In the late 1800s, Chicago’s richest families chose Prairie Avenue as the place to build their mansions. The blocks between 16th and 20th Streets and along Calumet Avenue one block east had some incredible homes built along them. At the 1893 World’s Fair, the Prairie District was a popular tourist attraction boasting over 50 mansions. It was billed “the most expensive street west of 5th Avenue”.
By 1910, factories had creeped into the neighborhood and most of the families packed up and moved to the Gold Coast. The area went into a decline and many of the mansions were knocked down. Only nine of the original homes still remain, but it’s still a pleasant place to take a walk.
Thanks to the Chicago Architecture Foundation and other preservationists, the remaining homes have been saved from demolition and are here today for us to enjoy. You can also see many impressive modern homes among the historic ones. The neighborhood association had strict design rules and the modern homes had to conform to these rules in order to be built along Prairie Avenue. In addition, residential skyscrapers have popped up around the Prairie District and it has once again become a prime area to live in.
The John J. Glessner House at the corner of Prairie and 18th Street is one of the original mansions. It was built in 1886 by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. He never lived to see it completed but it’s known as his best residential work. The mansion is open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday for tours at 11:30am, 1pm, and 2:30pm. Admission is normally US$15 but it’s free on Wednesdays. Click here to read about my tour of the house.
Across the street from the Glessner House at 1801 S. Prairie is the William K. Kimball House. It was built in 1873 and now serves as the headquarters for the US Soccer Federation. Next door at 1811 S. Prairie is the Joseph G. Coleman House, built in 1885.
Further down the block is the Elbridge G. Keith House. It was finished in 1870 and is located at 1900 S. Prairie. The Marshall Field, Jr., House at 1921 S. Prairie was finished in 1884 and bought by the son of the department store magnate in 1890. Field demolished his father’s house next door to expand his own home in 1902. After he was killed in 1905, the house changed hands a few times and was used as a rehab hospital and psychiatric center. In 2007, it was split into six condominiums.
Chicago Women’s Park
Next to the Elbridge House where other homes once stood is Chicago Women’s Park. It’s a beautiful space with trees, a fountain, public art, and gardens. Located in the park is the Henry B. Clarke House. It’s the oldest house in Chicago, built in 1836 when the Prairie District was undeveloped prairie and marshes. It has been moved twice from its original location at 17th and Michigan. Guided tours of the home are free. They take place every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at 1pm and 3pm. Click here to read about my visit to the Clarke House.
At the corner of 18th and Calumet, just a block east of Prairie Avenue, is a small park. During the War of 1812, the Battle of Fort Dearborn took place on this very spot. On August 15, 1812, 50 soldiers and 41 civilians (nearly the entire population of the Chicago area at the time) marched south after Fort Dearborn (next to the Chicago River) was ordered to be evacuated. When they reached this spot, a band of 500 Potawatomi Indians aligned with the British attacked the group. Over 60 people including two women and 12 children were killed. Fort Dearborn was burned down by the Potawatomi the next day. The park is named for the battle.
A couple blocks south at 2020 S. Calumet is the Wheeler Mansion. It was built in 1870 by banker Calvin T. Wheeler. In 1908, the mansion was sold to a publishing company that used it as a production center. It was later used as an egg distribution warehouse. By 1997, it was empty and slated for demolition when it was saved and restored. It’s now a boutique hotel.
Second Presbyterian Church
A couple blocks west at Michigan and Cullerton is the Second Presbyterian Church. It was built in 1874 and was undergoing renovations at the time I walked by.
La Cantina Grill
Across the street, I had lunch at La Cantina Grill with my friend. They serve good authentic Mexican food at reasonable prices. I had the lunch special enchiladas and Mayan tamales as a starter. Our bill was US$30 including tip.