Benjamin Marshall, Architect

In Chicago, architects have been celebrities. Sullivan, Adler, Wright, Mies van der Rohe–the names come easily to mind. There is also Benjamin Howard Marshall. Though not as well-remembered, he left a lasting imprint on the city.

Marshall, Benjamin

He was born into a wealthy South Side family in 1874. As a boy he loved animals and would often smuggle pets into school. Once he brought a pony to church. Ben Marshall would always do things his own way. He was charming enough, rich enough, and talented enough to carry it off.

While he was in high school, Marshall was impressed by the grand buildings of the Columbian Exposition. He decided to become an architect. Rather than waste time in musty academic studies, he apprenticed himself to a local design office. He became a partner there at 21. A few years later, he opened his own firm.

Marshall specialized in large public buildings. His first major commission was the Iroquois Theater in 1903. The theater was destroyed by fire in less than a year, with a loss of 602 lives.

Tragic though it was, the Iroquois fire had little effect on Marshall’s career. In 1905 he went into partnership with Charles E. Fox. Over the next two decades, Marshall & Fox designed such classic structures as the Blackstone Hotel, Lake Shore National Bank, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, South Shore Country Club, and the Drake Hotel. The partners also built many stylish apartment buildings along the Gold Coast.

Marshall cut a flamboyant figure. He designed much of his personal wardrobe, which included elaborately ruffled shirts, flowing ties, and–for the golf course–a large sombrero with built-in ventilators. He drove a white, customized Packard convertible. On one occasion, he threw a party for the entire cast of the Ziegfeld Follies. He had money and he spent it, all the while giving the impression that if he didn’t have it, he would have spent it anyway.

Marshall's 1550 North State Apartments

Marshall’s 1550 North State Apartments

The 1550 North State Apartments is a fine example of Marshall’s style. Its opulent Second Empire design suggests it might easily have been placed on the Champs Elysees, and in fact, Marshall labeled his plans in French. When the building opened in 1911, it was considered the height of luxury.

Each of the twelve floors had only a single apartment, a living space of 9,000 square feet divided into 15 rooms. The rooms facing east and north had magnificent views of the lake and Lincoln Park. The windows were fronted with iron balconies. Even the appliances were special–the kitchen ranges had three broilers, two gas and one charcoal, “so that steaks and fish need never be prepared on the same broiler.”

Marshall lived in the 1550 building for nine years. Then he erected a combination home and office in Wilmette. This complex included an entire room from a Chinese temple and an architectural studio large enough to accommodate a staff of forty-five. The property was so lavish it was listed as an attraction in Chicago guidebooks.

In 1936 Marshall sold his Wilmette holdings and retired to a suite in the Drake Hotel. He died there in 1944.   Today the Benjamin Marshall Society educates the public on his life and works.  This May 15, the society will celebrate “Big Ben’s” 142nd birthday with a gala at the Marshall-designed Drake Hotel.


The New Field Museum (5-2-1921)

The move was finished.  Today the Field Museum opened its magnificent new home in Grant Park.

The museum had begun as a glorified attic.  Local boosters had wanted a permanent place to display some of the Columbian Exposition artifacts.  In 1893 they secured a charter for the Columbian Museum of Chicago.


The fair’s Palace of the Fine Arts in Jackson Park was the museum’s first home.  Its name was later changed to the Field Museum, in honor of benefactor Marshall Field.

The Burnham Plan of 1909 called for the museum to be relocated in Grant Park.  The Field trustees agreed–the Jackson Park site was too remote, and the current building needed repairs.  Work on the new museum began in 1917.

And now everything was ready.  The first day was reserved for 8,000 invited guests.  There was no formal ceremony—“speeches and music would have been superfluous,” the Tribune said.  At 2 pm the doors were simply thrown open.


All afternoon the cabs and private cars bounced over the unpaved park roads to the museum.  Pedestrians braved the drizzle and biting wind on the rickety wooden bridge over the Illinois Central tracks.  They came, and they were impressed.  Chicago had never seen a museum like this.

Among the 8,000 visitors were hundreds of children.  They were most impressed of all.

Marshall Field

Marshall Field

“Their eyes grew wider and wider with wonder as they progressed from room to room,” a reporter wrote.  “The mounted birds and prehistoric animals, skeletons, Egyptian coffins and mummies, and other interesting exhibits elicited gasps of surprise from them.  Many a mother or governess had to drag their little charges away.”

The public was admitted the next day.  Regular museum hours were 10 am to 4 pm.  Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday were free.  The other days, a 25-cent admission charge was collected.

The Field Museum’s onetime Jackson Park home remained vacant until the 1930s, when it was rebuilt as the Museum of Science and Industry.  In 1943 the Field Museum was renamed the Chicago Natural History Museum.  That was the name I grew up with.  When I was young, only the old folks talked about the Field Museum.

Then, in 1966, the trustees reversed course.  The building in Grant Park again became the Field Museum.  Getting rid of the Field name had obviously been a mistake.

Are you listening, Macy’s?



Then and Now, 26th-Prairie

1948--26th Street @ Prairie, view east

1948–26th Street @ Prairie, view east

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1948 electric streetcars still ran on 26th Street.  The large building behind the streetcar is part of the Mercy Hospital complex, which had occupied this site since its founding in 1869.

Today a senior residence facility stands on the northeast corner of 26th-Prairie. The current version of Mercy Hospital is two blocks to the west.  For the story of the mid-winter 1968 patient transfer between the  old and new hospitals, see my book On This Day in Chicago History.




Chicago Greets the General (4-26-1951)


America’s General had returned.  After 14 years on foreign soil, Douglas MacArthur was back in the United States.  Today he was in Chicago.  And the city went wild.

MacArthur was a national hero.  He had led U.S. forces to victory in the Pacific during World War II.  When the Korean War broke out, he had turned back the enemy advance at Inchon.

But now that war had become a stalemate.  MacArthur thought President Truman was being too cautious.  When the general’s views became public, the president relieved him.

That created a sensation.  Truman was a very unpopular president in 1951.  Most of the country thought he’d made a mistake sacking MacArthur.

The general had gone to Washington to deliver his report to Congress.  Now, with his wife and young son, he was making a triumphal progress across America.

MacArthur’s plane touched down at Midway a little after noon on April 26.  City officials greeted him, then he was off in a motorcade to downtown.  A long, meandering route was used, so that the maximum number of people could witness the general’s passage.  An estimated 3 million spectators lined the various streets—still the largest turnout for a single person in the city’s history.

The main event was an evening reception at Soldier Field.  The crowds began gathering at 5:30, three hours before the general was to arrive.  While they waited, they were entertained by drum and bugle corps, color guards, marching units, and military bands.  Veterans’ groups and ROTC squads dominated the proceedings.

04-26--MacArthur at Soldier Field

As the skies darkened, the beacon atop the Palmolive Building—two miles away—was focused on the field.  Finally, MacArthur made his entrance.  The assembled throng cheered.  He acknowledged the greeting, then spoke.

The general called for a realistic end to the Korean conflict, with a minimum loss of American life.  He said the U.S. had no clear war policy.  In case anyone doubted what he thought, he said that our goal should be “victory over the nation and men who, without provocation, have attacked us.”

Applause interrupted him 19 times.  In conclusion, he declared: “[Even] without command authority or responsibility, I still proudly possess the greatest of all honors and distinctions—I am an American!”

The thousands rose to their feet and cheered again, long and loud.  Then came the fireworks display.  Then it was over.

The next morning MacArthur was gone.  He left behind a dazed and dazzled Chicago.  And in the long sweep of history—by his conflict with President Truman—he left behind a controversy that is still debated.


Gardens for the City in a Garden (4-20-1932)

As the Great Depression moved into its third year, unemployed people were finding ways to make ends meet.  Some of them were becoming farmers.

Today Chicagoans learned the County Board was launching a farming project on its property.  Sections of the forest preserves were going to be plowed.  Local relief agencies would then be assigned specific plots.  The agencies would distribute seed to any needy person willing to work the land.

4-20--Garden top.jpg

The Board’s superintendent felt this was an effective use of unused acreage.  If the initial program were successful, other parts of the forest preserves might be opened up for use.  Meanwhile, at least one private company was starting its own farming program.

International Harvester had laid off 4,500 people.  Now Harvester announced it had leased 1,100 acres of vacant land on the far Southwest Side.  A quarter-section was to be available to each unemployed head-of-family who had worked at the company at least five years.

Harvester was going to provide bus service to the site, free tools, and free soil testing.  The workers would be sold seed at nominal cost—but if anyone couldn’t afford to pay, the company would pick up the tab.  Harvester had hired an agriculture expert to supervise the project.

Out in the neighborhoods, community leaders were becoming active in the back-to-the-soil movement.  Gardens could be planted in backyards or vacant lots.  Many civic groups were getting on board—the Red Cross, United Charities, the Urban League, and the Cook County Federation of Women’s Clubs were all involved.


Sometimes the unemployed needed a little push.  In the area around Hermosa Park, 440 families had been receiving food and clothing from agencies.  Now those people would be able to help themselves, by growing their own food in their own gardens.

The best crop to grow in the region’s soil was potatoes.  Turnips, carrots, and parsnips were other possibilities.  These crops were easily cultivated.  They could be grown in large quantities, then stored for winter.

Chicagoans continued their gardens through the hard times.  Urban agriculture declined after World War II.  But recently, Detroit leaders floated the idea of turning large swaths of their vacant land into farms.  Perhaps a similar program will be reborn in our city.


Then and Now, Kimball-Belmont

1954--Kimball Avenue @ Belmont, view north

1954–Kimball Avenue @ Belmont, view north

2016--the same location

2016–the same location

During the 1920s Kimball Avenue was widened, as part of a planned extension of the Chicago Park District’s boulevard system.  But the Depression put the project on hold, and it was never implemented.  The street was still an under-used arterial at the time of the older photo.

The 1960 opening of the Northwest (Kennedy) Expressway transformed this stretch of Kimball.  Buildings were demolished and the street widened yet again, to accommodate traffic going to and from the expressway.  Since 1970 there’s also been a subway under Kimball, with the Blue Line’s Belmont station just out of the picture.



When Wrestling Was Wrestling (4-14-1909)

Professional wrestling was a recognized sport in 1909. When Frank Gotch defended his world heavyweight championship in Chicago, the match was a major news story.

A 30-year-old son of Iowa, Gotch had held the title for a year. Tonight he was scheduled to face Yussif Mahmout, the latest wrestler to call himself The Terrible Turk. The site was the Dexter Park Pavilion, Halsted and 43rd Streets.

Champion Frank Gotch

Champion Frank Gotch

The main event was scheduled to start at 11 p.m. But by 7 o’clock, a half-block-long line was already snaking down Halsted Street from the Pavilion entrance. Police were called out to keep order. More than 20,000 people finally jammed into the building. That was a crowd the White Sox or Cubs might envy.

When the wrestlers met at center ring, the Turk was barefoot. That was a violation of the rules, and would make it harder for Gotch to use his signature toe hold. The champ decided to go on with the match anyway.

In 1909, wrestling matches were hard-fought and scientific—but not very flashy.  The two opponents would grab each other, then struggle to gain an advantage. To an untrained observer, the wrestlers looked like they weren’t doing anything but pose. Often this went on for an hour.

Tonight’s match was best-of-three falls. The first round had some action. The two men rushed each other, broke a few holds, and bounced off the ropes. Gotch pinned the Turk in 8 minutes flat.
The Terrible Turk

The Terrible Turk

After a 10 minute break, they went at it again. The champ kept his dominance.  He was now using the half-nelson and the crotch grip. At 9 minutes and 10 seconds, Gotch again pinned the Turk.

The match was over. Twenty thousand throats cheered the American victory.  The Tribune reported that “several prominent men from Western cities climbed into the ring, seized the victor, and carried him in triumph to his dressing quarters.”

The Turk was dazed. “I didn’t know Gotch was so good,” he admitted. “I don’t know anyone who can beat him.”

Reporters found Gotch relaxed and mellow. “I had him beaten when I laid my hands on him,” the champ said. “He is a strong fellow, but I am stronger and know more about wrestling.”

As the years passed, the public began to turn away from pro wrestling and its slow pace. That’s when the sport became more—how should we put it?—“theatrical.”




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 147 other followers