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Legacy of Luxury
By Neil Harris

High-Rise Historian

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.
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High-Rise Postcards

As landmarks—and, in some cases, travelers’ destinations—along Chicago’s lakefront, Hyde Park high-rises often found their way onto picture postcards. Here are a few from Neil Harris’s collection.
[ view the slideshow ]

Chicagoans know it’s cooler by the lake—in terms of climate and cachet. Adding to the shoreline’s status are a string of vintage luxury high-rise apartments, including a cluster of Hyde Park notables.

Chicago is a lakefront city. For much of its length, a wall of buildings looms over Chicago’s lake-lined parks, beaches, and its most celebrated boulevard, Lake Shore Drive. Except for a quarter-mile stretch that parallels the ribbon of Michigan Avenue office buildings, the western vistas consist largely of apartment houses. Thousands and thousands of windows look out on Lake Michigan, and behind them are the residents of an apartment city. Chicago is also a city of bungalows, and a city of three- and six-flats, and a city of El tracks and warehouses and factories. Yet its glamour lies heavily in those high-rise apartment houses, many of which are more than 80 years old and sport their pinnacled and ornamented fronts with an assurance undiminished by recent stylistic changes. The most luxurious of them boast spaces and features that match the richest fantasies.

The prehistory of these buildings begins in the 1880s and 1890s, during years of enormous growth for the city. Marking a recovery from the Great Fire of 1871, a series of freshly built flats, hotels, and apartment houses beckoned to wealthy residents. This marked a new era for Chicagoans who, like other Americans, had associated respectability with control of vertical space. While attached row houses were entirely acceptable for the fashionable in late 18th- and early 19th-century Eastern cities, living above or below other families signified a loss of control, privacy, and above all, status. For much of the 19th century, and even beyond in certain places, such arrangements were relegated to those without choice or resources. A continuing identification of family stability and civic virtue with rural or small-town life, at least rhetorically, also didn’t help the reputation of the apartment house. It had many prejudices to overcome before cementing the allegiance of the upper middle class. Even after doing so, developers and designers hastened to emphasize, by language, plan, and appearance, the most fundamental domestic associations. “Apartment homes” moved from being an oxymoron to becoming an acceptable reality.

Chicago’s early luxury apartment buildings were not invariably close to the lake. They were still relatively low in height and, while spacious within, contained small numbers of units. Some lacked elevators. As the 19th century became the 20th, the buildings, along with Chicago, began to grow in numbers and refinement. By the time World War I broke out, the city was home to almost two million people, and much of its social elite had made the move north from the avenues of the Near South Side to the Gold Coast of the Near North Side, close to or actually on the newly enhanced lakeshore. After the war the scattered 10- and 12-story apartment buildings were joined by dozens of others—taller, more capacious, still more elaborate, and differently financed and administered.

It was, in fact, during the 1920s that the lines of buildings along Lake Shore Drive—up through Irving Park Road or thereabouts—were filled out, along with the South Side’s more scattered towers. In what remains an astonishing burst of architectural and developmental energy, Chicago received a staggering housing legacy. These buildings were not part of Chicago’s stylistic insurgency—the “Chicago School” vernacular revolt forever associated with Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Le Baron Jenney, and the early buildings of Daniel Burnham and John Root. Few among them demonstrated independence from the architectural styles of the past. They flaunted, instead, the trappings of Continental Europe and “olde” England: turrets, balustrades, swags, garlands, pediments, colonnades, rustications, and flying buttresses festooned their facades and enlivened their silhouettes, earning the contempt of modernists like Lewis Mumford, who wrote in 1927, “Today the architecture of Chicago is lost in a deluge of meaningless vulgarity.” Behind their elaborate facades, these buildings enclosed apartments that were simultaneously spacious, modern, domestic, and expensive: multiroomed, high-ceilinged, soundproofed residences, with views and appointments that excited the respectful awe of newspaper journalists.

This era, of course, came to an abrupt end with the Great Crash of 1929 and the economic depression that followed. During the 1930s and most of the 1940s, private construction, especially luxury apartment building, came to a halt everywhere. Public housing projects were designed for different constituencies. The pent-up housing shortage succeeding World War II, combined with memories of earlier collapse, rent control, and investor caution, expanded federal government involvement with housing, vastly multiplying Federal Housing Authority–insured mortgage loans. These loans stimulated an apartment house construction boom in Chicago and elsewhere. However, federal regulations precluded the lavish room sizes and apartments that had highlighted the earlier luxury market. With exceptions here and there, the apartments of the 1940s through the 1970s, however innovative in construction method, efficient in management, and modern in appearance, and sited as they were on prime pieces of lakefront or near-lakefront property, were tighter, smaller, and much more modest in appearance than their 1920s ancestors. The trade-off of space for location and traditional decorative detail for modernist austerity appeared to satisfy many of the new residents in what some historians have called a democratization of the lakefront. The grand luxury buildings were period pieces, reminders of an increasingly distant past.

Then in the 1980s, and even more in the 1990s, a change occurred. As Chicago’s urban temptations lured suburban émigrés back to the city, as condominiums became instruments of investment, as apartment owners worked to combine separated units, and as building reuse began to shape new tastes, architects and developers started to reclaim some of the ground lost half a century earlier. There were many modifications and compromises, and the eruption of new buildings raised aesthetic and density issues. It was apparent by 20th century’s end that changing expectations had taken hold. Whether the traditional American triad of rise, fall, and resurrection could cover all this was not absolutely certain. However, a third act to the luxury apartment drama seemed to be in course of formation.

Hyde Park–Kenwood

Up to World War I, housing in Hyde Park–Kenwood mixed six-flat buildings, a number of spectacular mansions, and a few luxury hotels. In the 1920s, in the midst of a building boom of sometimes elegant three- and six-flat residences, groups of expensive high-rises and elaborate residential hotels also began to dot the area.

Dozens of smaller hotels were scattered about and extended south to Woodlawn, serving residents who preferred paying for extensive services over the rigors of housekeeping. Along with a group of luxurious apartment buildings, the most elaborate of these small hotels were concentrated east of the Illinois Central tracks, in a strip of land that would run from approximately East 50th Street to the Midway Plaisance. The southward extension on landfill of Lake Shore Drive eased commutation to the Loop, and the lake views and breezes were as satisfying as they were further north.

From Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury, by Neil Harris; with a preface by Sara Paretsky, AM’69, MBA’77, PhD’77. Part of the Urban Domestic Architecture Series, Chicago Apartments is published by Acanthus Press (1-800-827-7614). © 2004.


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