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By Guest Blogger: Gillian Nelson Bauer, Dean’s Fellow, Loyola University Chicago

With the New Year comes the usual talk of new beginnings and fresh starts. Rarely do we think of an entire city starting fresh, however, which is just the opportunity given to Chicago following the Great Fire of 1871. During the late nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century, Chicago experienced unprecedented and unrivaled growth. City planners and architects re-built the city from the ground up, staging a “coming out” party of sorts with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which established our city as a symbol of culture, hope and opportunity, or as writer Frank Norris described it in The Pit (1902), “the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality.”

For American writers of the period, the burgeoning, thriving city became a metaphor for transformation and potential, or as Theodore Dreiser wrote:

                        The spirit of Chicago flowed into me and made me ecstatic. Its personality was different from anything I had ever known; it was compound of hope and joy in existence, intense hope and intense joy. Cities, like individuals can flare up with a great flare of hope. They have that miracle, personality, which as in the case of the individual is always so fascinating and so arresting. — Dawn (1931)

Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, among other authors, found our flourishing city and its magnificent new buildings the perfect backdrop for their narratives of personal and economic growth. In all three novels under discussion in this article, Chicago is a site of becoming; characters discover themselves (for better or for worse) in a city just coming into its own nascent greatness. The buildings featured in these novels, many of which still stand, certainly have character of their own to spare, so I invite you come with me on a brief digital tour through Chicago’s literary past.

1. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)

When Dreiser’s protagonist Carrie Meeber arrives in Chicago from small town Wisconsin in 1889, her first residence is in a modest third-floor flat in the West Loop/Near West Side, just West of the river on Van Buren Street, in what was then a working class neighborhood where the shabby decorations make her feel “the drag of a lean and narrow life.” After she becomes the mistress of a young businessman, her accommodations improve, and she moves with Drouet to Union Park, then a very fashionable neighborhood:

                       Drouet had taken three rooms, furnished, in Ogden Place, facing Union Park, on the West Side. That was a little, green-carpeted breathing spot, than which, to-day, there is nothing more beautiful to contemplate. The best room looked out upon the lawn of the park . . . where a little lake lay sheltered. Over the bare limbs of the trees, which now swayed in the wintry wind, rose the steeple of the Union Park Congregational Church . . .

Dreiser spent parts of 1892 in a now-demolished building with this very view, probably around this site at 134 N Ogden Avenue:

The view from Carrie’s window, with Union Park Congregational Church (60 N. Ashland) in the background:

Although Carrie’s building and the Union Park lake no longer exist, the neighborhood still contains many period buildings, including the church and the Union Park Fieldhouse:

Carrie’s next lover, Hurstwood, lives in a Lincoln Park mansion, indicative of his position as a manager of a fictional tavern on Adams between State and Clark. After his wife discovers his affair with Carrie, he is forced from his home and takes a room at The Palmer House at 17 E. Monroe St.:

Sister Carrie records dozens of real but now-defunct or demolished Chicago locales, likely recognizable to the middle and upper class reader of the time: theatres (McVickars at 25 W. Madison, The Standard at Jackson/Halsted, and the Chicago Opera House at Washington/Clark among many), restaurants (Kinsley’s on West Adams), stores (Carson, Pirie’s on Madison, Pardridge’s, and Sea and Company on State), and Hotels (The Grand Pacific (Clark and Jackson), the old Tremont House (Lake/Dearborn), Windsor House (Washington/Dearborn). Of the latter, you can still get a taste of Dreiser’s Chicago at The Tremont Hotel in its “new” location at 100 E. Chestnut, a building which also houses Mike Ditka’s restaurant:

2. Frank Norris, The Pit (1902)

Frank Norris’s writing usually conjures images of San Francisco and the California desert, but he was actually born right here in Chicago. His last (and to many critics his greatest) novel is a tale of love and speculation set in the city he called home for his first 13 years. The Pit’s title is drawn from the wheat pit of the Chicago Board of Trade, where wealthy speculator Curtis Jadwin attempts to corner the wheat market.

The Board of Trade Building, in which much of the novel’s action takes place, is a threatening and monstrous force in the “Great Grey City,” as one character calls it:

The lighted office buildings, the murk of rain, the haze of light in the heavens, and raised against it the pile of the Board of Trade Building, black, grave, monolithic, crouching on its foundations, like a monstrous sphinx with blind eyes, silent, grave, — crouching there without a sounds, without sign of life under the night and the drifting veil of rain.

Courtesy of WTTW.com and Chicago History Museum

While the 1885 structure described by Norris no longer exists (it was demolished in 1929), you can still see the statues of Agriculture and Industry that adorned its entrance in the Board of Trade Plaza near Jackson and LaSalle:

The new Board of Trade Building occupies the same site as the 1885 structure at 141 W. Jackson and has its own vaguely malevolent aura. Norris’s description of the morning rush into the building rings true today:

La Salle Street swarmed with the multitudinous life that seethed about the doors of the innumerable offices of brokers and commission men of the neighborhood . . . All of the life of the neighborhood seemed to centre at this point – the entrance of the Board of Trade. Two currents that trended swiftly through La Salle and Jackson Streets, and that fed, or were fed by, other tributaries that poured through Fifth Avenue and through Clarke and Dearborn Streets, met at this point . . . Men – mere flotsam in the flood – as they turned into La Salle Street from Adams or from Monroe, or even from as far as Madison, seemed to accelerate their pace as the approached . . . Young men and boys, under the pretence of escaping the trucks and wagons and cobbles . . . flung themselves panting into the entrance of the Board, were engulfed in the turmoil of the spot, and disappeared with a sudden fillip into the gloom of the interior. 

Curtis Jadwin’s office is nearby in The Rookery at 209 S. LaSalle Street:

The Rookery, an 1888 Burnham and Root designed office building is the oldest standing high-rise building in Chicago. Its 1905 Frank Lloyd Wright interior is still intact:

The Pit’s buildings also include a few still-standing residences. This building in the Near North neighborhood at 10 E. Huron, now the Consulate General of Ukraine, serves as protagonist Laura Jadwin’s (nee Dearborn) first home in Chicago. Compared to the other homes in the neighborhood at the time, Laura and her sister Page like this building because “It gives you the idea that we’re not new-rich and showy and all”:

It occupied a corner lot at the intersection of Huron and North State Streets. Directly opposite St. James’ Church, and at one time the house had served as the rectory. For the matter of that, it had been built for just that purpose. Its style of architecture was distantly ecclesiastical, with a suggestion of Gothic to some of the doors and windows. The material used was solid, massive, the walls thick, the foundation heavy. It did not occupy the entire lot, the original builder seeming to have preferred garden space to mere amplitude of construction, and in addition to the inevitable “backyard,” a lawn bordered it on three sides. It gave the place a certain air of distinction and exclusiveness. Vines grew thick upon the southern walls . . . The whole place was distinctive, individual, and very homelike, and came as a grateful relief to the endless lines of houses of yellow Michigan limestone that pervaded the rest of the neighbourhood in every direction.

“New rich and showy” might exactly describe Laura’s next residence, the Near North/Lincoln Park mansion she and Jadwin purchase after their marriage:

It fronted Lincoln Park, and from all the windows upon that side the most delightful outlooks were obtainable – green woods, open lawns, the parade ground, the Lincoln monument, dells, bushes, smooth drives, flower beds, and fountains. From the great bay window of Laura’s own sitting room she could see far out over Lake Michigan, and watch the procession of great lake steamers . . . defiling majestically past, making for the mouth of the river . . . At night, when the windows were open in the warm weather, she could hear the mournful wash and lapping of the water on the embankments.

This mansion at North Avenue and State (1555 N State Parkway) has been home to the Archdiocese of Chicago since it was built in 1885, but served as Norris’s fictional home for the Jadwins.

Laura’s “keenest delights” at the mansion are “her stable and the great organ in the art-gallery.” The original stable still exists just behind the house:


The Jadwin’s opulent mansion, in which Laura is never entirely comfortable, underscores the unnaturalness of their “showy” and ill-begotten wealth. The mansion never matches the charm or comfort of the comparatively modest building on Huron.

3. Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915)

Set mostly in the early years of the twentieth century, Cather’s novel, like Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, treats Chicago as a way station for the developing artist. While The Song of the Lark is not set entirely in the city, it is here that Cather’s protagonist Thea Kronberg discovers her true talent as an opera singer.

When Thea first arrives in Chicago from a tiny Swedish town in Colorado, she takes a position singing at a Swedish Reform Church on the North Side. Cather may have had Ebenezer Lutheran Church in mind (the only large Northside Swedish Church at  the time), a large structure at 1650 W. Foster Avenue in Andersonville, a neighborhood originally settled by Swedish immigrants:

Thea expresses a desire to see only two places upon her arrival in the city: the stockyards and the “Montgomery Ward and Company’s big mail-order store.” By this latter she may have meant the Montgomery Ward complex at 618 W Chicago Avenue. Built in 1907, The Montgomery Ward complex was once one of the largest buildings in the world and a popular destination for visitors. Today it contains a mix of restaurants, businesses and condos:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The tower is adorned with the statue Spirit of Progress that once sat atop the Montgomery Ward Store at 6 N. Michigan Avenue. This building may have been the Montgomery Ward store to which Thea referred, as well:

Montgomery Ward Store, then and now, courtesy of sixnorthmichigan.com

Today, 6 N. Michigan is a condo building across from Millennium Park in The Loop.

The Art Institute gets the most attention of any Chicago building in Cather’s novel, however. Thea first notes it as “the place with the big lions out front,” but once she visits she finds a haven from the bustle of the city and the harsh winter weather:

The Institute provided, indeed, a place of retreat . . . a place where she could forget . . . for a little while, the torment of her work. That building was a place in which she could relax and play, and she could hardly ever play now.

While Thea spends most of her time with the sculptures, it is the 1884 Jules Adolphe Breton painting The Song of the Lark that speaks most clearly to her (and which lends its title to the novel):

Courtesy of Wikipedia

That was her picture. She imagined that nobody cared for it but herself, and that it waited for her. That was a picture indeed. She liked even the name of it, “The Song of the Lark.” The flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, the look in the girl’s heavy face – well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there. She told herself that that picture was ‘right.’ Just what she meant by this, it would take a clever person to explain. But to her the word covered the almost boundless satisfaction she felt when she looked at the picture.


Breton’s painting is still in the Modern European Painting collection, gallery 222 at The Art Institute.

I hope this brief tour has inspired you to either pick up one of these fantastic novels or perhaps to just take a walk around our Great Grey City, imagining it as it was at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Interested in more information or Chicago novels? Check out the following:

* David Garrard Lowe’s book Lost Chicago (2000).

* A Catalog of vintage Chicago postcards featuring many of the old buildings mentioned in this article: http://www.patsabin.com/illinois/.

* An interactive “Walking Tour” of the Loop, then and now, courtesy of WTTW: http://interactive.wttw.com/loop/buildings.

* Finally, here’s a useful list of novels set in Chicago compiled by Chicago Magazine, which includes all three of the novels discussed above: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/June-2010/Best-Chicago-Novels-Books/.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are courtesy of the author.

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