These early row houses were developed in Chicago’s Gold Coast/River North neighborhood in the early 1870s immediately following the Great Chicago Fire.
That conflagration began south of the city’s downtown area at 137 DeKoven Street (around 1100 South) and blew its destruction north through Downtown and upwards into today’s Gold Coast area. The fire petered out two days later to the north of Fullerton Avenue (2400 North) on October 10, 1871. The area of devastation was over a swath of four miles (see map below).
The fire’s aftermath sparked an intense period of rebuilding, especially in Downtown Chicago, less than one mile to the south of these row houses. This flurry of building activity, particularly of needed housing, may be partly why the architect is unknown for these three- and four-story Italianate buildings, all of which are well preserved.
The three-story row houses to the south have neo-Grec ornament which was in vogue by 1872. It included incised carved detail on window ledges and door frames.
The four-story row houses to the north (partially pictured) have more lavish Second Empire exterior decoration.
Like the Italianate style, the Neo-Grec–style row houses have a smooth brownstone front with a pronounced deep cornice, heavy entryway and window details. The contrast was in their ornamentation: Neo-Grec’s simple, precise lines and geometric Greek influence varied from Italianate ornamentation of curved and organic lines and forms.
Italianate curved window and door frames are replaced by Neo-Grec’s right-angles. Lintels are replaced by rectangular blocks. Entryway steps had baluster cast-iron railings that ended in squared-off linear and geometric incised ornament.
CHICAGO POPULATION GROWTH 1860-1980
Chicago was growing exponentially by 1870. In 1860 the city had a little over 112,000 residents and ranked 9th on the list of largest U.S. cities. By the time of the Great Fire in 1871, Chicago had grown to nearly 300,000 and ranked 5th on the largest U.S. cities list. Equally significant is that the city’s size also doubled in those same ten years from 17,492 square miles in 1860 to 35,172 square miles in 1870. Busy with rebuilding, the city did not expand again in square miles until the 1880’s, though its population continued to soar. When these Italianate row houses were built, Chicago was growing towards becoming the 4th largest U.S. city with a population of over 500,000. In the early 1870’s with rebuilding and augmenting population density the demand for housing was high. Chicago’s population would continue to grow with each decade until 1980.
OCCUPANTS TODAY INCLUDE A CONTEMPORARY ART GALLERY AND THE ALLIANCE FRANÇAISE DE CHICAGO FOUNDED IN 1897
Today, at 806 N. Dearborn is Alan Koppel Gallery which has, for over two decades, introduced contemporary international artists to Chicago audiences.
At 810 N. Dearborn is the main entrance to the Alliance Française de Chicago. Founded in Paris in 1883. the Alliance Française de Chicago is part of an international network of over 1,100 Alliances around the world which promotes French language and francophone culture. Chicago’s Alliance Française was founded in 1897. Offering French language classes and a full range of cultural events, the Alliance Française de Chicago is the second oldest Alliance in the U.S. and the second largest in the U.S. after the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City. The Alliance Française de Chicago is headquartered in two renovated architecturally historic buildings, including the 1870’s row house on Dearborn Street and, connected by an interior garden, a building on Chicago Avenue.
Alice Sinkevitch, AIA Guide to Chicago, 2nd Edition, Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2004, p. 134.
Frank A. Randall, History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago, Second Edition, Chicago and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 5.
Jay Pridmore and George A. Larson, Chicago Architecture and Design, Abrams, New York, 2018, p. 42.
FEATURE image: The great tower of St. Michael Church on the Near North Side of Chicago identifies the Old Town Triangle historic district.
The bell tower of St. Michael Church in Chicago’s Old Town at 1633 N. Cleveland Avenue. Until the mid-1880’s this church tower was the tallest building in Chicago.
In 1876, five years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that ravaged the city, the rebuilt St. Michael Church raised five new bells into the tower. They were cast by McShane Company. The tower’s four-sided clock was installed in 1888. Atop the steeple, the twenty-four-foot tall cross weighs over a ton.
By John P. Walsh
The story is told that if you can hear the five 2-to-6-ton bells peel from the 290-feet-tall tower of St. Michael Church you live in Chicago’s Old Town. Yet it depends on which way the wind is blowing.
St. Michael Church is one of Chicago’s oldest parishes and church buildings. It was founded by German Catholics in 1852. From their arrival in the 1830s and 1840s until World War I, German immigrants of all faiths made up Chicago’s most numerous nationality.
German immigrants soon migrated out of downtown Chicago and about two miles north to North Avenue. The east-west thoroughfare became known as “German Broadway.”
This European immigrant community expanded to eventually settle a four-mile square area that was called “North Town.” St. Michael Church was situated in the virtual center of North Town on land donated by successful German-born Chicago businessman and brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey had immigrated to the United States in the 1830s from Saarland in western Germany.
St. Michael Church stands on land donated expressly for the purpose of building it by successful German-American brewer Michael Diversey (1810-1869). Diversey emigrated from Germany in 1830, and by 1844 he was a Chicago alderman. The church is named after the wealthy beer maker’s patron saint, St Michael the Archangel, whose limestone figure stands in the high niche on the façade (see photograph below). Diversey’s so-called Chicago Brewery, first established in Chicago in 1839, grew to become one of the most extensive establishments of its kind in the West.
The church building is built of red brick with limestone trim in the Romanesque style. Construction started in 1866 and was finished three years later. In 1871 the new building was virtually destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire along with its North Town neighborhood. Only the church’s exterior walls remained. Using these existing walls, the fire-gutted St. Michael Church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1873. Ashes from that infamous conflagration can still be seen in the church’s basement.
Gabled three-portal main entrance was added to the façade in 1913 by a Chicago architect. The architectural design harkens back to the cathedrals of Europe.
In 1851 when St Michael was founded, Chicago’s total population was around 30,000 making it the twenty-fourth largest city in the United States.
Ten years later, in 1860, right before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Chicago’s population had nearly quadrupled and ranked in the nation’s top ten largest cities.
Chicago’s Catholic Church hierarchy in the middle of the nineteenth century was mostly Irish. These English-speaking bishops relied on religious orders to handle a tidal wave of non-English-speaking immigrants to Chicago, including the Germans.
In 1860, the St. Michael Church parish was entrusted to the Redemptorists, a religious order founded in in 1748 in Italy. The Redemptorists with their German congregation built the St. Michael Church in Old Town that stands today. Over 170 years later, the Redemptorist order continues to shepherd the parish.
A mosaic of Saint Michael the Archangel in the floor at the entrance of the church. “Archangel” is a title that signifies he is the leader of all God’s angels.
The mosaic of the patron angel in the floor starts the church’s 190-foot-long nave. It is one of the many religious images—others in stone, wood and paint—that constitutes the interior and exterior decoration of St. Michael Church. St. Michael the Archangel is mentioned four times in the Bible: in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude, and the Book of Revelation. St. Michael the archangel is mentioned by name twice in the Book of Daniel where in the first instance he helps the prophet Daniel and in the second he is linked to the “end times” of the world. In the Epistle of Jude, St. Michael the archangel guards the tombs of Eve and Moses and combats Satan to protect these holy sites. In the Book of Revelation St. Michael and his angels do battle with the “dragon.” St. Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of soldiers, police, and doctors.
The spacious, airy, and dramatic church sanctuary today looks basically as it did by 1902. The motivation for the church’s extensive redecoration in 1902 was its Golden Jubilee as well as one expression of the parishioners’ decided prosperity by the later 1890s.
In that Jubilee year, the stained glass was installed along with the 56-foot-high carved wood retable of the High (or main) Altar of the Angels. Though there are five altars in St. Michael Church, the main altar is the most spectacular, drawing the eye forward and upward from practically anywhere in the church. Crowning this painted construct—which is so heavy that it required a new local foundation to be dug for it—is the figure of St. Michael the Archangel described in the Book of Revelation. The angel is garbed in his panzer (“armor”) running rebellious angels out of heaven. St. Michael is flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Raphael. Nine choirs of angels and the saints Peter and Paul are also depicted in wood. Smaller human figures depict the four evangelists identified by their Christian symbols—specifically, the Winged Man (Matthew), Winged Lion (Mark), Winged Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). All five altars were made by E. Hackner Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, an early twentieth century designer, manufacturer and importer of artistic ecclesiastic furnishings.
The anointing of Jesus in Bethany by the sinful woman, traditionally the Magdalene. Though the story varies in certain details, all four gospels relate the anointing set in a house for a meal and a woman who pours expensive ointment on Jesus to which someone objects.
In regard to the ointment, Mark’s account (14:3) records that it is the purest of spikenard which was very expensive costing over a year’s wages (Mark 14:5).
Spikenard was grown in India, China, and Nepal and known in ancient Rome where it was used as a cooking agent. By the time of Jesus, in the early Roman Empire, spikenard was used primarily in perfume.
In 2020, the spikenard plant is part of Pope Francis’s coat of arms. He uses the image of the plant as does the Latin American church, as a symbol for St. Joseph.
Luke’s gospel speaks of Jesus’ feet being anointed by a woman who had been sinful all her life and who was crying (7:38). As her tears fall on the feet of Jesus, she kissed and wiped his feet with her hair.
The iconography of the woman’s actions in the Gospels has traditionally been associated with Mary Magdalene though none of the biblical texts specify her as the story’s subject.
Coat of Arms of Pope Francis (2013-). According to the Vatican, the image of the plant to the right of the star on the blue background is spikenard and represents St. Joseph.
Created and installed by Mayer & Company of Munich in 1902 for St. Michael Church’s Golden Jubilee, the tall and thin stained glass windows —the fourth set of windows to be installed into architect August Walbaum’s original design— depicted biblical and other scenes and drew on centuries of craft and technique.
As with other American church building adaptations of earlier European architectural styles, the use of Romanesque rounded arches and corbels accentuated the use of Gothic-style glass in Chicago’s Old Town Roman Catholic church.
Central nave ceiling mural includes symbolic depictions of the four evangelists: Winged Man (Matthew); Winged Lion (Mark); Winged Ox (Luke); Eagle (John).
Its filigree evokes medieval illuminated manuscripts and perhaps is inspired by a scene painted in the 15th century in the dome of The Basilica of St Mark in Venice.
Copy made around 1913 of a 16th-century Swabian-style Pieta.
The Sacred Heart side altar to the east side of the main altar honors Jesus’s apparition to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). Statues depict St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) and St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), founders of religious orders.
Side altar honors Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help whose image was important to Saint Alphonsus, founder of the Redemptorists who were the religious order pastors of St. Michael Church from its start. Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) gave this specific icon to the Chicago Redemptorists in 1865. After the Great Fire, it was picked out of the charred embers. Having survived intact in the rubble, it was taken as a sign to rebuild the church building and later set the icon into this nearly Indo-Chinese-style retable.
The history of St. Michael Church is a study in the rise of the German population to a dominant position in a new American city that was itself rising as the City of the Century. Chicago in less than 50 years developed out of an onion swamp into the second most populated city in the United States.
Between 1874 and following World War I, Chicago’s rapid emergence on the world stage was accompanied by Deutschtum (or “Germanness”) in its culture.
While Deutschtum appeared to be invincible, the Kaiser’s defeat in 1918 in the European war signaled the beginning of the end for German cultural dominance in Chicago. Their cultural hegemony in Chicago was virtually completely dismantled by the start of World War II.
Sources: G. Lane and A. Kezys, Chicago Churches and Synogogues; P. d’A Jones and M.G. Holli, Ethnic Chicago; D.A. Pacyga and E. Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods; D. McNamara, Heavenly City; St. Michael Church website.
Photographs by author taken on February 13 and 17, 2013; and May 6, 2016.
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