighborhoods. I was bartending and that kind of work makes it tough to know what your budget is, since you never know how much money you'll be making every month. The lease on my current apartment was up about two weeks before I decided to move, and I spent that time driving around the city with a notebook full of addresses to available apartments, and another of bar jobs that I had interviews for. It was the end of summer and hot and the air conditioning didn't work in my car and I'd get lost and end up at dirty bars and even dirtier places to live, frustrated that I had wasted yet another day.

Again, not being familiar with neighborhoods, I'd check out apartments that were cheap, but miles from any sort of public transportation, grocery stores or restaurants; I hadn't planned on bringing my car when I moved, so that was always a problem.

Finally, I checked in with an apartment finding company along with an acquaintance who offered to move in with me.

Just before they started showing us units, I got hired at a pretty nice place in cute neighborhood called Southport Corridor, that seemed to be busy enough to make money I could live off of. The agent brought us to three apartments: the first was in west Logan Square, small and dark with ratty brown carpeting, a kitchen you'd never be able to cook in, and windows that were essentially permanently painted shut, only opening halfway. We made sure not to touch anything while we were there. The next place was a bit nicer, but not lease-signing worthy. And the last apartment was a beautiful duplex in Bucktown, walking distance to college. The rent was $1,500 a month which we figured was doable, so we signed the lease (I later learned from a friend who showed apartments, that these services had a tactic of showing awful units, ending with a great one that the tenant would immediately pick, thinking there weren't other kinds of options).

Moving in was tricky when it came to getting furniture up the spiral staircase to where my room would be. The only thing to do seemed to be pushing my mattress and dresser up the back roof and through the window. The living room furniture was kind of comical; a 40 year old yellow couch my grandma gave me, and red one that one of my bar customers offered, and little end tables from garage sales and resale stores. Nothing matched but we thought it looked terrific.

With the security deposit being two months' rent, we moved in, loving the place, but pretty much broke. And we also didn't take into account the central air and heat that needed to run on high to fill the two-story apartment, which was an extra $300 per month. I then realized rather quickly that I would never make enough money at the bar I was working at to cover my expenses. I quit the job so that I would have all my free time to look for a new one. For weeks, nothing came through, and my first rent check bounced. The landlord was furious and threatened to break the lease and have us out at the end of the following month.

I then interviewed at an Irish bar in the south loop and was hired, but the manager was going to be out of town for a few days and I had to wait until the following week to start (though I basically her to let me start immediately). Being out of money and needing a few weeks to get shifts, there were instances of deciding if I should buy cat food or dinner (which was genuinely peanut butter and jelly, oatmeal and white rice). Pretty stressful time, but funny in its own way, especially looking back.

One night, my roommate (who was also a bartender struggling to find a decent job) said we should just get a drink with whatever dollars we had. I brought my change jar to the bank and got about $30 from it. I figured there wasn't much in the way of bill paying or grocery shopping that could be done with it anyways, so we went to a nearby bar and spent it up. On the walk over, to justify what seemed to be irresponsible behavior, we kept telling each other, "We just needed a nice night, who cares!" Luckily the bartender was talkative and amused by our situation and gave us a lot to drink on the house. We just found it ironic that we had this great apartment that we truly couldn't afford to live in.

My boyfriend and roommate got along amazingly well, and I had it in mind that if he moved in, we'd be in much better shape financially, but I didn't want to ask her to deal with that. One night, we were all together and she said, "So when are you going to move in with us so we can get by?" I was so thrilled about the idea of splitting rent three ways, that I really didn't consider whether or not it was a good idea to live with a guy I'd only been with for a few months. Apparently my money concerns trumped my relationship ones, and he moved in. For the record, it turned out to be a good decision on a personal level after all.

And to make things more wonderful, I made $300 my first night working at my new job and knew that all would be okay.

We stayed in that apartment for a year and then moved to Ukrainian Village, Humboldt Park, and now I live on the north side in Ravenswood. Frankly, those apartment experiences were more bizarre and challenging; it was more the overall experience of moving to the city that is specific to someone doing so for the first time.

Ward Miller


Executive Director, Preservation Chicago In 1966, at the tender age of five, I moved with my parents into "The Irving Apartments" at 1018 N. State Street/State and Oak Streets, as part of a series of major life changes to follow. The Newberry Library, a very distinguished institution on Chicago's Near-North Side, overlooking Washington Square (also, known a "Bug House Square"), the City's oldest park, owned The Irving. My family had many deep connections to the Newberry and both my parents met at the library.

The Irving was not only the "scholars apartments" for visiting guests, but also staff and family housing, set within an "L"-shaped courtyard. A portion of the building also pre-dated the current Newberry Library with its granite-clad Romanesque architecture, as The Irving was the very first Newberry Library, established on this site, upon the death of Walter Loomis Newberry and his family in the 1880s.

The complex was designed by architects, Pond & Pond, two brothers which are known in Chicago for their design of settlement houses, like the Hull House, established by Jane Addams, schools and numerous high quality houses. The buildings consisted of a square-block of housing at State and Oak, with and L-shaped courtyard behind, flanked by a linear row of buildings facing the inner courtyard, named alphabetically, buildings A through I. We lived in building "H" and specifically, apartment 2-H. To reach our building, one would walk through an open three-arched entry from State Street, into the courtyard and down a path to building "H'. The double glass doors extended to a large marble foyer and grand marble staircase and decorative handrails to the second floor of these immense red-brick buildings.

Our apartment was seven rooms, two large bedrooms, with French doors that opened from room to room, a living room with a fireplace and alcove and full dining room as one moved to the center of the apartment. My room, located in the rear of the building, was formerly an artist studio with a large window comprising most of one wall, which made for a cold room on windy winter days. My parents, furnished the apartment with Danish Modern furniture, and with a few choice family antiques and everything was white, with the exception of the ceiling in the dining room, which was painted a rich-flat-black color.

Ogden School was across the street, so many of my friends would come over after school and play on the wide fields of grass, flanked at the west perimeter by groves of trees, the courtyard was like a park to many of us. The other residents turned out to be distinguished members of old Chicago families. Our immediate neighbor across the hall was Mr. John Shortall, a distinguished gentleman in his 70s with a silver-tipped cane and of both Prairie Avenue and Astor Street origins. He was leading an effort, along with other citizens to save the old Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center), with its Tiffany mosaics, from demolition. His father was one of the Library Commissioners that constructed the building. Perhaps he may have influenced my life in his own advocacy work, as so many buildings of great importance were being demolished or threatened with demolition.

Soon we found that the Newberry Library was to sell The Irving, to be able to fund the new "book-stack building". It was 1970-1971 and I remember all of the old families, from Ryerson's, Shaw's, Shortall's, Patten's, Chamber's, Towner's, Stam's and Briarley's looking for new places to live- a scramble of activity. Even my friends across the street at Ogden School knew that the demolition of the buildings for the new Newberry Plaza was a misstep and thought of "urban-renewal" as a dirty-word, witnessing so much destruction nearby for Sandburg Village, along with big swaths to the west of us. It was 1971 and I was ten years old. Several classrooms of children from Ogden School would line the north side of the building from time-to-time to watch the wrecking-ball hit the many buildings of the Irving. I watched as the structure came down with strength and grace.

Many years later, I came to know exactly the importance of the structures and how famous they were in the memories of many old-timers and architects. When in my twenties, Dr. Towner, the former president of the Newberry Library, and father of my two best friends, admitted that "in hindsight the sale of The Irving may have not been a good decision, and that the land alone, would have been a great asset for the Newberry to have today." As the Towner's lived there-at the Irving, and also loved that building, I always assumed that was an apology for the loss of the structures, one of the great forgotten landmarks of the Near North Side, also known as the Gold Coast.

·Renters Week 2015 archives [Curbed Chicago]