Kimball’s story is similar to a number of entrepreneurial types who saw opportunity in the rough-and-tumble city out in what was then considered the wild west. He came to Chicago in the 1857, and after purchasing and selling four pianos quickly and for a nice profit, he never looked back. As the city grew so did Kimball’s business, and by the time the fire swept through in 1871, Kimball was one of the leaders in the burgeoning piano and organ retail market. Luckily for him, the keyboard salesman had been able to move some of his stock from his downtown store and factory before it burned to the ground, and reopen his musical instrument operation in his south Michigan Avenue home, where he could barely keep up with the post-fire demand. Then in 1882 he made the decision to manufacture organs on a massive, industrial scale, then went on a hunt for a piece of property and found some vacant land in a rather remote part of town on Washtenaw Avenue between 26th Street and the south branch of the Chicago River. The McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. was just to the east, and the Bridewell Prison Hospital Grounds and Small Pox Hospital were across the street, with not much else in between. Kimball made the decision to expand his operation and start cranking out pianos as well, and The Kimball Piano & Organ Co. produced product on such a scale that rail cars pulled directly into the massive factory where raw materials like lumber were unloaded, and then the empty freight cars were immediately refilled with Kimball pianos and organs to be shipped to market.
Kimball’s Michigan Avenue mansion was only a couple of blocks from what, for a time, was Chicago’s most elite residential neighborhood. Prairie Avenue was home to one of the largest concentrations of wealth in the nation, and when William and Evaline Kimball decided to ditch their old place on Michigan Avenue not long after the factory had opened for business, Kimball chose an empty lot on the southeast corner of 18th and Prairie to build on. The lot had been purchased by a syndicate in 1886 which included Mr. George A. Pullman, whose expansive, single family home was located across the street. Word had spread that an apartment building was going to built on the corner and residents were aghast. Who knew what kind of people would be invading the neighborhood if such a building were built, so the syndicate purchased the land to insure that the street, which one time resident Arthur Meeker, Jr. called, “the street that held the sifted few,” remained sifted. It wasn’t an uncommon move. The Vanderbilt family occupied a stretch of Fifth Avenue in New York, and to insure that their corner of Manhattan would remain a select section of town, they bought nearby empty lots and sold them to their friends.
When the Kimballs purchased the lot, Pullman had an architect to recommend. Solon S. Beman had been working with the Palace Car maker since 1879 when the rail road car manufacturer asked Beman to design a company town Pullman wanted to build. Beman’s work on Pullman, the town, was drawing to a close when the Kimball commission came his way in 1890, and his proposal for their new home was a little outside the box for an architect known for his heavy, rusticated stone exteriors. The project took two years and nearly a million dollars to complete, and after Evaline hosted an open house for over 200 guests on January 7, 1893, the Kimball mansion was the talk of the town.
Kimball didn’t get to enjoy his new digs for long. He died on December 16, 1904, and in 1920, 79-year-old Evaline was declared mentally enfeebled by the court and the management of her estate was turned over to a conservator. The Kimballs had one of the finest art collections in Chicago, and while Evaline was visiting her niece in the Berkshires, the newly appointed overseer removed most of the paintings for safekeeping. Prairie Avenue was a ghost of its former self. Industry had moved in as residents moved out, and the conservator believed that the neighborhood was not a safe place to house a million dollar art collection. When Evaline returned to her Chicago chateau she still had enough of a mind left to realize that her favorite paintings were missing. The court, taking pity on a distraught and inconsolable Evaline, returned a few of the widow’s more treasured pieces. After her death in 1921, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects got a group of 100 prominent designers, builders, and contractors to cough-up $100 each to join the Architect’s Club which purchased the house for $100,000 in 1924. The Kimball collection went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and a handful of architecturally-affliated organizations occupied the elaborately carved, limestone mansion until 1937 when Miss Daisy Hull rented the house and opened the Elizabeth Hull School. She purchased the 29-room structure in 1943 from the Architect’s Realty Trust for a mere $8,000, but not long after, the changing neighborhood was more than even Miss Hull could handle. One grand old home after another came down as more and more industry moved in. By the 1970s, as industry started to abandon the neighborhood, the Kimball house managed to hold on. Its use as an office building continues to this day, and is one of only a handful of survivors of the grandeur that was once Prairie Avenue.
See more of the neighborhood at: Elbridge G. Keith House and Second Presbyterian Church, Chicago; more of Beman at: Fine Arts Building, Chicago and Studebaker – Brunswick Building, and the Kimball’s perpetual place of rest at: Stanford White’s Final Design.