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The Chicago Loft

A look at the history of the city's lofts and a perspective of where design is headed.

    Loft living in Chicago isn’t like anywhere else.  Many loft owners recall how their fathers had factory jobs in the very space they now live in, says Christina Noelle, author of Urban Loft: How Chicago Redefined the Architecture, published late last year by Bridge House.  Noelle is president of urban division of MCZ Development, a design company that took on loft design in Chicago 25 years ago and developed many of the former factories and warehouses in the city. She has seen the evolution of Chicago’s urban lofts from its edgy roots to carefully planned communities, represented today in what she describes as a trend “in overall living focus” that requires planning in a way that makes the inhabitants part of a community.
      “We try to create the feel of community living,” says Noelle. “Instead of a white envelope party room, we make it feel like a pub or sushi room. The rooms are open and available so you can go in and read a book or watch TV. Courtyards have seating where you can meet your neighbors.”
      People who live in lofts vary demographically from the first time homeowner to the empty nester seeking the urban center and night life, but are united by the same mindset, according to Noelle. “They want that energy. There’s a pulse to living in a 100-year-old building. They cannot be easily duplicated. You get a modern and convenient lifestyle with a content of history behind it. It’s a real zeitgeist.”
      Today’s lofts are more energy-efficient and “green” than the drafty warehouses of the past, and the fact they are multi-unit structures makes them conserve energy. They are also recycled. Noelle says the current focus is to give back to the environment through landscaping in courtyards and patio spaces.
Where It All Started
      Loft buildings appear in neighborhoods throughout Chicago, oddly enough, as a result of the Chicago fire. Chicago infrastructure could be rezoned to suit industrialization, and neighborhoods could be built around factories so workers could walk to their jobs. Streets were planned for automobiles and trucks rather than horse and buggy, a disadvantage that older cities like New York had to work around, leaving their warehouses and factories in certain contained districts.
     The early immigrants to Chicago still largely define the style of the neighborhoods. “The Poles still live at Milwaukee and Belmont, Ukrainian Village carries its name, Chinatown, Little Italy, Andersonville for the Swedes, the Bohemian National Cemetery on Pulaski, and the wonderful Bavarian inspired architecture of Lincoln Square all stand as but a few  living examples of a time passed,” Noelle writes in Urban Lofts. “The people who first came to work in Chicago’s newly birthed industry made indelible marks in the community.”
     The middle class of the 1960s fled Chicago’s factory neighborhoods in favor of the suburban dream. Artists of all mediums and the intellectual set began to infiltrate the warehouses and factories left behind.
    “Lincoln Park was not the very first place lofts emerged, but it was fairly significant that the loft found its way to that historically significant part of town,” writes Noelle, going on to describe how in the 1980s urban visionaries saw the potential in restoring vacant old buildings. “The slumlords of the 1970s became the real estate moguls of the 1980s and are still some of the big players in Chicago’s real estate today.”
    Lincoln Park’s Altgeld Lofts at 1300 W. Altgeld stands as one of the first loft developments in a Chicago neighborhood. “Railroad tracks that used to serve this old factory are still embedded in the pavement,” writes Noelle. “The factory is now converted into large open space units.”
      Urban Lofts chronicles the history of some of the major loft developments in the city. The North Center neighborhood around Irving and Ravenswood used to be a garment and industrial center serviced by a strong German population. “Postcard Place” was a former postcard factory where Noelle’s own grandmother hand-painted postcards more than 60 years ago using special machines.
      The Bell & Howell factory at Larchmont and Ravenswood became 54 Chicago Urban Lofts in the 1990s, when the company moved to the suburbs. Its history dates back to 1914 when it was opened by Albert Howell, inventor of the film projector, and Donald Bell, a projectionist. Not only did they produce the early Hollywood film cameras, the factory also made gun cameras, flight simulators and navigational tools used in radar equipment. Although it is no longer functional, the building’s large clock tower records a time when factory workers could not afford watches, and the giant clock told them when they had to be at work.
      In Bucktown, the Ludwig Drum Factory holds a bit of rock ‘n’ roll history. According to Urban Lofts, “On September 5, 1964, Chicago was waiting for its first earful of what Paul McCartney once called, ‘a great little band,’ The Beatles. Prior to their Chicago Amphitheatre show, the media-savvy drum pioneer William F. Ludwig presented the band’s drummer with a gold-plated Ludwig Super-Sensitive snare drum at a press conference as a ‘thank you’ for using Ludwig’s instruments. A few days later, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show with Ringo Starr playing Ludwig’s black pearl drumset. And, with that, the Ludwig Drum Company, at 1728 N. Damen Avenue in Chicago, worked day and night to keep up with the orders that came flooding through the doors.” Converted in 1994, the Ludwig building now houses 130 lofts.
      The Haymarket Riot of 1886, which marked the beginning of an eight-hour work day and weekends off for laborers, happened at the corner of Des Plaines and Randolph in the Fulton River District. A century later the neighborhood became the hub of restaurant and food service distribution. Nightclubs like China, Drink and Shelter operated because there weren’t neighbors to disturb.
    Oprah changed everything when she opened Harpo Studios in this inner city enclave, hiring hundreds of workers. Her pioneering efforts gentrified the area, now home to swanky loft buildings, homes, restaurants and nightclubs.
     The South Loop or near South Side of Chicago was where the wealthy preferred to reside before migrating to the Gold Coast at the beginning of the 20th century. In the late 1800s, industry thrived in this part of town, and many buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century still remain to be revived.  While much has been razed and redeveloped to make this area one of the most prosperous places in the city, other streets may see new glory days if Chicago wins its bid for the Olympics.
      Noelle narrates many other urban tales and illustrates the neighborhoods’ transformations with photos of the old and new and how they meld together. She ends the book by saying, “What would Paris be without her Haussman eaves? What would San Francisco be without her Victorian Ladies? What would Chicago be without her red brick and terra cotta lofts? The buildings tell their stories. They tell about grandmothers and grandfathers just like mine, generations before them, whose hard work and livelihoods contributed to the growth and development of the landscape. They speak of the present, the people who have called these old buildings home and chosen to live out part of their own stories inside their walls. They represent the men and women who labored to bring them back to life, again. With care and attention these buildings can speak to the future.”
Designing the Interior— The Loft of Today
      Loft space can present unique design challenges. The minimalist design and financial pragmatism of yesterday’s loft spaces have disappeared, leaving loft living transformed into one of today’s most expensive home options.
     In 150 Best Loft Ideas by Loft Publications, published in February of this year, colorful photos of lofts around the world showcase innovative design by international architects and designers. The book provides solutions for making the most of volume and space through the use of levels and partitions, how to use color and objects to separate space and how to optimize space and light. Art galleries, offices, work-live spaces, singles pads and homes for families are all represented with illustrated floor plans.
     One of the featured lofts was commissioned by Cindy Gallop, a former New York advertising woman of the year, whose one request was summed up as: “When night falls, I want to feel like I’m in a bar in Shanghai.” The 3,500 square foot loft is
entirely black, showcasing her art, objects and books, optimized with dramatic lighting. Leopard skin chaise and chairs, artwork and a 250-pair stiletto heel shoe display are a few of the eclectic features in this evocative space.
      In stark contrast, another loft in Brussels, Belgium, has an all-white interior with a 52- foot-long glass wall and a 69-foot-long wall of bookshelves, dividing the room and offtering different sensations of depth and perspective. Another loft in Buenos Aires is the former garage of a company that built race cars. Inside it has a dividing interior garden and décor inspired by an era in history when Catholic kings ruled.
      Hundreds of photos make this compilation a must-have for anyone curious about the current trends in loft design and the latest in contemporary residential architecture.
History of the New York Loft
     The genesis of loft living came about in the 1940s, according to architecture lore, when artists began to use abandoned warehouses as work studios in New York’s SoHo district. Artists, galleries and arts groups began to flourish, and by the ‘70s, loft spaces were springing up in NoHo and Tribeca.
      This artistic renaissance coincided with the energy crisis, when manufacturers fled the large turn of the century factories and warehouses, which had become too expensive to maintain. Many of these buildings were beautifully constructed, showcasing early 20th century architecture. Groups of artists took over the large spaces at cheap rents, sharing expenses.
      Media and film in the ‘80s portrayed loft living as the ultimate in hip and cool, and the real estate frenzy began. Interiors became smaller and more comfortable and division of space became more the norm until today, when loft living has become the style of the well-to-do, leaving artists with fewer alternatives for cheap space.
      Of course, the rooftop living spaces dictated by Napoleon III serve as the shining example of artist space. At the beginning of the Industrial Age, newly constructed six-story buildings for the upper class were required to have a small, bare, artist loft with 45-degree angled windowed eaves, allowing for natural light. These units were not taxed, but could be used as living spaces by artists.

Published: June 23, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living