Dinner Is Served

[John De Koven Residence (1874) Edward J. Burling, architect /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

Yesterday we mentioned the building boom that took place in the heart of Chicago's
commercial district once the Great Fire burned itself out on October 10, 1871. A similar building explosion happened in the city's north side residential area where the fire wiped out the entire built-up section of town from the river east to the lake. John De Koven not only built this large house in the burnt district, but was at the forefront of the city's recovery effort. And in one of those weird ironic twists of fate, the fire started in the O'Leary barn located on De Koven Street, named for John, but several miles from his mansion site.

[De Koven Residence, 1150 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

De Koven came to the city in 1852, clerked in a bank, became head cashier, and by
October 11th was already at work setting-up financing for building reconstruction. He also got to work building a new home for himself and his family. He chose a prominent architect of the time, Edward Burling, who gave De Koven a Second Empire house worthy of the banker's status as a business leader. But building materials were scarce, because of the volume of bricks, steel, and stone required for the reconstruction effort, so it took a while to get the place finished. When the house was finally completed in 1874, it was called "restrained in its lavishness." For the next 25 years society columns were filled with snippets recording the lavish dinner parties given by the De Kovens on Dearborn Avenue, and by the time John died in the home in 1898 he left an estate worth over $2,000,000 to his wife and family.

[Biggs, 1150 N. Dearborn Avenue, Chicago /Images & Artwork: designslinger]

In 1945 society caterer Joseph H. Biggs was working out of the former
Cyrus McCormick mansion on Huron Street. Biggs had been serving caviar and champagne to the city's elite society crowd since 1882 and when the McCormick house was sold by its owners in 1945, Biggs moved his operation into the old De Koven mansion not far away. Continuing to cater events for the upper crust, Biggs also served oysters on the half shell, beef burgundy and lobster tail in the De Koven dining room for private parties held by his select clientele. In 1964 the doors were thrown open to a more general public when Edison Dick opened Biggs Restaurant, presenting delectable dinners to those who could afford to pay for exquisitely prepared meals. And the Biggs name held on for almost 40 years before giving way to the luxury restaurant chain il Mulino which now occupies the space, so dinner is still being served on the corner of Dearborn and Elm just as it has been for over 135 years. Oh, and celebrity chef Art Smith happens to be serving-up his version of Southern hospitality at Table 52 in the old De Koven coach house.

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