Bricks into gems

Chicago's neighborhoods are filled with bungalows. Now they're getting their due.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Bill Faude and his wife, Julie Michaelson, bought a bungalow on Chicago's North Side nearly three years ago because they liked the sturdy brick home, its surprising spaciousness, and the craftsmanship evident throughout the house.

What they have since realized is that they also purchased a piece of Chicago history. "This is kind of Chicago's signature home," Mr. Faude says.

In this city of first-rate architecture, some of the world's tallest buildings, and a history that includes great architects such as Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright, the humble bungalow is finally getting its due.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

While a bungalow is generally defined as a small house or cottage, and styles vary around the United States, most Chicago bungalows have certain distinctive features. They are 1-1/2-story brick structures with pitched, overhanging roofs, sheltered entrances, full basements, and sun porches or living rooms in the front.

The first floor of a bungalow has roughly 1,200 square feet, with a living room, dining room, kitchen, and three bedrooms. But because bungalows have full basements and small attics, usable square footage can double if the storage space is converted into rooms.

Designed in the Arts and Crafts style, the homes contain prominent detailed windows, intricate woodwork, and Art Deco details throughout.

"They have a lot of innate qualities that are worth appreciating," says Charles Shanabruch, executive director of the Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative, a city-run program intended to help preserve the distinctive houses. "They have a lot more character than what people would find in a tract home."

"They are so much head and shoulders above the craftsmanship you're going to find in a new, middle-class house," says Paul Duchscherer, an interior design consultant in San Francisco who has written three books on bungalows. "They just ooze charm and character."

The bungalow belt

Bungalows account for nearly one-third of Chicago's single-family homes, and hundreds of thousands of mostly middle- and working-class people have called the "bungalow belt" home during the past century. This belt, which includes dozens of neighborhoods, is essentially a semicircle that separates downtown and the lakefront from the suburbs.

"In many neighborhoods [bungalows] are the backbone of the community," says Jack Markowski, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing. "Whole neighborhoods were developed with this type of housing."

Bungalow building began in the early 20th century and continued through the post-World War I era, when the city was booming. They provided a way out of the congestion and tenements of the inner city for working-class families, many of whom were immigrants.

The "bungalow belt" was not limited to the working class, though. Many of the city's business and political elite lived in bungalows, including the Daley family. Mayor Richard M. Daley was raised in a bungalow in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the city's Southwest Side with his six siblings. And his mother, Eleanor "Sis" Daley, wife of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and the city's unofficial matriarch, continued living there until her death in February.

In the early 1900s, Mr. Shanabruch says, bungalows sold for about $5,000; some cost even less. Today they sell for a range of prices. Homes that haven't been taken care of in working-class or lower-middle-class neighborhoods could sell for less than $100,000. A refurbished bungalow in an upscale North Side neighborhood may cost several hundred thousand dollars. A large bungalow on a corner lot might bring more than half a million dollars.

Chicago's bungalows are not associated with any specific architect, says Joseph Bigott, a professor of history at Purdue University Calumet and author of the book "From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago.

The bungalows incorporate characteristics from Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie-style homes, Victorian homes, and other styles, "scaled down to first-time buyers," according to Scott Sonoc, a Chicago architect and consultant to the bungalow association.

No cookie-cutter sameness

While Chicago bungalows may look similar from afar, each one has its own distinctive attributes. "You can stand on a block of bungalows and scan the street and get a sense of uniformity," Mr. Sonoc notes. "But then you can walk down that street and look at each building, and every single one will have its own unique details."

City officials are thinking about creating a historic district of bungalow homes. But they had more than history in mind when they launched their Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative in the fall of 2000. Their goal was not just to help preserve the 80,000-some homes that remain, but to revitalize entire neighborhoods.

The bungalow initiative provides vouchers, matching grants, and tax breaks to those who want to rehab or upgrade their bungalows. Owners must follow design guidelines and have their homes registered as historic bungalows with the initiative in order to be eligible for such assistance. So far, 3,500 bungalows have been certified.

The city has been a facilitator in all this, coordinating with the state as well as banks and businesses to set up the grants. For instance, the Illinois Housing Development Authority offers grants of up to $5,000 to help pay for home improvements and repairs. Local banks are offering gifts equal to 4 percent of a buyer's mortgage that can be used for down payment and closing costs. There is potential for federal income-tax credits up to $2,000. And in conjunction with businesses such as Home Depot, $1,000 vouchers are offered for the purchase of energy-efficient appliances.

Faude and his wife took advantage of those financial incentives to replace the front windows in their home and have also attended seminars sponsored by the bungalow initiative, gaining an appreciation for the special character of their home and the role the bungalow played in the history of Chicago.

"We would never tear this place down, and if we move we'll look to sell it to someone who can appreciate it," he says.

The city has had to overcome some misconceptions about bungalows. They look small from the street and may be perceived as "old-fashioned or stodgy," Mr. Markowski says. "That's the effort today, to understand what you do have."

Will Taylor had no such misconceptions when he and his wife, Grace, were shopping for a home in the mid-1960s in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, where bungalows are the main housing stock. He knew they were spacious and well built.

"You can't hear somebody talking in the back unless they're awfully loud," Mr. Taylor says as he sits in his ample living room on a recent afternoon. "The new homes, you can hear somebody sneeze in them."

Taylor, a retired postal employee, bought his brown brick bungalow for $18,500 and has made only minor cosmetic changes over the years. Every home on his block except for two is a bungalow. "You just don't find houses today that are built like these houses," he says.

That's almost a mantra among bungalow owners.

"It's not slick, it's substantial," Faude says. "In some respects, that's what Chicago's like.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...