John T. Davis Flats
by: chicago designslinger
[John T. Davis Flats (1883) Iver. C. Zarbell, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In the early 1880s John T. Davis was on the hunt for real estate investments. He had taken over his father's wholesale dry goods company, increased sales volume and his income, and was looking for places to invest some of his cash. He not only found investment opportunities to his liking in his homecity of St. Louis, but saw some potential in New York, Boston and Chicago. Stocks and bonds were all well and good, but a diversified portfolio containing solid real estate investments could offer secure returns for decades to come.
[John T. Davis Flats, 2100 Block, North Bissell Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The real estate he purchased in Chicago seemed fraught with opportunity. This area on the north side of town was close to built-up portions of the city, but still had a few large pieces of undeveloped land available on a former truck farm. The 1-square-mile section had been purchased by Connecticut businessman Joseph Sheffield in the 1850s. Sheffield was one of a number of New Englanders who saw Chicago as a place to make money and in 1850 he partnered with New Haven businessman Henry Farnum to finance the construction of a rail line that would stretch from Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois, establishing the first rail connection between the city and the mighty Mississippi. Along the way he also had an agent purchase the large section of land far from the city center located near today's heavily trafficked intersection where Halsted Street crosses Lincoln Avenue. Twenty years earlier it had been the site of a Potawatomi village. The area was flat and perfect for farming, so Sheffield rented the land to tenant farmers who trucked their goods into the city to be sold in the bustling produce market that lined the southern edge of the main branch of the Chicago River. By the 1860's the first streets were plotted and graded at the southern end of the section, and after the fire in 1871, rows of houses began cropping-up on the former farmland.
[John T. Davis Flats, Sheffield National Historic District. Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1883, one year after Sheffield's death, John Davis purchased 16 vacant lots on either side of Bissell Street from Garfield (today's Dickens Street) north to Webster Avenue. Davis hired architect Iver C. Zarbell to design a group of row house apartments - or in Chicago verbiage "flats" - on each side of the block, which Davis hoped to rent to middle class businessmen and their families.
[John T. Davis Flats, Bissell Street Historic District /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Zarbell mixed together a concoction of a variety of architectural styles of the day to enhance the facades of the Davis rows. But rather than run the entire group as a conjoined row of houses, the architect allowed for a narrow breathing gap, or "gangway" between individual buildings. In the center of each block stood the largest of the group with ten flats per mansard-roofed structure, then on to six-flats, before shrinking down to 3-flats, for a total of 14 buildings in all. For added visual pleasure each flat combo contained its own unique compilation of detailing while holding on to a cohesive scheme. Some of the units contained up to 10-rooms which could be had for a rate of $20.00 per month, or approximately $458.13 in 2013.
[John T. Davis Flats, Bissell Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The red brick block capped by a handsome mansard roofline, underwent an earth rumbling change when the first components of the steel structure supporting the tracks of the Northwest Elevated Railroad were constructed on January 23, 1896 at the intersection of Fullerton and Sheffield Avenues. Fullerton was a mere two blocks north of Webster, and Sheffield ran parallel to Bissell. The "L" would travel down the alley that separated Bissell and Sheffield, and the elevated structure would pass directly behind the row of houses on the west side of Bissell Street. Davis' row of flats not only survived the construction of the "L," the Great Depression, and the changing demographics of an urban neighborhood, but they are now located in an area that has become one of Chicago's choice residential locations, where Mr. Sheffield saw opportunity 160 years ago.