Ten years ago, I wrote a story in the Chicago Tribune about one of the oddest wrinkles in the Chicago cityscape — Pickwick Lane.
It is a short, nine-foot-wide private alley, hidden in the heart of the Loop, and it dead-ends in a three-story building at 22 E. Jackson Blvd. With its cobblestone paving — at least, that’s the paving it had a decade ago — the byway looked more like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley than anything one would expect to find in present-day Chicago.
In recent months, that three-story building, often vacant over the past half century, has been in the news, opening as an Asado Coffee Co. location.
And, now, well, it’s time for me to set the record straight. In the years since I wrote my tiny 325-word story, I have come to realize that I made several errors. The main one is that the present building is NOT the original stable, and it is NOT a survivor of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The right story, as far as I can tell
Here’s what’s I’ve come to find out through further research, and, as far as I know at the moment, this is accurate:
On July 9, 1897, a Cook County judge — his name is not given in the court records I’ve been able to find — ordered Fannie Abson and Hannah Horner to remove a gate (called a “storm door” by the judge) that they had erected to block access to Pickwick Lane.
This order is in a file deep in the bowels of the Cook County Court’s archives, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to read since it’s handwritten in a tight, small script and is in legal jargon besides.
In the 1890s, Fannie Abson ran a restaurant, Abson’s Chop House, in the building at the end of Pickwick Lane, or Pickwick Place as it was then called. This restaurant had been open for more than four years because it’s mentioned in a February 1, 1893 Tribune story about a fire in an adjacent building. The story read in part:
William Abson’s chophouse at the head of Pickwick place is just back of the burning building. The chophouse occupies two floors, and Mr. and Mrs. Abson reside in the top floor. They were frightened by the fire, dressed hastily, and got out of the building.
In December of 1893, another Tribune story notes that Fannie, listed as the proprietor of the chop house (no mention is made of William), has sued for an injunction to stop F. H. Brammer and two other men from interfering with her use of the lane.
She was joined in her suit, either then or at a later date, by Horner, the widow of the wholesale grocer Henry Horner and the grandmother of a future Illinois Governor of the same name.
Researches by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks determined that the first Henry Horner had owned property adjoining the lane, including a stable that was on the land then occupied by Abson’s Chop House. The Commission’s report also indicates that the stable survived the 1871 Fire, but, based on the judge’s 1897 ruling, that doesn’t appear to be true.
In reaching his decision, the judge states that he relied on a report prepared by Walter Butler, a Special Commissioner appointed to look into the charges and counter-charges.
Throughout his ruling, the judge refers to the site of Abson’s Chop House as “the stable lot.” In 1855, this was occupied by what he described as “a two-story barn.” But, according to the judge, that structure and everything around it was wiped away by the 1871 Fire.
[T]he improvements surrounding the alley aforesaid remained substantially in the [same] condition…from the time they were built until they were destroyed in the great fire of October 8th and 9th, 1871…
In the aftermath of the fire, new structures were erected on the lots around Pickwick Place, and, the judge states, “A two-story brick building was built upon the stable lot several years after the year 1871.” In 1892, it was enlarged by the addition of a third-floor — the floor where William and Fannie Abson were living when they fled from the blaze next door.
The bottom line for Fannie Abson and Hannah Horner was that judge ruled against them, determining that the other property-owners along the Pickwick Place had the right to use the lane. So the “storm door” that limited entrance to the lane only to pedestrians was a violation of their rights.
It appears that the two women appealed the judge’s decision, but there’s no indication of any further court action.
It’s always humbling to admit an error, and I never got used to it despite nearly 40 years in journalism. In fact, I think every good reporter, no matter how experienced, hates that feeling in the pit of the stomach when one’s words are shown to be mistaken.
Still, it’s a reality that human beings are imperfect. As much as a reporter tries to nail down the facts, only a fool would think that the art can be done without error.
It’s also true that the more you work at something like research, the better you’re likely to be at it. That’s true with me. I had more than thirty years of reporting under my belt when I wrote that 2004 Tribune story. Today, for a great many reasons — particularly because I’m working on a history of the Loop elevated structure and a history of Chicago — I’ve learned more about research and honed my skills better.
Still, none of this wipes away the fact of my errors.
For those, I deeply apologize.
Patrick T. Reardon