100 years of Chicago bungalows

Sturdy brick homes are beloved, ubiquitous and distinctly Chicago

December 30, 2013

When it came time for Carleen Lorys' parents to buy their first home, they selected a brand new ranch. It was the 1950s, and this was the culmination of their American dream.

But their daughter grew up eyeing the row of old bungalows across the street.

"I loved the sturdiness, I loved the glass," Lorys said. "They looked solid."

The Historic Chicago Bungalow Association will sponsor four neighborhood expositions this spring, to bring together home vendors with the owners of historic houses of all types. 

March 29
The Copernicus Center
5216 W. Lawrence Ave.
10 a.m. -- 2 p.m. 

April 12
The Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences
3857 W. 111th St.
10 a.m. -- 2 p.m. 

With two additional expos on the Southeast and North Sides sometime in March or April.

Other places have their bungalows -- California, Michigan, Milwaukee. But in Chicago a bungalow has come to mean a single-family home, one-and-a-half stories tall, longer than it is wide, built between 1910 and 1940. It is made of brick -- yellow ochre, russet, deep red, whatever -- usually with stone trim. It has a low-pitched roof with overhanging eaves, a full basement and a front entrance that's set off to the side.

And here, at least, they are nearly ubiquitous. There are more than 80,000 bungalows in Chicago, making them a critical part of the city's architectural landscape as well as accounting for "nearly one-third of the city's single-family housing stock."

That's according to the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association, the agency responsible for cataloguing and promoting these homes. And this year and next, the bungalow association will celebrate what is roughly the 100th birthday of this housing type in Chicago.

There were a small number of bungalows built here in 1907 and 1908, and another handful in 1910. But Mary Ellen Guest, the association's executive director, said that the building of bungalows really picked up a century ago.

"Bungalows really started to catch fire in 1913 and 1914," Guest said, in large part because a population boom was underway. The city grew by more than 500,000 people -- from 2.2 million to 2.7 million -- between 1910 and 1920, according to data from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The city would gain close to 675,000 additional residents by 1930, growth that, geographically, maps nearly perfectly to the contours of the "bungalow belt," the area of greatest bungalow concentration. The belt "is literally a 'C' that goes around the old center city," Guest said.  

The workaday architects and developers who built these homes sometimes did so just a lot or two at a time. But often they built in clusters of 30 homes or more, creating street after street lined with nothing but bungalows. There are 10 bungalow districts in Chicago listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Six (the Falconer, North Mayfair, Wrightwood, Rogers Park Manor, Talman West Ridge and Schorch Irving Park Gardens Historic Districts) are on the North Side and four (the South Park Manor, South Shore, West Chatham and Auburn Gresham Historic Districts) are on the South Side.

How fancy these homes were depended on when they were built, and for whom. More ornate bungalows can have wide pentagonal porches, emerald-colored mission-style tile roofs and delicate, Prairie Style stained glass windows. Others are more plain and utilitarian, with red brick and a simpler facade.   

But like the contemporaneous two-flat, bungalows housed the backbone of Chicago's middle class. "Sociologically, (a) bungalow used to signify a specific kind of homeowner," Guest said. Bungalows meant carpenters and mail carriers, or firemen and printers, as Mike Royko wrote in "Boss," his biography of former Mayor Richard J. Daley.

The book opens in Bridgeport on the Daley family home, a bungalow built by the mayor and his wife, Eleanor "Sis" Daley, in 1936:

Sometime after seven o'clock a black limousine glides out of the garage of the police station on the corner, moves less than a block, and stops in front of a weathered pink bungalow at 3536 South Lowe Avenue. . . It's an unlikely house for such a car. A passing stranger might think that a rich man had come to visit his people in the old neighborhood. It's the kind of sturdy brick house, common in Chicago, that a fireman or a printer would buy. Thousands like it were put up by contractors in the 1920s and 1930s from standard blueprints in an architectural style dubbed ‘carpenter's delight.’

Today bungalow owners are as diverse as the city itself, with the bulk of the homes located in largely black and Latino neighborhoods. "Jumbo bungalows," as Guest calls them, can go for as much as $700,000, depending on the location. But there are also bargains to be had for under $200,000, according to Dream Town Realty.

Current bungalow owners can join Guest's group, which boasts nearly 15,000 members, as long as they haven't made significant alterations to the outside of the home.

"Your house can be certified if you don’t put those pop-tops on them," Guest said, referring to vinyl-sided second-story additions, almost with a shudder. "We encourage people to do whatever they want inside."

After Carleen Lorys and her husband, Jan, purchased their own bungalow in West Rogers Park in 1983, they set about exposing the bright arched windows the previous owner had covered up. Their home has aged well, and they love it so much that Carleen said they hope to stay there another 30 years.

"Hopefully our next move is to the cemetery," she said with a laugh.

Below: Take a virtual tour of Jan and Carleen Lorys' bungalow, and the historic bungalows of two other Chicago families.

Robin Amer is a reporter in Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter @rsamer.