Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review

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. So just to let you know, this will be a little bit more of a scholarly post.

Defining Vernacular Architecture


Let’s start out with a definition of “vernacular architecture.” People have some different interpretations. Historically a lot of the art and architecture history focused on the creations or consumptions of those in power. Mansions, churches, castles, or skyscrapers. Recently, scholarship has turned to also include the lives of everyday people. 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 say that vernacular must be unique to the materials and conditions of the local environment. Igloos in the Canadian arctic, for example. 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.

An “Out of the Loop” Anthology

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.

Types of Buildings and Neighborhoods

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. That enabled easy access to the back yard (where there may be a garden) and 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?

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

Recommended for Chicago Architecture Enthusiasts

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. Our grid layout, the Chicago Union Stock Yards infrastructure, and religious buildings are all covered. Then other chapters go into specific neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Little Italy to Devon. There’s a fascinating story of how Lawndale went from a Jewish community to what a sociologist called a “hyperghetto.”

The Hull-House essay contrasts the dystopia of tenements with the utopia of the Hull-House Settlement. It details who lived in the buildings and the functions of the spaces. The readers finds a clear tie 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.”

The study of architectural history becomes deeply human when buildings are seen as reflections of our own cultural identities. For me at least, this is the definition of “vernacular architecture.”

–Amanda Scotese, Chicago Detours Executive Director


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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