For a long time, I nourished a latent fascination with a peculiar type of vernacular house. Often gabled, sometimes flat-roofed, these houses are sized to fit the standard 25′ wide Chicago lot. They are typically two to four stories tall. But they are incredibly long, extruded all out of proportion and stretching on for bay after bay after bay. Their rooflines may have up to half a dozen chimneys, lined up like soldiers on the march. One or more entryways are often found on the long side, providing separate access to apartments further back in the building. Most are flecked with many windows.
Once I began looking more closely, a few things jumped out. Firstly, these houses are usually on the end of their block. The long side faces a street or alley. The reason for these abnormal houses, then, suggests itself: With the sure knowledge that no future neighbor would block up the light and the view, there was no reason not to fill the entire length of the lot with building. For an owner, it meant more space and more rental income.
Buildings on this model proliferated in two neighborhoods: Pilsen, and Pulaski Park. Both have a common point of origin as home to Polish immigrants in the late 1800s.
In Milwaukee, Polish immigrants famously developed the “Polish Flat” – a wood-frame house that, as time and finances allowed, would be jacked up a level, with a more solid brick basement built underneath. Likewise, back-lot houses would be added behind the main house to provide rental income – or a smaller front-of-lot house would be moved to the rear when a more spacious replacement could be built. In short, Poles were experts at extracting value from precious city land, and these houses are designed in the same tradition.
1458 W. 18th Street at Laflin, Pilsen
The archetypal examples, in my mind, stand in the Pulaski Park area, clustered along Blackhawk Avenue, just east of Ashland.
A number of things make these houses curiosities to me. First is the steadfast refusal to treat the exposed long side of the house as decorated architectural facade. The same unadorned common brick that would appear on an unexposed wall (ie, one crowded up against a neighboring building) is used in most cases; on the building above, a simple gabled roof is extruded out of the elaborate front bay. The front is the front and the side is the side, and that’s that. That elaborate façade is another point of interest – they came in all styles, arrayed with beautiful brick corbelling, pressed tin cornices and finials, cast iron storefront columns, carved stone lintels and more.
918 N. Ashland Avenue at Walton – a particularly curious case, as a modern addition has continued the fill-the-whole-block approach begun by the original building, while conjoining it with the building across the alley.
And then there is the final mystery – what kind of floor plans were originally hidden behind those walls? Are the interiors contiguous or separate? How did a preponderance of light and air on one side affect the design? Maybe one day I’ll turn up some plans, but till then I simply gaze and speculate.