Take a stroll west along Armitage Avenue from North Halsted Street and squint. Imagine those modern cars you see are horse-drawn carriages and you’re walking on a wooden sidewalk. Then look up at the buildings on either side of the street. You’ve basically taken a mental trip back to 1880. Those homes and businesses look pretty much the same now as they did 134 years ago.
There’s something else that makes these structures stand out. They’re lousy with turrets.
The stretch of Armitage from Halsted to Racine has a remarkable number of turreted buildings, along with bay windows and cornices. Most are extremely ornate with fanciful ornamentation. I wanted to find out why, so I asked Jen Masengarb, director of interpretation and research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
The answer is both related to the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood at that time and simple economics, she explained.
“At that time, Lincoln Park had a large German population,” Masengarb said. “What set them apart from other immigrant groups was that many came with a craftsmanship and skill background. By contrast, Polish immigrants had an agrarian background. They were generally farmers, so they were finding work in factories, whereas the Germans brought with them the woodworking traditions, so that had a lot to do with how the homes were constructed in that time period.”
In addition, the turrets really set the buildings apart.
“It was a way for the developer to inch out from the property line and offer a better view with more square footage than a regular corner,” she said. “That’s why you see lots of patterning, ornamentation, and visual energy.”
The turrets and bay windows were functional, too. Air conditioning wasn’t around yet, but you could get a nice breeze up in the turret.
Most of the turrets in the Armitage/Halsted Historic District are Queen Anne style, Masengarb said.
“Typically in a Queen Anne house, you see the overall shape of the house is irregular. It will have cross gables, pitched roof, lot of visual activity. What’s also common is a bay window or side turret. The big idea is an asymmetrical façade. The one defining characteristic of a Queen Anne house is you’ll often see a turret. The other feature you see is the surface of the exterior walls is rarely smooth. It may have a decorative wood pattern, ornamentation over the window, a detailed carving, or porch railing. Not every surface is plain and uniform. There are a lot of different textures.”
Less evident on the “Armitage turret walk” is the Richardsonian Romanesque style. There is one very strong example of this architectural style, though. It’s not a round turret, but rather a squared one. It’s also missing its “hat.” This building has some other funky features, like a checkerboard pattern below the windows and gables at the roofline – this is known as machicolation.
“It’s a miniature version of what used to be on a medieval castle,” Masengarb said. “On a castle, it would be much bigger and a guard could walk up to where the holes are and drop rocks or hot coals on anybody that might try to invade the castle.”
Besides the craftsmanship that went into the intricate design of these buildings, it’s remarkable that they survived more than a century more or less intact.
“It’s so amazing that they’ve hung on for this long,” Masengarb said. “They’re so cool and so fun. It’s really an example of a point in time of what was fashionable in the 1880s, the height of building fashion, the immigrant labor story, and the interesting mix of economics and aesthetics. That really identifies these buildings.”