I took my Archival Documentation class up to the Chicago History Museum on Wednesday to get started on their research there. On the way there and the way back, we walked through the Gold Coast, a National Register of Historic Places historic district that encompasses about a half-mile (4 blocks) of Dearborn, State, and Astor Streets and Lake Shore Drive. It is bordered on the east by the lake and on the west by Sandburg Village, a typically soporific postwar towers-and-townhomes urban renewal development.
Chicago’s wealthy lived first on the west side, near Union Park, then on the near south side, along Prairie Avenue, and only from about 1890 on did the north side Gold Coast evolve into the most privileged area. Launched by Potter Palmer’s 1882 mansion, demolished in 1950, the Gold Coast was originally Italianate and Second Empire townhomes of relatively imposing proportion, although decidedly a notch below similar 1880s homes on the south side.
The largest home was and is the mansion of the Catholic archbishop, which predated even Palmer. By 1900 the grand Renaissance-inspired palazzo of Patterson-McCormick by the majestic McKim, Mead and White had arisen, along with the stately French elegance of the George Isham House by James Gamble Rogers.
This latter would achieve another sort of fame in the 1960s and 1970s when it became Hugh Hefner’s first Playboy Mansion. In the late 1980s it was Hefner Hall of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and on Wednesday nights I would pick up my then-girlfriend from class there.
The Gold Coast always had larger buildings, multi-story apartments arrived at the beginning of the era and by the 1910s and 1920s, many of the original low-rise mansions on Lake Shore Drive had given way to taller, but no less elegant and exclusive buildings.
But after Palmer’s mansion was replaced by a couple of bland slabs of artless brick-meat in the 1950s, residents started to take umbrage with the high-rise explosion which seemed to be cheapening as well as crowding the district. The National Register of Historic Places, as everyone outside of Kenilworth knows, provides no protection against private development, so in 1975 community residents created the Astor Street Chicago Landmark district, to preserve what was left of one of the Gold Coast’s most famous streets.
The district also includes several individual Chicago Landmarks, including the Three Arts Club (1914, Holabird & Roche),the three surviving Houghteling Houses by John Wellborn Root and the Charnley-Persky House on Astor, an important work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan that is now home to the Society of Architectural Historians.
Perhaps the most exclusive part of the Gold Coast is technically a bit south and east of it in Streeterville, but the East Lake Shore Drive Chicago Landmark district is notable for being the first downtown Chicago Landmark, created by the City Council way back in 1985, despite some strong opposition. Thankfully, this block of buildings visible from a mile to the north and anchored by the incomparable Benjamin Marshall elegance of the storied Drake Hotel, remains intact today, the city’s finest lakefront residential face.
In the late 1980s I was involved when the City created the Seven Houses on Lake Shore Drive Chicago Landmark, linking the four surviving mansions on the 1200 block with the three surviving mansions on the 1500 block in a bifurcated district that nonetheless survived court challenges from an owner who wanted to put up a 42-story addition to a house they had been given for free many years earlier. Here are the homes on the 1200 block:
And here is an Astor Street highrise of the type that inspired the historic district but might have been an object of preservation itself had it not suffered a 1990s recladding that blunted its original 1963 Bertrand Goldberg design.
Some of the more felicitous touches were the 1930s Andrew Rebori buildings, small-scaled like their Victorian forbears but with curving brick and glass brick walls that give them a sleek modernity and a gritty handmade quality at the same time.
It is a rarefied neighborhood, but thanks to the preservation of human-scaled architecture from 1880 to 1940, Chicago’s Gold Coast is a worthy walk.
BTW: Another great post from Blair Kamin today here. And not just because he used my photo….