Leave the Seat Empty: 1237 West 46th Street

 Leave the Seat Empty consists of photos taken of buildings in Chicago in between the time a demolition permit is issued and the time the wrecking crews come.

The vast majority of the city's demolitions are vernacular residential buildings in areas that are either seeing immense new investment or immense ongoing disinvestment. In most cases, the doomed buildings are not deemed architecturally or culturally notable enough for proactive preservation efforts to succeed, where such efforts exist. They are most frequently replaced by new single family homes, or by empty land. These patterns aren't universal among demolitions, but are common outcomes of Chicago's current legal and market environment around land use, building vacancy, and new construction.

Despite its international reputation as a destination for architecture tourism, Chicago's policies around building demolitions often fail to protect historic structures. There are no easy answers to the question of which buildings should remain standing under which circumstances, but residents lack easy access to information about upcoming demolitions, leaving them unable to campaign effectively against demolitions they might oppose. I seek to document many of Chicago's doomed buildings in their final days, often with green demo fencing already up, and be present to acknowledge their disappearance.

1237 West 46th Street

Permit issued 01/27/2023


This stone-clad building, constructed speculatively in the mid-1890s during a rapid development boom just outside the mansion-laden suburban core of Kenwood, was one of several on the same block of 46th Street that were built and rented out by a single owner, advertised through the real estate firm of J.H. Van Vlissingen. Such was the frenzy of newly available apartments at the time that the firm employed an on-site realtor, who temporarily lived in the building photographed here and was available in late 1894 and early 1895 to entice prospective tenants to lease units in this and several similar nearby buildings.

Much like the nearby neighborhoods of Oakland and Grand Boulevard, the northern part of Kenwood was fashionable among white collar families for a relatively brief period. By the 1920s, much of the city's south lakefront lost its luster for wealth and became a site of arrival for people moving to Chicago from the Jim Crow south in the first Great Migration. Landlords carved up old mansions and spacious apartments into smaller and smaller units as hundreds of thousands of new Black Chicagoans sought safety and employment in the industrialized north but were limited to a precious few geographically constrained neighborhoods by restrictive covenants, racist animosity from neighboring communities, and relative lack of financial means.


Beginning in earnest as early as the 1940s and extending through much of the 20th century, the era of "slum clearance" and urban renewal significantly changed these south lakefront neighborhoods. Money was poured into constructing residential towers, both private and public, and parking lot shopping centers supplanted many sidewalk-facing commercial strips. Block after block of existing urban fabric was demolished to make way for these new projects.

Extant Victorian-era housing was largely considered outmoded and unsanitary in the eyes of urban planners and the general public at the time, after decades of neglectful landlords took their toll in neighborhoods like North Kenwood and shifts in technology and architectural philosophy changed how people conceptualized residential spaces. Even where not directly cleared for large-scale building projects during initial waves of investment into newer modes of living, buildings like this one often fell vacant and ended up demolished as a result of the later retreat of public and private investment in the area altogether as Chicago and other cities systematically mismanaged and underfunded public services and the new facilities they had only recently built. Slowly, several of this building's siblings were torn down, and this block of 46th street became gap-toothed.


Since then, new money has arrived to south lakefront neighborhoods that were once among Chicago's poorest, first in the form of a '90s and '00s condo boom that ended in a Great Recession bust, and then in the form of a post-recession move upmarket. This has introduced a variety of challenges, not the least of which is housing affordability: as investors deconvert old buildings back to larger unit sizes, new construction fills in at relatively high price points, and amenities pop up on corridors like 43rd and 47th, many residents have been displaced. But even in the middle of all of that newly available cash, some older buildings still fall.

1237 East 46th spent a few decades in the hands of a local family, who purchased it in a 1987 public sale of distressed properties and rented it out while making occasional interior improvements between tenants. In 2018, they lost it to foreclosure. The mortgagee who took over the property gave the building a lazy coat of navy blue paint, covering up the beige tones of the stone beneath, and tossed it on the market on and off for a year and a half, starting at an asking price of $239,900, raising it to $450,000 in early 2020, and then sliding back down to $324,900 by the time the listing was removed in March of 2021.

Sometime after the sale listing was deactivated, the building's owners did something inexcusable: they attempted to start major renovations without a permit. City inspectors were called to the building by neighbors in early 2023 because its rear porch system was rotting to the point of instability, and they found a partially poured new foundation underneath the structure and several walls in danger of total collapse from shoddily planned work. The Chicago Department of Buildings acted swiftly, which may have had to do with the fact that the same day that the inspection found unpermitted construction here, a construction worker was killed in a collapse of a similar building just ten blocks away. City government, acting under emergency powers, barred all entry to this site and demolished the building within a month.

Since the economic shifts of the south lakefront have now produced million-dollar home sales from renovated greystone dwellings not far from here, it's possible that 1237 East 46th could be the last of the crop of 1890s structures built simultaneously on this block to be demolished for many years to come.