History: Prairie Avenue

Prairie Avenue is a north–south thoroughfare on the South Side of Chicago, which historically extended from 16th street in the Near South Side community area of Chicago to the city’s southern limits and beyond. The street has a rich history from its origins as a major trail for horseback riders and carriages. During the last three decades of the 19th century, a six-block section of the street served as the residence of many of Chicago’s elite families and an additional four-block section was also known for grand homes. The upper six-block section includes thePrairie Avenue Historic District. Several of Chicago’s most important historical figures have lived on the street. This is especially true of the period of recovery from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when many of the most important families in the city moved to the street. Residents of the street have influenced the evolution of the city and have played prominent national and international roles. They have influenced the political history, thearchitecture, the culture, the economy, as well as the law and government of Chicago. Prairie Avenue once served as an Indian trail linking Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne in Indiana and thus derived its name from the vastMidwestern prairie land between the two endpoints. In 1812, the The Battle of Fort Dearborn occurred in the areaaround Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. Over time, the district has evolved from an upscale neighborhood to a factory district and back to an upscale neighborhood. Subdivision in the early 1850’s anticipated residential development, although only one grand villa existed at the time. By the late 1870”s Prairie Avenue, as well as Calumet Avenue one block to the east, housed the finest mansions in the city, each equipped with its own carriage house. In the 1880s and 1890s, mansions for George Pullman, Marshall Field, John J. Glessner and Philip Armour anchored a neighborhood of over ninety mansions known as “Millionaire’s Row”. Historic preservation has brought the return of trendy buildings, as well as restored and renovated structures. Simultaneously, new infill housing is resuscitating the district. Now, a two block section of the street forms the core of the Chicago Landmark Prairie Avenue Historic District that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic district includes the 1800 and 1900-blocks of South Prairie, the 1800 block of South Indiana and 213 through 217 East Cullerton.


During the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, upper Prairie Avenue residents were central to the cultural and social fabric of the city. The economy was supported by the thousands of jobs created by the Pullman Car Company and Armour and Company. Chicago’s richest citizen, Marshall Field changed the buying habits of the city. John Shorthall saved the city from total chaos after the Great Chicago Fire by saving property records. At one point in the 1880s, sixteen of the 60 members of the Commercial Club of Chicago lived on Prairie Avenue. George Armour served as the first president of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which became the Art Institute of Chicago. 1801 South Prairie resident, William Wallace Kimball, whose mansion still stands 1801 South Prairie, employed 1500 workers at the turn of the century in his organ and piano manufacturing company. Many of these leading families also took part in philanthropy. John Shorthall, one of the founders of Chicago Title & Trust and Prairie Avenue resident, created the Illinois Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the Illinois Humane Society) and convened local and state societies to unite under a national organization (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) that could combine its political strength and lobby Congress. The Illinois Institute of Technology is a successor entity of the Armour Institute of Technology, which was an outgrowth of the generosity of Philip and Joseph Armour. Prairie Avenue citizens contributed heavily to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which brought millions of visitors to the city.


Historic preservation in Chicago has saved some of the city’s architectural heritage. The efforts of the Chicago Architecture Foundation and theLandmarks and Preservation Council of Illinois have been at the forefront of these efforts. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks (now part of the city’s Department of Planning and Development) designated the Prairie Avenue Historic District as a city landmark on December 27, 1979. A few of the mansions of the heyday still remain in the 1800 and 1900 blocks including the National Historic Landmark designated John J. Glessner House designed in 1886 by architect Henry H. Richardson; these provide a sense of the street’s former character. This district also includes the Henry B. Clarke House, which although twice relocated is reported to be the city’s oldest standing house. In addition to the Clarke House and the Glessner House, several other houses from the late-nineteenth century remain in the district. Both the Glessner House and the Clarke House are on the National Register of Historic Places and now serve as museums. Marshall Field (who lived at 1905 South Prairie) purchased 1919 South Prairie for Marshall Field Jr. Solon Spencer Beman designed what is now known as the Marshall Field Jr. Mansion and in 1902 Daniel Burnham designed extensions and additions to the property. In 2007, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks announced that the rehabilitation of the Marshall Field Jr. Mansion, which had been vacant for over 25 years and which was renovated as six private residences, won a Preservation Award.


Prairie Avenue is thriving once again as a vibrant and diversified residential neighborhood. Fortunately, eleven residences have survived from the district’s glory days. Visitors can sign up for a walking tour of the district or can explore on their own. Tours are available for the Glessner House Museum, a Romanesque style home built in 1886 and boasting an excellent collection of 19th century decorative arts in the English and American arts and crafts style. The Clarke House Museum, built in 1836 and untouched by the great Chicago fire, features mid-nineteenth century furnishings in this Greek Revival home that depicts life on the urban frontier. Visitors will also want to make a stop at the Second Presbyterian Church to admire the Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows. Magnificent! Additionally, a major book on Prairie Avenue has been released by Arcadia Publishing. The Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance and its partners are now playing a key role to assure this dynamic and extremely important Chicago neighborhood can be appreciated for years to come.

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