Why I Love Vintage Buildings

March 6, 2009


Vinatage Buildings On East Lakeshore Drive Outshine the Modern Buildings

Vinatage Buildings On East Lakeshore Drive Outshine the Modern Buildings

Chicago is an amazing city. It has more depth and breadth of choices from a real estate perspective than nearly any other American city. When you go looking for an apartment or to buy a home, you have an enormous range of options: single family home, condo, co-op, townhouse, three-flat, six-flat, 4+1, loft, soft loft, duplex-up, duplex-down, simplex, modern, rehab, gut rehab, new construction…and my favorite, vintage.

Chicago’s vintage high rises have their roots in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. After the fire an important shift took place?Chicago became the center of the architecture world. Among the first amazing buildings to be built after the fire was the world’s first skyscraper: The Home Insurance Building towering in at 10 stories high. There was an amazing building boom for the next 50 years. And, by law, none of these buildings could be made of wood. That means that many of these grand buildings are still gracing Chicago’s skyline yet today.

Vintage “Apartments”…You Love ‘Em or Meh ‘Em

Vintage homes come in all shapes and sizes, but my favorite flavor is the vintage condo and co-op buildings along Lake Shore Drive. People who live in these vintage homes?whether they are condos, co-ops, or rental units?nearly universally call them “apartments.” In my real estate career in Chicago, I’ve had the opportunity to visit most of them. And what they all have that I love is history?history oozing out of every wood-paneled wall and well worn marble floor. You can feel it. When you enter the lobby of a glorious vintage building, you know that people have been going in and out of those doors, having conversations in the chairs next to the fire place, and polishing the brass for decades. The building has character, and it’s not manufactured character; it’s earned character.

Vintage apartments have different layouts, different use of space, and more space in general than newer, more utilitarian buildings. Most vintage apartments come with standard 10 to 12 foot ceilings, something rarely found in anything built after World War II. Vintage Apartments generally have, by today’s standards, huge dining rooms; the remnant of the by-gone art of the formal dinner party. Vintage apartments also usually have much larger living rooms than those designed today. These two design differences reflect how I like to live?I want the whole family gathered together. I don’t like the idea of the kids living their lives secreted away in their huge bedrooms (as most homes are designed today). I want them doing their homework on the dining room table and surfing the web in the living room. I know that as my eight and ten-year-olds get to their teenage years, I will start to get a lot of push back from them, but if they aren’t comfortable with the concept now, they certainly won’t be at 15.

The last reason I love vintage apartments is the detail work. Amazing wood work is at the top of the list: wainscoting, ornamental crown molding, parquet floors, heavy wooden doors, brass door knobs and hinges, huge fireplaces, picture-frame molding on the walls, banisters that are works of art, and claw-footed tubs deep enough to float in. These are the things that fill my senses and make the walls feel like a home. I don’t want or need stainless steel appliances and whirlpool tubs. I want a sense of my home having already lived several lives before it took me and my family in.

But Rod, You Don’t Live in a Vintage Apartment!

True…I don’t. When my wife and I were looking to buy a home, I was, of course, pushing for a vintage place. We lived in a vintage rental apartment at the time and I loved it. I nearly had her convinced and we were close to putting in an offer on a lovely apartment with 11 foot ceilings, a huge dining room, many amazing details, and a gorgeous south-facing arched window in the very bright, very large living room.

But then the practical side of life came bursting in, herded like bunch of Texas long-horned steers directly at me by my wife. And this practicality ran right over me and crushed my dreams. I had to admit, vintage apartments do have their drawbacks.

The first thing any real estate agent worth their salt will tell you is vintage apartments have no closet space, and it’s by and large very true. They were built in a time when people had a different relationship to clothing and definitely didn’t have entire wardrobes for each season, for the gym, for hiking, etc. Basically, they just didn’t have as much stuff as we do…they couldn’t, they didn’t have anywhere to put it.

The second reality check to smack me across the face was the assessments. Vintage buildings have much, much higher assessments than new buildings. Often these assessments include items like steam heat and a doorman and don’t include items like swimming pools and tennis courts. Because the building is old, it is going to have certain maintenance costs that new buildings just don’t have. And the kicker concerning assessments is they are not tax deductible. As my boss at the time, Millie Rosenbloom, chanted over and over: lower assessments mean you can buy at a higher price point and have the same monthly payment, but a greater tax deduction. She was right. So, when we found a fee simple townhouse with basically no assessment, my dreams of old wood and polished brass went flying out the door.

My practical side is bolstered by the fact that we have a lovely townhouse built in 1946 that has no assessment, no neighbors above or below us, an attic for our boxes of holiday decorations, a basement to store our bikes the mountains of toys we seem to have accumulated, a nice dining room, and a place for a grill. My need for history can be fulfilled by the fact that two families before us lived the bulk of their lives here and loved this home. (Yep, we’re only the third owners.) But, the side of me that yearns for tuxedo’ed parties simply has to sigh and be happy with the wonderful home I do have.

But God, I’d love 11 foot ceilings!

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About Rod Holmes

Rod has been a broker working in Chicago since 2004. He has worked with developers, buyers, sellers, and as well as managing offices. He is currently a partner in Chicago Style SEO working primarily with real estate firms to improve their Internet marketing. Rod lived for nearly ten years in Japan where he owned a corporate training and executive coaching firm with clients including Hitachi and 3M Japan. He lives in Lakeview with his wife and two children. He enjoys coaching and watching his kids participate in sports, cycling, camping, and traveling in general. You can find Rod online on Twitter at @roddesu, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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2 Responses to “Why I Love Vintage Buildings”

  1. rickey gold Says:

    Great article, Rod. I totally agree with you. But then I live in a vintage building. The space is great and in this case, our “apartment” has lots of closet space (for me, not for my husband as he often reminds me).

    The downside: radiator heat can either be turned “on” or “off”. No in between. And periodically the pipes need to be flushed out which means water turned off while this is done. Plus, there’s no where to grill unless we want to go to the park.

    On the other hand, there’s dual central air…especially nice if one of you likes it cold and the other prefers tropical.

    That said, I can understand why you opted for a townhouse. But if you hear of anyone who’s looking, the apartment on the top floor (12) is vacant. And has a view of Belmont Harbor. Sweet! Rental company is Lakeview Assoc on Belden.


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