Bryn Mawr - The Historical Perspective
Letter sent to the Chicago Landmarks Commission by EHS supporting the 1995 inclusion of Bryn Mawr on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Edgewater Historical Society is pleased to be on record as supporting the application for Historic District designation for Bryn Mawr Avenue from Sheridan to Broadway.
Edgewater as a community began in 1885, when John Lewis Cochran of Philadelphia purchased 76 acres of land between Bryn Mawr and Foster to develop a residential community. He called the community Edgewater, named the streets, paved them with macadam, installed electric lights, put in stone sidewalks and planted ash trees along the parkways.
The center of this town was on Bryn Mawr, where he built the Guild Hall in 1886 to serve as a community center and commercial building. Among the stores in the Guild Hall were the Clifton Cleaners and the Edgewater Grocery, operated by Mr. James McManus. Mr. Cochran also opened his real estate office in the building. This building was set on a rise of land left from the leveling of rolling sand dunes that formed the original landscape along the lakeshore.
Mr. McManus moved his business across Bryn Mawr in 1896 to accommodate shoppers who had to haul groceries up and down steps at the Guild Hall. This new building, on the northwest corner of Bryn Mawr and Winthrop, was the center of the expanding commercial growth of the street.
Besides operating a grocery and butcher market, Mr. McManus became the purveyor to the Saddle and Cycle Club and later the Edgewater Beach Hotel. He delivered groceries by wagon to the homes of the growing residential community and attracted area women to special demonstration lectures on how to recognize a good cut of meat. This business continued on Bryn Mawr until 1934, when the building was destroyed by fire.
The construction of the Guild Hall on Bryn Mawr was directly related to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul rail station on Bryn Mawr. This ground level depot was the first rail station in Edgewater; it also housed the Edgewater Post Office. (An Edgewater postmark existed for a short time after Edgewater became part of the City of Chicago in 1889.)
As the population in Edgewater grew and Cochran expanded his development north of Bryn Mawr to Thorndale, north to Devon and then west to Glenwood in 1890, the needs of the community increased. Commercial development expanded on Bryn Mawr and along Evanston Avenue (later renamed Broadway) and part of Ridge.
With the construction of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad embankment along the right of way of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway in 1908, the character of Bryn Mawr changed even more. This rail service provided easy access to the Loop and real estate entrepreneurs began to develop more mixed-use buildings with retail on the first floor and residences above. By the 1920s, this development included substantial buildings, like the Bryn Mawr Hotel and the Belle Shore, that provided small housing units near the lakefront.
In 1908, a luxury apartment building, called the Manor House, was built at the eastern end of Bryn Mawr. Similar apartment buildings were constructed in the area. Seldom more than three stories high, these luxury apartments near the rail line predate the popular ownership of the automobile.
In a very short time, use of autos expanded and apartment dwellers, in need of garage space for the machines, spurred the changeover of many stables along Broadway to auto garages. It took another 10 years before autos were used for more than occasional outings, so neighborhood shopping on Bryn Mawr continued to expand throughout the decade 1910-1920.
While planning a town, Mr. Cochran brought on urbanization. As he sought to improve rail connections to his town in the late 1880s, the township of Lakeview, which included Edgewater, voted to join the City of Chicago in 1889. Edgewater residents, numbering about 300, voted against this plan to no avail.
For years afterward, when the City could not provide services to the area, Mr. Cochran continued to provide street cleaning, tree trimming, and troubleshooting for his development. While other entrepreneurs sold out their developments and left the area, Mr. Cochran maintained an interest in his planned community and witnessed the changeover that was brought on, in part, by his transportation initiatives.
The history of the development of Bryn Mawr from a small town center to a vital urban commercial district is evident in a walk down the avenue. While Mr. McManus’ original store and the Guild Hall are gone, their replacements fulfill the same purposes. A grocery store still operates on the northwest corner of Bryn Mawr and Winthrop and a recreation building, the Gregori building, still stands on the southwest corner. Much of the commercial traffic is generated by adjacent neighborhood residents who walk to the stores or pass by when using the “L”.
Edgewater today is a wonderful mixture of cultures and economic levels. The legacy of its early plan to have a town center has been altered somewhat by urbanization, but Bryn Mawr still serves the needs of the more densely populated local community today.
Both the substantial architectural gems - the Belle Shore, the Manor House, the Edgewater Beach Apartments, the Gregori building, the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, the first Rapp & Rapp Theatre - and the smaller storefronts combine to make an exciting urban historic district. These few blocks provide an urban architectural and historic view (1899 to 1935) for the local residents and visitors.
The Edgewater Historical Society has take an active interest in the history of the development of Bryn Mawr Avenue since we were founded in 1988. Our research has led us to the daughter of Mr. James McManus, who still lives in the family home on Ridge Avenue. We have actively participated in research on the development of the street with interviews of the older area residents, maps dating to 1859 and collections of ads from earlier businesses. Recently, we have conducted walking tours of Bryn Mawr complete with photos of the original buildings on some of the sites.
We strongly support the designation of Bryn Mawr from Broadway to Sheridan Road as an Historic District because of its rich history as Edgewater’s town center, with landmark quality architecture befitting such a designation.