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Houses in the Sky

[Archive] The evolution of Chicago’s apartment blocks

First published in AR October 1977, this piece was republished online in August 2015

‘This is the age of the apartment,’ said decorator Elsie de Wolfe in her 1913 book, The House in Good Taste. ‘Modern women demand simplified living, and the apartment reduces the mechanical business of living to its lowest terms. We have just so much time, so much money and so much strength, and it behoves us to make the best of it. Why should we give our time and strength to drudgery, when our housework were better and more economically done by machinery and co-operation? The apartment is the solution of the living problems of the city. The modern apartment is an amazing illustration of the rapid development of an idea. The larger ones are quite as magnificent as any houses could be. I have recently furnished a Chicago apartment that included large and small salons, a huge conservatory, and a great group of superb rooms that are worthy of a palace. Three distinct periods occur in the development of the elevator apartment building in Chicago: Period One, 1880-1893, falls between the depressions of the seventies and the nineties when there was little building in the city; Period Two, 1900-1930, was marked by the development of an apartment type unique to this city; Period Three begins with the construction which followed World War II.

Period One begins with a period of experimentation as architects and builders began to work with the taller buildings that were made possible by the elevator; and ended with a wave of speculative apartment building occasioned by the approach of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Apartments that could be converted into hotels during the Exposition and deconverted at its conclusion were built in all parts of the city. In form they resembled the commercial structures of the time with their plain wall surfaces, many bay windows and as much window area in proportion to the wall as was possible. The desire to provide an .outside exposure for each room was only attainable through the use of small light wells and courts which caused these apartments to resemble tenement housing behind their imposing facades. The stock market panic of 1893 put a halt to building for several years.

During Period Two many apartments were built, both to the north and south of the central city, that overlooked Lake Michigan. The most cohesive group of apartments built during this boom period ending in 1930 was built just north of the central business district and the Chicago River, in that small amount of lakefront now referred to as the ‘Gold Coast’. Following the Chicago Fire this area developed, in response to urban growth and the promotional efforts of the Potter Palmer estates, into some of the most valuable, as well as fashionable, residential property in Chicago. At the turn of the century the northern segment of Lake Shore Drive in this area was lined with large Single-family detached houses. Change began in 1900 with the completion of the ‘Raymond,’ an eight-storey building designed by Benjamin Howard Marshall. The building was the first tall structure in the Gold Coast area.


View north along Michigan Avenue to the Lake Shore Drive curve at the Drake Hotel in 1923, North Lake Shore Drive along Lake Michigan to the left of the Drake, East Lake Shore Drive to the right. New land to the east of the Drake not yet built up while lake from north of Drake still has many single family dewlling

Six years later the ‘Marshall’, named after its architect, B. H. Marshall, was constructed on Lake Shore Drive. The subsequent construction in 1910 of Howard van Doren Shaw’s 1130 North Lake Shore Drive, Marshall and Fox’s 999 North Lake Shore Drive in 1912, and Marshall’s 1550 North State Parkway in 1918 indicated that the ‘Gold Coast’ apartment had evolved into a standardised type unique to the area. High cost of lakefront property dictated that the structure would be long and narrow with the narrow Side on the lake. Living rooms overlooked the lake while bedrooms and service facilities were in the long section away from the lake. Although some of the earlier building were ornamented in a manner similar to the Parisian apartments that were frequently illustrated in us architectural periodicals in the early years of this century, most used ornament from a variety of sources placed on the lower storeys and the upper segments of the building. The mid-sections usually were unornamented.

At times there would be attempts to break up the structures’ apparent height with horizontal banding or balconies. Although the ornamental elements were frequently ordered from catalogues and used on buildings for which there was no past precedent, there is a visual consistency that occurs among the apartments here due partially to similarities of residential scale and similarity of architectural training during the period. All of these buildings are characterised by a restrained sumptuosity no doubt calculated to attract without offending permanent tenants, a situation unlike that of hotels of the period which had to use the most obviously lavish and fashionable ornament to attract a transient occupant. In keeping with the still largely single-family area, apartments attempted to suggest a feeling of domestic scale by concentrating ornament on the lower storeys where it would attract people to look at it rather than at the building’s height.

The opening of the new Michigan Avenue Bridge in 1920 and the completion of the Drake Hotel in the same year mark the beginning of the building boom of the twenties. After the opening of the bridge and the widening of Michigan Avenue, access to the area became very convenient and the hotel, located at the curve dividing North from East Lake Shore Drive, gave a visual focus to the area.


A full page advertisement from A Portfolio of Fine Apartment Houses, 1929

Initial development took place in the recently laid out properties on the land to the east of the Drake Hotel. As this land had been laid out in fifty-foot widths, apartments here tend to be wider than those built on North Lake Shore Drive where narrower property lines and a different owner for each property made it difficult to assemble large blocks of land. The initial difficulty in assembling land on the northern drive kept developers away until the cost per front foot had increased to the point where it was financially rewarding to assemble enough property to build apartments.

Three basic types of plan occur in ‘Gold coast’ apartments: the isolated ‘block’, rectangular in plan with exposures on all four sides; the ‘corner building, an elongated rectangle in plan with the narrow end on the lake and the long side running down a side street allowing unobstructed exposures on two sides; and the ‘T’ building in the inside of the block, ‘T’ shape in plan with the crossbar fronting on the lake front and the body of the T containing the bedroom and service areas located away from the lake and centred in the back of the property where it is exposed to light and air on three sides. Only a few changes between earlier buildings and those built in the end of the twenties can be noticed. Buildings get taller as rising costs make it necessary to accommodate more tenants for a building to be profitable to operate. In tenor volumes decrease in size, also as part of the efforts to maximise the developer’s return on his. investment. Vocabulary of ornament inuse on the upper and lower storeys of the apartment buildings remains the same and the ‘modernistic’ ornament so popular elsewhere in Chicago is hardly to be seen along the ‘Gold Coast’. Once the formula for apartments that would satisfy the needs of the tenants had been settled there would seem to be little reason to be attracted to the new styles. Building sharply dropped in this area following the stock market crash of 1929 and construction did not resume on any scale until after the end of World War II, and new buildings were of the Period Three Variety.

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