Sunrooms in the Off-Season

Hyde Park voyeurs have one Chicago architect in particular to thank for the ease with which they can observe their neighbors. The man in question, early 20th century designer Andrew Sandegren, is credited with the proliferation of the proto-solariums that protrude from so many apartment buildings in historic Kenwood and Hyde Park. One of the lovelier features of the handsomely corniced brick buildings, these exo-alcoves are characterized by their pronounced bay windows, whose panes conspire to enclose a modest or generously sized chamber.

One might guess that the South S­­ide variation on the sunroom has its lineage in the provincial enclosed porch. However, upon closer inspection of the room’s diverse implementations, “indoor patio” doesn’t quite capture the versatility of the space. According to the American Institute of Architects’ Guide to Chicago, Sandegren’s “bulging glassy bays are an early form of the boxy sunroom additions that became so popular on flat buildings in the following decades.” The enduring charm of what the English term a conservatory can hardly be contested.

The elegance, makeshift ingenuity, and cheekiness of the solutions to this pressing question–what to do with the sunroom–are nothing if not highly visible. To the delight, or perhaps the incredulity of nighttime passerby, a cardio routine or an immoderately beautiful daybed coverlet are right there for the peeking-at, often unshielded from the gaze of any Jimmy Stewart types camped out at their rear windows.

One can store munitions for the apocalypse, get that orchid farm off the ground, or play innkeeper to a weekend guest in the sunlit quarters. Sandegren’s brainchild is also the answer to many an academics’ dreams of a library or map room, or for those who would do away with legged furniture, a pillow-strewn snuggery; a tearoom; a temple to the art of repose. And for those who appreciate generous surface area, a sunroom can splendidly accommodate any tabletop pursuit, and the requisite beer or air hockey pucks.

Perfectly practical as a bedchamber-cum-belvedere, the Sandegren signature is to the walk-up unit something like a steamship’s prow–and its potential wasn’t lost on the Oak Park originator of the Prairie school. Indeed, one of the South Side’s most prized piles of brick, the Robie House, took the idea of the sunroom-prow room and ran with it, turning it into a grand drawing room.  Frank Lloyd Wright intended the homeowners to be able to move freely between the elongated rectangular space–a protrusion enclosed by floor-to-ceiling art-glass French doors–and  the balcony that flanks it on three sides.

Whether incarnated as a gambling den or a weather-immune widow’s walk, where one’s best pacing gets done, the attraction of the surfeit space is its very complaisance: the sunroom, really, will shapeshift at your behest.