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Debra Baumgartner

Garden Homes of Chatham Chicago’s First Subsidized Housing Project:
The Promise, the Reality and Today

Double House, Garden Homes of Chatham, Chicago Top: Elevation by Charles Sumner Frost, 1919. Bottom: 8744-48 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago Photo by Debra Baumgartner, 2003.

          Early subsidized housing in Chicago was the altruistic work of individuals who recognized a pressing need for adequate and sanitary housing. In l9l9, local merchant Benjamin J. Rosenthal founded the Chicago Housing Association, a private philanthropy that promised “to improve housing conditions in Chicago and to encourage small wage earners to acquire and own their homes.” Rosenthal enlisted the financial assistance of business leaders like J. Ogden Armour, William Wrigley, Jr. and Julius Rosenwald to build ten thousand model homes for the working poor. The first phase, named  “Garden Homes” after the English Garden City concept of Ebenezer Howard, was the construction of 175 houses at Wabash Avenue and 87th Street—the first large-scale, subsidized housing project in Chicago.

            Architect Charles Sumner Frost designed l33 detached cottages and 2l “double houses” using a uniform floor plan and footprint, but with seven different façades composed by varying design elements, details and materials. The consistent scale and massing, uniform setbacks, mix of single and double houses, and variety of façade designs fostered a harmonious and charming neighborhood, in contrast to later low-income housing projects.

            This thesis will work in concert with a National Register of Historic Places nomination to assist owners interested in the restoration of their homes. Section one will describe the history including Benjamin Rosenthal’s ideological “promise” for Garden Homes and the “reality” that fell short of its goal. This section will also chronicle the demographic, economic and physical evolution of the neighborhood since Garden Homes’ l920 completion.

            Sections two and three will create a preservation guide for the Garden Homes Historic District. Section two will illustrate and describe the original seven façade designs, and indicate where each is found on a map of the neighborhood. This will be followed by a general conditions assessment evaluating alterations and additions and their impact on the architectural integrity of Garden Homes.

One of the Seven Facade Designs, Garden Homes of Chatham, Chicago Left: Elevation by Charles Sumner Frost, 1919. Right: 8841 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago Photo by Debra Baumgartner, 2003.

            Utilizing this data, section three will establish design guidelines for restoration and rehabilitation. Garden Homes offers a unique opportunity for accurate restoration because examples of virtually every design detail have survived on at least one house. Documentation of details such as doors, windows and porches will be included along with recommendations for maintenance and repair of materials, as well as a discussion of appropriate alterations, additions, infill and landscaping. Section three will also explore financial incentives for homeowners and examine local programs that encourage restoration.


           Debra Baumgartner received a BFA in Art and a BA in Business Administration from Illinois Wesleyan University in l990, and a BFA in Interior Design in l993. Debra established an interior design firm specializing in residential design, including a number of projects involving residences of historic significance. This peaked Debra’s interest in the field of historic preservation and led her to the School’s graduate program.


Thesis Advisor: Jim Peters, Instructor, Historic Preservation; Director, Preservation Planning, Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois

Thesis Reader: Vincent L. Michael, Associate Professor and Director, Historic Preservation Program

Second Reader: Terry Tatum, Instructor, Historic Preservation; Director of Research, City of Chicago, Department of Planning and Development, Landmarks Division


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