ALL KINDS OF DWELLINGS
A current trend in new subdivisions is prohibiting two homes of identical color or style on adjacent lots. This is designed to prevent look-alike boxes and is called "creating diversity." Diversity? For real, all out diversity in housing Elgin has few equals in the metropolitan area.
In addition to the cobblestones built for the early settlers from upstate New York, the city has a variety of nineteenth century architectural styles. There is a good example of a Gothic Revival and an abundant assortment of Victorians transformed into Painted Ladies. Elgin has homes that were built as groceries, and homes with garages that once were barns. Some have served as boarding houses, and others have been moved from one neighborhood to another. The diversity includes homes constructed of concrete blocks, kit houses ordered through the mail, houses that started out as garages, and homes made of steel.
Concrete Block Homes
Dozens of concrete block homes are scattered around Elgin, reminders of the days when the city was a leader in using this type of construction material. Their popularity was favored by the abundance of crushed stone and sand available here. The aggregate generally preferred was sand from pits in the southwest corner of Hanover Township along the Milwaukee Road tracks. Combined with water, gravel, and Portland cement in the right proportions and compacted into a mold, it made a bard and durable block. A waterproofing compound formed an outside coating that made it impervious to water.
The proportions of the block varied, and the sides of the mold in which it was made could be designed in a variety of patterns. The surface was often textured or mottled to imitate stone. Using a machine and mixer, three men could make at least three hundred standard blocks-8x8x24 inclies-in a day. Total cost of labor and materials was 13 cents a block.
A block wall depended upon good workmanship. The joints had to be made well and the blocks laid carefully, with the space between them filled. Two of the first buildings, both erected in 1903, are among the most interesting: a double residence at 1517 South Channing and the former home of Max Leverenz, a worker at the watch factory, at 423 Walnut Avenue. The latter has three gables and concrete porch columns. Its original cost was $2,700. Another early example is the Victoria apartment building on the northwest corner of South and Crystal, completed in 1905 for $7,500.
A 1907 advertisement by the Elgin Concrete and Structural Company, Inc., beaded by John McBride, claimed that cement block buildings were cheaper than frame and natural stone. "Cement building blocks are more durable," continued the ad, "better in appearance and warmer." Other pioneering contractors using this material included John C. Henderson, Edward Sullivan, Edward Bell, and the Illinois Hydraulic Stone and Construction Company, whose first president was Carl J. Seagren. The "Hydraulic" in that firm's title referred to the method of compressing the block by hydraulic pressure. A variety of designs were offered, including rock face, beveled edge and too] face. Illinois Hydraulic began phasing out block manufacture to concentrate on road paving about 1913.
The last concrete block producer was the Elgin Cast Stone Company, organized in 1924. Its HanoverTownship plant,just south of Lords Park, had a capacity of nearly 4,000 blocks daily. They were made in steel molds, steam dried overnight in kilns, and then stacked in the open air for final drying. Gravel and sand were taken from the company's own pit on its 35-acre tract. The mining operation accounts for the steep hill in the area. The building at 710 East Chicago Street once housed Elgin Cast Stone's office. It was erected in 1931, before the firm failed during the Depression.
A number of Elgin homes were ordered through mail order catalogs. Sears, Roebuck was the leading supplier, selling about 100,000 throughout the country between 1908 and 1940. A complete package was shipped by rail, including lumber, doors, windows, hardware, flooring, mouldings, eave troughs, down spouts, nails, paint, and varnish. Each piece of lumber was cut to fit at the factory and numbered to correspond with the plans.
The purchaser usually visited a sales office-Sears had one in the Professional Building on DuPage Street-and selected a design from a catalog. Credit was available on easy terms, and company ads stressed the savings in wastage and carpentry labor and speed of construction. Once the order was placed, the customer was assigned a service representative and provided with a detailed construction manual. The kits were delivered in staggered shipments timed to arrive when the materials were needed. Although owners could erect their homes as do-ityourself projects, most often they hired a local building contractor.
Kit houses were not popular with members of the building trades unions, but they were well designed and contained good quality building materials. They have held up well through the years.
One of the mail order houses became a co-operative project. Ed Williams, who was renting a home on Illinois Avenue, purchased a lot on Congress Street, excavated the basement, and built a foundation. He made the first payment on a ready cut and had the material on the ground. Then his wife became ill, and the money Williams had saved for the home was used to pay for several operations. Looking after her and their two children left no time for working on the house. Fellow members of his Odd Fellows lodge came to the rescue in September, 1926, contributing funds and erecting the house on weekends.
If another type of dwelling was not unique to this city, the word used to describe it was. In his annual report for 1924 Elgin's building inspector, Stephen A. Smith, coined the term, " garabungalow," to describe a garage being used as a temporary dwelling pending the completion of a home. The little building was erected on the back end of the lot.
The garabungalows provided a low cost form of housing. In July, 1927, for example, building permits were issued for nine bungalows averaging $4,767 each; the four garabungalows authorized that month averaged $575 each. Similar construction was sprouting in other rapidly growing cities.
The garabungalow had its critics. The erection of one on Alfred Avenue aroused neighbors to protest to the mayor that it was an eyesore and lowered property values along the street. Although the garabungalow continued to be permitted in the zoning ordinance adopted in 1928, it had to be located on the front end of the lot, and this discouraged its construction.
Some owners spent so much on the garabungalow they had no money left for the house, especially after the onset of the Depression. There are several still standing which never became garages. Over the years some have been expanded, and garages were erected adjacent to them. Examples on the east side can be seen at 625 Columbia Avenue and on the west side at 25 South Clifton, both built in 1925.
The severe housing shortage after the Second World War spurred interest in mass produced, prefabricated construction. The result can be seen in homes made of steel at 1171 Hill Street, erected in 1949, and 1301 Sherwood Avenue, completed in 1950. They were manufactured by the Lustron Corporation of Columbus, Ohio, which was started up with a multi-million dollar loan from the federal government through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
Most of the Lustron homes had five rooms and contained about ten tons of steel. Steel wall frames were bolted to a concrete foundation, and steel roof trusses were in turn bolted to the wall frames. The exterior consisted of porcelain enameled steel panels. The price was about $10,500, not counting the lot and other extras.
About 3,000 of these homes were produced before Lustron ended in receivership.
Distribution problem s-finding suitable dealers, construction crews and
service organization s-were the chief reasons for the failure.
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