Prairie Avenue’s Unlikely Survivor
A 125-year-old brick and sandstone Queen Anne–style mansion at 28th Street and Prairie Avenue is on the market for the first time ever. As you will see in the video, the 24-room house—which withstood white flight, as well as the construction (and subsequent demolition) of a public housing project that once surrounded the home on three sides—has a soaring three-story central hall and handsome tiled fireplaces. But aside from the main four rooms, whose interiors are protected by landmark status, much of the house is run-down. There is only one tiny working bathroom and no working kitchen.
Because of its condition and the fact that it has vacant lots on three sides—the owner of those lots, the City of Chicago, has announced no plans for them—the asking price for the 6,5000-square-foot house is $850,000. The agents for the property, Fred Scovell and Pat McAloon of Keller Williams estimate that making the house habitable will cost at least $1.2 million in renovations.
Now isolated by its grandeur in a neighborhood of moderate-income housing and vacant lots—but with high-end townhouses, condos, and McCormick Place only a few blocks away—the home was once part of a fashionable mansion district. Built in 1885 by the lumber executive George Wood for his daughter, Anne Louise, it was the design of John C. Cochrane, the first architect of the Illinois capitol in Springfield, as well as the Iowa capitol and several Midwestern county courthouses.
As the Chicago Reader’s Tom McPheron detailed in 2003, Anne Louise stayed in the house until 1931, when she joined the white flight from the South Side that had already wiped out many of the neighboring mansions. The house stood empty (except for a caretaker) until 1948, when a young African American couple—the future lawyer Charles Boyd and his wife, the sociologist Alva Maxey-Boyd—approached Anne Louise about selling the place. “I’m not going back there; you can have it,” she told the Boyds, according to Lavada Robinson, who decades ago studied under Maxey-Boyd at Roosevelt University and now is on the board of her estate. The couple insisted on paying so as not to appear to be taking advantage, Robinson says. Differing versions of the story say they paid either $6,500 or $10,000. The Boyds brought the house back up while the rest of the neighborhood was going down. In the 1950s and 1960s, they successfully fought two city-backed bids to tear down their home.
As Robinson tells it, the house was something of a beacon for young African American intellectuals. Maxey-Boyd, she says, had many of her students doing sociological studies on the South Side, and she would often invite them to her house. “She was proud to show us that this was how an African American couple was living,” Robinson says. “It said that we could aspire to that.” As Robinson notes in the video, this was at a time “when blacks could hardly buy a bungalow.”
Charles Boyd died in 1990. His widow stayed in the home until a short time before her death in early 2009 at age 96. By then, the house had fallen back into disrepair. “We kept it because she loved the house [and] loved to ask us about it,” Robinson says. “They never had any children; the house was sort of their child.”
In April, after having cleaned out much of the Boyds’ six decades worth of accumulated papers and belongings, the estate put the house on the market. The question now is who will come along to give the home its third life. “Alva wanted the house to survive,” Robinson says. “It has survived so much. It can survive once more.”
Video Editing: Ezekiel C. Binion