Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chicago's Meeker Mansion

If you look back to my March 24 blog entitled The Fountain and the University, you will see the connection of New York architect Charles A. Platt to the planning of the University of Illinois.  

I first learned of Platt when I did some research on a fountain in the southwest corner of Bryant Park in New York City.  In the process I learned that Platt designed the master plan for the University of Illinois along with nine buildings that line the campus "quad."

Not bad for a guy who started his career as a landscape artist.  The connections continue.

Today, I began to research a building in my neighborhood that I love -- the Meeker Mansion at 3030 Lake Shore Drive.  The elder Meeker, Arthur Sr., doesn't radiate a lot of information.  Like the meatpacking and feed grain industries he controlled for Philip Danforth Armour, he lived, he prospered, and he died.

The Meeker Mansion at 3030 Lake Shore Drive 
between Barry and Wellington
Architect Charles A Platt (1913) 

Meeker was another one of those great turn-of-the-century capitalists who started life with little and ended wealthy enough to own a mansion in Chicago and a nice spread called Arcady up in Lake Forest.  F. Scott Fitzgerald might have described him as being part of the horse set

You get references here and there in newspaper accounts.  The New York Times of August 24, 1899 refers to an impending effort by the butchers of New York to fight the "beef trust," a reference to the reaction of east coast butchers, still fiery after over ten years of protest, to the "impure" and cut-rate dressed beef sent from Chicago in refrigerated railroad cars. 

Meeker reacted, "It strikes me that the butchers are trying to make water run up hill . . . What can the butchers, or anybody else for that matter, do against the workings of nature?"

"The workings of nature," of course, being code for unregulated capitalism, a system that made Meeker and scores of men like him richer than they could have ever dreamed.

Another reference comes after a general strike in the meatpacking industry was broken in August of 1904.  "The old employees' places have been filled so promptly," Meeker stated, "that very few of the strikers will ever be able to get back their old places and those who do will come back as individuals."

Then came the day in February of 1912 when one Charles Pratt, former assistant to Meeker, appeared in federal court to testify against his former employer and Armour and Company in a trial concerning the meatpacking giant's attempts to fix prices and shut out its competition.

The trial didn't set Meeker back for too long, for in 1913 he moved his family from Prairie Avenue into the country, just off Lake Shore Drive a few blocks north of Lincoln Park.  He led a parade that brought other industrial giants of Chicago -- men like Oscar Mayer, Lester Armour (Philip's son), banker Lester Apfel, and piano magnate Philip Starck to the same area.

 The Oscar Mayer Residences at 333 and 335 West Wellington
Architects Rissman & Hirschfeld (1926)

 The Lester Armour House at 325 West Wellington
Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw (1915)

 The Arthur H. Apfel House at 341 West Wellington
Architect E. H. Frommann (1925)

 The Philip T. Starck House at 330 West Wellington
Architect:  Mayo & Mayo (1925)

The Meeker mansion, a place that I have passed a hundred times, a brick and limestone gem, was designed by  -- Charles A. Platt.

That's right . . . the same Charles A. Platt who did the fountain and the university.

Now in its third life, the Meeker mansion is looking good these days. 

Front entrance to the Meeker mansion

Details of front entrance to the Meeker mansion

In 1945 the Helpers of the Holy Souls acquired the property and converted the mansion and coach house into living quarters while adding a chapel and a dormitory.  Then in 1993 the sisters invited AIDSCare, a residential facility for folks suffering from AIDS, to move in with them.

"We needed housing," said AIDSCare founder Jim Flosi, "and they had room . . . They only asked that we pay the utilities--gas, electricity, water." [Chicago Reader, July 8, 2005]

Then in April of 2005 the sisters sold the mansion to LR Development Co. for $21 million.  The chapel that the sisters added when they acquired the property along with an addition of the same vintage was torn down. [Chicago Tribune, August 14, 2005]

The mansion sits on a beautiful piece of property, removed from the hustle and bustle of the lakefront path, located on the other side of an underpass just across the street.  

The danger was that this block-wide piece of prime lakefront real estate would explode into another high rise property or a series of rowhouses and upscale single family homes.

That didn't happen, thankfully.  The mansion has been divided into  four and five-bedroom condominiums with 3.5 to 5.5 bathrooms in each of the four units.  It looks as good today as it must have looked when the Meekers moved in close to a hundred years ago.

Wrought iron detailing at second floor level above front entrance

Arthur Meeker's son, Arthur Meeker, Jr., was a writer whose most famous book, Prairie Avenue, was published in 1949.  He ended the book with these words, "Chicago was still there, though the strong old roosters had disappeared, leaving little to show for their efforts but their businesses, which, like Frankenstein's monsters, seemed to have achieved a ruthless life of their own, quite independent of their founders' undistinguished descendants."

The strong old roosters have disappeared.  Disappeared long ago.  But in many places throughout the city, their homes still proudly stand.  The Meeker mansion is one of them.


Anonymous said...

Good research. You answered my questions and informed me about this out of the way block. -a nearby resident.

Unknown said...

Arthur Meeker Sr. owned a summer residence in Beverly Farms, MA. It is cuurently for sale as a fixer-upper for $1.2 million The house was built at the turn of the 20th century.

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Unknown said...

3030 Lakeshore Drive was home to the well to do McVoy Family---when Eugene McVoy died in the Valley of the kings while on a trip with his eldest daughter, Mary Celeste Holden Kohler MacFadden. His Wife, also Mary Celeste when on a worldwide tour--and returned to the US and 3030 Lakeshore Drive with a minor Italian NObleman some 40 years her junior.

When she died--Park Bernet did the auction of the house nad it was then given to the Sisters...Celeste once showed me ethe auction book and it was quite a sale....That is what I know of 3030 LakeShore Drive..
Prof. Rene Vallee

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