The River Bank Lofts, as pictured from the Chicago River. Photo: eyfoto / iStock

Since the March lockdown, Chicago’s balconies have taken on a whole new meaning. Think of the joyous YouTube videos of South Loop high-rise dwellers belting out Bon Jovi from their balconies, or cheering for medical workers during nightly “Chicago Unite At Night” celebrations.

It’s hard to imagine better PR for Chicago’s manmade perches. Now, balcony envy is driving even greater demand among buyers and renters since shelter-in-place orders started in mid-March, according to local realtors and developers.

“This remarkable moment in time has forced all of us to rethink the physical space we inhabit and it’s showing what a great feature the balcony is,” says Dr. Sanjeev Vidyarthi, an associate professor of urban planning and policy and a senior fellow of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Balconies, in other words, are more than glorified grill storage or trophies for inhabitants of ritzy downtown high-rises. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they're a slice of pleasant purgatory between inside and outside, public and private space.

Social distancing temporarily killed off almost all of Chicago’s “third places,” the term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg for spaces where spontaneous social connections happen, like coffee shops, parks, bars, hair salons, community centers, and libraries. The residential balcony is a rare exception — a pandemic-proof social space. For urban dwellers lucky enough to have them during shelter-in-place, balconies have served as outdoor work-from-home spaces, places to grow and cook food, and a convenient way to catch a breath of fresh air.

“To have a balcony during coronavirus is to enjoy fresh air without anxiety,” wrote a CityLab writer lamenting her own lack of a balcony.

Today, we tend to think of balconies as private outdoor recreation for individuals, but their newfound prominence harks back to the 19th century, when they became an architectural staple of industrializing Europe. Eventually, they spread to the streets of dense American cities. In the 1880s, early skyscrapers were designed with balconies to elevate the upper class above the touch of the masses and foul smells of the city — especially in meatpacking districts.

On more modest buildings — two to six stories high — the balcony served a social function for Chicago’s working and middle classes. From their individual balconies, Chicagoans were close enough to interact with their neighbors, but far enough away to discourage extended conversations.

“They were the front porch of the residential towers,” says Chicago architect John Ronan. “You could have a quick chat with Miss Jones and keep up with the neighbors while maintaining some privacy.”

The wooden back porch, Chicago’s folk version of the balcony, was something of a happy accident. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the city updated its fire code to require that every apartment have at least two exits. City dwellers soon found plenty of other uses for them: a place to hang laundry, grow plants, strike up a chat with neighbors, and move furniture.

But porches and balconies began to die off in the mid–20th century, due in large part to the advent of air conditioning and television. Instead of facing outward toward their noisy neighborhoods, people sealed up their homes, turning toward their living rooms.

Architects followed suit. Chicago visionary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the timeless twin towers at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive to be balcony-free. His modernist skyscrapers with floor-to-ceiling glass were so influential that the balcony started disappearing from new residential developments, from upscale digs like Lake Point Tower to public housing units like the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green.

Balconies never completely disappeared, though, even in a city whose wintry weather renders them purely ornamental for half of the year. During Chicago’s luxury high-rise boom in the 2010s, some architects turned away from Mies's minimalism and introduced balconies and terraces again. The additions could sometimes fetch as much as a five percent bump on an asking price. Today, balconies are among the top five amenities that high-end condo buyers are after, according to Jon McCulloch, co-CEO of high-end real estate development firm Belgravia Group.

“Without a doubt, they’re an expectation. Your new condo must have a balcony,” he says.

Even before COVID-19, balconies were growing not only in popularity, but in square footage. “We listen to the market, and people are calling for deeper and longer balconies,” McCulloch says. Belgravia’s CA6 condos, due in 2022, will feature two balconies each — six feet deep and 10 to 13 feet long.

But could this next wave of balconies revive the neighborly dynamic of yore? Ronan believes so. His Independence Library & Apartments, completed last year, attempts to redemocratize the balcony for everyday Chicagoans. The white six-story building includes 30 public housing units and 14 affordable units atop a library in Old Irving Park. The colorful balconies, recessed into the building’s facade, are at the heart of the project’s philosophy, says Ronan.

Independence Library and Apartments
Image: James Florio

“As opposed to the warehouse approach of the nursing home or the old-school public housing, we wanted to integrate people in the community instead of segregating and isolating them,” says Ronan. “I think everyone should have an outdoor private space for quality in life, for both physical and mental health.”

That’s an increasingly popular sentiment in pandemic-era Chicago. Vidyarthi, the UIC professor, wouldn’t be surprised if more Chicago developers made balconies the standard in new buildings, despite the added cost they bring. Echoing McCulloch, he predicts they may become even larger than the standard five-foot block and steel railing.

“I think a balcony boom will come and it will be driven by demand. People will want them, real estate developers are paying attention to what buyers demand, and it will create a shift.”