It’s possible to use 1950 U.S. Census records to establish a number of historic dwelling units at a building in Chicago for the purposes of the city generating a “zoning certificate”. That’s a recognition of the number of legal dwelling units especially useful when that number of dwelling units is greater than the current zoning code allows. They’re required to be generated (i.e. requested from the city’s planning department) during the sale of a small-scale residential property.
However, based on a recent experience of a client of mine, the zoning certificate – while supposedly valid for one year – is subject to dispute later! Finding Census records showing the same or more dwelling units in a given building has helped re-establish the validity of the number of units stated in a zoning certificate.
It will take you some time to research Census records! (I would budget at least one hour. There is a painstaking process to find the webpage that has the enumeration (counting) sheets for the address you want, and it will take some time to sift through those sheets (and you may have to look at multiple pages for the same address).
Here are the steps involved
Find the enumeration district (ED).
Go to that ED’s set of sheets in the National Archives 1950 Census website.
Page through and read every sheet until the address is found.
Once you locate the ED (following the instructions in Section 2) I would say stop reading the NYPL blog post.
Alternatively, for Chicago address lookups, you can browse these maps of the enumeration districts and then search for those ED numbers directly on the National Archives website.
Section 2 will advise you to use Steve Morse’s third-party Unified Census ED Finder (which is the most useful part of this process). The ED Finder has a wizard asking you to select state, county, city, and street name and cross street. It will then produce a set of one or more ED numbers under the heading, “1950 ED numbers corresponding to your location”.
Tip: ED Finder will likely show you multiple ED numbers; you may need to look at all of them to find an address. I think this happens because the link between each enumeration district and a city’s streets is imprecise
Click each ED number, which opens a new tab in the ED Finder website with links to three different image viewers. These are databases where scans of microfilm are shown online. One of them, NARA, is public – that’s the National Archives & Records Administration. I recommend that one as it’s free and doesn’t require an account.
Read each enumeration sheet
Once you arrive on the NARA website click on the “Population Schedules” to reveal the enumeration sheets. Start paging and reading!
Tip: Street names are written vertically on the left edge of the page.
The NARA viewer isn’t the best – it doesn’t allow you to make it full-screen; I was constantly having to zoom in to read the street names and house numbers.
Updated May 3, 2021, to add more insight from Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic) as to why lumber prices are so high.
My architect and I are still working on plans, slowly but surely. Read my previous entry, Two-flat journal #4, to understand why that seems to be taking awhile.
There is something else on my mind as we work toward the goal of a gut-rehabbed two-flat: How much this whole project is going to cost.
I’ve talked to several contractors, engaged a structural engineer to specify and design the new steel beam in the basement, and obtained quotes for all new windows from four manufacturers.
One contractor happily gave me an estimate, based on incomplete plans, that was about $220,000. That price could go down with more specific plans and instructions, as the estimate had variability based on unknowns, and it doesn’t include the cost of purchasing the windows. More likely, I think the price will go up due to material costs.
How much windows might cost
All window quotes I’ve obtained include installation by the manufacturer’s selected installers, which has a benefit from some companies, mainly that the maker will guarantee the installation for a period of time.
I would share the quotes with you but I don’t think they would be very helpful at this point because I haven’t evaluated each of the quotes on the quality of the window. For example, one of the window quotes was three times higher than the next highest quote, but the maker guarantees installation for 10 years and is a higher-quality window. But what is the factor of difference in quality, is it three times? And how valuable is a 10-year installation warranty? It’s unlikely I would need to avail that benefit and the three times difference in price means I could replace all of the windows *again* two times for the same price! (Assuming prices didn’t increase between now and that future moment.)
The 15 new windows, according to the four quotes, will cost anywhere from $12,000 to $46,000. I should mention that the highest quote doesn’t include any discounts or special offers, as those will be offered once I re-engage the estimator and ask for one.
There are a couple of opportunities to reduce window costs. I could convert more of the casement windows to be double hung windows (which I don’t want to do as I prefer single hung windows), or I could change the window opening size. A couple of the window openings are taller than most of the window makers have in their standard window design, so an upper transom (fixed) window would be required. However, changing the window opening size may end up shifting costs to a different plan of adding bricks and adjusting walls.
Another way to reduce the window cost would be to use models that are less energy efficient, but I also don’t want to do that. I’ve insisted that every window be Energy Star certified – this is about the only certification standard that I understand, and it’s common across most window makers in the Chicago area. (There are also Passive House and Passivhaus certified windows, and companies that import higher-quality and more efficient windows from European manufacturers, but I haven’t bothered with any of those because I assume the prices will be even higher.)
Lumber and other construction materials
That lumber prices have more than doubled over prices a year ago is well known if you read real estate industry news media, or if you’ve shopped for wood at Menards to build a couple of benches for some nicer outdoor space or installed a new porch.
My gut rehab will require a lot of plywood (to replace the subfloor), “soft lumber” replacement studs, and some replacement joists.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve maintains “FRED”, an amazing website with interactive charts to explore economics statistics, including lumber. The pricing information comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and their Producer Price Indexes.
The chart for the plywood price index below shows very stable pricing in fall and winter 2019-2020, and then in May 2020 prices start climbing and the index increased by 100 points to March 2021.
BLS has monthly detailed reports so you can find data about more than the products FRED has charts for. Let’s dig in to the March 2021 report (indexes mean that the pricing represents percentage changes based on 100% being the price when the index was established):
“Softwood dressed 2-inch lumber, 2 inches in nominal thickness only, not edge worked” (a.k.a. 2×4 studs) (index established June 2012):
March 2020: 205.1
March 2021: 324.1 (this means that the price has increased by 119% year over year, a more than doubling of price)
“Softwood plywood products: rough, sanded, and specialties” (index established December 2011):
March 2020: 139.0
March 2021: 242.9 (again, this means that the price has increased by 103.9%, doubling the price)
In addition to general demand being much higher, there are other reasons why lumber costs so much more right now, according to Robinson Meyer writing in The Atlantic last week.
Since 2018, a one-two punch of environmental harms worsened by climate change has devastated the lumber industry in Canada, the largest lumber exporter to the United States. A catastrophic and multi-decade outbreak of bark-eating beetles, followed by a series of historic wildfire seasons, have led to lasting economic damage in British Columbia, a crucial lumber-providing province. Americans have, in effect, made a mad dash for lumber at the exact moment Canada is least able to supply it.
“There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me,’” Janice Cooke, a forest-industry veteran and biology professor at the University of Alberta, told me. “But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’”
It has lost 2.5 billion board feet of annual production capacity since 2019, enough to shift prices in a North American market of 70 billion annual board feet, Jalbert said.
Read Robinson’s full article to see how the bark-eating beetles overwhelmed the forests of British Columbia and the northern forest belt in Canada and why their rampage is fueled by climate change.
The same contractor, when they checked in with me recently, said that the prices of other construction materials had gone up, too.
In the same Producer Price Index report, it looks like wood doors and door frames went up 29.2% from March 2020 to March 2021; metal windows are up 7.1%, double hung wood windows are up 6.8% and wood casement windows are up 5.1%; wood moldings are up 16.9%.
I didn’t see any notable price increases in plumbing materials or kitchen cabinets – all were close to inflation. The PPI doesn’t have vinyl window products, or I don’t know under which category it falls.
One of the first things I did after I bought a two-flat in July was contact Peoples Gas and Comed to ensure utilities were in my name, and that the utility connections would not be interrupted.
A few days later I decided that I wasn’t going to move in, because I wanted to make a good amount of changes and the best time to do that would be when nobody is living there. “Good amount of changes” turned into “gut rehab”. One of my friends is an architect and we (mostly him) are drawing permit plans right now.
It wasn’t until a week ago (8 weeks since I bought the house) that I realized there’s no reason to be paying for Peoples Gas to maintain a connection when I’m not using natural gas.
I’m writing this journal entry to exclaim how expensive it is to just “leave the gas line connected”.
It costs $50 per month per unit to have the privilege of possibly purchasing the delivery of natural gas through a pipe. Both units used 0 therms in the longest-period bill I received. (I received three bills, only one of which was for 30 days.)
I’ve got to pay $50 per unit for no gas.
I visited a three-flat under construction in Pilsen on Friday, and talked to the developer, Brent. He described how he’s following high-efficiency building wall standards to create a “tight envelope” (one in which very little air can leak) so that the tenants can “receive the comfort they’re paying for”. When it comes to setting the thermostat, the air delivered by HVAC machines should match that exactly, no more, no less. No oversized furnaces pushing too much heated air because so much of the air leaks through the walls and windows.
And, as a way to control costs, Brent will not connect a natural gas pipe to the building, mostly because of the expensive and default customer charge that persists even when no gas is used. A VRF (variable refrigerant flow) and heat pump machines will be entirely powered by electricity to serve the tenant’s heating and cooling needs.
Brent said that the tight building envelope coupled with the high-efficiency HVAC means that it’s more cost effective to use electricity to heat a house than natural gas.
After our meeting, I looked again at my final bill from Peoples Gas (I closed the account two days prior) and understood what Brent was saying about controlling costs. With an electric water heater and an electric range, there’s no need to have any gas connection.
I will probably have to keep the gas at my two-flat, to power the furnaces, because I don’t have the expertise or financial resources to renovate an existing building to have a tight enough envelope to make electrically-generated heat more cost effective than gas-generated heat.
Update January 13, 2021: I turned off the gas and closed the accounts so I don’t have to waste any money while I’m not living there (a gut rehab still needs to happen).
To keep water pipes from freezing and bursting I cleared the vast majority of water lines and added an electric pipe heating cable to keep the remaining sections warm.
I bought a copy of The “L”: The Development of Chicago’s Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932, written by Bruce Moffat, a historian of electric trains in Chicago. Moffat currently works for the Chicago Transit Authority. (If there wasn’t a pandemic, you’d be able to request a hold on one of the 50 copies at the Chicago Public Library.)
The book is about the elevated trains that were built in Chicago, in competition with the street omnibuses (horse drawn), railways (cable cars and streetcars), and suburban trains (okay, some competition), prior to establishing the Chicago Transit Authority. The CTA is a State of Illinois authority, created by the legislature, that today owns and operates all of the historic and since-built elevated, subway, and at-grade ‘L’ transit as well as buses. It acquired all of the assets of all of the ‘L’, streetcar, and bus companies that were operating when it was established in 1945.
On with the story!
Back in December 1888, the Chicago City Council approved a franchise for the Lake Street Elevated Company to build a Meigs Elevated Railway above Lake Street from Canal Street to 40th Avenue (later named Crawford and now Pulaski Road), then the western border of Chicago. A tract of land west of 40th Avenue (Pulaski Road) was incorporated into the City of Chicago four months later on April 29, 1889.
If you go to the intersection of Canal and Lake Streets today you’ll see the Union Pacific railroad tracks above, heading into and out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, a skyscraper at 444 W Lake Street, a cigar store, and a vintage loft office building.
The Meigs Elevated Railway was a steam-powered elevated monorail – meaning each track had one rail to support a train.
You may not know this: I love monorails. When my family visited Walt Disney World my favorite ride was the inter-park and world famous monorail. I’ve also ridden the monorails in Disneyland (but I don’t remember my time there), Las Vegas, Seattle, Düsseldorf airport, Wuppertal, and three in Tokyo, Japan (Chiba City, Shonan, and Haneda airport; I missed the one in Tama).
I used to be obsessed with monorails. I became a member of The Monorail Society when I was a teenager and my first eBay purchase was a Disney monorail motorized toy in March 2000. I was jealous of my friends in elementary school who had a Lego monorail, and now they regularly sell for $200. I also built a SAFEGE-style monorail out of K’NEX in high school.
It was invented by Josiah V. Meigs in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a 227-foot long demonstration line was built in 1886 on land that is now a Fairfield Inn hotel and before that was the Genoa Packing Co. (demolished in 2013).
The Lake Street Elevated Company organizers (seven incorporators are listed in the book) hired Morris H. Alberger to be the president. According to Moffat’s book, “Alberger had convinced his fellow directors that their railroad should use an experimental and relatively complex elevated railway system developed by Joe V. Meigs”. Alberger was also the president of the Meigs Elevated Railway Company.
Moffat discusses an eighth company organizer: Michael Cassius McDonald, “politically well connected and influential”. He was the “chief sponsor” and “promoter” of the Lake Street elevated proposal which came to be known as “Mike’s Upstairs Railroad”.
The Meigs Electric Railway – the monorail – was never built. Moffat says that the reason the monorail was never built was because it was difficult to promote and raised funds by selling shares.
Almost a year after City Council approved the MER to run over Lake Street, they “deleted the Meigs requirement” in November 1890 so that the Lake Street Elevated Company could build a traditional iron structure. The trains would also be “traditional”. (The first elevated train started running in Manhattan and the Bronx on August 26, 1878 – that was the Third Avenue Elevated – ten years prior to the Meigs monorail being approved in Chicago.)
Even before City Council “deleted” the franchise’s requirement to build a monorail, the Lake Street Elevated Company had already started building the iron structure for a train in December 1889, at Lake and Clinton Streets, where the Clinton Green Line station is now.
That’s the end of the story for the monorail, but I’ll continue talking about the Lake Street ‘L’.
The Lake Street Elevated opens!
Construction had reached “just west of Ashland Avenue” by October 1892, less than three years after the first iron girder was erected at Clinton. A year after that last construction milestone at Ashland, the tracks for service were completed to California Avenue (2800 West).
The Lake Street Elevated Company’s first service was set to begin on October 30, 1893. The opening was delayed, however, until an inauguration on Saturday, November 4, 1893, to mourn the death of Mayor Carter Harrison, who was assassinated during his fifth term. Passenger service began two days later on Monday, November 6, 1893.
In early 1893, the Lake Street Elevated Company wanted to run their trains down Market Street (now Wacker Drive) from Lake Street to Madison Street.
The Market Street “stub” ran past the future site of the Civic Opera Building, opened in November 1929. Operagoers and workers in the office tower of the building would have ridden the ‘L’ here until the Chicago Transit Authority
Extending further into the Garfield Park neighborhood
Tracks were built six blocks west of California Avenue, to Homan Avenue, but the stations were incomplete. Service to the Homan station started November 24, 1893, and four blocks further west to Hamlin Avenue in January 1894.
The Homan Avenue station no longer exists. Today’s Green Line over Lake Street was rebuilt from 1994 to 1996 and the Homan station was abandoned. According to Chicago “L”.org, the CTA decided to move the station two blocks west to Central Park Drive (3600 West). It was “completely deconstructed in spring of 2000 and put into storage”. It was renovated, made accessible, and opened as the Conservatory-Central Park Drive station in June 2001.
Chicago “L”.org notes that this visitors access to the Garfield Park Conservatory, evens out stop spacing, but does not intersect a bus route which Homan Ave does. The CTA closed Hamlin station on March 18, 1956. I don’t know when it was demolished.
Onward, to Austin and Oak Park!
Back to the Lake Street elevated timeline. Serviced operated to Hamlin Avenue in 1894. The next year it was operating to 52nd Avenue (now Laramie Avenue), the western boundary of Chicago. On the other side of that boundary was the Township of Cicero. Austin, a township neighborhood, was annexed by Chicago in 1899. The Village of Oak Park eventually emerged from the township, incorporating in 1902.
Austin was location of Cicero’s town hall. The town hall building, at the Central and Lake station, is now part of the Austin Town Hall Park and Cultural Center, owned and operated by the Chicago Park District.
Moffat’s book describes a lot of political controversy about extending the Lake Street Elevated into Cicero, which seems fitting for the Chicago region. Passenger service to Austin Avenue (now Boulevard) started April 19, 1899.
The next month, on May 14, 1889, trains that ran east-west above Lake Street came down a ramp – to the surface – onto north-south Lombard Avenue a couple of blocks south to Randolph Street. They turned west onto Randolph Street and continued until Wisconsin Avenue/Marion Street. The tracks on Randolph Street were in the middle of the street, and owned by Suburban Railroad, an interurban railway company.
The tracks were previously owned by Chicago, Harlem & Batavia Railway. I’m including that information because I grew up there. However, the railroad never made it that far: “No effort was made to extend the railroad to that distance place, but money was spent to purchase new locomotives and passenger cars and make other improvements.”
Residents here had the option of taking trains into downtown Chicago on the Chicago & Northwestern Railway. Those tracks are now owned by Union Pacific, which also operates the former C&NW lines as Metra’s UP-West Line. The line terminates at Ogilvie Transportation Center, which used to be called Northwestern Station, which was C&NW’s second location for their downtown terminal.
Moffat discussed these passengers’ choices, writing, “Although a ride on the nearby Chicago & Northwestern was faster, the “L’s” more frequent schedule, convenient Loop stops, and lower fare drew many riders away from the steam railroad”. The same is true today; the ‘L’ costs less than Metra but takes longer to reach the West Loop.
The story about the construction and operation of the Lake Street Elevated is almost done. I’m going to end it as soon as the train reaches the current terminus at Harlem Avenue in Oak Park.
Service to Marion Street started in late January 1901, on the street level of South Boulevard, thus ending service on Randolph Street a few blocks south. Trains started servicing the Harlem station on May 20, 1910. Remember that the reason the trains are now on South Boulevard is because Lake Street runs with a slight northwest diagonal, ends at the Chicago & Northwestern Railway embankment, and resumes a few blocks west. In 1961, the line was elevated onto C&NW’s embankment.
Even though the station is currently called “Harlem/Lake”, the station is at Harlem/South Boulevard, and Lake Street is one block north.
Meigs’s railway was mentioned in an op-ed in the Boston Globe Magazine on Sunday, February 23, 1992, as the newspapers’s architecture critic, Robert Campbell, and Peter Vanderwarker, an architectural historian, lamented the towering car infrastructure proposed in the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (also known as “Big Dig”, the most expensive highway construction in the country), as well as the darkening effect of the elevated trains. It’s really quite an essay.
But competition was vicious. Arson and vandalism hampered Meigs, as did his insistence on old-fashioned steam power instead of electricity. Nothing besides the Cambridge test line was ever built. The Meigs monorail made its last run in 1894. Conventional elevated trains, modeled on those of Manhattan and far more massive than Meigs’, soon darkened Boston’s streets.
By the end of this decade, the view will have changed radically. A dramatic Babel of steel and concrete, perhaps resembling a great sports stadium, will rise like a gray mountain in the middle distance at the left of the photo. The introverted automobile will have won its long battle for supremacy over the sociable train.
“MEIGS ELEVATED RAILWAY – Changing TRACKS”, By Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker
Meigs Field, a former airport in downtown Chicago that existed between 1948 and 2003, was named after Merrill C. Meigs, a pilot and former head of the Chicago Aero Commission. He believed that Chicago needed a third airport, within 10 minutes of downtown. The airport was built and named after Meigs in 1949. I haven’t found a relationship between the two Meigs.