Monday, February 2, 2015

Crane Mansion Flushed -- February 2, 1955

The home of RIchard Teller Crane, Jr. at the corner of
North Avenue and Lake Shore Drive (Ryerson & Burnham Archives)
On this date in 1955 another of the great mansions that lined Lake Shore Drive north of Oak Street was consigned to the wrecking ball as a contract was signed to level the former home of Richard Teller Crane, Jr. at the corner of North Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.  The 45-room house with eight bathrooms had stood on the corner since 1910 when it was completed for an estimated half-million dollars.  Charles Summer Frost, the same architect who gave Chicago the original buildings at Navy Pier, designed the mansion.  Plans were to convert the vacant lot ion which the house stood into a surface parking lot.

Mr. Crane was the son of Richard Teller Crane, a nephew of the great Chicago lumber man, Martin Ryerson.  Crane, who had gone to work at the age of nine after the death of his father, came to Chicago in 1855 from New York.  He was shocked at what he saw, writing in his autobiography that the city “was literally alive with rats” and its unpaved streets “a sea of mud.”  []

Richard T. Crane and family, son Cornelius,
daughter and wife, Florence and Florence
On the Fourth of July of 1855 the young Crane opened up the R. T. Crane Brass and Bell Foundry, 14 feet by 24 feet, at the corner of Canal and Fulton Streets. One thing led to another and by 1865 the company had moved into its third location, a huge plant at 10 North Jefferson Street, the first cast iron foundry west of Pittsburgh.  The firm fabricated just about everything, from cast iron moldings to steam engines to elevators. 

After the old man’s death there was some discussion between R. T. Crane, Jr. and his older brother, Charles, over the terms of their father’s will.  Their lawyers advised both men to submit a closed bid naming a price for buying the other out of the family business.  Richard submitted the higher bid and Charles agreed.  World War I brought a huge increase in business to the company, and it continued to expand. 

The Drawing Room (Ryerson & Burnham Architve)
In 1921 with the purchase of the Trenton Potteries Company, the firm launched a line of business for which it is probably most remembered today.  A line of plumbing fixtures had been sold since 1894, but after the war ended Crane began an advertising campaign, exceeding a million dollars a year, one of the first full-color series of advertisements in magazines, to create demand for a new luxury bathroom.  The campaign worked.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, the brand new Drake Hotel, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the 1928 remodeling of Wrigley Field all used the Crane line of plumbing fixtures. 

And hundreds of thousand of people changed their idea in the space of a decade of what a bathroom should be.   

The Crane Parlor (Ryerson & Burnham Arhive)
Success continued after the death of Richard Teller Crane, Jr. in 1931. Much of the Chicago operation was gone by the early 1970’s and the plumbing division was sold to American Standard Brands in 1990.  A thorough and engaging look at the history of the company can be found here.

The man who lived in the mansion at the corner of North Avenue and Lake Shore Drive was a complicated man, full of contradictions as most human beings are.  As early as 1917 he created a life insurance plan for his workers and provided medical care for them and their families.  In the years between 1914 and 1922 he gave every employee a bonus of between five and ten percent of their annual salary, distributing $11,511,000 to the employees during that time.  He sponsored scholarships for high school students and encouraged other Chicago industrialists to do the same. 

Yet, he had opinions that often found disfavor.  One example was the hot water he found himself in over comments he made in 1909 about public universities and the University of Illinois specifically. 

Front Hallway (Ryerson & Burnham Archive)
“I have given a great deal of thought and study to the subject of higher education, and have conducted several systematic investigations with regard to this and many other institutions engaged in advanced lines of education," he wrote to the president of the U. of I.  In fact, as far as I know, I am the only one who ever has taken up this subject in a businesslike way, and the conclusion I have reached is that practically every one of these institutions is a fraud and an imposition on the public.”  [Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1909]

The industrialist didn’t stop there but continued, “Instead of appropriating funds for such institutions it would be a good deal better for the state to put a torch to them and burn them down, to go out of the ‘higher education’ business, and permit the boys to go back to their homes and assist in supporting their families, instead of causing them heavy expense.”

In January of 1955 the 45-room mansion on Lake Shore Drive would cause no more heavy expense.  The Speedway Wrecking Company made sure of that.

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