Demonstrating great storytelling flair, and unafraid to poke fun at the past century and a half’s wackiest Lake Shore Drive residents, debut author Richard B. Fizdale, in 999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories, takes the history of one distinctive apartment building and broadens it into the tale of an epic fight over filling in a stretch of original downtown lakeshore that forever changed the face of Chicago.
Fizdale’s initial intent was to write a perfunctory 100th anniversary history of 999 Lake Shore Drive, a ten-story building that since 1913 has picturesquely hugged a bend in the Drive near Oak Street Beach.
The author’s enthusiasm—personally fueled by that fact that he lives at 999—ultimately resulted in a thick, 260-page coffee table book packed with historical images, painstakingly researched detail, and rollicking writing.
Fizdale starts off assuming that most city residents are familiar with his building, which sits a few blocks east of the Drake Hotel and is highly visible to motorists on North Lake Shore Drive. The view from its dormers is as exclusive as it gets. It has north and east views overlooking Lake Michigan; residents lucky enough to snag a corner apartment panoramically enjoy both. It’s one of eight buildings in the East Lake Shore Drive historic district where exteriors can’t be altered without city approval.
“If a poll had been taken 100 years ago or 50 years ago or even yesterday asking Chicagoans to pick their favorite apartment building based solely on looks, this one would have been a frequent winner,” Fizdale writes.
But what’s the back story of 999’s development? Who was behind its construction? How did it get its address? Who has lived there? Armed with a handful of details, many of which later proved erroneous, Fizdale set out to write his building’s history.
And colorful it often is, the history of 999. Forty-four pages into Fizdale’s telling enters George Wellington Streeter. The madcap squatter’s strident opposition to the plan by local millionaires to construct Lake Shore Drive and to develop into a high-end neighborhood a filled-in section of the lake that extended 1,000 feet out from the natural shoreline at present-day Michigan Avenue would become, Fizdale writes, “the stuff of cinema.”
Streeter’s story alone is entertainment enough to merit picking up Fizdale’s book.
Without Streeter, the redevelopment of the near north side after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 still would have been historically significant. But its progress would have been a far more staid story of how men like William B. Ogden and Cyrus McCormick deftly steered the construction of Lake Shore Drive and the filling in of the abutting water.
For decades, Streeter did his best to derail them. His zany tactics included, famously in 1899, seceding from the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois; he claimed that a piece of land that stretched roughly from Oak Street to the Chicago River and from St. Clair Street to the relocated lake shore was his under U.S. law. He erected a U.S. flag and called the area “The District of Michigan.” Over the years, his gun battles with police grew legendary and he gained a rapt, if somewhat sordid, newspaper following.
“Streeter’s antics in civil court were delightfully silly and so patently devious that they endeared him to a public hungry for a folk hero,” Fizdale writes. “He made good copy. Publishers knew they sold more papers with Streeter in the headlines, so they tooted his man-of-the-people horn at every opportunity.”
The fight caught the attention of Illinois Attorney General Maurice Moloney, who made an unsuccessful court bid to stop the project and was ultimately bested by political corruption and wealthy interests.
The nail in Streeter’s coffin came in 1911, the year a building permit was issued for 999 Lake Shore Drive, the first structure on the filled-in lakeshore north of Pearson Street.
999 the book goes on to tell about the construction of the apartment building and about the vision of architect Benjamin Marshall. Fizdale also speculates about how the site got its strange address, which is out of sequence with the buildings flanking it and, given its side of the street, should have been an even number. And, the author writes about the many colorful people who have lived in and visited the building since it officially opened in 1913 (a few residents moved in in late 1912).
Fizdale’s extensive endnotes, which represent only a fraction of his source material, demonstrate the extent of his efforts to document this noteworthy building. He has diligently researched residents and their guests up to the present day; the result is a who’s who of wealth and power, including business executives, heirs and heiresses, philanthropists, and politicians. There were legendary parties, mysterious deaths, and deliciously scandalous tabloid fodder.
Among the best fodder is the story of Muriel McCormick, granddaughter (paternally) of Cyrus McCormick and (maternally) of John D. Rockefeller. In what may have been an attempt to deter high-society suitors but also likely stemmed from deep mental instability, she announced in the 1920s that she had married Alex McKinlock, the long-dead son of 999 residents George and Marion McKinlock. Muriel and Alex apparently met at a séance. Similarly notable residents include the wife of gangster Terrance Druggan (a close friend of Al Capone), who also lived in the building for a time while her husband was incarcerated at the Cook County Jail.
999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories is a beautifully designed, highly informative, and wittingly penned book. As such, it is good copy, a commendable new addition to published Chicago history.
April 2014, Ampersand, Inc.
$79.95, hardcover, 260 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann