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.