Chicago: A History of Real Estate
today at 1:48 pm
As we continue quarantine in our sacred spaces and while the streets have slowed, the parks and public spaces have closed, I can’t help but think of the built environment of Chicago and how there’s such a rich history in building types, layout, city-planning and home styles.
In every city, there’s usually an event that influences the style of real property which has a profound impact on construction and building within the city. In our city, this was The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 spanning three days in early October, destroying 18,000 edifices, killing roughly 300 people and displacing more than 100,000 residents from their homes. The fire was rumored to start in a barn just southwest of the city, and rapidly spread east and north due to a combination of dry, hot and windy conditions; additionally the primary building material during that time was wood, creating a condition ripe for the area’s catastrophic event. This crisis would change the city-planning strategy and building code to create a stronger and more resilient built environment that would certainly thwart a future fire of this magnitude.
After the fire smoldered and extinguished, primarily by rainfall and breaks in the built environment, the damage was found to span over 2,000 acres causing $222M in damage then, or $4.7B in today’s dollars. As Chicago recovered from this devastating fire, donations came in from all around the country, while a focused look on Chicago’s building codes created a better standard for fire protection. Prominent architects were drawn to the city to help the re-build of Chicago and included Dankmar Adler, a German-born architect known for his co-design of the Romanesque Auditorium Building that is now part of Roosevelt University and Daniel Burnham, an architect and urban planner from New York, most known for his work on the Montauk Block, a 10-story building erected in 1891, which utilized an innovative concrete-footing foundation to allow taller construction. John Wellborn Root, another architect of the re-build and Georgia-born civil engineer was cited for his work on this commercial marvel. This building, through its use of hollow-tile sub-floor and encasement of steel columns and wrought-iron floor beams, joined to create a fire-proof edifice, a building marvel at the time.
William Holabird, also a New York-born architect, was part of the Chicago School, a group of architects and engineers who promoted the commercial style; this modern technology pushed innovative skyscraper design. Holabird and designer William Le Baron Jenney worked together as members of the Chicago School to express this design of building. Jenney would design the Home Insurance Building erected in 1885, while Holabird implemented the steel skeleton superstructure. This building, although demolished in 1931, is argued by many real estate enthusiasts and scholars to be the world’s first skyscraper.
Finally, Louis Sullivan, an architect that hailed from Boston, created not only residential designs, but also was a major pioneer of the commercial style of architecture. Famed Chicago designer, Frank Lloyd Wright also was Sullivan’s understudy and spent 6 years as his apprentice. Wright would go on to make a name for himself and design structures that still have lasting impact today.
On the residential front, Chicago has several home styles that are prevalent in the built environment. During the city’s building boom of the early 20th century, the Chicago Bungalow was a home style that was popular due to its utilitarian arts and crafts focus, large living space and overall geometric layout that lends itself to the standard 25’ x 125’ land parcel. These homes are primarily made of decorative brick in the front of the dwelling and Chicago common brick on each side and sometimes rear of the home.
The American Four Square home is also a style frequented in Chicago’s urban landscape that is a nod to the Craftsman and Prairie School design style. The Prairie School design was focused on the horizontal nature of America’s native prairie scene, while the craftsman style honors the arts and crafts movement which began in 1880 and continued through the 1920s.
The Worker’s Cottage is another style of home that is plentiful in the city. Built from readily available materials, either brick or wood, these cottages have a first floor that is raised above grade while the structure is 1 ½ stories in height with an A-frame roof line. The raised 1st floor made space for a garden unit to be rented to another family and allowed maximization of economic prudence for the owner.
The Greystone was a style of home that gained popularity in the 1890s; Bedford limestone was readily available in the area and was a great option for those who wanted a home that touted more opulence and grandeur during the rebuild that followed The Great Chicago Fire. Built primarily in a Neoclassical or Romanesque style, these homes were large in square footage and appealed not only to the wealthy who utilized these structures as single family homes, but also other classes that utilized the homes to include two, three or even four families per structure.
The Queen Anne home was popular in Chicago’s urban landscape in the late 1800s and was a nod to the Victorian style popular among some in the middle class. These homes are rather ornamental and include towers, decorative spindles, gables, a myriad of textures and sometimes classically-columned porches. This exterior ornamental style continued into the home’s interior and included decorative wood, textured wallpaper, embellished tile and fine art.
The Two-Flat comprises roughly 30 percent of Chicago’s built environment and was primarily erected in the first quarter of the 20th century. Modest in appointment, the Two-Flat features an apartment on each level with one entry and had an exterior façade of brick, wood or stone. This building type was erected in response to the increasing population that began to inhabit Chicago at the time and was intended to increase the amount of families that could live within the standard Chicago lot. This type of structure was also built to benefit the future economics of the live-in owner. Similarly, the Three and Four-Flat had this same philosophy of construction and economic outlook.
Continue to enjoy being home and let’s appreciate Chicago’s built environment for what it is: a city of buildings, land and homes of varied sizes, styles, interpretations and influences. Take a look at your own home and ponder how one can honor the style and focus that was intended during Chicago’s building boom. Enjoy home, builders!