The $3 Billion Power of Sam Insull

                       And the Plummet of a Century


  Sam Insull at the height of his power.

By Megan McKinney


Few men in the history of Chicago’s formidable tycoons have experienced Sam Insull’s dramatic soar to the heights of prosperity, followed by his humiliating plummet to the depths of destitution. It was a ride that began in near poverty at a humble London dairy in November 1859 and ended 78 years later in Paris, in the Place de la Concorde Metro station, where the former multibillionaire proprietor of Chicago’s mass transportation system collapsed with a Metro ticket clutched in one hand and 20 centimes in his pocket.

But what a ride it was!

One of the Benjamin Marshall designs Sam Insull was privileged to call home.


Insull held power in a way that surpassed all other Chicago barons—he controlled the electricity and gas of every household in the city! True power. No one in Chicago could switch on an electric light, turn on the gas to prepare a meal or even step onto a streetcar without pouring cash into the coffers of the Insull Empire.

And he forced the other moguls to sit in boxes arranged in only the slightest bit of a curve at the back of his opera house, where they and their wives were compelled to look toward the stage rather than at their peers in a horseshoe of neighboring boxes. They still are.



The arrangement of boxes in Sam Insull’s Civic Opera House was unique. The former opera loving poor boy made certain his fellow tycoons watched the stage rather than each other.

The Hungarian State Opera House typifies the horseshoe arrangement of classic opera house boxes—perfect for flirtatious activities and examining the dress and jewels of one’s peers.


According to The New York Times in  1983, “The $3 billion Insull Empire included Chicago’s elevated rail system, gas companies, what became Commonwealth Edison and more than 140 other companies.” The Times also stated that, during a portion of the 1920s, Insull’s companies “produced one-tenth of all the electricity in the country.”

In his devastating plunge, Insull managed to compress the clichéd three-generation “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” process to less than one, achieving even financial ruin in epic fraction.


The Pullman Building.

Yet, Insull experienced the best of the city, living as a young man across from the Art Institute in chic bachelor quarters in the Pullman Building, where future Follies innovator Flo Ziegfeld and the original Tip Top Inn were neighbors, with George Pullman and Marshall Field sipping coffee together in front of the fire in Pullman’s elegant wood-paneled office every morning before running their own empires.


Benjamin Marshall’s 1100 N. Lake Shore Dr.


Then it was on toward marriage to a theatrical beauty and the pure luxe of a Marshall & Fox apartment. In 1905, when Caleb Marshall developed the original block of flats at 1100 N. Lake Shore Dr. (there has been another since), the new structure was comparable to the area’s stately homes. Each of the eight floors carried a single apartment with 12 exquisitely detailed rooms and five baths. The architect was Caleb’s son, Benjamin Marshall, possibly the greatest designer of apartment buildings in the history of Chicago, a man whose singular flair has continued to create an extraordinary demand for his designs whenever they enter the market.

In addition to the flat at 1100 N. Lake Shore Dr., there was the Insull country estate near Libertyville, also a Benjamin Marshall creation.


A modest view of part of the front of the house . . .

. . .And a larger view from the rear.


The Sam Insull story has been told before. Many times. Yet, those who believe they know the whole of the Insull scenario are mistaken. There is a new chapter, one that has emerged within the past year, full of intrigue, mystery and an eroticism one would not associate with either Samuel Insull or his patron Thomas Edison, who also figures in the latest revelations.


Thomas Edison.


The new chapter occurred during the “Roaring Twenties,” but it smacks of the plot for a 1930’s Kay Francis Warner Brothers film.


Those who continue to follow this series over the next several weeks will be rewarded with this new twist in the traditional Insull tale.


Coming Up: Megan McKinney’s Insull series will feature Samuel Insull’s Upward Leap next week in Classic Chicago.


Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl