Inside Prairie Avenue–And Beyond






By Megan McKinney


    “The Sunny Street That Held the Sifted Few”


Following the Great Fire of 1871, sleeping car tycoon George Mortimer Pullman and meatpacking magnate Philip Danforth Armour joined Marshall Field in moving south and building mansions on Prairie Avenue. The city’s other barons of commerce and industry soon followed and, in its heyday of the 1880’s, the six-block stretch from 16th to 22nd Streets was the center of fashionable Chicago.

Marshall Field’s house is in the foreground.

Known as the “trinity of Chicago business,” Field, Armour and Pullman were the three most prominent businessmen of the era and also each other’s closest friends–or at least as close as Field and Pullman were to having close friends. Marshall Field was the richest, followed by P. D. Armour, and trailed by George Pullman. The trio was instrumental in the building of the city and its amenities as well as setting a standard for taste and personal lifestyle.


The Prairie Avenue house of Philip D. Armour.

Although Armour rose at 5 every morning and was known for his determination to arrive at the office long before his employees, occasionally he joined Field and Pullman and the three men would walk to work together—carriages following them in case of inclement weather. They often met again for lunch at the “millionaires’ table” in the dining room of The Chicago Club, where they might return later to play poker.

George Pullman’s house was the most elaborate on the Avenue.

The world enjoyed by the late nineteenth century Chicago moguls was a very complete one, with the gracious tree-shaded residential streets only a short ride or a brisk walk from their luxurious offices. The area’s elaborate mansions featured majestic towers, impeccable lawns, great bay windows, porte-cochères and interiors with bulbous conservatories, grand ballrooms and formal drawing rooms. When there was no more room on Prairie, the rich built on neighboring Calumet Avenue or other prestigious South Side residential streets.

The Leiter house on Calumet Avenue pre-dated the Prairie Avenue mania.

Marshall Field’s partner, Levi Leiter, built early on Calumet, early enough that a half million dollars’ worth of goods rescued from Field and Leiter early during the night of the Great Fire of 1871 was bustled down to be stored within the vast mansion.

Delia Caton.

The most enduring rumor/legend surrounding the juxtaposition of Calumet and Prairie Avenues was in regard to 1910 South Calumet–the house in which the Arthur Catons lived—and the Marshall Field mansion directly behind it at 1905 South Prairie. For years there were whispers of an underground tunnel connecting the two houses facilitating a torrid romance between the delectable Delia and the eminent merchant. Then, within months of Arthur Caton’s death, there was a wedding uniting the two. The story was so irresistible that almost a half century later the sophisticated chronicler of  Chicago history Arthur Meeker made the legend a centerpiece of his classic 1949 novel Prairie Avenue.

Although these budding aristocrats lived on a grand scale, there was a good deal of neighborhood “back fencing.” Children of the founding families played together outdoors and up and down the avenues and boulevards under the surveillance of nurses and governesses. In the winter, they skated in groups on the ice rink at 22nd Street and, as weather deepened, they pulled  out their big sleds or the coachman might hitch the horses to a sleigh for festive excursions in the snow.

Frolicking in the snow.

But, when the season turned warm, it was back to the carriages for frequent outings north to the Lincoln Park Zoo or the Saddle and Cycle Club. The children attended the Harvard School or the Dearborn Seminary.

The Harvard School

They learned dancing and deportment under the tutelage of Professor and Mrs. A. Bournique and their son, Eugene, in the ballroom of their Academy on Prairie Avenue. It wasn’t merely children who were taught the latest versions of the waltz, polka, schottische and quadrille by the Bourniques; their parents attended classes Mrs. Pullman organized in her ballroom, with the elegant  Professor Bournique gently fingering the coat tails of his frock coat and holding them out while he demonstrated the dances.

The Bournique Ballroom.

On summer evenings, the families would gather to sit upon cushions or rugs on the steps leading up to their mansions, visiting back and forth and watching the lamplighter ignite the lights along the Avenue. Yet, the seemingly clubby casualness of the founding families did not preclude the studied formality of their official socializing, which included ladies luncheons, starchy dinner parties, balls and a structured “calling” schedule.

A portion of the extended Caton family on the steps of one of the four mansions that made up their Calumet Avenue “compound.” Delia Caton is at far left.

Clubs were becoming important, starting with The Chicago Club, which, from its beginning on May 1, 1869, has been the social hub for men of the city’s establishment. Another male power center, the Commercial Club, was established in 1877. Their wives had joined The Fortnightly Club when it was founded in 1868 for the dissemination of “social and intellectual culture.”

Fortnightly members originally met in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan; it wasn’t until 1922 that the club moved to its current McKim, Mead and White home on Bellevue Place, one of the few Chicago buildings by the extraordinary New York architectural firm.

In 1877, some of the women became members of the Chicago Society of Decorative Arts (now it is the Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute ). Younger women joined The Friday Club, founded in 1887, to participate in a variety of educational programs presented by its members and noted visiting speakers. These all continue as formidable organizations today.

South Side grandeur was however short-lived. By the turn of the century, the stately elms lining Prairie Avenue, providing a verdant arch over the street, were dead or dying, poisoned by air from nearby factories. Threatened by encroaching industry, the stench of the Stock Yards, noise from nearby railroads and the proximity of the neighboring Levee saloon and brothel district, the neighborhood had lost its cachet.

But there was something else at work. A powerful force. Real estate genius Potter Palmer, who had masterminded the positioning of State Street as the city’s chic shopping destination, was on the verge of another coup, one that would make a permanent impression on the city.

The Potter Palmer imprint, here on Elm Street, had begun fanning out from Lake Shore Drive up and down the Gold Coast.

Although the three tycoons who founded Prairie Avenue remained in place until they died, the move north would soon begin.


Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl


The Man Who Invented the Great Sport of Luxury Shopping will be the next subject in Megan McKinney’s series Great Chicago Fortunes.