The recent Open House Chicago event provided thousands of people, including me, the opportunity to step inside incredible spaces and step back in time.
The two Sheridan Road Mansions I visited, the Downey and Gunder houses, provided a view of life a century ago. Along with their sprawling lots and surviving coach houses, it was a happy reminder of preservation gone right.
Today, both mansions are Chicago Landmarks owned by the Chicago Park District. They are part of Berger Park at 6205-6219 North Sheridan, right on the lake in the Edgewater neighborhood. The Downey House serves as a cultural center and the Gunder House is undergoing restoration for similar use.
Both structures were granted landmark status in 2013 for good reason. They are among a handful of remaining mansions that exemplify the early residential history of North Sheridan in Edgewater. Before the high-rise building boom of the 1950s through the 1970s, this entire area was filled with high-quality, lakefront mansions built before World War I. Today, they stand out among their towering neighbors as elegant reminders of this bygone world.
In the late 19th century, North Sheridan Road was conceived as an extension of Lake Shore Drive, named as it was in hopes that the federal government would fund this connection between Chicago and the new Fort Sheridan. Hopes were also high that the road would hug the lakeshore all the way, but lakefront landowners were loath to give up their private lake access. Sheridan Road thus meanders its way north, sometimes quite far inland. But one of the places it hugs the shoreline is in Edgewater.
Lakefront living has always attracted Chicagoans because of its views, cooling summer breezes, and recreational opportunities; no less true today than it was a century ago. Sheridan Road embodied this residential ideal.
Suburban Edgewater began in 1886 when developer John Lewis Cochran platted subdivisions with an eye toward creating a fashionable railroad community. Where the CTA Red Line runs today is where the original Chicago, Milwaukee & Saint Paul Railroad ran at grade level.
Cochran invested in upscale speculative residential dwellings with top name architects. The handsome neighborhood with mansions on sizeable lots and highest-quality infrastructure (sidewalks, sewers, streetlights) had a similar feel as farther northern suburbs and was intended to rival the likes of Evanston and Wilmette. In 1889, Edgewater became part of Chicago via annexation and—especially along Sheridan Road—maintained its upscale suburban character.
Up until World War I, many single-family mansions continued to be built along Sheridan for wealthy businessmen and their families. By the 1930s, the street was one of the city’s most attractive with mature trees, Prairie-style street lamps, and the landscaped lawns of the large and well-designed houses. From Edgewater up through Rogers Park, the north side of the city had a distinctly suburban and resort-like character.
Even though multi-family buildings began rising in the 1920s, the prestige of the new and nearby Edgewater Beach Hotel burnished Edgewater’s reputation. But the Great Depression caused many families to sell their homes as it became impossible to manage the large houses and the staffs it took to run them. Mansions were sold to institutions, subdivided, or razed.
By the 1950s, when Lake Shore Drive was extended north to Hollywood and much more traffic came through the area, it lost its desirable, suburban character. Very rapidly during the 1950s through the1970s, high-rise apartment buildings sprung up along North Sheridan.
The Downey and Gunder mansions were spared because of their institutional ownership: the Viatorians (Clerics of Saint Viator), a Catholic religious order, owned the homes from the 1940s until selling them to the Chicago Park District in 1980.
Both mansions—even though a bit down-at-the-heels—feature incredible workmanship, design, materials, and delightful details. The rich woodwork in both houses miraculously was never painted over and major modernizations were never done, so what remains is close to original in appearance.
The Downey Mansion (today’s Berger Park Cultural Center at 6205 North Sheridan) was designed by noteworthy Chicago architect William Carbys Zimmerman, who had been an architect for the West Parks Commission and the State of Illinois. Built in 1906 for building contractor Joseph Downey, the American Four Square design is spacious and brimming with handsome detail.
The tour guide for Open House Chicago explained a recent discovery at the Downey Mansion: research revealed that five Alphonse Mucha windows had been installed in the northern stairwell of the house sometime between 1907 and 1908, and that Mucha may very well have visited the house. Our guide also said that the Park District does not know when the windows were removed from the house, but that they now reside in the collection of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass.
In 1910, Myron H. Church designed the Gunder Mansion (today’s Berger Park North Mansion at 6219 North Sheridan) for pharmaceutical executive Samuel Gunder. The elegant Classical Revival design also features Prairie school art glass and tiles. Much discussion arose during my visit as to whether there was a connection between the apparent poppy motif and the owner’s profession.
Chicago Park District architect Stephen Grant was on hand to discuss the Gunder House’s current restoration and to answer visitor questions. Grant told us that, while there is much costly work to be done, the house is in great shape and will one day be a fine venue for special events.
Berger Park is a delight on the lake, with a state-of-the-art playground, theater, cafe, mature trees, meandering walkways, and fantastic views. It’s named for former Edgewater resident Albert E. Berger who fought for street-end beaches on Chicago’s north side. The once city-owned Granville Beach became part of the Chicago Park District in 1959. Berger Park was formed in the 1980s with the additional purchases of the Downey and Gunder properties.
If you get a chance, I recommend you visit sometime soon.