When people go on architectural tours, the tour guide will usually highlight the most spectacular, larger than life, and opulent structures. People want glitz and glam, skyscrapers and mansions. On tours with my company, Chicago Detours, we consider both the spectacular and the more understated because the everyday architecture of the buildings we pass by in our Chicago neighborhoods have a story of the city to tell, too.

The Chicago Bungalow

Pictured above, the Chicago bungalow is typically the kind of home that most resembles the house you drew in kindergarten. Not exactly two stories, with windows and a front door, and a chimney coming out one side. Different from your drawing, the roof is pitched lower than the one from your drawing, and the front door is usually off to one side. The bungalow is an early sign in America of a house built for the rising middle and lower-middle class from around 1910-1940. These homes would have offered a great sense of pride to their first-time home owners, as they still do for today's owners with the City's special Historic Bungalow Initiative in Chicago to help preserve this unique feature of the Chicago landscape.

Chicago Alleys


Another feature of the everyday architecture of Chicago are alleys. Alleys seem ubiquitous in Chicago, and they are, but this smart feature of urban design is not found in every large city. Going back to the earliest days of downtown, alleys were used in city planning to provide service access to the backs of buildings. For the middle-class areas of the city, the alley provided a way to separate their proper image with the neighbors from the dirty work with servants in back. Today most Chicago homes have alleys that keep the trash disposable and much of the car traffic from the front of buildings, making the front yards and streets safer and more pleasant for children to play and everyone to enjoy the neighborhood.

Repurposed Old Bank Buildings


In many of Chicago's neighborhoods, often on major corners, you can spot old bank buildings that are now usually shops, cafes, drug stores, or community centers. Their architecture communicates a permanency through facades of stone or ornate terracotta, and the use of classical elements like columns. Back in the day Chicago had many more banks than Chase and the like. Historically, Illinois has had some of the strongest restrictions on branch banking in the country, meaning that if you wanted to bank at First National, you would have to go downtown to its only branch. While these laws were somewhat loosened since the 1960s, it wasn't really until 1993 that they were taken down. This contributed to the downfall of all these small neighborhood banks, and the explosion of Washington Mutual, Bank of America, and Chase branches around the city.

The "Four Plus One" Apartment Building

The "four plus one" is a standard form of an apartment building in Chicago. These money-making buildings of the 1960s and onward elevated four stories of apartments above the "plus one" ground-level of parking, which is much cheaper to make than putting it underground. They were built as close to the sidewalk as allowed by zoning to take most advantage of the lot space. These buildings were a kind of tricky way around Chicago zoning in many areas of the city, many of them close to the waterfront, because they counted as only four stories though that. When they were first being built, neighborhoods were in an uproar about the modern, spared-down design of these buildings. People outcried that these four plus ones would increase the density among single-family homes and become instant slums full of (gasp), renters. Today you may walk by a four plus one and think nothing of it as a standard apartment building, but these certainly have their place in the history of Chicago architecture.