A fun Chicago book: 'Old Chicago Houses'

November 21, 2011

In March 1939 John Drury began writing a series of articles in the Chicago Daily News about some of the city's older houses. The articles ran a thousand words each and appeared weekly. Two years and 110 homes later, the material was gathered together in a book titled Old Chicago Houses.

This book is not an academic guide. Rather it's a personal biography of each house--the people who built it, the various families who lived in it, what life was like in the area, and what the house is like today (i.e., 1941). All 110 houses are illustrated with contemporary photos.

Drury includes the Widow Clarke House, Hull House, and other famous landmarks. He visits the onetime homes of Carl Sandburg and other noted Chicagoans. The last essay is about Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House; built in 1908, it wasn't exactly "old" when the book was published.

But as a journalist, Drury is mainly interested in telling a good story. He journeys out into the neighborhoods--to Cragin, Garfield Ridge, Jefferson Park, Auburn Park, and other corners of the city. He discovers unexpected treasures and little-known tales. Here the book becomes something like a people's history of Chicago.

When Old Chicago Houses appeared, the city had no real landmark preservation laws. it would be pleasant to report that the book awakened public opinion, and saved most of these charming buildings from destruction.

That didn't happen. Probably two-thirds of the houses are now gone. Even the historic Potter Palmer Mansion--pictured on the jacket--fell to the wrecking ball.

But thirty or so have somehow survived. And in this city, that's the good news.

Old Chicago Houses was reprinted as a paperback in 1975. Inexpensive copies are easy to find.