Chicago’s “most common” contribution to architecture deserves a tour

In the dozen or so years I’ve been a Chicago Greeter, my tours have stayed near the lakefront — the Loop, the South Loop, Prairie Avenue, Andersonville, Argyle Street, Graceland Cemetery, Lincoln Park Zoo. It’s familiar territory, since I’ve lived within walking distance of the lake for nearly 30 years and rarely venture west of Ashland Avenue.

Recently reading The Chicago Bungalow, a book published by the then Chicago Architecture Foundation in 2001, made me realize what an incomplete picture I give when talking about the skyscraper as Chicago’s contribution to architecture.

“[T]he Chicago architectural contribution most common to the city is one that is attached to no particular architect or single home but to thousands of them — the Chicago Bungalow,” says the book’s first paragraph.

Now the bungalow, as many of you know, is not unique to Chicago. Basically a modest 1½ story residence with a sloped roof, the style housed working-class families across the country. I grew up in a 1927 bungalow in Joliet. But it differed from the Chicago Bungalow. What makes the Chicago Bungalow deserving of a capital B are certain characteristics, including a brick exterior, an off-center front porch and entrance, and a rectangular shape (narrower than it is long) that fits on a typical Chicago lot.

Given my roots in a bungalow and in the working class, I’m surprised that local bungalows didn’t attract my attention sooner. That’s likely because you have to go outside the lakefront neighborhoods to realize how much they dominate Chicago’s built environment. There are few bungalows in the parts of Chicago that were developed before 1910. What came to be called “The Bungalow Belt” emerged between 1910 and 1940 in a crescent shape on the outskirts of the central city. More than 80,000 bungalows — one-third of Chicago’s single-family housing stock — went up in areas developed for working-class people seeking to leave the city’s core.

I decided to put together a Chicago Bungalow tour because of their historical significance. Bungalows offered home ownership to the working class for the first time. The simple homes offered affordable comfort. Well-built and sturdy, they had modern conveniences such as plumbing, electricity, and heating; lots of natural light; warmth in the winter; and thoughtful, utilitarian design. Moving into a bungalow meant upward mobility.

While ethnic neighborhoods were characteristic of the inner city, class-based neighborhoods became more common in the Bungalow Belt. Newly constructed bungalows in Portage Park — the neighborhood I chose for a tour — cost between $5,000 and $6,500, which would have been manageable for working-class families in the 1920s, according to The Chicago Bungalow. Insurance companies, building and loan associations, and banks created low-cost mortgages so that people could buy a bungalow for the cost of renting.

But what would I show people on a two-hour walk? Isn’t the rap against bungalows that they look pretty much alike, that seeing block after block of bungalows is monotonous?

Not true. Although bungalows were constructed from stock plans, their exteriors were individualized by using brick in multiple colors and patterns and creating different designs with the limestone trim. Since bungalows differed more on the outside than the inside, I could give a tour even without being able to take people into a home. Showing a typical floor plan and photos from The Chicago Bungalow could take care of the interior. On the exteriors, differences in brick and limestone, the positioning of the front porch and entrance, and the windows (bay windows, leaded-glass windows, dormer windows) are fodder for comparison. We could also look for the rare clay tile roofs (most bungalow roofs were asphalt singles) and original garages.

Choosing from among the 13 Chicago Bungalow Historic Districts for a tour, I settled on the one in Portage Park because it’s easy to reach from the Loop on public transportation and walkable, with dozens of bungalows on a few contiguous blocks. The district is well preserved, attesting to the pride owners continued to take in their bungalows even as other styles and bigger houses became the stuff of prospective homeowners’ dreams.

Now when visitors ask for an architecture or a Chicago history tour, I can offer the Chicago Bungalow as an option. Having been persuaded that little else says Chicago so well, I hope that the Chicago Bungalow lands on many visitors’ must-see lists.

*****

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  • Try looking into the Mayfair Area of the city, closer to Foster..
    btw Pulaski and Kedzie, I think it’s called Mayfair Manor.
    Lots of Bungalows.

  • Yes, North Mayfair is another of the 13 bungalow historic districts.

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  • Thank you.

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