Monday, June 24, 2013

Norman Williams and His House at 1836 Calumet Avenue

Today, only one house survives on Calumet Avenue north of Cermak Road (formerly Twenty-second street), but in the late 19th century, this street rivaled Prairie Avenue in both its residents and residences.  In this installment, we look at the life and home of attorney Norman Williams. 

Norman Williams was born on February 1, 1835 in Woodstock, Vermont.  His great-grandfather Phineas Williams (1734-1820) commanded the first company of militia in Vermont and an ancestor on his mother’s line had served as a governor of New Hampshire.  Williams attended the University of Vermont and the Albany Law School and in October 1858 arrived in Chicago to set up his law practice.  In 1866, he established a partnership with General John L. Thompson under the firm name of Williams & Thompson.  (The firm survives today as Sidley Austin LLP and is now the sixth largest U.S.-based corporate law firm, with 1,700 lawyers and 19 offices globally).

On December 11, 1867, Norman Williams married Caroline Caton, a daughter of Judge John Dean Caton, Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.   The wedding took place in Ottawa Illinois where the Caton’s maintained their home.  In the 1870s, the Williams resided with the Catons in their home at 2 Calumet Avenue (later 1900 Calumet Avenue). 

Norman and Caroline Caton were the parents of five children:
-An infant son who died at birth in 1869
-Laura Williams, born 1871
-Norman Williams, Jr., born 1873
-Caroline Caton Williams, born 1875 (died 1876)
-Mary Wentworth Williams, born 1878

In 1879, Judge Caton gave his daughter a parcel of land north of his home on Calumet Avenue, and the Williams engaged architects Treat & Foltz to design a home for them.  The 2-1/2 story brick house in the Queen Anne style featured a broad two-story front porch that afforded beautiful views of Lake Michigan directly across the street.  The house was one of four that formed a Caton family “compound” on the street.  The Williams resided at 1836 Calumet; immediately to the south was the home of Laura (Caton) Towne at 1840 Calumet; then the home of Judge Caton at 1900 Calumet; and finally the home of Arthur Caton at 1910 Calumet. 

The Caton family gathered on the porch of the Williams house in 1885 during the celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of Judge John Caton and his wife Laura.  Pictured left to right in the photograph above are Delia (Spencer) Caton, Caroline (Caton) Williams, Norman Williams, Judge John Caton, Arthur Caton, Laura (Sherrill) Caton, Charles Towne, and Laura (Caton) Towne.  (NOTE:  After the death of Arthur Caton, his widow Delia became the second Mrs. Marshall Field).

Caroline Williams joined Second Presbyterian Church in 1870, when the church was still located in its previous building at the northeast corner of Washington and Wabash streets.  Norman Williams joined in 1877, and the three children were baptized and confirmed in the church as well.  The Williams’ daughter Caroline died at the age of one in 1876.  In 1888, they donated a beautiful marble baptismal font in her memory.  The inscription read “In Memoriam Caroline Caton Williams 1875-1876.”  It was recarved in limestone in 1901, after the original was destroyed in the fire that devastated the sanctuary of the church.   Williams served as a Trustee of the church and oversaw the construction of the bell tower in memory of his good friend George Armour.  The Armour family placed a plaque in the north narthex vestibule of the church to acknowledge Williams’ dedicated service in the construction of the tower.   It reads:

The family of George Armour places this
Tablet here to thankfully perpetuate the untiring
attention, the painstaking care & the loving labour
which their esteemed friend Norman Williams
gave to the completion of this tower, 1884

At the time the bell tower was constructed, Williams also donated the carved stone head of Christ and had it placed over the front entrance of the church. 

In 1889, John Crerar died at the home of his good friends, Norman and Caroline Williams.  Crerar had made his fortune as a partner in the firm of Crerar, Adams & Company, the largest railroad supply concern in the Midwest.  He also helped finance and promote George Pullman’s new Palace Car Company.  Crerar was a lifelong bachelor and had no direct heirs, and made numerous generous bequests, the largest of which was set aside for the creation, construction, and maintenance of the John Crerar Library.  Norman Williams was a trustee of the Crerar estate and served as first president of the Crerar Library.  Crerar also bequeathed $50,000 to his friend Caroline Williams, and established a $60,000 trust fund for the Williams’ three children. 

Norman Williams became one of the most successful and respected attorneys in the city of Chicago.  He was one of the organizers of the Pullman Palace Car Company, was a founder of the Chicago Telephone Company, and helped to organize the Western Electric Company.  In addition, he served as special counsel to the Santa Fe Railroad and as legal advisor to the Western Union Telegraph Company.  He was one of a small group of lawyers whose influence upon the early legislatures of Illinois helped shape the commercial laws of the state.  A prominent club man as well, he served as president of the Chicago Club and was a charter member of the Calumet Club.

Williams contracted Bright’s disease in 1896, and succumbed to that illness on June 19, 1899 while at his summer home at Little Boar’s Head, Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.  The funeral was held at Woodstock Vermont, and Williams was interred in the Williams family plot at River Street Cemetery in that town.  Pall bearers included fellow lawyers and friends Robert Todd Lincoln and Edward Isham.  The evangelist Dwight L. Moody spoke at the graveside.  A memorial service was held in Chicago at Second Presbyterian Church on June 25th. 

Caroline Williams remained in the old family home on Calumet Avenue until 1907, when she sold the house and moved to Washington, D.C.  She hired architects Wyeth & Cresson to design a four-story brick dwelling the Beaux-Arts style at 1227 Sixteenth Street, N.W. just a few blocks from the White House, and became a prominent member of Washington society.  She died there on March 3, 1927, the cause of death attributed in part to the treatment she was subjected to when her home was robbed a year earlier.  At that time, the house was entered by six armed men who bound her seven maids to chairs and robbed Caroline Williams, her daughter, and a friend of valuable jewelry.  She was gagged and badly bruised, but, at age 81, was praised for her bravery for refusing to stop screaming when the robbers confronted her with guns.  (After her death, the house was sold to the Sons of the American Revolution for use as their national headquarters, and later to the National Education Association.  It was razed in 1965).

The Williams’ oldest daughter Laura married Wesley Merritt in 1898.  Merritt was a celebrated Civil War general, and following his service during the Spanish-American War, was appointed the first American Military Governor of the Philippines.  At the time of their marriage, Merritt was 62, and his bride was 27.  General Merritt died in 1910.  Laura Williams Merritt later married Wilbur E. Wilder, and she died in 1951.

The youngest daughter Mary Wentworth Williams never married and died in September 1953. 

The Williams’ son Norman Jr. was a close friend of George Glessner.  In The Story of a House, John Glessner recalls Norman while talking about the schoolroom of the house:
“The school room, approached from the front door without going through other parts of the house, was a rendezvous for George’s friends and teachers alike, for they were all comrades together.  Here they had their long, long thoughts of youth, their boyish activities, their fire brigade, their regularly organized telegraph company, presided over, as a labor of love, by Norman Williams, one of the ablest and most astute of lawyers, with wires connecting seven different residences of the members, all centering on this house.”
In 1902, Norman Jr. was married to Joan Chalmers, a granddaughter of famed detective Allan Pinkerton.  Together they had two children, Joan and Norman, Jr.  She died in 1923 and he later remarried.  He died in 1955.

In the next installment, we will explore the later history of the house, including its conversion to a college dormitory.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

New Brochure Available on Prairie Avenue

The museum has just released a revised version of its popular self-guided walking tour brochure of the Prairie Avenue neighborhood.  The brochure begins with a brief history of the area divided into four distinct time frames.  The first, Beginnings, starts with the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812 and continues through to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.  The second section, Glory Days, chronicles the period beginning immediately after the fire when Prairie Avenue gained distinction as the most prestigious street in the city, and one of the most fashionable in the country.  That section ends in 1904, the year the last new residence was constructed.  Section three, Decline, chronicles the period 1905 to 1965 when the neighborhood saw a rapid transformation from residential to light industry, and highlights the major causes of that decline.  The final section, Rebirth, begins with the rescue of Glessner House in 1966 and continues through to the present day, highlighting the revitalization of the area in the last twenty years.

Twenty-seven sites of architectural and historical interest are featured in the brochure as well, ranging from the surviving mansions to buildings constructed for the printing and automobile industries in the early 20th century.  (For a PDF of the brochure, visit the Glessner House Museum website and scroll down the left-hand column to the section “Download the Walking Tour of Historic Prairie Avenue.”)  Three Sunday afternoon guided tours of the neighborhood, conducted by museum director Bill Tyre, will take place on July 21, August 18, and September 15, 2013.  Tickets are $15.00 per person for the two-hour tour.  For more information or to make reservations, call 312-326-1480. 

Following are a few of the architectural and historical treasures to be found in the neighborhood and featured in the brochure.

The oldest site in the area, located at Calumet Avenue and 18th Street, is now known as Battle of Fort Dearborn Park.  On August 15, 1812 during the War of 1812 with Great Britain, the fort was evacuated and the soldiers and civilians began their long trek along the shore of Lake Michigan, heading toward the safety of Fort Wayne in Indiana.  The current park marks the site of a pivotal battle that occurred that day during which more than 75 soldiers, civilians, and Native Americans were killed.  The park, with its interpretive plaque, was formally dedicated on August 15, 2009, the 197th anniversary of the battle.

The Harriet F. Rees house at 2110 S. Prairie Avenue is one of just seven mansions remaining on Prairie Avenue.  In its heyday, the six-block stretch of Prairie between 16th Street and Cermak Road (originally 22nd Street) contained 84 mansions.  Although designated a Chicago landmark in 2012, the future of the Rees house, constructed in 1888 and designed by Cobb & Frost, is uncertain in light of recently announced plans to construct a new stadium for DePaul on the block in which the house stands.

The William W. Kimball house at 1801 S. Prairie Avenue is a strikingly beautiful limestone clad residence built in the Chateauesque style in 1892.  Modeled after a chateau in Brittany, the house was designed by architect Solon S. Beman, best known as the architect for the Town of Pullman (constructed for the Kimball’s neighbor, George M. Pullman a decade before the Kimball house).  Kimball, the founder and president of the Kimball piano and organ company, filled his house with valuable paintings including works by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Turner that were donated to the Art Institute in 1922.   Film buffs will note that the house served as the setting for the 1996 film “Primal Fear” featuring Richard Gere, Edward Norton, and Laura Linney.

Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 S. Michigan Avenue was originally built in 1874 from designs by architect James Renwick Jr. (who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City).  Following a devastating fire in 1900, the interior was completely redesigned and rebuilt by Howard Van Doren Shaw, and today survives as an amazingly intact example of the Arts and Crafts movement.  The church was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013, the only church in Chicago to earn that designation.  A celebration of the Landmark status will take place on Thursday June 20, 2013 at 5:30pm, and is open to the public.  Visit for more information.

The high rise at the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Cermak Road marks the former site of the Lexington Hotel, designed in 1892 by Clinton J. Warren.   Built to house visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition (including President Grover Cleveland, who officially opened the fair), the elegant structure later fell on hard days.  By the 1920s, Al Capone ran his crime operations from a suite of rooms in the hotel.  Many will recall when Geraldo Rivera unsealed Capone’s vault in the basement during a live two-hour TV broadcast on April 21, 1986.  Although the building was designated a Chicago landmark, it was demolished in 1995.

The large loft building at 1727 S. Indiana Avenue was original built in 1905 for the Eastman Kodak Company.  During the 1920s when Indiana Avenue was widened by 35 feet, the west façade of the building was sliced off and a new façade constructed.  The original design of the building survives along 18th Street, and features a doorway with a bellows camera carved in stone above.  In 1993, the building became the first loft structure in the area to convert to residential use.

Historians might have a hard time finding the former Ginn & Company building (later the Platt Luggage Company), now located at 2203 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  Originally built in 1907 at 2301 S. Prairie Avenue from plans by Howard Van Doren Shaw, the building was the center of two major preservation battles as nearby McCormick Place continued expanding west.  Eventually, the building was dismantled and the façade was reconstructed on the current site to conceal a power-plant behind.

The elegant Second Empire style building at 1925 S. Michigan Avenue features a beautiful façade executed in white glazed terra cotta.  Designed in 1911 by Christian Eckstorm, it was one of over 100 buildings constructed along Michigan Avenue in the early 1900s to accommodate the growing automobile industry.  In time, this stretch of Michigan became known as Motor Row.  The large plate-glass display windows were originally used for displays of rubber products manufactured by the B. F. Goodrich Company.  Recently restored to its former glory, the building awaits a new occupant.

The newest “historic” site in the area is the former location of the Chess Records Office and Studio, located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue.  Originally built in 1911 during the growth of Motor Row, it was remodeled in 1957 to house Chess Records, which remained here for a decade, recording some of the era’s most important blues music.  The Rolling Stones paid homage to the building with their “2120 South Michigan Avenue,” recorded here in June 1964.  The site is now open to the public and is operated by the Blues Heaven Foundation. 

NOTE:  The brochure was printed for the museum by the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mary Curzon, Vicereine of India

Mary Victoria Leiter, daughter of Levi and Mary Leiter, was born in Chicago on May 27, 1870.  Her father was the co-founder of the Field and Leiter dry goods business, which later became Marshall Field & Company.  Leiter also made a fortune in Chicago real estate, becoming one of the single largest landowners in the city during its period of phenomenal growth in the late 19th century.

The family home was located at 2114 S. Calumet Avenue (shown above as it appeared in the 1890s) and was designed in 1870 by architect W. W. Boyington, a Calumet neighbor best remembered today for his design of the Chicago water tower.  The Leiters left Chicago in 1881 and made their home in Washington, D.C. where they became part of that city’s elite social circle.  Their Chicago home was sold to John B. Drake, proprietor of the famed Grand Pacific Hotel, who engaged Cobb and Frost to significantly remodel the home.  It was demolished in 1935.

Mary Leiter received an excellent education from private tutors, a French governess, and a Columbia University professor.  Her best friend in Washington D.C. was Frances Folsom, who in 1886 married President Grover Cleveland, aged 49.  Frances was just 21 years old at the time, the youngest woman ever to serve as First Lady.

The U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James introduced Mary Leiter to London society in 1894, where she met a Conservative Member of Parliament, George Curzon.  The couple had three daughters, and the youngest, Alexandra, later married Edward Metcalfe, the best friend, best man, and equerry of Edward VIII. 

George Curzon accepted the position of Viceroy of India in 1898 and was elevated to the Peerage of Ireland as Baron Curzon of Kedleston.  He and his wife, who received the title of Vicereine of India, arrived in Bombay on December 30, 1898 and her beauty and grace soon made her hugely popular throughout India.  To this day, no American has ever achieved a higher rank in English royalty.

In 1902, the Curzons organized the Delhi Durbar to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII, and it was touted at the time as the “grandest pageant in history.”  Among those in attendance was a former Prairie Avenue neighbor, Addie Hibbard Gregory, who wrote about the event in her book, A Great-Grandmother Remembers.  At the state ball, Mary Curzon wore an elaborate Worth gown, known as the peacock dress (shown at the top of this article).  The gown was made of gold cloth embroidered with peacock feathers with a blue/green beetle wing in each “eye,” which gave the appearance of emeralds.  (The dress is now on display at the Curzon estate, Kedleston Hall). 

Lady Curzon became a proponent of the artisans and manufacturers in India and wore Indian fabrics making them fashionable throughout India as well as London, Paris and the capitals of Europe.  She placed orders for her friends and strangers alike, and assisted the silk weavers, embroiderers, and other artists to adapt their work to Western tastes and modern fashion.  In addition, she helped revive native arts that had been all but forgotten, providing employment to many artisans. 

She also had a strong interest in medical reform and led the movement to establish hospitals for women and appointing female doctors.  The Lady Curzon Hospital in Bangalore is one of several established during her time in India. 

An ardent conservationist, Lady Curzon learned about the Great One-horned Rhinoceros of Kaziranga and traveled to the area during the winter of 1904 to see them.  Her interest led to her husband establishing the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest, now the Kaziranga National Park.

Lady Curzon’s suffered serious health issues during her years in India and trips back to England to convalesce were unsuccessful.  She and her husband returned to England in August 1905 after he resigned his post, but her health was failing and she died on July 18, 1906 in their home at 1 Carlton House Terrace, Westminster, London at the age of 36. 

Lord Curzon had a memorial chapel built in her honor, which was attached to the parish church at Kedleston Hall.  The chapel, designed by G. F. Bodley in the decorated Gothic style, was completed in 1913.  The sculptor, Sir Bertram Mackennal, created a stunningly beautiful and touching effigy of Lady Curzon which, per her husband’s wishes “expressed as might be possible in marble, the pathos of his wife’s premature death and to make the sculpture emblematic of the deepest emotion.”  Lord Curzon’s effigy was later added to lie beside that of his wife, as his remains do in the vault beneath.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Death of May Allport

Inserted into Frances Glessner’s journal following the weekly entry dated May 18, 1913 is a memorial to Miss May Allport, prepared by the Fortnightly of Chicago.  May Allport was a long-time friend of Frances Glessner, a fellow club member, and a kindred spirit who shared her love of the piano and music.  She was a frequent guest in the Glessner home and her name appears frequently in the journal.

The following article, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 20, 1913, provides the details of Miss Allport’s untimely passing:

May Allport of Chicago Stricken as She Ventures Too Far Into Sahara
English Missionaries Minister to Dying American When French Deny Aid.

A dramatic account of the death of May Allport, the Chicago pianiste, in a lonely, sun-baked town on the edge of the Sahara desert, is told in mails which have just been received by her friends in Chicago.  Brief mention was made of Miss Allport’s death in the Chicago newspapers of April 20.  She had expired in Sfax, Tunisia, on April 18, and had been buried the following day.

Miss Allport left Chicago two years ago to travel in Italy.  She spent a large part of her time at the little town of Taormina, under the shadow of Mount Aetna and close to the exquisite classical remains which draw many strangers to Sicily.  In March of the present year Miss Allport went alone across the Mediterranean from Palermo to Africa.

From Tunis she went along the coast to Susa, thence inland to Kairawan, Gafsa, and Tozeur (Tozer); thence to Sfax on the gulf of Gabes, and thence she ventured, in company with a casually met Englishwoman – too far into the desert – to Gabes at the lower end of the gulf, called by the ancients Syrtis Minor. 

Here, among the Arabs and Italian sailors and merchants, she was taken too sick to return unaided, and here her companion left her.  Fortunately an English doctor – his name is Thomas G. Churcher – journeying with his wife through Gabes from Sfax to the oasis of Medenine, heard of the American woman sick at the little French Hotel des Colonies and came to her rescue.

In Automobile 100 Miles.
Recognizing the serious character of her illness, he called in the post surgeon as a consultant and endeavored to secure her admission to the French army hospital.  Failing in his effort, rather than desert a woman in distress, he secured a covered automobile, fitted it with a comfortable mattress, and carried her back with him to his own home in Sfax – a distance of nearly 100 miles.

On reaching the home of this Englishman – he and his wife are medical missionaries – she seemed brighter for the change and full of gratitude, but the long journey over the desert proved too much for her, and she died while her missionary friends prayed by her bedside.

She was buried in Sfax, in the French cemetery, until such a time as the French colonial department will issue a permit for the removal of her body to her own country.

Founder of Musical Club.
Since 1875 Miss Allport’s figure and influence were well known in the Chicago musical world.  She was one of the founders of the Amateur Musical club, and until 1911 was one of the most popular contributors to its programs.

For many years she was also the moving spirit in the musical programs of the Fortnightly and the Little Room.  Her musical education was commenced under the best European masters and in 1871 she enjoyed the privilege of listening to Franz Liszt at his own home in Weimar.

The greatest musical inspiration, however, came through the technical and artistic instruction of Mrs. Regina Watson of Chicago.  She enjoyed a wide acquaintance among professional musicians, counting among her warm friends Joseffy, Wilhelmj, Teresa Carreno, W. H. Sherwood, Theodore Thomas, Edouard Heimendahl, and Gaston Gattschalk.

The memorial to May Allport which Frances Glessner inserted in her journal includes, in part, this tribute to her artistic talent and a poem composed by an anonymous friend:

We shall never listen to her fiery yet delicate touch upon our instrument again, nor thrill to her rare comprehending musical interpretations of great compositions, yet the influence of this will remain with us.  During the fifteen years of her membership, she has given us memorable musical afternoons that only the true artist with a flame of genius flashing in her soul could give.  She was an artist in temperament, taste, training, accomplishment.  Her charming personality, high ideals and warm generous heart won and retained a devoted circle of friends.

M.A., Sfax, Tunisia, April 18, 1913

Light desert sands, drift soft, drift low;
Sweet Arab flute, pipe sad, pipe low;
Dry desert airs, blow gently by;
Tall desert palms, wave lullaby.

Waves on the gulf, roll far, roll free;
Northwind, blow fresh from Sicily;
Warm desert sun, shine on, shine on;
Chill desert night, draw swiftly down.

Winds, waft the desert across to me;
Spread, desert skies, her canopy;
New desert grave, lie safe, lie deep;
Dear wandering soul, God give thee sleep.

-A Friend

May Allport’s body arrived in Chicago in early July and she was laid to rest in the family plot at Graceland Cemetery on Tuesday July 7, 1913.

NOTE:  May Allport was the daughter of Dr. Walter W. Allport, one of the most prominent dentists in Chicago and the country in the late 19th century.  Dr. Allport arrived in Chicago in 1854 and practiced dentistry here for nearly 40 years.  He was credited with being the first dentist in the world to take advantage of the cohesive properties of gold in restoring the front teeth to their original form in 1856.  In 1858 he was elected President of the Western Dental Society and two years later was elected the first Chairman of the American Dental Association.  Rush Medical College conferred an honorary degree upon him in 1881, and in 1886 he was elected President of the American Dental Association.  He organized the World’s Columbian Dental Congress and would have served as its president during the Exposition, but died in March 1893, two months before the opening of the Fair. 

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