By Kathy Jordan
The 1871 Great Chicago Fire leveled the area and the original house. The current house, whose center was built shortly after the fire, was home to a variety of owners over the years—two butchers, a sign painter, a laborer, a tool and die worker, an artist, and an orthopedic surgeon. Originally a three-flat, there were 36 renters over the years. Although the street was known as Hurlbut at one time and the house number changed often, for years it has been on Cleveland.
Those are just a few of the facts discovered by current owners George and Ellen Benson, who have made a record of longest stay. They bought the house in 1985.
“At the time, we were renting on Fremont, expecting our second child,” says Ellen. “We didn’t want to rent again and were looking for a house to own. When we came upon the house, we could see potential. And when I saw the park across the street, I was sold.”
The couple gutted the house, which was very dark, Ellen says. Years passed, changes to the house were made, and the time came when the Bensons wanted to know more about the house in which they made their home.
“We were aware that the house was old,” says Ellen, “but we had no idea of its history. I actually took a course at The Newberry Library. It was about researching old homes. I asked the woman who taught the course if she knew who I could contact.”
The result is two books of history on the house on Cleveland. The first, “Glimpses of its Past,” is preliminary research in eight pages. The second “Stories of Its Past,” is a complex history of the house, and its owners and renters, over more than a century. Both were written by Diane Gonzalez of Chicago House Histories, and the result is a fascinating story of the people and their times.
Information for the history came from a variety of sources. The 1886 Robinson Fire Insurance Atlas provided “the envelope of the clapboard house known as 390 Hurlbut which was likely rebuilt after the Chicago Fire demolished the Frey’s first house.” According to the Chicago Directory, Henrich and Regina Frey lived in the house at least four years before the Chicago Fire, and rebuilt it after the fire. The U.S. Census shows the second owners to be a Prussian immigrant family as were the Freys. Their names were Fritz and Minna Peterdorff, and they rented from the Freys until 1881, when the Recorder of Deeds documents that the Pederdorff’s paid the Freys $1,900 for 334 Hurlbut. The property was known as Lot 80, 390 and 334 Hurlbut and several other numbers before it got its current number on Cleveland in 1909.
Ship manifests, descendants, several atlases, the U.S. Census, the Chicago city directory, cemeteries the Chicago birth index, voter registration and index, the Chicago Blue book, death certificates, newspaper articles—all of these and more were sources for finding information on the owners, their children, and families. There are records of marriages and baptisms at St. Michael’s Church. There’s even a section on the people who rented parts of the house.
As a result, a great deal of information was available for a historic look, especially about the later owners. The 10th owner was an artist who designed Wilmette mal’s fountain, and was design consultant for Plaza del Lago in Wilmette. The 11th owner was an orthopedic surgeon and professor at Northwestern University’s Medical School. He was known best as the team physician to the Chicago Bulls and co-author of articles on athletic injuries and even a diet book.
“We bought in June ’85 and renovated after the 4th of July. We moved in that same month. My husband said, ‘We’re spending money like drunken sailors.’ Andrew was born in 1986, joining Geoff, who was born in ’84.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the park across the street. “There were not many kids there when our kids were young, but they found friends there. If you’re around long enough, you meet everyone,” says Ellen. “It’s been a journey.”