Chicago Building Types: Worker Cottage


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 Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), Chicago BungalowsCourtyard Apartment Buildings, Residential Hotels, Greystone Flats, Four-Plus-One Apartments, Fire Cottages and Skyscrapers.  

The Unassuming Worker Cottage

If Bungalows were the go-to house to build in early 20th century Chicago, the Worker Cottage was the workhorse of the late 19th.  While they were once a staple of Chicago housing, these simple end gable houses are starting to slip away.  They are too easy to knock down.


For example, the building in the header sketch doesn’t exist anymore.  This post began with a cottage sighting during a neighborhood stroll; as it’s too chilly for sketching, I turned to Google streetview for another reference image. My google selected cottage view was dated March 2009. By May 2014, it was gone, replaced with this hulking (and creepily black-windowed) brick block which fills the lot to its edges and stands four stories tall.  So it goes.

Cottages And The American Vernacular

To read more about the Worker Cottage outside Chicago, check out Marshall McLennan’s Worker Cottages: A Nineteenth-Century Great Lakes Urban House Type, or read Joseph’s Bigott’s From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869-1929.  McLennan calls out the Worker Cottage as an under-studied example of the vernacular, one that proliferated across the Great Lakes region, and beyond, during the late 19th century.  In other parts of the country, this housing boom also manifested as tightly packed row houses in Baltimore, as efficiently stacked wooden Three-Deckers in Boston, and as neighborhoods of easy-to-cool Shotgun houses in the south.

“When new house forms suddenly appear on the scene and old forms cease being built, something is going on in the cultural fabric.”

What happened to bring on this wave of cottages and other worker housing?  Industrial growth across the country was changing America from a nation of pioneers and farmers to one of urban dwellers.  Chicago’s population boom – tripling in size between 1880 and 1910 – was fueled by the railroads and the associated processing industries that grew up around them.  The meat packing plants and heavy industry provided jobs to a huge inflow of immigrants who all needed somewhere to live.  Many moved into the new Greystone flats – which were being constructed at the same time – and others settled in Worker Cottages.

What Defines a Chicago Worker Cottage?

It can be hard to define vernacular buildings – those built by regular people without official design drawings – according to the type of rules that we have used on other buildings.  That’s one of the reasons they so often go un-studied by architectural historians and designers alike.

Still there are some common characteristics to the Chicago Worker Cottage.

They are long and narrow – to fit the Chicago building lot – and have a gable (triangular) end facing the street. In ex-urban areas it is more common to see the homes with a roof structure like this oriented the other way, with the gable ends pointing to each side.

19th century newspaper ad

Like their contemporary Greystones, and the Bungalows that would eventually replace them, worker cottages are usually set on a raised basement (which could have been rented out to another family) and have public spaces oriented to the street and family spaces (kitchen access) to the alley behind.

This 1883 ad for a brick worker cottage, via McLennan, shows both a typical end gable frontage and 1st and 2nd floor plans (with description in both English and German).  It appears to be for a site in the heart of the Loop – Clark and Madison – maybe plausible since that area was leveled in the fire a decade before.

The listed spaces include parlor, two tiny first floor bedrooms (probably around the size of a modern queen bed) and a kitchen and pantry but no bathroom.  These were constructed in the outhouse era.

Worker Cottages could be built either of brick – per Chicago’s wood phobic post Fire tendency – or framed and sided in wood.  Urban Remains has documented several wood frame houses (at the time of their demolition) with some amazing rough hewn inner construction.  It is easy to see that these buildings predate standard 2×4 construction and were often created of any materials readily available.  That first link highlights a cottage that once sat at the front of its lot and then was re-located to a new foundation at the alley and converted to a “carriage house” for the new Greystone constructed at the street.

Preserving The Worker Cottage

The current trend of tearing down worker cottages and replacing them with single-family homes is ubiquitous throughout Chicago. We think there is a better approach to preserve the beloved cottage – keep the exterior structure and update the interior with modern amenities.

Our Richmond House project is an example of this type of preservation. We maintained and enhanced the outer facade, modernized the interior floorplan, and created a connection from the main living space to the backyard. All of this was accomplished without destroying the traditional look of the worker cottage and maintaining the residential scale and street presence.

Richmond House: worker cottage renovation in Logan Square

Where to find them today?

Remnants of this once popular form show up all around the city.  The Chicago Landmarks commission mentions them specifically in Lincoln Park, the Lower West Side and West Town.

hermitage ave worker cottages

You’ll see little wood frame buildings – one and a half stories – often clumped together.  Per Larry Shure of Ultra Local, they were often constructed in sets by a single builder for economies of scale.

The two little rows of them (above) from the same block of North Hermitage Ave near our office.  Of course, that’s nothing like how common they once were.  The image below, again, via McLennan.

worker cottages

Where is your favorite Worker Cottage?  Do you even notice them?  What do you love about the type?  Tell us in the comments!