Workers Cottage Trio
Workers Cottage Trio

Photo Matt Bergstrom

Field Guide for Identifying Workers Cottages

Lot SizeThe workers cottage is a gable (peaked) roof house style built by the tens of thousands in the late nineteenth century to provide affordable housing in the growing industrial cities of the Midwest. The common workers cottage design is a response to the size constraints of small urban city lots. Small wood-frame houses from earlier time periods were often built with a centered entry door and gable roof perpendicular to the entryway.To fit a Chicago city lot, which typically measures 25 feet wide by 125 feet deep, the house was turned so that both the gable and entrance face the street. With a gap for a walkway alongside the building, a workers cottage on a standard lot most often measures about 20 feet wide by 30 to 60 feet long.

Chicago workers cottages may be built of wood frame or brick. After the Great Fire of 1871, houses built within a zone roughly corresponding to the city limits were required to be built of brick. Many frame cottages were built in subdivisions which were originally outside the city limits but annexed to the city in the 1890s.

Symmetry The entry door is typically located to one side of the front facade, balanced by a set of windows or a projecting bay. The upper level most often features a centered window.

Low pitch roof The earliest examples of workers cottages in Chicago feature low-pitched roofs. Later cottages were built with steeper roofs to better shed snow and ice buildup during cold winters.

Eave heights

A workers cottage is usually 1½ or sometimes 2½ stories. The low height of the eaves creates a smaller usable floor area on the upper level. There is a wide range in eave heights of workers cottages.

 

Gable roof Cross gable Clipped gable Gambrel roofAsymmetrical roof

The strong diagonal lines of the gable roof provide much of the character of the workers cottage style. The steep roof and low eaves give the house a snug feel. The gable is the most common roof style, though there are many other styles. Some cottage roofs may have been modified over the years and no longer fit any of these categories.

Ground level RaisedSecond floor

Many early frame cottages were originally built at or near ground level on simple piling foundations. Others were elevated atop brick foundations. Some homeowners later raised the original structure several feet to add a basement or even higher to add a first floor underneath. Balloon-framing construction, a method developed in Chicago, created a sturdy structure which could be lifted and modified relatively easily to add more space for growing families or to add extra rental income. A basement level which is more than 50% above ground level and has a separate entrance is often called a "garden apartment" or sometimes an "English basement."

Size spectrum

Workers cottages were built in a full spectrum of sizes according to the needs of the owner and builder. A building which has two or more full-sized floors (not the smaller floor under the roof) can be called a "2-flat workers cottage" or "cottage-style 2-flat".

Dormer Nowadays it is more common to enlarge the house on the upper floor with a dormer on one or both sides of the roof. A dormer built close to the front facade may obscure the diagonal gable roof and "cottage" look of the house. A top floor apartment may have an internal or external staircase.

Square bayOctagonal bay

A rectangular or octagonal bay window to the side of the front entry is a common original feature of many workers cottages. A roof extending over the entry and/or a landing may be attached to the projecting bay.

Portico PorchRear addition

Some workers cottages originally included a portico over the front entry, or porch and landing. Enclosed porches and rear extensions are most likely later additions to the building.

Brick cottage details Early brick workers cottages built in the Italianate style often feature ornamental carved limestone lintels, elaborate wood brackets and rows of small blocks called dentils under the roofline. Later Craftsman-style brick cottages often included arched window openings and decorative brickwork panels above or below the windows.

Frame cottage details Some frame cottages may have originally featured gable decorations, finials, ornate window surrounds, fishscale siding, dentils and other machine-made wooden flourishes. These details have rarely survived to the present day, or may be hidden behind layers of later siding. Traces of wood pieces, construction cost records, and historic photographs may be the only evidence nowadays of whether a frame cottage was elaborately decorated or more plain when it was built.

Clapboard Board Batten Fishscale

Frame workers cottages were usually finished on the exterior with wood clapboard, or occasionally vertical board-and-batten siding. Some houses featured decorative fish scale siding at the top or in panels on the front facade.

Asbestos Asphalt Bricks Asphalt Ranch

In the 1930s-50s, many homeowners covered the clapboard with asbestos shingles or asphalt sheets to protect the wood houses against fire or to cover deteriorated wood.

PermastonePermastone

Perma-Stone and other brand names of artificial stone date from the same time period. A thin layer of concrete mixed with binders and colorants was applied over a layer of lath and wire mesh attached to the brick or wood wall, then pressed in metal molds to create a wide variety of realistic or unrealistic simulated stone patterns. Permastone was used to weatherize the building, repair crumbling masonry, cover alterations, or simply change the look of the house.

Vinyl Siding

In the 1960s-90s vinyl and aluminum siding became popular. The thin panels snap together and could be easily applied over other siding.

The siding on many Chicago workers cottages conceals a legacy of earlier cladding materials. A layer of recent siding may make it difficult to recognize the age and historic character of the building underneath.

Have you identified an exceptional workers cottage in your neighborhood? Stumped by an unusual building? Please share with the Chicago Workers Cottage Initiative at contact@workerscottage.org!

ID Guide Download a printable Field Guide for Identifying Chicago Workers Cottages