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A Walk Through History: Old town and Architecture

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Monica Fazekas

As a current senior studying journalism at DePaul, I am also a prospective law student. I am excited to graduate but I will miss the city.


While taking a walk down any of the side streets in Old Town, it is inevitable that you will see a wide variety of houses. Some are small; some are large. Some are made of wood while others were constructed of brick.

Either way, each house is unique and, when viewed in the larger sense of the Old Town community, each house contributes to the diversity the neighborhood's landscape.

I came upon this realization as I walked up and down the streets looking for something new to write about. But, it wasn't until I stopped to appreciate the beauty of these houses that I realized how interesting each one really was.

I couldn't help but wonder: what makes each house so distinct from the next?

My question was soon answered as I opened Shirley Baugher's "At Home in Our Old Town: Every House Has a Story." In her second chapter, Baugher explores the various architectural designs that the houses in Old Town were derived from.

The Balloon Frame Cottage was a prime example of the typical house in the early-to-mid 1800's. At this time, houses were built by tradesmen. The simplicity of the Balloon Frame structure allowed houses to be built with a hammer and saw in just a few weeks.

Unfortunately, the Great Chicago Fire of 1817 burned down all of the Balloon Frame Cottages in the neighborhood. But, as mentioned in A Walk Through History: Old Town and The Great Chicago Fire, the community was quick to begin rebuilding their lives.

The new houses that emerged developed a pattern. As Baugher explains, "The typical Balloon Frame Cottage was one and one-half stories high and was built on a log or brick foundation. The first floor was used for storage. Steep stairs led to a second level which contained the living quarters. A peaked roof topped the structure in front and back."

The Frame House Style also became a popular architectural design in Old Town. While it was extremely similar to that of the Balloon Frame Cottage, it was slightly larger and came to represent the standard home for a working man.

Baugher explains that the Frame House "has a wood frame and is covered with clapboard siding or shingles. Tall and narrow, this frame style structure consists of two or two and one-half stories and looks a little like a farm house with slightly overhanging wooden eaves and simple wood trim."

In the 1880's, two new styles of houses emerged in Old Town: the Queen Anne and the Italianate Villa. Based off of country houses and Elizabethan architecture, Queen Anne houses include elements of gothic, renaissance and colonial characteristics. As such, the name "Queen Anne" was chosen to represent these houses because of its romantic nature.

With three stories and high stoops, this style is described as using "contrasting materials and shapes, including brick, stone, stucco, clapboard siding, projections and corner turrets. Decorative terra-cotta moldings and tile with small, classically derived patterns are integral elements of the style."

Finally, Italianate Villas were also based off of the country design. Slightly different from the other architectural designs in Old Town, Baugher states that this style "is characterized by low-pitched, heavily bracketed roofs, an asymmetrical informal plan, square towers, and, often, round-arched windows."

Apartment houses and coach houses are also present in the Old Town community. As they were built after the Chicago Fire, these houses were built of brick. Additionally, while they were only built a few stories high, the apartment houses often looked like mansions compared to their neighbors.

As explored through the various types of architectural styles here, the Old Town neighborhood portrays great diversity and variety in their landscape.

And, it is not difficult to find. Simply walk down any side street in the neighborhood and you can see for yourself the beautiful designs that embody the community.



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