Lost Mansions of the Gold Coast

When Potter Palmer decided in 1882 to build his new home on North Lake Shore Drive he indelibly altered the course of real estate development among the wealthy and prominent citizens of Chicago. What started as sandy marshland on the lakefront soon became the most desirable and expensive property in the city. However its success became its bete noir as well. Demand for dwelling units in the area led to higher property values and as a result many beautifully designed single family homes and townhouses designed by the most prominent architects of the period were eventually replaced by luxury apartment buildings.

The success of the Gold Coast development attracted not only the social elite of the city but also the best known architects of the era, both locally and nationally. The list includes:

David Adler
Burnham & Root
Joseph Lyman Silsbee
Richard Hunt
H. H. Richardson
Howard Van Doren Shaw
Adler & Sullivan
Cobb & Frost
McKim, Mead & White
Pond & Pond
Solon S. Beman
Burling & Whitehouse
William Le Baron Jenny
Benjamin Marshall
Holabird & Roche


These were firms and individuals that were responsible not just for the splendor of the Gold Coast but also the reshaping of the Chicago skyline for many years after the Chicago Fire of 1871.


The “Gold Coast” is bound roughly by Cedar Avenue to the south, North Avenue to the north, Dearborn Street to the west and Lake Shore Drive / Michigan Avenue to the east. Prior to 1882 most of this area was undeveloped and swampy lakefront that wasn’t even particularly suitable for recreational purposes.

Notwithstanding DuSable’s and Kinzie’s decision to settle on the north side of the river, the majority of early growth of the City took place on the south side of the main branch. It wasn’t long however before development spread well beyond the various river branches. In 1836 when Henry Clark built his house (known as the Widow Clark House) he picked a site near what is now 16th Street and Michigan Avenue. At the time that location was considered the suburbs. The area we now call River North became a rotating enclave of various ethnic groups; German, Irish, Swedish, to name a few. But the commercial center remained concentrated in the area immediately south of and along the river.


In 1871 the Chicago Fire destroyed almost everything in its path from roughly Taylor Street to Fullerton, east of the river. In the immediate aftermath of the fire the wealthy residents of the city began to build new homes for themselves in the area that is now known as the Prairie Avenue Historic District which encompassed Prairie, Indiana, and Michigan Avenues from 16th street to 22nd Street. There were a number of reasons for selecting this area.

It was unscathed by the fire. It was near the lakefront where the residents could take advantage of the cool breezes in the summer. The Prairie Avenue area was centrally located for the businessmen that settled there.

Another factor that made the south side more attractive was the traffic on the river and the relatively few bridges on which to cross. The early histories of the city are full of stories of people waiting in traffic for hours just to get from one side of the river to the other. Donald Hoffman references a contemporary newspaper report that “reckless bridge tenders, some of whom, when befuddled by whiskey, would swing open their bridges with vehemence, hurling traffic into the river.”

Also, due in no small part to the efforts of Potter Palmer the downtown commercial area was reoriented from east-west along the main branch of the river to north-south along State Street. In 1867 Palmer purchased 3 blocks of State Street frontage and developed it for commercial use. He also convinced the city to widen State Street making it a major thoroughfare. When the fire hit 4 years later the north-south momentum for development was already set and during the subsequent rebuilding the land at the south end of the downtown that had once been used for homes was now too valuable, pushing residential development further south.


A number of things occurred in the ten years after the fire that caused Potter Palmer to look northward for his new home. The area around Prairie Avenue developed very quickly which meant that available land was getting expensive and farther away from the city center. Also, while the residents were indeed close to the lake they could not utilize the lakefront for any recreational activities because of the railroad right of way that paralleled the lakefront. Furthermore the cool lake breezes that they valued often carried with them coal detritus from the parade of locomotives that passed nearby.

Potter Palmer, in deciding upon the location to build his new home (and, ever the shrewd businessman, make some money doing it) purchased a significant portion of the relatively empty, marshy, area of the City we now refer to as the Gold Coast. His intent was to develop it, popularize it, and sell the property developed or otherwise at a profit.

Palmer, along with other developers that included the Catholic Archdiocese, succeeded in making the area one of the most popular in which to live. Future blog posts will highlight several of the mansions built by Palmer and others that have disappeared, the unintended victims of their own success.

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