20 Photos That Show Why Chicago Loves the Two-Flat

Home comes in many shapes and sizes. In the Windy City, one unique setup is attracting renters and buyers of all kinds.

By Andréana Lefton | Published Dec 18, 2020 10:14 AM

Yours, Mine, and Ours

Exterior of a two flat interior gray kitchen

Two-flats have a unique profile and history in Chicago architecture. Think of them as horizontal townhouses. To maximize space in the urban environment, a single apartment was built atop another, offering each resident or family an entire floor to call home. Two-flats can also be purchased or rented in their entirety, offering as much space as a single family home, as well as providing a rental unit, for additional income. Traditionally faced with brick, contemporary architects are drawing inspiration from this turn-of-the-century layout, creating minimalist two-flats with striking interior design, as well as renovating 100-year-old beauties for modern tastes. Here’s why two-flats are loved in the Windy City.


Turn-of-the-Century Charm

Exterior two-story building with two trees in front; interior room with black couches and blue curtains

Built between 1900 and 1920, traditional Chicago two-flats have a distinctive look, typically with two boxy apartments sandwiched one on top of the other. The yellow brick and white trim on this two-flat give it an updated look, while inside, modern furnishings complement classic architectural elements, like big windows. If you’re shopping for a two-flat, watch for prime features including original hardwood floors, crown molding, and of course, functional radiators—for those long, Chicago winters.


A “Three-Flat” Gem

Three story building exterior; interior living room with black furniture and black curtains

Yes, this is a two-flat...even though it’s three apartments. The reason is in the definition: a two-flat simply means that a single apartment occupies each floor of a building. This set-up is particularly nice for cutting down on neighborly noises, and ensuring a roomy interior. Large windows are a must, and, when paired with bright white walls and black accents, can create a sense of spaciousness, even in apartment living.


Fixer Upper

Exterior of an older two-flat with interior kitchen, new appliances and cabinets (dark wood)

Don’t be fooled by appearances. Older two-flats can be renovated for truly stunning results. This fixer-upper just needs a little power washing on the outside, while inside, it’s already refreshed. White paint, new cabinets, and recessed lighting create a warm, friendly environment. Contemporary touches include gray granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, which offset the warmth of the wood for a roomy kitchen in the heart of the flat.

Related: These Impressive Before-and-After Photos Will Make You Want to Buy a Fixer-Upper


Modern Minimalism

Orange/black two-flat exterior with interior shot of empty kitchen

Modern architects draw inspiration from early 20th century two-flats, reimagining both the exterior and interior for current needs and families. Case in point: this angular, gray apartment building, complete with hot orange accents. In the basement, you can typically find shared laundry facilities, accessible by a secure door. While this building may look compact, inside it is massive, offering stunning tone-on-tone design, in pale grays and white. Furniture is needed, but use sparingly. Keep the vibe minimalist and clean.


Stately But Small

Two flat exterior, small interior living room

In the past, apartment exterior were far grander than they are now. A key feature of medieval castles, crenelated rooflines also feature in many Chicago two-flats, like this one, set apart from its neighbors by a wrought iron fence. Unlike our modern desire for soaring ceilings, older interiors have lower ceilings, making each room feel smaller and cozier. Popcorn ceilings were popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, but can still work, as long as they are freshly painted (in white) and kept clean.

Related: 10 Ways to Live Large in a (Very) Small Space


House Proud

Two-flat exterior with front lawn, interior kitchen

Feeling at home in an apartment building can often be tough, especially if you’re renting. It helps when the ambiance is homey and the property is well-kept, like this suburban two-flat, with a pitched roof and impeccable landscaping. It also helps when you can decorate the inside to your liking, and this place is a blank slate, offering acres of white walls and hardwood floors. An open plan kitchen/living space is also ideal for families and entertaining guests.


Exposed Brick

Two flat exterior with interior shot showing exposed brick and fireplace

Black trim distinguishes this two-flat from its neighbors, offering an elegant contrast to light stone facing. While there’s not much of a yard, there is a park next door, offering prettier side views for both the upper and lower apartment—on one side, at least. Another bonus of buying or renting an end unit? They’re usually a little larger inside too, like this open-plan family home. The focal point is the exposed brick fireplace, which provides eye appeal, and also requires less wall decoration.

Related: 14 Reasons to Love Exposed Brick


View from the Middle

Exterior two-flat, fenced in front yard, interior bedroom with ceiling fan + large window

While end units are usually more expensive and desirable, two-flats sandwiched between properties have their benefits too. This renovated brick home is sheltered from Chicago winds, and its neighbors are well-kept, which raises property values for all. Inside, rooms are small but sunny, with windows that look out onto pleasant neighborhoods and plenty of sky. The guest room doubles as a TV room—with the best feature being those original hardwood floors and wood window trim.


Finders Keepers

Exterior two-flat with interior hexagonal room, no furniture, large three-paneled window

In urban neighborhoods, every inch counts. This recent renovation is nestled alongside another apartment building. But what it lacks in space it makes up for in style. Dark teal trim offsets the copper-colored brick, making this unit stand out from the rest. The interior is equally exquisite, with Japanese-style sliding doors, warm wooden molding, and hexagonal rooms that are a perfect backdrop to tree-lined views and one-of-a-kind art. This one’s a keeper.


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