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.

Tree Stump Tombstones

As noted in my previous posting, slate does have a long history as a wonderful tombstone material but my favorite tombstones are the ones carved from Salem Limestone. At Green Hill Cemetery in Bedford, Indian, a pair of six-foot-tall tree stumps with interlocked broken branches memorializes Mammie Osborn Maddox and Alonzo Maddox. Stone flowers “sprout” from the base of her tree with ferns “growing” from the base of his. Nearby stands the tombstone of Hattie Wease, who died in 1912. Her tree stump rises from a stack of horizontal, cut logs. Above her name are an axe and mallet, carved with precise detail into the stone.

Other stumps depict vines climbing the bark, a lamb at the base of a child’s tomb, doves nesting on branches, or frogs hiding in foliage. Not purely decoration, each design has symbolic meaning. A broken branch represents a life cut short. A frog alludes to resurrection. Doves symbolize peace. These are shibboleths, codes that united individuals to a larger community. Even in death the residents of limestone country looked to stone to forge a common bond.

My favorite carving of all though honors Louis Baker, a 23-year old stonemason, who died in April 1917, when lightning struck him at home. His co-workers sculpted an exact replica of how Baker left his work bench. On the upper edge of a slanted stone slab, they carved his metal square. Below rest a narrow drove and a stub-handled broom, one edge of which abuts a foot-long point. A wider chisel leans atop a hammer that just touches the sharpened end of the point. Nearby is the apron he tossed onto his mallet. The slab sits on another slab, propped on a bench so perfect in detail of the wood that one of the “boards” warps and others have cracks where someone, perhaps the young stonemason, had overtightened the bolts holding together the planks.

The bench moved me not only because it reveals the qualities of stone—90 years of weathering have not removed the details of individual straws of the broom, but the bench also reveals the qualities of the men who worked the stone. Yes, they could carve elaborate and beautiful pieces, but to honor one of their own the men of limestone country produced a monument that reflected gratification in working with simple tools, pride in their trade, respect for their co-workers. Neither fancy nor symbolic, Baker’s tombstone is utilitarian and straightforward, qualities that made Salem Limestone America’s building stone.