Chicago greystone building type

Chicago Building Types: the Greystone


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 BungalowsWorker Cottages, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), Courtyard Apartment Buildings, Residential Hotels, Four-Plus-One Apartments, Fire Cottages and Skyscrapers. 

Chicago’s answer to New York’s iconic Brownstown blocks, this little-mentioned building type is an anchor type in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods.  As the name implies, Greystone is a designation that comes primarily from building material rather than a strict housing type.

The name covers both single family houses (one and two stories, and even larger mansions) and a range of multi-family buildings with stacked units (two-flats, three-flats, and, more rarely, 6-flat arrangements).  But there are several common features – beyond the limestone facade – that make this an interesting addition to Chicago’s urban fabric.

Benefits of the Greystone Form

Because it consists of stacked apartment units with matching plans (much like the much-loved Boston Three-Decker) the Greystone multi-flat unit is easy to construct and replicate.  Small variations in the facade make each unit seem unique, but the same building methods could be used repeatedly – much to the builder’s convenience.

Further, by stacking several units and placing the access door behind a shared porch, the multi-flat units were hard to distinguish from a larger single-family home.  A street of two and three-story Greystones give an impressive sense of density, cohesiveness, and even grandeur that a street of smaller individual cottages or larger apartment blocks doesn’t have.  More on this is in Sharon Haar’s article “Greystone as Type” in The Chicago Greystone in Historic North Lawndale.

greystone entrance

The footprint of a greystone is remarkably consistent – they nearly always have wide steps going up to a front porch on one side of the front and a wide bow of projecting windows (round or squared off) on the other side.  The front shows the characteristic limestone (although you’ll also see some identical building forms mixed in that have facades of brick (like the sketch above).

The sides and back always switch from stone to more inexpensive brick. Rather than standing shoulder to shoulder like New York’s brownstones do, the Chicago variation focuses more on getting air and light into the middle of the building.  There is usually a 2-3 foot gap between buildings which is bridged halfway back with another bow of projecting windows (and a cut-through to get under them and into the basement and backyard).

Made in Chicago

Part of the reason for the popularity of the multi-flat greystone form was the dire housing shortage in Chicago after the fire – density was a priority, even as the appearance of single family homes was preferred.  The stacked flats of a multi-unit greystone were a perfect solution.

Like the courtyard building, the form of the greystone is heavily influenced by the street grid, zoning ordinance, and population history of this city.  The long narrow building shape (with each unit running from front to back of the building) suits the common 25 by 125-foot lot size.

The kitchen is always located at the back of the building in every unit because before our alleys became the exclusive domain of garbage trucks and rats, they were used for household deliveries (guests came to the front door, tradesmen to the back) and for household utility work like hanging laundry.  The kitchen-at-back layout was also shaped by the Chicago fire code, which required a front and back stair for each unit.  It was practical to move the kitchen to the rear of the unit when there would always be easy up and down access between flats there.

floor plan chicago greystone

The partially depressed basement is a product of our climate (it dips just below the 4′ frost line, making the best use of footings space for the useable area), the regional geology (they were generally planned to sit just above the water table to reduce flooding) and regulation (maximum Floor Area Ratio calculations don’t count floor area more than 50% below outside ground level, so they got all that basement storage “for free” from a zoning point of view).  Elevating the first floor half a level above grade also created a more imposing facade and granted more privacy for the first-level tenants.

The limestone that forms the facades of the Chicago Greystone and in many other applications of city buildings comes consistently from one site – the quarries around Bedford, Indiana and has done since shortly after the Chicago Fire.

Greystones on the World Wide Web 

You’ll see the term greystone pop up on real estate blogs occasionally, and sometimes the grandest of them grace the pages of home magazines.  BLUEPRINT: Chicago  featured a particularly ornate specimen several years ago with impressive interiors and furnishings to match its caryatid encrusted exterior.

On the flip side, the smallest version of the Greystone – the one-story type known as a “shoe box” was pinged on Ultra Local in a post on cottages in K-town recently.  They found a newspaper ad (in Polish!) [UPDATE: Thanks to a reader, it has been pointed out that the ad is in Czech, not Polish. And after google translating, the headline says something like “These Houses For Sale”] promoting it as one of several house types, and, honestly, it’s pretty darn cute (third from the left).  You can see the characteristic flat roof, generous front steps, and three window projections clearly in the old sketch.

greystone ad

Forgotten Chicago uses several historic greystone buildings to show a record of the city’s older non-uniform numbering system, replaced in 1909.  Since the greystones were mostly built before that period and often had their original house number carved decoratively over the door, they are an obvious place to look for anachronistic street numbers.

This Old House did a series of episodes on “an exciting urban remodeling story,” and Bob Vila rhapsodizes about Chicago history … and Greystones … in his text.  Watching Bob Vila drive through Lincoln Park and Wicker Park with a local real estate agent (and her enormous 80’s hair) is worth a click (timestamp 1:50).  Points for anyone who can figure out what year, exactly, this was shot in.

Preservation Initiatives for the Chicago Greystone

Just this past April, SouthSideWeekly noted the sad destruction of three Hyde Park greystones (to make way for a parking lot and truck turning area, of all things) associated with the development of Whole Foods’ new site in that neighborhood.  The article reads like a eulogy for the building type and points out that one thing these solid, dignified residential buildings do is “provide community stability.”  They can serve as “an anchor in neighborhoods that have been distressed,” according to Van Calvin, a greystone activist engaged in the North Lawndale preservation movement.

Greystone Initiative Chicago

And while there are plenty of greystone buildings (and whole blocks) scattered across Lakeview and other North Side neighborhoods, Lawndale is really leading the charge in preserving the type.  The Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative, is centered in North Lawndale and has published two booklets laying out the history and demography of the greystone and providing information for homeowners planning to restore, preserve or update their own greystones.  These booklets represent a wealth of information about the building type and North Lawndale history and are available at the Chicago Public Library (as soon as we return them).

Have you noticed these dignified old buildings classing up your Chicago neighborhood?  We bet that once you start thinking about them, you’ll see Greystones everywhere.  Let us know in the comments.