Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review

By Amanda on August 27, 2015


For this review of a book on Chicago architecture, we take a look at Out of the Loop, a collection of essays from the Vernacular Architecture Forum that explores Chicago’s architectural landscape from the view of our neighborhoods. Various scholars put together these essays in tandem with the tours that they offered for their 2015 conference, held this past May here in Chicago. So just to let you know, this will be a little bit more of a scholarly post.


Let’s start out with a definition of “vernacular architecture.” People have some different interpretations. Historically a lot of the art history and architectural history of scholarship has been the creations or consumptions of those in power, such as mansions, churches, or castles. More recently scholarship has turned to also include the lives of everyday people, and that’s what studies of vernacular architecture speak to.

Vernacular buildings can be residential, industrial or agricultural (like barns) and usually they are not designed by any famous architect. Some people say that vernacular has to be unique to the materials and conditions of the local environment, like igloos of Canada. Others would say that vernacular architecture is simply more commonplace, like the mass-produced architecture of a Route 66 gas station. Though its design is not necessarily locally sensitive, it reflects culture.

So I got pretty excited about this book as it comes close to our approach to architecture on our interior architectural walking tours or bus tours of Chicago neighborhoods. I like to point out the extraordinary qualities of ordinary buildings, like why houses look sunken below street level in certain areas of town. On our new “Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour” I point out how the multiple diagonal streets of Bridgeport defy the grid because they were built before the layout of the city, and these streets were designed perpendicular to the river, which had been the focal point of the street layout. I was excited to the conference and this book as providing me with rich new fodder for my stories of Chicago history as a tour guide.

The writers for these essays, who range from community figures to urban planners to historians, take very interdisciplinary approaches to their topics. Concepts span sociology, geography, history, art history, and anthropology (like our tours!).

I love how VAF Chicago’s conference chair Virginia Price opens the book: “What binds VAF participants is a methodology grounded in the investigation, analysis, and interpretation of the ways the built environment shapes – and, in turn, is shaped by – human experience.” This is the stuff I live for!

This more cultural approach to understanding everyday architecture is a newer idea, and thus the field of vernacular architecture seems to be trying to solidify its identity. Many of the essays – while informatively written – simply share facts about the buildings, such as their location or materials, rather than directly reflecting upon and processing the ways in which buildings and urban space are actually used by human beings.

Terry Tatum’s breakdown of Chicago residential building types, such as bungalows or courtyard apartment buildings, is helpful for outlining the forms and materials of the homes on regular Chicago neighborhood streets. Insights into the cultural forces that have shaped these buildings would help it better fit within the studies of vernacular architecture.

For example, we can consider how the ways we use a common Chicago house dictates the building’s form. Many Chicago homes have the kitchen in the back of the house so that there is easy access to the back yard (where there may be a garden) and also the alleyway, where the trash is taken out. While it seems mundane to a Chicagoan, this is not always the case in other cities. Or I wondered, did people respond to a workers cottage versus a greystone? Was a standalone cottage the dream of the working class man or still not enough? What messages do these buildings say to both its inhabitants and those looking at them from the outside?

A chapter on Little Italy also focused on churches and mansions, leading me wondering more about the definition of “vernacular architecture.” It does, on the other hand, address the Jane Addams Home, a 1938 housing project.

jane addams little italy museum of public housing
A 1938 housing development in Little Italy.

While the essays could use a more binding approach, the content of the book makes it an excellent addition to both scholars or aficionados of Chicago architecture and neighborhoods. Chapters dig into big ideas in Chicago history and planning, like our grid layout, the Chicago Union Stock Yards infrastructure, or religious buildings. Then other chapters go into specific neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Little Italy to Devon. There’s quite a fascinating story of how Lawndale went from a predominantly Jewish community to what a sociologist called a “hyperghetto.”

The Hull-House essay by Lisa Junkin Lopez and Heather Radke contrasts the dystopia of tenement homes with the utopia of the Jane Addams Hull-House Settlement. They detail who lived in the buildings and the functions of the spaces in order to ultimately make a clear statement of the ties between the architecture and culture: “Hull-House reformers resisted and confronted gender-based oppression through this utopian reimagining of the space and meaning of home.”

When buildings are seen not as mere objects but instead as reflections of our own cultural identities, the study of architectural history becomes deeply human. For me at least, this is the definition of “vernacular architecture.”

–Amanda Scotese

Chicago Detours Executive Director

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