Thursday, July 12, 2012

7405-7427 N. Wolcott, Defense Housing, 1942

On the corner of Wolcott and Fargo there's a collection of eight identitical duplexes arranged around two common courts. The simple massing and limited detailing suggests public housing.  That's not far from the mark, but the story is a bit more complex.

Even though the United States didn't enter WWII until 1941, the writing was on the wall much earlier.  As the country prepared to shift into full-scale wartime production, a huge deficit in housing needed to be addressed.

Let's say you're a government and need to build some housing ASAP or risk losing the biggest war in all of human history.  Here are a few methods you might consider:

1. Buy land and build permanent homes. Or entire neighborhoods.  Or entire cities.
2. Build temporary homes.
3. Prioritize materials for war-related private projects.
4. Provide financial incentives for property owners to create additional units in existing buildings. 

In the end the Federal government did all of these things and more.  Numerous agencies were created to administer these programs, some with Congressional authorization and some without.  It wasn't unusual for the administration of one program to be folded into another, based on funding and legislation.  There must be historians who specialize in Federal housing policy, but I don't envy them. 

The Office of Production Manangement (OPM) was responsible for regulating building materials.  If a project was important to the war effort, it would receive a priority rating.  If it didn't have a priority rating it probably wouldn't get built.  Chicago was one of 275 "defense areas" identified as appropriate for the development of war housing. 

The most important restriction placed on defense housing was a $6,000 price cap per unit.  Chicago's City Council immediately protested this limitation, arguing that the higher cost of land in Chicago would send most of these projects to the suburbs.  The suburbs received their share of defense housing, but many projects did eventually locate in the city, particularly near the city limits where cheap undeveloped land could be found.
Looking East from N.Wolcott.  Behind the trees are the El and Metra embankments.
The cap forced some Chicago builders to vary from the small detached single family residences commonly built as defense housing.  Instead, developers looked for ways to combine units into larger buildings on several lots, allowing them to bring down costs through an economy of scale.  I haven't yet confirmed this, but I suspect the development regulations of Chicago were relaxed at this time to allow greater flexiblity in the placement of multi-unit buildings.  This permitted projects to share common spaces while resulting in a greater overall density.  This treatment would become common with the introduction of planned developments in Chicago's 1957 zoning ordinance, but it must have been unusual in the 1940s. The underlying lot configuration of this area would have allowed six individual buildings with frontages on Wolcott.  Instead there are eight buildings, four of which have no frontage at all. 

Given the strict cost limits, the design of the buildings is worth noting.  You can't get much simpler than a rectangular box with a pitched roof.  They have common brick walls with simple arched limestone entrances.  Any architectural detail is the result of projecting brick string courses of various designs.  It looks to me like a scaled-down version of  the Art Moderne style.
Defense Homes for West Rogers Park (Chicago Tribune, 4/19/42)

The architect for this project was Carl J. Kastrup, who had won prizes for his designs of low-cost suburban housing prior to the war.  In 1942 his firm joined four others to collectively address the challenges of designing and administering defense-related work.

I feel like there's much more to be written about the development of defense housing in Chicago.  In particular, it seems that the designs developed under strict economic and administrative pressure had an enormous influence on the look of Chicago in the post-war period.  But this will have to wait for some additional research.


  1. I rented in one of those in the early 70s. LR, Bed, Bath, Kitchen and Dinette. Functional, comfortable. Nice neighborhood, Victory Gardens across the street where the school now stands. Good place to live back then.

  2. Thanks for commenting Burt! The buidings still look to be in fairly good condition.

  3. I lived in this neighborhood until last month (still in Rogers Park, just a bit further south), and always wondered what the story behind those buildings was. I think they're very elegant in a bare-bones kind of way.

  4. Thanks Liz. Given the limitations I think they put together some restrained, yet decent looking, buildings.