Keith House Wedding Chicago

The Trinity Founds Prairie Avenue


Prairie Avenue, 1887. Marshall Field’s stately home is at the right.





By Megan McKinney



Following the Fire of 1871, sleeping car tycoon George Pullman and meatpacking magnate Philip Armour joined Marshall Field in moving south and building mansions on Prairie Avenue. The city’s other barons of commerce and industry soon followed. Thus, throughout its 1880s heyday—before Potter Palmer completed creating the enduringly fashionable North Side—the six-block stretch from 16th to 22nd Streets was the center of affluent Chicago.


Prairie Avenue, 1890.


In the last segment of The George Pullman Story, we left Marshall Field and George Pullman as they began their morning walk together. A balmy late April breeze was drifting gently off the nearby lake when the two tycoons began their progress north on Prairie Avenue. Above them, bright green leaves had begun to emerge from the arcing branches of elm trees, and the air was fragrant with the aroma of flowering bushes in neighboring gardens.

Prairie Avenue’s elaborate mansions featured mansard or towered roofs, great bay windows, porte-cochères and interiors with bulbous conservatories, formal drawing rooms and third floor ballrooms. When there was no more room on Prairie, the rich built on neighboring Calumet Avenue.

Across from Field’s house were the side-by-side houses of millinery wholesaler Edson Keith and his brother Elbridge.


Elbridge Keith’s house center. A portion of the Edson Keith house is at right.


Chatting amiably, the two men continued along the sidewalk, passing the red brick mansion of Chicago Title and Trust founder Fernando Jones. It would be only a matter of the weeks until the small honey locust tree in front of Jones’ white stone portico would burst into a cloud of snowy blossoms signaling the arrival of the reluctant Chicago spring.


 The house of Fernando Jones.


Both men turned as horses drawing a carriage trotted by, and they waved cordially to its passenger, Union Stock Yards founder John Sherman, whose daughter had married architect Daniel Burnham.


Architect Daniel Burnham, illustrious son-in-law of Union Stock Yards founder John Sherman.


On their right was the house of Merchants Loan and Trust Company president John Wesley Doane, followed by that of Joseph Sears, president of the N. K. Fairbank Company and owner of land north of the city that would become the suburb of Kenilworth.


 John Wesley Doane’s house at 1827 Prairie Avenue.


Now they were passing Pullman’s own three-story gray stone, the grandest house on the Avenue, surrounded by its own private park. Just north of Pullman’s elegant villa was the home of lumber baron Turlington W. Harvey.   


 The grandest Prairie Avenue house of them all: the George Pullman mansion at number 1729.


The round-faced, chin-whiskered Pullman was a distant, narcissistic man, whose manner was so starchy that he never removed his jacket—not even in his office—no matter how torrid the pre-air conditioning summer day might become. But he was not distant with Field, and neither man was ever more relaxed than when they were together.

During their two-mile walk north to the Pullman Building at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street, conversation ranged from business investments and civic affairs to upcoming social events.

There was always much for the two tycoons to discuss, including developments at the Pullman Palace Car Company in which Field was a principal stockholder. Business—his own and possible investment in others—was the great merchant’s consuming passion and virtually his only avocation. Behind the ice blue eyes and courteous façade was a mind of frigid steel. Every conversation—whether with a shipping clerk or a fellow mogul—was motivated by this single-minded obsession. Before making an investment, he consulted with experts, as well as those who were seemingly not so expert. He observed all that was happening around him, and every national or world event held significance for him. An example of the Field mind at work was his swift reaction to the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.


Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn.


He saw immediately that the massacre of General Custer and his men would prompt the federal government to forever crush the Native American population. Anticipating the subsequent Westward rush of settlers, he began preparing for an expanded market in woolens, cottons and linens. This meant establishing an office in the English mill city of Manchester, and, when events happened exactly as he had forecast, Field’s wholesale division, and only his, was prepared for an explosion of the Western dry goods market.


The Pullman Building was across from today’s Art Institute of Chicago.


When they reached Pullman’s imposing building, the two tycoons entered and went directly to his spacious personal office as they often did after their morning walk. The rich mahogany, opulent carpeting and luxurious detailing in the room suggested Pullman’s Palace Cars. There was a fireplace against one wall, and a large mahogany desk stood in the middle of the room. Field sat opposite his host at the desk and chatted for 20 minutes before leaving to continue north to his retail store at State and Washington.


The entrance to the Pullman Building, designed by Solon Spencer Beman, preferred architect of George Pullman. 


As Field continued his walk from the Pullman Building to Marshall Field & Company on the lovely spring morning, it was within a complete world he enjoyed with Pullman, Armour and the other late 19th century Chicago moguls—one in which their gracious tree-shaded residential street was only a short ride or a brisk walk from their luxurious offices.


A glimpse into the world of George Pullman at 1729 Prairie Avenue.


In that era before federal income taxes, when servants were each paid approximately $5 a week, these households were fully staffed with a butler, second man, cook, laundress, multiple maids, a gardener or two, a coachman and groom, plus nurses and governesses. Butlers and coachmen were often English—or in the case of Pullman former slaves—but most of the servants were Irish immigrants and many became lifelong members of an extended family circle, continuing to live with their employers long after they were able to work. Behind the stately homes were coach houses that held broughams, victorias, phaetons and other handsome equipage for transporting their owners. Quartered nearby were carefully groomed horses and the requisite family cow.

It was indeed a complete and lovely life.


Next in Classic Chicago Dynasties: Megan McKinney’s two articles on the Trinity will morph into The George Pullman Story. The first segment will be Pullman’s Amazing Early Careers.


Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl