Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The McConnell House at 546 Hawthorne

I strolled down one of the most serene streets in Chicago the other day – Hawthorne Place in East Lakeview.  In the days before Lake Shore Drive the street ended at the lake, and as you walk past the wooded, over-sized lots, you can imagine what it must have been like to escape the city for the country lifestyle of Lake View township back at the end of the nineteenth century.

546 Hawthorne Place (JWB, 2011)
Right across from the Chicago City Day School on the far east end of Hawthorne stands the John McConnell house at 546 West Hawthorne.  For a tour of the McConnell house, courtesy of Open House Chicago, click here.

For me the interesting thing about these beautiful homes is the story of the folks who lived in them.  And Mr. McConnell’s story is a particularly interesting one, a story that actually begins with his father’s attempt to sink roots in the muck of early Chicago.

The east side of the John McConnell house
(JWB, 2011)
John McConnell was born on December 8, 1847 to an Irish father, Edward, and a Scottish mother, Charlotte (McGlashan).  Edward left Ireland in 1821, sailing to Montreal where he spent the winter, moving on to Rochester, New York where he worked as a clerk in a lumberyard.  Finally, in 1830 Edward left New York “with several equally inclined partners in an open Macinaw boat with Chicago as their destination.” [Curey, Josiah Seymour.  Chicago, Its History and Its Builders, A Century of Marvelous Growth, Volume 4.  The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago:  1912.]

The boat was wrecked off Long Point on Lake Erie, and Edward and his partners walked back to Buffalo, where he spent the winter, sailing for Chicago once again in the spring of 1831.  When he got to the swamp that was Chicago, virtually all of its residents were suffering with fever.  Old Man McConnell, high-tailed it to Springfield, where he started a wholesale grocery business and made the acquaintance of a country lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who represented him in several land cases.

Edward enlisted to fight in the Black Hawk wars and got to the field “just about the time peace was declared.” [Curry]  Finally, in late 1837 he invested everything he had in Chicago land, losing most of it in the panic of 1838.  Timing apparently wasn’t one of Edward’s strengths.

He hung in there, though, marrying in 1848 and building the first brick house in the city at the corner of Clark and Madison.  He also bought farm property at 22nd Street and Halsted.  Buying and selling land gave him a comfortable lifestyle, and he and Charlotte raised four sons. 

John McConnell's lakeside place in the country (JWB, 2011)
John, the third son, grew up on the Halsted property and attended the original University of Chicago.  He tried his hand at picture-framing until 1884 when he began buying and subdividing property in the township of Lake View.  It must have been a lucrative business; from 1870 to 1887 the township grew from 2,000 to 45,000 and became a part of Chicago in 1889.

John was elected as a Lake View supervisor and president of the Board of Trustees the same year he began dealing in real estate within the township.  Just a guess – the position probably didn’t hurt the business.  When Lake View township became a part of Chicago, John became a city alderman.

In 1885 Mr. McConnell built his home at 546 Hawthorne Place, just steps away from Lake Michigan.  He was a member of the Chicago Real Estate Board, the Chicago Athletic Association, the Chicago Yacht Club and the Edgewater Golf Club. [Curry]  In short, he was doin’ alright.

Take away the cars and Hawthorne Place looks much like it must have
looked back in 1885 when John McConnell built his home (JWB, 2011)
And that’s another Chicago story from the middle of the nineteenth century.  The son of an Irishman who came to the country with nothing ends up in the big brick house on the lake. 

The house is still there, and it is just as impressive as it must have been back there in 1885 . . . if you ignore the traffic whizzing by on Lake Shore Drive.


Unknown said...

Hey Jim, Just wanted to thank you for your story on the McConnell home. I have been researching some family history to put together for my children and neices and nephews and was happy to send this to them. Edward was my great, great grandfather. I have been reading his autobiography and putting together his life story. "Old man" McConnell was 26 years old when he high tailed it to Springfield! Thank you. Janet Voss

Chicago Old and New said...

Janet, I'm glad that you enjoyed the brief piece on your forebear's homestead. The more I read about these folks, the more I realize how exceptional they really were. To think of what they went through to get where they ended up . . . they're amazing stories.

Chris Rummel said...

I lived next door to the McConnell house for many years (and my family still does), a truly beautiful home. Louise Eisendrath lived there when I was a child, and I used to go over and visit her every so often. Unfortunately, Chicago City Day School recently purchased it, and considering the track record they have with destroying historic buildings on the block, we are very worried what's to become of it. Hawthorne Place has so many stories, and it was great to read the one you've collected here. We all hope to have a family living in the house again one day instead of the school.

Fred Beck said...

Jim; I, too enjoyed your description of the McConnell House. John McConnell, the owner, was my great grandfather. I was interested to see the comment by Janet Voss. It appears that we are related but I don't know how. If Janet should see this comment, I hope she will get in touch with me at fmbeck@fmbeck.net. Thanks, Fred McConnell Beck.