four plus one apartment

Chicago Building Types: Four Plus One Apartments


This post is part of a series of studies of classic Chicago Building Types.  Each city has a history of materials, wealth, population shifts and popularity, hopes and dreams, written in its buildings. Read more about Chicago Bungalows, Worker CottagesResidential HotelsClassic GreystonesCourtyard Apartment Buildings, Fire Cottages, and Skyscrapers

The Four Plus One: the Mid Century, Mid Rise Everyone Loves To Hate

Curbed describes the Chicago Four-Plus-One as a “charmingly hideous style of apartment building that proliferated in Lincoln Park and Lake View in the early 1960s.”  More descriptively, the building type is four stories of masonry-and-wood-framed apartment units built on top of a concrete platform no more than 7′ above street level (which allows for parking underneath).  Square and blocky in form, and featuring a 1960’s styling (not universally beloved) these have become the red-headed step child of north side building types, reviled by nearly everyone and yet, still, standing tall and fully occupied with satisfied residents.

People do love to hate these buildings.  Scroll through the comment section of any of the linked websites here (even the obituary for originator architect Jerome Soltan) and you’ll see scathing comments deriding them as ugly and ill-constructed.

They do have a few fans, or at least interested commentators.  Forgotten Chicago has an excellent and detailed profile of the type which pokes fun at the NIMBY naysayers at the time who complained vociferously about how Four Plus One construction changed the character of their neighborhoods.  As they put it “With all of those anonymous, un-wed, childless nurses competing for street parking, it became too much to bear.”  Chicago building chronicler A Chicago Sojourn has actually posted about them twice, and has a great photo series documenting some of the inventive entry awnings (all concrete) over a number of North Side Four Plus One Apartments.

We have worked with Flats Chicago to remodel an Edgewater Four Plus One, 5411 N Winthrop, which we posted about last year when construction was complete.  Our update sought to maintain the exuberant modernism of the 1960’s design while stripping and refurbishing units to expose masonry walls and replacing appliances and mechanical systems with new energy efficient models.   We kept the characteristic angular concrete canopy but lost the (unloved) tan brick in favor of a bold paint job.


How Chicago Created the Four Plus One

Four Plus One apartments are often described as exploiting a loophole in the zoning code.  Its more accurate to say that they were simply a residential building type which was allowed by the Chicago code … until it was actively dis-allowed in 1971 a city council measure requiring that all developers provide one parking spot per dwelling unit in zones R4 and higher.

The original code allowed for residential buildings no higher than four floors to be constructed with masonry exterior walls and wood interior framing in Zones R-5 and above.   Many individual residential buildings and courtyard apartments had elevated basements (allowing a little air and light into the lower space and bringing first floor windows above eye-level from the street) and the Four Plus One apartments used that concept, to categorize their lobby and parking level as “basement.”

Precedents, Chicago and Elsewhere

Four Plus Ones also borrowed from the international modern style only a few decades old at the time which often elevated living spaces up off the ground plane and allowed for green space or car space below.  There are obvious parallels to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye which, perhaps, typifies the most loved specimen of international modern design.

villa savoye

While the double loaded corridor elevator building seems perfectly normal (the default) for residential apartments today it was a relatively new type at the time.  One of the first modern elevator high rises was Mies van der Rohe’s 860 Lake Shore Drive apartments which was a departure both from the previous residential hotels and the low rise courtyard and town house style multiple family residents.  Although those units use their ground floor for lobby, not parking, they share the elevated residents and exposed ground level structure of the Four Plus One.

mies van der rohe lake shore drive aparments

The idea was also used in West Hollywood in the distinctive “Dingbat” apartment buildings which stack two residential units over a parking area and similarly fill the whole lot to the property lines in order to maximize rentable square footage.


Pros (and Cons) of the Type

Despite their many detractors, these buildings do have some good features to draw in current and future tenants.

Accessibility and Protected Parking

Four Plus One apartments all have lobbies and elevators which make them more accessible than older courtyard apartments and (despite the great parking controversy) usually provide parking for about half the building units.  Tenants who don’t wish to rent a parking space or apply too late may contribute to the street parking crunch.  On the other hand, high rise buildings and former apartment hotels don’t come nearly so close to providing parking for all their units.  And many of the occupants of apartment rentals may choose to use the abundant transit option available to North lake-side residents and forgo a car altogether.

Efficiency: Dense Packed Units

Mid rise apartment buildings are inherently one of the most energy efficient building types, regardless of construction quality.  Units clustered closely together and sharing party walls require less energy to maintain their temperature differential from the outside.  They can be efficiently supplied with hot water and central heating by a single more efficient system.  Likewise the utility connections which link them to municipal systems can be combined for greater efficiency.  They cover land per interior square footage, reducing hard scape and heat island effects.

The same qualities mean they are more difficult to provide with access to natural light, cross ventilation and other passive thermal control methods.  They aren’t subject to the large structural wind loads or thermal heating loads of high rise construction but they do require more power to light, heat and cool  than do their older sibling, the Courtyard Apartment building.

Double Loaded Corridor

Also in contrast to the Courtyard Apartment (with its stairwells serving 3 stacked pairs of units), Four Plus One Apartments use a double loaded corridor – an interior hallway with doors to units on both sides  and typically with an elevator access point per level and a fire access stair way on each end.  This means every unit on every floor is accessible to people who can’t use stairs (pro) but also means that corridors are airless and bland with no access to natural light (con).

Acoustic Privacy (Or Lack Thereof)

While the outsides of Four Plus One buildings are brick and the separation between the parking level and residential floors is concrete, the only separation between units is a wood framed wall or floor.  This can often result in terrible acoustic privacy between units.  Having stayed in one such apartment, I can attest to being woken every morning by the alarm clock going off one floor above.

four plus one apartment Lincoln park

This example (image via google maps) is mentioned in a profile of Lincoln Park residential architecture on the Chicago Detours blog.  This is a good example of the type, complete with Jetsons-style angular awning, concrete block screen to hide the parking level, and bland/simple two-tone brick design of the upper stories.

It is also interesting to compare it with the older apartment building on the left.   It is no higher and only slightly wider (the left building needs to leave space for a side yard access from front to back, while the four-plus-one lets cars and residents move directly underneath the building and fills its lot from side to side.  They even share a language of vertical column elements framing infill brick and windows.  It’s also easy to determine the maximum building height allowed by the area’s zoning.  However, the four plus one has four levels of rental units above its parking level, while the adjacent older building only packs in three.

 What People Thought at the time

This 1969 article in the Chicago Tribune describes how the North Side has been “riled” by Four Plus Ones concentrated in Lakeview, Belmont Harbor, and Lakeview during the past nine years.  The occupants are described dismissively as “transients” – clarification, “primarily young marrieds, single persons and older couples” and attacked on two points: first, the “buildings exclude families because the apartments are too small” and second, that there are “too many” which are “changing the character” of the north side neighborhood.  Most of the concerns seem to be related to the NIMBY’s dislike of any new additions to an existing population.

1969 tribune article

At no point does the article mention a problem of parking – apparently, that wasn’t the rallying cry issue at that time.  Also, check out that ad for glasses to the left – totally un-ironic, I assume.

Interestingly, many arguments against Four Plus One construction are the same ones used to object to new development in Logan Square along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor.  Millennials, with their “hipster cocktails,” have replaced the former “transient young marrieds” in the verses, but the chorus is the same.  In the end, density rarely damages cities, and neither have the Four Plus Ones, which dot Chicago’s North Side.

What’s your opinion on the Four Plus One?  Share your feelings in the comments section!