Teardowns in a North Shore Suburb

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

The tension between the public interest and private property rights was front and center in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs during the housing boom of the early 2000s. These small towns and cities (including EvanstonWilmetteKenilworthWinnetkaGlencoeHighland Park and Lake Forest) are historic commuter suburbs that benefited from easy transit to Chicago while providing attractive lakefront access to those who could afford it. Over the years, these communities have become less exclusive but are still highly valued for their prestigious addresses and substantial community amenities. Property owners looking to profit from selling their houses often turned to developers who, in turn, demolished the existing buildings and constructed McMansions in their place. A climate of easy credit, quick turnarounds, and strong demand, in addition to decades-old zoning laws that permitted much larger buildings, made cities on Chicago’s periphery attractive for redevelopment. Once demolition of houses began, they clustered, partially due to zoning, but also because teardowns attract teardowns. Builders kept track of areas of new construction and new construction signaled to adjacent homeowners that it was time to cash out.

Communities that saw their character changing due to teardowns often addressed the issue through a variety of city boards, such as a plan commission, housing commission, or community land trust. There is nothing illegal about someone tearing down a home and building a new one in accordance with all building and zoning codes, but the loss of economic diversity and erosion of historic character was alarming to many. In response, many of Chicago’s older suburbs adopted demolition delay ordinances to determine if their communities were losing buildings of historic or architectural significance. Delaying demolitions between three months and two years enables a historic preservation commission to initiate proceedings to assess whether a building is deserving of historic landmark status. Whether a building can be landmarked in spite of intent to demolish depends on the language of the Historic Preservation Ordinance adopted by the particular community. Despite the efforts of planners and preservationists, North Shore cities, towns, and villages have lost hundreds of buildings since 2000. Some have been of historic and architectural importance, others not. Characters of streets, towns and whole communities have been altered. Some residents welcomed demolitions; others loathed the new buildings. Beneath the teardown trend, however, were the planning concepts and economic realities that have shaped community development for decades.

I was a liaison to a historic preservation commission in a North Shore suburb until 2006, and it fell to me to document, research, and recommend action for each residential demolition permit received. This put me in a unique position to witness this dramatic shift in the built environment, and on my own time I made the following sketches. They are just the tip of the iceberg, depicting some of the hundreds of buildings on Chicago’s suburban periphery that have been demolished since 2000. With the deflation of the housing market, I wonder how many of the new owners were able to maintain their huge mortgages and tax assessments. Have some communities traded streets of diverse housing for a row of expensive white elephants? Perhaps the real lesson is how little control was available to the municipal authority, or the startled residents, once the teardown trend hit. In many ways the cities finally began to resemble the zoning maps that were adopted decades earlier. These maps defined the height, setbacks, and floor area for a building on any given lot. This is a predictable, consistent, and common method of managing growth but not the best way to guide development for communities intent on maintaining a unique identity. Any real solution would have to be a combination of thoughtfully constructed regulation which can respond to unique conditions, coupled with a strong sense of those things within the community which are worth preserving. Combine this with a vision of the future and you have just the beginnings of a comprehensive approach.


This 1920s Craftsman style home was in the middle of its own forest. There had been numerous additions, but all very much in keeping with the character of the home.



When this rustic home was razed, the wooded areas in front were replaced with a lawn and a circular drive.



This 1950s ranch house was completely hidden from the street, but was a nice example of mid-century modern scaled for affordability. I especially liked the cantilevered roof shading the recreation room.



This 1920s French Eclectic mansion had a particularly dramatic view of Lake Michigan. It was demolished along with a nearby neighbor to accommodate the next generation of mansion, with a scale that made this look quite modest.



Rumor had it that this 1950s house was taken from a design in Popular Mechanics. I couldn’t confirm that, but it’s a nice solution to a hilly site. The owners said there were too many stairs.




This Craftsman style house (c.1915) was demolished to make way for a planned development. It was located on a lot that had been rezoned as multi-family.



Very stylish 1960s ranch with angled roof. Too small to survive.



This turn-of-the-century Classical Revival home was actually in a National Register Historic District. The neighbors tried to organize a local historic district, but with no success. Only locally designated landmarks have protection from demolition.




This Dutch Colonial Revival was replaced by a French Country home. Those are the ones with the turrets.



This 1940s ranch house was particularly close to my heart. It was constructed in the part of town which still had some rural character after WWII. It approximated the board and batten look of the barns and livestock structures which would have been found in the area at the time.



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