When renowned Chicago real estate developer Samuel Eberly Gross purchased swaths of land near present-day Fifth Avenue and Sacramento Boulevard, the area was not much of a neighborhood, but the undeveloped outskirts of western Chicago—very rural and surrounded by farms.
With the assistance of architect Lars Gustav Hallberg in 1887, he erected a series of upscale Queen Anne-style rowhouses to serve a growing, fashionable professional population working downtown; Chicago’s central business district was 3 miles to the east down Madison Street, and the recently established Garfield (then “Central”) Park was 4 blocks to the west at Homan Avenue (3400 West) for city residents’ enjoyment.
Today in 2015, the facades of some of the remaining buildings are disappointingly boarded up and isolated from one another by weedy vacant parcels from prior demolition. They are evidence of this neighborhood’s structural and economic decay, but what remains also reminds us of a lost architectural character and thoughtful design process: intricately detailed and alternating brickwork, proud gables, oriel windows, and turrets, and anchoring cornices adorned with picturesque geometric patterns.
In this article, we take a closer look at the origins and details of this lesser-known Gross subdivision and a nearby commercial development on Madison Street, how this architecture has been documented historically, and how it has changed over the past 125 years.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Gross was arguably the most prolific real estate developer in early Chicago, having “built more than 20 subdivisions and 10,000 homes, sold more than 40,000 lots and established more than 15 towns or villages, many long since absorbed into the city.” He approached real estate development by buying open land to build his subdivisions in outlying areas not yet established as residential locations. He brilliantly marketed them with flashy, alluring advertisements trumpeting the “virtue” and security of homeownership versus renting. These particular Fifth Avenue rowhouses originally sold for around $5000 when they were built.
The Fifth Avenue rowhouses are designated as “orange-rated” (i.e. “potentially [historically] significant in the context of the surrounding community”) structures in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey. Although the block as a whole is currently in a state of fragmentation with many heavily reconstructed facades, each distinct rowhouse was intentionally designed differently with varied rooflines, porches, and bay windows, to make the homeowner feel like they had a unique home.
According to city records, the demolition of rowhouses at 2944 and 2952 West Monroe was authorized and completed in 1994. Because of the area’s persistent lack of municipal support and commercial interest, these 19th-Century buildings and their surroundings have struggled and suffered from deferred maintenance and decay, in many cases ending in demolition and more open expanses along the diagonal Fifth Avenue and its nearby side streets.
As further evidence of its former residential density, a Chicago Surface Lines streetcar line once ran along Fifth Avenue (then named “Colorado Avenue”), starting at Madison Street near California Avenue on the east and ending at Pulaski Road, providing convenient transit for residents and service to nearby businesses. The intersection of Monroe Street, Francisco and Colorado Avenues also once held a small public park known as “Colorado Point”, according to the 1917 Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year-Book excerpt seen above, as well as The Chicago Daily News 1938 Map of Chicago.
To further illustrate this point, the above image shows the same block of 2900 West Monroe Street, but it documents two very different eras in its lifetime: the left side is a photo by the great Chicago photographer Charles Cushman from 1949, with women in red overcoats strolling up the block, in front of richly-colored Queen Anne rowhouses with detailed second-story oriel windows and elegant turrets.
The right side, from 2014, shows a lovely community garden and latticed pergola where rowhouses once stood, but further down the block the facades are muted and/or reconstructed with modern low-cost materials, with conical turret roofs long gone. Maintenance on the original fragile 19th-Century construction proved too expensive for successive owners.
The above photos depict the corner of Fifth Avenue and Monroe Street facing northwest, seen November 2012 and September 2014 respectively. You immediately notice the curved turrets at each side of the photograph which look incomplete, missing their original cone-shaped roofs. The remaining Gross rowhouses are seen in the background as Monroe Street curves to the northwest.
Renowned urban documentary photographer Camilo José Vergara beautifully photographed this same development in his landmark book, Unexpected Chicagoland from 1987 to 2001. In his earlier photographs, the block appears continuous with no vacant lots between rowhouses, and original architectural details like rooflines, bay windows, cornices, and turrets remain relatively intact.
Returning to the area in 2001, his images depict a changed landscape, with some rowhouses gone due to demolition, and many with architectural elements like bays and turrets altered or removed, most likely to due the high cost of maintenance. Vergara’s prescience in recording these overlooked but significant parts of our urban environment cannot be overstated, and his work is especially meaningful today when we seem to be losing so much of this “built history” in Chicago.
In addition to the rowhouses, Gross also erected a series of commercial storefront buildings nearby on West Madison Street west of Sacramento Boulevard in 1885 prior to his subdivision. Most of these are still standing and occupied, with some original design elements remaining.
The corner storefront at 3001 West Madison Street, which most recently operated as a tavern named “Sonny’s Lounge”, still has its second-story turreted bay though it is missing its roof. The storefronts at 3007 and 3009 West Madison Street were demolished sometime within the last 30 years—this fact also being supported by Vergara’s documentation in Unexpected Chicagoland.
Through exploring this particular Gross development’s history, transformation, and current state, we can better understand a forgotten and overlooked chapter of Chicago history. Gross’ contributions, however commercial, crass, or idealistic they may have been, played a vital role in the formation of Chicago’s early residential built environment and its neighboring suburbs such as Brookfield (once “Grossdale”), and it would be a tragedy for a beautiful, historic subdivision development like these rowhouses on Monroe Street to fall into further decay and obsolescence.
A forthcoming Chicago Patterns article on the history of greater Fifth Avenue, a once-vibrant diagonal thoroughfare which stretches 2 1/2 miles from California Avenue to Cicero Avenue, will help further illustrate the transformation of this area and illuminate its importance in the urban landscape and fabric of Chicago.
- 1880s Rowhouses on Maypole Avenue in East Garfield Park
- 500 North: A Look at Franklin Boulevard
- Lost On Franklin Boulevard: Sacramento Square and Garfield Square
References and Further Reading
- Unexpected Chicagoland, Camilo José Vergara and Timothy J. Samuelson, 2001, The New Press, New York.
- “A life in three acts”, Rick Kogan/Chicago Tribune
- Charles Cushman photograph of 2900 block of West Monroe Street, circa 1949
- Past Times: Samuel Gross’ Cavalcade of Homes, (Robert Heuer/Chicago Reader)