Prairie Avenue Chicago: The City’s First Neighborhood of Mansions

By Marianna on October 25, 2012


Prairie Avenue historic photo mansions

Most Chicagoans are familiar with the elite Gold Coast neighborhood in 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 on the North Side rather than the South Side. So 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.

Prairie Avenue was Millionaire’s Row

Prairie Avenue mansion illustration

Prairie Avenue Kimball Mansion

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 really flourished since Prairie Avenue and its immediate surroundings were left untouched. It was only a matter of time before those displaced people and businesses who could afford it relocated to the South of downtown Chicago.

Prairie Avenue was home to the men who made Chicago a global city. It featured the crème de la crème of Chicago gentry and architecture. To name 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).

Pullman House

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  25% of the exclusive Commercial Club lived on this six-block stretch.

Prairie Avenue Glessner House
Glessner from above

End of an Era

Pollution and noise from train yards, as well as encroaching districts of industry and “undesirable” activities eventually made Prairie Avenue and its Near South neighborhood less appealing to the wealthy leaders of Chicago. Palmer’s new setup in the Gold Coast also drew the aristocratic class to the North Side. 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.

Visit the Museums

I learned about this forgotten neighborhood when I interned for the Glessner and Clarke House Museums this past spring. The museums, along with the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance have worked very hard in revitalizing the area and educating the public with their own house tours, an annual neighborhood tour to see historic home interiors, and a self-guided walking tour for anytime.

The Glessner House courtyard as well as Women’s Park are available for schmancy weddings, corporate events, and banquets. The historic Wheeler Mansion, down the block from Glessner, has been beautifully restored. Today it’s a boutique hotel and hosts a lively farmer’s market in the summer. Glessner House also often hosts special tours and presentations on history. And the gorgeous Second Presybetrian Church offers guided tours of its 1874 architecture and painterly stained glass masterpieces. There’s lots to do to explore the up-and-coming Near South Side neighborhood, aka South Loop, as its history has come full-circle.

— Marianna Foral, Research Intern

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