Chicago, they say, is a city of neighborhoods. And the origins of those neighborhoods occupy a unique place among American cities – neither master-planned communities nor built on land controlled by old money. Much of Chicago is defined by its residential buildings, a beautiful mishmash of styles, sizes, and ages.
In recent years, preservationists have started calling attention to a style of home known as workers cottages – an original form of affordable housing that’s facing down demolition.
On a chilly April morning, a group of historic preservation students from the School of the Art Institute gathered in McKinley Park before heading out into the neighborhood to survey its workers cottages. They’re simple homes of four to six rooms with a gabled roof at the front of the house and an entrance off to one side – usually one story, sometimes two.
Workers cottages are ubiquitous in Chicago, though they’re perhaps not as well known by name as their younger sibling, the bungalow.
“But once you start recognizing this type of house, you start seeing them all over the place. They’re interesting, the history of the families that lived in them – it wasn’t famous people or rich people. They were regular Chicagoans,” said Matt Bergstrom, co-founder of the Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative.
Bergstrom got interested in the cottages because he saw them being demolished all around his home in Logan Square – where the group launched its first survey with the help of Art Institute students and Preservation Chicago last year.
“When they’re knocked down and they’re being replaced by much bigger houses, it is really changing the character of a lot of neighborhoods,” Bergstrom said.
The Workers Cottage Initiative estimates there are as many as 60,000 of these homes around the city. The earliest date back to the 1860s, but construction really started to take off in the 1880s.
“Chicago was the most dramatically growing city in the world at that time,” said urban historian Joseph Bigott, author of “From Cottage to Bungalow.”
“There is no question about it that Chicago at this time is experiencing a growth of working class people and the development of working class neighborhoods because industry is coming to the city – and I mean big industry,” Bigott said.
Many of those workers were moving out of tenements, or were new immigrants who were able to form a neighborhood – often centered around a church – and find a new home.
“This opportunity to develop a new life and upward mobility is communal, and I think that’s an important part,” Bigott said. “Plus, once you own land you have a concern with politics and with American life.”
The Workers Cottage Initiative tracked demolitions in Logan Square and Avondale between 2006 and 2020. In Logan Square, 46% of buildings knocked down were workers cottages. In Avondale, 40%.
“It’s important to recognize the significance of the workers cottage not only because of who they housed in the past, but who they can house now,” said Elizabeth Blasius of Preservation Futures. “There’s still such a potential for workers cottages to fulfill our housing needs today.”
In many places where workers cottages are knocked down, the new homes are larger and more expensive – meaning preservation isn’t just about history, it’s about holding onto the city’s rapidly declining affordable housing.
“Chicago’s architecture is housing, because we have so much housing in Chicago. And housing, where people live, really resonates with Chicagoans,” Blasius said.
In McKinley Park, students found nearly a quarter of the four thousand-plus parcels they surveyed were workers cottages. There’s also a survey of cottages in South Chicago that’s set to wrap up soon. And, the initiative’s planning to tackle another part of town next spring.
“We hope to see that the houses are kept up, and that people value the houses, and that there’s a pride in living in a workers cottage, so why would you knock it down? It’s a great place to live,” Bergstrom said.