Chicago’s Original “Old Guard”

    Included the Library Newberrys


Walter Loomis Newberry.





By Megan McKinney


The Walter Loomis Newberry family was central to Chicago’s first Establishment and to a charming period in the area’s history, the era of the Garden City. It was a lovely, bucolic portion of the 19th century when Chicago’s Near North Side literally bloomed. The Fire had not yet destroyed the great trees remaining from the swampy forest that had preceded Eastern gentrification and their leafy boughs were now shading lawns of Chicago’s leading citizens.

The city’s original North Siders were adventurous spirits who had come west during the land boom of the 1830s and profited immensely from sales in the rapidly escalating real estate market, while retaining the most desirable acreage for themselves. After draining their soggy properties just west of today’s North Michigan Avenue, they cleared away underbrush, replacing it with flowers and ornamental shrubbery. The houses they built were constructed of white-painted wood and set in carefully tended gardens, each stretching throughout a square block.


Daniel Bluestone, Constructing Chicago

This remarkable graphic from Daniel Bluestone’s marvelous book Constructing Chicago depicts prime blocks of the Near North Side before the Great Fire. The view is from the east. Holy Name Church (pre-Cathedral) is in the upper right, below it (southeast) is St. James Church, now Episcopal Cathedral. To the left (south) of St. James is the house of Chicago’s first mayor, William Butler Ogden. The Newberry property is directly below (east) of Ogden’s house—across Rush Street.

This was the core of the first Chicago Establishment; they all knew each other, picnicked together in the nearby woods in the summer and went sleigh riding in groups during the long winter. Throughout the year, they scheduled dancing parties, usually to the violin music of John Harris Kinzie, son of Chicago’s first permanent Caucasian settler. Their children played in the soft white sand on the lakeshore after school in the afternoons, and the cows they kept for fresh milk went to pasture every morning, returning as a group before sundown. Few families had servants. During mornings, while wives were home caring for their houses, husbands met in the stalls of the North Side Market and gossiped or talked business while shopping for fresh produce, meat and fish. 

After arriving in Chicago in 1833, Walter Newberry, a 29-year-old Connecticut native, first became a land developer, then a merchant banker who expanded into shipping and other enterprises; among them was railway development with Chicago’s first mayor and Newberry’s close friend, William B. Ogden.  Although the Newberry family story appeared idyllicn the surface, it was filled with great sadness. When Walter married at the age of 38, it was to Julia Clapp, a refined and well-educated young woman from a prosperous New York State family. A frequent and adept hostess, she entertained visiting dignitaries in gatherings for as many as 400. Of the six Newberry children, only two daughters lived beyond the age of four and they too were ill-starred. Julia was in the South of France with the two girls, Julia Jr. and Mary, in 1868, when Walter, who was traveling to meet them, died at sea of tuberculosis. In his will, he left $2 million to establish a “free public library” after the death of his widow. However, Julia was so displeased by the male chauvinism of the will, which left her only an income of $10,000 a year, she sued to have it broken, and succeeded. She then spent $60,000 rebuilding their house, installing a new mansard roof and turning the property into what pre-Fire contemporaries considered Chicago’s handsomest. Neighbors admired the 70-foot long hallway, the bowling alley, billiard room and elegant new dining room and living room.

Julia Newberry Jr.

Friends of Julia Jr. envied her studio, with a skylight, tucked in under the new French roof and reached by a private staircase from the young woman’s bedroom. Julia Jr. herself, referred to it as “the most perfect room I ever was in.” And Mary had her own suite of equally lovely rooms.

But the Newberry women spent little time in their new house, which would burn in 1871. The girls were adept in foreign languages and traveled almost incessantly with their mother. Both experienced increasingly poor health and much of their travel was to various spas in Europe. Mary, who was suffering from the tuberculosis that killed her father, died of a massive hemorrhage in France in February 1874. And the frail Julia Jr., who caught cold in Rome in the spring of 1876, died there of a sudden throat inflammation in April. Their mother settled in Paris where she lived until her death in 1885.

Back in 1869, when the younger Julia was leaving for finishing school in the East, her father had advised her to “Be somebody.” But, because death came so tragically soon, it would seem she had not been given time to do so.



Yet, there was a diary that rescued her from an oblivion she had grown to dread. For the last two years of her life Julia wrote—not daily, but frequently—on the gilt-edged pages of a heavy Morocco-bound diary. During the half century following her death, this record traveled unopened from Rome to Paris, then to the musty attic of an upstate New York country house of a relative—still unopened; the key was lost.



On a rainy afternoon during the summer of 1930, a bored cousin was poking around the attic and found the diary. After he broke the lock and read the contents, the book found its way into the possession of a pair of prominent Chicago sisters, Margaret Ayer Barnes and Janet Ayer Fairbank, both successful writers, and on to publisher W.W. Norton.  

Janet Ayer Fairbank.

The Ayer sisters collaborated on an introduction to Julia’s words and the diary was published in 1933 to glowing reviews, including The New York Times Book Review’s, “Will be read with delight by a very large number of people.”  This dairy continues to be available today; surely the Newberry Library has copies for reading there, and it can definitely be ordered on the internet.

It develops that Julia also produced a sketch book with her cousin, Minnie Clapp, and it too is available today.



By the time Walter Newberry’s complicated estate was settled, the city was planning a new free public library on Michigan Avenue; therefore, in 1887, his executors decided to build a non-circulating reference library. It would be a “privately endowed, independent research library, free and open to the public, and concentrating on history and the humanities.”


The Newberry Library in 1911.

As has often been related, the house of Mayor Ogden’s brother, Mahlon, was one of the few in the area to survive the Fire, and its owner left the property to the library. Although his bequest resulted in the loss of an historic relic, which was razed to make way for the immense Henry Ives Cobbs edifice that replaced the charming house, it provided a majestic location for today’s Newberry Library, which opened on West Walton in 1893.

The Mahlon Ogden house  in double images.

No direct Newberry descendants remain; however, the library Walter endowed is a continuing presence in the lives of many scholars from throughout the nation and world who travel to the city to use the superb research facility.

It is also enjoyed by Chicagoans who can not only stroll down to benefit from the same research opportunities but also delight in the library’s frequent book signings and educational programs—as well as its eagerly awaited book sale toward the end of every July.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl