A truly unique gem on the city's south side, the Prairie District offers a taste of historic Chicago with a 21st century spin. Stately homes and modern lofts make for fine living for families, professionals, artists or anyone who wants to savor the soul of the Windy City. This pocketsize enclave in the middle of the South Loop is where treasured, landmark houses-turned-museums neighbor mid-rise luxury condominiums.
Prairie District Facts
Location: 1.5 miles south of the Loop
Boundaries: 16th Street to the north, Prairie Avenue to the east, Cullerton Street to the south and Michigan Avenue to the west
Bordering Neighborhoods: South Loop, Dearborn Park, Chinatown, Near South, Douglas
Then and Now
This historical neighborhood is a pendulum that has shifted between rags and riches for generations. The aesthetic result is a striking marriage between the lavish lifestyles of Chicago’s merchant elites and the factories that made them rich.
The infamous Fort Dearborn Massacre took place on this very soil in 1812 when a colony of European settlers was ambushed by Native Americans who were upset that their land had been stolen and were allied with British Forces in the War of 1812. The tribe had agreed to escort the settlers to another fort, and then attacked and killed them. This battle actually had a lot to do with the distrust of Native Americans, as the few survivors wrote very detailed accounts that were spread far and wide.
Not much mind was paid to the tainted area until the 1850s when early Chicago planners anticipated that this stretch of Prairie Avenue would become a beacon of residential growth. Those prescient civic minds subdivided the neighborhood, but by the middle of that decade, only one grand home had been built. It wasn’t until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 prompted settlers to relocate from the embers of other parts of town that the Prairie District realized its full potential. Soon after the disaster, a medley of row houses and smaller detached homes sprung up in this tiny south Chicago neighborhood, most notably on Indiana Avenue. By 1877 11 blocks of Prairie Avenue were densely populated with mansions, all of differing architectural styles, which created a striking and diverse residential setting that became quite the talk of the town.
It didn’t take long for an address along this stretch of private residences to carry great clout, and by 1887 the city’s most elite families called Prairie Avenue home. The Pullman, Field, Kimball and Armour families built large manors here, making it the most fashionable neighborhood Chicago had seen at the time. Every mansion had its own carriage house, elaborate service staff and marquee architect. It was a small bite of urban bliss for several decades, until the manufacturing industry began to spread to the fringes of the elite neighborhood. The year was 1911, and the booming success of the south side rail yards brought industry to the doorsteps of Chicago’s wealthy denizens. Soon, the high class families deserted the area for other parts of town, and their extravagant homes were knocked down to make way for factories.
During the 1950s, the district had become largely industrial. Vacant lots and factories reigned supreme, and hardly a trace of the golden days that came before could be seen. Eventually, a slow but steady progression toward preserving what remained of the neighborhood’s historical legacy gained momentum, and in the 1970s two of the surviving mansions—the Clarke House and the Glessner House—were declared city Landmarks, prompting Chicagoans to re-think the gilded history of the Prairie District.
The new millennium ushered in a new push to expel manufacturing from the district as some factories were leveled and others converted to urban condos and lofts. The few mansions that had survived the decades of neglect were refurbished, and speculators began turning the vacant lots that were left into trendy living spaces.
Today, the historic Prairie District is a mix of nostalgia and forward thinking, as antique mansions sit side-by-side with industrial urban lofts. It’s a strange sight, this tiny Chicago neighborhood that is able to conjure the elaborate lifestyles of industry bosses, with the grit and grime of the factories they presided over. The Prairie District now serves as a historical survey of Chicago’s greatest triumphs, a microcosm for the good old days.
Art and Architecture
A casual gaze from any corner of the Prairie District might tempt you to believe that every other building is a landmark, but there are officially only two: The Clarke House and the Glessner House.
It might seem like the Clarke House (1855 S Indiana Ave) has always adorned this spot, but in actuality, the home has been on quite a journey. Constructed in 1936 by the wealthy hardware dealer Henry B. Clarke and his wife Caroline, this house is Chicago’s oldest surviving building. The Clarkes chose a 20-acre lot on 16th Street and Michigan Avenue to build a majestic home in the Greek Revival style. When Mr. Clark died in the cholera epidemic of 1849, the home became known as the Widow Clarke house. In 1872, the Clark children sold the estate to a man named John Chrimes, who didn’t much care for the noise of the city and uprooted the great house to a quieter lot on 45th Street and Wabash Avenue. Here, the house served as a family home to the Chrimes, and then as a parish hall for the St. Paul Church of God in Christ, and finally as a community center until the city of Chicago purchased it in 1977.
It was decided that the historic home should be moved back to its original neighborhood, and so it was hoisted by hydraulic jacks, pulled through the city on the railroad tracks to its current location. As luck would have it, because the move took place in December 1977, the jacks meant to lower the house froze and the stately home lived atop the jacks for two weeks until they thawed.
The interior of the home was reinforced, and the National Society of Colonial Dames set about redecorating. None of the furnishings within the house today actually belonged to the Clarke family, but they are period pieces that offer a glimpse into the upscale lifestyle of Chicago’s historical elite. Tours are available year-round, and the Clarke House museum remains one of Chicago’s top historical attractions. The architect of this illustrious residence remains unknown, but there is no doubt about the artistry that went into the estate.
Unlike the Clarke House, we know who drew up the blueprints for the other landmark home in the Prairie District. The Glessner House (1800 S Prairie Ave) is a remarkable estate designed by Boston architect Henry Richardson in 1885. Richardson’s ideas were quite progressive for the time, and many residents in the exclusive neighborhood objected to the home as an eyesore. Resembling a fortress, the exterior is a liberal take on Romanesque-revival and is quite overpowering in its rugged, granite-heavy build. The interior of the house is a nod to English Arts and Crafts and includes the Morris & Co textiles and Isaac Scott cabinetry that made the taste of that time. Tours of the home, lavish central courtyard, and the impressive collections of one of Chicago’s most well-to-do families are available and are a interesting alternative to the city’s traditional tourist destination spots. The grounds of this magnificent estate champion the innovations of residential design, and it’s found right in the midst of Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers.
More than just a memorial, the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (1801 S Indiana, 312-326-0270) is ground zero for education about Vietnam, war and our changing world. The unique permanent collection is built around works of art made by veterans. Subscribing to the notion that art therapy might help quell the effects of the post-traumatic stress disorder that so many veterans suffer from, the museum features pieces by American veterans of many wars, including both Iraq wars. The artworks have become a startling tribute to coping with personal demons and finding resolutions in an ever-changing political climate.
Prairie District Real Estate
Living in the Prairie District today is like brushing elbows with the merchant royalty of Chicago’s past, with all the amenities of modern living, of course.
The streets themselves are breathtaking, flush with floral gardens and well-manicured lawns. The trees that line the residential avenues here turn into a stunning array of colors come fall, making the neighborhood a prime destination for a stroll. The mixture of grand townhomes and massive condominium buildings add to the appeal of this south side Chicago neighborhood, providing a balance between old and new.
Much has been made here of the stately mansions that rise regally above the wrought-iron front gates. But of course the majority of these homes are not for sale, with a couple of them designated as actual landmarks. The few that are on the market are valued at anywhere from $1.9 million to $3.9 million.
The real estate that is widely available here is in the form of luxurious trendy lofts and condos. Many of these contemporary living spaces are chiseled into the bones of old factories, but developers are also constantly at work in this tiny Chicago neighborhood, breaking ground on brand new buildings left and right. High- and mid-rise condominiums and lofts are located in converted industrial buildings and newly constructed midsize skyscrapers, and usually come dripping with amenities. Three- and four-story townhouses are also big in the Prairie District, providing a little more space and just as many luxury features.
In general, a one-bedroom condo in the Prairie District neighborhood of Chicago sells for around $300,000, although you can find some units for $250,000 or less. A two-bedroom place jumps the average price up to $417,000 and the price for a three-bedroom condominium or townhome in the Prairie District averages around $665,000, with several of the properties selling for between $800,000 and $1 million.
What’s on the Menu?
The Prairie District neighborhood exists because of its history, with dining and shopping destinations largely pushed away. Any resident here will find multitudes of businesses—both dining and otherwise—in the surrounding blocks of the South Loop.
Historic community or not, it’s difficult to imagine life in any neighborhood without at least one coffeehouse. Fortunately, Prairie District residents are well satisfied in this department with the aptly named Cafe Society (1801 S Indiana Ave, 312-842-4210) tucked between the historic digs of Indiana Avenue. This cozy cafe is located within the confines of the Vietnam Veteran’s Museum and has enough breakfast options to suit anyone’s tastes. An extensive selection of omelets, crepes and coffeehouse staples like bagels and scones make great compliments to a well-crafted espresso drink. For lunch there are plenty of salads, sandwiches and a veggie chili to die for. The outside patio is a prime spot for people watching while downing a fruit smoothie from the summer menu.
The Prairie District is situated right on one of Chicago’s main surface streets—Michigan Avenue—so you might imagine, there are an abundance of taxis and buses running through the neighborhood at any given moment. In addition, the Prairie District is really close to the Loop (the hub of the city’s CTA train system), so basically, residents are pretty hooked-up when it comes to getting around.
If you prefer public transit, the #1, #3, and #4 bus lines run north and south along Michigan Avenue with stops at all the major destinations. Hopping on a bus is easy enough, but sometimes—depending on where we want to go—the CTA 'El' is our preferred form of transportation. It’s called the El because many of the lines have elevated tracks that afford excellent views of the city as you are heading to your desired stop. From the Prairie District neighborhood, the closest El station is on Roosevelt Road at State Street, just five blocks northeast. The Orange, Green and Red lines pass through here, all en route to the Loop, and then on to further reaches of the city.
If you have your own wheels, Lake Shore Drive is the most convenient road for traveling to local destinations. The Prairie District is pretty sheltered from the traffic of Lake Shore, so you’ll have to head over to Roosevelt Road first to be able to get onto the Drive. The Stevenson Expressway (I-55) is south of the neighborhood, offering another means for traveling about the city quickly—if the traffic isn’t too backed-up. Street parking in the Prairie District is difficult to come by, but most residential buildings have parking garages to house your vehicle.
When all’s said and done, in terms of getting around the neighborhood, there’s nothing better than your own two feet. What’s the sense in living in one of Chicago’s most magnificent treasures if you can’t take the time to stop and smell the mansions?
Nestled within the borders of the South Loop, you’ll discover plenty of dining, shopping and nightlife surrounding this tiny Chicago neighborhood, but here is a guide to the few businesses found in the Prairie District itself.
Chicago Transit Authority - (888) 968-7282
Clarke House Museum 1827 S Indiana Ave - (312) 326-1480
Glessner House Museum 1800 S Prairie Ave - (312) 326-1480
National Vietnam Veteran’s Art Museum 1801 S Indiana - (312) 326-0270
Downtown Pets 1619 S Michigan Ave - (312) 360-1619
Cafe Society 1801 S Indiana Ave - (312) 842-4210
Sometimes it makes more sense to view the city of Chicago as a bunch of separate neighborhoods-especially when it comes to real estate. Whether you are in the market for a loft, condo, townhome, or house, it is just as important to inspect the surrounding area as it is to inspect the home’s foundation. Prairie District neighborhood is just one Chicago community with an abundance of residential properties, and a life all its own. From where you send your kids to school to where you dine at night, the information we provide is an essential piece of the puzzle when you’re trying to decide whether or not to buy that beautiful loft or adorable house in Prairie District.