Monday, May 9, 2011

L-Court Apartments in Rogers Park

"Tendencies in Apartment House Design: Part VII - Courtyard Plans,"
Frank Choteau Brown, The Architectural Record, Vol. LI, 1922, p.64.
I'm not the first to look at apartment buildings in a systematic manner.  Architect Frank Chouteau Brown illustrated his own categorization of open court buildings in the chart to the right.  He put together a remarkable series of articles dealing with various types of apartments from a space planning and development perspective.  These were published in The Architectural Record in 1921 and 1922.  Given Brown's proximity to the apartment boom of the 1920s these are useful in understanding why these buildings took particular forms.  Much of the analysis below uses his observations as a starting point.
6414-6416 N. Paulina, 1931
What Brown calls Open Half Court I've labeled L-Court. An L-Court can occupy a long, narrow lot, but there isn't really enough space to allow for landscaping, or even to secure sufficient light and views for the units created.  They typically have three entrances, each of which serves 6 units. In some instances developers would add another L-Court to create a U-Court, but if that wasn't the case adjacent construction would often block them in.

To the left are some typical L-Courts in Rogers Park.  (For some reason these examples are all on Estes, but this is just a weird coincidence.)  You can see they all have narrow courts with projecting bays (rectangular, hexagonal or rounded) to take advantage of available light and views. The grey rectangles indicate interior and exterior stairs, which are commonly grouped together to simplify construction.  A narrower secondary court services the back stairs and provides access to the alley.  These all have small front yards which provide a minimal separation from the street. 

A lot with a 170 foot depth and a 50 foot width provides sufficient area to construct one of these buildings.  With 5 or 6 units per floor these buildings generally have 15 to18 units.  If basement units were constructed this adds a few more.  Generally there are no more than 21 units in a building like this. 

I found an  unusual L-Court building at 1059-1103 W. North Shore sited on a larger than typical lot.  In this case the amount of green space really does function like a larger central court.  The lack of complete enclosure gives the property a park-like appearance which is emphasized by a remarkable number of mature trees.

It makes sense to me that the building to the right was constructed in 1916 and the four examples above were all built in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  As the neighborhood became more urbanized, property values increased and developers squeezed more value from each lot.  You can sense a certain balancing process in action, where lot coverage, unit counts, and land costs play against each other.

One of the things that I'm interested in investigating relates to the Chicago Zoning Code of 1923, which regulated the size and type of buildings permitted in various areas.  It seems to me that once minimum standards were established buildings were designed to meet them, rather then exceed them.  I believe courtyard apartments pre-dating the zoning code provided larger units and more green space for their tenants. But it's difficult to prove this.  I don't always trust the building data provided by the Cook County Assessor, which may or may not have accurate construction dates and square footage calculations.

While a perfectly rectilinear lot makes an L-Court easy to plan, there are many irregular lots which were also adapted to the L-Court.  In particular, there are a number of lots adjacent to Clark Street and Sheridan Road, both streets which run at a slight diagonal through the neighborhood.  This often created skewed and tapered lots.  A skewed lot (as seen at 1666-1670 W. Farwell) isn't too difficult to adapt.  In this case the units align with Clark rather than Farwell.  A lot which widens towards the rear is a natural opportunity for an L-Court.  While a typical L-court can normally fit only one unit at the rear, a tapered lot often has enough space for two units.

To the right are two examples of  L-Court combinations.  On the left is the building at 6810-6814 N. Lakewood, with two distinct side courts.  The lot is both wider and shallower than those of the typical L-court buildings.  Rather than providing additional green space for the tenants the design has used a double-loading technique to create 32 units with narrow courts.  Without a way to easily provide secondary exits the architect had to run corridors from the central stairwells to the exterior.  These interior courts accommodate light wells, but the lack of rear exposure probably impacts their air flow and limits their light.

The examples above on Sherwin are the best I found showing how an L-Court becomes a U-Court. The building on the right (1413-1415 W. Sherwin) was built in 1917.  The building on the left (1407-1411 W. Sherwin) was built in 1926.  Even in plan you can see the difference in design and configuration.  Nevertheless, the architect of the later building carefully matched the size and ornamentation of the curved bays of the interior court to create a consistent character for both buildings.  They now appear to be under common ownership.  There are other examples in the neighborhood which were constructed closer in time.  These are difficult to identify if you don't have access to a map showing property lines.  Commonly the two L-Courts are identical in design but with different colors of face brick.

I almost skipped the L-Court building when I was organizing this project.  They really don't create the outdoor space I imagine when I think of a courtyard building.  But I'm glad I didn't.  They have some important qualities, and they help to understand the organizing principles of the larger courtyard buildings.  The next entry in this series will focus on the U-Court, which is what most people think of as a true courtyard building.

As a final note, the building footprints were re-drawn from Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.  The lot sizes were derived from the City of Chicago 80-acre maps, which are available through the online Chicago Zoning Map.  Dates of construction are taken from the Cook County Assessor's website.


  1. Nice piece. I delivered the Chicago American newspaper to some of those buildings in the late 1960s and early '70s, walking those narrow sidewalks to the back units. The drawings are great, especially the slanted lots on Farwell.