The Past, Present, and Future of the Chicago Two-Flat

They’ve been called “the workingman’s palace” and “palazzos for the people,” but you may know them by another name — two-flats.

Here in Chicagoland, the two-flat — and its larger siblings, the three-flat and four-flat — are a common sight. They form the backbone of plenty of Chicago neighborhoods, and they’re a rich part of the city’s history and its architectural heritage.

Even if you don’t know the word two-flat, you might recognize these iconic structures by sight. Chicago’s “flats” tend to have a distinct visual look. These buildings contain two or more single-family dwellings, stacked on top of each other. Architecturally, two-flats stand out because of their signature features, including large, offset front porches, generous front-facing windows, and simple brick or stone facades. Generally, a two-flat will have a small yard in the front, and a bit of green space in the back. Around the building, a “gangway” may separate one lot from another.

And just as exciting as their similarities are the differences you’ll find from building to building. While two-flats and three-flats tend to have very similar layouts, many have unique embellishments and finishes — from distinct glasswork to front cornices — that give each and every one a unique character.

In our area, these structures are so common that many of us take them for granted. But really, two-flats are incredibly unique. They’re a special part of Chicago’s vernacular architecture, and are truly synonymous with our region. In fact, as Block Club Chicago has pointed out, Google searches for the phrase “two-flat” come almost exclusively from within Illinois!

You may have passed hundreds of two-flats. You may even call one home. But have you ever wondered about the story behind this staple?

How did the Chicago two-flat come to be? What’s the history behind these Chicago-area icons, and what does the future hold for one of our region’s signature structures? Let’s take a look at the story of the two-flat, past and present:

A Brief History of the Two-Flat

In many ways, the story of the two-flat is a reflection of the story of Chicago.

As the Chicagoland area grew in the late 1800s, the city saw an influx of immigrants, particularly from parts of central Europe. While the population of the city grew, developers began to think about the most economical way to use the space available. As a result, builders started to think about how to grow the city up, rather than out. At the turn of the century, two-flats and three-flats became popular as a way to create housing density on existing Chicago lots, without sacrificing living room.

At the same time, two-flats — which were sometimes individually constructed by land owners who sourced materials and “spec” design plans as pre-packed kits — were viewed as an economic stepping stone. The spacious layout of the two-flat offered more breathing room than many other types of rental units, while still remaining fairly affordable. And for owners, these properties were seen as a way to earn income by renting one unit out to tenants, while occupying the other space.

Construction of two-flats and three-flats boomed between 1900 and 1920. As WBEZ found, a 1910 Chicago Tribune article celebrated “$38 million of flat building” — which, the Tribune noted at the time, marked “a new high record in this field, exceeding by over $4,000,000 the figures of 1908, which also established a new record.”

In many ways, the two-flat marks a mid-point between the more cramped and contained living of the late 1800s, and the even-more spacious housing styles to come, including the iconic Chicago-style bungalow, which would pop up in the 1930s and ‘40s as Chicago’s population continued to grow and spread out.

Taking Stock of the Two-Flat Today

Over the years, the two-flat has earned a reputation as one of the most important and influential buildings in all of Chicago architecture. It is closely associated with the city, and has earned a place in popular culture, on the local and national stage. Local artist Phil Thompson, for instance, recently earned national headlines for his illustrations of real two-flats he’s observed around his Ravenswood home. As Block Club points out, a suburban brewery, Hop Butcher, has even named a brand of beer “Two-Flat,” as a way to celebrate the Chicagoland staple.

And while the status of the two-flat has stood the test of time, there can be no denying that now is a moment of transition and change for this type of dwelling, and its place in Chicago’s future.

Two-flats, three-flats, and four-flats are still a significant part of the housing picture throughout our area. According to data from the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, 2-4 unit buildings comprise about 27 percent of the housing stock in Chicago, as a whole. These buildings make up an even larger share of the housing availability in many different neighborhoods, all around the city. According to the Institute for Housing Studies estimates, these types of units still account for more than a third of rental units around Chicago.

But, as many different sources have pointed out, the number of two-flats available in Chicago is on the decline. The Tribune reports that Chicago lost more than 20,000 two-flats between 2010 and 2016, for instance. There are many different factors at play in this ongoing trend. As the Chicago Architecture Center points out, many developers have stopped building two-unit buildings, which are increasingly seen as impractical. In many neighborhoods of the city, two-flats are increasingly being converted into single-family homes.

Still, these brick buildings remain iconic for a reason. There remains a big pool of interest around two-flats. They still offer affordable, flexible housing in many different neighborhoods. There is also a growing number of people who are drawn to two-flats due to their history and charm, and see value in the idea of having a separate unit to rent out. Meanwhile, growing interest in the two-flat has led to increased attention from the city, as well as activist groups focused on preserving two-flats and maintaining them as a source of affordable housing throughout our region.

Who Better to Help You Navigate Chicagoland Real Estate Than the Company That Helped Build It?

Here at Baird & Warner, we’ve always focused on what was best for our clients and our Chicagoland community. Finding easier ways to turn the American dream of home ownership into reality has been part of our DNA from the start, and it guides us into the future.

From helping rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire to leading the fight for fair housing, Baird & Warner’s history is part of Chicago’s history. Chicagoland has been our home since 1855, and we believe we help make it better when we give its residents the pride and security that comes with owning their home. Along the way, we’ve adapted and innovated to become the largest independent and locally owned real estate company in Chicagoland. The Baird & Warner history is rich. But it’s where we are and what we stand for today that really matters.

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