Chicago Building Types: the Courtyard Apartment


This post marks the official beginning of a new series of studies of classic Chicago Building Types. Each city has its history of materials, wealth, population shifts and popularity, written in its buildings. Don’t miss our studies of Chicago Bungalows, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), Worker CottagesCourtyard Apartment BuildingsResidential Hotels, Greystone FlatsFour-Plus-One Apartments, and Fire Cottages.    

THE COURTYARD APARTMENT: Chicago’s Low Rise Density Workhorse

This quiet building form so common in Lakeview and other north-side neighborhoods, makes a private, livable and densely packed home for many Chicago residents, including myself.  The pair of images above (of my own building, in fact) illustrate the most important feature of the Courtyard building: the double access points from the court and the back staircases.   This simple design move makes for exceptionally pleasant,  livable spaces.

As Architectural Record put it in 1907, comparing Chicago’s apartments with New York’s:

“On the whole, one gets the impression that the Western apartment houses are built in order to supply pleasant residences for people of some taste, whereas the New York apartment house is the victim from start to finish of conditions which force their tenants merely to take what they can get.”

The courtyard form ensures that, regardless of who owned or built on the adjacent properties, this assembly of units will always have a little patch of green space in their tiny interior court.  What’s more, they all have access (both to airflow and view and for physical exits) to both the interior court side of the building and the exterior with its tiny porch/fire stair exits.


If you’re not an apartment dweller you may never have given much thought to what sets these courtyard buildings apart from other types of apartment dwellings.  The answer is in the organization.

courtyard crossvent

Multiple Core vs Double Loaded Corridor 

Unlike more modern apartment blocks in which each unit on a floor is connected to a long hallway that has two (or three) vertical access points by elevator or fire-stair, these courtyard apartments aren’t connected horizontally to the other units on their floor but only vertically by a front entry stair and a back porch stair to the five other units on their stack.

Sustainable and Livable

Each set of six apartments (two per floor) shares the main stair, front door, mailbox and address.  All the blocks share the courtyard and (usually) access to the half-buried basement with the entire building. The thin building form provides a cooling cross vent, and the shared utilities allow efficient use of a whole-building boiler system for heat – both demonstrations of the sustainable ideal, despite being designed and built long before the term was coined.

The result, a stair tower shared with just five neighbors, is much more personal and friendly than a long sterile hallway lined with anonymous doors on both sides.


Chicago: City of Alleys and Fire Escapes 

Some of the peculiarities of the Courtyard building have to do with the long narrow shape of our standard city lot size (25 x 125 ft), our street layout with alleys for service access, and our (somewhat extreme) fire code, which requires two exits for every dwelling unit. Curious City’s explanation of “Chicago’s flammable ‘fire escapes‘” from last year explains that Chicago’s street with alleys as service spaces, as well as our fire code, drove this design.  The residents of Chicago’s back stair units have profited by turning their fire access into de-facto porches and functional service spaces.  As they put it:

“Originally, these back areas were used to receive milk, ice, and other deliveries, even when residents weren’t home. Physical markers of those uses persist today; some buildings still have a small door in their back walls that once allowed icemen to place ice directly into kitchen iceboxes (fun fact: that’s why kitchens in these buildings are next to the back porch).”

Tenement Ordinance of 1902  and Minimum Standards for Dwelling

Those constraints still could have resulted in solid blocks of the building, which stretched from the street at the front to the alley at the back, had it not been for a 1902 ordinance intended to prevent the type of dangerous crowding and unhealthy city life that Jane Addams was combatting with her hull housework.  As Perry Duis explains in his book “Challenging Chicago: coping with Everyday life, 1837 to 1920″,  the standards laid out by the ordinance required that multi-unit buildings like these have “windows in every room, garbage-burning furnaces, and toilets in every building.”  They were also restricted to building on no more than 65% of the lot (80 if it was a corner unit).

(Unfortunately for the tenement dwellers of the time, many workarounds allowed unscrupulous landlords to exploit their residents but the apartment buildings which still stand today represent the best intentions and execution of that ordinance.)

The “L” Module and the Courtyard Form

The “courtyard” form is just one variety of a range of systems for connecting up tiny L modules which meet the 65% rule.  The types are very clearly illustrated by Larry Shure of Ultra local in his post, Typology of Courtyard Apartments in Rogers Park.  Below is his diagram:

ultralocal diagram

Ultralocal’s post further points out the Chicago code provides a powerful financial incentive to keep these buildings under four stories – any taller and they would have needed to be made from more fireproof materials – with a steel and concrete structure. In buildings without an elevator, three (and a half) stories also seem the most people would want to climb.


The type is almost infinitely variable.  Courts can be grandiose or plain, narrow or wide, depending on the inclinations of the builder and the constraints of the site.  My favorite examples all have trees growing in the inner court which provide privacy in views across, as well as a little feeling of an enclosed forest as I walk by on the street.

example_wide narrrow

Lest we imply that the building FORM goes hand in hand with a certain set of materials, it’s clear that this building type has lasted beyond the era of brown and yellow brick being in vogue well into the modernist period.  These units may be townhouses (occupying two floors in one unit), but the concept is the same – shared access through a protected green space and cross vent and double access through the court in front and back porch/stairs in back.



And what would be the fun of a typology study without a nice photo series?  Here’s our informal collection of courtyard buildings in the area.  The author of A Chicago Sojourn has a very comprehensive set of courtyard building photos as well.  See them here.  Further, Larry Shure of Ultra Local, has a detailed analysis of courtyard types in Rogers Park (L, U, S, and W forms) with specific building sketches here.  Both are well worth a look!  For even more on the subject of Courtyard buildings, check out Richard Gnat’s detailed (and complimentary) paper Looking backward in order to move forward: The Chicago courtyard apartment building.

example_many types

What’s your favorite Chicago Courtyard building?  Tell us in the comments!