Most Chicagoans are familiar with the elite Gold Coast neighborhood on the Near North Side. After Potter Palmer constructed his million-dollar mansion on the formerly swampy Lake Shore Drive in 1882, Chicago's most well-to-do residents quickly followed, establishing the city's most affluent neighborhood. But it wasn't Chicago's first affluent neighborhood. Before the Gold Coast, there was "Millionaire's Row," an even denser cluster of mansions belonging to Chicago's most prosperous people between the 1600 to 2200 blocks of Prairie Avenue on the Near South Side.
Like many of Chicago's main streets, Prairie Avenue evolved from a Native American trail that connected Chicago's Fort Dearborn with Indiana's Fort Wayne. The area became a desirable location because of its proximity to downtown business without the hassle of crossing the Chicago River. After the Great Fire in 1871, things truly flourished down here as Prairie Avenue and its immediate surroundings were left intact. It was only a matter of time before those displaced people and businesses relocated to the South Side.
- Prairie Avenue was home (or you know, just a summer home) to the men who made Chicago a global city, featuring the crème de la crème of Chicago gentry and architecture. Here are a few highlights of this exclusive and close-knit community:
- Marshall Field's mansion was designed by Richard Morris Hunt (architect of the Vanderbilts' "The Breakers" in Newport, Rhode Island).
- Daniel Burnham designed the home of John B. Sherman, one of the founders of the Union Stock Yard. Burnham met and married Sherman's daughter as a result of this commission, and eventually lived in the house he designed.
- George Pullman enlisted Solon S. Beman to design his Prairie Avenue home after Beman designed the entire layout of his namesake town, "Pullman." Beman was also architect for Marshall Field Jr.'s 43-room, 30,000-square-foot home (that is now six condos!) as well as W.W. Kimball's (of piano and organ fame) home.
- Henry Ives Cobb, designer of the Newberry Library and many University of Chicago collegiate gothic buildings, designed two homes that are actually still standing today. To top it all off, at one point in history one-in-four members of the exclusive Commercial Club lived on this six-block stretch.
Pollution and noise from train yards and encroaching districts of industry eventually made Prairie Avenue and its Near South neighborhood less appealing to the wealthy leaders of Chicago. So once they heard about Palmer's new setup in the Gold Coast, this aristocratic class left for the North Side of town. Over the decades, homes were razed in favor of factories, and by the 1920s it was mostly abandoned. Only seven of these mansions still exist today. Thanks to a small group of preservation-minded people that became the Chicago Architecture Foundation, H.H. Richardson's Romanesque John G. Glessner House was saved from the wrecking-ball in 1966.
To visit Prairie Avenue Historic District, one needs to only walk down the street! Additionally the Pullman, Glessner, and Clarke House Museums offer tours. The Second Presbyterian Church, where many of the well to do gave large donations, also has tours of its beautiful 19th century architecture and stained glass windows.
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