The Worlds of Prairie Avenue

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, residents of six blocks of Chicago's Prairie Avenue played central roles in almost every aspect of the city's life. Industrialists like Philip D. Armour who lived at (2115) and George M. Pullman (1729) created massive corporations providing thousands of jobs and helped to transform Chicago into a global city. Retailer Marshall Field (1905), eventually Chicago's richest man, shaped the city's buying habits by giving "the lady what she wants." Quick-thinking realtor John G. Shortall (1600) saved his careful property records from the flames of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and used them afterwards to help restore order to a property market left in total disarray by the destruction of official real estate records. In the late 1880s, sixteen of the Commercial Club's sixty members lived on Prairie Avenue and John W. Doane (1827) served as its president. Daniel H. Burnham, the architect and urban planner whose 1909 Plan of Chicago was, arguably, the Commercial Club's greatest project, designed and lived in the house of his father-in-law, John B. Sherman (2100) who was one of the founders of the Union Stock Yard.

Their philanthropies extended widely. Lumberman Turlington W. Harvey (1702) founded the temperance town of Harvey, Illinois; served as president of Chicago's YMCA and the Relief and Aid Society; and participated in the creation of the Chicago Civic Federation. George Armour (1945) served as the first president of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which became the Art Institute of Chicago. Henrietta Greenebaum Frank (1608) and Ella Walker (1720) worked steadily for quality nursing education at the Illinois Training School for Nurses while the daughters of Prairie Avenue families took leading roles in the creation of the Visiting Nurses Association. Politically, they were involved publicly and privately. Jane Grahame Jones (1834) fought for woman suffrage. Frank O. Lowden (1721) represented Chicago in Congress and served as governor of the state of Illinois. Prairie Avenue denizens contributed heavily to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. George Pullman's intransigence in the face of his workers' strike for union recognition and a living wage brought food shortages and federal troops to the city the next year.

Few would have anticipated the importance of Prairie Avenue's residents in the early 1850s when John Staples (1600) built the first house on Prairie Avenue at Sixteenth Street. Like much of Chicago's lakefront, the land was sandy and sparsely populated by cottonwood trees, one of which reportedly still bore bullets from the 1812 deadly confrontation between the soldiers and families fleeing Fort Dearborn and Native Americans. Yet, Prairie Avenue's proximity to Lake Michigan, its open space, and its easy access to the growing downtown gradually attracted others. During the Civil War, Chicagoans like prominent attorney Wirt Dexter (1721) began building substantial homes along the still-unpaved street and developers followed, constructing substantial three-story townhouses.

As the city boomed after the war, Chicago's new generation of elites looked increasingly to Prairie Avenue and its environs for their homes, clubs, and churches. Men like hardware merchant William G. Hibbard migrated south as they became more successful. Wanting to avoid the inconvenience of crossing the Chicago River, he moved his growing family first to Michigan Avenue, then rented a house at 1637 Prairie before finally building a home at 1701. Although still small in number, Prairie Avenue residents wielded enormous influence. When Mayor Roswell Mason decided that federal troops would not be required to maintain order after the 1871 fire, Hibbard and several of his neighbors who felt troops were necessary called first on Dexter to inquire about the legality of overriding the mayor's decision and then on General Philip Sheridan, a Michigan Avenue resident, to ask for the troops.

Prairie Avenue's influence expanded greatly in the 1870s. George M. Pullman, president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, commissioned a house for his family on the northeast corner of Eighteenth and Prairie that he envisioned to be one of the city's finest. Its scale, with its theater, conservatory, bowling alley, and multiple public rooms, and its elaborate furnishings meant that the Pullman family could not move into the house until 1876. By then, architect Richard Morris Hunt had built a Prairie Avenue home for Marshall Field just six houses away.

The physical proximity of so many of Chicago's elites helped to create a world that was at the same time isolated from the city around it and a space where Prairie Avenue residents, sometimes with their counterparts from elsewhere in the area, could work to shape the city as they wished it would be. They socialized with each other in their homes and in locales such as the Chicago, Calumet, and Fortnightly Clubs. Their children shared music teachers, attended the same parties and sometimes they even married into each other's families. Important corporate decisions could be made after dinners on Prairie Avenue because guests included company presidents and their largest stockholders. A telegraph message from Europe to Prairie Avenue could raise enough money to buy art collections for the Art Institute. A social event like the Mikado party hosted by Anna Field (1905) could put a Chicago spin on an international cultural phenomenon. At the same time, these families, their businesses, and their activities presented Chicago to the world. Their social and business activities were news in New York and San Francisco. They toured Europe and hosted notables from abroad. They advertised their jobs around the world.

In 1893, British social commentator William T. Stead claimed that "probably there are as many millions of dollars to the square inch of this [Prairie Avenue] residential district as are to be found in any equal area on the world's surface." Within a decade, however, Prairie Avenue's influence was in sharp decline. The avenue's titans were dying: Wirt Dexter in 1890, George Pullman in 1897, Philip D. Armour in 1901, William G. Hibbard in 1904, Marshall Field in 1906. Their children, even those who had originally lived on Prairie Avenue, were moving elsewhere, helping to create new elite enclaves. Family names once considered "Prairie Avenue" were increasingly identified with places like Lake Forest and Libertyville. The homes in which they once lived turned into rooming houses. Even where widows continued to live in family homes surrounded by servants, the coach houses and other rear buildings were turned into homes for renters. In 1910, wreckers destroyed the mansion at 1720, the first of many Prairie Avenue homes to be torn down. The age of the homes, the expense of modernizing them, the expanding vice district to the west, and the factories and warehouses that had already replaced residences on nearby streets made Prairie Avenue an unattractive residential site for the few families who could afford to buy the houses there. Increasingly, residences gave way to offices, warehouses, and factories. By 1930, the elite world of Prairie Avenue had all but disappeared.