Friday, September 4, 2009

Prairie Avenue Historic District - birth, glory, decline, rebirth ..

Thanks to these markers on the fences of the Chicago Women's Park and Gardens, I got a lot of information on the historic Prairie Avenue District ..

The Prairie Avenue Historic District was designated a Chicago Landmark on December 27, 1979 .. In the above post I've listed the buildings that make for this historic district .. This post is about it's beginning, glory days, decline and rebirth ...

Beginnings [1812-1871] ..
The Prairie Avenue holds a very significant place in the history of the City of Chicago .. The Fort Dearborn massacre, in 1812, took place in this general vicinity.

In 1834, Elijah D Harmon purchased a 183-acre tract of land bounded by present day 16th street, Cermak Road, State Street and Lake Michigan. Soon after he sold 20-acre to Henry B. Clarke who made his Greek Revival home in 1836, in what is now the 1600 block of Michigan Avenue. In 1837, the City of Chicago was incorporated, with southern boundary established at what is now Cermak Road ..

In 1853, the first house on Prairie Avenue was completed by John Staples at 1702 Prairie Avenue .. With the end of Civil War in 1865, building activity increasing dramatically in this area. In 1870, Daniel Thompson built the first $100,000 house on the South Side at 1936 S Prairie Avenue. George Pullman and Marshall Field both acquired property on the street, which firmly established Prairie Avenue as Chicago's premier residential street. The Chicago Fire of 1871 bypassed this area, and business and civil leaders, burned out of their homes, soon purchased lots and built in this neighborhood ...

Glory days ... [1872-1904]
The years immediately following the Chicago Fire saw a tremendous building boom in this neighborhood as people whose houses were burned out, wanted to built here. By 1875, three of the wealthiest citizens of Chicago .. Philip Armour, George Pullman and Marshall Field ... lived within a four block stretch of Prairie Avenue .. firmly establishing it as Chicago's premier residential district ... Leading architects were hired to design fashionable residences suitable for lavish dinner parties and receptions which were mainstay of Chicago society in late 19th century... John and Frances Glessner hired H. H. Richardson .. Marshall Field hired Richard Morris Hunt of New York .. But most of the houses were designed by local architects including Cobb & Frost, Solon S. Beman, John Van Osdel, Francis Whitehouse and William LeBaron Jenny. Burnham & Root received nearly a dozen commissions on the street .. The predominant style in the 1870's and 1880's were all based on French precedence, with Second Empire style with mansard-roof as the most common style .. later mid-1880's onward rugged Romanesque-style and Revival styles became popular, especially after World's Columbian Exposition. In 1882, Joan Doane completed his residence at 1827 Prairie Avenue, which became the first house in Chicago to be illuminated with electric lights.

In 1893, World's Columbian Exposition opened largely through the efforts of Prairie Avenue residents .. By the time of the Exposition, Prairie Avenue was established as one of the must-see sites in Chicago ... In 1893, Journalist Everett Chamberline identified 77 millionaires living on the Prairie Avenue .. The neighborhood became the center of the social and cultural life of the city. There were lavish dinners, balls and concerts announced .. Summertime, the streets were mostly deserted as residents travelled to Europe for for sightseeing. By the turn of the century, however, the neighborhood began a steady decline .. Edward F. Robbins residence at 2121 prairie Avenue, constructed in 1904, became the last major house in Prairie Avenue, to be constructed in 95 years ..

The decline [1905-1965] ..
Multiple factors led to the exodus of residents from the streets in the first decades of the 20th century .. The establishment of automobile and publishing industries increased noise and pollution and made the area less desirable .. At the same time development of Gold Coast and North shore suburban communities were luring the residents away, especially the children who were raised on the streets of Prairie Avenue and were staring their own families .. The houses were considered old fashioned and were soon converted into non-residential uses.

1905 saw construction of major commercial buildings in this area for Ford, Eastman Kodak and Western Bank Notes companies. In 1909 Marshall Field Jr. house at 1919 Prairie Avenue was sold to Galtin Institute, a hospital which treats drug and alcohol addiction. In 1912, first section of R.R.Donnelly & Sons printing plant was built at Calumet and 21st Street. In 1915, Allerton house at 1936 Prairie Aveune was demolished and replaced by Hump Hairpin Mfg. Co. factory, the fisrt large commercial building on Paririe Avenue. in 1923, Chicago's first zoning ordinance designated the entire area for commercial purposes.

Houses were adapted for use as offices, boarding houses and even clinics. Many mansions were razed and replaced by large commercial buildings. Only a handful of residents remained by 1930's .. Eventually all but 11 houses in the entire area were razed. These are mentioned in the post above ..

Rebirth [1966 - to present..]
The glorious past of the Prairie Avenue was largely forgotten until the Glessner House was put up for sale in 1965. The architectural community realized it's importance and was determined to save it. In 1966, the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation was formed and raised funds to purchase the house. This actually served as a catalyst in the citywide preservation movement. In 1973, The City of Chicago announced plans to create a historic district with a restored 1890's streetscape. Additionally, in 1977, the Henry B. Clarke house was relocated to the 1800 block of Indiana Avenue.

The Prairie Avenue Historic District was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1979. It includes five houses on the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Prairie Avenue along with three rowhouses on Cullerton Street. Clarke Museum House, individually designated a Landmark opened in 1982, following an extensive restoration ..

In 1989, Illinois Central sold 69 acres of property just north of the area which became a massive Central Station residential development. In 1993, first residential loft development in the area began in the former Eastman Kodak Co. building at 1721 S Indiana. Adding to cultural charm was the opening of National Vietnam Veterans Art museum in 1996 .. and .. Chicago Women's Park and Gardens in 2000. In 1999, Hump Hairpin Mfg. Co. building at 1918 Prairie Avenue was demolished and new townhouse development started .. which was the first residential construction on Prairie Avenue in 95 years .. There have been additional residential developments including loft conversions and condominium towers ...

For more on ..
The Prairie Avenue Historic District .. click here ...

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