This post is part of our ongoing study of Chicago’s defining building forms and the history of our communities written in buildings. Read about Courtyard Apartment Buildings,Worker Cottages, Residential Hotels, Greystone Flats, Four-Plus-One Apartments, Fire Cottages and Skyscrapers.
The Bungalow Belt in Chicago History
Although new construction replaces old over time, much of Chicago’s history and development can be seen in the built landscape as a series of expanding rings with common features that developed as the city grew.
Chicago is home to 80,000 bungalows.
One third of all the city’s single family homes are bungalows and they anchor the neighborhoods of the so called “Bungalow Belt” constructed between the 1910’s and 1930. They were typically built just at the end of the new street car routes connecting Chicago’s newly annexed areas to the city center. These homes form the backbone of many outer ring neighborhoods.
American Bungalows: Non-Chicago Origins
The term bungalow can denote either a modest 1 1/2 story American house, or a palm-roofed beach structure because the name (and concept) originally came to the US via British India, where bungalows were used as homes by Imperial government workers. There the housing type was defined by an airy single story building with deep covered porches or verandas on several sides.
Before World War I, the Victorian style – ornate homes with interiors divided up into many small rooms to clearly separate staff from family, men from women and adults from children – gave way to more informal flowing layouts and less ornamented styles. Prairie Style houses and Craftsman homes became popular among the wealthy, and Bungalow for the middle and working class.
Below is a trio of bungalows in California, with different detailing and construction than is used in Chicago. There, as elsewhere the typical construction is a wood framed and wood sided house (usually with stone or brick detailing around a wide front porch).
The new style of houses were full of windows providing vent and natural light and featured porches in front and decks in the back Instead of the hallways and separations of a Victorian home, bungalows were open – with an entry open to the living room, which flowed into the dining room. Kitchens were still considered a separated work space (no hanging out around the kitchen island then) and were separated from the front of the house with a wall and door but other spaces were relatively connected. Most remodels have further opened the rooms – turning the entire living/dining/kitchen area into one space.
What makes a Chicago Bungalow?
Bungalows are a common building type all around the US, but there are some specific factors that make the Chicago Bungalow so recognizable.
Chicago bungalows are modest single family homes, with full basement, first floor and slant-ceilinged attic above. They are caped by low pitched roof with overhanging eves and entered through a front door off to one side, next to a wide bay of living room windows. The Chicago bungalow is brick faced, with decorative stone trim and wooden (sometimes leaded glass) windows.
This layout is nearly universal in Chicago and is matched by an equally consistent front facade that any layperson can recognize.
The history and layout of the city affected the design of Chicago’s bungalows. In a city still skittish about fire, brick homes seemed more permanent and secure than wooden structures. And the street grid and alley system kept urban residential development packed in close (although the lots for most of the bungalow belt were widened to 30′ from the more typical Chicago 25′, there was still just room for two lines of rooms, a front approach porch and a single sidewalk space separating one home from the next. The setback from the street and garage on the alley behind are both typical of homes across the city.
Within the general plan format, there’s actually a wide variety in the possibilities of bungalow types across the city but people tend to associate them with uniformity. Chicago bungalows were often constructed in blocks or groups by a single developer who would replicate one set of building plans across an entire swath. Still there are many small variations on the theme.
Front Yards and Street Life
Greystone buildings (flats or single family homes) typically had (and still do have) metal fencing gating off each individual front yard (and wood privacy fencing in back). Courtyard apartments which (by definition) contain an enclosed small court of green grass. But Chicago’s bungalows rarely had fences in front – allowing one swath of lawn to flow into the next, unifying the neighborhood still further. An adult could sit on the covered front porch and keep an eye out for children from several families playing in front yards or the street.
Bungalows were built on a modest scale to make them more affordable but at the same time the small size of the house related to the contemporary philosophy that healthy living involved a lot of outside time. Kids were supposed to play outside and families to engage in healthful yardwork on weekends and evenings.
Segregation in the Bungalow Belt
The dark side of this idyllic new life of middle class lawn care and open plan living was that not everyone was invited to join it. When people first began to move into the bungalow belt, it was seen as a haven from the Catholic incursion of new immigrants in older parts of the city. That didn’t last, as the newly constructed bungalows were often home to immigrants and their children with strong ties to their home ethnicity. It was also strongly associated with white flight and the government administered loans often refused to provide financing for African American families, effectively segregating the bungalow belt. As WTTW’s article on the subject states:
“Until 1947, the Federal Housing Authority (which granted mortgage insurance) preferred that homes sold in Chicago include a restrictive covenant that prevented the sale to an African American. This was perceived as a way to ensure the home’s value. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these covenants unconstitutional.”
Only in the 50’s and 60’s (as existing homeowners moved outward to the suburbs), did families of color start to enter the Bungalow belt.
Preserving the Bungalow Belt
Today the bungalow belt is recognized as one of Chicago’s historic attributes. Here are a few places to find out more: Ultra Local has a great post on Bungalows in West Ridge (with typically great illustrations) showing some of the variety of types. WBEZ has a series of owner interviews linked to their article “100 years of Chicago Bungalows.” Curbed has done several list posts featuring bungalows for sale around the city and showcasing the way they have been preserved or remodeled through the years.
The Historic Chicago Bungalow Association is a great resource for finding out more about the history and also for tips on how to maintain and update your own bungalow if you have one. They’ve put together a useful set of design guidelines for how to care for a Chicago bungalow without damaging its historic character. In print, don’t miss The Chicago Bungalow, by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Where is your favorite Chicago Bungalow? What do you love about the type? Tell us in the comments!