Credit: Jamie Ramsay

Split-face concrete block residential buildings are the parking meter lease deal of Chicago architecture: ugly, regrettable—and something we’re stuck with for decades to come.

This blight first popped up by the hundreds during the construction boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The buildings are made of concrete blocks that have an exposed face designed to superficially resemble stone. Bucktown, Wicker Park, and portions of Lincoln Park are particularly plagued by the buildings, although they can be found in almost every neighborhood.

For developers, the blocks made for easy, predictable, and economic—read: cheap—construction. Proponents of building type said the faux stone face of the block made the new structures fit in contextually in older neighborhoods.

When it comes to questionable construction, every generation has its cross to bear. Our parents and grandparents have to answer for the aluminum siding and the Flinstones-esque stone appliques of the 1960s and ’70s. But at least those recladdings of existing structures can be—and have been—peeled away. The proliferation of split-face concrete block buildings made for a near-permanent class of architecture that ranged from boring to ungainly, a missed opportunity to erect exciting new residential architecture at a time when money flowed through the city.

And to make matters worse, the blocks with the decorative faces are frequently only on the front-facing portion of a building. The sides of these buildings are often just unadorned, straight-up concrete block, visible from the street.

Nathan Mason, who uses his Facebook page to document—and poke fun at—bad architecture across Chicago, has often set his sights on split-face concrete block buildings. “They’re banal monstrosities of design,” said Mason, a curator of exhibits and public art for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. He adds that the contextualism argument used to support the buildings was really NIMBY-ism in disguise; local leaders and neighborhood residents desired new construction but didn’t want contemporary or daring design.

This contemptible residential construction dropped off after 2008. The real estate crash was a factor, as were growing reports that rain and melting snow tended to leak inside the concrete block buildings, causing mold and rot unless the structures were properly sealed.

If the leakage issue manages to shorten the lifespan of these structures, the split-face concrete block buildings may have inadvertently given Chicago what it doesn’t have in the parking meter deal: an escape clause.   v