Architecture

The Story of Ravenswood Manor: A Look Into Its Past and Beyond

Over the last year, the neighborhood of Ravenswood Manor has made local headlines concerning proposals for the area to receive Chicago Landmark District status. Spearheaded by neighborhood activists and organizers, specifically the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association (RMIA), the neighborhood, which is located in Albany Park and is bordered by the Chicago River to the east, is seeking the distinction of Chicago Landmark District status as a means of preserving the area’s unique character and atmosphere. 

Ravenswood Manor Bungalow. Photo by Adam Prestigiacomo

The plan comes at a time when neighborhood residents and activists maintain that the area’s unique 20th century homes face the threat of being torn down or renovated to a degree that the neighborhood would no longer be recognizable. The area is largely composed of single-family homes, with a variety of home types, including bungalows, Gable-Fronts, and American Foursquares. The district also has a number of two-flats, apartment buildings, and several commercial/residential buildings. Stylistically speaking, found throughout the area are homes with Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Italian Renaissance Revival influence.

Although Ravenswood Manor was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September of 2008, the recognition does not completely stave off the possibility of demolitions and modernizations to the facades, thus necessitating the interest in landmark status.

According to the RMIA, when Ravenswood Manor was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, 91% of the residences were deemed as contributors to the neighborhood’s historical significance. Just over a decade later, that number has dropped to 83%. This is largely due to the demolition and altering of a staggering number of the historic homes they seek to protect, including three of the neighborhood’s original model homes, all of which were built between 1909-1910.

An example of the new homes appearing in Ravenswood Manor. Photo by Adam Prestigiacomo

Should Ravenswood Manor achieve landmark status, any plans for renovating or demolishing structures within the confines of the neighborhood would then have to be approved by the Commission of Chicago Landmarks. The purpose of the commission, according to their rules and regulations, is to review “all permit applications to ensure that proposed work will not adversely affect any significant historical or architectural features of any area, district…that has been designated a Chicago landmark…”

As of August 2018, there have been 59 districts that have achieved landmark status, including Old Town Triangle, East Lake Shore Drive, and Ukrainian Village. As its supporters contend, Ravenswood Manor is deserving of joining this roster thanks to its longevity and unique story in the building of Albany Park.

First conceived in 1909, Ravenswood Manor was founded by real estate salesman, William E. Harmon. Born in 1862 in Lebanon, Ohio, Harmon, even in his youth, had held an affinity for the art of sales. A natural businessman, Harmon early on turned his attention towards an industry that would always be relevant and profitable: land. 

Photo by Adam Prestigiacomo

In the late 1880s, Harmon made a name for himself upon reinventing the real estate process when he developed an installation plan for purchasing lots near Cincinnati. Harmon allowed his buyers to put just one dollar down and pay a dollar or less per month in a series of installment plans. This tactic reversed the standard of paying either one-third or one-half up-front. This model is largely credited with improving the percentage of homeownership among lower middle-class citizens in the United States.

Having made his mark in Cincinnati, as well as in eastern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, Harmon would eventually move his operation and expand his efforts to the Chicago area, opening W.E. Harmon & Co. in 1907. Upon starting the business, Harmon began planning for what would become Ravenswood Manor. In crafting the neighborhood, Harmon sought to depart from the standard residential areas found throughout Chicago. 

Free of the crowds and noise that were found elsewhere in the city and its bustling neighborhoods, Ravenswood Manor would serve as a contrast to what had come before. Designed to emphasize tranquility and space, Harmon deemed Ravenswood Manor in multiple advertisements as “The First Suburb Beautiful of the New Chicago.” Those early model homes served to advertise to families interested in building in the area. Today, Ravenswood is spread across 60 acres of land and includes 518 residential structures.

At the beginning, Ravenswood Manor was vacant land. The project broke ground to build streets, sidewalks, curbs, as well as sewer and water lines designed to make the area livable for modern city dwellers. Enforcing his vision for a scenic community, Harmon also built archways over the main entrances of the area, and planted trees, flowers, and shrubs in the parkways.

Finally, utilizing its proximity to the North Branch of the Chicago River, Harmon also provided residents with a common boat landing with community access to water recreation. Harmon visualized the river as the gateway to boating on Lake Michigan. Sadly, this public boat docking area has disappeared, though a number of current Ravenswood Manor properties still have private docks directly on the river.

Besides the residences, a highlight of the community are the large pillars that are scattered throughout the neighborhood. These pillars were originally erected to stand as recognizable street indicators. Still standing to this day, the pillars are laid out to mark the entrances to the streets within the community. 

One of Ravenswood Manor’s pillars. Photo by Adam Prestigiacomo

Ravenswood Manor wasn’t Harmon’s only contribution to Chicago. He also established Ravenswood Gardens, as well as Rogers Park South, Jefferson Park West, Belmont Gardens, and Crawford Square. Upon completing Ravenswood Manor, Harmon once again moved, this time settling in Brooklyn, New York, where he remained for the rest of his life. Besides his lucrative career in real estate, Harmon was also a philanthropist, starting the Harmon Foundation in 1922. After his death, it was discovered that he had used the alias “Jedediah Tingle” to discreetly send checks to a number of causes, including the Children’s Aid Society and the Harlem Resistance.

Ravenswood Manor has, like any other neighborhood, seen drastic change over its 100+ years. With residents and activists still passionately fighting for the neighborhood’s unique architectural identity to stay intact, it remains to be seen if Ravenswood and its pillars will stand tall in the years to come. But with Ravenswood Manor residents and activists leading the charge, there’s no doubt that they are ready for the challenge.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: My thanks to the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association. Their website was very helpful in my research for this article. Their website includes a great history of Ravenswood Manor and also includes up-to-date information on the neighborhood’s goal of achieving Chicago Landmark District status. To stay updated, please click here.

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7 replies »

  1. Above is an example of one new home in Ravenswood Manor. Yes, there are people who do not like it, there are many who do. In the past 25 years I count five teardowns in my neighborhood. Yes, only 5. The article states that a decade ago there were 91% of the housing deemed contributing to historical significance and that number is now down to 83%. This is mostly because of second story additions to bungalows. While I may not like some of these additions, many of them are fabulous.
    I don’t like the idea of Chicago Landmark District for our neighborhood. This is my property and as long as I stay inside the neighborhood FAR I should be able to.

    • If you don’t care about maintaining a historic home then don’t buy one, once theyre gone they can’t be replaced. Five is enough to be tragic to people who care about this. I’ve worked with the Chicago Bungalow Association and their “Stop the Pop” campaign because those additions are hideous and brutally insensitive. Landmark status just means that only people who care about and are able to maintain these homes live there, as it should be. If you want modern dont live there, plain and simple. And personally? I’m not going to base decisions about existing historical architecture on people with bad taste.

  2. I love all the new interest in the history of Albany Park (just did a walking tour of this area) and am glad to see people are invested in maintaining its charm. We have to save all of thise beautiful historic homes so they don’t all get replaced with gentrification boxes, makes me fume !

  3. So, is the next move to gate the neighborhood and control access? Charge a toll over the Wilson bridge? First of all, that new house you show is a wonderful example of modern architecture that would enhance any residential street. Second, headlines about Ravenswood Manor seeking historical status? Get over yourselves already! Its a nice neighborhood, but so are a million other places in the city. You do not need, nor should you seek any type of historical designation as it will place a very heavy burden on unsuspecting homeowners. If you do have nice examples of historic architecture, then offer to help individual homeowners seek historical status with the state. Sheesh, the hubris of the so-called RMIA is laughable.

    • R U Nutz? I am a huge architecture buff and let me tell you: that ultra-modern box is a complete abomination on THAT street, in THAT neighborhood. Best to concentrate your ire on getting California opened back up to two-way traffic.

      • Abomination? Why, exactly? Is it the parti? The materials? How it is sited? The roofline? What about the building causes you to call it an abomination? While I realize that opinions on architecture tend to be subjective, there are objective measures to rate design. In this instance, the house is sited the same as its neighbors; it uses the same materials as its neighbors; its construction is of a very high quality; and the general size of the building is similar to its neighbors. But really, if you are a “huge architecture buff” you already know this. Bravo to the family who built that home!

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