clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Three of the Biggest Whales in Chicago Real Estate History

New, 8 comments

Today's coordinated Whale Week feature journeys back through history to the story of three prominent Chicago whales. These guys really unleashed their money and power on real estate in the pursuit of city (and legacy) building. Our choices are a mere sampling of "historical whales", but indispensable ones. Household names to most Chicagoans and many countrymen beyond our borders, they are: Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, and George Pullman.


Marshall Field didn't actually found Marshall Field & Co. That distinction goes to Potter Palmer, who built the model for dry goods department stores and courted the co-ownership of Field and Levi Leiter. Over the next decade, Field concentrated power as Palmer voluntarily departed and Leiter was forced to sell. Then it became the Marshall Field & Co all you middle-agers knew and loved. The company survived the double whammy of the 1871 Great Fire and Panic of 1873 thanks to large amounts of money already made and low debt levels. Field's retail empire exploded across the country and he started pouring money into things like the University of Chicago (co-founded w/ John D. Rockefeller) and stamping his name on stuff solely to bolster his legacy (Field Museum). Oh, and he also built two of Priarie Avenue's most intense homes: the Marshall Field, Sr. and Jr. Mansions. Only the Jr. stands today, recently reshaped into condos. The family fortune included land holdings and the company also beget John G. Shedd, the second president & chairman, who used his immense wealth for city building.
·Marshall Field [Wikipedia]
·Whale Week 2013 [Curbed Chicago]


Unless there's another Great Fire, a real estate baron like Potter Palmer is unlikely to ever emerge again in Chicago. A dry goods entrepreneur in the 1850s and 60s, Palmer founded and co-owned Field, Palmer, Leiter and Company, which would become Marshall Field & Co after successive buyouts. Palmer didn't mind letting go— he'd made his fortune and proceeded to grow it by redeveloping much of downtown State Street before and after the Fire. It was Palmer's building at State & Washington that Marshall Field & Co first leased. And the Palmer House was his baby too, rebuilt three times due to fire and growth. Conrad Hilton bought it in 1945 and it's now the Palmer House-Hilton. Potter's reputation helped him secure the largest private loan ever given to an individual to date—$1.7M—which he directed toward rebuilding. If that weren't enough, he nabbed some swampy land to the North of downtown and built Lake Shore Drive and the beginnings of the Gold Coast. This is the area he chose for his buxom mansion in 1885, building the largest, most opulent, and most medieval-looking structure ever to land in The Windy. Palmer also commissioned the construction of several row homes that stand today on Astor Street. He could've gone the conventional route and set up a cozy spread on Prairie Avenue beside his boyz, but why share a neighborhood when you're a whale of history?
·Potter Palmer [Wikipedia]
·Potter Palmer Houses [Design Slinger]


George Pullman was one bad man, in both senses of the word. He built all that great worker housing we now know as the Pullman neighborhood, one of the nation's greatest master planned communities and a true architectural oasis. But then, of course, he proceeded to shrink workers' wages, lengthen their hours, and keep rents the same. And it's not like workers could've just scooted over to another more accommodating neighborhood— there wasn't all that much housing on the Far South Side in the 1880s and 90s. The very long Pullman strike ended with the deployment of federal troops. But let's talk real estate. Along with the hundreds of picturesque row homes of the Town of Pullman, true landmarks were built in the Administration Building, Florence Hotel, Executive Mansions (for plant managers, high-ranking supervisors), and the factory itself (now mostly gone). But real estate didn't make Pullman rich, rail cars did. He took an ounce of that fortune and invested it in a spectacular Prairie Ave mansion, shoulder-to-shoulder with other titans of industry. That home is no longer with us.
·George Pullman [Wikipedia]