During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, many of Chicago’s most wealthy and influential citizens called Prairie Avenue home. Several of the street’s residents became well-known for their philanthropy as well as their prominence in Chicago’s business and social worlds. For example, Charles Hutchinson served as President of the Art Institute as well as founder of the Corn Exchange Bank; George Pullman created a model town (also named Pullman) for the workers in this railroad manufacturing plant; and Marshall Field put some of the wealth generated by his department store to fund the Field Museum and donated land to the University of Chicago.
By the 1890s, ninety-five mansions lined the six blocks between 16th and 22nd Streets, comprising what was widely considered the most fashionable residential district in the city. The nationally prominent architects who designed several of the houses–-including Daniel Burnham, Solon S. Beman, and Henry Hobson Richardson—also built commercial structures in Chicago’s downtown during the same period.
It would be a mistake to describe Prairie Avenue as exerting a direct influence on the Plan of Chicago. As numerous critics have pointed out, the Plan does not address housing at all. Yet the drawings of Prairie Avenue from the 1893 Rand, McNally & Co.’s Bird’s-eye Views and Guide to Chicago bear comparison to many of the architectural renderings in the Plan. Both sets of illustrations show tidy streetscapes, featuring visually unified architectural ensembles. The houses in the guidebook, like the commercial structures in the Plan, have matching cornice heights, parallel set-backs from the street, and uniform plantings. The Plan and the guidebook thus shared a similar aesthetic for urban representation.
In presenting Prairie Avenue as a tourist destination, the guidebook also attests that the street’s reputation extended beyond Chicago. Such guidebooks reached international audiences and reinforced the esteem of a Prairie Avenue address in popular culture as well as high society. Notably, while birds-eye views look down upon their subjects, this image looks up at Prairie Avenue’s opulent homes, reflecting the awe and renown with which they were regarded.
Domer, Marilyn A. “Prairie Avenue and Environs,” in Walking with Women Through Chicago History: 4 Self-Guided Tours, Babette Inglehard, ed. Chicago: Salsedo Press, 1981.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Culture and City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Molloy, Mary Alice, “Prairie Avenue,” in Grand American Avenue, 1850-1920, ed. Jan Cigliano, Sarah Bradford Landau. San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks and Washington, D.C.: The Octagon, the Museum of the American Architectural Foundation, 1994.
Foral, Marianna. “Prairie Avenue Chicago.” http://www.chicagodetours.com/ prairie-avenue-chicagos-first-neighborhood-of-mansions/.
“Prairie Avenue,” from Rand, McNally & Co.’s Bird’s-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago; New York: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893), p. 269. The Newberry Library, Case F548.5 .R33 1893