Detailing Chicago's historic houses

Beginning with the cover photo and description that open Chicago’s Mansions by John Graf (Arcadia Publishing, $19.99), the author takes readers on a compelling journey through Chicago’s streets and great houses and indirectly, through the history of a great city.

Only a small portion of the mansion of Leander James McCormick (Cyrus’s brother) makes it onto the cover, but the old bearded gentleman (think Ulysses S. Grant) and his well-dressed family fill the home’s wide front steps in this 1860s photo, complete with top hat, cane and billowing dresses, each big enough to clothe an army of contemporary women.

The shot is appropriate because while the focus of this book is very much on houses, its quick vignettes also provide insight into the people behind them – the architects who designed the city’s mansions and the wealthy families that lived in them. Of course there are the famous names, the Palmers, Fields, Kimballs and Swifts, the tycoons and politicians who dominated the city’s society pages, but there also are the grand homes of forgotten furniture dealers, liquor wholesalers and printers.

Graf pays homage in his introduction to the “Kinzie Mansion,” built in the 1770s by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and later owned by Chicago’s first permanent white settler, John Kinzie, as the city’s first mansion of sorts, though few today would characterize the log structure that way.

The first section, Mansions of the South Side, opens with Henry B. Clarke House (1836), 1855 S. Indiana, which many believe to be the oldest standing mansion in the city. Not so, Graf points out. That distinction goes to the Noble-Seymour-Crippen House, at 5624 N. Newark, which was built in 1833, although as he writes, the Norwood Park location would have been outside the city limits at the time.

Moving from the famous Glessner House and other Prairie Avenue gems to an early, little-known Frank Lloyd Wright house at 121st and Harvard, the book provides a black-and-white photo and capsule description of a wide variety of homes and architectural styles. Other sections are devoted to North Side mansions, West Side mansions and lost mansions.

Here is the blocky sturdiness of Richardson Romanesque, the gingerbread of ornate Queen Annes and the fanciful flourishes of French Renaissance architecture. Some of the homes are hard to classify, and others are more likely to bring a smile than a sigh of admiration. An uncharacteristic 1896 mansion by venerable architects Holabird & Roche at 1258 N. Lake Shore is described as “Venetian Gothic.” Furniture manufacturer Hermann Weinhardt wanted a house that would remind him of his native Germany, and the gingerbread result, at 2135 W. Pierce, is straight out of a fairy tale. Though perhaps not as much as the 1886 limestone mansion built at 10244 S. Longwood, in Joliet, to resemble a medieval Irish castle.

Readers able to connect the dots can trace the evolution of Wright’s Prairie School and see the influence of Henry Hobson Richardson on Louis Sullivan through the residential work of these famous architects, but Graf leaves the photo and brief description of each house to speak for itself. The introductions to each section are only half a page; Chicago Mansions, more of a photo album than a thorough family history, is not for those in search of context.

One of the books flaws is its lack of an index, but browsing through these 128 delightful pages to find a particular house leads to wonderful detours, and for a Chicago architecture buff, there are worse ways to spend a quarter of an hour.

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