Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part III

In last week’s article, we looked at the first houses constructed on Prairie Avenue in the blocks immediately south of 16th Street. This week, we will explore the very different development of Prairie Avenue south of present day Cermak Road.

During the 1850s, several substantial homes were constructed on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Prairie Avenue. The layout of South Township created natural dividing lines to the south at Ringgold Avenue and to the west at State Street. Development west of State focused on workers housing for those employed in businesses along the Chicago River. Likewise, development south of Ringgold was always closely tied to the businesses that operated there, and the many immigrant workers that settled close by.

Nathaniel Goold – 2216 S. Prairie Avenue
In 1851, Nathaniel Goold purchased a tract of land for $471 immediately south of Ringgold between Prairie Avenue and Cottage Grove to the west. He subdivided the land into eight lots of which he sold the six facing Ringgold at a nice profit, retaining the other two for his new frame residence. Goold was in the music business, later making his own organs and pianos, and incurred $2,000 in uninsured losses when his Lake Street store was destroyed in the “Great Conflagration” of October 1857 (as it was known prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). He manufactured pianos and organs in the factory behind his home, although by the time of his death in 1887, he had switched to the making of hansom cab bodies.

1863 advertisement from the Chicago Tribune

LATER HISTORY: The family continued to reside at the old homestead and in 1902 replaced it with a four-story brick building containing eight apartments. Advertisements noted that both six- and eight-room “modern, sumptuous” apartments were available for $60 to $85 per month (the equivalent of $1,700 to $2,500 today). These were apparently very fine apartments indeed, as early tenants included Helen Macbeth and Anna Robertson (Frances Glessner’s two sisters); Frances Glessner Lee’s estranged husband, Blewett Lee; and Enrico Tramonti, principal harpist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A few blocks to the south, at Twenty-Sixth Street, the American Car Company established its works making railroad cars, taking advantage of the Illinois Central tracks to the east, completed in 1856. The small community of worker’s cottages around the factory became known as Carville. St. Agatha’s Academy was established in 1854 as a shelter and school for orphans; their brick building was located at the northwest corner of Calumet and 26th Street. St. James Roman Catholic Church was organized the next year for the 25 Irish families residing in Carville. The church initially met at St. Agatha’s and in 1858 constructed a frame church on Prairie Avenue and 27th Street.

Mercy Hospital occupying the original St. Agatha's Academy building

LATER HISTORY: The car works at Carville only lasted a few years, leaving the small community depressed. In 1863, St. Agatha’s was converted to its new use as Mercy Hospital. In 1880, St. James completed a large stone church at 2907 S. Wabash Avenue, designed by architect Patrick C. Keely. Despite significant preservation efforts, the church was demolished in 2013, although the adjacent rectory at 2942 S. Wabash, a beautiful example of the Richardsonian Romanesque, still stands.

St. James Catholic Church rectory, January 2013

Several small stockyards established themselves in the general vicinity during the 1850s. The Michigan Southern stockyard was located on Michigan Avenue a few blocks south of Ringgold Avenue. John Sherman established his stockyards at 31st and the lake, and the Cottage Grove stockyards ran along that street from 29th to 35th Streets. On Christmas Day 1865, the Union Stockyards opened, consolidating many smaller stockyards around the city. John Sherman was made the first president, and he later built his substantial mansion at 2100 S. Prairie Avenue, an early design of Burnham & Root.

An 1859 article in the Chicago Press and Tribune also made note of the new packing house of Thomas Nash on Ringgold at Cottage Grove (which would have been immediately west of Nathaniel Goold’s property). The article went into detail about Nash’s process of singeing hogs, which is unimportant here, but worthy of note is that he planned to ship about 1,000 hogs to England that season, indicating this was a substantial operation.

The most common form of public transportation at this time was the omnibus – a horse-drawn vehicle, set on springs for comfort. A typical omnibus would have two wooden benches along the sides of the cabin, with the passengers facing each other. Larger double-decker omnibuses had benches positioned back-to-back on the open upper level. The driver would sit outside the cabin on an elevated front-facing bench.

To accommodate the residents south of Ringgold Place, by 1855 a line of omnibuses ran from the Lake Street bridge to State Street, and then south to Ulich’s Hotel at the corner of State and Ringgold. Cars ran every 15 minutes. Just two years later, it was announced that the line was being extended as far south as Merrick’s Tavern at Cottage Grove and 35th and would run on a newly macadamized road (macadam being an excellent, hard material for paving). A newspaper article from 1857 noted that “this arrangement will be of great service to the people of that populous suburb (Carville).” 

In 1859, the Chicago City Railway Company was incorporated, and the omnibuses were gradually replaced by horsecars that ran on rails, making the journey even more comfortable.

Next week, in the fourth and final installment in this series, we will return to Prairie Avenue between present day 16th Street and Cermak Road, to discuss the houses constructed during the years of the Civil War.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part II

In last week’s article, we looked at events during the first half of the 19th century that laid the groundwork for the six blocks of Prairie Avenue, between 16th Street and Cermak Road, to evolve as an upper-class residential street. This week we will explore the first houses erected during the 1850s and learn a bit about the people who built them.

Staples house – 1702 S. Prairie Avenue

The first house on Prairie Avenue was constructed for John Nichols Staples. Born in Connecticut in 1809, he had lived for many years in Natchez, Mississippi with his wife and children. He came to Chicago in 1853 where he established himself as a real estate agent and stockbroker in the firm of Staples & Sim.

In March 1853, he purchased a large lot on the west side of Prairie Avenue with 284 feet of frontage facing Lake Michigan. Soon after, he began construction on his home, an imposing brick structure designed in the Italianate style prevalent at the time. It was said to have been the first brick house constructed in Chicago south of 16th Street. As was the case with several of the early houses on Prairie Avenue, it featured a prominent central cupola or observatory, which at the time would have provided unobstructed views for miles in all directions. Another noteworthy feature was the unusually tall windows which provided easy access to the two-story wrap around porch, no doubt a delightful place to sit on a warm summer evening to enjoy the breezes off of the lake just a few hundred feet to the east.

LATER HISTORY: In the 1850s and 1860s, Staples sold off portions of his lot for the construction of three additional houses. In 1878, he sold his own home to Turlington W. Harvey, who significantly remodeled and enlarged the house two years later in the Second Empire style. It was acquired by John and Frances Glessner in 1899 and razed to make way for new townhouses for their children.

After Staples left Prairie Avenue, he moved to a new home at 3 Campbell Park, a small enclave of houses on the west side, north of Polk Street and east of Western Avenue. He died in 1898 at the age of 89 and was interred at Graceland Cemetery. Campbell Park Drive still exists today, minus the homes, and forms part of the Chicago Technology Park within the Illinois Medical District.

Pomeroy house – 1824 S. Prairie Avenue

Prairie Avenue’s second home was constructed for Samuel Barber Pomeroy. Born in 1828, he was a native of Massachusetts and came to Chicago in the early 1850s with his older brother Eleazer to establish a commission house, known as S. B. Pomeroy & Co. The brothers owned a large business block on the north side of the city, in addition to several grain elevators, dock property, and three grain-carrying vessels on the Great Lakes, one of which was named “S. B. Pomeroy.” They were both prominently connected with the Chicago Board of Trade.

In 1854, Pomeroy married Marion Hilliard and purchased his property on the west side of the 1800 block of Prairie Avenue. He is first listed in the city directory at his new Prairie Avenue home in 1858. The house was in the Italianate style, like the Staples house, but was more exuberant, featuring an elaborate bracketed cornice, front and side porches, and a large cupola.

LATER HISTORY: Pomeroy sold the house in 1863 to wholesale grocer Henry Hinsdale who sold it a few years later to fur dealer James Smith. In 1880, it was purchased by George B. Marsh and soon after received an entirely new stone façade. It was demolished in the 1940s.

Hitchcock and Galloway double houses – 1804-1808 S. Prairie Avenue

The Galloway-Hitchcock houses are shown in the right half of this illustration

Soon after the completion of the Pomeroy house, a pair of houses was constructed just to the north at the southwest corner of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. The north (corner) house was built for Dr. Horatio Hitchcock who had acquired his property in 1856. The house to its south was built for Andrew Jackson Galloway who purchased his property in 1858, just before construction began.

Horatio Hitchcock was born in New York in 1814 and came west to Will County in 1840. He moved to Chicago in 1849, making him one of the earliest physicians in the city, and he was remembered for his work among the cholera victims through the 1850s. He died in his Prairie Avenue home in January 1880 and was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery.

Andrew Jackson Galloway was also born in 1814 but in Pennsylvania, although he grew to adulthood in the new state of Indiana where his family moved when he was six. After receiving a degree in civil engineering, he came to Illinois and was involved with some of the earliest work on constructing railroad lines in the state, as well as the Illinois & Michigan Canal. He came to Chicago in 1849 and two years later was appointed assistant engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, overseeing acquisition and management of over one million acres of land and the construction of the railroad tracks.  He retired from the Illinois Central in 1855 and opened a real estate office in Chicago, A. J. Galloway and Co. He moved from Prairie Avenue in the early 1880s and spent his final years in a home at 7600 S. Emerald Avenue, where he died in 1903. Like his neighbor, he was interred at Oak Woods Cemetery.

Andrew Jackson Galloway

The double houses constructed for Hitchcock and Galloway were typical attached houses of the period in the Second Empire style, sporting a Mansard roof at the third story. There are no known photographs of the house, only the sketch shown above, which was drawn in 1874.

LATER HISTORY: In 1885, John and Frances Glessner purchased the Hitchcock house; soon after, O. R. Keith purchased the Galloway house. In 1886, the buildings, not yet thirty years old, were torn down for new houses. It is interesting to note that the footprint of the Hitchcock house was quite a bit south of 18th Street; as such it would have stood largely in what is now the courtyard of the Glessner house. The O. R. Keith house, designed by Cobb & Frost, was razed in 1968.

It is believed that the four houses described above were the only ones completed on Prairie Avenue during the 1850s. They were all situated on the west side of street to face toward the lake, the shoreline of which was cut off by the newly laid Illinois Central Railroad tracks.

In those early days, the houses were not identified by address. An early listing for Andrew Galloway, for example, simply listed his home as being on Prairie Avenue, two doors south of Old (the original name for 18th Street). Street numbering was initiated in the 1860s using a different convention that was then replaced by the current numbering system in 1880.

Gurley house – Indiana Avenue

One block to the west, the first house on Indiana was completed in 1855 for Jason Gurley. He was born in Vermont in 1807 and came to Chicago on an exploratory visit in 1833, the year Chicago was incorporated as a town with a population of only 300 residents. After spending a few years in Ottawa, Illinois, he came to Chicago in 1837 to take up management of the Mansion House Hotel. He went into the real estate business where he made his fortune. In 1851, he constructed Metropolitan Hall at the northwest corner of Randolph and LaSalle, described as the “largest and most pretentious public-room in the city at the time of its erection.”  Among his real estate holdings was a large tract of land which he subdivided in 1856 as Gurley’s Subdivision; today it includes the 2100 blocks of State, Wabash, Michigan, Indiana, Prairie, and Calumet.

There are no known photos of the Gurley house, which stood at approximately 1906 S. Indiana Avenue, however a description of the house in the June 25, 1855 Chicago Tribune provides a detailed account of its construction and appearance:

“A frame dwelling house, two stories high, on Indiana avenue, for Jason Gurley, Esq. The design is for an Italian villa and is to be built in every particular in the most complete manner. The building is to be brick lined between the framework . . . A very handsome observatory is intended to adorn the building, which will command a wide and expansive view of the lake and prairie. The design is by Mr. Boyington; J. M. & E. Price, masons; McWilliams & Grannis, carpenters. The cost of this building will be about $10,000; and it will be completed this fall.”

The mention of the brick lining between the framework is a reference to what was known in the 19th century as brick insulation or brick nogging. This technique was often used in balloon-frame houses where the exterior clapboards were simply nailed on to the studs. The void between the clapboards and the interior plaster walls could make the house cold in the winter, thus the brick served as insulation and an early form of fireproofing. The bricks were not structural.

An example of brick nogging

Gurley and his wife Selina had no children, but he was very close with his three nieces who married the three Keith brothers, all of whom eventually built substantial homes on Prairie Avenue (including the O. R. Keith house referenced above). He moved to Palatine during the Civil War while Edson and Susan Keith took up residence in his former Indiana Avenue home. Gurley returned to their home and died there in April 1865 at the age of 59; he was interred at Graceland Cemetery.

In next week’s installment, we will look at the very different development of Prairie Avenue south of Ringgold Place (now Cermak Road) as well as the few additional homes built in the area during the years of the Civil War.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Early History of Prairie Avenue - Part I

The heyday of Prairie Avenue as Chicago’s most exclusive residential street is generally framed by the dates of the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871 and the turn of the twentieth century. The history of the area, however, goes back much further, predating the subdivision of the land between present day 16th Street and Cermak Road in the 1850s. In this first article examining Prairie Avenue’s early history, we will look at the events that set the stage for the construction of the first house in 1853.

The earliest history of Prairie Avenue is tied to Fort Dearborn, which was located nearly three miles to the north along the Chicago River at what is now Michigan Avenue. During the War of 1812 with Great Britain, the soldiers and civilians at the fort were ordered to evacuate for the safety of Fort Wayne in the Indiana Territory. On August 15, 1812, the party left the fort, traveling south along the shore of Lake Michigan, which was much closer to the future location of Prairie Avenue than it is today. Upon arriving at approximately 18th Street, a brief battle took place with the native Potawatomi who were attempting to preserve their ancestral lands. There were many casualties on both sides and Fort Dearborn was burned soon after.

A cottonwood tree standing at the time of the battle became a symbol of the event. It stood on the north side of 18th Street east of Prairie Avenue until it was felled during a storm in May 1894. The illustration below shows the tree in the 1880s, with the coach house of the George Pullman house visible at left. It also clearly shows that Prairie Avenue was most definitely lake front property.

In 1833, Dr. Elijah Harmon, the second person to establish a medical practice in the town, purchased 138.24 acres of land from the U.S. government, paying the standard rate of $1.25 per acre. He built a modest cabin on his property, which extended from the present boundaries of 16th Street on the north to Cermak Road on the south, and from State Street on the west to the shore of Lake Michigan on the east. 

Future Prairie Avenue resident Silas B. Cobb arrived in Chicago that same year, and in 1900 was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. While seated in the home of his daughter at 2027 S. Prairie Avenue, he gave a vivid impression of what the future Prairie Avenue neighborhood would have been like at the time:

“Instead of a flourishing village, the Chicago pioneer found mud, swamp holes, and hogs. Coyotes and prairie dogs swarmed everywhere . . .Two blocks away on Michigan avenue, where the steeple of the Second Presbyterian Church stands high in the air, Mr. Cobb remembered that he once waded through a swamp hole and figured that the ground never would amount to anything, even for farming.”

Harmon moved to Texas in 1834 and the next year, Henry and Caroline Clarke purchased the northernmost 20 acres of his tract, paying $100 per acre, an excellent return for Harmon on his investment. In 1836, the Clarkes built their Greek Revival home, which survives today as the Clarke House Museum at 1827 S. Indiana Avenue. In 1837, the city of Chicago was organized, and present day Cermak Road was established as the southern boundary of the city, making Clarke House the oldest surviving building within the original city limits. Despite being part of the city, Clarke House sat isolated in the country, well over a mile south of the nearest building. Residents of the city would drive out on Sundays along an old Native American path (now Michigan Avenue), to see the majestic house set amongst the scrubby landscape by the lake.

The Clarkes remained largely isolated through the 1840s. Their only immediate neighbors were the dearly departed. In 1833, sixteen acres of land had been acquired for a municipal town cemetery, reserved for Catholic burials. The present boundaries of that cemetery would be Cermak Road on the north, 23rd Street on the south, Prairie Avenue on the west, and the lakeshore on the east. (Today that site is occupied by the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and portions of the convention center). The cemetery operated until 1847, when all the bodies were supposedly relocated to the city cemetery in present day Lincoln Park. As late as 1897, however, bodies were still being found when construction was underway for new buildings.

In 1849, a devastating cholera epidemic swept through Chicago, which led to the founding of the Chicago Orphan Asylum. This charitable institution provided relief for the many afflicted immigrants who left behind children, but no family or financial structure to support them. In 1854, the Asylum completed its new building at 2228 S. Michigan Avenue.  By the time it moved to larger quarters at South Park Avenue and 51st Street in 1899, it was estimated that more than 6,000 children had been served by the institution.  (The new building, located at 5120 S. King Drive, was designated a Chicago landmark in 2009).

Chicago Orphan Asylum, 2228 S. Michigan Avenue

The cholera epidemic also claimed the life of Henry Clarke, leaving his widow with six children and a house that had never been completed. In 1850, Caroline Clarke subdivided 17 acres of her land, retaining only a 3-acre parcel around the house, which sat on the east side of Michigan Avenue. Clarke’s Addition to Chicago was created in anticipation of the continued growth of the city to the south, evidenced by the extension of Michigan Avenue beyond the Clarke property and the daily trips of the State Street stagecoach south to the city limits.

Ironically, this subdivision marked the beginning of Prairie Avenue, but Prairie Avenue did not exist in the subdivision. Due to the proximity of the lake, the lots along the east side of Indiana Avenue were simply extended east to the lake shore. It was not until after the Civil War that this block was subdivided yet again, inserting the 1600 block of Prairie Avenue, and configuring the lots as we know them today.

Another important event at this same time was the chartering of the Illinois Central Railroad, which took place in 1851. The railroad reached an agreement with the city to run its tracks along the shore of Lake Michigan, viewed as a practical way to preserve the shoreline. The Illinois Central was the longest railroad in the world when it was completed in 1856. The main line extended from Cairo to Galena, but a branch line extended from Centralia (named for the railroad) to Chicago. Three trains daily ran between downtown Chicago and Hyde Park, providing easy transportation in and out of the city. (It survives today as the Metra Electric Line, with a station at 18th Street).

Illinois Central train at the foot of 18th Street, c. 1888 (Photo by George Glessner)

In 1852, a city resolution created Prairie and Indiana Avenues as far south as present day Cermak Road. Although the north-south streets always bore their current names, the east-west streets were named differently as follows:
16th St.:          North Street
17th St.:          New Street
18th St.:          Old Street
19th St.:          Cross Street
20th St.:          Bridge Street
21st St.:          Commerce Street
22nd St.:          Ringgold Avenue
These streets started using their current numeric names in the 1860s when subdivisions farther west adopted that naming convention, although consistent street names across the city were not universal for many years.

1858 map - 16th Street at top; State Street at left; Cermak Road at bottom

During the 1850s, several new subdivisions were laid out south of Caroline Clarke’s property, as investors purchased land in anticipation of development and rapidly increasing land values. In 1853, the southern boundary of the city was extended to 31st Street. All the pieces were now in place for the first residents to purchase lots and build their homes. In next week’s article, we will look at those neighborhood “pioneers” and the houses they built.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Prairie Avenue and Louis Sullivan - Part II

In the Chicago periodical, The Economist, of February 15, 1919, there was an article on Louis H. Sullivan. Artist Frank G. Logan had just been awarded a $500 prize for his painting of the famous architect. It then listed some of his most famous building designs, most in partnership with the deceased Dankmar Adler. The article ended by saying “Mr. Sullivan is now in his sixties and has retired from active practice.” That last phrase was somewhat premature.

Frank G. Logan's portrait of Louis Sullivan

Sullivan’s fortunes (his commissions, finances, and personal life) had been declining steadily since the start of the new century. As this was happening, his practice by apparent necessity transitioned from skyscrapers and grand theaters to the small bank buildings across the Midwest. He was still receiving accolades from around the world, but that renown was not transferring into work in the U.S.

When the 1919 article ran, his last constructed work had been the 1916 Peoples Savings & Loan Association Building in Sidney, Ohio. Then he lost a design competition for a high school in Owatonna, Minnesota in 1917. And the body blows kept coming.

He finally decided to finally divorce his wife, Margaret. They had been married in 1899. She had left him by 1909 and fled to New York City. In August 1916 he filed on the grounds of desertion and the divorce was finalized on January 29, 1917.

Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1916

He lost his chief draftsman, Parker Noble Berry, to private practice in the first half of 1917. There was no work to keep him. Then Berry perished on December 16, 1918. The Spanish Flu got him at the age of 30.

A further blow was the loss of office space on the 16th floor of the Auditorium Building’s tower. Adler & Sullivan, Architects had moved into custom offices on the 16th and 17th floors in 1888. From the tower’s vantage point they could view all their downtown. It was where Sullivan trained Frank Lloyd Wright and George Grant Elmslie, among others. He was there until through midyear 1917.

After that, Louis Sullivan spent his remaining work years at two locations on Prairie Avenue, in what is now the Prairie Avenue Historic District. He was provided office space (which may have been no more than a drafting table) at the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Co.’s sales office at 1808 S. Prairie Avenue. That was arranged through Kristian Schneider of the firm, who had long been the modeler for Sullivan’s ornamentation.

1808 S. Prairie Avenue (Cobb & Frost, 1886)

The three-story house with a granite front at 1808 sat next to the Glessner House. It was designed by Cobb & Frost for O.R. Keith in 1886. Keith sold it to Stanley Field (nephew of Marshall Field) in 1901 for $45,000. But by 1917 it was being leased for commercial purposes.

As Spring 1919 began, things turned for the better for Sullivan. Two commissions came his way. The first was a remodel of the First National Bank of Manistique Building in Michigan, for which he created drawings in May. The second was announced in June. It was for a new Farmers and Merchants Union Bank Building in Columbus, Wisconsin.

Farmers and Merchants Union Bank, Columbus, Wisconsin

The Columbus work would keep him busy into early 1920. Sullivan was so very proud of this design that he called it a “jewel box” and the name stuck and eventually referred to all eight of his bank projects. He had help from draftsman William C. Presto, who was on loan from architect George C. Nimmons’ office. Still, the rest of 1920 must have been an especially somber year.

Entering the final few years of his life Louis Sullivan received only two more building commissions. In 1921 he was asked to design a memorial for the Eddy family in Glenwood Cemetery, Flint, Michigan. Patriarch Arthur Jerome Eddy, a 60-year-old Chicago lawyer, author, art collector and art critic, had died unexpectedly on July 21, 1920 in New York City. In the middle of his partnership with Adler, Sullivan had designed three mausoleums – Ryerson (1889), Getty (1890), and Wainwright (1892) – that were then and still are considered masterpieces. He sketched up not just a tomb but an elaborate, modern enclosure that the family, however, chose not to build.

At the beginning of December 1921, Sullivan announced he moved his architectural office to another old Chicago mansion at 1701 S. Prairie Avenue. Actually, American Terra Cotta’s move there necessitated him to follow. 

The American Contractor, December 3, 1921

The house had been designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1868 for William Hibbard, partner in the wholesale hardware firm of Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co. (remembered today for its “True Value” brand name).

1701 S. Prairie Avenue (William Le Baron Jenney, 1868)

Sullivan’s last realized design was completed there. It was not an entire building, but only a façade. This time it was William Presto who hired Sullivan for his decorative abilities. The project was the William P. Krause Music Store & Flat at 4611 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Of course, Schneider would model all of Sullivan’s terra cotta.

Krause Music Store, 4611 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago

He had no more “office” from then on. In his “spare” time he wrote. Sullivan’s autobiography, written in the third person and oddly titled The Autobiography of an Idea, was published posthumously in 1926. His writings included another book, Democracy: A Man-Search, that was finally published in 1961. He prepared sketches for a monument for the National Terra Cotta Society in 1921 and again in 1923, though nothing was ever built.

By now in failing health, he found the energy to draw 20 full-page plates of fanciful architectural details that went into his book, A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers, published by the American Institute of Architects just before his death in April 1924.

Two weeks later, architect N. Max Dunning wrote a letter recounting Sullivan’s final days, to Dankmar Adler’s son Sidney, who was to convey the information to Sullivan’s brother. Dunning closed by noting:

“All of Mr. Sullivan’s possessions are sealed up in boxes in the possession of Mr. Albert Sheffield, c/o American Terra Cotta Company, 1701 Prairie Avenue, Chicago, and can be gone over by any properly authorized individual.”

Guest author:
Michael N. Plei is a national civil engineer who started a hobby over six years ago to trace Adler & Sullivan's work and its connection to the history of Chicago.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Prairie Avenue and Louis Sullivan - Part I

1700 block of South Michigan Avenue; two Sullivan designed houses at center

During the month of June, we will explore some of the lesser known stories of Prairie Avenue. We start with a look at architect Louis Sullivan, who, although he never saw one of his creations erected on Prairie Avenue, designed a number of buildings in the immediate vicinity, and received several business commissions from Prairie Avenue residents.

Louis Sullivan came to Chicago in 1873 to take advantage of the limitless work available for architects in the years following the Great Chicago Fire. Within a year of his arrival, he is known to have walked down Prairie Avenue, which had established itself as the preeminent street for Chicago’s business and social leaders to build their homes. In his Autobiography of an Idea, published in the year of his death, 1924, Sullivan recounted (in the third person) his discovery of the Sherman house at 2100 S. Prairie Avenue:

“In his eighteenth year . . . He had occasion one day to pass in the neighborhood of Prairie Avenue and Twenty-first Street . . . There, on the southwest corner of the intersection, his eye was attracted by a residence, nearing completion, which seemed far better than the average run of such structures inasmuch as it exhibited a certain allure of style indicating personality.”

Sherman house, 2100 S. Prairie Avenue

The house had been commissioned by John B. Sherman, president of the stockyards, and for the design, he engaged the newly formed firm of Burnham & Root. It was their second commission and led not only to Daniel Burnham’s marriage to Sherman’s daughter Margaret, but also to numerous commissions on Prairie Avenue. The style of the house was Ruskinian Gothic, and in comparing it to early residential commissions by Adler & Sullivan, one can see certain connections in massing and ornamentation.

Soon after this encounter, Sullivan received one of his very first projects just one block to the west of the Sherman house. The Sinai congregation had been established in 1861 as the first reformed synagogue in the city of Chicago. In 1875, architects Burling & Adler were engaged to design the new Sinai Temple at 2100 S. Indiana Avenue, with interior decoration by the firm of Johnston & Edelmann.

Sinai Temple, 2100 S. Indiana Avenue

Sullivan returned to Chicago in 1876 from his time at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and immediately went to work for his friend John Edelmann in producing fresco secco decoration for the interior of the temple. The term fresco secco refers to the technique of painting on dry plaster using pigments mixed in water. Few photos survive showing Sullivan’s decorative scheme, but the image below hints at the beginnings of his trademark ornament, and one can only imagine what it must have looked like in color.

Sinai Temple interior showing Sullivan decoration

The commission was important in that it marked the introduction of Sullivan to his future partner, Dankmar Adler, who would hire him three years later. Adler’s standing in the Jewish community was significant, his father Liebman serving as the rabbi of Chicago’s oldest Jewish congregation, Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv. Many of the commissions in the Prairie Avenue neighborhood came from the sizable Jewish community based there.

The firm of Adler & Sullivan would be engaged by the Sinai congregation two more times – in 1884 to add the side galleries and in 1891 to construct a large addition to the rear of the building. The temple was demolished in 1912 when the congregation moved farther south during the rapid decline of Prairie Avenue as a residential area in the early 1900s.

One of the firm’s most loyal clients was Max M. Rothschild, who resided at 2112 S. Prairie Avenue. He and his brothers were the owners of a dry-goods company known as E. Rothschild & Brothers. In 1880 the firm commissioned a five-story store at 212 W. Madison Street with offices and salesrooms on the first two floors, and wide-open spaces on the upper floors to accommodate the manufacture of clothing. A cast-iron façade allowed for large windows to illuminate each floor of the narrow, deep building. The cornice was richly decorated with Sullivan ornament and portions were salvaged when the building was demolished in 1972. Two sections are displayed in the grand stair of the Art Institute.

E. Rothschild & Brothers building fragment (Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

Between 1882 and 1884, Max Rothschild provided Adler & Sullivan with three residential commissions designed as income producing properties. They were clustered a mile and a half south of Rothschild’s home, at 3200 S. Prairie Avenue and 3201-3205 S. Indiana Avenue, with the final three free-standing houses built on a single deep lot at 3200 S. Indiana Avenue. All have been demolished.

Dankmar Adler’s brother-in-law, Morris Selz, was a partner in the firm of Selz, Schwab & Company, makers of shoes and boots. In 1883, Selz commissioned a house on a 33-foot-wide lot at 1717 S. Michigan Avenue. The façade of brownstone and terra cotta is a fully realized expression of Sullivan’s ornamental abilities. Small particles of the stone were worked into the surface of the terra cotta to perfectly blend the two materials, and the lively pressed metal cornice was painted the same color, giving the appearance that the entire façade was carved brownstone. When the house was razed in 1967, a cast iron newel post from the front entry stairs, featuring curling tendrils and Egyptian-inspired floral motifs, was salvaged; it is now displayed at the Art Institute.

Selz house newel post (Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago)

In 1884, Selz’s business partner, Charles Schwab, commissioned a house next door at 1715 S. Michigan Avenue for his daughter, Anna McCormick, upon her marriage. The house was more modest in scale, being built on a 25-foot-wide lot and was faced with brick and terra cotta. Despite these differences, however, the two houses harmonized nicely, sharing sill lines and stringcourses, and the distinctive cornice. It was razed in 1970.

McCormick house (left) and Selz house (right), 1715-1717 S. Michigan Avenue

A third house, just a few doors to the north at 1705 S. Michigan Avenue, was commissioned in 1886 by Hannah Horner, the widow of the founder of Henry Horner & Company, an early wholesale grocery business in the city. Little is known about the row house, which was three stories in height with a façade of brick and stone. It was razed in the 1940s, and there are no known photos.

Adler & Sullivan received several factory commissions from area residents. In 1886, the owners of Selz, Schwab & Company engaged the firm to design their large new four-story factory at Superior and Larrabee Streets. Containing nearly 90,000 square feet of space, the simple unornamented brick facades were enlivened with tall narrow piers, maximizing the size of the window openings. It is no longer standing.

The same year, Martin Ryerson commissioned a six-story store and factory at 318 W. Adams Street, which was leased to Keith Brothers & Company. The three Keith brothers, Edson, Elbridge, and O. R., lived at 1906, 1900, and 1808 S. Prairie Avenue, respectively. The six-story brick building also featured dominant vertical piers, but this time with cast iron spandrels in between and an ornamental parapet. It was razed in 1928.

By chance, the local building that most reflected Sullivan’s interest in the work of Henry Hobson Richardson was designed in 1887, the year that Glessner house was completed. This was the clubhouse for the Standard Club, a prominent German-Jewish organization of which Dankmar Adler was a member. The Richardsonian Romanesque styled building was erected at 2400 S. Michigan Avenue and opened in late 1888. The four-story building was faced in heavy rusticated Bedford limestone, the wood trim painted in a corresponding gray color to increase the powerful feeling of the exterior. The main entrance was centered on the symmetrical Michigan Avenue façade, whereas the long side of the building facing 24th Street featured an irregular fenestration reflecting the spaces within which included parlors, dining rooms, library, billiard room, and a huge 6,000 square foot two-story auditorium/ballroom.

Standard Club, 2400 S. Michigan Avenue

Attorney Wirt Dexter, a long-time resident of 1721 S. Prairie Avenue, hired Adler & Sullivan to design a commercial loft building as investment property in 1887. Leased to the furniture manufacturer R. Deimel & Brothers, the six-story structure at 630 S. Wabash Avenue was similar in construction to the Selz, Schwab & Company and Keith Brothers & Company buildings. An interesting feature was the use of exposed perforated cast-iron girders running vertically up the back side of the building, reducing the width of the masonry piers and opening more of the wall surface for windows. The building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1996 but was destroyed in a devastating fire in October 2006.

Wirt Dexter building, 630 S. Wabash Avenue

Rear of Wirt Dexter building during October 2006 fire

In 1889, Dexter asked Adler & Sullivan to design a large front addition to his Prairie Avenue home. Notices indicated it was to have a façade of rock-faced stone, so it might have been planned in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. For reasons unknown, the project was not built, and Dexter hired the Boston architect Arthur Little to design what became an early and influential structure in the Colonial Revival style.

Max A. Meyer was another partner in the firm of Selz, Schwab & Company, and commissioned Burnham & Root to design his home at 2009 S. Prairie Avenue which was completed shortly before his death in 1888. Four years later, his estate commissioned Adler & Sullivan to design a large commercial loft building at the southwest corner of Van Buren and Franklin. At least two plans were prepared, the simpler one ultimately being selected which featured broad bands of windows giving the building a strong horizontal emphasis. 

Meyer Building (HABS)

The recessed corner entrance featured a stocky single column surmounted by a huge ornamental terra cotta block, the only decoration on the building other than the elaborate cornice. It was razed in 1968.

Meyer Building corner detail (HABS)

The last two projects in the neighborhood were both planned in anticipation of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Standard Club acquired the two houses immediately to the south of their building, which Adler & Sullivan redesigned and extended up to the sidewalk. A huge two-story arcade of five arches, reminiscent of the front wall of the Sinai Temple sanctuary, was elaborately decorated with staff plaster (the same material used on the Exposition buildings). Card rooms, kitchens, and servants’ quarters occupied the new building, which was demolished in 1905 for a new addition by Dankmar Adler’s son Abraham, in association with Samuel A. Treat. The entire Club complex was demolished after the Standard Club moved to new headquarters downtown in 1926.

Standard Club addition

The massive First Regiment Armory, designed by Burnham & Root, was completed in 1891 at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and 16th Street. Florenz Ziegfeld rented the building in early 1893 and hired Adler & Sullivan to convert the drill hall into a temporary concert venue with large stage and restaurant. To be known as the Trocadero, it was destroyed by fire in April 1893, one week before it was due to open. No photos or drawings of the interior are known to exist. 

First Regiment Armory following April 1893 fire

Sullivan’s connections to the Prairie Avenue neighborhood were numerous but sadly none of the projects described stand today, although many were thoroughly documented by photographer Richard Nickel prior to their demolition.

The Glessners were good friends with several Chicago architects, especially Daniel Burnham, but there is no indication they knew Sullivan. Although it is highly likely that he visited the Glessner house during construction, given his interest in the work of Richardson, the only mention of Sullivan is found in a journal entry by Frances Glessner dated April 27, 1905:

“Thursday afternoon I went to the Fortnightly. Harriet Monroe had the paper. Fred Bartlett and Mr. Sullivan the architect both spoke, the latter in execrable taste and spirit.”

(Poet Harriet Monroe and artist Frederic Clay Bartlett were both close friends of Frances Glessner, but clearly Louis Sullivan did not impress.)

Next week, in Prairie Avenue and Louis Sullivan - Part II, guest author Michael N. Plei will explore an unexpected but significant connection between Prairie Avenue and Louis Sullivan in the final years of his life.

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