Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Potter Palmer Mansion Razed -- February 10, 1950

This is what two million bucks got you back in 1882
(Ryerson-Burnham Archives)
In the year I was born, 1950, one of the great mansions ever to be built in Chicago was razed.  It was just about this time of year in 1950 that the wreckers came to level the home of Potter Palmer to make way for a huge apartment project.

What an amazing place this must have been when it rose in 1882.  When the year began, Jesse James was still creating mayhem.  It wasn’t until September of that year that Thomas Edison opened the first electric power station in the country, lighting up one square mile of lower Manhattan.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born that year.  As was Igor Stravinsky and Edward Hopper.  Édouard Manet completed one of my favorite painting in the world, A Bar at the Folies-Bergéfre.

The three-story main hall
(Ryerson-Burnham Archives)
Bertha and Potter Palmer budgeted $90,000 for the project when it began.  It took three years to complete the mansion and another two years to finish the interior.  By the time the family moved in the place had consumed $2,000,000. 

That would be just over $45,000,000 in 2015 bucks.

The home had a great pedigree, its designers were Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Summer Frost.  Cobb designed, among other things, the Chicago Athletic Club Association building and the Newberry Library.  Frost designed the original buildings at Navy Pier and the La Salle street railroad station.  Joseph Lyman Silsbee was responsible for designing the interior of the home.  When you stroll through the Lincoln Park Conservatory, you’re walking through another of Silsbee's buildings.

The first floor gallery with about 75 gazillion dollars worth
of French Impressionism on the walls (Ryerson-Burnham Archives)
The Palmer home on Lake Shore Drive had the first elevator in a private house in Chicago.  Entry was through a three-story octagonal hall, off of which was a drawing room, a dining room and a music room.  The most spectacular rooms on the first floor were the drawing room “with cupids on the ceiling, mosaic walls and floors, into which golden tesserae were set in intricate patters, and the enormous gallery-ballroom on whose walls, covered with rose red velvet, hung many of the great paintings which now comprise the Potter Palmer collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.”  [Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1950]

No one had lived in the immense home since 1933, except for the night of December 28, 1935 when a ball was held for the debut of Potter Palmer, Jr.’s daughter, Pauline. Her grandfather had died in 1902 leaving Bertha $8,000,000, which she parlayed into $15,000,000 by the time she died in 1918.  At that point Potter Palmer, Jr. took up residence until 1930 when he sold the place to Vincent Bendix, creator of gearing that made the first electric starter in an automobile possible.

The second floor landing.  One could make quite
the sweeping entrance to a party from this thing, right?
(Ryerson-Burnham Archives)
Good timing, Junior.  The bottom fell out of the real estate market, as we all know, and in 1933 the mansion was back in the Palmer family again even though no one lived there.  From July of 1942 to March of 1943, according to The Tribune, the “vast echoing shell sheltered the surgical dressings center of the Red Cross.”  In the first week of February of 1950 Chicagoans were allowed to wander through “the empty house, a ghost of an era past almost forgotten.”

And that was the end.

By March, 1950 the house at which kings, queens, and potentates had been entertained and which had hosted three presidents of the United States, was just another piece of ground overlooking Lake Michigan.  Today 1350 and 1360 North Lake Shore Drive occupy the site, two buildings designed in the earliest stages of the career of the firm of Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett. 

The dining room (Ryerson-Burnham Archives)


Jill said...

Loved seeing photos and reading this post!

Jenn said...

Thanks for sharing this! I love the old mansions and homes. It's such a shame this one was destroyed for something so bland to be put in its place.

Love seeing the pictures. Thank you!

Chicago Old and New said...

It sure was a good one. It is amazing to see how the power brokers lived back in the day, right? Wouldn't it have been cool to have been a Chicagoan back on those two days when they were allowed into the house to check it out?

Pro-gressive said...

Thanks Mr. Jim. You've nailed it again.

vsv said...

I am constantly amazed and even shocked how we humans prioritize our arts. If a tiny fleck of paint falls off a Monet painting the world rallies to raise a million dollars to restore the thing. Here is a piece of architecture that displays many more crafts and much more skill that an Impressionistic painting and we allow it and thousands more to crumble or be violently razed to the ground.
Architecture is the Mother of all Arts since a painting without it frames looks barren, a sculpture with out its base looks deserted, etc., etc., etc. I know this will never change but I lament the ART that has been destroyed in only the name of progress.

Toni Ensey said...

This was a architectural Wonder. We will never see the beauty of thus magnitude again. It is a same that this lovely display,lost to us forever could not have been saved. I have always been interested in the creativity and inguinatity that went into the design of these buildings. I realize that we must make way for progress but not at the cost of destroying a of a kind art. For this grand mansion represented a piece of art the same as a Rembrandt or Picasso.