WIN: Ongoing Efforts to Survey and Save Chicago’s Workers Cottages

The Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative celebrates this housing style, seeking to preserve the unique features of these houses, protect them from demolition, and continue their use and reuse for the next century. Image credit: Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative

Chicago’s vernacular architecture faces a threat that collectively has an impact at least as significant as losing a grand ballroom or downtown building.

Workers cottages are being lost at an alarming rate across the City of Chicago as some buyers prefer large homes that fill a city lot instead of the charming character of a late 19th Century/Early 20th Century workers cottage.

A group of Logan Square neighbors, who are also workers cottage owners, formed the Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative intent on elevating the status of these historic, vernacular homes. A 10-year data analysis of Logan Square demolitions revealed 40% of demolitions in that neighborhood were workers cottages. Direct actions were needed to have a positive impact.

When Tom Vlodek moved into his 127-year-old workers cottage in Logan Square in 2011, they began a renovation of their home that was one of a row of eight, all built in the same era. They loved the handsome roof line the houses produced and the neighborhood character they represented.

Shortly after moving in, they heard the groan of an earthmover across the alley. It was tearing down a workers cottage on the next block, in another long row of cottages. It was a terrible loss, compounded by the fact that this character-rich, humble home was replaced by a single-family house the size of a typical Chicago three-flat.

A year later, the process was repeated on another home on the block. In time, several more workers cottages in the immediate vicinity were torn down, each replaced by an ostentatious, single-family home.

“Americans enjoy the right of property but destroying the character of a neighborhood to build a $1.5M home where a far more affordable home once stood, was too much to bear,” said Vlodek, Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative co-founder. “It was then that I felt had to do something.”

Surveying is being conducted in areas with concentrations of workers cottages to identify their location, assess their condition, and work with communities to develop neighborhood-focused strategies to protect and reinvest in their revitalization.

Preservation Chicago is an active member of the Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative. Using Preservation Chicago’s subscription to Regrid, a web-based program that allows for data extraction, surveying and spatial analysis, teams of volunteers have surveyed sections of Logan Square, McKinley Park, Southeast Chicago, and now Back of the Yards.

Students from the School of the Art Institute, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago have been integral to conducting the surveys. Once the survey data is collected, a summary of the findings is presented to community members for input and action steps.

“It is rewarding work to connect with workers cottage owners and highlight the importance of saving these uniquely Chicago homes,” said Mary Lu Seidel, Director of Community Engagement for Preservation Chicago. “Having the data accessible about their location, size, and condition helps make the case for preservation solutions.”

If you’d like to get involved with the Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative or learn more about the effort, please visit workescottage.org or email contact@workerscottage.org.

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