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Workers’ cabins helped form Chicago’s suburbs

It’s easy to imagine urban life in the 19th century, when Chicago was flooded with newly arrived immigrants who established neighborhoods and packed their families into old apartment buildings on the edges of the city.

This sepia-toned cliché may reflect the experiences of ancestors in old East Coast metropolises like New York City or Baltimore, but “it’s not really true” in Chicago, said Joseph Bigott, a history professor at Purdue University Northwestern.

“They were building and expanding quickly in Chicago,” he said. “19. There is no housing stock that is old in the 20th century, but there is rapid growth. They don’t have housing, so they have to build it. Who do they need to build for? Everyone.”

After Chicago’s legendary fire destroyed much of the city in 1871, construction went into overdrive in the following years.

Limestone mansions of gilded age magnates were built along Prairie Boulevard, while neighborhoods of simpler structures emerged in the former prairie land surrounding newly laid railroad lines and new industrial campuses.

Growing up around limestone quarries and a brewery, blue-collar suburbs like Thornton were a natural fit for workers’ cottages, an accessible style of housing common in the Chicago area from the 1880s to the 1920s. (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)

Thanks to the abundance of lumber from old-growth pine forests in Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as new milling processes such as kiln drying that provided precise standardized measurements of pre-cut wood, a new form of construction began to emerge. Workers’ cottages were more affordable than ostentatious, but they came with the promise of a better standard of living for working-class families.

A century and a half after they began being built in earnest, an effort is being made to celebrate and preserve cottages and cottages that have continued to offer usefulness and accessibility for generations.

Bigott, author of the book 2001 book “From Cottage to Bungalow: Chicago Metropolitan Housing and the Working Class, 1869-1929” will join Lucy Gomez Feliciano of the Here to Stay Community Land Trust for a time. free lesson On Thursday, March 14 at 13:00 at the University of Illinois at Chicago Major Cities Institute.

The course was organized by a non-profit organization Chicago Workers’ Shed InitiativeA group organized mostly to celebrate and promote homes built from the 1880s to the 1910s, they say “homeownership represents the origins of the ‘American Dream’ and the investment and pride of Chicago’s new immigrants.”

It’s a portion of Chicagoland’s housing stock that is increasingly at risk due to age, humble origins and, in some areas, the gentrification of neighborhoods.

“Some of these cottages were really simple four-room houses,” Bigott said. “They cost $600 in a $200 lot. “It was a simple frame building with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen.”

Many workers' cottages like this one on Kinzie Street in Thornton started as simple four-room houses and were expanded over the years.  Since most homes were built before automobiles were widely available, none of them originally had a garage.  (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)
Many workers’ cottages like this one on Kinzie Street in Thornton started as small cottages and were expanded over the years. Since most homes were built before automobiles were widely available, none of them originally had a garage. (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)

Skilled workers with more money can start with a fancier home. The changing fortunes of families meant that many cottages were modified to suit circumstances.

“There were Polish and German immigrants in places like Calumet City, when they could buy a house it would be four bedrooms, but they could build on that,” Bigott said. “It was a frame house, so it was really easy to build behind it, or even raise the cabin and make it two stories. “They were very adaptable and flexible housing.”

This is a form of housing that helps form communities.

The suburbs, especially the southern suburbs, became magnets for the style after Chicago’s fiery 1870s, when Chicago legislators banned wood-frame construction. Areas like Chicago Heights, Harvey, and northwestern Indiana cities like Hammond and Whiting offered new railroad access and plenty of flat land on which industrialists could build sprawling factories and mills.

“When Standard Oil moves into Whiting, it builds housing for executives, but the local people and local markets create the housing for the bulk of the workers,” Bigott said. “It is a form of local capitalism, as opposed to corporate capitalism, which is responsible for the real estate market.

“The industry provides jobs but the money goes to developing communities. This is the essence of the movement to create these huts. “Local people make money from the development of cities.”

In good times when employment was plentiful, the adaptability of workers’ cottages meant that some could be expanded into two flats to accommodate additional family members or to rent out for an additional source of income.

Because of their simple wood-frame construction, workers' cottages like this one on 170th Street in Hazel Crest were easy to expand and customize.  In this case skylights and the front foyer were added.  (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)
Because of their simple wood-frame construction, workers’ cottages like this one on 170th Street in Hazel Crest were easy to expand and customize. In this case skylights and the front foyer were added. (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)

Because the money was kept locally, it was fed back into churches and schools and into the small shops, taverns and restaurants that sprung up in the middle of residential areas.

“When you look at a place, it feels like it belongs to a certain time,” Bigott said. “There were taverns and shops mixed in with the houses in the mansion neighborhoods. In modern neighborhoods the stores are all on major streets or elsewhere. But there are taverns in neighborhoods in Calumet City’s Chicago Heights. Some of those neighborhoods were like this. The cabins were built for walking neighborhoods.”

It was a working model, and its backbone was the workers’ hut. Elaine Lewinnek, professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, argues in her article: 2014 book “The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Expansion” shows that the idea of ​​homeownership as the “working man’s reward” was one of Chicago’s most influential exports, setting the stage for suburbs everywhere.

Lewinnek points out that, like all briefs, this is an oversimplification of a concept that is complicated by important factors such as racist housing policies and redlining, as well as exploitative practices of employers and banking institutions. But the mix of factors in Chicago in the 1890s “helped create a city that became the model for America’s suburban growth.”

Workers' cottages such as this one at Thornton were often elevated to facilitate later basement access.  Most were designed rectangular to fit the Chicago area's standard 25-by-100-foot urban footprint.  (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)
Workers’ cottages such as this one at Thornton were often elevated to facilitate later basement access. Most were designed rectangular to fit the Chicago area’s standard 25-by-100-foot urban footprint. (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)

By the 1920s, the widespread availability of modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity brought an end to the heyday of the workers’ cottage.

“Houses don’t change form unless something really important happens,” Bigott said.

A hundred years ago water and heat, chicago bungalow, a style of house built around its infrastructure. But in many cases the additional expense of adding pipes, ducts and wires led to the sacrifice of some of the more ornate woodwork seen in some workers’ cottages.

However, Bungalows were also hugely popular, until another invention changed the way people used their homes.

“Television really changed homes in the 1950s,” he said. “People wanted a family room off the kitchen for television. “This led to a different kind of home.”

A television might have spelled disaster for the old-fashioned front room, but one of the features that workers’ cottages introduced widely has remained a consistent feature in the housing stock ever since: the back door.

“The front room was the show room, but most people came in through the back door when they came home from work,” Bigott said. “It was really nice that the kitchen entrance was the back door. Many of these brick apartments had no back doors. “They only had one entrance.”

Two workers' cottages are opposite industrial buildings associated with the quarry across Williams Street in Thornton, where limestone has been mined from an ancient reef since the mid-1800s.  One of the important aspects of workers' cottages was the back door, which often became the main access point to the homes.  (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)
Two workers’ cottages are opposite industrial buildings associated with the quarry across Williams Street in Thornton, where limestone has been mined from an ancient reef since the mid-1800s. One of the important aspects of workers’ cottages was the back door, which often became the main access point to the homes. (Paul Eisenberg/Daily Southtown)

Beyond their historical impact, workers’ cottages in Chicago and the suburbs continue to shape neighborhoods and remain an asset that should not be pushed aside, Bigott said.

“I’m not a historian who says we should save things just because they’re old,” he said. “But as cities get older, they gain character and diversity.”

Woodwork on workers’ cottages often adds character, and the smaller size of many of the homes and a back door to the backyard “is especially nice for aging people or entry-level people just entering the market.”

“There’s no need to get nostalgic about it or say one style of housing is superior to another, but we have to recognize that they offer different possibilities,” Bigott said. “If you have diversity, people can make more choices.

“This is a style you can’t do anymore. The components, the way they produce those houses are finished.”

Landmarks is a weekly column in which Paul Eisenberg explores the people, places and things that have left an indelible mark on the Southland. He can be reached at peisenberg@tribpub.com.

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