Greystones: Chicago’s Answer to Brownstones

Many people, including me, have written extensively about the classic brownstones of New York and Boston. Recently, I learned about a similar building style popular only in Chicago. Architects and historians call the buildings greystones. The term refers to structures built primarily between 1890 and 1915 and most often in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale. A survey published in December 2005 for the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative estimated 1,714 greystone buildings in North Lawndale.

North Lawndale has an incredibly rich social history. By 1930, only Warsaw and New York had more Jewish residents. Forty nine synagogues dotted the neighborhood. By 1960, however, African-Americans made up 91 percent of the population. As Charles Leeks of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago wrote in The Chicago Greystone in Historic North Lawndale “If Lawndale’s Greystones could talk, they would tell us” of Golda Meir, Dinah Washington, Benny Goodman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Clarence Darrow making a vibrant, dynamic neighborhood.


Like the brownstones of the east coast, Chicago’s greystones were two- or three-story, commonly 2 or 3 flats (though there could be up to 6), flat roofed, brick buildings with a façade of more fancy stone. There also were greystone mansions and one-story greystone “shoeboxes,” but not so many as to define a unified style. More then 93 percent have fewer than five residential units. Working class people of modest means, with some more affluent middle class folks, were the primary buyers and tenants. Some streets are entirely greystones flats, whereas others may contain just one or two greystones.

On the eastern seaboard, the stone embellishment was the 200-million-year old Portland Formation. Chicago builders, in contrast, took advantage of their proximity to the great limestone quarry region of Indiana and enhanced their brick with the 330-million-year old Salem Limestone. I won’t write more about these stones because I have covered them thoroughly in previous blog posts.

The survey found two stages of style. Initially between 1890 and 1905, primarily Romanesque buildings with rusticated limestone dominated. They featured arches and robust cornices. Next came a Neo-Classical look incorporating smooth limestone blocks, bay and Palladian windows, and columns. Throughout the era, many builders also built purely brick buildings in the same styles. Curiously the color of the brick changed from red to tawny.


Beginning in 2006, a consortium of groups banded together to form the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative to preserve these wonderful buildings. Composed of community residents, non-profits, business, academic, and government partners, the Initiative promotes renovation and protection, through technical and financial assistance. They are doing vital and critical work. I wish them continued success.

GSA – Portland Building Stone Update

A quick follow up to my pre-GSA Portland building stone blog. Here are a few more photos of the First Congregation Church. It is a quite handsome building. I have no idea where the stone for the columns comes from but it beautifully complements the sandstone.

Unfortunately, one of the structures I mentioned in my previous post is no longer there. The Belgium basalt cobble wall is gone, replaced by an ugly cinder block wall. Apparently the wall had cracked and become “dangerous.” I won’t add to the ugliness by posting a photo.

In contrast, I did stop by the historic central library for Multnomah County (SW 10th Ave. and SW Yamhill St.) Opened in 1917, it is a brick building with highlights of Salem Limestone. It is very rich in fossils, which stand out in places where the softer, surrounding matrix has weathered and eroded more. Plus, I was quite taken with this panel of names. A rather nice cast of scientific characters.

And finally, I also found another Morton Gneiss building, on the south side of Burnside between NW 9th and NW 8th Avenue (just a block away from Powells). Again, the building is architecturally uninspired but with gorgeous stone. This time, however, the builders chose to use a white marble with black streaks instead of limestone. I suspect it is a Vermont marble. That’s all for now.