On the History of 1304 N. Ritchie Court...

 Small girl standing in an intersection on Ritchie Place (now Ritchie Court). Chicago Daily News, 1905.

Small girl standing in an intersection on Ritchie Place (now Ritchie Court). Chicago Daily News, 1905.

It is my hope that a restoration of 1304 N. Ritchie Court that is sensitive to the original design will lead the way towards a new era for Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, with owners and architects valuing the history and design of developer Potter Palmer’s buildings as an important contribution to Chicago’s architectural heritage. By preserving key features of the building beyond just the façade, architects can develop more layered, interesting interiors that respect the history and zeitgeist of the neighborhood.

1304 N. Ritchie Place, now known as Ritchie Court, was built as a five-lot real estate development by Potter Palmer, a well-known 19th Century Chicagoan and real estate financier. Palmer developed many similar properties in the Gold Coast neighborhood shortly after the Great Chicago Fire.

 Map of Potter Palmer's Gold Coast Neighborhood. Chicago History Museum Archives.

Map of Potter Palmer's Gold Coast Neighborhood. Chicago History Museum Archives.

The conception and design of Ritchie Court is tied into the city’s history and makes the development particularly worthy of preservation.  Palmer initially made a name for himself in the Chicago real estate sector before the Great Chicago Fire, by developing large sections of State Street in the Chicago Loop. As the city struggled to rebuild after the fire, Palmer recognized an opportunity and secured a loan to purchase a “frog pond” adjacent to Lake Michigan, just north of the city’s central business district. He envisioned the frog pond as a new residential district, now called the Gold Coast, of which Ritchie Place was to be a part. Palmer planned the area as an enclave for the wealthy, upstream from the Loop, the slaughter yards, and the snarl of railroad tracks running between the two districts. To set the example of fine home building, Palmer commissioned the architecture firm Cobb and Frost to design and build a castle along the new Lake Shore Drive for himself and his bride, Bertha Honore Palmer.

 Potter Palmer's account ledger. Chicago History Museum Archives.

Potter Palmer's account ledger. Chicago History Museum Archives.

To ensure the exclusivity of his new neighborhood, Palmer partitioned the land surrounding his home adjacent to the newly developed Lake Shore Drive, only selling the parcels to his friends and peers. Some parcels were sold as vacant land, while others were developed as fashionable freestanding and rowhouses. Ritchie Place, running for just one block between Goethe and Banks, was directly adjacent to the Palmer castle. According to Palmer’s ledger of accounts, construction on house numbers 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 (now numbers 1300, 1302, 1304, 1306 and 1308) Ritchie Place began in May of 1888. Potter Palmer paid the architect C.M. Palmer (no relation) $800 for his designs. The next entry in Potter Palmer’s account ledger is for whiskey insurance.

Over the next ten years, Palmer the real estate mogul and Palmer the architect collaborated on no less than 50 houses in the Gold Coast. Some even speculate the pair collaborated on upwards of 300[1] buildings on the North Side alone. Examples of these houses can be seen driving along the tree-lined neighborhood streets, such as Cedar, Elm, and Division. Writing in 1955, the great Chicago historian Arthur Meeker dubbed the area “Palmerville.” He describes the neighborhood of “substantial mansions and spacious gardens” as “forming the dignified façade of Palmerville (as I think it really ought to be called), a concentration of wealth and fashion such as no other American city could boast at that time, perhaps at anytime.”[2]

 1304 and 1306 Ritchie Court: the Double House

1304 and 1306 Ritchie Court: the Double House

While each house in Ritchie Court has its own individual character, they share an architectural vocabulary of Romanesque forms, rusticated stonework, and party-wall construction. In addition, the buildings share a material palette of Chicago Greystone, which lends a massive, heavy quality to the facades.  Arched windows and doorways puncture through those facades at regular intervals, often accompanied by bay windows, porches, and wrought-iron railings. Two of the homes, 1304 and 1306 Ritchie Court, were designed as a “double-house”; their exteriors are joined in a single, uniform façade, with a shared recessed porch and decorative cornices, and mirror-image doors and window placement. Joining the exteriors of the individual homes creates an illusion of a grander exterior façade for both.

The five rowhouses on Ritchie Court are contributing buildings to both national and city landmarked neighborhoods. The Gold Coast Historic District nomination form, the publication that outlines the landmarked neighborhood as defined by the National Registrar of Historic Places in 1975, refers to 1304 and 1306 as the: “Willis Hall Turner and Frederic Upham Double House,” [3] named for the homes’ original owners. Unfortunately, little is known of these owners beyond their names. The original five houses of Palmer’s Ritchie Court development are also contributing buildings to the City of Chicago’s Astor Street Historic District, established in 1973. The corresponding report notes the double houses’ “vaguely Romanesque detailing…typical [of] late 19th Century trapezoidal bay-fronted designs.”[4] Both reports note the architectural significance of the double house façade, the feature commonly understood to make it an important contributing building to the historic neighborhood.

In addition to the five rowhouses built in 1888, Palmer built rowhouses on either side of Ritchie Court, extending up to Banks Street. Unfortunately, these neighboring houses were taken down in the 1970s, prior to the landmarking of the neighborhood, to provide for two oversized apartment buildings.

Since their construction, the remaining five Richie Court rowhouses have received varying levels of renovation. The present renovation work at 1304 N. Ritchie Court is in good company on the block. Currently, 1300 N. Ritchie Court, the end unit, is receiving a gut-renovation, while the façade is being restored on 1302. 1306 and 1308 were both gut renovated roughly 20 years ago. Through these renovations, much of the historic character of Ritchie Court has been lost. It is only through allowing these buildings to evolve, an idea central to my restoration of 1304 N. Ritchie, that we can preserve the integrity and architectural heritage of Potter Palmer’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

 Ritchie Court, 1956. Chicago History Museum Archives.

Ritchie Court, 1956. Chicago History Museum Archives.

[1] Berger, Miles L. They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture. Chicago: Bonus, 1995. Print. p14-16

[2]Meeker, Arthur. Chicago, with Love: A Polite and Personal History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955. p 120.

[3]Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks. Summary of Information on an Astor Street District. Report issued June 1973.

[4]United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form. Gold Coast Historic District. Report Issued December 1975.