Saturday, July 23, 2005

Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury by Neil Harris

My library recently added Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury by Neil Harris to its local history collection. It is a big, heavy book, and I was uncertain how interesting it would be to read. The introductory chapters look rather flat at a glance, and most of the buildings included in the book get a fairly standardized two-page spread. I need not have worried. The author includes a good mix of factual details and human interest notes to keep the reader’s attention, and all the photographs and apartment floor plans tell a story of their own.

The later half of the 1920’s, just before the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression, was the great era of the luxury apartment building in Chicago. All along the shores of Lake Michigan, from south of Jackson Park to north of Lincoln Park, developers were erecting taller and grander apartment buildings, most of which survive today. Nearly three quarters of the buildings in this book date from that era. Some are even older. A few are newer.

I have favorites in this book.

Jackson Towers (page 60) is a Spanish Renaissance influenced apartment building with an 18-story tower and two 15-story wings that faces the Museum of Science and Industry. Some of the duplex apartments have two-story living rooms with great arched windows. Former White sox owner Charles Comisky once lived there.

The plans for the Jackson Shore Apartments at 5490 South Shore Drive show that many of the residences included a library, an orangerie, and two rooms for the live-in maids. $500 a month was lot of money in 1916.

Sterling Morton’s duplex apartment at 1260 North Astor Street had huge bathrooms. He also had three maids’ rooms. Did maids get private rooms?

On page 120 is a photograph of a really nice library with lots of bookshelves in the Bradley Apartments at 20 East Cedar Street. Readers will soon discover that almost all nice apartments from the 1920s include libraries with comfy chairs for reading. That’s real luxury!

The plan for the Stewart Apartments at 1200 North Lake Shore Drive has five bedrooms for servants and one for the house keeper. All the plan labeling is in French, i.e. chambre de domestique, la sale a manager des domestiques, le petit salon, and of course, le biblioteque.

The book does show some modest apartments that were significant in the development of Chicago residential history. Page 125 shows how the Hotel St. Benedict Flats were subdivided in the 1980s. The kitchen of one apartment is only 3 by 12!

Look at page 254 to see where Mies van der Rohe, noted for his modern architectural design, lived. Many critics agree that he made an ironic choice.

There are so many interesting buildings in Chicago. Whenever we drive along Lake Shore Drive, we pass by many of them so quickly that we never get a good look. I would now like to take a Chicago apartment tour.

People who like architectural history will enjoy this book, as will those who like to peak into the homes of the wealthy.

Harris, Neil. Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury. New York: Acanthus Press, 2004. ISBN 0926494252

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