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Tour One of Harry Weese’s Wildly Nautical River Cottages

This is the first of Weese’s postmodern riverfront townhouses, those beguiling piles at the foot of the Kinzie Street Bridge, to re-list for sale.

Harry Weese’s River Cottages. The home for sale is second from the right, with the moored boats.   Photo: Ian Spula

Price: $2.3 million

A nautically themed townhouse, designed and developed by architect Harry Weese, is on the market. It is the first of the four attached multi-story houses at Canal and Kinzie streets to re-list since originally selling in the late 1980s.

“The River Cottages represented in a significant way Harry Weese’s vision for riverfront living,” says Kathleen Murphy Skolnik, a contributor to the 2010 book The Architecture of Harry Weese. “He turned toward the river and away from Canal Street. It’s the opposite relationship than existing industrial and office buildings had with the river but was also a symptom of building in a factory district.”

Pressed against the Kinzie Street Bridge on a steep bank, the homes are as complex as their site plan. Like the auto-centric designs of the day, you enter either through the garage or an understated front door. A smattering of porthole windows hint at the experience waiting across the threshold. You start with tight turns in skinny hallways lined with pool tile, moving past hermetically sealed bedrooms (or cabins, if you will), then into medium-sized common spaces with low ceilings but broad river exposure, and finally, pushing above deck to a sprawling great room with an open kitchen and jagged window bays. A perforated master suite peeks in from above, sharing the double-height triangular windows.

A spiral staircase with yellow and red epoxy steps and handrails connects five levels—two above deck and three below. All have views east and south above the breakwall. The color scheme repeats in flashes throughout the house, usually in railings or structural braces. Along with complementary neon light fixtures and a few extra porthole cutouts in drywall, these were additions to the interior made by owner Susan Rinke and her late husband Jim Whitmer.

The kitchen and bathrooms were also buyer creations. Weese sold the townhouses as shells, one reason they took a few years to sell out. It wasn’t enough that he was challenging people to live on the river; you had to finish the space too. Priced between $350,000 and $600,000—a lot for the area then—the qualifications for owning were steep. But it seems to have paid off, since this will be the first resale in more than a quarter-century.

Though not part of Weese’s Wolf Point Landings plan, which called for marinas, shops, a hotel, and 1,100 housing units in high-rise and mid-rise buildings along a six-acre riverfront strip between Lake and Grand, the River Cottages were a compatible thrust at re-engineering expectations for the riverfront and, eventually the polluted waterway itself. Cost overruns, high interest rates, and sluggish sales crippled Wolf Point Landing before it really got going, with the neighboring cold storage project the real disaster. According to Skulnik, it took a very long time to convert and sell those condos.

It’s hard to categorize the River Cottages, besides lumping them in with Postmodernism and tagging them nautical. There’s a likeness to sailboats in the collage of triangles and the sharply sloping façade—Weese was an avid sailor—and he also pegged housing on the Danube River in Hungary as a model. There aren’t any straight lines stylistically to other Weese works. The designer of things as diverse as the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist and the Washington, D.C. Metro system, the observable threads have to do with cleverness and humanity.

“Weese was very concerned with making buildings that were comfortable and worked for generations,” Skulnik says. "He also enjoyed working to make compactness livable.” Just because you’re underground on the Metro doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have bright, airy caverns and an infusion of classicism; and being below deck in a sailboat-townhouse shouldn’t preclude access to waterfront balconies and big skyline views. And, because Weese made his townhouses so vertical, he was kind enough to provide a shared elevator for each pairing of cottages.

A buyer may opt to treat this townhouse as a blank canvas, and it could use a little reimagining. Though the appliances, flooring, tile work, and windows were all replaced in the last year or so, according to co-listing agent Michele Miller, several large windows were reinstalled with streaks trapped between the panes, clouding the view. A home office includes a kitchenette and a cool custom florescent fixture, but the steel ceiling and mosaic tile floor make it a very hard-edged and high-energy space. Carpet is also in heavy use throughout the home, but that’s a matter of taste.

There’s not much landscaping along the 45 feet of private river frontage, and the dock is a bit worn, but these remain major selling points. Also, since Rinke and her husband were the first to buy, they negotiated use of a common courtyard as their carport. The property parks a minimum of five cars. It’s not the most attractive use of this mid-cottage buffer—a space that, if greened and left free and open, would help beautify the grounds.

Weese wanted to buy the southernmost cottage himself but couldn’t convince his wife to leave the comforts of Old Town. He didn’t live to see the full residential embrace of the central riverfront, dying in 1998, years before River Bend, Kingsbury Plaza, Park Place, and River Place shot up. And now there’s the development of Wolf Point itself.

Today, this stretch of the river is jammed with tour boats. No less than 10 cruised by while I paced the home. You might tire of waving, but it has to feel good hearing your home called out by the Architecture Foundation’s docents.

Take our photo tour and visit the listing, held by Jameson Sotheby’s Tanya Hamilton and Michele Miller.

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