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The Memory Collector: Lost Chicago

Since it first appeared in 1975, Lost Chicago, recently reissued in a splendid new edition, has become one of the city’s essential books—but the personal recollections of its author, David Lowe, may be as valuable a treasure

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David Lowe, author of 'Lost Chicago'
David Lowe on the steps of the Frank F. Fisher Apartments on North State Parkway.

On the surface, Lowe’s lifetime would appear to have only a tenuous connection to Chicago. Born David Garrard Lowe in Baltimore in the 1930s (he won’t be specific about the year), he spent much of his youth in a Kentucky boarding school before heading off to Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s in literature. He moved to New York in his early 20s, and he’s lived there ever since.

Young Lowe immediately found a spot in New York’s thriving magazine world. After a stint on the clipping desk at Look, he spent five years at American Heritage when Bruce Catton, the award-winning chronicler of the Civil War, still ran the show. Later, while working as an editor at McCall’s, Lowe sent Vonnegut on a freelance assignment overseas for an article about Africa. In addition, Lowe wrote a number of essays and books about history, literature, and architecture—such as Stanford White’s New York, a 1992 volume edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Today Lowe serves as president of the Beaux Arts Alliance, headquartered on 74th Street in Manhattan, and continues to lecture internationally, including a recent series of talks about the wonders of Italy, delivered at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So whence came Lowe’s love for Chicago? To anyone with access to Lost Chicago, the answer to that question lies hidden in the book’s dedication: “For my father, who first took me to Henrici’s and the Union Stock Yards, and my uncle, who won the American Derby with Windy City.”

Obviously a few words of explanation are needed. Even younger Chicagoans likely know of the city’s storied stockyards, but Henrici’s? Gone since 1962, the German bakery/restaurant was a popular Randolph Street dining destination for decades until it fell to the wrecking ball to make way for the Daley Center. “The loss of Henrici’s was absolutely outrageous,” growls Lowe. “The Civic Center [the Daley Center’s original name] just gutted the liveliness of that part of Chicago. It should have been on the other side of the river, to the west, where it was needed.”


Pictures from Lost Chicago and David Lowe’s own private collection

As for the American Derby, that classic horserace—still staged annually at Arlington Park—dates to 1884, when it was first held at Washington Park Race Track (at 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue), one of the great courses of the Gilded Age. The track was demolished around 1907, but a reincarnation appeared in Homewood some 20 years later—and there, on June 15, 1929, a Kentucky thoroughbred named Windy City won the American Derby by a length and a half. Its trainer was Lowe’s uncle Jake.

That information is the wedge that opens up the story of Lowe’s early life. He will occasionally unfurl his memories from those years, and they are almost as rich and valuable a local resource as Lost Chicago itself. Just one problem: He is selective about the details he will release. Ultimately it comes down to the age-old dilemma of a son coming to terms with his father—in this case, a man, Lowe insists, that he never knew well and is only now beginning to understand. “I haven’t resolved it in my own head,” he says, speaking by telephone from New York, a startling admission for a man in his 70s. But Lowe’s father—and his father’s ten siblings—are the key to understanding Lost Chicago and the love for the city that permeates each page of the book. Call it Lowe’s precious inheritance.

* * *

Lowe may be unwilling to discuss his father, but his many aunts repeatedly bob into view, carried along on the waves of his recollections. There was Molly, the eldest, born the day after the great fire of 1871, when Lowe’s grandparents lived near 23rd Street and Indiana Avenue (not far from the site of Lowe’s triumphant book party a century later). And then there was Sabina, who loved to shop on Michigan Avenue—back when it was a collection of elegant low-rise local boutiques—and who spoke about the Kinzies and the city’s other earliest settlers as if she knew them personally. “I could touch my aunt Sabina,” Lowe says wistfully, “and she could touch the beginnings of Chicago.”

Growing up, Lowe’s father and uncle Jake were inseparable. After working in the Union Stock Yards, the two men branched out into the horse trade, selling Shetland ponies and small two-wheeled governess carts to families living in the city’s better neighborhoods. From there it was a natural leap into horseracing, and both men became successful trainers. In 1928, one of Lowe’s father’s horses, Misstep, won the then-prestigious Fairmount Derby and came in second at the Kentucky Derby.

A gregarious man with numerous well-placed pals, Lowe’s father didn’t marry until in his 50s. He met Lowe’s mother at a racetrack; tall, blond, and beautiful, she came from a Kentucky family that raised thoroughbreds. Lowe hints at a passionate but unsuccessful pairing; they ultimately separated, and when Lowe, an only child, was six, his mother died unexpectedly after a simple operation at a Cincinnati hospital left her with a fatal case of blood poisoning.

For the next 12 years, Lowe spent most of his time living at the Millersburg Military Institute outside Lexington, Kentucky. He speaks fondly of the school, which sparked his interest in literature and history. But each summer, the boy would shed his school uniform of Confederate gray and board a Pullman car bound for Chicago. When it arrived in the early morning, Lowe’s father would be waiting at the old Illinois Central Station in Grant Park. They would immediately head to Henrici’s for finnan haddie (smoked haddock) and potatoes. “For a long time, that was my idea of breakfast,” says Lowe. “It was macabre.”

But to a boy who didn’t know otherwise, finnan haddie and all the peculiar, marvelous adventures of those summers in Chicago seemed perfectly normal. He and his father led a vagabond life, moving from one residence to another over the course of the racing season. They would begin in Chicago Heights, not far from Washington Park, staying in the Victoria Hotel, a Louis Sullivan building that’s now long gone. Next they would rent a house in Arlington Heights near the new racetrack there, and then conclude their tour by staying at the Midwest Athletic Club facing Garfield Park, a good jumping-off point for the Hawthorne track. Aunt Mae lived nearby in the Guyon Hotel, and young David would often go across the street to the Paradise Theatre—another casualty that would find its way into Lost Chicago—where he was dazzled by the sight of Apollo (as rendered by the sculptor Lorado Taft) racing his chariot across the theatre’s twinkling “sky.”


Photograph: Courtesy of David Lowe


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