Lots of Chicago-area buildings make you stop and ask: “What’s that building?” WBEZ’s Reset is collecting the stories behind them!
When the Chicago housing department recently unveiled the city’s biggest-ever package of incentives for affordable housing, it was the latest in a decades-long effort.
In many ways, history is repeating itself. A century ago, a project led by some of the city’s top business executives had the same goal: build attractive, affordable homes that working people who aren’t affluent can afford to buy or rent.
On 40 acres — six square blocks from Wabash to Indiana avenues, 87th to 89th streets — the Chicago Housing Association set out to build 175 homes modeled on quaint houses in England. Starting in 1919, the Chicago Housing Association built both freestanding single-families and double-peaked attached twin houses, selling them at the cost of construction. A 1919 advertisement for the project in the Chicago Tribune said it would “improve housing conditions in Chicago and encourage small wage earners to acquire and own their homes.”
More than 100 of these homes still stand on those blocks today. Because the Garden Homes blocks fit seamlessly into Chicago’s ubiquitous grid, you might not realize you’ve entered an unusual, pioneering bit of the city. But you’ll almost certainly notice that something is special here, particularly because of those double-peaked houses.
The walls were built of “hollow tile,” or large clay blocks like square doughnuts with a hole in the middle. This type of construction was considered inexpensive, quick and good for insulation due to the air cavities in the brick, wrote architectural historian Jean Guarino in a 2004 nomination to put the Garden Homes on the National Register of Historic Places.
The exterior was brick, timber and stucco, deployed in various ways like “tipped” roof lines and half-timbering. The houses had five rooms, laid out in one of eight floor plans, according to Guarino.
Wandering the Garden Homes blocks today, it’s fascinating to see how these century-old homes have evolved. Some still have their original stucco and brick; some have been clad in aluminum siding, the residential shrinkwrap of the 20th century.
There have been porches and front rooms tacked onto the front of several. Occasionally, you can spot where stucco has fallen away and you can see the hollow tile inside.
The double-peaked houses are particularly fun to look at, because in some cases, the house on the left is one color and the right another, or one half has aluminum siding and the other doesn’t.
Then there are the ones that have mutated, where two five-room houses have been joined together by an addition in between. Occasionally, just one half of a double-peaked twin still stands.
Home ownership for low wage workers
The double-peaked design is unique in the city, but not in the larger region. About a dozen miles southeast, in East Chicago, Ind., the double-peaked style shows up in the company town of Marktown.
Like the homes in Marktown, the Garden Homes were part of a popular movement around the country known as Own-Your-Own-Home, where high-level business executives provided affordable housing for workers. At least two big factories, supplying hundreds of jobs, were being built nearby when the Garden Homes project launched, and a streetcar line on State Street could connect workers to jobs in the stockyards, downtown and elsewhere in the city.
In Chicago, a vocal leader of this concept was Benjamin Rosenthal, who owned many businesses (including a mail-order women’s hats and clothing company, magazine publishing and real estate), organized the Chicago Housing Association, and spearheaded the Garden Homes project.
In a 1920 speech that was distributed to newspapers nationwide, he said half a million people in Chicago were “living like pigs in the slum districts,” and this could only lead to moral decline.
“The number of young people whose downfall is due wholly to the dangerously intimate contact into which they are forced by the lack of adequate rooms or decent living conditions is astounding,” he’s quoted as saying.
Rosenthal was likely only speaking of white people. There’s evidence that the Garden Homes were only available to white families.
This was common throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods and suburbs for decades. In fact, racially restrictive deeds and covenants — legally binding documents used to keep white people from selling or renting homes to Black people — can be found on deeds from throughout the 20th century.
One telling piece of evidence is a November 1919 newspaper ad where the Garden Homes’ builders describe the 40-acre project in bold print as “a restricted tract.” A decade after the homes were built, Chatham was still 97% white.
The business leaders who signed on to Rosenthal’s project included: meat packer J. Ogden Armour, chewing gum king William Wrigley Jr., brewing magnate Charles Wacker, advertising executive Albert Lasker and lumber baron Herman Hettler. They contributed a total of $750,000, the equivalent of more than $12 million today. The group was later joined by Julius Rosenwald of Sears and Louis Swift of Chicago’s other meat packing empire.
The plan originally included a business district on the western edge of the project, but none of that appears to have been built. Rosenthal expected his association to go on to build 10,000 homes in the next five years, but the 175 in the West Chesterfield section of Chatham are all they completed — making the unique design all the more distinctive in Chicago’s vast repository of residential architecture.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.
Vashon Jordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.