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Prairie Avenue History and Background
Motor Row History and Background
South Side Levee History and Background

Prairie Avenue History and Background

Prairie Avenue is a north–south thoroughfare on the South Side of Chicago, which historically extended from 16th street in the Near South Side community area of Chicago to the city's southern limits and beyond. The street has a rich history from its origins as a major trail for horseback riders and carriages. During the last three decades of the 19th century, a six-block section of the street served as the residence of many of Chicago’s elite families and an additional four-block section was also known for grand homes. The upper six-block section includes the Prairie Avenue Historic District. Several of Chicago's most important historical figures have lived on the street. This is especially true of the period of recovery from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when many of the most important families in the city moved to the street. Residents of the street have influenced the evolution of the city and have played prominent national and international roles. They have influenced the political history, the architecture, the culture, the economy, as well as the law and government of Chicago. Prairie Avenue once served as an Indian trail linking Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne in Indiana and thus derived its name from the vast Midwestern prairie land between the two endpoints. In 1812, the The Battle of Fort Dearborn occurred in the area around Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. Over time, the district has evolved from an upscale neighborhood to a factory district and back to an upscale neighborhood. Subdivision in the early 1850’s anticipated residential development, although only one grand villa existed at the time. By the late 1870”s Prairie Avenue, as well as Calumet Avenue one block to the east, housed the finest mansions in the city, each equipped with its own carriage house. In the 1880s and 1890s, mansions for George Pullman, Marshall Field, John J. Glessner and Philip Armour anchored a neighborhood of over ninety mansions known as "Millionaire's Row". Historic preservation has brought the return of trendy buildings, as well as restored and renovated structures. Simultaneously, new infill housing is resuscitating the district. Now, a two block section of the street forms the core of the Chicago Landmark Prairie Avenue Historic District that is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic district includes the 1800 and 1900-blocks of South Prairie, the 1800 block of South Indiana and 213 through 217 East Cullerton.
During the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s, upper Prairie Avenue residents were central to the cultural and social fabric of the city. The economy was supported by the thousands of jobs created by the Pullman Car Company and Armour and Company. Chicago's richest citizen, Marshall Field changed the buying habits of the city. John Shorthall saved the city from total chaos after the Great Chicago Fire by saving property records. At one point in the 1880s, sixteen of the 60 members of the Commercial Club of Chicago lived on Prairie Avenue. George Armour served as the first president of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which became the Art Institute of Chicago. 1801 South Prairie resident, William Wallace Kimball, whose mansion still stands 1801 South Prairie, employed 1500 workers at the turn of the century in his organ and piano manufacturing company. Many of these leading families also took part in philanthropy. John Shorthall, one of the founders of Chicago Title & Trust and Prairie Avenue resident, created the Illinois Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the Illinois Humane Society) and convened local and state societies to unite under a national organization (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) that could combine its political strength and lobby Congress. The Illinois Institute of Technology is a successor entity of the Armour Institute of Technology, which was an outgrowth of the generosity of Philip and Joseph Armour. Prairie Avenue citizens contributed heavily to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, which brought millions of visitors to the city.
Historic preservation in Chicago has saved some of the city's architectural heritage. The efforts of the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Landmarks and Preservation Council of Illinois have been at the forefront of these efforts. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks (now part of the city’s Department of Planning and Development) designated the Prairie Avenue Historic District as a city landmark on December 27, 1979. A few of the mansions of the heyday still remain in the 1800 and 1900 blocks including the National Historic Landmark designated John J. Glessner House designed in 1886 by architect Henry H. Richardson; these provide a sense of the street's former character. This district also includes the Henry B. Clarke House, which although twice relocated is reported to be the city’s oldest standing house. In addition to the Clarke House and the Glessner House, several other houses from the late-nineteenth century remain in the district. Both the Glessner House and the Clarke House are on the National Register of Historic Places and now serve as museums. Marshall Field (who lived at 1905 South Prairie) purchased 1919 South Prairie for Marshall Field Jr. Solon Spencer Beman designed what is now known as the Marshall Field Jr. Mansion and in 1902 Daniel Burnham designed extensions and additions to the property. In 2007, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks announced that the rehabilitation of the Marshall Field Jr. Mansion, which had been vacant for over 25 years and which was renovated as six private residences, won a Preservation Award.
Prairie Avenue is thriving once again as a vibrant and diversified residential neighborhood. Fortunately, eleven residences have survived from the district's glory days. Visitors can sign up for a walking tour of the district or can explore on their own. Tours are available for the Glessner House Museum, a Romanesque style home built in 1886 and boasting an excellent collection of 19th century decorative arts in the English and American arts and crafts style. The Clarke House Museum, built in 1836 and untouched by the great Chicago fire, features mid-nineteenth century furnishings in this Greek Revival home that depicts life on the urban frontier. Visitors will also want to make a stop at the Second Presbyterian Church to admire the Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows. Magnificent! Additionally, a major book on Prairie Avenue has been released by Arcadia Publishing. The Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance and its partners are now playing a key role to assure this dynamic and extremely important Chicago neighborhood can be appreciated for years to come.

Motor Row History and Background

File:Motor Row Historic District K Chicago IL.jpgThe Motor Row District is a historic district in Chicago’s Near South Side community area. Motor Row includes buildings on Michigan Avenue between 2200 and 2500 south, directly west of McCormick Place convention center, and 1444, 1454, 1737, 1925, 2000 S. Michigan Ave., as well as 2246-3453 S. Indiana Ave., and 2211-47 S. Wabash Ave. The district was built between 1905 and 1936 by a number of notable architects.

Auto rows developed in numerous US cities shortly after 1900 as car companies sought to create districts where the sale and repair of cars could become an easy urban shopping experience. At its peak, as many as 116 different makes of automobiles were sold and repaired on Motor Row. Current-day marques that formerly had showrooms on Motor Row included Ford, Buick, Fiat, and Cadillac. Other marques with showrooms there that have since dissolved include Hudson, Locomobile, Marmon, and Pierce-Arrow. Currently, one car dealer (Ford) still stands in Motor Row while the remaining buildings have been or are being redeveloped into condominiums, nightclubs, and retail storefronts.


The range of buildings in Motor Row illustrates the evolution of the automobile showroom and related File:Motor Row Historic District B Chicago IL.jpgproduct and service buildings, from simple two-story structures used for display and offices to multi-story buildings housing a variety of departments for the repair, storage, painting, and finishing of automobiles. Many of the buildings were designed by significant architects, including Holabird & Roche, Alfred Alschuler, Philip Maher, Albert Kahn, and Christian Eckstorm. The overall design highlights elaborately carved stone work, ornate facades and intricately scrolled ironwork that decorates recessed automotive doorways.

Though characterized by its auto showrooms, Motor Row was also home to the newspaper Chicago Defender, a newspaper voice for Chicago's large African American community.  By the early 1960s, a relocated Record Row had moved into auto showrooms on South Michigan Avenue.  An enclave of production, distribution, and marketing centers for a new style of gospelized R&B called soul.  Vee-Jay and Chess Records were just a few of the many studios located in Motor Row and acts such as Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, Willie Dixon and many, many other notable blues artists recorded there.

Motor Row was designated a Chicago Landmark on December 13, 2000. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 18, 2002


Today, the neighborhood is on an upward swing poised to become one of Chicago's cultural and entertainment centers once again.  Resturants, retail spaces, and residential units are slowely adding new life to these historic buildings, thereby producing a new neighborhood with character and quality.  Attempts continue to be made to redevelop Motor Row into a music and entertainment district for Chicago. The
infamous E2 Nightclub, involved in a deadly stampede in 2003, was located there. The former Cadillac, Cowels and Saxon buildings, designed by Holabird and Roche, and a number of other automibile buildings have been converted to lofts.  The Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance and its partners are now playing a key role to assure this dynamic and extremely important Chicago neighborhood can be appreciated for years to come. 

South Side Levee History and Background

The South Side “Levee,” bordered by 18th and 22nd Streets, State and Armour (Federal) in Chicago, Illinois, was one of the nation's most infamous red-light district or sex districts. Located near the intersection of Cermak Road and Michigan Avenue in the city's Near South Side. It was formed in 1893, during the World's Columbian Exposition, but by 1930 the district had largely been demolished. 

Chicago at the turn of the last century was one hell of a tough town, as yet untouched by the famous muckraking novels of Frank Norris (The Pit, 1903) and Upton Sinclair
(The Jungle, 1906). It had a population of 1.7 million, a significant percentage of which was engaged in criminal activity in one way or another. By 1907 the Chicago Tribune said that "Chicago has come to be known over the country as a bad town for men of good character and a good town for men of bad character." According to Karen Abbott, author to the bestselling book about the South Side Levee, Sin in the Second City.

The Levee, with its "sporting clubs" of all sorts, was the city's most notorious vice district. Many of the businesses suggested the unapologetic allure that scandalized and outraged "proper"  Chicagoans.  According to the author and reformer W.T. Snead, in his book, "If Christ Came To Chicago", there were nearly forty bordellos, an equal number of saloons and a robust number of gambling houses and at least one opium den.  Resorts ranging from the most extravagant brothels to small and unadorned houses of prostitution located in boardinghouses and the back rooms of saloons. Some resorts provided male prostitutes for interested clients.  

Levee Influence

Chicago was a wide open town, especially for anybody who understood the still practiced Chicago tradition of "pay to play".  The city's wards had two aldermen each then.  The First Ward incumbents were a pair of colorful characters, Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky-Dink Kenna.  Their domain took in the Loop and the Near South Side down to 26th Street.  That included the red-light district known as the Levee.  Coughlin & Kenna had held their first fundraiser ball in an armory in 1896.  Word on the street was that anyone who wanted a favor from the aldermen should buy a ticket--or better still, a book of fifty tickets.  The denizens of the Levee turned out in full force, and the sponsors cleared $25,000.  There was also Big Jim Colosimo, a prominent First Ward henchman and brothel keeper, “Big Jim” was a close friend of the Everleigh sisters despite the fact that he ran an interstate white slavery ring.  Ike Bloom, a clownish yet menacing owner of the notorious Freiberg’s Dance Hall, he organized graft payments on behalf of the aldermen and was a frequent visitor to the Everleigh Club.

Vic Shaw was the established queen of the Levee until the Everleighs’ arrival.  Zoe Millard and Georgie Spencer, two other prominent madams in Vic Shaw’s league who shared her dislike for the Everleigh sisters.  They all resented the sisters’ success and did everything in their power to ruin them.  Minna and Ada Everleigh were madams: They ran the nationally famous Everleigh Club in Chicago’s Levee District. (The club stood at 2131–33 South Dearborn Avenue, now the location of the Bertrand Goldberg–designed Hillard Homes.) The two oversaw a bordello where the women were well cared for and compensated generously, and the clientele was rumored to include just about every man of money who came through town.  The Everleigh Club held itself above the fray—a job there paid more than most any other available to a woman. And the Everleigh sisters were such characters, they make for sympathetic pimps. Both were allegedly abused before striking out on their own, and they crafted new identities—they shaved years off their ages, claimed to be married to two brothers and practiced a convincing good cop/bad cop routine. 

Levee Closing

So flagrant was Levee trade that Mayor Carter Harrison II appointed a commission to investigate vice conditions throughout the city. The 1911 publication of The Social Evil in Chicago prompted a flurry of reforms, including the closing of the Levee's most famous brothel, the exclusive Everleigh Club. Soon after, the U.S. state's attorney launched an attack on the Levee that quieted the once-thriving landscape of concentrated prostitution. The closing of the Levee in 1912 initiated important changes in the geography and institutions of sexual commerce in the city.

The closing of the Levee in 1912 did not mean that there was no more commercialized prostitution in
Chicago, but the operation of brothels in an open, accessible public area, such as those in the Levee district, was not continued in the flagrant manner in which it had existed previously.


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