Alexander Caldwell McClurg.
By Megan McKinney
They were quite a pair. He was a fine Civil War general, a publisher and the American West’s greatest bookseller. She was an heiress whose property just kept growing in value. If the 21st century heirs of Alexander McClurg and Eleanor Wheeler are among the most prosperous of today’s Chicago Old Guard, it is through Eleanor’s mother’s brother not the esteemed general.
Eleanor Wheeler’s uncle, William Ogden.
The couple’s benefactor was the childless William Butler Ogden, who left his beloved niece, Eleanor, an estate valued at $10 million in the economy of 1877. And within this wealth was a generous chunk of today’s Chicago Dock & Canal Trust. Now occupying a sizable portion of Streeterville, the property—then known as The Sands—was possibly the most derelict area of Chicago when Ogden acquired it in the 19th century. Although he had immense vision in all he accomplished, it was never greater than when he purchased the notorious Sands and cleared away its squatters and vagrants.
The scholarly, resourceful Alexander Caldwell McClurg had left Philadelphia in 1859 and moved out to Chicago, where he found a job selling books in a shop known as S.C. Griggs and Co. Then, at the beginning of the Civil War, McClurg enlisted as a private in the Illinois State Militia, emerging as a brigadier general at war’s end, and is said to have carried a copy of “A Golden Treasury of English Verse” with him throughout.
Following the war, the now General McClurg returned to S.C. Griggs, which offered him a partnership and changed its name to Jansen, McClurg & Co. The general soon set about establishing A.C. McClurg & Co., a publishing house and book wholesaler, which—by the mid-1870s—was not only the largest book company in the West, but also had a reputation for being the most literary.
McClurg’s first shop was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871. When a second Loop building in which the company was located burned in 1899, he took major space in a new Holabird & Roche designed “skyscraper” at 218 S. Wabash. Because of his company’s early 20th century tenancy, for 120 years the Wabash address has been known as the McClurg Building. Skyscraper it is, however, one of the Loop’s smallest.
McClurg Building, 218 S. Wabash.
Although the McClurg Building is significant and now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it’s more famous cousin is the McClurg Court Center, about which it has been reported, “When McClurg Court Center and its 1,075 apartments was sold for $127 million in 2006, the sale excluded the land beneath the complex. That land is still owned by the heirs of Alexander and Eleanor Wheeler McClurg.”
McClurg’s company was the original publisher of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series, Tarzan of the Apes, and the firm was also founder of one of the incarnations of The Dial. During the general’s ownership, beginning in 1880, the always high-brow magazine dealt in politics and criticism.
The McClurgs lived very well. Their 25-room house at 1444 Lake Shore Drive at the corner of Scott Street was designed in 1890 by Francis Whitehouse of Burling & Whitehouse, who modeled it on a French château. Lake Shore Drive was then a quiet street lined with trees and a clear view of the Lake. Alexander and Eleanor remained there into the early 20th century, and their son, Ogden Trevor McClurg, lived in the house for a time after, followed by the Polish consulate, which succeeded him in 1935 for two decades. In 1954, the lovely “château” was demolished to be replaced by a condominium.
Because the erudite General McClurg believed in a classical education and was dissatisfied with available public schools for Ogden, he had imported two tutors from the Roxbury Latin School in Massachusetts to teach the boy and the children of a few friends.
Not wishing to leave the teachers unemployed when the job was finished, the general financed the men in establishing a school that developed into today’s Latin School of Chicago.
Latin School for Boys, sometime between General McClurg’s day and ours.
In 1911, when he was in his early 30s, Ogden commissioned the eminent architect Benjamin Marshall to design 999 Lake Shore Drive, the apartment building that anchors elegant East Lake Shore Drive and is still thought by some 21st century observers to be the city’s most desirable residential building.
999 East Lake Shore Drive today.
At the time of the building’s development, East Lake Shore Drive—then called Oak Street—was in a swamp of mud and 999, a lone construction site at the far end of a virtually empty stretch.
According to legend, during its construction, Ogden would go out on Sunday afternoons, sit in the building’s shell with a gun, and exchange shots with the infamous squatter Captain George Wellington Streeter, who lived in a homemade shack a few blocks away.
The uniform was not for shooting at Streeter’s shack; Ogden was in the Naval Reserve.
This segment concludes Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago magazine series on Chicago’s First Dynasty.
Robert F. Carl