While we refer to the western curve around the city as the Bungalow Belt, those dense bungalow neighborhoods are often shared with brick two-flats built at the same time and by the same developers. Both of these housing forms were incredibly handsome and well-built with economy and affordability in mind, and they complement each other perfectly. In fact, a two-flat is basically just a stacked Chicago bungalow in terms of layout and design (minus the hipped or gabled roof). So, here’s a bit about the history of Chicago’s indispensable two-flat and its variations since we are huge fans of this housing type as well.
First, a note about how we describe these buildings locally: In Chicago, “flat” refers to a specific type of apartment. Every floor of a flat apartment building is essentially the same as the floor below and the number preceding the word “flat” represents the number of units in the building. While “two-flat” and its variations sounds more like the form of the building than the style, we tend to call them by that descriptive name versus any style that is expressed on their facades. For example, if a single-family home has Tudor Revival details, we call it a Tudor. If a brick two-flat has Tudor Revival details, we still just call it a two-flat. The same goes for a three-flat and six-flat. The one-flat is called many things, but one-flat seems to make the most sense locally, given how we describe their taller siblings.
What we never call these buildings are duplexes and triplexes. Duplexes are newer construction and mostly live in the suburbs. Triplexes have nothing to do with the Chicagoland area—you’ll have to travel if you want to use that word and not get a weird look. Additionally, while technically, all two- three- and six-flats are multi-unit buildings, we tend to just call those out by their names and reserve “multi-unit building” for buildings that have more than six units.
Flats buildings in all their variations can be found in virtually all bungalow neighborhoods and beyond, stretching from the furthest southern neighborhoods to the furthest northern neighborhoods. Some particularly dense pockets of two-flats and their brethren are West Garfield Park, South Lawndale, Lower West Side, Brighton Park, New City, Fuller Park, West Ridge, and surrounding neighborhoods.
The History of Flats in Chicago
According to one account in 1909, these “stacked apartments” were built for families grappling with the social and economic shifts of the times, including the high price of land, the necessities of life, and the rising expense of domestic help. While that may have been true for some moderately fancy Chicagoans, the two-flat was, and continues to be, a notoriously successful way for people to achieve stability and even upward mobility. The more units in a building, the less expensive the units tend to be, so if you couldn’t afford a single-family home, you might opt for a two-flat so that you could rent half of the building out to help pay down your mortgage. Of course, there were plenty of renters in the attics and spare rooms of bungalows as well, but if you can afford separate bathrooms and kitchens, why not?
These flat buildings from the 1910s and 20s were made up of the same materials and styling as Chicago bungalows—concrete foundations, brick walls, limestone details, Craftsman details throughout—and were designed by the same architects, contractors, and developers who were building neighboring bungalows. Population-wise, Chicago grew at a faster rate than any other American city between 1910 and 1930 and the walls of existing buildings creaked with the weight of incoming residents. We desperately needed more housing units—especially “affordable” units—and we couldn’t build and fill these new buildings fast enough. In fact, while flats by definition have only a single unit on each floor, there are caveats here as well. Some two-flats were actually split off into front and back units to make them even more affordable, and basement units–legally or otherwise–could make a two-flat a kind of under-the-radar three-flat.
Two- and three-flats make up more than a quarter of Chicago’s housing. In some neighborhoods, like South Lawndale and Brighton Park, they make up more than two-thirds of the building stock. In the earliest decades of their existence, immigrant families would pack these flats with family or other folks who had recently come over from their home countries. In fact, my own great grandparents owned a two-flat in Englewood in the 1920-30s on the 4400 block of W. Jackson in West Garfield Park. It was packed with Sicilians who I *thought* I was related to until I looked up the census data and realized we were separate families who just came to the U.S. together and cohabitated. While this model of co-existing while maintaining some degree of privacy may have changed in some regards, it has stayed the same in many others. Here’s another familiar scenario:
For years, you and your closest friends or family talked about living together (but apart), and finally, you found a good deal and the timing was right, so you made it happen. You leave the apartment doors open so your cats can go in and out of each other’s homes. It’s easier to borrow a cup of sugar this way. You have impromptu dinners. You also share the outdoor space, summer barbecues, and a winter fire pit. You meet in the basement and coordinate laundry schedules. When you go out of town, your mail is collected and the aforementioned cats are fed.
The Different Types of Flats
Two- and Three-Flats
While some two- and three-flats were still being dressed up as greystones in the 1910s and 20s, their brick-clad siblings were largely nudging them off the scene. While their interiors were similar—long, stacked apartments with living rooms in the front, bedrooms and sometimes a dining room in the center, and a kitchen in back—the economical brick and limestone trim and forms were taking the place of Bedford
limestone-fronted greystones and their 19th century flourishes. Using only limestone accents and pared-down Craftsman detailing cost builders less to construct when these came on the scene in the 1910s and 20s. While the fronts of these new flats were clad in face brick, the sides and back, like greystones, were constructed of that fabulous, durable, but even less expensive Chicago common brick.
These are essentially double-wide versions of three-flats with a central entrance and hallway and two mirrored apartments on each floor. Like their smaller cousins, they’re also constructed of brick, with face brick on the street-facing side, and have Bedford limestone detailing. Classical Revival and Arts and Crafts styles are most common, and occasionally they’ll feature large front porches.
These Napoleonic one-story homes have all of the charm and detailing of their multi-flat siblings but are one-story, single-family homes versus stacked flats. They have the same layouts, brick construction, limestone detailing, and even parapet walls as two- and three-flats. They also have virtually the same interior plan as Chicago bungalows, minus the attic, and are sometimes referred to as “shoebox bungalows.” We recommend oohing and aahing when you see these relatively rare treats in neighborhoods like K-Town in North Lawndale.
These flat buildings were always a form of bridge housing, building a path for generational stability. Over the past few years, the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University has done extensive research on two-flats (and four-unit versions where each flat is divided into two units) in an attempt to bring attention to the rapid loss of this housing type in Chicago. These buildings remain a critical part of our affordable housing supply and are being lost to demolition or conversions to single-family homes in gentrifying areas, and disinvestment in the neighborhoods that need an affordable housing supply most.
These two-flats are a particularly important component of the housing stock in Chicago's communities of color, especially in Latinx neighborhoods, where 32.2 percent of all lots contain two- to four-flat buildings (this includes three-flats or two-flats that are split front-to-back), and 45.8 percent of all residential housing units in majority-Latinx communities are in two- to four-flat buildings. These buildings are also an important part of the housing stock in predominantly Black communities, where 23.4 percent of lots and 29.5 percent of units are in two- to four- unit buildings. (For more information on the Institute for Housing Studies, see here and here.)
Today, these hard-working buildings are still most often owned by equally hard-working, small “mom and pop” landlords. Without this particular vintage building form, a massive gap would occur in our affordable rental stock and that potential for upward mobility for small scale developers (aka, the mom and pops mentioned above) would shrink considerably. Let’s all give a robust round of applause to our (usually) taller bungalow cousins that do so much for our neighborhoods!
American Carpenter and Builder. Vol. 7, no. 6, September 1, 1909, p. 694. Accessed May 13, 2023
Hubka, Thomas C. and Judith T. Kenny. "Examining the American Dream: Housing Standards and the Emergence of a National Housing Culture, 1900-1930." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 13, no. 1, 2006, pp. 49-69.
Hunter, Robert. Tenement Conditions in Chicago. Chicago: City Homes Association, 1901. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044025682253&view=1up&seq=160.
"The Housing Problem in Chicago." American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 20 (1902 July): 99-107. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://digital.janeaddams.ramapo.edu/items/show/1162.
"Two- and Three-Flats." Architecture.org. Accessed May 13, 2023. https://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/buildings-of-chicago/building/two-and-three-flats/.