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High-Rise Historian

image:  Neil Harris
Dan Dry

Neil Harris didn’t plan to write a book about Chicago’s luxury apartment buildings. But when Acanthus Press, which specializes in volumes on domestic architecture, approached him, the Preston and Sterling Morton professor in history found it fairly easy to say yes.

Not only has he lived in several of Hyde Park’s most distinctive high-rises in the course of the last 35 years, but he’s also the author of Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages (Yale University Press, 1999), an examination of buildings’ life cycles.

Harris, who researched his book’s 100 subjects by, among other things, “reading every Sunday real-estate section in the Tribune,” plowing through about 15 years of back issues, notes that aspects of the high-rise boom reflected between-the-wars society: “All of the buildings were racially restricted, and some were religiously restricted—although less often in Hyde Park.”

Milestones in an apartment house’s life cycle can be murky, he laments. “When is a building begun—with the first shovelful of dirt? With a blueprint? When is a building finished—when the first person moves in? When everyone is in?” And, like their occupants, the high-rises faced some unexpected turns. “Financed in ways that assumed they’d be fully sold out,” Harris says, a fair share went belly-up in the wake of the Depression, spending decades as rentals before the 1980s condo craze.—M.R.Y.


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