Chicago’s Old Town was one of the city’s first historic districts, designated in the 1970s along with its neighbors Mid-North and Astor Street and Kenwood on the south side. Unlike its landmarked contemporaries, Old Town’s history and architecture were more modest. The landmark plaques on the streets describe a working-class German neighborhood and even today the enduring image of Old Town is a simple worker’s cottage, 1-2 stories high in frame or brick, perhaps with some decorative window hoods and brackets at the eave.
Architecturally, then, Old Town remains among the most modest of historic districts, and in a town that celebrated the modernist architectural narrative of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Old Town offered little beyond a five-house row of early Adler & Sullivan townhouses. Daniel Bluestone reports the famous quote by Chicago’s first preservationist, Earl Reed, and Old Town resident who lamented that his neighborhood “exhibited not even a hint of the International Style in Architecture.” It was like Greenwich Village in New York, a bit of an architectural mongrel, but still a place with a strong “sense of place.”
Old Town also shared with Greenwich Village a passion for community activism that more than made up for what it lacked in architectural elitism. Community groups arose immediately after World War II in an effort to create a stable, family-friendly community a short distance from downtown and only steps from the Lincoln Park lakefront. Old Town also shared a community narrative about artists and freethinkers. The Old Town Art Fair – the first in Chicago – began in 1949 and cultivated the artistic image of the community Greenwich Village had pursued even earlier in the century. Both Greenwich Village and Old Town traded on their bohemian nature but became uncomfortable with that status during the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s.
Old Town actually supported urban renewal in an effort to improve their neighborhood, although public sentiment turned sharply against it once the bulldozers started rolling. In the 1970s they turned to Chicago Landmark status – and downzoning – in an effort to limit the highrises that were walling off Chicago’s lakefront. Their success in stopping highrises was limited, another parallel to Greenwich Village, where those godawful white brick behemoths soared in the 1960s during the four years it took for the neighborhood to become a designated New York Landmark.
Community activisim took the shape of an historic district and Old Town has always been one of the most active communities, participating in permit review meetings at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The uninitiated think of landmarks review as some form of “architectural police” but in reality it is quite simply a forum for the community to make their feelings known – an attempted democracy of the built environment. The historic district gives the community a place to voice their opinions – and they have done so in Old Town – markedly – for over 30 years.
When I take my students to Old Town today – as I did last week – I ask them to look not just at the architecture, but also at the sense of place. There is a scale to Old Town, a closeness of building to street and street to cross street and curb to curb that you simply don’t find anywhere else in the city. It is not so much about the rope mouldings above the windows or the paired brackets and dentils at the eave or even those Furnessian ornaments on Adler & Sullivan’s Halstead Houses. It is about a premodern relationship of buildings and streets and narrow alleyways – something not unusual in Rome or the old part of Edinburgh but exceedingly rare in Chicago.
And when I walk through the streets of Old Town I also see the narrative of community activism – an activism that continues more than three decades later as Chicago Landmark status becomes a forum for community groups to provide input into the disposition of their built environment. How will buildings look after they are rehabilitated? What kinds of new construction or additions are acceptable to the community?
I researched Greenwich Village and Old Town for my dissertation and one of the things that struck me was how both communities lacked traditional architectural distinction but planned to use district designation in order to make the community more architecturally coherent over time. And it has happened. Old Town has seen more of its cottages and brick flat buildings brought back to their original design. Areas around Old Town have also “improved” but with new construction at a new scale and style that diminishes the sense of place.
Thirty years ago you would see the same kind of neighborhood north and west of Old Town and today you don’t. The historic district retains layers of history, a rootedness, a sense of unique, distinct and coherent place. Those areas outside are nice enough, but they are like a lot of other places. Their sense of place is every place. Old Town may not have the fanciest architecture, but at least you know where you are when you are there.