Chicago Real Estate Defined: The Four Plus One (4 + 1)

Your guide had not had much interaction with the “Classic 4 + 1” here in Chicago in quite some time as the property lends itself to the rental industry more than as condominium homes.  But as the Lakeview neighborhood has become ever more popular to live in, the conversion of these buildings into condominiums has become more common.


Dreaded for their ugly curb appeal, the buildings were commonly constructed during the 1950’s, 1960’s and tapered off in the 1970’s.  The building style was designed to maximize revenue – namely rent – while still providing a bare minimum of modern amenities – namely parking.

The construction style was designed without regard to style, and in fact seems to reflect the “modern” style of architecture.  Just badly.

The whole point of a 4 + 1 is designed to provide four floors of living (the “four”) on top of a partially sunken level of parking, a small lobby and the elevator (the “plus one”).  4 + 1’s seem to line the side streets most prevalently in East Lakeview where there must have been land available to develop during the near infancy of the neighborhood.  East Lakeview was not exactly the cool and stable neighborhood that it is today back in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  These apartments were clearly designed as affordable and densely packed housing.


The 4 + 1 takes up about as much space as a traditional Vintage Courtyard from the 1920’s.  The last major housing push must have been during the 1920’s as East Lakeview has as many Courtyard Buildings as 4 + 1’s, and there appears not to be very much architecture in between the major growth spurts of these two styles of building.

Although sitting on about as much land as a typical Vintage Courtyard, the 4 + 1 can have as many as double the number of apartments of a courtyard on the same piece of land.  Typically, though, they have about 1/3 more units.  But in addition to the increase in units is the parking – which, of course, is available for additional rent.

Courtyard and 4 plus 1 satellite copy

In the satellite photo above, the arrows point to typical examples of each style.  The vintage courtyard on top and the 4 + 1 below.  The photo highlights the second defining characteristic of each most clearly.

In the vintage courtyard, of course, the apartments are arranged around the courtyard.  Each apartment stretches from front to back all the way.  In other words, the front of the apartment faces the courtyard, and the back of the apartment has a back porch, a back door and back windows facing out onto the neighboring property or alley.  These buildings were constructed before the invention of Air Conditioning, and had to have cross-ventilation.  They were also built before residential elevators were common, and therefore had to be accessible by stair.

In the 4 + 1, you see the typical “I” shape.  These also often have a “Figure 8” shape if they are larger than the examples in this photo.

With the elevator, there is only one entryway, and a hallway snakes throughout the center of the building.  Apartments line both sides of the hallway.  Most of the units are not on corners.  There is no cross ventilation.  These units are designed to be closed most of the time with the heat or the air conditioning turned on.

It’s odd to think that basic apartments like these would have modern amenities like elevators, parking or air conditioning.  But these features allowed for the increased density of units in the building.


As Lakeview became a more popular neighborhood with nightlife, the Chicago Cubs, the shops on Broadway, and the bars on Halsted and Clark Streets, developers began converting 4 + 1’s into condominiums.  During the condo craze of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, a developer could renovate the lobby, hallways and install new fits and finishes in the units and have a successful sell-out of the building.

But as prices rose, and the market slowed, buyers began turning up their noses at the funky curb appeal of the buildings.  It has now become more normal for the conversion of these ugly ducklings to incorporate a re-design of the exterior of the buildings as well. 


The photo above and the photo to the left are both of renovated old 4 + 1’s that converted to condo’s in the last 2 to 3 years.  In the photo above, you can see that an architect unified the entire structure with a new facade that emphasized contemporary new windows and horizontal design – kind of a new interpretation of the Prairie School of architecture.  To get the job done, the developer enlarged the small windows, re-faced the building in a sleek new skin, and added horizontal details such as the awning between 3rd and 4th floors and a matching awning over the lobby and garage entrance.

The other photo shows one building.  The developer in this case decided to de-emphasize the horizontal aspect of the architecture by re-skinning the building in two different architectural facades.  The building now looks like two buildings of differing styles, but in reality, it is all one building. 

In these two examples, the interior floor plans remain the same as they were before with rather small studios, one bedrooms and a few two beds.  What they offer are all the latest fits and finishes such as wood floors, granite & stainless kitchens, and some feature very stylish bathrooms.

Notwithstanding these great examples for buyers with money to plunk down on condo’s, renters with a hankering for hideous curb appeal, dark & dank lobbies and hallways and fits & finishes out of a bad time warp are still plentiful all over East Lakeview.  Enjoy!  Or Beware!  Depending on your perspective.

One Comment
  1. Victor
    April 23, 2009 |