Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Flair House--214 West Erie

Flair House at 214 West Erie (JWB, 2010)
One day last summer she who is wiser than I and meself were strolling down Erie Street toward the Erie Café and Montgomery Ward Park when I spotted a most peculiar and lovely building on the north side of the street between Wells and Franklin.  Settled gently into a bed of flowers with the sculpture of a maiden in the window above the front door, backlit by a glimmering chandelier, this, I found out, was 214 West Erie.  Better known as Flair House, the “house” is actually the headquarters for the Flair Communications Agency.

The advertising agency was started by Lee Flaherty, a Renaissance man if ever there were one.  After three years in the Army as a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division, Mr. Flaherty entered the University of California at Berkeley, graduating with a degree in Marketing in 1957. He worked in San Francisco for seven years before coming to Chicago.  In the mid-sixties he borrowed $8,500 from his mother, who mortgaged her California home to come up with the loan, and started his own company in the 1883 building on Erie Street. 

In addition to building a multi-million dollar company with an international reputation, Mr. Flaherty also was the founder of the Chicago Marathon, providing a $50,000 infusion of sorely needed cash for the first modern Chicago Marathon in 1977.  He also funded the second marathon a year later.  Mr. Flaherty also was the founder of the World’s Largest Block Party at Old St. Pat’s at Desplaines and Madison.  Guys like Mr. Flaherty make this city the place that it is, and his civic consciousness has brought him any number of awards over the years.

(JWB, 2010)
His selection of the old three-story house on Erie Street as the place where he would start his business, though, ranks right up there with the greatest of his achievements.  There was no “River North” back in 1964; the area north of the river was a hodge-podge of old warehouses and manufacturing buildings.  The work that began at 214 West Erie spread across the decades until the few blocks just north of the river have become the hot spot that we turn to today when we’re looking for a linen tablecloth and a nice glass of Russian River zinfandel.

When Mr. Flaherty moved into the house, it had no plumbing or electricity, and he paid $85 a month to rent the place.  Within a year he purchased it for $20,000, paying his mom back at the same time.  The main conference center in Flair House is named “The Frances Room” in her honor.  It took 20 years to restore the place, an ambitious effort complicated by the fact that half the structure had been destroyed in a 1929 fire.

According to the plaque that hangs on the front of Flair House, Marcus Devine, an Irish immigrant who became a milk merchant, had the house built for his wife, Eliza, and the couple’s six sons and daughters.  His generous contribution of dairy products was just one of the many acts of generosity that the citizens of Chicago witnessed after the Great Fire of October, 1871.

The delivery of milk was an important occupation back in the days when the water couldn’t be trusted and not everyone wanted to start pounding back ale at 7:00 in the morning.  By 1892 The Chicago Tribune estimated that it required 150,000 cows to supply the city’s need for milk.  Lined up single-file, those cows would form a 227-mile long parade that would take six days to pass a single point.

Before raw milk could be put in cans and shipped to the city, it had to be cooled to at least 60°.  Many farms lay some distance from the nearest railroad station, so everyone on the farm was involved in a grinding existence.  Most farm boys between the age of 12 and 16 never saw more than five hours of sleep in a night; milking could begin as early as 3:00 in the morning.

(JWB, 2010)
Most of Chicago’s the 337,500 gallons of milk that made up the city’s daily supply came to the city over the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, the only railroad having regular milk trains into Chicago.  The “Milk Express” was made of 19 yellow-painted baggage cars and brought 4,000 eight-gallon cans of pure milk into Chicago every morning over the Fox River branch.  The train arrived at the Clinton Street station at 10:15 in the morning where hundreds of milkmen were waiting with their horse-drawn wagons.  As late as the 1890’s there were 2,700 milk dealers in the city, all in competition with each other.

That competition forced down prices, so that it was almost impossible to make a profit.  Often the milk wagons carried three grades of “milk.”  One grade had four quarts of unfiltered lake water added to eight gallons of milk.  The higher grade had two quarts of lake water added to the eight gallons of milk.  The third can consisted of pure milk.  It was the milkman who decided who got what.

Dr. C. E. Peck, Vice-President of the Bowman Dairy company with offices on North State Street, said, “Prices are cut so that pure milk cannot be sold.  There is no sophistication.  But reputable dealers make no practice of carrying more than one grade of milk.  Among the best dealers who sell the purest goods to the wealthy families there is little competition.”

(JWB, 2010)
And that brings us back to Flair House because it was good old Marcus Devine, the man who built the house on Erie Street, who sold his company to the Bowman Dairy company of St. Louis on February 6, 1885.  Dr. Peck, who spoke in the above article, was the son-in-law of J. R. Bowman, who founded the St. Louis milk company in 1874 with a horse he borrowed from his father’s farm and a rented wagon.

And old Marcus Devine, the original owner of the beautifully restored 214 West Erie, has another claim to fame, it seems.  For it was Mr. Devine, way back in 1876, who challenged the Board of Commissioners of Cook County in a case that went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

It seems that the commissioners had passed a resolution authorizing the preparation of bonds up to a total of $1,000,000, payable at six per cent interest per annum for a period of 20 years.  The bond issue was for the erection of “necessary public buildings, for funding floating indebtedness, and for other purposed specified.”

Mr. Devine’s argument was three-fold.  First, he argued that the resolution contravened the clause in the Illinois constitution that forbade the passage of local or special laws.  Secondly, if there ever was a clause that allowed the Cook County Board’s action, it had been contravened in a later law.  And, finally, that “before the board of commissioners can have any rightful authority to issue bonds for any purpose named in the resolution they must submit the question of issuing such bonds to the legal voters of the county, at a general election.”

(JWB, 2011)
What was the result of the suit?  Marcus Devine, the milk merchant, won!  Early in 1877 the Illinois Supreme Court declared, “It follows, from the reasoning of the propositions stated, the board of commissioners of Cook county have no power, under the law, to issue bonds for any purpose named in the resolution adopted, unless authorized by a vote of the legal voters of the county, to whom the question of issuing such bonds shall have been submitted at a general election, after the amount and object for which it was proposed to issue bonds had been first ascertained.  That has not been done, and hence there is a total want of authority to issue the proposed bonds, and any one whose property will be affected by a tax tied to pay the interest or principal may enjoin the issuing of such bonds.”

So it’s quite a place there on Erie Street.  It was quite a place back in the nineteenth century, and Mr. Flaherty has paid the legacy forward.  The ultimate payoff . . . if you keep walking, you end up at Montgomery Ward Park and the Erie Café.  There could be a lot worse ways to spend two or three hours on a warm Chicago day.  


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