Chicago: The Giants’ Footprints


Visitors to Chicago have tended either to love the city or to despise it, but its bursting vitality has awed everyone. Perhaps Mark Twain expressed it best. “That astonishing Chicago,” he wrote in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, “a city where they are always rubbing the lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities.”

Some of those who rubbed the lamp and fetched up the genii are the subject of an article in this issue of American Heritage, and on a recent trip to Chicago I tried to discover what footprints left by the millionaires of Chicago’s golden age are still visible.

I started my visit at the John Hancock Center observatory—on the ninety-fourth of its hundred stories. From almost a thousand feet up, Chicago looks spacious and agreeable, with no sign of its nineteenth-century smoky ugliness. It has wide streets, generously spaced buildings, many parks, and a feast of skyscrapers, new and old. It is easy to see why the city is considered the architectural capital of the United States.

Chicago stretches along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, and from the vast height of the Hancock building it seems intimately connected with the water. In some areas beaches are only a block or two from office buildings. In other places the space between the city and water is filled with parklands. Credit goes to the department store magnate A. Montgomery Ward for keeping parts of this green space free from development. In his day they called him “Watchdog of the Lake Front.”

Chicago’s watery setting created dreadful health problems in the nineteenth century. The Chicago River, which bisects the city, became polluted and poured sewage into Lake Michigan, then and now the source of Chicago’s drinking water. The city’s engineers accomplished the astounding feat of reversing the flow of the river in 1871. The job had to be done again in 1900, but the river continues today to run out of Lake Michigan instead of into it.


Back on the ground I explored the streets at closer range. Chicago was late in starting to preserve its old buildings, but the destruction of the Stock Exchange in 1972 seems finally to have galvanized the city into saving what remained of its architectural treasures. That building was the work of Louis Sullivan and his partner, Dankmar Adler, in 1894, and it was a prime example of Sullivan’s brilliance as a designer and Adler’s engineering genius. The Art Institute of Chicago rescued both the building’s entry arch, which stands in the institute’s Grant Park Garden, and its trading room, which is set up exactly as it was in the museum’s new wing.

The old public buildings, however, have proved more resistant to demolition than the private ones. The Prairie Avenue Historic District, operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, has been set up to preserve what is left of Chicago’s nineteenth-century residential life. Though Prairie Avenue was the fashionable center of the city in 1890, it had become a slum by 1930. There are only two houses for regular visits in this modest historical district, but I found the peaceful, grassy block.

The newer of the historic district’s two museum houses, the Glessner House, is the more interesting. Like other Chicago millionaires, John J. Glessner, a founder of the International Harvester Company, could afford the best, and he hired Henry Hobson Richardson in 1886 to design his house. It is the only Richardson building that still exists in Chicago and, in fact, the only Richardson house in the whole United States open to the public.

By the 1880s Prairie Avenue had become, as one booster said, “the sunny street of the sifted few.” The houses of Chicago’s wealthiest families—Armours, Swifts, Fields, McCormicks, Pullmans, and Palmers—lined the street for several blocks. As expected of the city’s first citizens, their houses were tall, fashionable Victorian structures. What Richardson built for the Glessners was nothing like them. It is a low, solid building, and its heavy masonry and small windows give it a fortresslike appearance on the street side. The house faces more intimately on its interior garden, which is cut off from public view by a solid masonry wall, sealing in the family’s privacy.

The Glessners’ neighbors found the house shockingly ugly. Potter Palmer, the owner of the fashionable Palmer House, was particularly outraged. He is said to have become so angry at the thought of seeing the offending building every day that he determined to move away from Prairie Avenue. Shortly afterward he had his house razed to the ground and built a new one on Lake Shore Drive, thus starting the movement of the rich into that northern section of the city, now known as the Gold Coast.

This domestic drama may be apocryphal, for there were other reasons for the Prairie Avenue district to lose its aura. The captains of industry who lived there were so successful that Chicago was exploding with factories, railroads, and stockyards, and the peace of Prairie Avenue was being invaded by the noise and stench of their own successes.