Found in many Chicago neighborhoods, the courtyard building is usually overlooked as a significant part in Chicago’s development history. But during the time in which most were constructed (1900-1930), these buildings provided the less wealthy a decent living space: plentiful interior space, abundant natural lighting, and cross ventilation, which helped keep air temperature low. Cross-ventilation was particularly important as air conditioning wasn’t yet in use.
Perhaps the grandest, or at least tallest, courtyard building in the city is Vista Homes in Hyde Park.
Built in 1926 as cooperative housing, Vista Homes was a grand statement as much as a large bet on the future.
According to a Chicago Landmark Designation report [PDF, pg. 27], it was “touted at the time of its construction in 1925-27 as the largest cooperative building in the world with its 120 apartments.”
It was also advertised as having the “World’s First Co-Op Garage.”
Grand Building From a Grand Architect
The Vista Homes building was designed by Paul Frederick Olsen, a prolific architect who designed a number of large residential and hospitality structures during the 1920s.
The poem in the cartoon above gives a quirky description of his works:
He draws the plans for all these places
Where life is decked with the arts and graces,
And people give
Huge sums to live,
With the biggest front in the smallest places
Height of a Giraffe, Stripes of a Zebra
In a city where it’s common for buildings to feature ornate facades and simpler walls/rear, Vista Homes stands out aesthetically. With its proximity to the park and lake shore, expectations were high for more surrounding buildings just as tall.
But just a couple years after Vista Homes’ construction was complete, the Great Depression hit, effectively ending construction of the others that had been planned.
The absence of neighboring buildings left Vista Homes exposed with a stark contrast of brick and structural support, rendering the sides similar in appearance to a tall zebra.
Grotesques or Gargoyles?
Though grotesques are almost always referred to as gargoyles, the latter serves a specific purpose: carrying rainwater away from the structure. (Check out a previous article on the endangered Herdegen-Brieske Funeral Home building in Lake View for more on the differences).
The figures pictured above are just below the parapet at the top of the building, which means they could carry water away from the building, but it’s not clear that they do.
Standing Tall, Decidedly Gothic
Today Vista Homes remains cooperatively owned.
About the Height
Though there are many pre-1930 apartment buildings in Chicago that are taller than 17 stories, I can’t find a courtyard building that matches the height of Vista Homes.
Is there one taller? Do you have interesting stories or anecdotes about Vista Homes? Please let us know in the comments below.
References and Further Reading
- Vista Homes (official site)
- Vista Homes on Chicago Architecture Data
- Typology of Courtyard Apartments in Rogers Park (Ultra Local Geography)
- Oglesby Cooperative Apartments (also designed by Olsen, City of Chicago, PDF)
- The Chicago Courtyard Apartment Building: A Sustainable Model Type [PDF]