Charnley-Persky House Archaeological Project

Historical Overview: Chicago's Gold Coast, 1880-1920

The Gold Coast

Chicago's "Gold Coast" is situated on the Near North Side, with Lake Michigan bounding it to the east, Clark Street to the west, Oak Street to the south, and North Avenue to the north. Known as a neighborhood for the white business elite by the 1880s, its location--adjacent to the "slum" featured in Harvey Zorbaugh's 1929 ethnography, The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago's Near North Side--meant that social or class difference did not map to geographical distance. Indeed, far from the area being monolithically upper class and white, the neighborhood that included the Charnley House also housed students, artists, recent Irish and Sicilian immigrants, and others nearby. Coupled with the fact that the people who provided the labor for the mansions on the Gold Coast came from farther afield, the area was far more diverse than its reputation might suggest.

By the 1880s, businessman and real estate developer, Potter Palmer (1826-1902), decided to lure his social equals to the area by selling them plots of land. His mansion, known as the "Castle"(completed in 1885) was set on a large piece of property, the northwestern corner of which was sold to James Charnley in 1890 for the Charnley House. Besides selling parcels to his peers, Palmer commissioned and built homes throughout the neighborhood that he would then sell or rent to Chicago's leading businessman and their families. Today it is still an affluent neighborhood, and the Astor Street District was recognized as a Chicago Landmark (1975) and the Gold Coast District was added to the National Register of Historic Places (1978).

Astor Street

James and Helen Charnley commissioned architect Louis Sullivan—through his firm, Adler and Sullivan—to design a new home for them in 1890. Construction took place from 1891-1892, with Frank Lloyd Wright serving as Sullivan’s chief assistant. James Charnley arrived in Chicago in 1866 and made his living in lumber and other industries, even choosing to have himself listed as a “capitalist” in the city directories from 1893-1896 (Longstreth 2004). He and Helen, their two daughters--another Helen and Bettie--and their son, Douglas, had lived in several homes near the Charnley House. This included a home a few blocks away that was built by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root—two men also known as the architectural directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition. We know that while living there, their two daughters died of diphtheria in 1883. After that, James, Helen, Douglas, and their servants, lived in a series of other locations after that before moving to what is now 1365 N. Astor Street.

The Elusive Charnleys

In contrast to their social contemporaries—say the Palmers, or other leading families of Chicago—much less is known about the Charnley family themselves—we don’t even know the exact death date of Mrs. Helen Charnley. We know that Helen, James, and Douglas Charnley left this house in 1902 and moved to Camden, South Carolina where James Charnley died in 1905. Helen and Douglas spent the remainder of their lives living in Europe, Switzerland in particular. Douglas died in 1927 and Helen in 1930. There were no descendants, and as a result, no original photographs of the interior or other family information on the house has ever been found.


Copyright © Rebecca S. Graff 2016
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