This year, we covered a historic election that ushered in a mayor with a new affordable housing agenda. We searched and selected the best of Chicago real estate for our readers. We wrote about scrappy preservationists, a new Fulton Market, and megadevelopments that are poised to change the city.
Out of all our most popular stories this year, here’s a short list of our favorites.
The Chicago architects who rebuilt the city were astonishingly innovative, with advancements in engineering like fireproofing and modern skeletal steel construction, as were the working-class immigrants who created our local residential styles, the backbone of our housing stock. The end result? Chicago is a city of supertall skyscrapers and belts of bungalows—and both are equally important to its narrative.
While most Chicagoans know the city got its name from shikaakwa, an American Indian word for the pungent wild onions and leeks that grew in the area, few can tell you how Chicago’s many neighborhoods got their names. Some of the origin stories are fairly obvious: the West Loop and South Loop are, respectively, west and south of the Loop; Wrigleyville is next to Wrigley Field. Others are less expected—and more entertaining. They involve larger-than-life personalities, conflicting tales, local folklore, waves of immigrants, and, sometimes, just smart marketing.
Under a surreal backdrop of swirling snow, a group of grassroots architectural buffs and dedicated preservationists gather in the soaring 17-story atrium of the James R. Thompson Center. The bustling public space serves a refuge, civic center, and transit hub—but this gathering here is for a free tour of the most endangered postmodern building in Chicago.
“We call the Thompson Center the ‘postmodern people’s palace’ because it belongs to the taxpayers of Illinois and the citizens of Chicago,” Blasius tells Curbed Chicago. “Its design goals fulfill the actions that take place here: government operating alongside civil disobedience and activism.”
Meg Gustafson is a big fan of the artist Duggie Fields, who once wrote that maximalism is “minimalism with a plus, plus, plus.” That sentiment is on full display in her 1885 Bridgeport worker’s cottage turned 1980s playland, all in homage to a decade that’s seen a resurgence as of late.
Deciding to strike out on his own after living with roommates for a number of years, Nate Chung embarked on a two-month search that brought him to a bright, open space with 13-foot ceilings. He knew this one had to be his.
“I just felt like this is going to be home,” says Chung. “I love how it has this contrast, this previous history of industry.”
Like so many other major cities, Chicago has its challenges. But spend time here and you’ll start to see why Chicagoans love their city: the clear and open lakefront, affordability, and abundant transportation options. Each neighborhood has something to love, from historic theaters to community gardens to baseball stadiums. There are secrets to discover that make living here fun—like where the chocolate-scented air comes from in River North, how to find the tamale man in Logan Square, and what part of Jackson Park has a cherry blossom grove.
Welcome to the Fulton Market District in the 2010s—a neighborhood simultaneously moving forwards and looking backward with an incredible amount of speed. In the rush to make the new seem lived-in and carefully preserve the bleached bones of this historic neighborhood for the sake of authenticity (“Don’t sanitize the neighborhood,” a Google executive told developer Sterling Bay earlier in the decade), the actual grit and character have been sanded down. In 2019, the neighborhood feels like a funhouse mirror version of its former self.
Chicago developers are making bold plays to turn long-vacant brownfield sites, obsolete industrial corridors, and underutilized historic buildings into megadevelopments. Some critics say that supersized projects lack an authentic, organic feeling. Still, big developments are sometimes the only way to bring new housing, parks, offices, and infrastructure to Chicago’s otherwise lacking locations. Right now, there are 13 major Chicago megadevelopments in the works.
The next decade gives us an opportunity to value buildings and places for more than their good bones or pretty faces, to look more critically at the relationship between preservation and displacement. Buildings and spaces have cultural and civic value created by the people who occupy and use those places; often, those values don’t square with priorities of the real estate industry. It’s a difficult reality, but a reality that we can change.
For years, Will Forrest, a principal at McKinsey & Co., and Mark Smithe, part of the family that runs the Walter E. Smithe furniture company, would pass the house regularly and marvel at its exterior. But Forrest liked their apartment in a converted factory, and made a deal with Smithe to only move if it was into something “architecturally pure.”
When they heard that the home would be coming on the market, they figured out who the broker was and finally saw the interiors in 2014.
“As soon as we did, we mutually decided that this was exactly what we were looking for,” Forrest says. “We didn’t look at any other homes. This was the first one, and we were immediately smitten.”