Lost Mansions of the Gold Coast, Part 2: the Palmer Castle & the First Charnley House


Potter and Bertha Palmer could be considered the archetypal Chicago power couple.  Potter was a successful businessman in commerce and real estate.  Bertha was an accomplished musician and writer, adept at politics, and a skilled administrator.  She was the president of the Board of Lady Managers of the 1892 World’s Fair which was responsible for selecting the architect, interior designers, and artists that created the Women’s Building for the fair.


The Palmers selected as the architect for their home the firm of Cobb & Frost, an interesting and unusual choice in that the firm was relatively new and they were not originally from the Chicago Area.  Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Sumner Frost were both from Boston and both worked in the well know Boston firm of Peabody & Stearns.  Cobb emigrated from Boston to Chicago in 1882 and established a practice here, convincing Frost to join him shortly thereafter.  One of their first commissions was this plum to design the personal dwelling of one of the city’s most prominent families.

The Cobb & Frost partnership was short-lived, ending in 1888.  Henry Ives Cobb went on to design the Newberry Library, The Chicago Athletic Association Building on Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Varnish Company building on Kinzie and Dearborn that now houses Harry Carry’s restaurant, the Chicago Historical Society building on Ontario and Dearborn, that robust Romanesque building that is now the Castle nightclub, and many of the buildings at the University of Chicago.  Charles Sumner Frost was responsible for Navy Pier with its beautiful ballroom.


A variety of architectural styles have been ascribed to the1882 Palmer mansion including Early Romanesque, Norman Gothic, (Thomas Tallmadge referred to it as English Gothic), Castellated, all of which means that it defied any such clean categorization.  It was built of a reddish-brown Wisconsin granite with a light Ohio sandstone trim.  There were no knobs or locks on the exterior doors.  Access could only be obtained from someone inside.

During the 1892 World’s Fair the Palmer mansion was one of two “must see” sights for visitors away from the fair grounds.  (The other was the Masonic Temple by Burnham and Root, then purportedly the tallest building not only in Chicago but in the world.)  Mrs. Palmer dominated the social scene.  To quote John Drury, “Here Mrs. Palmer, stately, regal, handsome wearing her diamond tiara and famous rope of pearls, ruled as social queen...and presided over brilliant functions and noble dinners.”   The Palmers entertained many domestic and foreign dignitaries including Presidents Grant and McKinley, and the Duke of Veragua, a descendant of Christopher Columbus.  They were also avid art collectors and the donation of a significant number of their pieces to the Art Institute became the core of the museums formidable collection of Impressionist paintings.

After the death of her husband in 1902, Mrs. Palmer continued the family’s success at real estate development both here and in Florida. She died in 1918 and lay in state in her Lake Shore Drive home.  Except for a brief period in the late 20’s, the Palmer Castle remained in the family but it was relatively unused and was demolished in 1950 to make way for an apartment complex.


Four months after Potter Palmer obtained his building permit James Charnley started construction on the first of two houses that he built in this area.  Charnley was one of several lumbermen who built homes in the Gold Coast which is an indication of the success of the lumber industry in the post fire building boom.  He moved here from Connecticut in 1866 shortly after graduating from Yale, and formed his first lumber company with his brother and brother-in-law.  James was a talented entrepreneur creating several successful businesses during the following years.  He was a bit of a wanderlust and claimed residence in several locations throughout his years in Chicago.


For this first Gold Coast home Charnley selected the architectural firm of Burnham and Root.  It’s interesting to note that John Root’s sister-in-law, the renowned poet Harriet Monroe, published a biography of Root five years after his death in 1891 and in it this house receives no mention.  Donald Hoffman also ignored it in his 1973 book on the architecture of John Root.

Daniel Burnham and John Root met in 1872 while working in the office of Carter, Drake and Wight.  Although their tenure there was relatively brief both men were influenced by the intellectual capability of Peter. B. Wight. The Burnham and Root partnership was formed the following year, taking advantage of the demand for new buildings in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire.

Daniel Burnham is generally acknowledged to have been the business partner and John Root was the principal designer.  The firm went on to design many of the important buildings that shaped the post-fire skyline of Chicago, including the Woman’s Temple, the Masonic Temple (mentioned earlier as the tallest building in the world at the time), the Rookery Building, and the north half of the Monadnock Block.  They were also put in charge of planning the 1892 Columbian Exposition, however John Root died prematurely in 1891, a fact which many argue altered the course of the World’s Fair and the character of architecture for years to come.  Daniel Burnham continued to lead a very successful practice until his death in 1912.  He is probably most remembered for his Plan of Chicago co-developed with Edward Bennett and published in 1909.

Their Charnley house was a Queen Anne Style with influences of the Shingle Style.  It’s possible that James Charnley was interested in using the house to advertise his wares.  The family remained in the house for only 5 years however, moving into a townhouse on Erie Street next door to his father-in-law until 1892 when they moved into the better known Adler & Sullivan / Frank Lloyd Wright designed house on the corner of Astor and Schiller Streets.

The 1882 residence was demolished in 1912 to make way for a luxury apartment building by Marshall & Fox, a clear indication of how the lack of land and the demand for dwelling space in this neighborhood had increased 30 years.

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