No, those aren’t cobblestones lining the alley behind Cardinal Francis George’s Queen Anne–style mansion between State and Astor Streets in the Gold Coast.
Put on your glasses. Bend down if you have to.
That’s wood grain you see. The “stones” are six-inch-long cedar paving blocks, treated with wood-preserving creosote and pounded into the earth sometime in the 1880s, says Chicago historian Sally Kalmbach.
There is no way to exactly pinpoint Chicago’s oldest alley. Surveyor James Thompson drew 16-foot-wide alleys between each block on the city’s original plat in 1830. But it’s believed the alley behind the cardinal’s residence (1555 N State Pkwy) is one of just two here where you can still spot those original wood pavers. (The other is on the 2100 block of North Hudson Avenue.)
Residents are searching for a contractor who can restore the crumbling wooden alley in the original style, says Maureen O’Brien, president of the Gold Coast Neighbors’ Association.
In recent weeks, the association has put up a one-way sign to cut down on the number of tires rumbling over the historic pass, a move O’Brien says is necessary to preserve the cedar. “We’re very committed to go forward and save that alley,” she says.
John Russick, senior curator for the Chicago History Museum, calls this little time capsule “one of the most important alleys in the city.”
But “because [alleys] were everywhere and were so common, we failed to recognize how important it was to document them thoroughly,” he says. “It’s a classic example of how the everyday becomes historically significant.”
Maybe we’d better start saving those Starbucks cups now.