Monday, April 11, 2016

Frame Homes at Ashland and Greenleaf, 1903

There are many examples in Rogers Park of nearly identical homes clustered together on the same block.  These small scale developments define the character of Chicago's neighborhoods but due to their modest appearance are often overlooked.  Developments like these were financed by local banks or investors and constructed by small builders.  Rather than depending on the services of an architect, these designs originated in popular pattern books or utilized vernacular styles of construction. Although they haven't attracted the same scholarly attention as more pedigreed styles, they continue to have a big impact on the architectural character of our community. And, once you start to pay attention to these small scale developments, you will see them everywhere.
Looking Northeast from Greenleaf.
Showing varying configurations.
These particular frame homes are on the Northeast corner of Greenleaf and Ashland.  When the original owner, William H. Matthews, contracted with A. Christiansen to construct these four homes they had a few options.  The easiest (and cheapest) was to build a series of identical homes.  They could have also chosen to vary the roofline and massing using a regular pattern (hip, gable, hip, gable, etc.).  This provides a bit more variety to the street and may support a higher asking price.  Builders may also draw upon an established a vocabulary of structural details, a design toolbox, if you will, and choose specific structural elements based on the size and configuration of the lot.  This seems to be how these four homes on Ashland were designed.  Each home was constructed at a cost of $2,500, according to the old permit ledgers.

Frame construction has an advantage over masonry when it comes to affordable modifications.  Need to bump out some space?  Add a bay.  Need another bedroom in the attic? Drop in a dormer.  Another window?  Knock open a hole and put it in. Want to use the big house on the corner as your impressive "model home?" Give it the works! Even though the basic structures are nearly identical, this customization gives each home its own style.

The design toolbox as an exploded diagram.
In this case the four lots have have some size variation.  The two central parcels have 42' in frontage while the north lot has 50' frontage.  But the corner lot has 50' of frontage on Ashland and 100' of frontage on Greenleaf.  It was common for corner lots to be larger than standard lots.  While these properties lack the same rear yard privacy found mid-block, the additional size allows more square footage and a more expansive exterior treatment.  All the homes have front porches, dormers and bays, but the corner home also has an engaged octagonal turret and a wrap-around porch.

The years between 1897 and 1907 were a period of economic growth between two downturns. (Does anyone remember the Panic of 1893 and the Knickerbocker Crisis of 1907?)  Rogers Park was an attractive area for middle-class families who wanted easy access to downtown as well as affordability. The 10 minute walk to the lake didn't hurt either.  Developers may have anticipated that the extension of the elevated train, which ran all the way from the Loop to Evanston Central Street by 1908, would spur even greater development.

Next time you're walking around the neighborhood, ruminating about the Panic of 1893, see if you can spot similar developments.