Fearful Symmetries

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13 August, 2008

The Old Homestead

I recently moved back to the isthmus after a decade-long absence. The main consideration was being near the Marquette Elementary School so that The Dulcinea's youngest son wouldn't be changing schools for the second year in a row. We found a flat near the school in an old house surrounded by other old houses. I like the neighborhood quite a bit because I love old homes and they're all different from one another, unlike new subdivisions which are just cookie cutter crap where all the houses look alike. It's all siding with no brick and you can have your siding in one of three shades of grey or tan.

My love of old homes and my attraction to my new neighborhood is probably the result of luck as I grew up in an old house in a neighborhood full of them – The Villa.



The Villa is a district within the larger Irving Park Neighborhood on Chicago's northwest side. Last fall, the Chicago PBS affiliate ran a segment about the The Villa on the program Chicago Tonight. Luckily the station is able to burn copies of the program onto DVD and sell them to nostalgic folks like me. (This stands in stark contrast to Wisconsin Public Television which, I found out a couple weeks ago, is unable to afford to sell copies of its programs.) It made for some interesting viewing as I got to see my old stomping grounds and learn about the history of district.

The Villa is now in its 101st year. The land was sold to developers Albert Haentze and Charles M. Wheeler in 1907 but came with some restrictions. A preservationist interviewed for the program explains, "What city planners were finding was that, um, a lack of planning was creating neighborhoods that were not attractive to live in. They would quickly become overcrowded, you didn't have sufficient greenspace…"

The restrictions imposed were:

1) Only single-family homes were to be built.
2) A minimum of 15' of frontage for each property.
3) Houses be set back at least 38' from the lot line to prevent crowding.

Haentze and Wheeler added two more restrictions: that the minimum home price be $2,500 and that all homes had to be bungalows. If you don't know anything about architecture, especially that of Chicago, then know that the city has tons of bungalows. There's even a "bungalow belt". The Villa was ahead of the curve in this respect as the so-called Bungalow Boom of the 1920s was still more than a decade away.

The district was originally your typical slice of Chicago grid pattern but got replatted. This changed the streets and added parkways.





There are two flavors of bungalows in The Villa: the Chicago and the California.

Let's start with the Chicago bungalow:



They're relatively narrow, have brick exteriors, and the gable is parallel to the street. You can't swing a dead cat in Chicago without hitting one of these.

Now here's a California bungalow:



Notice how it's wider. It looks like it's stuccoed, as was the house I grew up in, as opposed to being made of brick.

The show noted that the most common architectural style in the district is the Craftsman style with eaves that have exposed rafters which extend far beyond the wall. Frank Lloyd Wright was big at the time and his Prairie Style is also present in the Villa.



It was also noted that some homes built in the late 1910s and early 1920s have elements of Colonial Revival.



In all, there are 126 homes in The Villa and the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in1979 and became a Chicago landmark four years later. It's a lovely neighborhood and, as you can see from the photo above, street corners have these neat stone flower boxes which are about six feet tall. I was last in The Villa a few years ago and the parkway that my friends and I had played football on as kids is now overgrown. The saplings are now trees and the bushes cover much of the grass. I also found that the railroad embankment along Avondale had a shiny new fence but I hope this doesn't prevent the neighborhood kids from putting pennies on the tracks to have them flattened by trains. Plus asparagus grew on the embankments as well.

These are minor changes, really, as The Villa hasn't really changed much at all over the past 80 or so years. I also hope that the basement of the house I grew up in hasn't changed much. A young couple bought the place when we moved to Wisconsin and their kid deserved to have the wonderful basement to play in as I did. While I cannot recall all the details, the house was built by a German immigrant and he modeled the basement after a Trinkenhalle or drinking hall. (No wonder I love beer so much.) There were high footings that were painted to look as if they were made of stone and the walls were painted with rafters and braces. The doors were made to look as if they were these big oaken portals and had rings instead of doorknobs. There was a small windowed crawl space in one wall that had a triptych inside of a German village. Of course there was a beautiful wooden bar, all darkly-stained. I inherited some of the glassware and steins that were in that bar and put them in our new hutch this past weekend. The basement was dark and had tons of crawlspaces which are perfect for kids.

Ah, the memories. But now I have a new house to get used to and a new neighborhood to explore. My basement is slowly being transformed into my office, along with storage, and I'll no doubt add an antiquarian touch.
|| Palmer, 10:48 AM

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