In 1882, Potter Palmer and his wife, Bertha, decided to build their 42-room mansion in a Near North Side neighborhood previously home only to frog ponds, swampland and a cemetery that contained 20,000 shallow graves of smallpox and plague victims—not exactly the most desirable location in Chicago. While other local business tycoons like George Pullman, John J. Glessner and Marshall Field constructed their sprawling estates in the Prairie Avenue District near current-day Soldier Field, the Palmers built their home in what is now the Gold Coast.
The nearly $1 million Palmer Castle sparked the first phase of residential development, according to the new book Images of America: Chicago’s Gold Coast (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99), authored by longtime Gold Coast dwellers Wilbert Jones, Maureen V. O’Brien and Kathleen Willis Morton. The Palmers, real-estate developers who owned nearly a mile of downtown State Street in addition to their namesake Palmer House hotel, were quick to purchase property in the Gold Coast to “build homes and sell them to their wealthy friends,” including the McCormicks and the Ryersons.
Little did they know most of the mansions built along Lake Shore Drive—save for the surviving seven now protected by the Illinois Register of Historic Places and the City of Chicago Landmarks—would be torn down by midcentury to make room for luxury apartments and condominiums, as detailed in the second part of the picture book.
The third and final section is an ode to the hotels, clubs, restaurants and shops still frequented today by the authors and other notable locals like fine art auctioneer Leslie Hindman and jazz composer Ramsey Lewis, all of whom have the luxury of what Lewis describes as “city living, but […] on a quiet block,” thanks in part to the Palmers.