Chicago isn’t short on notable architecture, and those familiar with the place know that the meat of the city’s historical building stock lives beyond its glistening lakefront core. That’s what makes a new project by local photographer and writer John Morris particularly interesting. For the past seven months, Morris and a small team have been using the 1995 Historical Resources Survey, city and county data, and a lot of legwork to build an up-to-date, comprehensive archive of Chicago’s buildings. So far, Chicago Architecture Data holds nearly 13,000 entries for structures built before 1940—from Merchandise Mart to the Division Street Russian and Turkish Baths to the rows of bungalows that extend north, south, and west from the city center—with more being added each week.
Morris, a software developer by day and a contributor to the local blog Chicago Patterns, launched the website late last year to make it easier for researchers, journalists, planners, architects, and enthusiasts to find architectural information for buildings throughout the city. And, fear not, he expects to begin adding midcentury and modern buildings later this year.
Since moving to Chicago from Raleigh, N.C., in early 2013, Morris has made a point of exploring the city on foot. “I go to a different neighborhood every Saturday and walk around aimlessly, using public transit to get there,” he said in an email. Though Morris relies heavily on public documents and Google’s Street View feature, he and his team spend ample time on weekends photographing and cataloging buildings. “Some neighborhoods are easier/safer than others, but we strive to represent every area of the city, not just the neighborhoods where the affluent live.”
The project indexes buildings by community area (of which Chicago has 77 demarcated zones), address, architectural style, architect, date, size, and other identifiers. The team is now developing a neighborhood style guide, as well as a digital catalog of architectural features, to show how the prevalence of certain architectural styles correlates with growth periods city-wide.
To get a better idea of what that looks like, Morris ran a few data queries for us: The Irving Park community area on Chicago’s far northwest side, for example, is heavy in Craftsman, Prairie School, and Bungalow structures, while closer to the city’s center, the older Near West Side community area features buildings in the Italianate and Second Empire styles, reflecting a general rebuilding following the Great Chicago Fire at the end of the 19th century.
Morris admits that the database isn’t near complete, with South Side community areas like Pullman and Beverly, which he rightly calls “architectural treasure troves,” not yet represented. Additionally, he removed entries for buildings in the city's central business district, the Loop, due to inconsistencies in source documents; Morris hopes to work with a local historian to accurately parse the information. And whether the project will extend to the suburbs, which feature highlights by Frank Lloyd Wright, James Gamble Rogers, and others, is to be determined.
It's more than a living archive. As Morris and his team continue to update the 2008 assessor photos with their own shots, the database highlights buildings that have fallen into disuse or disrepair, or have been demolished.
“Something that has been a driving force in all my projects … is to draw attention to buildings before the point of no return,” he says. “There is renewed concern these days when a building is getting demolished, which is great, but we need more attention and awareness earlier.”
If you're ready to lose an afternoon in the annals of Chicago's architectural history, click here.
This post has been updated.