Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mirrored Courtyards on Farwell

Parapet Detail, 1425-1433 W. Farwell
 A few years ago I found an amazing book called "The Concise Townscape" by Gordon Cullen. This
is a collection of essays published in 1961 and adapted from a series of articles printed in The Architectural Review after WWII.  Cullen was English, and worked as an illustrator, townscape consultant and planner.  His book is an extended exercise in documenting built environments and drawing out urban design principles which could inform the work of planners and architects.  Knowing these studies were created in the aftermath of the war gives a certain intensity to his work. Just to give a quick impression, his photos and graphics illustrate unusual concepts, including viscosity, insubstantial space, thereness, and deflection.  And there are many many more.

When I finished the book I wanted to recreate it using examples from my neighborhood to illustrate the dozens of principles Cullen identified.  It was a stretch.  Actually, it was impossible.  There's a big difference between a 120 year-old Chicago neighborhood built on a grid and a medieval English town (OK, multiple towns) which developed over hundreds of years.  But the exercise itself had some value, and it affected how I looked at the neighborhood.  I began to identify some interesting things I had never noticed before. 

Often  in a gridded city with rectilinear lots it's the negative space which creates unique effects.  This is never more true than with courtyard buildings, which create their own landscape and interior plaza, typically in densely developed neighborhoods.  Rogers Park is a mecca of courtyard buildings, with nearly 200 scattered throughout the neighborhood (yes, I've counted).  As far as I know, no one has done a definitive study of this building type.  While this is on my drawing board for the future, I want to take a closer look at a condition that's relatively rare--  two courtyard buildings of comparable size and character mirroring each other across a street, creating a secondary, axial path in the center of a block. This takes us to Farwell Avenue, directly west of the Red Line elevated train.

You can appreciate these courtyards best while standing in the middle of the street (briefly please).  Suddenly you're in a different city, where the streets are narrow and the buildings loom above.  There's a sense of enclosure and intricacy not usually found in Rogers Park (note the Cullenesque reference words!). I imagine the most interesting views would be from the third floor from the back of the buildings, where you can appreciate the entire 380 foot combined courtyard. 

Was this alignment accidental, or were larger forces of design and organization  at work within the grid? But first maybe a closer look at the spaces defined by the buildings.

The buildings themselves are so similar that it makes sense to talk about both of them at the same time.  Both are built on lots with 100' frontages and 175' in depth, and are 3 stories with a raised basement.  Both use a combination of face brick and stone (or cast stone) ornamental surrounds and accents.  They make use of false mansard roofs with Italian tile and have castellated bays that project into the courtyard, providing additional light as well as views to the street.   Both were built within a year of each other, 1422-1430 in 1927 and 1425-1433 in 1926.  And the final argument for intent rather than accident, both were designed by architect Anthony H. Quitsow. 

Some cursory online research (mostly the Chicago Tribune) shows that Quitsow was basically a specialist in the design of large, multi-unit buildings with eclectic details.  There are several in Rogers Park, and a number remaining in Evanston, just to the north. He's an architect who might be identified as typical of  the period, someone who worked with builders and developers to provide solid, predictable results with good curb appeal.  Not much information about him, except that he had offices downtown and at some point became a developer himself. 
Parapet Detail 1422-1430 W. Farwell

Why this block went from entirely single family homes in 1914 to accomodating several large, multi-unit buildings by 1937 (dates of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps) is difficult to say precisely, but it would make sense in the larger context of the neighborhood.  The 1920s saw Rogers Park develop from a suburban enclave to an urban neighborhood due to improved transportation (especially the elevated train) and an influx of new residents.  And there was an increasing acceptability of living in large multi-unit buildings, which had been considered "anti-family" by the previous generation.  A larger scale of residential development had become possible due to improved financial instruments, more standardized construction, and plenty of skilled (and cheap) labor.

But did Quitsow anticipate that combining courtyards (at least perceptually) would create a unique design feature?  Or did he just draw up the buildings based on the most profitable use of the lots permitted by city codes?  I like to think that both were considered and had their impact on the final result.  But it hardly matters.  Even in a neighborhood with limited history and tighly controlled development there will still be fortunate (and sometimes unfortunate) accidents.  I intend to explore a few more of these in the coming months.


  1. I live on this block and never fully realized the similarities in these buildings. Thanks.

  2. Did you notice I eliminated the huge yew tree in the court on the north? That'll be a future posting I'll title- Insane Landscaping in Rogers Park.

  3. Thanks Jyoti! I'm going to have one that's a little different from my usual stuff. This week or next.