Boulevard of bygone dreams

Posted on Fri, 03/01/2019 - 11:30am

Edgewater: A mid-century reminiscence

By Ron Cohn

6039 Sheridan

Third in a series.

I’m sure that virtually everyone living here at Malibu East knows that Sheridan Road, outside our door, was not always a “condo canyon.” Once it was lined, on both sides of the street from Bryn Mawr to Devon, with one of the city’s most impressive concentrations of monumental homes. “Millionaire’s Row,” my father called it. A handful, of course, are still standing as evidence of the grand “mansion mile” they once graced. There are four notable examples within one block of us. To the north, the two Berger Park mansions and Sacred Heart’s immense, red brick edifice stand on facing corners at Granville, and to the south, at the corner of Thorndale, the landmarked Colvin House.

Imagine an elm-arched boulevard with homes as big and beautiful as these, one after another as far as the eye could see. This was the Sheridan Road of my Edgewater boyhood, just a block from our Kenmore apartment, but as distant from my reality as an alternate universe.

In the fall and winter of 1948-49, having moved to Edgewater but finishing grammar school with my class in northernmost Rogers Park, I rode the Sheridan Road bus on non-biking days between Howard Street and Hollywood Avenue. Heading home, we passed the beloved Granada Theater and made the turn east onto Devon/West Sheridan for three blocks, passed the Mundelein College skyscraper and rounded the curve into my boulevard of dreams. This entry corner, which in my impressionable mind should have been marked by a ceremonial gateway, was despoiled by a tiny Standard Oil gas station on the southwest corner, facing the first two great houses on the lake. Its hand-painted curbside sign has stuck in my memory: LAST GAS ON 41 for 20 MILES, it assertively proclaimed, as if the Outer Drive ahead was going to run nonstop through the Gobi Desert to 67th and Jeffery. I hated their location, but I liked their spirit.

Unfamiliar with the sequence of streets at first, I visually memorized the homes and used them as landmarks. Over the course of months, certain houses became favorites, and one I remember clearly. I knew I was halfway to Hollywood when we got to the massive, elaborately detailed yellow brick home just past the only tall building in that stretch. That high-rise, of course, was our vintage neighbor at 6101, and the one home I dreamed of living in, amid unimaginable opulence, was – you guessed it – the one that stood on the land that is now Malibu East. Almost perfectly symmetrical, with third-floor dormers and lines evoking (to me) the mystery of a Tibetan monastery, it had a sculpted ancient coin medallion the size of a manhole cover set into the center of its deep porch overhang. Ironically, I witnessed this site of my adolescent fantasies being demolished less than 25 years later by my client, Dunbar Builders.

An astonishing fact to me is that the present “Great Wall of Condos” has now occupied more of Sheridan Road’s history than its days as an avenue of grand homes. Although it seemed at the time so deeply rooted and permanent, the era in fact endured for only about 50 years. The mansions were mostly built between 1905 and 1920, and by the 1960s they were coming down.

The story behind Sheridan Road’s name is interesting, with a strong political flavor not unusual in similar circumstances. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan was a Civil War hero who became the first commandant of the Army base bearing his name, built in the late 1880s. Labor unrest in the 1870s was the reason that local business and political leaders wanted a strong Army presence near Chicago. While Fort Sheridan was being built some 30 miles north of the city, a direct route was laid out for the caissons to roll in case of trouble. The resultant road was also named after Gen. Sheridan and was completed in time for troops to march to Chicago to quell the Haymarket Riots of 1894 – the first and only time Fort Sheridan’s complement was deployed for its intended purpose.

Another, more recent, military connection to Sheridan Road is a clear recollection of mine. In April 1951, President Harry Truman, bristling at criticism of his policies made by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of United Nations forces in Korea, relieved the idealized heroic figure of his duties. MacArthur came home to enormous demonstrations in his behalf, one of the largest in Soldier Field on April 26, following a crowd-lined motorcade from Midway Airport. The next day the motorcade headed north for a stop at Fort Sheridan on the way to his next rally in Milwaukee. It came up Sheridan Road on a cold, gray morning at about 20 miles an hour and passed Hollywood Avenue around 8:45. The general was seated in an enormous, non-military prewar Cadillac convertible. The top was down, he was waving and I was among the small gathering – jumping, waving, cheering – and late for school.

It is not lost on me that some kind of karma has brought me back to this address on Sheridan Road, to a residence and a way of life that was evidently meant for me – if not the one I dreamed of on a bus ride 70 years ago – one that suits me perfectly well today.

Coming irregularly in future Dialogue issues, Bryn Mawr, main street of my youth; the shady kings of Swift Playground; and the invasion of the four-plus-ones.