I want to save a historic house in Chicago. I’m up against developers who’d rather razor it to the ground
As I closed the creaky front door, the weathered doorknob of the bungalow came loose in my hand. I ran my fingers over its grooves. It felt heavy in my hand as I pondered the fate of this historic Avondale home.
The old house needed considerable work, but it was within my budget. The single story brick bungalow was structurally solid with many original features intact. With time and care, I could bring it back to life. I imagined sipping my morning coffee while lights danced through the leaded glass windows.
That is, if someone didn’t outbid me, who’d tear it down. Someone who placed more value on the land than on keeping the fixtures and fittings, beautiful woodwork, and hardwood floors in the house.
Chicago is losing its historic homes at an alarming rate. People like me lose the chance to keep them. Only listed buildings and Chicago Landmark Districts are protected from demolition. The city puts few restrictions on developers with bulldozers and deep pockets. Those of us who want to invest our time and money in saving old homes cannot keep up.
Developers say replacing single-family homes with condominiums will create more living space. Living for whom? Students, young professionals and working-class families cannot afford luxury apartments. These developers are for profit and do not serve the people in the community. New construction means high real estate prices. This ultimately leads to higher property taxes that can become untenable for long-term residents. As the character of the neighborhood changes, more and more people are being displaced.
Chicago’s classic brick bungalows and gabled huts were once a staple of the working class. These older, small-footprint homes are often the first to be razed to the ground in gentrification. Take Logan Square as an example. Of the 418 homes demolished from 2006 to 2020, 45% were workers’ cottages, according to city data compiled by Matt Bergstrom and Liz Potamites of the Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative.
Next up are historic homes in a neighborhood in Avondale. When I saw a property developer plan to replace an Avondale bungalow with a six-unit condominium, I felt sick. Was it the house whose doorknob had weighed heavily in my hand? I had bid $ 5,000 above the asking price. The winning offer was $ 25,000.
It turned out to be another bungalow a block away. The sketches for the planned building look dreary and lifeless. Each condominium would sell for $ 350,000 to $ 500,000, depending on completion and market value. The builder bought the bungalow for $ 465,000.
Mary Lu Seidel, Director of Community Engagement for Preservation Chicago, has some ideas for low-cost interventions that could help save these old homes:
Protect all buildings that are more than 50 years old, period. Request that the developers demonstrate that the structure poses a threat to public safety in order to be demolished. If demolition is the only way to go, then charge a hefty demolition fee. Put it in a fund to help conserve other historic buildings in this parish. Finally, developers need to secure funding and get planning approval before they can plan. Early zoning plans often fall apart, leaving behind another building plot where a historic building once stood.
Carla Bruni, a conservation and resilience specialist for the Chicago Bungalow Association, encourages people to organize with their neighbors. If you don’t want another condo building to ruin the character of your block, work with your aldermen. City councils can – and do – reject the developer redirection plans. When a developer wanted to replace a 105-year-old house in Irving Park with condominiums last year, a group of neighbors pushed back. They have won. The developer’s condominium plans were not accepted.
I do not give up. I still think there’s an old bungalow out there for me. As I scour the market, it’s time to join the community groups that are already working to preserve Chicago’s architecture and neighborhoods. My voice alone cannot save these houses. As a community with many voices, we can do that.
Betsy Mikel is a Chicago-based writer with a lifelong passion for old houses. She grew up in a shabby Victorian suburb of Riverside that is said to have been designed by William Le Baron Jenney. She writes memoirs.
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