When Chicagoans first began to make serious money after the Civil War the place the wealthy chose to build their mansions was just south of the business district along Prairie Avenue. Names like Marshall Field and George Pullman and Philip Armour all puddled abut in palatial estates there. The area had the advantage of being close to the Loop and did not involve crossing the Chicago River. it was the poshest address in town.

 If you wanted to live north of the Chicago River in the mid-1800s you not only had to deal with crossing the river but much of the land near Lake Michigan was swampy and uninviting. It was retailer and hotelier Potter Palmer who changed all that. In the 1880s he set about filling in the swamp and creating building lots. Lake Shore Drive became a popular destination for carriage rides. The first street inland parallel to the lake and north of Division Street was named “Astor Street” after John Jacob Astor. The fur trader Astor never had anything to do with Chicago but as America’s first millionaire his name was synonymous with wealth. In fact, John Jacob Astor had bought up most of the land north of New York City in the 1830s, correctly predicting the rapid growth northward on Manhattan Island. Similar to the scenario hoped for in Chicago.

Palmer and his society wife Bertha selected a spot on Lake Shore Drive to begin building his mansion in 1882. His castle-like residence, since torn down, was the largest house in the city when it was completed. Other wealthy Chicago families followed the Potters into the Astor Street District. Meanwhile the businesses around Prairie Avenue were beginning to make “the most expensive street west of Fifth Avenue” feel sooty and old. By the turn of the 20th century the Gold Coast was where you had to be if you were anybody in Chicago.

As more and more people sought shelter on the Gold Coast there wasn’t much room left for mansions and the newly popular skyscrapers of the early 1900s were adapted to hold apartments instead of offices. A century on, the Gold Coast is regarded as the second-most affluent neighborhood in the United States after Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It is a mixture of mansions, stylish row houses and high-rise apartments. 

Our walking tour of the Gold Coast will begin in the great park that adjoins its northern boundary, at the foot, literally, of its immortal namesake...

Standing Lincoln
Lincoln Park at Dearborn Parkway

Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens became America’s most celebrated sculptor in the 19th century on the strength of his Civil War commissions and his rendering of Abraham Lincoln in 1887, depicting a thoughtful President rising to speak, is considered the finest portrait statue in America. A copy of the work graces Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield and another copy stands in London in front of Westminster Abbey. Saint-Gaudens also produced a seated figure of Abraham Lincoln in Grant Park in 1909 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. The setting for Standing Lincoln was designed by Saint-Gaudens’ friend, Stanford White.


Chicago History Museum
1601 North Clark Street

The Chicago Historical Society was up and running in 1856, only a generation after the town’s founding. That early collection went up in flames with the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 but the Society was quickly back in operation only to have the new collection again destroyed by a fire in 1874. This time it took more than two decades for the Society to re-establish its collection in a fire-proof building. The current museum was constructed in 1932 as part of a get-back-to-work Depression-era project and has been expanded twice. The porticoed entrance from 1932 can be seen on the Lincoln Park side.


Village Art Theatre
1548-50 North Clark Street

This movie house opened as the Germania in 1916 but when the United States entered World War I the name was quietly changed to the Parkside. Over the years it also operated as the Gold Coast and the Globe. Long a popular venue for art, foreign and cult films, the Village was closed in March 2007. Despite a ghastly modern marquee, look up to see the original terra cotta detailing against the red brick facade.

Germania Club
108 West Germania Place at Clark Street

The Germania Club was formed in 1865 under unhappy circumstances - German-American Civil War veterans assembled to perform a concert in honor of recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. The building, awash in terra cotta ornamentation, came along in 1889. It would function as a social club for German immigrants to Chicago for the better part of the following century and landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. 


Wilson/Bullock Houses
1450-1454 North Dearborn Parkway at Burton Place

John P. Wilson, a prominent property attorney and architect of the plan to clean up Lake Michigan for drinking water, and Joseph C. Bullock, who made his money in boots, were pioneering homesteaders here when this was just about as far north as civilized Chicago reached in 1877. Although they appear as one, there are actually two separate houses here, unified by a French Second Empire mansard roof.  

Madlener House
4 West Burton Place

This cubical precursor to the Prairie School of architecture was designed in 1902 by Hugh Garden for liquor wholesaler Albert F. Madlener. Garden used brick and limestone to create the three-story residence up to a hip roof fronted by a parapet. Notably, he placed the entrance door off-center. Today this is the home of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts which purchased the building in 1963. 


Playboy Mansion
1340 North State Parkway

This 70-room mansion, designed in what was referred to as a French classical style by James Gamble Rogers in 1899, has seen its share of parties. The first soirees were upright, proper affairs thrown by surgeon George Snow Isham and his wife Katherine Porter, scions of two of Chicago’s oldest and most respected families. After 1959 when Hugh Hefner purchased the residence for $400,000 a decidedly different guest list was used for the parties. A gold plaque at the entrance proclaimed: Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare; which translates into, If you don’t swing, don’t ring. Hef and the Bunnies stayed in the original Playboy Mansion until 1971 after which he leased the building to the School of Art Institute, where he had once been a student, for a token few dollars a year. Today, the mansion has been converted into multi-million dollar condos.


Houghteling Houses
1308-1312 North Astor Street

James L. Houghteling, made his money in banking but is best remembered for founding the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, a worldwide Episcopalian ministry. In the 1880s he moved to the emerging Gold Coast neighborhood and in 1887 he took the plunge into speculative real estate by snapping up four building lots around the corner from his house. He hired Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root to design a row of four townhouses. Burnham and Root joined forces in 1873 with Root acting as chief designer and Burnham handling the sales and business end. The duo were responsible for more than 300 buildings across America but only three of their seminal works survive in Chicago: the Monadnock, the world’s tallest load-bearing masonry building, the Rookery and the Reliance, the first skyscraper to boast plate glass windows. Root was apparently happy enough with the Queen Anne designs provided for Houghteling that he moved his family into #1310. He was named chief architect for the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and, after hosting a reception for fellow architects involved with the fair on a bitter January night, Root contracted pneumonia seeing his guests to their carriages and died in the house in 1891. He was only 41. Tragedy would strike the block again three years later when Francis Stockbridge, a United States Senator from Michigan died in James Houghteling’s house, his nephew by marriage. The original fourth member and southernmost of the quartet was torn down in 1962 to make way for the Astor Tower. 

Potter Palmer Row Homes
1316-1322 North Astor Street 

This compact block of five stone-faced townhouses was developed in the late 1880s, leaning heavily on the Romanesque style. The trio on the south side were developed by Potter Palmer. Palmer opened a dry goods store on Lake Street in 1852 when he was 26 and began putting his innovative retailing ideas into practice. He catered mostly to women and instituted a “no questions asked” returns policy. He expanded the store size to display goods in large sidewalk windows as Potter Palmer and Company became the town’s leading store. For health reasons Palmer sold the business to his partner and one-time clerk, Marshall Field, in 1867. Field would go on to develop the Midwest’s most iconic department store and Palmer turned to real estate. His Palmer House Hotel was the town’s most luxurious. In 1885 he constructed Chicago’s largest private residence in former swampland north of Chicago overlooking Lake Michigan. Before the castle-like Palmer Mansion, Prairie Avenue had reigned as the town’s most fashionable address. But as Palmer energetically built attractive properties such as these on the surrounding streets the super-rich came to join him and the Gold Coast became a reality.

Astor Court
1355 North Astor Street

Chicago-born Howard Van Doren Shaw received his architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1892 and returned home to build a vibrant practice with a lengthy client list of the town’s rich and famous, including William Owen Goodman. Goodman migrated to Chicago from Pennsylvania in 1868 at the age of 20 and found work as a bookkeeper for the Menominee River Lumber Company. As he worked began investing in his own timberlands and built one of the great lumber fortunes of the Midwest. In 1914 Shaw created this Neoclassical-Georgian Revival brick mansion for the Goodman family. Four years later the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 claimed Goodman’s son Kenneth Sawyer, a playwright, and he donated $250,000 to the Art Institute of Chicago to establish a professional repertory company and a school of drama in his memory. Shaw designed the original Goodman Theatre that opened in 1925.

James Charnley House
1365 North Astor Street

When lumber baron James Charnley commissioned the esteemed architectural firm of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan to design a home on this corner lot in 1892 an obscure 25-year old junior designer named Frank Lloyd Wright got assigned to the project and this became an early landmark in the career of the man recognized in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.” Adler and Sullivan rarely designed houses, doing so only when asked by important commercial clients. Wright’s work here is the only residence from his years at Adler & Sullivan from 1888 until 1893 that still stands. The plain brick facade was an obvious departure from its richly ornamented neighbors and traces of the horizontal planes which came to be a Wright hallmark can be seen in the sleek structure. Today the Charnley House belongs to the Society of Architectural Historians. 

Perry H. Smith, Jr. House
1400 North Astor (entrance on Schiller Street)

New York-born Perry H. Smith graduated second in his class at Hamilton College when he was only 18 in 1846 and was admitted to the state bar on his 21st birthday. But he turned his back on the lucrative practices in New York and traveled instead to the wilderness of Wisconsin where by the age of 23 he was a judge in the newly formed village of Appleton. Smith took a leading role in Wisconsin politics and became Vice-President of the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad in 1857. When the line was reorganized as the Chicago and Northwestern Railway he moved to Chicago to take charge of the corporation, building one of the region’s most formidable fortunes. When Perry Smith died in 1885 he left one of the largest estates in America up to that time, big enough that his will merited coverage in the New York Times. Perry Smith, Jr., a lawyer in his own right, took his share of the estate and followed Potter Palmer into the reclaimed swamps of the Gold Coast to build one of the first mansions here. Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Frost provided the plans for the 1887 rambling brick mansion that boasts a splendid Romanesque entrance arch on Schiller street. The Perrys enjoyed only a scant few years here before they left for Europe to tend to the health of Emma McCormick Perry, The house passed through several owners before landing in the Wrigley family in the early 20th century. The western part of the mansion along Schiller Street is actually a 1991 addition that was executed so seamlessly into the Perry House that it seems like architects Hammond Beeby and Babka obtained century-old brick from the original brickyard. 

Ryerson House
1406 North Astor Street

In 1842 Joseph T. Ryerson was sent to Chicago as an agent for a Pittsburgh iron manufacturer. Ryerson was soon on his own, selling boilers and other iron products. The company evolved into one of America’s foremost fabricators and wholesalers of steel products and remained family-operated until 1935 when Ryerson was acquired by Inland Steel. This house, a refugee from the streets of Paris, was designed for Joseph T. Ryerson, Jr. in 1922 from the busy shop of David Adler. Adler, with more than 200 buildings to his credit, personally supervised the 1931 addition of the French Second Empire mansard roof. The well-proportioned facade of finely etched limestone is, appropriately, highlighted by wrought-iron grillwork in which can be seen the Ryerson initials.

Thomas W. Hinde House
1412 North Astor Street

This bit of medieval Dutch whimsy was added to the Gold Coast streetscape in 1892 by Douglas S. Pentecost. Look closely to see the multi-paned, diamond-shaped windows set into the carved-stone facade. The original owner was Thomas Hinde, a liquor wholesaler.

Edward P. Russell House
1444 North Astor Street

Hollabird & Root was an architectural firm that toiled mostly on massive projects, as evidenced by their work on the Chicago Board of Trade skyscraper and Soldier Field. But here they used their Art Deco expertise for a small scale Astor Street townhouse. The construction budget, provided by real estate banker Edward P. Russell, was not small-scale - $195,000 in 1929. Holabird & Root designed a skyscraper in miniature, with an emphasis on verticality. The limestone for the facade was imported from France and trimmed in black granite. The three-story cast iron bay window that pours natural light into the entrance foyer weighed in at 18 tons. Russell would sell the house in 1938 for only $65,000 and has only recently been returned to its original splendor in a painstaking restoration.

Peacock Mansion
1449 North Astor Street 

In 1837 Elijah Peacock arrived in Chicago determined to sell jewelry and fine timepieces in a dusty frontier town with scarcely 4,000 inhabitants. The House of Peacock had been established three generations earlier in England and it was this “old world elegance” that Elijah sought to impart to Chicagoans from a small frame building on Lake Street. After Elijah’s son Charles Daniel took over the family business in 1889 at the age of 51 the trade became known as C.D. Peacock, under which name the firm still operates today. It was C.D. Peacock who built this chateauesque residence, fronted by a dominating stone porch, in 1898. Look up to see one of Chicago’s most intricate friezes of scrolls and shells.

Peter Fortune House
1451 North Astor Street

The Tudor Revival style was popular for country estates but here Howard Van Doren Shaw tapped it for a Gold Coast townhouse in 1910. The client for the red brick and Indiana limestone residence was Peter Fortune who was one of Chicago’s best known brewers. Fortune sailed from Ireland in 1854 and scouted New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Virginia before settling in Chicago where he wound up running a grocery store. In 1866 Fortune and his brother John established a small brewery, where at first ale and porter were brewed before Fortune Brothers’ Brewing Company switched to lager beer and became one of the city’s largest breweries.

Patterson-McCormick Mansion
1500 North Astor at Burton Place

Stanford White of the fabled New York City architectural partnership of McKim, Mead and White brought his Fifth Avenue sensibilities to Chicago in 1893 for this classically inspired Italian palazzo. He crafted the exquisite Neoclassical confection with golden Roman bricks and terra cotta trim and enclosed the corner with a whimsical iron fence. White’s client was Elinor Medill of the Chicago Tribune family and her husband Robert Patterson. Cyrus McCormick, Jr., heir to the mechanical reaper fortune, purchased the mansion in 1914 and after a decade of making do in such cramped quarters had architect David Adler double the size of the building in 1927. 


International College of Surgeons/Polish Consulate
1516-1524-1530 North Lake Shore Drive

This Neoclassical trio was built as separate houses designed by different architects between 1914 and 1916. The elegant digs at #1516 and #1524 now house the International College of Surgeons, founded in 1935 in Geneva, Switzerland by Max Thorek, a Hungarian-born surgeon who practiced in Chicago, and #1530 is home to the Polish Consulate.

1540 North Lake Shore Drive

As you walk past this 1920s apartment tower there is nothing special but if you look up you’ll see the makings of a French chateau attached to the upper floors of the 17-story building. Originally each floor was made up of two 8-room apartments. After the building went into receivership during the Great Depression the residents bought the deed and created a cash-only co-op. 


Residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago
1500 North State Parkway at North Boulevard 

This three-story Queen Anne red brick mansion, trimmed in stone, was one of the first structures to rise in the Gold Coast, built in 1885 as the the direction of Most Reverend Patrick A. Feehan, the first Archbishop of Chicago. The Residence houses a small chapel, sitting rooms, rooms for resident priests and guests, a kitchen, and a dining room. The Archbishop’s private quarters are on the second and third floors. President Franklin Roosevelt once stayed here and so did Pope John Paul II in 1979. If you want to look up through the trees you can count 19 chimneys - only three are still in use.

1550 North State Parkway at North Boulevard

After seeing the gleaming new buildings rise in Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, 19-year old Benjamin Henry Marshall decided to become an architect. Despite having no formal education Marshall apprenticed in the firm of Marble and Wilson and hung out his own shingle in 1902. His resume would come to include many palatial multi-unit high-rise buildings such as the Blackstone Hotel, the Drake Hotel and this building, completed in 1911. In the beginning each floor of the undulating Beaux Arts composition was a single 9,000-foot, 15-room apartment.