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River Cottages

2010 March 2
by Caroline Nye Stevens

357-365 North Canal St.

The few times I have ever had the chance to see Harry Weese’s River Cottages, I couldn’t help but feel that they had just appeared, and would just as easily disappear. Maybe they have this ephemeral quality because they’re tucked away in a less traveled industrial part of town on the north branch of the Chicago River, and are most frequently seen when speeding by on a CAF river cruise. Then again, they look enough like modern day boats themselves, maybe it seems as though it’s the River Cottages that are about to speed away.

It makes sense that the buildings look like boats. Their architect, Harry Weese, was an accomplished sailor. You can see nautical references throughout the cottages: in their portholes, decks, and abundance of triangles (triangles often pop up in Weese’s buildings) that allude to the sails of boats Weese knew so well. Of course there’s the more obvious reason for why the cottages reference boats — their location on the river. Weese’s River Cottages are great examples of contextual architecture. While the back elevations of the buildings reference the river which they face, the front of the buildings relate back to the street. From the river the cottages look as though they’re delicate and floating, but from the street they seem heavily grounded and indestructible. It’s the street elevations that are more characteristic of the brutalist work Weese is best known for such as Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center or Washington D.C.’s metro system.

Weese’s inspiration for the cottages came from a trip he took down the Danube River in Hungary thirty years prior to their completion in 1988. There he had seen a collection of unique cottages where people were able to build whatever they wanted with minimal government interference. Weese took that memory and adapted it to the Chicago River. The River Cottages are comprised of two attached buildings with a total of four units. Inside and out stairwells run the height of the buildings that also have elevators to assist residents up to the fifth (for two units) or six levels.

The cottages seem almost futurist when considering the early history of the site. The buildings sit on what was the terminus of Chicago’s first rail line dating back to 1848. November of that year marked the first railroad delivery of grain that was then loaded onto schooners at the very spot where the River Cottages sit today.


Click here to be directed to the Art Institute of Chicago’s brief biography of Harry Weese, and here to view the AIC’s transcript of his oral history.

5 Responses
  1. Cayla permalink
    March 3, 2010

    these are incredible. i had never seen them. totally seaside in chicago!

  2. March 17, 2010

    I’ve always wondered about these homes. I’d love to see inside! They remind me a little bit of these modern condos in Rogers Park, also on the water:

  3. Frank permalink
    September 10, 2011

    I too have always wondered who conceived this structure. I was working at the Merchandise Mart during the early 1990’s and would park at was a parking lot where the Kinzie Town Homes now sit. I crossed the Kinzie Bridge daily walking by this beautifull piece of archtecture. Really appreciate the posing of the history of this structure. My hope is that it gains historical reverence. Also remember the Chicago flood of 1992 – seeing the pillions being pounded into the river everyday.

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