by Michael R. Allen
The future is always doubtful to that last historic house on a block in a neighborhood whose primary land use has changed. Neighborhoods just outside of the central business district of American cities that were residential walking neighborhoods typically lost their character in the twentieth century as commercial use crept outward. Large new buildings went up on main thoroughfares, followed by mixed use and apartment buildings on other streets. Old houses became rooming houses, offices and even small factories — until their narrow lots were added to adjacent lots to make sites for larger buildings. Secondary streets often kept much of the old housing stock, but the main streets emerged from second wave development looking more like downtown than ever.
On some blocks, like the one shown above on North Avenue just west of Milwaukee in Chicago, one will find the houses that survived the development waves. Some of these houses stand alone, adjacent to parking lots. Their futures are doubtful, since they stand apart from the historic context that would make their defense likely should a developer want to take the house and the adjacent lot and build a new building. In Chicago, tear-downs like that seem to happen weekly. The new construction is often an insipid four or five story building with street level retail and condominiums above, rendered in a bland minimalist style or a gaudy postmodernist mess.
Other survivors are more fortunate, like this old Romanesque Revival house. When the building to the right went up in the 1910s, the developer didn’t need, want or buy the house. When the building on the left went up, the same story. Neighbors came down, but not the erstwhile little house. The house slipped through both times. With such a small site, and the house being so close to the neighbors, one could guess that the house has escaped demolition. Then again, in urban real estate, nothing is ever certain.
There were years in recent memory when this stretch of North Avenue were devoid of much development interest, and then things changed rapidly. Even if the market is in downturn now, that won’t last forever. Some locations hold inherent value that survives the market’s cycles. Some buildings do too. Is this house one of those now, by virtue of its escape?