Courtyard buildings


The Courtyard Building

This the first in a series of articles on different types of buildings in the Edgewater Community.


by LeRoy Blommaert
According to architectural historian Daniel Bluestone, who has done extensive research on this building type, the courtyard building might well be a Chicago innovation as these buildings certainly have proliferated more in Chicago than in any other American city. According to his research, the Mecca built in 1891 was the first apartment building with a courtyard open to the street—it stood at 34th and south state street on the same site where Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall stands. The building did not have the separate entryways that became standard in the courtyard vernacular of Chicago; the first courtyard apartment with separate entries was the Arizona on Greenwood avenue near 43rd st. It was designed by Treat & Foltz and built in 1892. (Unfortunately, it was long ago demolished.) There were a few others built in the 1890s, but they did not really take off in the configuration we know them today (3 story walk-ups) until the teens of the next century and did not significantly increase in number until the 1920s. The Great Depression ended their construction (as well as the construction of almost all other types of residential buildings). When construction resumed in the early 1950s, it was in different forms.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Americans had a general disdain toward multi-unit buildings. Tenements, the first term for them, conjured up images of crowded slums in which only the very poor and immigrant people lived. The next term was “flats,” and while this conveyed a better image, it was not by much. Finally, the term “apartments” came to gain general acceptance for multi-unit buildings other than hotels. If had a nice French sound to it.
Here is Bluestone’s description of the courtyard building:
It overcame cultural resistance to this form of residence [the multi-unit building] by cleverly appropriating and reconfiguring cherished elements of the single-family residential landscape: the yard, the planter, the porch, the window bay, the sun parlor and sleeping porch, the bricks, the prominent doorway, the popular domestic styles, and even something of the privacy of the single-family house. The invention and diffusion of the courtyard apartment vernacular established the actual and conceptual space between tenements and a newer kind of urban living, which built humane urban density and scale into and around the natural vegetation more readily associated with life outside the city. Courtyard apartments significantly reordered and redefined urban living in Chicago and beyond.” 

"The courtyard apartment suggested that Chicagoans could both build density and seemingly do the opposite–preserve and cultivate nature or, at least, landscaped evocations of nature.  This was an ambitious strategy that drew both upon the residential lawn and the ideas circulating among tenement reformers."
He went on to describe in some detail the typical courtyard plan: 


The premium placed on sunlight, air, and views over the courtyards, street lawns, and street trees helped determine the typical floor plans of Chicago courtyard apartments. Generally all apartments had courtyard frontage, with each apartment laid out through the entire width of its individual section of the building, extending from the court to the rear, or side, elevation. Limiting the layout to only two apartment per floor in each entry, without public interior or doubleloaded corridors, made this customary plan possible. A spatial hierarchy prevailed in which living rooms, libraries, and parlors were assigned premium space overlooking the courtyard. Kitchens, maid’s rooms, and bathrooms almost never took up space on the courtyard; instead, they occupied the back sections of the apartments, with windows opening on the side and rear elevations. In the case of double-courtyard buildings, m-shaped in plan, the kitchens, maid’s rooms, and bathrooms lined the relatively narrow rear-facing courts between the two main sections of the buildings. Rear entrances and back stairs generally linked the kitchens with the side and rear alleys, or, in the case of double-courtyard buildings, they reached the ground in the rear-facing courts. For efficiency, the locations of dining rooms were often determined by the locations of the kitchens; depending on the precise position of an apartment within the building, its dining room could face the courtyard or the side or rear elevation. Some designers placed master bedrooms on the courtyard; however, like the dining rooms, the bedrooms at times stood at the backs of apartments. Just as there was a spatial hierarchy within individual apartments, there was also a hierarchy within the building. The apartments closest to the street, which stood on the street side of the first entries in the courtyard, were the most desirable. Unlike the other apartments in the building, which had two fronts, these units had three—the courtyard, the street, and the side elevation. These apartments’ corner rooms had windows facing in two directions. In these front apartments, the living room often rotated away from the court to face the street, with its street trees and street lawns. Moreover, in these front apartments the master bedrooms could look out over the court and the street.”


The courtyard building can be found throughout many of Chicago’s community areas, with the fewest in the oldest and newest sections. Edgewater has 74 full courtyard and 37 half courtyard buildings, which together account for 2,933 (or 9%) of the 32.889 residential units which the 2010 census shows for Edgewater. The oldest standard full courtyard is the building at 5340-48 N. Kenmore, designed by S.M. Seator for which a permit was issued in 1911. While every Edgewater neighborhood has at least one, the neighborhoods of Edgewater Beach and NET (Neighbors on Elmdale and Thorndale) have the most, with the greatest concentrations along Kenmore and Winthrop in the 5300 and 5400 blocks in the Edgewater Beach neighborhood and in the 1400 block of Elmdale, where there are four full courtyard buildings in a row.
Edgewater has several interesting and noteworthy court yard buildings. One of its earliest, the Plymouth Court, at 5311 to 5329 North Kenmore, designed by John R. Fugard in 1912 and cited in Bluestone’s article, has one the widest courtyards in Chicago (115 feet across). It may well hold the record. Today, it is a condo and its wide formerly landscaped garden courtyard is a parking lot for its residents.
The Manor House at 1030 West Bryn Mawr, designed by J.E.O. Pridmore in 1908 is a unique courtyard building—perhaps the only Chicago 6 flat full courtyard building. It originally had an imported fountain in the center. The fountain there today is a replacement. While a condominum, the number of units have more than doubled.
The full courtyard at the northeast corner of Kenmore and Rosemont is unique in Edgewater and perhaps in the entire city as well because its courtyard is more open at the corner. It is now owned by Loyola University and used for student housing.
Another at 5330 to 5338 N. Kenmore, designed and first owned by architect Neils Buck, is interesting because it houses two penthouse apartments on a fourth floor that are located on the front of the building. Each is reached by a private elevator. Originally, Mr. Buck and his wife lived in one; his son and family in the other. He demolished his own house on the site in order to build it. This courtyard building is also somewhat unusual in that it has three interior garage spaces.
The full courtyard at 1733-39 W. Balmoral in the West Andersonville neighborhood is unusual in that its courtyard is enclosed by a half story brick wall with entrance through a single gate. Most courtyard buildings were built to be open to the street, although today a number have fences or other types of enclosures at the front to provide enhanced security. It is also unusual in that it is a two-sided courtyard, with the rear being a one-story wall, instead of a three story tier of apartments.
The full courtyard building at 6249-59, originally named the Sherbourne, is the only Edgewater courtyard building that backs up to Lake Michigan.
Another interesting Edgewater courtyard building is less well known as a courtyard building, probably due to the fact that its courtyard is relatively narrow. It is the Patio Apartments at 1610-1620 Granville and 1611-1619 Thome. What is unique about this building—and its courtyard– is that it extends for a full block between Granville and Thome.
Edgewater has three full courtyard buildings that are taller than 3 stories. They are the Denifer at 1038-52 W. Balmoral (7 stories), the building at 5240 N. Sheridan, currently named the Wyndham (11 stories), and the building at 5200 N. Sheridan newly named the Edison (8 stories). The later is a double courtyard. In their height they are more reflective of Chicago’s first courtyard building, the Arizona, than they are of the more prolific 3 story walk-up courtyard buildings. The later two are also different in another respect, and it is an important one: they have one central entrance rather than several and thus lack the aspect of domestic privacy that the standard 3 and 4 story courtyard successfully achieves. Residents in 3 story walk-up courtyard buildings with dozens of families really only share their entryway and stair with either 5 or 7 other families; such entryways help residents living in a multiple family building have the privacy that is more akin to single family residences.
(A complete list of Edgewater courtyard buildings is available on our website. ( history/lists)

Sources: Daniel Bluestone, “Framing Landscape While Building Density: Chicago Courtyard Apartments, 1891-1929,” Journal of Society of Architectural Historians, Vol 76.4 (December 2017); 1928 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Edgewater