I want to save a historic Chicago home. I’m up against developers who would rather raze it

I want to save a historic Chicago home. I’m up against developers who would rather raze it

When I pulled the creaky front door shut, the bungalow’s weathered door knob popped off in my hand. I ran my fingers over its grooves. It felt heavy in my palm as I weighed the fate of this historic home in Avondale.

The old house needed significant work, but it was within my budget. The one-story brick bungalow was structurally sound with many original features intact. With time and care, I could bring it back to life. I envisioned sipping my morning coffee as light danced through the leaded stained glass windows.

That is, if someone didn’t outbid me who would tear it down. Someone who saw more value in the land than in preserving the home’s built-ins, beautiful millwork and hardwood floors.

Chicago is losing its historic homes at an alarming rate. People like me are losing the chance to preserve them. Only landmark buildings and Chicago Landmark Districts are protected from demolition. The city places few restrictions on developers with bulldozers and deep pockets. Those of us who want to invest our time and money into saving old homes can’t compete.

Developers say replacing single-family homes with condos creates more housing. Housing for whom? Students, early-career professionals and working class families can’t afford luxury condos. Those developers are after profit, not serving the people in the community. New construction means premium real estate prices. It ultimately leads to higher property taxes that can become untenable for long-time residents. As the character of the neighborhood changes, more people get pushed out.

Chicago’s classic brick bungalows and gabled workers cottages were once staples of working-class housing. These small-footprint older homes are often the first to get razed as gentrification creeps in. Take Logan Square as an example. Of the 418 properties torn down from 2006 through 2020, 45% were workers cottages, according to city data compiled by Matt Bergstrom and Liz Potamites from Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative.

Historic homes one neighborhood over in Avondale are up next. When I saw a developer’s plan to replace an Avondale bungalow with a six-unit condo building, my stomach sank. Was it the house whose door knob had weighed heavy in my hand? I had bid $5,000 over the asking price. The winning offer bid $25,000 over.

It turned out to be a different bungalow one block away. The sketches for the proposed building look drab and lifeless. Each condo would sell for $350,000 to $500,000 depending on completion and market value. The developer bought the bungalow for $465,000.

Mary Lu Seidel, director of community engagement for Preservation Chicago, has a few ideas for low-cost interventions that could help save these old homes:

Protect all buildings over 50 years old, full stop. Require that developers prove the structure is a public safety threat to demolish it. If demolition is the only path forward, charge a hefty teardown fee. Put it into a fund for preserving other historic buildings in that community. Lastly, require that developers secure financing and get plan approval before they can bulldoze. Early development plans often fall apart, leaving another vacant lot where a historic building once stood.

Carla Bruni, a preservation and resiliency specialist with Chicago Bungalow Association, encourages people to organize with their neighbors. If you don’t want another condo building destroying your block’s character, work with your alderman. Aldermen can — and do — reject developer rezoning plans. When a developer wanted to replace a 105-year-old house in Irving Park with condos last year, a group of neighbors pushed back. They won. The developer’s condo plans were not accepted.

I’m not giving up. I still think there’s an old bungalow out there for me. While I keep scouring the market, it’s time I join the community groups already working to preserve Chicago’s architecture and neighborhoods. My voice alone can’t save these homes. As a community of many voices, we can.

Betsy Mikel is a Chicago-based writer with a lifelong passion for old houses. She grew up in a dilapidated Victorian in suburban Riverside that is said to have been designed by William Le Baron Jenney. She is writing a memoir.

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