Of Being too Critical

Today, I received a response regarding my critique last year of a unique renovation of a home in my town. The home was designed by renowned local architect Harold Zook.  Sadly, Zook homes are disappearing rapidly and being replaced by lot-eating mansions.

The message was written by the owner of the home, and after I read it, I realized that I was out of line in my critique.  Much of the house was saved, when the owner could easily have torn it down. As an observer, it is all to easy to downplay what must have been a hugely expensive, yet sensitive renovation.

 Here is the letter:

“I’m the owner of this house and came across this posting from 2016 while doing some reading online about Zook. We bought this house in 2007 with the intention of knocking it down and re-building. The original house had two bedrooms upstairs and a “master bedroom” downstairs that was really a former study with a closet that we used as a bedroom. We knew going in that the house was way too small for a family of five, but our intentions were to demolish and re-build. After living in the house for a few years, we fell in love with the architecture, the details Zook put into it, and all of it’s charm. The best part of the house was, and still is, the great room with 15ft beamed ceiling. We hired a local architect who was very familiar with Zook and had done other Zook re-models. The house as it was was not livable anymore. Un-repairable roof problems, rained in the kitchen every storm, flooding basement, terrible insulation, wood rot…… the list goes on.
We spent a lot of time and money re-designing the home to where we needed it to be to be comfortable. The footprint of the house didn’t change, we gained more space with the creativity of the architect, as well as adding a third floor bedroom.

While YOU may not like the look, WE love it. We have had nothing but compliments from our neighbors and friends. The house was recently on a House walk and was by far the most popular house on the tour and had great feedback. The inside has a lot of the original charm, we left the great room all original, original front Dutch door and interior doors were saved.

We even had the previous owners of the house come over to see it because they were concerned of what changes were made, and they LOVED IT. Including us, there have been only three owners since it was built in 1938
I’m sorry you think it’s ugly. It has LOTS of character and personality.
We are not into “keeping up with the whoever’s”, this is how we wanted it.
And by the way, the siding was not cheap, it was actually pretty costly.”

To the owner, it is obvious you put considerable expense and care into this home.  My post of last year is gone, and will not reappear.  I apologize.

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The Second Mrs. Field: The Fabulous Delia Caton

A Chicago belle from a wealthy founding family marries a dashing sportsman from another prominent family. While living on Prairie Avenue, once known as one of the city’s most enviable addresses, she becomes acquainted with her neighbor.  The gentleman is married to a woman of beauty, intelligence and strong character, but the marriage has been foundering for years. Divorce is unthinkable, given the social stature of the parties involved. The gentleman? Marshall Field.  The lady he came to love? Delia Spencer Caton.  That she was at least a close friend and eventual wife of the legendary retailer is impressive. The rest of her history, often ignored, is amazing.

Delia Caton

Delia Spencer Caton, by George Peter Alexander Healy

The portrait of Delia in her younger days reveals a lovely, self-confident woman wearing an exquisite and expensive gown. The dress seems to have been composed of many yards of ruched silk, with a lace-overlaid skirt. Delia’s hair is intricately curled in delicate ringlets. She wears earrings, a cameo choker and two gold bracelets. Her hands feature three rings. A nosegay is strategically placed at a low neckline. She is not thin, nor is she overweight.  Her face must have been the most intriguing element for Healy to capture, and those who had sat for him included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Daniel Webster, Franz Liszt and Henry Clay.

When Healy painted the portrait of Delia before his death in 1894, he saw a woman who was much more than her elaborate clothes and jewels. She may not have been an impeccable beauty, but she had a compelling, beguiling presence. She appears to have a bit of flesh below her chin. Healy recorded shadows below her large, expressive eyes. With her arms crossed before her as a gentle guard against those who might intrude, Delia looks like a substantial woman who has come to know quite a bit about life.  Shielded in her gorgeous clothing and jewelry, the perennial armor of a wealthy woman, she is forever beyond any basic needs, but she seems to inform the artist that there is so much more to her than her fantastic facade.

Delia Spencer married Arthur Caton in 1876.  Arthur has been described as a Chicago lawyer, sportsman and clubman.  The son of one of Illinois’ first state Supreme Court justices, Arthur studied and practiced law.  Having inherited his father’s huge estate in Ottawa, Illinois, Arthur’s love for golf, as well as breeding horses and dogs, overcame any obsession he might have had for poring over statutes and dealing with demanding clients. That he was known as a “clubman” might suggest that he may have spent more than a few long nights at the Chicago Club toasting to his fortune.

Marshall Field, on the other hand, possessed little more than a silent yet pervasive brilliance that led him to become one of the richest men in the world.  He was so reticent that, according to Arthur Meeker’s wonderful book, Chicago With Love, he was reluctant to make a speech, as was expected, at one of the Catons’ grand dinner parties. When Delia realized her beloved friend was in danger of committing a social faux pas, she promptly “sprang to her feet and said: ‘Mr. Field just wants me to remind you that the White Sale starts next Monday’.”  What an amazing display of social panache, empathy and humor!

Arthur Meeker was the son of one of the first principals of Chicago’s Armour & Company. Although he did not choose to follow his father in the hugely successful meatpacking organization, he became a steadfast chronicler of society.  His legacy includes memoirs of his parents’ vibrant social life, and of their friendship with Delia. Meeker indicated that the Catons had no children: “Always an advantage to an aspiring leader of fashion – and so were able to devote all their time and money to entertaining their friends in their big, elaborate house on Calumet Avenue.” He that his mother “always declared that nobody ever gave such wonderful parties as Delia Caton. Their success was certainly principally due to the astuteness and personal charm of the hostess.”

Given the chilly atmosphere in his own home, Marshall Field must have been driven like an impeccably attired moth to the light and levity at Delia’s events.  Meeker states, “I do not know when Marshall Field first became intimate with the Catons. What is sure is that he fell in love with his friend’s wife years before he was able to marry her. Unhappy at home, he needed just such a resourceful and sympathetic woman in his life as Delia Caton.”  Writing in the early 1950s, Meeker went on to say, “Nobody now alive can tell whether she loved him in return. The gossip of the day cast the worst light on the affair; it was even absurdly asserted that an underground tunnel connected the Caton house on Calumet with the Field house on Prairie, which was just in front of it, or just back.”

Meeker confirmed the restrictive social codes of the day when he wrote, “In the Nineties, divorce was unthinkable: they had to wait for him (Arthur Caton) to die, which, distressingly, he didn’t do until 1904.”  Even the circumstances of Caton’s death are open to interpretation. It was reported he died suddenly, unexpectedly, at a New York hotel. Rumors of suicide abounded. In any case, Delia was free to marry the now-widowed Marshall Field.

Delia Field

Delia Caton Field, around the time of her marriage to Marshall Field

The marriage license acquired in London in 1905 indicated that Delia was 46 years old, 24 years younger than her 70-year-old fiance.  The pair married at St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster Abbey. The ceremony was quiet, and attended only by a few friends.  The newlyweds’ happiness was short-lived.  Marshall Field died in 1906. He was playing golf in a foursome that included his nephew, his secretary, and Robert Todd Lincoln and shortly after succumbed to pneumonia. It is said that the shooting death of his son, Marshall Field, Jr., allegedly at the fabled Everleigh Club brothel, also contributed to his demise.  Field’s estate was valued at $65 million. After bequests to his daughter, grandchildren and the Field Columbian Museum, Delia was to receive a tax-exempt $1 million, as well as the Field mansion on Prairie Avenue.  Lest it be interpreted that this comparatively small portion of her husband’s estate would leave her wanting, Delia also inherited from her husband and father-in-law’s substantial estates.

Unexpectedly single, Delia was free to pursue her own joys. She left Chicago, and purchased an Italianate mansion in Washington, D.C. that came to be known as the Pink Palace.  There, she hosted one of the earlier salons of the Nation’s Capital, taking her flair for entertaining to even higher social levels.

Pink Palace Washington DC

Delia Caton Field’s “Pink Palace”

That Delia continued to exert her vitality in later years is evidenced by this portrait, provided courtesy of Chicago’s Newberry Library.  Although she is clearly well beyond middle age, she is presented as an attractive, even sexual being. In contrast to the Healy portrait of her in her youth, Delia now invites the view to come closer.  Her hands are no longer crossed before her waist. Instead, one hand appears to caress her neck while the other dangles casually.  She plays with a long string of pearls that in an earlier age would be arranged perfectly over her bodice. Part of her left breast is scandalously exposed. Delia’s hair shows touches of gray, and her face is married by a few wrinkles. However, her knowing gaze is unchanged.  She continues to be a vibrant, highly attractive woman.

Delia Caton Field, Older Years

Delia in later years.

Delia was not just any well-bred, wealthy lady of her time. She had lived long and well. She had endured an imperfect marriage, with her entertainments being her greatest joy. When she finally married the man who had adored her for years, she became his widow within months. Delia died in 1937, leaving an underappreciated legacy as one of Chicago’s greatest social luminaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Other Mrs. Field (and she didn’t make cookies)

From his ascent from store clerk to one of the richest men in Chicago, Marshall Field chose as his first wife Nannie Douglas Scott, the bright, vivacious daughter of a prosperous Ohio iron master.  She was visiting Chicago when, through friends, she became acquainted with the ambitious yet shy young merchant. She charmed the quiet, methodical man, who eventually went out of his exacting routine to court her during her stay. As Nannie boarded the train back to Ohio, the normally reticent Field, who approached every aspect of his life with succinct trepidation, impetuously jumped aboard the rail car. As the train puffed, lurched and chugged into life on the iron rails, Field stumbled out a proposal of marriage to Nannie.  Although shocked by her beau’s impulsive act, particularly in front of the other passengers, she immediately accepted. His bravado then extinguished, Field disembarked at the train’s next stop, and walked back to work.

Marshall and Nannie Field bore three children. Their first, Louis, died in infancy. Marshall, Jr. and Ethel were raised with the trappings of Gilded Age wealth, living in a Richard Morris Hunt-designed mansion at 1905 Prairie Avenue.  The residence, the first in Chicago to be completely wired for electricity, set Marshall Field back some $2 million in 1876. In 2017 dollars, constructing the home would have cost nearly $44 million.

Nannie Field

Nannie Field with children Marshall, Jr. and Ethel

Over the years, Marshall and Nannie Field became social luminaries. Philanthropists. Legendary entertainers.  Models of propriety.  One problem, however. They just did not get along with each other. It is not known when or why the marriage began its descent from the 28 Shop to the Bargain Basement (neither of which were technically part of the store during those times).  However, according to the juicy book, Chicago by Stephen Longstreet, it soon became common knowledge that “Mrs. Field led Marshall Field a hell-on-earth life.”  Longstreet wrote, “Their loud, excruciatingly shrill battling scenes (even before the servants) were really something no good society would expect of them; so violent, such malice. The Fields began to spend increasing amounts of time away from each other. Nannie developed a fondness for the South of France. Apart from occasional buying trips abroad, Marshall spent most of his time in Chicago, running his store and tending to his charities.”  A divorce would have been unthinkable, especially for one of Chicago’s most stellar couples.  A separation, necessitated by social obligations and propelled by wanderlust? Much more acceptable.

While Nannie was figuratively or literally away, Marshall began to enjoy the company of his neighbors. One neighbor in particular caught his eye: Mrs. Delia Spencer Caton, a beautiful, statuesque woman whose kind, outgoing nature made her a favorite society hostess. The daughter of one of the founders of the Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett hardware firm, Delia was married to Arthur J. Caton, whose father, John Dean Caton, who was one of Illinois’ first chief justices of the state Supreme Court.

Delia Caton

Delia Spencer Caton

The Catons were one of Chicago’s most distinguished pioneering families. Early in his legal career, John Caton opened Chicago’s first law office 1833. He is said to have been the trier of the new Cook County’s first-ever jury matter. As a Supreme Court justice, Judge Caton heard many cases presented by a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln. Of Lincoln, Judge Caton said, “The most punctilious honor ever marked his professional life. His frankness and candor were two great elements in his character, which contributed to his professional success.”

Judge Caton eventually purchased several hundred acres in Ottawa, Illinois and his three children spent many of their early years at the family’s farm. Judge and Mrs. Caton built a 29-room Queen Anne home on the property.  The home served as a place of enjoyment to the extended Caton family, as well as the prominent Sherill family, of which Mrs. Caton was a member. The beloved home passed to his only son, Arthur, when the judge died in 1895.

Caton House, Ottawa

The Caton residence, Ottawa, Illinois

A fascinating 2005 book entitled The Chronicle of Catherine Eddy Beveridge includes diary entries from Catherine, the niece of Delia Caton Field. The entries which range from 1902 through 1908, include many references to Delia and her husband. Catherine wrote, “Aunt Dell kept up the traditions of the house, even to the lavish Caton breakfasts, and the Ottawa potatoes — sliced fried potatoes in rich cream. We drove through the parks in an old buckboard or a buggy, the deer scattering before us. In Judge Caton’s time there had been three parks, the first devoted to domestic deer, the second to another species, and the third to elk. I remember as a little girl peeping though a small opening in the high stockade fence to see the elk leap a deep ravine. Long before these happy days in the Ottawa of 1903 the elk had been sold by Uncle Arthur to the zoo in Hamburg, Germany.”

Arthur Caton was educated in the law, but spent a considerable amount of time engaging in his interests, which included golf, polo and horse racing. He bred horses and dogs in his Ottawa farm.

Delia Caton Field 2

 

It is not known when Marshall and Delia became more than friends. There were rumors that they were lovers for nearly 30 years.  According to The Chronicle of Catherine Eddy Beveridge, “They traveled together, socialized together, and moved in the same social circles … Field’s relationship with Delia was so intimate that the existence of a subterranean tunnel connecting their homes was rumored.”  Delia sometimes traveled to Europe with Marshall Field without Arthur accompanying them. Per The Chronicle, “So often a haven for Americans seeking greater sexual freedom and privacy, Europe spared Delia, Mr. Field, and Arthur invasive scrutiny.” Chicago author Longstreet sought information about the liaison from many sources. One described the liaison as “lechery without levity.”

Delia Caton Field 1

Delia Caton in an exotic tableau.

When Nannie Field died in France in 1900, Marshall was finally freed from his tempestuous marriage. Delia was still wed, but that was apparently a small impediment to the affair. There was also talk that Arthur Caton was aware of his wife’s infidelity and he too may have sought company outside of the marriage.  Sadly, his health began to decline when he was in his early 50s.  He died November 18, 1904, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The cause of death was inexact. Some said he succumbed to liver failure. Others ascribed the demise to peritonitis. However, according to an Ottawa, Illinois Times story, Arthur may have committed suicide after having played second fiddle to Marshall Field for much too long.

Arthur Caton Obit 4 11-19-04

The Duchess, the Devil, the Innkeeper’s Wife

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May 1, 1893:   It was good to be king.  Or, in this case, it was good to be Daniel Burnham, who chaired the Board of Architects. On this day, a not remotely little plan he conceived three years prior was about to become electrifyingly real.  He and a few of his Prairie Avenue neighbors, Marshall Field, George Pullman and Philip D. Armour, had organized the world’s biggest block party: The Columbian Exposition. Of course, the friends had to pass the hat to get a little startup money. By the time Chicago had prevailed over New York, Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, the Prairie Avenue luminaries and their contemporaries had raised $10 million to host the Exposition in their back yard.

By May 1, the costs had exceeded $28 million.  Burnham’s treasured business partner, John Wellborn Root, had suddenly died early in the planning stages. Famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted transformed some 600 acres of ungainly, swampy grounds in Jackson Park into a fairyland, complete with stately promenades and graceful waterways. A magical Beaux-Arts city of elaborate buildings clad in snow-white stucco slowly rose from the imaginations of Burnham and his team of the world’s most distinguished architects.  Standing in stark contrast to the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago that had not fully recovered from the 1871 fire, the White City, as it came to be known, would captivate the millions who passed through it. By the time construction was complete, the 14 principal structures contained 63 million square feet of floor space.

Aerial View, World's Fair

Aerial view of the 1893 Columbian Exposition

On May 1, Opening Day, President Grover Cleveland arrived to do the honors with Mayor Carter Harrison before more than 100,000 spectators.  He flipped a lever, thus awakening the dynamos that would power the spectacle. Some 120,000 light bulbs began to glow.  The Fair literally burst into a most luminous life.

World's Fair at Night

All aglow: The World’s Fair at night.

During the six months of the Fair’s existence, some 27 million people came to visit. That translates to roughly 25% of the U.S. population at the time. This is an amazing statistic given the relative scarcity of transportation and the nation’s predominantly agrarian culture. But come they did: on the New York Central, the Michigan Central, and the Santa Fe. They arrived on horseback, by coach. Most stayed for a few days, marveled at the exhibits, discovered Juicy Fruit gum, gobbled the new dessert treat, “brownies,” purchased souvenirs and went home.

Some visitors came from far away. Chicago considered itself honored to host dignitaries from all over the globe. One of the most prominent groups affiliated with the Columbian Exposition was the Board of Lady Managers, one of the earliest female organizations officially recognized by the U.S. Congress. Chairing the Board was Bertha Palmer, half of one of Chicago’s first Power Couples. A well-educated lady of the South, she proved to be a brilliant match for department store and hotel magnate Potter Palmer. She was revered in her own town, but her star was just beginning to shine on a worldwide basis.  And so it came to be that she received not just ingratitude but insults from one of her prized guests at the Fair.

Chicago society was clearly flexing its collective muscle when it secured one Maria Eulalia Francisca de Asis Margarita Roberta Isabel Francisca de Paula Cristina Maria de la Piedad, otherwise known as the Infanta Eulalia of Spain, as a visitor.  What better way to commemorate the good judgment of Queen Isabella to send Columbus on a voyage than to have a present-day representative of the Spanish crown show up at your block party?

Infanta_Eulalia_of_Spain

Feeling the joy: The Infanta Eulalia.

Bertha Palmer 2

The “Innkeeper’s Wife.”

The denizens of Prairie Avenue and Chicago’s other elite enclaves went beyond their already lavish entertainment machinations to wow the Spanish royal. However, the Infanta was famously not impressed with the Windy City’s luminaries.  While Chicagoans were accustomed to snubs, they did not take kindly to Eulalia’s catty reference to Mrs. Palmer as a “lowly innkeeper’s wife.”  While the Infanta would write socially insightful books later in life, she was not at her best in 1893.  Bertha Palmer was too graceful at the time to have publicly  commented upon the Infanta’s having married her first cousin, a union that would have inspired present-day critics with whoops of infantile glee.

Mrs. Palmer would exact revenge when on a visit to Paris some years later, she was invited to a reception for the haughty Eulalia.  According to Stephen Longstreet’s wickedly funny book, Chicago, Mrs. Palmer declined to attend, reportedly saying, “I cannot meet this bibulous representative of a degenerate monarchy.”

Speaking of degeneracy, another element of the Fair piqued the ire of Mrs. Palmer even more than the haughty Spaniard: The Streets of Cairo. This most successful exhibit on the Midway featured Javanese women capable of never-before seen abdominal gyrations. In other words, belly dancers made their wiggly debut in Chicago, delighting millions of Fair attendees. Mrs. Palmer was infuriated, but the concession was wildly popular.

Beyond the dreamlike ambience of the White City, even beyond the views from the new Ferris Wheel, was a killer who would thrive in the crowds and prey upon young female visitors. The best way to learn about the dark side of the gleaming Fair is to read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.  Rumored to be a future Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, its protagonist is, for obvious reasons, Daniel Burnham. Until the publication of Devil, few knew much about the antagonist, H.H. Holmes. A New Hampshire ne’er do well who came to Chicago to pursue a career in dubious medicine, Holmes bought himself a building in Englewood, near the fairgrounds. He dubbed the structure “The World’s Fair Hotel.”  Holmes operated a pharmacy on the ground floor, but the upstairs rooms contained architectural features that would have astounded even Burnham. Holmes configured the rooms to incorporate secret passages, tiny spaces, and a chute that would swoop dead bodies to the basement with its conveniently installed kiln.

Holmes appeared to be a reasonably good-looking man, so much so that he was engaged to at least two women. He tortured and slaughtered countless more. Thanks to the kiln, it was easy to dispose of them.  In addition to having committed murder, Holmes engaged in insurance fraud. While involved in the latter malfeasance, he was arrested in Philadelphia. Detective Frank Geyer, while investigating Holme’s financial crimes, dug a bit deeper into Holmes’ past. Geyer was horrified to discover that the imprisoned Holmes was also a mass murderer. Some estimates place the number of Holmes’ victims at 200. The odious Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896 in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison.

By the time the Fair ended on October 31, 1893, Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated by a would-be seeker of office. A smallpox epidemic swept through Chicago.  And, shortly after the visitors had gone home, the Ferris Wheel and midway disassembled, the last remnants of popcorn swept off the streets, the Fair caught fire.  Many of the main buildings were destroyed.  Only one of the glorious structures still stands: The Palace of Fine Arts, although today it is known as the Museum of Science and Industry.  The only building constructed with every known method of fireproofing, to protect precious works of art, withstood the flames of 1893.  When Chicago played host to the World’s Fair in 1933, the Museum had been reclad in Indiana limestone. This imposing yet beloved structure will serve as long as time permits as a reminder of the long-gone White City.

 

 

 

They Made No Little Plans: The Influence of Prairie Avenue on the 1893 Columbian Exposition – Part II

Almost 20 years after it was annihilated in the Fire of 1871, Chicago had achieved the impossible: Its civic leaders fought, finagled and funded it to become the host city of the 1893 World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition. With the influence of Prairie Avenue residents Marshall Field and Philip D. Armour, as well as Cyrus McCormick, Charles T. Yerkes and Gustavus Swift, Chicago prevailed over Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and archrival New York City.  Chicago’s wealthy and powerful helped to confer world-class status upon their city.

Now, they had to build the Fair so the world would come.

The designated location of this stupendous event left many in disbelief. There was no room within the city itself to construct a fairground of such magnitude. Chicago had just risen from the ashes not long ago, and no one at the time could have anticipated the city would one day be in the running for a World’s Fair.  Additionally, the city had grown at such a fast pace that traffic congestion plagued the downtown area.

The place deemed to have the most potential for a World’s Fair sat some seven miles to the south of Chicago’s business center. To the east was the shore of Lake Michigan. To the west was a gloomy series of bogs and marshes that would have to be drained. The landscape, known as Jackson Park, seemed devoid of inspiration and bucolic charm.

Jackson Park Before the Fair

Jackson Park before 1891

Prairie Avenue resident Daniel Hudson Burnham had been designated as Director of Works for the Columbian Exposition.  Since having designed a home on Prairie Avenue for John B. Sherman early in his career, Burnham had come a long way. He had become acquainted with and then married Sherman’s daughter. With his new wife, Burnham moved into the residence he created for his client. He designed four other homes on Prairie Avenue for prominent Chicagoans.  He partnered with John Wellborn Root, a Georgia native with a genius for architecture.  The firm of Burnham & Root then designed the Montauk Block, an engineering marvel that stood rock-solid in its bed of concrete and steel.  This revolutionary foundation was unheard of at the time, and Burnham and Root pioneered it in Chicago.

Burnham and Root

Daniel Burnham and John Root, Chicago’s legendary architectural partnership

John Root was ensconced in planning the World’s Fair designs with his partner. He had also summoned a number of the foremost architects of the United States to participate. On January 15, 1891, the 41-year-old architect had welcomed at his home several East Coast architects who were working with him on the Fair. Later that night, he developed severe chills that quickly led to full-blown pneumonia. Despite the efforts of the doctor who tried everything within his power to save his famous patient, Root died within hours. According to the Chicago Tribune, Burnham is said to have yelled, “Damn, damn, damn!” upon hearing of the untimely death of his business partner and dearest friend.

Before Root’s death, he helped assemble a dream team of architectural talent, including Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Stanford White, William Mead, William LeBaron Jenney, Henry Ives Cobb, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan and Solon Beman. Philanthropist Bertha Palmer chaired the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, and insisted that the Woman’s Building be designed by a woman. Sophia Hayden of Boston won the commission. Frederick Law Olmsted, responsible for the gracious serenity of New York’s Central Park, was called in to create a wonderland out of a South Side marsh.

Woman's Building Poster

Poster for the Woman’s Building

In what must have been a nearly impossible effort to achieve consensus, the Who’s Who of architects agreed upon a neoclassical design for most of the Fair’s structures. With their domes, columns and legions of arches, the buildings would reflect the loftiest of ancient ideals, with what was then considered representative of Greco-Roman architecture.  Marching adjacent to each other along a highly stylized – and newly created – lagoon, would be structures representing Administration, Agriculture, Electricity, Horticulture, Fisheries, Machineries, Manufactures/Liberal Arts, Mining, and Transportation. All were painted in the same color, giving the Fair the nickname of the White City. An army of seven thousand men labored for two years on creating a fairyland from a bog, and making dreamlike temples rise from it. The Fair would boast a Peristyle collonade, Court of Honor and a Grand Basin. A statue of The Republic stood watch in regal style over the event. A fantastic fountain conceived by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies was believed to have been the largest in the world.

Columbian Exposition

Court of Honor

Culture and civilization aside, the Fair needed other attractions to generate visitors of every level of society. The Midway Plaisance served as an antidote to the intensely idealistic inspirations propounded by the main buildings. Built on the Midway was a huge, astounding wheel that carried passengers as it slowly turned on an axis. George Washington Gale Ferris’ incredible creation generated revenue from some 1.4 million passengers during the nearly four months it was in operation. Other gyrating amusements, to the consternation of the Fair’s organizers, drew crowds: belly dancers were one of the Midway’s most popular exhibits.

First Ferris Wheel

The Ferris Wheel at the Columbian Exposition

With the buildings and exhibits in place, the Fair was ready to welcome visitors. Who visited? Who was inspired? Who was murdered? All in the next installation.

 

They Made No Little Plans: The Influence of Prairie Avenue on the 1893 Columbian Exposition – Part I

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Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

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Daniel H. Burnham, circa 1890

This timeless quote is from Daniel Hudson Burnham, the legendary Chicago architect and urban planner.  Burnham is the author of the Plan of Chicago, a masterful 1909 text that, among other things, helped ensure that Chicago’s miles of lakefront were not only beautiful, but functional and accessible to all. Burnham was also the visionary behind an event that would establish Chicago once and for all as a world-class city, commercial juggernaut, and cultural mecca: The 1893 Columbian Exhibition.

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John B Sherman Home, 2100 S. Prairie Avenue

Like many remarkable Chicagoans profiled in this series, Daniel Burnham was a denizen of Prairie Avenue. One of his first architectural commissions, shared with business partner John Wellborn Root, was a grand home at 2100 S. Prairie Avenue. The fledgling firm of Burnham & Root designed the mansion for John B. Sherman, one of the founding members of the Union Stockyards. While the home was under construction, Burnham met and married Sherman’s daughter, Margaret. At the outset of what would be a long and happy union, Burnham came to live in the house he built for his eventual father-in-law.  Sherman became an avid supporter of Burnham & Root, using his many business connections to generate commissions for the growing firm.

During his time on Prairie Avenue, Burnham made many friendships with Chicago’s elite. His ties to the city’s most wealthy and powerful citizens gave him an edge when the city vied for a most prestigious prize: Hosting a World’s Fair.

There has not been a World’s Fair in the United States since 1984. The last Fair, hosted in New Orleans, entered into bankruptcy before its six-month run ended. More than one generation of Americans has never attended, and perhaps never will attend, a World’s Fair. Remnants of 20th century Fairs, such as New York’s Unisphere and Seattle’s Space Needle, are camp icons. It is easy to forget that World’s Fairs were once huge, heavily attended spectacles, showcasing technological innovation and, if the backers were lucky, generating significant profits.

The first World’s Fairs were mainly industrial exhibitions. Between 1798 and 1851, Paris hosted eleven such shows. Other countries began to take notice. Always one to engage in one-upmanship with its rival nation, Great Britain decided to host its first exhibition on a scale that would dwarf anything France had thus far accomplished. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and Henry Cole organized the bombastically titled Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.  The Great Exhibition, now recognized as the first World’s Fair, was housed in a fantastic mega-greenhouse that came to be known as the Crystal Palace. The 1851 London-based event helped to solidify awareness of Britain’s industrial and technological leadership. It was also hugely profitable: Its surplus of what would be more than $22 million in 2017 was used to build several museums, including the Victoria and Albert.  There was even enough leftover money for a trust to fund industrial research grants. The trust is still in existence.

Crystal Palace, London

The London Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace

The United States did not host a major exposition until 1876, when the Centennial Exposition opened in Philadelphia.  Four years in the making, the event contained some 200 buildings and drew more than 10 million visitors. While it did not achieve a profit for its investors, the Centennial Exposition established the U.S. as a formidable source of manufactured goods. It ultimately enhanced the nation’s viability by helping to spur the growth of exports.

Stereopticon View Memorial Hall Philadelphia

Stereopticon image of Memorial Hall, Centennial Exhibition, 1876.

Following the success of Philadelphia, it was time for another World’s Fair.  This one would commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New York and Chicago initially vied to host the exhibition. It soon became evident in the timeless “pay to play” scheme of things that only New York and Chicago possessed the necessary financial muscle to host an event of such magnitude. Although Chicago was only some 20 years beyond the 1871 fire that devastated the city, its resurrection was rapid and spectacular. It was, defiant of any odds, a formidable contender. The eyes of the nation focused upon the two great cities: New York, America’s locus of power, longtime financial center, versus aggressive, new-monied Chicago. The U.S. Congress would be the final decision-maker of the Exposition’s venue.

In New York’s corner stood deep-pocketed giants such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan and William W. Astor. In Chicago, however, a few Prairie Avenue neighbors were not about to back down: In an early display of refusal to concede to Second City status,  Philip D. Armour and Marshall Field used their considerable wealth to put Chicago forward. Other major players included Gustavus Swift, Cyrus McCormick and Charles T. Yerkes. Chicagoans of every income level pledged whatever they could to ensure their town would be the next location of a World’s Fair.  New York was still the predicted host until a last-minute funding surge of several million dollars orchestrated by Chicago financier Lyman Gage turned the tables. Congress decided: Chicago would host the 1893 Columbian Exhibition.  And Daniel Burnham would have some very big plans to make.

To be continued.

 

Prairie Avenue’s Best Kids’ Party Ever: The Imaginary Birth of Mrs. Field’s Mikado Ball

For those of you who are parents, you no doubt have among your acquaintances that one family that is compelled not just to raise the bar on the “Wow” factor of their children’s parties, but to blast that old bar into the stratosphere. You may think the Best Kids’ Party Ever competition is a relatively new phenomenon.  You would be wrong.

For this entry, we are going to take a bit of creative liberty as to how a certain Prairie Avenue family decided to put on the Kids’ Party of All Kids’ Parties.  The cast of characters includes Marshall Field; Nannie Field, his wife; Marshall Field, Jr., age 17; Ethel Field, age 12; and their cook.

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Marshall Field Residence at 1905 S. Prairie Avenue

Sometime in the autumn of 1885 in the parlor of 1905 South Prairie Avenue:

Mr. Field (because it is unimaginable that anyone, even his wife, would have called him “Marshall”): “Well, Nannie, have you started making the guest list for the children’s tree-trimming party?”

Nannie:  “Um, about that, dear.  You do know we have been having tree-trimming parties since Junior and Ethel were toddlers.  Don’t you think it’s getting a bit old?”

Nannie Field

Nannie Field with children Marshall, Jr. and Ethel

Mr. Field: “Why, no. Everybody likes tree-trimming parties. The smell of fresh pine, the gingerbread houses, the hot chocolate, Christmas carols, the butler ready to clean up the broken ornaments. What else could we want? And besides, even if we served nothing but cold tea, all the neighbors would send their kids anyway. And we could serve that candy that cook of yours, what’s her name, Frances, makes.  Fran, go get us some of those mints.”

Cook: “Fran go do this. Fran go do that. If I had a buck for every time I heard “Fran go,” I’d be rich.”

Nannie: “Father, I think we need to shake things up a bit this year.”

Mr. Field: “Okay, this year, we’ll go all out: I’ll send the butler to the Jewel. He can pick up Armour hot dogs, burgers, Jay’s Potato Chips, Berghoff Beer, Green River, and Twinkies.”

Nannie: Turns pale.  “Nothing against old Philip D., dear, but have you read The Jungle?”

Mr. Field: “Then how about we get Portillo’s to cater? Italian Beef and Cake Shakes? Or Giordano’s Deep-dish pizza? Uno? Malnati’s?”

Nannie: Sniffs in high indignation.

Mr. Field: “So we get a clown. While walking to the store today, I saw this performer on State Street. Orange hair and a big red nose.  A real bozo.”

Junior: “Ah, no, Pops. Television won’t be around for about 50 years, and then, there’s that John Wayne Gacy thing.”

Mr. Field: “Right-o, my boy.  No clown.  So then we’ll have sleigh rides. We’ll rent a bowling alley.”

Ethel: “Daddy, noooooo!”

Mr. Field: “We can book that band, the Rolling Stones.”

Junior: “What, they’re still performing at their age?”

Mr. Field: “Maybe I’ll ask that bright young Mr. Selfridge at the store to come over and decorate our windows.  Put a plastic Santa, a leg lamp, and a statue of my Uncle Mistletoe right here in this window facing Prairie.”

Nannie: “Decorate windows? That’s absurd! Whoever heard of such a ridiculous idea? Who in their right mind would be remotely interested in looking at the Field’s windows?”

Mr. Field: “Uh, yes, dear.”

Nannie: “This year, I’m thinking opera.”

Junior: “What the …”

Mr. Field: “You mean we get a few of Teddy Thomas’ students over at Orchestra Hall to come over so they can come over and warble a few arias? Splendid idea.”

Nannie: “Not exactly.  Remember when we saw The Mikado last month?”

Mr. Field: “Um, maybe. I slept through most of it.”

Nannie: “Well, that’s just what you get, Mister. You’re going to see it again.”

Mr. Field. “Okay, if I must.”

Nannie: “The costumes. The sets. The works. The stage lights. The orchestra.”

Mr. Field: “Shall I order tickets?”

Nannie: “Tickets, schmickets.  We’re having it here.”

Mr. Field: “Um, what?”

Nannie: “The Mikado. We’re going to  have it here, right in this house. The whole shebang.”

Mr. Field: Gulps. “But Nannie…”

Nannie:  “Nannie nothing. I’m tired of that Bertha Palmer upstaging us with her wacky paintings she keeps buying from those myopic French guys. And what’s with George Pullman dedicating an entire town to himself?  And Philip Armour getting into all the best restaurants in town by calling himself the Sausage King of Chicago. No. It’s time we do something. We’re going to have the party to end all parties!”

Mr. Field:  “I need a drink.”

Junior: “Hey, great idea, Pops. Let’s net some butterflies at the Everleigh Club!”

Mr. Field:  “Watch it, buster.”

And so it came to pass that Nannie Field organized what would be known as the most spectacular children’s party Chicago has ever seen. Her husband spent an estimated $75,000.00 (more than $2 million in today’s dollars) on what became known as the Mikado Ball. It is not known as to whether Nannie used an event planner, but the January 1, 1886 party would raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded of socialites.

The Chicago Tribune gushed, “There was such a bewildering mass of rich and costly stuffs that no detailed description could well be given.” Let’s start with the spotlights. Yes, spotlights. This was when incandescent lighting was still considered exotic and dangerous.  The Fields had the lights placed along several blocks of Prairie Avenue so the guests could make their way.

Once people had arrived at the mansion, they realized with delight that it had been transformed into a Japanese palace. Where the main entrance used to be was a huge copy of one of the sets from the original New York production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s beloved Mikado. Inside, the Johnny Hand Orchestra played from a miniature pagoda.  Costly doors inside the home were removed and replaced with beaded curtains. Electric lights glowed inside silk lanterns. Satin tapestries covered the walls.  Bronze and porcelain sculptures were ordered especially for the event.

Having previously established that no Chicago eateries would cut the mustard for this occasion, Nannie had delicacies shipped via specially equipped railroad cars from New York’s exclusive Sherry’s restaurant. Silver and china from the legendary establishment accompanied the food. The Fields commissioned British artist Paul Whistler to design the party favors, which included peacock feathers, satin sashes, silk flowers and miniature lanterns. Little feet trod across antique Oriental rugs. Live Japanese cherry trees in full bloom graced the ballroom.

Mikado Ball 1

Alice Keith, Ethel Field and Florence Otis

She built it, and they came: Some 400 teens and children of the nation’s elite arrived not just from Chicago but from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cincinnati.  In an age when the term “politically correct” had not yet entered the American lexicon, the Chicago Tribune described the attendees as “Happy Young Japs.” Dressed in kimonos, obi sashes, and clasping fans, the children danced, ate, and were photographed in their Far Eastern finery.  In taking pictures of the guests, society photographer Steffens performed a feat which, in 1886, was virtually unheard of: He used his camera at night.  No daylight, no studio.  He took photographs in a darkened house, and he developed them. And the results were beautiful.

Parents were also welcome at the fete, but many declined to attend and instead presented at the more sedate reception Nannie held the following afternoon.  Immediately after the reception, the decorations came down, the mansion’s doors were reattached to their hinges, and the Field residence looked the way it did just a few days ago.  Was it all a dream?  Or was it the kids’ party for the ages?

 

 

The Other Ladies of Prairie Avenue

With its population skyrocketing in the 19th century, Chicago became home to many professions, including the world’s oldest one. As Chicago was still in many ways a frontier town, it was fairly easy for all kinds of vice to flourish in the face of law enforcement.  Chicago’s Levee District, with boundaries from Eighteenth Street to the north, Twenty-second Street to the South, Wabash to the east and Clark to the West, offered dubious pleasures of every imaginable variety.

The Levee District was several blocks away from Prairie Avenue, home for some 25 years to Chicago’s elite. While the captains of business would not have frequented places with names like the “Bucket of Blood” or engaged temporary residence at the hotels on “Bedbug Row,” some of them had a fancy for other establishments conveniently located at the southern end of the District.

Levee District Map

Chicago’s Levee District encroached precariously toward Prairie Avenue.

The Everleigh Club and Vic Shaw’s “resort” were the preeminent brothels in Chicago, with Shaw’s business existing on Prairie Avenue for a time. The Everleigh Club was founded by sisters Ada and Minna Simms from Kentucky. Both married, both badly. Finding themselves newly divorced, they were fortunate to have inherited some $35,000.00. They established a bordello in Omaha, and doubled their investment within two years. Chicago loomed ahead for the ladies, who decided that an upper-crust sporting house was exactly what was missing in the rowdy Levee District. They changed their surname to Everleigh as an affectionate nod to their grandmother, who would close her correspondence with “Everly yours.” It is probably a good thing the grandmother was everly departed when Ada and Minna founded their houses of ill repute.

Minna Everleigh

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Ada Everleigh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minna Everleigh

It was only in business for eleven years, but the Everleigh Club became a thing of wonder, perhaps even for those who detested prostitution. Located at 2131-2133 South Dearborn, the Club occupied two mansions. The sisters fitted the 50 rooms with exotic themes, such as the Japanese Throne Room, the Mirror Room, the Silver Parlor, and the Grand Ballroom. A piano purportedly worth $15,000.00 served as an alternate source of entertainment. A full cooking staff prepared gourmet meals for the Pullman Palace Buffet. A bottle of champagne cost $12 in an era when an entire meal could be had for fifty cents.  Beer and hard liquor were not on the menu, which seems rather undemocratic when the entrance fee alone was $50.00.  Libations and ladies would set a patron back at least another $50.00. Even with hefty payoffs to the police, the Everleigh sisters were capable of netting some $120,000.00 per year.

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The Everleigh Club, in early days (left) and prior to its 1933 demolition (right).

The 30 ladies of the Everleigh Club were referred to as “butterflies,” and Ada and Minna accepted no mere moths. Girls had to be at least 18 years of age, have an attractive face and figure, and it was necessary that they wore evening gowns exceptionally well. The girls had regular physical examinations, and were required to be conversant and reasonably well-read. The club became famous for the rakish custom of drinking champagne from a slipper when, during a special performance for client Prince Heinrich of Prussia, one of his aides poured the bubbly into the fallen shoe of a fallen woman.

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Everleigh Club’s Music Room

Other famed clients of the “resort” included actor John Barrymore,  authors Ring Lardner and Theodore Dreiser, and Marshall Field, Jr. Rumors persisted for years that the young Field had been shot at the Everleigh Club, and then carried back to his Prairie Avenue mansion.  A 1905 edition of the Chicago Tribune described how servants heard a gunshot, and that Field managed to call for help. Despite the aid of Chicago’s best surgeons, Field died of what the Tribune termed an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Six weeks later, Marshall Field, Sr. was dead.  He had been in failing health for quite some time, and the untimely passing of his son no doubt hastened his demise.

Everleigh Club Blue Bedroom

If these walls could talk: The Blue Bedroom at the Everleigh Club.

The “parlor house” death of another prominent Chicagoan, Nat Moore, was as wild as his last night alive.  The 26-year-old married man was the son of the president of the Rock Island Railroad.  According to a 1949 Chicago Tribune story, Moore was known to inject himself with a 14-karat gold hypodermic needle. On one of his many nights seeking pleasure at the Levee, he first visited the Everleigh sisters, and netted one of his favorite butterflies, Katie. Young Moore, having partaken of drugs and alcohol before his arrival, was soon asked to leave the dignified establishment. Katie was infuriated, especially when the Everleigh sisters accused her of being in contact with a drug peddler. Katie promptly took her business to Vic Shaw’s, where Moore had also relocated after having been ejected by the Everleighs.

Sometime during that night, Nat Moore died at Vic Shaw’s establishment. The next day, a mystery caller contacted Minna, informing her that Moore’s remains were about to be transplanted to the Everleigh Club. Horrified at the prospect of a corpse in her house, not to mention one of a society figure, Minna sent an emissary to Shaw’s. After tense negotiations, Shaw had a tavern owner friend call the police, who calmly assigned the death to a heart attack.  The mystery caller turned out to be Katie, whose loyalty to the Everleighs extended beyond her dismissal.

Although the Everleigh sisters adored publicity – they even had a brochure printed of their over-the-top grandiose house – they were eventually forced to close. Shaw’s house lasted somewhat longer, as did other less elegant brothels. After at least one stint in prison on narcotics charges, Shaw lived until 1952 in a crumbling mansion at 2906 Prairie Avenue with a dog, cat and parrot. The remaining bordellos started to become notorious havens for drug use, as well as for prostitution. When police raids started becoming increasingly frequent, Chicago’s vice lords hired a young thug to operate a buzzer system, whereby the girls would be herded into underground tunnels until the raids were over. The young thug’s name? Alphonse Capone.

Becoming Social on Prairie Avenue

From the mid-19th century and especially after the 1871 fire that destroyed much of the city, Chicago began to experience astounding growth. Opportunities for advancement were rampant. Farmers’ sons could become millionaires presiding over a department store empire. A man with a vision as to how to design railroad sleeping cars not only amassed a fortune, but, for better or for worse, established an entire town bearing his name. And amazingly, for some 25 years or so, a great majority of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens decided to assemble their palatial new homes on a six-block stretch of one street: Prairie Avenue.

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A postcard of Prairie Avenue, circa early 1900s.

Romanesque fortresses and French chateaux began rising on what would soon be dubbed “The sunny street that held the sifted few.” Some of the world’s premier residential architects such as H.H. Richardson and Richard Morris Hunt arrived from the East to witness their extravagant designs take life. Trips to Europe enabled newly rich homeowners to acquire prized antiques, and to buy paintings from then-unconventional artists such as Degas and Monet. The Herter brothers, considered to be the finest creators of furniture of the time, populated many interiors with their exquisite cabinetry.  Rare, delicate orchids thrived while sleet pounded the glass walls of elaborate conservatories attached to the mansions.  All that was left to do was to show the trophy houses to their best advantage. Given all that had been spent on these showcase homes, it was incumbent that entertaining be executed comme il faut.

Some of Chicago’s social elite migrated from the East and South, where they had been raised in affluence. Bertha Palmer, daughter of a wealthy Kentucky family, had been schooled to excel in fine arts and deportment. The brilliant, confident Mrs. Palmer had all the attributes of a social leader and philanthropist. Other women, married to self-made men, were bewildered as to how to navigate the shallow, subtly shifting channels of conduct they had perhaps observed only from afar. How did one assimilate into a new, yet intimidating culture?  How, exactly, did one become social?

Matching the extraordinary passion that powered Chicago’s founding businessmen, their spouses were driven to show that they could play the game, as well. Whether that drive was borne from the need to provide visiting dignitaries with suitably impressive entertainment, or compulsion to keep up with the Fields and Pullmans, the ladies of Prairie Avenue were relentless in establishing a formidable social order.

According to the 1953 book, Fabulous Chicago, “The chief characteristic of Chicago society was its newness.” The author, Emmett Dedmon, went on to describe how Prairie Avenue was Chicago’s virtual birthplace of luncheons for ladies, perhaps the precursors of the “ladies who lunch.” Calling hours were established, as was the leaving of calling cards on silver salvers. Dinner parties started consisting of food considerably more elaborate than meat and potatoes.

One of the most influential figures in elevating the the domestic culture of the newly wealthy was Herbert M. Kinsley. An East Coast hotelier and restaurateur, Kinsley experienced many ups and downs in his career before settling in Chicago. After opening and closing several restaurants, and experimenting with the first Pullman dining cars, Kinsley finally found success in the 1880s with his palatial establishment on Adams Street. Kinsley’s was not only the dining place of choice for Chicago’s wealthy, but it provided unparalleled catering services. With his Eastern connections and knowledge of fine food, Herbert Kinsley became the premier consultant for at-home entertaining on Prairie Avenue.

H.M. Kinsley

Herbert M. Kinsley showed Prairie Avenue how to entertain in style.

Kinsley's Restaurant, circa 1906

Kinsley’s Restaurant, circa 1906.

Kinsley eventually became an arbiter of good taste (no pun intended) for Chicago society.  He published books on etiquette, how to conduct proper afternoon receptions, and instruction regarding appropriate attire and jewelry by occasion. He even maintained a glossary of French phrases and witticisms that one could artfully slip into conversations. Existing artifacts from Kinsley’s restaurant, such as the 1885 Gorham soup tureen below, show an insistence on elegance and quality.

Detail, Kinsley's Cookbook

Detail from one of Kinsley’s cookbooks.

Prairie Avenue also became home to an increasing array of sophisticated help: Matrons began to recruit the most sought-after butlers, footmen, cooks and governesses they could find.  According to the delightful Prairie Avenue Cookbook, “Few households were as large as the Marshall Field’s, and Mrs. Field was reputed to have on staff ‘a representative from nearly every civilized nation of the globe.'” Families would “borrow” the best of their neighbors’ staff for major parties, no doubt astonishing guests as to the quantity and sophistication of help amassed by these Midwestern hostesses.

The presence and gentle influence of  English butlers and French cooks could help confer instant patina upon families whose previous help consisted of a penniless chore girl or two.  A butler might be counted upon to pack the Sevres china for a picnic in Jackson Park, as illustrated in Arthur Meeker’s novel, Prairie Avenue.  A lady’s maid may have suggested to the lady of the house that a diamond parure was not really necessary for an informal outdoor event.

To ensure they were as culturally informed and conversationally adept as any New York hostess, the ladies of Chicago began to organize clubs, including the Fortnightly and the Twentieth Century Club. According to Fabulous Chicago, the original purpose of the Fortnightly was the dissemination of both “social and intellectual culture.” The same book identifies Mrs. George Roswell Grant as founder of the Twentieth Century Club, who noted that “when a distinguished foreigner … comes to Chicago, they want to meet the representative society people. They don’t care about being bored with a lot of men who have a local reputation as men of genius … they want to meet people whose names are known as men and women of fashion.”

Mrs. Frances Glessner was a cultural institution in and of herself. The Prairie Avenue resident was the founder of the Monday Morning Reading Class, a group that fostered friendships among Chicago’s intellectually active women and faculty wives from the new University of Chicago.  Mrs. Glessner was also a member of the Fortnightly, the Colonial Dames, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fortnightly Club

The Fortnightly Club, located since 1922 in the Lathrop House on               East Bellevue Place.

The children of Prairie Avenue were seen as extensions of their parents’ accomplishments. For the privileged boys and girls, there were governesses fluent in multiple languages, private tutors before entry into Eastern prep schools, and equestrian instructors. Then there were the obligatory lessons at Bournique’s.  It became far more than a dance academy, as was its original purpose when established in 1867. Bournique’s was a place where, per an 1883 Chicago Tribune story, “particular attention is given to gracefulness of motion, courtliness of deportment and modest self-confidence, all of which are so essential and characteristic of well-bred people.” The Bourniques became sufficiently successful to have opened several locations. The most opulent was in a newly constructed building near Prairie Avenue, designed by the architectural firm of Prairie Avenue resident Daniel Burnham.  It boasted a huge ballroom, with a dance floor composed of more than 173,0000 pieces of hardwood.

The intrepid people of Prairie Avenue were visionary, even in their social legacy.

How Chicago Culture Bloomed on the Prairie (Avenue)

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To longtime residents and newcomers alike, Chicago’s cultural institutions seem to have been fixed stars in the city’s firmament. It is almost impossible to imagine a time when Chicagoans and visitors could not delight in the Art Institute, Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera, and countless other venues. The city’s quest for artistic viability started early on:  as soon as the mid-1800s, the city began to establish itself as the Midwest’s mecca of wealth, culture and philanthropic opportunities. The city’s progress in these areas grew exponentially after the Chicago Fire of 1871, when the need for lumber, steel, foodstuffs and department store goods further enriched already prosperous families. Many of these families, such as the Potters, Glessners, Armours, Hamills and Fields, had the prescience to help build prestigious cultural institutions that thrive to this day.

By the 1880s, an inordinately large percentage of Chicago’s monied families chose Prairie Avenue as the place to build their palaces.  Although the phrase “Keeping up with the Jones” refers to the Jones family of New York City that produced novelist Edith Wharton, there were plenty of Jones counterparts residing in the not-so-little houses on the Prairie.

While their spouses were reigning over their factories, stockyards and stores, the ladies of Prairie Avenue sought to create a vibrant, elegant social environment to compete with, if not rival, those of New York, Philadelphia and Boston. The earliest social functions were not entire worthy of the storied gatherings back East.  In Emmett Dedmon’s fascinating book, Chicago, reference is made to one Charles Fenno Hoffman, who described a typical social event: “At these Chicago cotillions, you might see a veteran officer in full uniform balancing a tradesman’s daughter still in her short frock and trousers, while there the golden aiguillette of a handsome surgeon flapped in unison with the glass beads upon a scrawny neck of fifty … the high placed buttons of a linsey woolsey coat would be dos a dos to the elegantly turned shoulders of a delicate southern girl.”  However, what the city may have lacked in pedigree, it more than compensated in money and visionary benefactors.

As Chicago’s elite sought to force showy hothouse flowers from its frontier town roots, they began to cultivate the rudiments of culture on the shores of Lake Michigan. Some of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants had music and art imbued in them from educations in the East; others were ardent students of the city’s early arbiters of taste. One way or another, it became incumbent upon Chicago’s most successful citizens to transform what was once a backwater into a showcase of the arts.

Then, as now, a successful opera company was one of the bellwethers of a young metropolis. Chicago’s first opera house opened in 1865, but was destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Its successor, Louis Sullivan’s extraordinary Auditorium, opened in 1889.  Theodore Thomas founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 1891.  Concurrent with the 1893 Columbian Exposition, an event that signified that Chicago had truly arrived as a world-class city, the Art Institute of Chicago moved into its venerable headquarters on Michigan Avenue at Adams Street.  The Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge provided a Renaissance design so appropriate for Chicago’s rebirth after its devastation by fire only 20 years prior.

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The Art Institute of Chicago rises, ca.1893.

Not surprisingly, the families of Prairie Avenue played significant roles in Chicago’s social and cultural ascendancy. Upon the formation of the CSO, John and Frances Glessner pledged ardent support behind the orchestra and its founder, Theodore Thomas. Mr. Glessner served as one of the original 50 guarantors of the CSO, providing the fledgling organization with $1,000.00 per year against the host of losses it initially incurred. He was instrumental, so to speak, in the construction of the orchestra’s home on Michigan Avenue. Mr. Thomas was a frequent guest at the Glessners’ homes, not only on Prairie Avenue, but in the families’ summer residences in New Hampshire.  The families’ friendship was so strong that upon Mr. Thomas’ death in 1904, Mrs. Thomas presented the Glessners with her husband’s baton.  The precious artifact is on display at the Glessner House Museum.

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Theodore Thomas conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, ca. 1899.

George Armour was one of the initial patrons of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, the predecessor to the Art Institute of Chicago. Countless Prairie Avenue luminaries lended their business acumen and political connections to launch the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which brought an estimated 26 million visitors to Chicago.  Among the Exposition’s major underwriters were Marshall Field, Philp D. Armour and Gustavus Swift.

The Field Museum, another initial outgrowth of the Columbian Exposition, would not have grown into a world-renowned educational institution without the support of its namesake, Marshall Field, or the generosity of his Prairie Avenue friend and neighbor, George Pullman.

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Countless visitors wait in line to visit the new Field Museum.

One of Marshall Field’s most brilliant executives, John G. Shedd, visited fascinating aquariums in his travels through major European cities. He concluded that Chicago should have not only its own institution to house aquatic animals, but one that rivaled all others throughout the world.  He donated at least $2 million toward his masterpiece.  Although Mr. Shedd died before his aquarium was completed, the Shedd Aquarium stands as a beloved, ever-evolving tribute to this Chicagoan’s generosity.

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A bevy of 1920s cuties enjoyed the Shedd.

Even entities as far-flung as the Archaeological Institute of America thrived under the aegis of Prairie Avenue residents.  An 1888 list of its Society members reads like a Who’s Who of Chicago’s upper echelon, including Prairie Avenue residents Armour, Bartlett, Buckingham, Ellis, Field, Frank, Glessner, Hamill, Harvey, Hutchinson and countless more.

As evidenced in previous installments in this series, the contributions of one group of citizens living for a time on one Chicago street cannot be overestimated.