Thursday, February 16, 2017

The History of Chicago's Rear Houses.

Prior to 1890, frame cottages were ubiquitous residences for the working class in Chicago. Typically one-story, rectangular buildings of four to six rooms, these cottages often were built without permanent foundations of brick or stone. Resting upon cedar posts sunk below the frost line, most cottages sat on narrow lots, usually 25 by 125 feet. These narrow lots permitted a row of cottages to crowd one against another and still provide ample space within the interior of a city block.
During the 1880s in neighborhoods near the Loop where land values rose dramatically, the crowding of two and even three cottages upon a single lot became profitable for immigrant homeowners. In districts where factories displaced residences, landowners purchased old cottages intended for demolition. Without permanent foundations or plumbing, these structures were raised and moved easily to another location, often the rear portion of a lot. In other instances, landowners moved older cottages from the front to the rear of their lots and then constructed larger brick buildings on the front of the lot.

Chicago's housing reformers universally condemned rear houses as dirty, miserable firetraps overrun with bugs and rats. In Polish and Bohemian neighborhoods on the West Side, rear houses appeared on one-fourth to one-third of all lots in the 1890s. With the increased construction of three-story brick tenements, these neighborhoods became notorious for dark, damp, and narrow passageways (gangways) that prohibited adequate light and ventilation.
On occasion, rear houses were raised on brick foundations, creating two floors. The new brick first floor sometimes contained primitive toilets or stables. The presence of numerous stables and inadequate sanitation compounded the problems of overcrowded lots. Without adequate space, great numbers of children played in dangerous gangways and foul alleys. Despite building codes, these conditions persisted.

In heavily populated districts like the Back of the Yards or the Black Belt[1] on the South Side, rear houses presented a negligible problem since they appeared only occasionally. In industrial suburbs like East Chicago or Cicero, rear houses resembled their inner-city counterparts. But they appeared only in small, concentrated areas that housed the most recently arrived immigrants.

While rear houses remain common in older sections of Chicago, urban renewal decreased their numbers. Refurbished rear houses also remain in a few gentrified portions of the city such as Lincoln Park. Ironically, housing once condemned as a social evil now offers a trendy address for a young, upwardly mobile population.

[1] From the turn of the twentieth century until after World War II, the term “Black Belt” was commonly used to identify the predominately Black community on Chicago's South Side. Originally a narrow corridor extending from 22nd to 31st Streets along State Street, Chicago's South Side Black community expanded over the century until it stretched from 39th to 95th streets, the Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan.


  1. I lived in a "rear house" in Old Town in the early 60's...Back then, we called it a coach house. We were told by the landlord that it was the 1850's version of a garage and it may have housed a horse and carriage at one time..It had a plaque on it for having survived the Great Chicago Fire. I believe the address was 1954 North Hudson. A second floor had been added, but I don't know if that was before or after the fire.

    1. My oldest friend (since 1970) grew up at 1910 N. Hudson! Nowadays, those buildings, just a few blocks away from Old Town, are multi-million dollar homes.

  2. I lived in one of these in Logan Square on Sacramento near the Kennedy. I was 3 when we moved in and 4 when we moved out. I was one of the worst places I ever lived and I still remember how horrible it was, all full of roaches. I cannot even imagine one of these places being renovated and modern.

  3. Wow. Thank you for this. I had no idea. I knew my great grandfather was poor, but with his brother living in the rear I have new insight into how they lived. Their wives lost children and my great grandmother died of TB years later. This is a meaningful piece for me.

  4. I grew up in one of these on the far northwest side in Norwood Park. We too referred to it as a "coach house". My parents owned the house from the mid 70's until 2004, when they decided it was time to move.

  5. My Aunt and Uncle, both Bohemian lived in what we called a coach house in the 50's. It was one of the only ones on the block, and a business (brick building) two story high was in front. Do not remember where it was because I was only 7 or 8. I remember it was close to the raised L train and walking distance to a show and like a Fannie May that also sold ice cream. Funny what you remember of your childhood.

  6. We lived in a rear "cottage" under the Douglas L near Oakley and Cullerton. Never realized these were tenements when I was a kid.

  7. It is important to note that rear houses (or coach houses as I knew them, too) were again popular in Chicago with returning GIs after World War II. There was a housing boom post-WWII era, and for some that owned a typical lot with full house in the front and two car garage in the back, it was easier and cheaper to convert these garages on the existing footprint into 2 story coach houses. I grew up on the northwest side near Riis Park, and friends I knew, their parents owned a lot like this with their grandparents living at the time in the coach house. It the early 1990s, one of them got married and moved in there. It was a typical home, not a garage. It was clean, insulated, regular amenities, their own electric meter and water, but was simply half the size. The kitchen was small, living room was small, stairway leading upstairs was very small. Many of these post war coach houses are still around in that area, too.


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