Prairie Avenue, once known as “millionaires’ row” declined in the early 1900s as a residential area due to its proximity to the growing downtown and the push of the printing, publishing and automobile industries into the area. The Prairie Avenue Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was designated a City of Chicago Landmark District in 1979.
In 1834, Dr. Elijah D. Harmon purchased a 138-acre tract of land bounded by present day 16th Street, Cermak Road, State Street and Lake Michigan. Soon after, he sold a 20-acre parcel to Henry B. Clarke, who completed his Greek Revival home in 1836 in what is now the 1600 block of Michigan Ave. Having been moved twice, it survives as Chicago’s oldest house. In the early 1850s the area was subdivided, and in 1853 the first house on Prairie Avenue was completed for John Staples. Additional houses were built over the next decade, with building activity increasing dramatically after the close of the Civil War. In 1870, Daniel Thompson built the first $100,000 house on the South Side at 1936 S. Prairie Ave. George Pullman and Marshall Field both acquired property on the street and announced plans to build, firmly establishing Prairie Avenue as Chicago’s premier residential street. The Chicago Fire of 1871 bypassed the area; burned out of their homes elsewhere in the city, other business and civic leaders soon purchased lots and built in the neighborhood.
Glory Days, 1872-1904
When Philip Armour joined Field and Pullman on the street in 1877, Chicago’s three wealthiest citizens were living within a four-block stretch of Prairie Avenue. Leading architects were engaged to design elegant free-standing and attached houses on Prairie and Calumet avenues in a variety of styles, the most popular being the Second Empire with its steeply-pitched mansard roof. Richard Morris Hunt of New York and Henry Hobson Richardson of Boston were engaged to design the Marshall Field and John J. Glessner houses, respectively. However, most residents engaged local architects, including Cobb & Frost, Treat & Foltz, Solon S. Beman, John Van Osdel, Francis Whitehouse, and William LeBaron Jenney. Burnham & Root received nearly a dozen commissions on the street, beginning with the John Sherman house at 2100 S. Prairie. The neighborhood became the center of the social and cultural life in the city, with lavish dinners and balls announced regularly in the society pages. By the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, Prairie Avenue was touted as one of the must-see sites in Chicago. A guidebook issued by Rand McNally & Co. shortly thereafter proclaimed, “That remarkable street is home to merchants whose business affects every mart on the earth…and who possess wealth that at last aroused the jealousy of New York.” By the turn of the century, however, social and economic forces were in place that would send the neighborhood into a steady decline, and the last new house on the street for nearly a century was built in 1904.
The close proximity of the neighborhood to downtown, originally an asset, was the major factor in its decline. Increased noise and pollution from adjacent transportation routes and the spread of businesses south from the Loop quickly made the area a less desirable place in which to live. At the same time, new residential areas including the Gold Coast and suburban communities along the North Shore were luring residents away, especially children raised on the street who were now starting families of their own. Large commercial buildings began replacing homes as early as 1905 with the first two appearing on Indiana Avenue. The houses themselves were considered old-fashioned and outdated; many were soon converted to non-residential use. By 1910, a medical school and a clinic for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction were in operation on the street. Other houses were adapted for use as offices for the publishing and printing industries or converted to boarding houses. The R. R. Donnelley & Sons printing plant, designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw, was begun in 1912 on Calumet. In 1915, the Hump Hairpin Mfg. Co. factory became the first to replace a residence on Prairie. The automobile industry firmly established itself along Michigan Avenue, with over 100 showrooms rapidly transforming the residential street. Only a handful of residents remained by the 1930s, and the very last resident, Addie Hibbard Gregory, abandoned Prairie Avenue in 1944. Eventually, all but eleven houses in the entire area were razed.
In 1966, a group of preservationists banded together to purchase the Glessners’ house, which was threatened with demolition. This effort created a renewed appreciation of the neighborhood and served as an important catalyst in the citywide preservation movement. When three neighboring houses were demolished within the next few years, discussions began over bringing formal recognition and protection to the remaining eight houses on Prairie Avenue. In 1973, the City of Chicago announced plans to create an historic district with a restored 1890s streetscape and the addition of the Henry B. Clarke house, which was relocated to the 1800 block of Indiana.
The Prairie Avenue Historic District was designated in 1979 and includes five houses on the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Prairie Avenue along with three rowhouses on Cullerton. Clarke House Museum, individually designated as a landmark, opened in 1982 following an extensive restoration. The opening of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in 1996 (since relocated to the northwest side) and the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens in 2000 brought additional cultural offerings to the area.
In the early 1990s, businesses began moving out and several loft buildings underwent residential conversion. The first to be converted was the Eastman Kodak Co. building at 1721 S. Indiana in 1993; six years later, the Hump Hairpin Mfg. Co. building was demolished and replaced with a townhouse development, the first new residential construction on Prairie Avenue in 95 years. A strong housing market has resulted in numerous additional residential developments, ranging from loft conversions to condominium towers.