The Courtyard Apartment

Some of architecture’s most basic building designs are a series of letter shapes: there’s the L-shaped building, perfect for building out an urban corner. There’s the T-shape, a front facade with a trailing hallway. And there’s a Chicago classic, the U-shaped apartment building.


The U-shape confers several advantages on the building. It allows a developer to build two full wings all the way out the edge of the lot, while creating a courtyard space in the middle. The courtyard space guarantees that, no matter what goes up around your building, light and air will always reach the apartments. The courtyard itself can become a great amenity, serving as a beauteous passageway, an urban garden, a shared lawn, or a secluded place of tranquility and beauty.

For these reasons, the U-shaped courtyard apartment building is extremely common in Chicago. They come in all sizes, colors, and flavors. The buildings can be elaborately ornamented…


…or utterly plain.


Likewise, the courtyards themselves can be a pure, untainted lawn….


…or an incredibly elaborate garden.


Sometimes, the architecture itself is the attraction…


..and sometimes it’s just a backdrop for what’s happening on the ground.


Courtyards can be long and narrow…


…or impressively wide.


They can be defined by buildings as short as two or three stories…


…or by buildings as tall as you care to go.


Sometimes they’re just a space you pass through on your way home…


…while others invite you to linger and relax.

Casa Bonita Condominiums

Some are open to the street, relying on psychological barriers to keep out intruders…


…while others have had more direct obstructions added over the years…


…and some were designed with seclusion in mind right from the start.


The courtyard can even be defined by more than one building:


And that building can be clad in any architectural style, from Spanish Revival to Tudor Gothic to MidCentury Modern.



It’s an incredibly versatile concept, adaptable to changing times and tastes. And the power of numbers allows great ornament and elaboration; in a city whose everyday architecture can be Spartanly plain, courtyard apartments are often among a neighborhood’s most noteworthy and beautiful buildings.


16 thoughts on “The Courtyard Apartment

  1. I love this post! Great thrilling work. BTW, the Patio Apartments is a lovely apartment building. I have seen it up close many times.

  2. Beautiful photos! There are certainly some pretty buildings in Chicago. (Glad you got this up before the snow comes and hides a lot of these gardens!)

  3. i absolutely loved this…p.s. i really liked recognizing some of the courtyards, i even think you got the one where i used to live (but am not sure) thanks for posting this series, really awesome…

  4. Nice coverage! The endless permutations on the standard U or doubled L layout have fascinated me since I moved to St. Louis, but these are incredible.Good to finally meet you at labor day in pagedale

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  9. Love this photo essay! I recognize many of my old friends- the lovely Prince Edward on Pratt I lived in for a decade, the Patio Apts on Granville, the exquisite Casa Bonita on Ridge, a beauty on Fargo by the lake, and a magnificent 20s vintage South Shore high rise. Thanks for posting these beautiful photos.

  10. I’m ambivalent about these U-shaped courtyard buildings. I love their style and history, and the garden area within the courtyards can be really beautiful. On the other hand, living in these units can leave you feeling boxed-in (rather than “light and airy”). Unless you live on the top floor, your only view from every window will be directly into a neighbor’s unit – including the bathrooms. Even if your individual apartment is huge, you’ll have to be OK with no view of the sky, and a lack of privacy unless you keep the drapes shut. I take these buildings case-by-case. If you can score a unit on the top floor, and if the courtyard is extra-wide and filled with trees and beautifully maintained gardens, it might be OK.

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