The Charnley House Wallers


Charnley House.




By Megan McKinney


Eventually, Lucy and James Breckinridge Waller’s son, James Breckinridge Waller Jr., would leave Buena Park. Luring him away was the opportunity to purchase Charnley House, a noted—but controversial—Astor Street mansion designed by the architectural firm headed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in 1891. Sullivan was architect of the residence and his chief assistant at the time was Frank Lloyd Wright. Controversy arose because Wright waited until Sullivan was dead to announce that the celebrated work was actually his doing.


Louis Sullivan, 1895.


The original owner, timber heir James Charnley, had commissioned several Sullivan-designed houses, including one in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where the architect designed adjoining winter vacation homes for himself and the Charnleys. The Astor Street house was built on a portion of a parcel of land Charnley bought from Potter Palmer whose Castle was located on the eastern portion of the block. Wright’s later claim, that he was the sole architect, stirred debate that has continued to the present.   


Charnley House would not be the only connection the Wallers would have with the developing architectural career of the young Frank Lloyd Wright.


Among James B. Waller Jr.’s real estate projects in the immediate neighborhood had been the 1897 Binderton, a six-story apartment building, at 39 East Schiller, designed by Jenney & Mundie. The Binderton, “considered one of the most desirable apartments . . . (in) the heart of the ultra-fashionable North Side residential district,” was where Chicago Tribune political cartoonist John T. McCutcheon lived as a bachelor.


The Binderton, developed by James B. Waller Jr.


Charnley House went through a series of rentals in the early 20th century, including short terms leases by Chicagoans with such distinguished names as Winterbotham and McClurg.

James B. Waller Jr.’s purchase occurred in 1918, when he was a 65-year-old widower. Moving into the house with him was his son and namesake, a maid and waitress, both German, and a Canadian cook. The elder Waller died two years later, but his son remained owner until his death in 1949.

James B. Waller III was—at the time of his marriage in 1925—one of the city’s most popular bachelors. He and his wife, Sarah Isabel Given, of New York City and Manchester, Vermont, were parents of two boys, James IV and Robert.


Another view of Charnley House.


James B. III extended the house to the south and made massive interior changes to the historic property, including adding a kitchen and two bedrooms, enlarging a third bedroom and glazing balcony openings.

The extracurricular activities of this Waller had nothing to do with the party giving or art creation of other family members. He was a beloved Depression era city alderman, who distributed food baskets to constituents during those grim years. One of the wealthiest and—with his Andover, Princeton and Harvard Law schooling—among the best educated members of the City Council, he firmly believed rich men should become public servants. He served for six years, following his own conscience and often refusing to adhere to party lines.

It is ironic that his most visible campaign was against an opponent who could not have more unlike him, although they bore rhyming surnames.


Fake Irishman Paddy Bauler was actually born in Germany.


Even in a city with a tradition of dubious politicians, North Avenue saloon keeper Mathias “Paddy” Bauler was notable, ranking with such notorious predecessors as Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse” JohnCoughlin. The Waller-Bauler campaign did, however, leave Chicago with one of its most famous political quotes.

In 1939, when Paddy won against the Reformer James—although by a mere 243 votes—Bauler uttered the deathless phrase, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform,” a line that has been repeated to a chorus of guffaws in sitting rooms and barrooms for nearly eight decades.          

When James died in 1947, his second wife, Nettie, continued for many years to be Charnley House chatelaine. 


Robert A. Waller.


Another of James B. and Lucy Alexander Waller’s sons, Robert Alexander Waller, was one of the original directors of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition; he was among a group of leading Chicago businessmen who traveled to Washington to lobby for legislation that brought the Fair to Chicago, the importance of which cannot be over-emphasized to the development of the city. He was a founder of the Saddle & Cycle Club and president of the Chicago Park District, and, in 1897, Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. made him city comptroller.  

Robert—or Bob—who was born in 1850, married a Kentucky girl, Lina Swigart Watson, in 1876. And, while his brother picked up the work their father had begun with Charnley House, Bob Waller continued the development of Buena Park.


Robert A. Waller’s Buena Park house was said to be a “stone’s throw from the original family home.”


After graduating with high honors from Washington and Lee University, Bob Waller first went into the insurance business in Chicago, joining a firm that would become R. A. Waller Company.

However, real estate development was in the Waller blood and he eventually built 150 houses in Buena Park, many on Alexander Avenue, named for his mother’s family. Once that was done, he began commercial development in the Loop, with the Ashland Block, designed by Burnham and Root on the northeast corner of Clark and Randolph Streets in 1892.


Daniel Burnham’s Ashland Block, developed by Robert A. Waller.


Bob Waller had accomplished a great deal by early February 1899, when, at 49, he developed a serious cold, which developed into pneumonia, then often fatal even to a man who was not yet 50. He died on February 17.

He did have, however, a few decades of personal immortality when the Robert A Waller High School opened on Chicago’s North Side a year following his death. But even that was lost in 1980 when the school was, appropriately, renamed Lincoln Park High School.  


Megan McKinney’s series on the Kentucky Wallers will continue in Classic Chicago next week with Wallers Building the Loop.


Author Photo:


Robert F. Carl