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Understanding Chicago’s vernacular architecture

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In Chicago, vernacular architecture is the built language of our neighborhoods

A variety of Chicago apartment buildings.

Simply put, vernacular architecture is architecture without architects. In Chicago, vernacular architecture is the built language of our neighborhoods. Ubiquitous but never boring, vernacular architecture establishes a strong sense of place, sustains density, and supplies a steady stream of architectural diversity between parts of our built world that are new and old, low and high value, expertly restored and dilapidated.

Chicago is well known for its downtown skyscrapers, but the smaller residential and commercial buildings throughout the city’s many neighborhoods are what really gives Chicago its unique architectural identity. Here’s a quick look at some of the more common styles of vernacular architecture found throughout Chicago.

The lived-in 19th century workers cottage

From butchers in Back of the Yards to German factory workers in Logan Square, the Workers Cottage was the draft horse of single family living from the 1830s through the 1890s. Available at the time for less than $2,000, many cottages used standardized house plans and mass produced building materials, however they often included tiny flourishes, such as decorative lintels or bracketed porches. Materials ranged from balloon-framed wood construction to common brick, with cottages typically one or one and-a-half stories in height with gabled roofs facing the street.

The simple design of Workers Cottages made them easy to modify over time by adding stories, changing window or doorway openings, or cladding the façade with asbestos-cement siding or Permastone. While changes in architectural integrity may rub traditional historic preservationists the wrong way, they do not diminish the vernacular value of Workers Cottage, but rather, enhance it.

The Chicago corner store mixed-user

A neighborhood social and cultural fixture, the corner store, or food and liquor store, as Chicago colloquially recognizes both names, is the ultimate urban convenience store. These stores are often housed in older two or three story buildings or in a storefront space of a small corner apartment building, and provide a place for the neighborhood to buy basic household supplies without having to travel to primary streets or shopping areas.

One can find everything from lottery tickets to cotton balls at these neighborhood fixtures, with the products a reflection of the cultural heritage of the area it serves. For example, at a corner store in Chicago’s Devon Avenue Indian/Pakistani enclave on the Far North Side, one might find Amla oil and Kurkure Masala Munch alongside mints and gum. In Humboldt Park, visitors will find a plethora of canned Goya beans and candy bars. Bodegas with small kitchens in the back of the store became a place for neighborhood immigrants to connect with each other over regional specialties. Store owners are routinely the employees, and serve a unique civil position, even offering credit to trustworthy neighbors.

The Chicago courtyard apartment building

The classic courtyard apartment has been keeping Chicago’s neighborhoods dense since before World War I. Spatially efficient without sacrificing vital sunlight, apartments in these buildings are connected via front entry stairs as well as back porch stairs, with each apartment having its own “porch,” often no bigger than a landing.

These rear porch areas and stairwells become an apartment’s semi-private outdoor space and provide much needed ventilation. In courtyard apartments, these vertical thoroughfares are where we interact with the neighbors above and below us, creating tiny micro communities. Multiple bedrooms make this apartment type more than suitable for many families, and the courtyard apartment has become an almost ubiquitous choice for your first Chicago lease.

The ‘L’ tracks

The infrastructure of Chicago’s public transit system, the second oldest in the United States, is omnipresent in almost every neighborhood. From above, it is a massive enterprise of hubs and spokes stretching westward from the Loop. From the ground, the tracks supporting Chicago’s rapid transit systems create a distinctive steel canopy of rust and tannish yellow, with vertical supports hugging the curbs of the likes of Lake Street and Wabash Avenue.

The tracks become animated with metallic noise as a train goes by above, screeching along straightaways and lurching around corners. The tracks create a stalwart directional system. How else would tourists walking from State Street to Michigan Avenue know that they are undoubtedly heading the right way? With almost unfettered access to the area underneath the tracks, we walk and drive below their steel beams, bolts and cross braces, with some sections built to transport riders to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition still in operation.

‘L’ trains snake slowly around churches, like St. Joseph Church in Old Town, and through alleys like on West 21st Street, providing riders with choice vernacular views of the private spaces of the everyday Chicagoan including garages, backyards and gangways.

The Midwest limestone two- and three-flat building

Be it the creamy vanilla Joliet variety or the cool grey Bedford type, limestone two- and three-flats are a hearty vernacular building type, with natural materials representing the diverse geology of the Midwest—which in many cases only had to travel a few hundred miles to find itself adorning the roofline of a neoclassical-styled gabled roof in North Lawndale or Lincoln Park.

With secondary facades composed of Chicago common brick, limestone buildings—particularly the variety known to locals as “greystones”—were a popular type of residence in the 1890s, as Chicago filled Daniel Burnham’s “Emerald Necklace” of boulevards and parks with places for people to live. Decorative elements on a typical Chicago limestone two- and three-flat building have in many cases stayed the test of time due to the strength of the material itself, and they continue to be highly valued due to the timelessness of their primary material.

The Chicago bungalow

Representing a major chunk of Chicago’s single family housing stock, particularly in the neighborhoods on the edge of the city, Chicago bungalows might be the closest thing Chicago architecture has to a religion. We have so many hugging the city’s waist that we refer to the arch of nearly 100,000 spreading south to north as the Bungalow Belt.

“Bungalowmania” made the American Dream of home ownership possible in the early 20th century, but while contemporary owners love the charm of their art glass windows and wide eaves, many have been scorned for “popping” the top of their bungalow with second story additions.

Recent “Stop the Pop” campaigns present a compelling argument against out of character architectural changes, but there is no litigation outside of the court of public opinion for most of these renovations. Perhaps squabbling about the perception of whether these alterations are right or wrong—or defending the identity of our built environment—is a fundamentally vernacular argument.

Elizabeth Blasius is an architectural historian based in Chicago. Her work can be found at her personal blog, Blaservations, and on Instagram.