Chicago’s “Street of the Stately Few”
Before there was a Gold Coast, before French châteaux and English country estates rose like the stuff of Gatsby’s dreams on the North Shore, and even before Lake Shore Drive was little more than beach frontage, there was Prairie Avenue.
The Marshall Field house leads the 1900 block of S. Prairie Avenue, circa 1890s.
If a visitor was not acquainted with Chicago during the latter third of the 19th century, he or she might have imagined Prairie Avenue as a wide, dusty thoroughfare that became increasingly rural as it led out of the city into actual prairie land. It might have been a road populated with small farms with spindly frame houses and friendly yokels. Chicago’s Green Acres, if you will. That visitor would ultimately have been amazed at the utter grandeur of the six-block stretch that bore such a humble name. The traveler would have been astonished in recounting the names of empire builders that lived in palatial residences in this relatively small enclave.
This illustration from a book from a Hibbard family member indicates the number of prominent families who lived on only a small section of Prairie Avenue.
During the coming weeks, Classic Chicago Magazine will profile the people and homes of Prairie Avenue, a star in our residential firmament that blazed briefly, dimmed all too suddenly, and then reappeared as a desirable address.
Although Prairie Avenue initially served as a trail tying Chicago’s Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne, Indiana, its location became increasingly attractive as the young city grew as an industrial powerhouse. Being located near the Chicago River’s south branch, Prairie Avenue was close to the thriving lumberyards and railroads on the waterway. It was also approximately a mile away from Chicago’s Loop, with its growing collection of department stores and hotels.
The location, while convenient to the city’s business and industry, was not without flaws. Two blocks to the east, Illinois Central trains thundered by at all hours, their soot encrusting delicate lace curtains. Also, the area was tinged with carnage. Near the intersection of Prairie and 18th Street, an old cottonwood tree was embedded with bullets that flew during the 1812 Fort Dearborn Massacre, during which Potawatomi Indians killed 86 women, children and soldiers.
Artist Samuel Page depicts a scene from the 1812 Battle of Fort Dearborn.
However, one prominent Chicagoan, John Staples, saw opportunity in Prairie Avenue. During the early 1850s, he constructed on the 1700 block what would be the first home on the street. Mr. Staples’ daughter, Mary, wed real estate agent John Shortall, who managed to grab irreplaceable property records before they were consumed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Mr. Shortall’s ingenuity helped him to become one of the founders of Chicago Title & Trust, a stalwart firm that exists to this day. He also built a stately home on Prairie Avenue near that of his pioneering father-in-law.
John Staples’ home at 1702, the first home to be built on Prairie Avenue.
Other notable denizens soon followed suit, and by the mid-1880s, Prairie Avenue became home to a veritable Who’s Who of Chicago legends: George M. Pullman, the railroad car baron; his close friend, Marshall Field, who founded that department store on State Street before Macy’s took it over in 2006; Philip Armour, the Sausage King of Chicago not referenced in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; William Kimball, pianos and organs; William Hibbard, hardware; Turlington Harvey, that lumberman who founded a south suburban “temperance town”—let’s see that go over today—which still bears his name.
George M. Pullman, Marshall Field and Philip D. Armour, Prairie Avenue neighbors.
Prairie Avenue was dubbed “the Street of the Stately Few,” no doubt by someone who was not privileged to live there. The list of architects behind the grandiose homes also reads like a Who’s Who. Daniel Burnham, H.H. Richardson, Richard Morris Hunt, William Le Baron Jenney and Solon S. Beman are among the pantheon of designers the titans commissioned for residences worthy of their success.
Not only did Daniel Burnham design this home for John Sherman, he also married Sherman’s daughter.
An early teardown: the Turlington Harvey house, replaced in 1885 by the Glessner house.
The John J. Glessner house, now a beloved museum.
Prairie Avenue interiors were well-appointed with expensive furniture and fine carpets. Above is the interior of George Pullman’s house.
George Pullman’s conservatory.
The drawing room of the Joseph Sears house.
With the homes came churches, private clubs, dancing academies and other organizations to enhance the lives of the very fortunate. The parties were legendary for their imagination and excess. An example: As their children grew into their teenage years, Marshall and Anna Field decided that the annual Christmas tree-trimming party held for Marshall Junior and Ethel was getting rather passé. So, the Fields envisioned something a bit more sophisticated. The fete’s theme was to be that of The Mikado, the wildly successful Gilbert & Sullivan operetta that had its American premiere in 1885. The Chicago Tribune was breathless in its description of the Mikado Ball of New Year’s Day, 1886, proclaiming, “There was such a bewildering mass of rich and costly stuffs that no detailed description could be well given.” The Fields’ magnificent home at 1905 S. Prairie Ave. was transformed into a Japanese fantasy, complete with sets borrowed from New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater. Marshall Field commissioned Sherry’s, then New York’s most extravagantly expensive caterer, to send two railroad cars laden with rare, exquisite food, as well as its signature china, silver services and table linens.
Guests at the Marshall Fields’ Mikado Ball dressed like these players from the 1885 production in New York.
With the parties and general enjoyment of la belle vie came indiscretions, rumors of which not even the money and power of the Avenue’s elite could completely squelch. A tunnel connecting the homes of a circumspect, unhappily married retail king and a lively, curvaceous matron whose husband’s illness was consuming him but not sufficiently quickly? A persistent story. The gentlemen of Prairie Avenue had a fondness for The Everleigh Club, an establishment founded by sisters Ada and Minna Simms. The South Dearborn Street bordello supplied the crème de la crème of prostitutes, all carefully monitored by doctors so no nasty “social diseases” would permeate the homes of their clients. But was the death of a Prairie Avenue scion the result of a gun accident in his home, or was the deed done at Everleigh?
Prairie Avenue basked in glory for the relatively short period of about 40 years. By the late 1890s, many of the homes would be seen draped in mourning black, announcing the death of a captain of industry or his philanthropically minded consort. Prominent Chicagoans were moving north of the river, even into castles on what was once the “no man’s land” of Lake Shore Drive. Apartment buildings, once deemed as residences only for the impoverished or unseemly, gained acceptance among the rich. The advent of the automobile made it easier for people to get out of town completely, and construct fantasy homes in pastoral havens such as Lake Forest.
By 1910, industry had encroached upon the boundaries of Prairie Avenue, and the area had clearly lost its cachet. Mansions were converted to hotels or boarding houses. Many were demolished outright when family fortunes dwindled. Only a handful of the glorious homes still stand. However, in the early 2000s, Prairie Avenue started to regain status as a prestigious address with the construction of upscale townhome and condominium buildings. The Marshall Field II home has been carved into luxurious condos. With its collaboration between old and new architecture, Prairie Avenue is now a vibrant part of the Chicago residential tapestry.
The Marshall Field II house, 1919 Prairie Avenue, is now again luxurious.
The beautifully restored house of Oscar Tatosian at 2013 Prairie Avenue was constructed 1892-1894.
One of the new condominium buildings adorning Chicago’s original Millionaires’ Row.
Prairie Avenue, social historian Melissa Ehret’s series of articles about a legendary time and place, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.