A Sparkling Vintage Life

chicago-two-flats“The taxi dropped us off in a leafy North Side neighborhood in front of a modest brick apartment building. Dot ushered me up two flights of stairs and opened a door off a dim hallway. She switched on a lamp to reveal a narrow living room with scarred wooden floors and a small window-lined alcove at one end. There wasn’t much furniture, just a sofa, a couple of mismatched chairs, and an end table with a lamp on it. Dot hastened to pick up the several pieces of clothing strewn about.

“Sorry. I wasn’t expecting company,” she breezed. “I had a terrible time deciding what to wear this morning.”

(You’re the Cream in My Coffee, p. 83)

In You’re the Cream in My Coffee, Marjorie and her roommate, Dot, live in a classic Chicago two-flat, sharing the upstairs apartment while the landlady, Mrs. Moran, lives downstairs. At one point, the front steps are the scene for an intimate discussion between Marjorie and her beau.

Thousands of these sturdy brick two- and three-flats (and, more rarely, four- and six-flats) were built throughout Chicago in the early 20th century as chicago-two-flatquality affordable housing for working- and middle-class families. Each building contained full-floor apartments stacked one on top of another, plus a basement. Often the building’s owner lived on-site in one of the units and rented out the other. Renting her second unit to Dot and Marjorie was a good way for a widowed lady like Mrs. Moran to earn an income. Buying a two-flat or three-flat was also a solid option for extended families who wanted to live near each other while maintaining their own space. For example, a young family could live in one unit while Grandma and Grandpa lived upstairs. Or an immigrant who’d established a livelihood could buy a building  live in it, and offer the other unit(s) to freshly arrived kinfolk, helping them get settled in their new home. Even the basement might be turned into humble lodging for a single factory worker or young couple.

chicago-two-flat2Today many of these well crafted buildings still stand, although some are falling into disrepair. Others are being converted into single-family dwellings.