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 Chicago Bungalows, Courtyard Apartment Buildings, Residential Hotels, Greystone Flats, Four-Plus-One Apartments, Fire Cottages and Skyscrapers.
THE COACH HOUSE – HISTORY AND CONTEXT
Picture Chicago at the turn of the century: the downtown overcrowded with streetcars and bicycles, a relatively new elevated train system roaring overhead, women in petticoats and floor length garb and men in hats — all men in hats. Most notably, like all major cities of the time, Chicago was a horse-powered town. Dirt roads were regularly congested with carriages, carts, streetcars and other transport vehicles lead by the workhorses of Chicago. With so many equine trekking the streets, a place to rest and be kept after a hard day’s work was greatly needed. Enter the coach house. These smaller structures were built on the back area of the lot behind the principle building and were used to house the carriages, horses, and additional equipment therein. In wealthier homes, these structures were built larger (and typically more ornate) and often provided quarters for a groom or coachman, sometimes even adorned with a milk cow and hayloft above.
Coach houses that frequently pop up in the real estate market in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Wicker Park, and more serve as a charming and intriguing reminder we were once a more rural and horse-driven society. In addition to seeing the coach houses themselves, one can find alluring particulars like horse head details on old stables and “horse walks,” or interior passageways made for horses to walk from street to stable.
TODAY AND TOMORROW: COACH HOUSES AND ZONING
Along with the dramatic shift in transportation came the shift for the usage of the coach house. These days, you can see them peppering the back lots of Chicago as automobile garages, offices, workshops, retail shops, restaurants, bars, and guest houses. These smaller configurations can often be more roomy and open, optimal for living spaces modeled after lofts or studios.
Even more intriguing is the variety of coach houses or backlot structures that populate Chicago, as these buildings weren’t always made for carriages. Immigrants in poorer neighborhoods also worked hard and built small cottages on the back lots, hoping (and often succeeding) to one day build a larger house in the front with a better amassed fortune. Relics of this history still remain all over Chicago, sometimes with the larger house in the front and cottages in the back still intact.
Under the current Chicago Zoning Ordinance (CZO), if the original coach houses have remained occupied for residential use they can continue to be used (and even renovated) as a dwelling. Unfortunately for these beleaguered buildings, in almost any other case a coach house can no longer be used as habitable space. The CZO purportedly disallows them because tall buildings in the rear of a property block natural light access to neighboring lots, so the general zoning policy has been to not allow any structures in the rear yard except for automobile garages. It’s not that the CZO expressly disallows coach houses for new construction, but that nothing is allowed to encroach into the aforementioned rear yard setback. There has been, however, a grassroots effort by planning activists to allow coach houses for residential occupancy given the lack of affordable housing in Chicago and most other cities. In California, where the housing issue is especially acute, the state passed a law allowing ‘accessory dwelling units’, aka ADUs (coach houses by another name) on single family zoned property where an additional dwelling unit would normally not be allowed. In the face of an affordable housing crisis, there is hope for Chicago to resurrect the coach house.
VIVA LA COACH HOUSE
Why lobby so hard for the coach house and/or the ADU? There are many reasons one would opt for the back-lot dwelling versus a typical Chicago apartment. First and foremost, many coach house dwellers truly appreciate the privacy afforded to them due to their proximity to others. Coach houses stand as their own space in the back of a residency lot away from the main house, and more often than not, have the entire space to themselves. It’s optimal for a young family just starting out, an artist in need of quiet time, or grandparents wanting to live closer to their children. In addition, many renters love the unique and sometimes eccentric appeal of residing in a coach house. In addition to their separation from the main structure providing adequate privacy and space, coach houses possess their own individual charm and essence that may not necessarily be found in a lot of regular 2- or 3-flat structures in Chicago. Renters can take advantage of an uncommon layout, spaces often adorned with original architectural charms like exposed brick walls, overhead wooden beams, and spiral staircases. Although it may be somewhat difficult to find a coach house in Chicago with those particular design elements, the layouts still often echo the past where you can imagine coaches and staff members leading horses into the spaces and sleeping in their quarters upstairs.
Even more essential, the arrangement provides incredible financial advantages. Landlords can rent out the space and make more money for the property while increasing the value of the land. The space also provides options for many lower income renters who can’t afford the prices in the area to begin with. The move benefits working-class people pushed out by the housing crunch, providing affordable spaces in good neighborhoods while also helping the property owners with the mortgage. This low-cost housing not only helps its property managers and residents, but the area as a whole, as gentrification increasingly threatens the character, culture, and economics of neighborhoods. This helps increase population density, further encouraging the city’s residents to strive and ask for needed amenities in their neighborhoods. Moreover, it helps Chicago keep its inherent charm, reminding us of how we started as a city and how we aim to be in the future.