Walking down South Prairie Avenue, tourists and locals used to be surrounded with a peaceful silence as they gazed at the area’s historic homes. Today, the sounds of construction loom over the street and will soon be replaced by beeping horns in congested traffic and noisy and rowdy college sports fans.
As the notable Prairie Avenue District undergoes numerous changes with the relocation of a city landmark and new industrial developments, residents and history advocates alike are in the fight to preserve their beloved neighborhood.
Earlier last month, the Harriet F. Rees House – a Chicago landmark – was moved from the 2100 block to 2017 S. Prairie Ave., one block closer to the other mansions of the Prairie Avenue Historic District. This area in the National Register of Historic Places is known as the location for the Battle of Fort Dearborn and the home of famous 19th century Chicago figures such as George Pullman and Marshall Field.
Tina Feldstein, president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, said her organization played a significant role in advocating for the preservation of the Rees House.
She added that while the moving of the three-story mansion was responded to positively by the neighborhood, there is still an underlying issue.
The new developments by DePaul University and the McCormick Place, which includes a 10,000-seat basketball arena and is the reason the Rees House had to be moved, is not something that the residents are happy about.
“We don’t want the neighborhood to become a short-cut, a cut-through or a drop-off for a DePaul game,” Feldstein said. “We already have issues with it being a drop-off for Solider Field events or a parking lot for people going to McCormick Place.”
Feldstein said that while she believes new developments could be good for the area, but instead of issues with traffic, parking and security, she wants them to improve the quality of life and stay within the context of the neighborhood.
“I think everybody understood that at some point redevelopment would happen,” said William Tyre, 49, the executive curator and director of the district’s Glessner House museum.
Tyre, whose tours generate around 10,000 visitors annually, said the relocation was a good compromise and its new address puts the Rees House closer to similar historic buildings.
“Ideally you always want a landmark to be able to remain where it was built, that’s always the best situation,” he said. “In this particular case it was an option of moving it or losing it.”
Tyre said he has reservations about the DePaul arena, but is hopeful that the inevitable expansion could be an opportunity to educate people.
“If there’s any way we could make people coming to those events at the new arena more aware of what’s here, it could be a positive thing,” he said.
Tracy Baim, 51, has lived in the historic district on and off since she was a teenager after her late mother and stepfather purchased the Keith House in 1978.
She said while the Rees House’s landmark status made its relocation mandatory, she had no issue with its move down the block.
Baim, who is the publisher and executive editor of the Windy City Media Group, said her main concerns are with those organizing the construction of the new DePaul center.
“I think that they are not [developing the area] with enough involvement of true urban planners that don’t have a conflict of interest in the project,” she said.
Baim added that those in charge of the project may not able to see how it will affect the residents.
“What I see when I attend the public meetings is that it’s different people representing different agencies at these meetings and they don’t live here for the most part,” Baim said. “So they’ll go on to their next job and not be impacted by the urban planning of this project.”
Tyre said the people within the district have expressed their concerns to Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who, he added, has been very helpful and is trying to work with the developers as much as possible.
Feldstein added the saving of the Rees House brought attention to the Prairie Avenue Historic District and reminded people why it is important to preserve the city’s past.
“If you forget where you come from, then you repeat mistakes,” Feldstein said. “It is so critically important for us to remember: ‘Why Chicago? Why is Chicago the big, world-class city that it is today?’ It is because of its history.”
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