The Elbridge G. Keith house at 1900 S. Prairie Avenue is one of just seven surviving houses on the “sunny street that held the sifted few” – Chicago’s most exclusive residential street in the late 19th century. The imposing three-story limestone clad house with slate mansard roof is the last surviving example of the Second Empire style which dominated the Prairie Avenue streetscape.
The house was built in 1870-1871 for Elbridge Gerry Keith, one of three Keith brothers to reside on Prairie Avenue. Keith was born on July 16, 1840 in Barre, Vermont, and was named in honor of Elbridge Gerry, who served as vice-president under President James Madison. He was descended from James Keith, a Scotch Presbyterian clergyman who came to America about 1650, settling in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He grew up on the family farm, and after clerking in a general store in Barre, came to Chicago in 1857, joining his brothers Edson and Osborne, and working in the business selling hats and caps.
In 1865, he married Harriet Hall in her hometown of Ottawa, Illinois. They set up housekeeping on the 1700 block of Michigan Avenue. In the same year, his brothers reorganized their firm as Keith Brothers and he was admitted as a partner. It grew into one of the largest millinery firms in the entire country. The firm continued as such until 1884, when it was again reorganized as Edson Keith & Co. No longer a partner in the business, Elbridge Keith that year helped to organize the Metropolitan National Bank, serving as its president until its consolidation with the First National Bank of Chicago in 1902. In that year, he was elected president of the Chicago Title and Trust Company, which position he retained until his death.
In 1868, Keith purchased a double lot on Prairie Avenue for $10,750 and engaged John W. Roberts to design his new home. Roberts began his career in the office of the prominent American architect Richard Upjohn before coming to Chicago, and designed numerous large residences in the city. In the 1880s the house was significantly enlarged with the addition of the third floor mansard roof, and an addition to the rear.
Keith was deeply interested in education, serving for many years on the Chicago Board of Education. In 1883, a school was built at 3400 S. Dearborn and was named the Keith School in his honor. (It closed in 1959 and was demolished soon after for the expansion of the campus for the Illinois Institute of Technology).
Keith was extremely active in civic affairs. He was elected a director of the World’s Columbian Exposition, and later treasurer of the University of Illinois. He was one of the incorporators and president of the Union League Club, and at various times served as president of the Commercial Club, the Banker’s Club, the Y.M.C.A. and the Chicago Orphan Asylum. Additionally, he served as treasurer of the Moody Bible Institute, the Chicago Bible Society, the Bureau of Charities, and the Home of the Friendless.
He and his wife had six children – sons Carl, Harold, Stanley, and Elbridge, and daughters Susie and Bessie. Keith died at his home on May 17, 1905 and was interred in a large plot at Graceland Cemetery. He left an estate valued at $980,000. Bequests were made to a number of charities including the Moody Bible Institute, the Chicago Visiting Nurses’ Association, the Chicago Old People’s Home, Beloit College, the American Sunday School Union, and the Chicago Home for the Friendless.
Keith also directed the income from a trust fund to his church of 30 years, the Christ Reformed Episcopal Church at Michigan Avenue and 24th Street, and gave an outright gift to its longtime leader, Bishop Charles E. Cheney. In September 1905, the church dedicated a tablet in memory of Keith which read, “To the glory of God and to the memory of Elbridge Gerry Keith, a beloved Bible class teacher in the Sunday school and senior warden of the church.”
Elbridge Keith’s widow Harriet remained in the home for a number of years after which she moved to a spacious apartment at 999 Lake Shore Drive. She sold the Prairie Avenue house in 1920 and later moved to Pasadena, California where she died in 1933.
In 1934, the house was acquired by a publishing company, Domestic Engineering. It was used as offices for various publishers until 1974, when it was purchased by Wilbert Hasbrouck, an architect who had been involved in the rescue of Glessner House several years earlier.
His wife Marilyn opened a book store in the house known as the Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which featured architectural books, prints, and fragments. (For many years following, it was regarded as one of the pre-eminent architecture bookstores in the country). The building also served as the offices for the Hasbroucks’ publishing company, the Prairie School Publishing Company, which produced The Prairie School Review.
In 1978, the Hasbroucks sold the house to journalists Steven Pratt and Joy Darrow, the latter a grand-niece of the famed attorney Clarence Darrow. They undertook extensive restoration work on the house including a $60,000 reconstruction of the elaborately bracketed cornice. In October 1986 they opened the Prairie Avenue Gallery on the first floor, which hosted dozens of art exhibits. The coach house was leased to Royal Carriages, which boarded horses on the ground floor, the drivers living up above. Following Darrow’s death, daughter Marcy moved back in the house. In 1997, she leased the first floor to Woman Made Gallery, which had been organized five years earlier to provide women artists with the opportunity to exhibit, publish, and perform their work. In 1999, the coach house was completely renovated into a single residential unit. Today, the first floor functions as a special events venue hosting art exhibits, weddings, and more. For more information, visit www.keithhousechicago.com.
On October 25, 2014, a very special event took place when nearly two dozen descendants gathered at the old family home for a reunion. They were all descended from Elbridge Keith's son Carl, who had married Cornelia Alling of 2131 S. Calumet Avenue on January 1, 1901. Carl Keith, who had written his reminiscences of the house and neighborhood in a manuscript entitled “The Home” would no doubt have been very pleased to see the house once again functioning as the Keith family home.