Giving utilitarian two-flats their due

Two-flats get no respect. They're the workhorses of Chicago housing,
but the single-family bungalow gets all the attention. Bungalows are
celebrated for their distinctive Chicago style; without acclaim
two-flats quietly go about their business of sheltering all kinds of
families and generating income for the small investor.

Capone two-flat.jpg

Al Capone's two-flat in Chicago. (Chicago Tribune photo)

Bungalows are cataloged and inventoried, but no one seems to know the number of two-flats gracing Chicago and suburbs. Mayor Richard Daley -- who grew up in a bungalow on South Lowe Avenue -- has put his power and prestige behind the Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative; two-flats have to make it on their own.

Folks who think they are "authentic" Chicagoans rhapsodize about the glories of bungalows, while two-flats have no cachet. No effort is spared to celebrate and preserve the historic role of the bungalow; the two-flat would be allowed to crumble into the dust, if it were not so dependable, utilitarian and indispensable. That's why I was gratified to see Heidi Stevens' fine story, "Two-flat comeback," in the Sunday Tribune's House & Homes section. They've been "rediscovered" as starter abodes and rehab projects in gentrifying neighborhoods. Buy a two-flat, live on the first floor and rent out the upstairs. Could this mean that they're coming into vogue and will finally receive the honors they deserve?

Actually, two-flats have been discovered by folks who rarely venture into unheralded (non-yuppie) neighborhoods, where the value of two-flats has never been forgotten. One such neighborhood is Nortown (West Rogers Park to those of you who only know Chicago by some demographer's map), where I spent half my childhood growing up in a two-flat in the 6400 block of North Maplewood Avenue. Many of the homes there are two-flats, bestowing on my early childhood a sense of envy of "rich" bungalow folks.

Our two-flat was, I suppose, considered ordinary compared with the more elaborate and earlier styles -- graystone, Richardsonian Romanesque and Italianate -- that you find listed in architectural guides. I don't think our style even had a name. Five-sided front bay, a facade of pale yellow (I think) face brick, uncovered front entryway, little ornamentation, raised basement, castlelike parapets, narrow gangway -- in all, a typical, totally serviceable design that eventually was abandoned by a fresher, more "modern" style. The exact ages of our two-flats always were a matter of great debate among us kids on the block, as we argued over whose building would be the first to fall down. As far as I can tell, none have.

We lived on the first floor and three generations of married couples, all in the same family, lived upstairs. I sometimes think of how they must have been glad they weren't on the first floor, from where they would have been subjected to the constant ruckus of the four flying Byrne kids. Thankfully, the upstairs neighbors were there, helping my mother with her toddlers when she had to walk to Devon Avenue to shop or when she just needed a break. There's something special about a two-flat that prompts neighborliness, even close friendships. Not as impersonal as a six-flat or an apartment building. Not as isolated as a bungalow. In a two-flat, two families share the same front door and back porch, increasing their chances of meeting. We shared the basement and the washing machine (actually an old ringer washer).

In many two-flats, a single, extended family lives together on the first and second floors, as my aunt and her Irish family did on the 4700 block of North Campbell Avenue. At our parish, St. Timothy's, two-flats served as the convent. Sometimes, basements of two-flats were finished as offices and rented out, such as the one in Uptown belonging to our family doctor.

Without two-flats, many Chicago neighborhoods would have a different look and feel, the city would have lower densities and it would have consumed greater amounts of farmland. I don't know who came up with the two-flat idea, and because of the lack of scholarship in this area, we may never know. Maybe this will be the inspiration needed to celebrate and document the two-flat, which if it isn't the backbone of the city, it's close to it.

Hooray for the two-flat.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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