The term two-flat describes the type of building in Chicago that has two independent units on separate floors. The terms two-flat and three-flat could be used to describe any building of two or three units of apartments, of any variety of styles. At the turn of the century, two-flats and three-flats became popular as a way of creating density of housing on existing lots in Chicago, without sacrificing the residential space.
Two-flats were the answer to the changing economy in housing, with Chicago looking to house a greater number of residents on the typical Chicago lot. In their traditional, two-flat Chicago original form, two-flats were the perfect package for first-time homebuyers during that windowspan of the Chicago fires and pre-Depression years. A rich part of Chicagos two-flat story was initially designed as multi-unit apartments, either rented as 2 units, or as single-family homes with double the square footage.
Buying a two-flat makes you part of Chicagos rich tradition, and the 2-story structure has a distinct look that is unique to the rich history of Chicago. Two doors hidden behind the lone front entryway, the bricks in the color rust, the makeshift rear porches over the wooden stairs–the two-flat in Chicago has provided high-quality housing for Chicagoans of every heritage for four generations. The two-flat is one of the most common, as well as affordable, types of housing available to renters in the Chicago housing market.
Two-flats, along with other generally affordable units, have dominated the architecture of residential neighborhoods in Chicago for almost a century. In many ways, the two-flat marked the halfway house between the cramped, contained life of the late 1800s and even roomier housing styles that came later, including Chicagos signature bungalows, which would emerge during the 1930s and 1940s, as Chicagos population continued to boom and expand. Over the years, the two-flat has earned the distinction as one of the most prominent and influential buildings in all of Chicago architecture.
A combination of a single-family home and a multi-family dwelling, the two-flat was intended to be a financial investment. One of the more important things to note is that the property was initially designed and built to be a two-unit structure, typically with one unit on top of the other. Typically, one of the two units in the same property is occupied by the owner of the property, while the other unit is rented (or used by a family member, hence the in-laws condo terminology). There is a lower basement floor, often called the garden apartment, and a third unit in the 2-flat illegally.
The basement in a 2-flat is typically an open-air storage area and shared laundry; in a 3-flat, a 3rd unit can be located in the basement, and is called garden. In Chicago, a duplex is defined as a detached, two-story structure, with internal stairs connecting both, typically in a condominium building. This was prevalent in established neighborhoods in the Great Depression. The third type of two-family dwelling is the Duplex, which is generally two-family dwellings in one piece of land, which are located next to each other.
In neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, buildings with two or four units are being converted into single-family homes by joining two levels of apartments. Near the citys core, demand has been growing for the conversion of two-unit buildings into single-family homes, or the replacement of mid-rise rentals or apartment buildings, making it harder for Chicagoans to find affordable housing. Sales are dropping, but only because they are hard to keep up, and so many are being demolished to build taller buildings, putting working-class middle-class residents out of homes.
Despite their popularity, new 2-to-4-flats are being built at lower rates than other types of buildings, yet still being torn down or converted from the market. Most 2- and three-flats were built between 1900 and 1920, and many of these ex-rentals are due for new roofs, windows, and tuckpointing. Since the financial and foreclosure crisis in 2008, a number of two-flats in other neighborhoods across the city have either been sitting empty, or have been purchased by developers that are not using the units.
As the Chicago Architecture Center notes, a lot of developers stopped building two-unit buildings, which are increasingly seen as unviable. According to DePaul Universitys Institute for Housing Studies (IHS), between 2010 and 2016, smaller, multi-unit, two-story buildings were the only type of housing in decline.
The typical 2-flat in Chicago is a small, multi-unit structure, with two to three units and shared entrances. A flat, like an apartment, is an independent living space, but is part of a larger multi-unit building.
Just to distinguish between these two types of dwellings, we count as two-flats in a two-flat cottage style, if there are two or more equally-sized floors in a building (not a smaller floor below the gabled roof). While the words condo and flat are commonly used interchangeably, some refer to one-story units as flats due to their flat character.
Two-story buildings, which have one unit per floor, are iconic pieces of Chicago architecture, known for the two-story buildings bay windows, their brick or graystone exteriors, and warm, wooden interiors. Two-flats are large buildings, at about 1,250 square feet per unit, that have a brick or framed exterior, and have a single set of up-and-down stairs leading up to an entryway. Architecturally, two-flats are distinguished by their distinctive features, including wide, angled porches, generous front-facing windows, and plain brick or stone exteriors. Many of the two-flats in Chicago are built from plans a homebuilder might choose from a brochure, with small flourishes added here and there to serve as distinguishing touches, making them akin to Sears Craftsman homes, which has gained a niche, but fiercely dedicated, following among architecture enthusiasts.