Defining the Four Plus One
by Serhii Chrucky

The simplest definition of a four plus one is a five story apartment building where the first floor consists of the lobby and a parking lot. It is often cited as a building type that is unique to Chicago, a fact which is dependent on how the building is defined. A five story apartment building with parking included can be found in many American cities. So, what is it that makes Chicago’s four plus ones unique from other examples of this basic form?

There are four major factors that differentiate a four plus one from a generic apartment building; the building materials, the relationship to the lot, the term “four plus one” itself, and exposed parking.



Right: MSN Live Maps

Street level view, at left, and aerial view, right, of 5101 N. Sheridan, a typical four plus one.

The four floors containing the apartment units are of wood-frame and masonry construction. They sit on a poured concrete slab which is supported by concrete pillars. The parking lot is located under the concrete slab, slightly below grade. The height of the ceiling in the parking lot is no more than seven feet above grade, a technicality of Chicago’s building code that allows the parking lot to be considered as a basement.1 Because the resulting structure is only considered four stories, it could be built in areas zoned R5 and higher.2 The bulk of the area zoned R5 and higher exists near the lake front within roughly one mile from Lake Shore Drive.


This four plus one on Loyola Avenue just west of the L station was demolished in the waning months of 2008. This is an uncommon occurrence. Four plus ones were constructed in dense areas and are relatively high density themselves. Because of this and the fact that they often comprise the bulk of reasonably priced apartments in desirable high-demand areas, and are profitable as a consequence, they are rarely demolished. As in this case with this parcel of property being a stone’s throw from an L station, the demolition of a four plus one suggests a considerable increase in property value.

Four plus ones are built on either single or double lots. The common Chicago lot is 125 feet deep and 25 feet wide. Four plus ones built early on in 1961 or 1962 are often on single lots, while later examples and the majority of the type are built on double lots. Because four plus ones were designed to be economically expedient money generators, it follows that nearly every example occupies as much of the lot as possible. This is always done in the same way. The building straddles the sides of the lot, but is set back about fifteen feet, the minimum, from the sidewalk. These buildings are squeezed into lots, fulfilling the minimum requirements of zoning and building code, while maximizing the number of units.

Sub-surface parking lots have been requirements in high-density apartment buildings since the 1920s. During this period, automobile ownership and apartment living became available and fashionable to members of the rising middle and upper classes. They hid their parking underground, at great expense. The four plus one takes the concept of the underground parking lot to a logical economic conclusion. The cheapest possible way to include parking without resorting to the space-wasting surface lot is to simply elevate the structure on pillars.

Examples of lot occupancy. This is Sheridan Road, just south of North Shore Avenue, facing east. Among the two smaller four plus ones on the east side of the street in the top-center of the image is the first four plus one, designed by Jerome Soltan and built in 1961. Each occupies a single standard lot. Directly across the street from these are two common I-shaped four plus ones, built in the late 1960s. These each occupy two standard lots.

The term is “four plus one” is unique to Chicago. In other cities with five story apartment buildings with underground parking, it is very likely that people refer to them as “apartment buildings” or “condos,” whichever they may be. Four plus one refers to two things; the height of the building, and a separation of functions (the parking lot). This implies that the elements of height and functionality are the ones that define the four plus one. As these elements are among the reasons that these buildings are so reviled, we can further deduce that “four plus one” is not a neutral term. It is a pejorative term that more accurately describes a period in the history of Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, rather than a building type.

Four plus ones were met with resistance in the form of community activism in Lincoln Park and Lakeview in the late 1960s. Many arguments were made against them, some reasonable, some NIMBY-ish. Monica Petraglia classifies arguments against the four plus one into three categories; Traffic Congestion, Public Safety and Community Character.3

Traffic Congestion is at the reasonable end of the spectrum. It was argued that because four plus ones did not provide adequate parking for their residents, parking spilled on-street, thus greatly increasing competition for parking. There is truth to this; the 1957 zoning code required buildings zoned R5 and higher to provide parking for 75% of units.4

On one hand, four plus ones provide an elegant solution to the issue of parking. What could be simpler and more efficient than simply elevating the structure? However, four plus ones are comprised of studio and one bedroom apartments, and are also very efficient when it comes to packing many of these units into a small space. These two efficiencies are incompatible if every occupant owns a car, which is not an unlikely scenario.

The Public Safety concerns were straw man arguments that are aesthetic concerns in disguise. The argument that four plus ones are fire hazards is a particularly absurd one. The use of wood in construction does not automatically qualify the building as a fire hazard. By this logic, the entire Back of the Yards neighborhood is a fire hazard. It is more likely the case that any building with objectionable aesthetics is considered by some a ‘fire hazard.’

The most common arguments against the four plus one dealt with Community Character, including issues such as neighborhood charm, population density, and family-friendliness. The gentrifiers were more often that not young parents looking for a good place to raise the children. Four plus ones cater to a market that is marginalized with an influx of single families. Young couples, single people, and the elderly were the common tenants of four plus ones.

The gentrifiers, by their very presence, inadvertently created a favorable socio-economic climate to build four plus ones. With increased desirability and property values, the two outcomes are building up or out. In areas which were already relatively high density, building higher was the only choice.

Community Character arguments, such as “these buildings replace beautiful homes and are ugly, cheap, and tawdry” are nothing more than class-based conflict veiled as aesthetic value judgments. Four plus ones can most commonly be found along the lakefront north from Lincoln Park to Rogers Park, and south between Hyde Park and South Shore. It is a very important and telling detail that the only resistance and complaint toward four plus ones occurred in Lakeview and Lincoln Park. These areas were among the first in to gentrify, and the new residents keen to preserve their investment and lifestyle through exclusion.

The Keck-Gottschalk-Keck Apartments.

There are two types of four plus ones, differentiated by the visibility of parking. If the parking lot is visible from the sidewalk, the more likely it is to be considered an ‘eyesore’ by the passerby. If the parking is hidden – out of sight, out of mind. It is very difficult to determine why the sight of parked cars is so greatly disliked. Of course, it is a matter of aesthetics, but any deeper reasons are tough to glean.

Distaste for parking is not confined to the world of four plus ones. Architects Keck & Keck designed some of the first Modernist buildings in Chicago. One of these was a three flat in Hyde Park that the Kecks built for themselves in 1937. In an interview, William Keck describes his neighbors’ opinions of this building:

“So, we put the garage in the front—a three-car garage. This subsequently brought about quite a bit of consternation from a number of people in the neighborhood who thought the building was particularly ugly looking and so on.”5

Keck’s three flat was built with load-bearing masonry walls and concrete floors, the parking is not exposed, and it looks like a three flat. By including it here, I do not mean to imply that it is related to the four plus one. However, the four plus one is indeed a descendant from Modernism.

Just as with luxury high-rise apartment buildings, the inclusion of parking directly beneath smaller residential buildings begins in the 1920s. This phenomenon was confined to avant-garde Modernist houses, such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Cook and Villa Savoye, both from 1927. Villa Cook resembles the Keck-Gottschalk-Keck apartments in that it is a two flat with parking underneath. However, the parking is below grade and exposed, a similarly to the four plus one.

The Villa Savoye was a direct influence on a new type of house in post-war Los Angeles; the Dingbat.6 Dingbats are two story apartment buildings, with one floor of residential space, and one of parking. The parking is located slightly below grade, and the structure is supported on stilts. Dingbats occupy the entire lot, and are constructed of wood and stucco.7 The number of parking spaces varies among Dingbats. Some have as little as two spaces, while others have six or more.



Left: Jan Woudstra. Right: Tobias Begalke.

Left: Villa Savoye. Right: Los Angeles Dingbat.

Dingbats are identical to four plus ones in every category, except height. While four plus ones occur primarily in dense areas with fairly high property value, Dingbats are spread at lower density across the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. Architectural critic Reyner Banham characterizes Dingbats as:

“The true symptom of Los Angeles’ urban Id trying to cope with the unprecedented appearance of residential densities too high to be subsumed within the illusions of homestead living.”8

As such, they never seem to exceed three stories, and most are only two. They are related to four plus ones not only as a design precedent, but also as the manifestation of the conflict between the single-family detached house and the high density apartment building. Although this is not its origin, the Dingbat can be likened to a cheaper version of a classic Chicago two flat, oriented horizontally, with parking underneath.

The first four plus ones in Chicago were motels in high density areas like the lakefront, River North, and the southern vicinity of Grant Park. Zoning amendments allowed motels to be built in Chicago beginning in 1953.9 Motels tended to cluster along arterial highways, towards the edges of the city in areas with property values that did not necessitate building more than two stories.



Chicago History In Postcards

The earliest motel that resembled a four plus one, the Avenue Motel, was not built until 1959, barely pre-dating the four plus one. Although arranged a bit differently than the classic four plus one, the Avenue is the earliest example of the four-plus-one elements coming together in Chicago. Designed by Benjamin H. Stein, it was located on the northwest corner of Roosevelt and Michigan. The first motel on Michigan Avenue, it had all of the hallmarks of post-war auto architecture, and was akin to the four plus one in the way that it squeezed all the elements of an ordinary motel into a single lot. It was composed of a two story semi-exposed parking ramp with a glass-enclosed restaurant and lobby at ground level. Five stories in all, three floors of rooms hovered above the restaurant and ramp on pillars. The neon sign was not free-standing but was incorporated onto the central massing, and the bright red and blue color scheme brought further visual attention to the building. Unfortunately, like countless other mid-century buildings, the Avenue was demolished (condozed, actually) in 2000.

An example of the evolution of the Avenue’s form is the Mart Inn, at the southeast corner of LaSalle and Ohio Streets. Built in 1968, it did not by any means pre-date the four plus one, although it fits the four plus one criteria fairly well. Filling the lot, there are four floors of rooms with exposed parking at the ground level. It differs in that the parking is at grade, not below grade. Also, it is likely that the Mart Inn and other hotels are not frame and masonry construction like the classic four plus one, but as was the case with the Avenue, poured concrete.



Chicago History In Postcards

It is probable that four plus ones were disliked by the gentrifiers of Lincoln Park and Lakeview for a combination of a number of reasons, some of which they may not have cared to admit. They moved back into the city from the suburbs because they got a good deal on a charming house in a quaint neighborhood. Their presence en masse increased demand, and the market responded accordingly with four plus ones. Four plus ones increased the population density on their formerly sleepy block, and the newcomers were in a lower socio-economic class. With all of those anonymous, un-wed, childless nurses competing for street parking, it became too much to bear. Plus, they had to push their strollers or walk their dogs and see, of all things, a parking lot…under a building! They had escaped the tacky roadside architecture of the post-war suburbs only to be subjected to tacky concrete paraboloid canopies. Who wouldn’t complain?

For one, elderly people who were not physically capable of living any longer in a larger house, and had trouble walking up stairs. Or a single working mother who found it more convenient to live closer to better transit and more resources. Four plus ones provided more choice and options to a segment of the population who may not have had it otherwise. They were, and still are, a solid investment and provided financial return for those who invested in, built, designed, and owned them. In response to criticism of his buildings, architect Jerome Soltan commented in 1969:10

“They can be built well…and I think they will last. I can’t see any reason why they won’t be there in another forty years.”


Sources

1 Alvin Nagleberg. “Low Rises Bolster City Construction:100 Built in 3-Year Period.” Chicago Tribune, July 31, 1966, (accessed November 26, 2008).
2 Joseph P. Schwieterman and Dana M. Caspall. The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2006.
3 Monica Petraglia. The “Four-plus-One” Controversy and Its Role in Chicago Zoning. Unpublished paper, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2008.
4 Ibid.
5 William Keck. Interview with Betty J. Blum. Chicago Architects Oral History Project. Art Institute of Chicago, c2001.
6 Clive Piercy. Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003.
7 Reyner Banham. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
8 Ibid.
9 Ronald Kotulak. “Neon Promises Tempt Traveler with Luxuries: Neon Lights Tempt the Weary Traveler.”Chicago Daily Tribune, August 7,1960, (accessed December 4, 2008).
10 Sara Jane Goodyear “Four-Plus One Apartments Rile North Siders.”Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1969, (accessed November 26, 2008).


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