Cochran: "They Built Chicago"

A Model Suburb: J. Lewis Cochran (1857-1923)

A chapter in the book They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City’s Architecture (Bonus Books, 1992) by Miles L. Berger

Note: Comments added to the text are found in brackets and are in the italics font.

Not all nineteen-century developers were drawn to the central city and its potential to develop the “tall building.” Some, after weighing the high costs and uncertain rate of return of downtown development projects, decided to turn their sights and their development dollars instead to the city’s outskirts. There opportunity awaited developers willing to build single-family housing and low-rise business blocks for the multitudes eager to flee the growing congestion of the inner city.

J. Lewis Cochran was one of these developers, as was Samuel E. Gross. But unlike Gross, whose specialty was working housing built on standard floor plans along the established routes of the railroads, Cochran looked to the inviting and underdeveloped lakefront to the north of the city limits, where he envisioned a first-class residential subdivision that would attract Chicago’s elite families. The result was the community of Edgewater, but he was also a powerful force in the establishment of the commuter rail system that opened up Chicago’s Sheridan Road and the North Shore to intensive residential development in the years between 1900 and 1930.

Cochran’s father was a civil engineer from Pennsylvania who trekked westward in 1849 to join the California gold rush. He spent just ten months in the gold fields before turning his energies and resources to other pursuits, principally investment in Sacramento real estate. [Note: Sacramento city directories show J L. Cochran Senior as a baker.] John Lewis Cochran was born in Sacramento but educated in Philadelphia. In 1877, at the age of twenty, he left school to become a sales representative for the Blackwell Durham Tobacco Company. In 1881 he was transferred by the company to Chicago. [The tobacco company was owned by his half brother.]

Cochran’s first venture into Chicago real estate was the purchase of a tract of land on Oak Street in the area that Potter Palmer was then reclaiming along the lakefront. As Chicago society migrated to Palmer’s Gold Coast, Cochran was able to sell his Oak Street land at enough profit to enable him to search for larger undeveloped properties. Following Palmer’s example (and the example of Hyde Park developer Paul Cornell a generation earlier), Cochran looked for lakefront land. His first major purchase was a seventy-six-acre tract in Lake View Township, bought with co-investors in the fall of 1885. Lake View was then largely a farming community, but the area had become a favored locale for the summer homes of wealthier Chicago families. From Belmont Avenue, where these summer homes clustered, to as far north as Evanston the lakefront itself was largely undeveloped. Cochran subdivided this first tract, bounded by Lake Michigan, Evanston Avenue (now Broadway), and Foster and Bryn Mawr avenues, and Edgewater was born. [Note: the eastern border of Cochran’s first subdivision was the west side of what is now Sheridan Road. He did not purchase lakefront land. His first and second additions however did include lakefront property.] The plan from the beginning was to create an idyllic suburb, a site that would be inviting to buyers who lacked true pioneering spirit but who sought a gracious country-life-style just beyond the city limits.

In the first months of his development activity, Cochran laid out curbed streets and sidewalks, installed sewers, and planted elm and ash trees. He built ten homes and a community building. A major attraction to prospective buyers, Cochran believed, would be the”Edison Incandescent Electric Light.” Accordingly, he installed a generator, incorporated the Edgewater Light Company, and advertised that the streets of Edgewater were lighted and that all the homes were wired for electricity. The first sale in the new suburb was made in 1887, and Cochran celebrated the event by throwing the switch on the generator. A contemporary account relates that “no sooner had the first resident entered into occupancy of his new home than the electric plant was put in operation and the streets were lighted and the solitary inhabitant was able to read his evening paper by the clear, steady light of the incandescent burner in any room in his house.” Within a year Cochran had built thirty homes along the lakeshore and more were under construction.

Cochran accepted a risky trade-off in planning his community on the shore. He had the lake to offer. But there were at the time no transportation services linking Edgewater with the city – a resource needed if Edgewater was to be competitive with other upscale suburbs such as Hyde Park and Riverside. However, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad had trains running through the area. Cochran persuaded the railroad, whose route ran along the route now used by the Chicago Transit Authority elevated train, to stop at the street he named Bryn Mawr Avenue. There he built the first Edgewater depot. A stop at North Edgewater (Granville) was added later.

In 1892 Cochran organized an electric trolley firm known as the Chicago North Shore Street Railway Company, which between 1892 and 1894 laid track connecting Evanston Avenue to Diversey. There riders changed to other cars that would take them downtown. [Note: The tracks of the Chicago North Shore Street Railway terminated at Irving Park on the south. The intention was to use the tracks of the North Chicago Street Railway between Irving Park and Diversey for the link to the cable line just south of Diversey, also owned by the North Chicago Street Railway. However, because of opposition to overhead wires by residents along Broadway between Irving Park and Diversey, the initial link to Diversey was via Halsted St. The line went as far north as the central business district of Evanston, with the route from south to north being Evanston Avenue (now Broadway), Devon, Clark, and Chicago avenue in Evanston.]

The streetcar line, however, was only a stopgap in Cochran’s transportation planning. By far the most important development for Edgewater – and ultimately the entire North Shore – was the organization in 1892 of the Northwestern Elevated Railroad Company, now known as the Howard El [today’s red line]. Cochran was a leader among those who established the North Side line and served as a director of the company. A city ordinance passed in 1894 authorized construction of the elevated tract from downtown to North Avenue. In 1900 the elevated line was extended to Wilson Avenue, stopping just short of Edgewater. In 1908 Cochran’s long-sought connection was realized when the link from Wilson running through Edgewater to the southern boundary of Evanston at Howard was completed. [While Cochran was indeed a director of the Northwestern Elevated he was not one in the initial period. His specific role is unknown, including whether he was an investor; however, he was linked to Mr. Yerkes who was the primary force behind the company. It was Mr. Yerkes who obtained controlling interest in the Chicago North Shore Street Railway.]

Cochran had a clear idea of the style and tone he wished to set for Edgewater, and he was fortunate in finding an architect capable – on paper at least – his vision of a suburban mansion. The architect was Joseph L. Silsbee, who himself was fortunate in employing during the period of the Edgewater work two assistants who would be heard from again. They were George W. Maher, who became one of the most popular and prolific architects of the residential Prairie school, and a young draftsman named Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s work with Silsbee in 1887 was his first job in Chicago. Wright found Silsbee to be a bold and imaginative artist describing his work as having “a charming picturesque effect.” But not all buyers were enchanted with the Silsbee style of home design, which some likened to a “large farmhouse.” Urban graystone mansions , in the mode of Palmer’s Gold Coast development, were more in vogue among the well-to-do. Cochran was not adverse to meeting the demand by employing other architects. Maher became a favorite of the buyers seeking stone houses as well as those preferring frame construction.

Cochran may have had another, equally practical, reason for employing architects other than Silsbee. Frank Lloyd Wright agreed that Silsbee was a “kind of genius,” but suggested in his autobiography that Silsbee’s talent was in designing a charming exterior without much concern for how the interior plan would be executed. Wright wrote, “I saw Silsbee was just making pictures. And not very close to what was real in the building.” A Silsbee sketch, Wright recalled, would be brought from the master to the drafting room “to be fixed up into a building, keeping the floor-plan near the sketch if possible.” When Wright wrote, “I learned a great deal about a house from Silsbee,” he may well have meant that he learned the hard way. [We don’t know the reason why Cochran decided to use other architects to design his later homes, but we doubt that it was because of buyer dissatisfaction with Silsbee’s work.]

[The following commentary was furnished by Christopher Payne, an architect and foremost researcher on Joseph Silsbee who is in the process of writing a book about him: 

"The time when Frank Lloyd Wright worked for Joseph Lyman Silsbee coincides with the construction of the suburb of Edgewater. Much of what we understand about Silsbee and his office during the time comes from Wright’s Autobiography. Wright’s assessment of Silsbee’s work seems to be more a reflection of Wright’s own aims to paint his life as one where he turned from past architectural traditions to break new ground. His mentor, Louis Sullivan is portrayed as a modern hero while other architects are portrayed in a less-glowing or mixed light. It is through this lens that we should look at Wright’s assertions about Silsbee and his time in Silsbee’s office. Since the time of Berger’s writing, much has been uncovered about Silsbee’s work and we are now able to construct a more complete picture of the kind of office that Silsbee had.  

Silsbee came to Chicago to work for Potter Palmer, first on additions to his Palmer House hotel and then to oversee interior and furniture designs on his “castle” on Lake Shore Drive. Through Palmer’s connections, Silsbee made a lucrative business of constructing speculative housing for Palmer and his friends In the Gold Coast. His first works in Chicago were for Chicago’s business elite and were at the forefront of architectural fashion in the city at the time. It is from this success that Silsbee was hired for the design of suburban dwellings by the Waller Family in Buena Park and then for John Cochran’s Edgewater. He completed more than five buildings in the former place and more than thirty in the latter. It can be argued that from his three offices in Syracuse, Buffalo and Chicago, Silsbee was the most prolific designer of upper-class residences working in Chicago in the 1880’s. His design styles spanned all known popular idioms of the time including Moorish, Queen Anne, Flemish Revival, Romanesque and what has become known as the Shingle Style. This is a business pattern that Silsbee had from the start of his career in Syracuse to his death in 1913. 

Because of the volume and the quality of work, Silsbee’s office became a fertile training ground for young architects. Along with Wright, George Maher, George Elmslie, Harry Hale Waterman, Irving Gill and many others found work in his office. In the years that followed, many of these architects began their own offices with work that mirrored, in style and program, their former employer’s. Waterman designed a large number of Queen Anne, Shingle and Romanesque style homes in the Beverly suburb, south of the city of Chicago. George Maher’s work seems to be in conversation with Silsbee’s many years after he had left his office. Even the young Frank Lloyd Wright looks to Silsbee’s style and manner when he creates his earliest works and even the design of his own home in Oak Park. The ability to create fashionable Silsbee-like designs would have served a young architect well in the 1880’s whether it be for acquiring employment with another firm or in finding clients looking for homes in these styles. This may even be one reason that the young George Maher was hired by J. L. Cochran to provide designs for later additions to the Edgewater suburb."]

Cochran was a community planner from the outset. He designed Edgewater to suit an upper-income clientele and embellished it with social amenities that reinforced the exclusive image of the community. He was one of the founders of the Saddle and Cycle Club, located first at Bryn Mawr and Kenmore Avenues and later relocated to the lakefront clubhouse designed by the colorful architect Jarvis Hunt. He built a stable and livery and saw to it that a gun club, boat club, and bathing house were built and maintained for residents.

Although Cochran understood the value of snob appeal, his advertisements also stressed convenience and individuality. His first large advertisements featured a Frank Lloyd Wright drawing of a spacious and charming Silsbee country home. His pitch was that improvements such as paved streets, sewers, and electric lights were not merely promised (“The Usual Way”), but in fact were already in place (“The Edgewater Way”). His ad copy described houses that were “Modern, Artistic, With All Conveniences”; with “No Two Alike”; and available “On Terms That Will Suit You.” Cochran pointed out that building loans would be arranged at no commission.

Cochran was a good businessman as well as a good salesman. He continued to build north as far as Elmdale Avenue, using the Edgewater aura he had created to promote sales of lots and houses in two subdivisions west of Evanston Avenue developed for the less affluent. Thus, after 1890, with the first phase of Edgewater’s development firmly established, Cochran began to employ an even wider variety of architects and builders to produce more moderately priced homes for smaller lots. In 1895, for example, three different architectural firms were used for eight houses Cochran built along Kenmore and Winthrop avenues. For eleven houses built in the first half of 1903, Cochran used five different builders. But for all his skill in promoting Edgewater, Cochran himself did not live there, except for very brief periods. During the first five years of his subdivision activity, he lived on the Near North Side, at 65 East Division Street. When he married in 1892, he moved into an Edgewater home, but soon returned to the Gold Coast, where the family lived on North State Parkway and later moved to a luxury apartment at 1415 North Astor Street.

Cochran maintained his real estate business as the Edgewater development matured, but over the years his emphasis shifted from development to the mortgage loan field. In 1904 William B. McCluer joined Cochran as a partner. The Cochran and McCluer firm remained in business in Chicago well into the 1940s. Cochran also pursued investments outside of Chicago. In 1920 it was reported that he held title to thousands of acres of Texas Gulf Coast land where he was planning to sink oil wells. In civic life he was a vestryman of the St. James Episcopal Church, a director of the Chicago Title and Trust Company, and a consultant to Mayor Carter Harrison II in the 1898 revision of the city’s building ordinance.

Cochran’s success with the first Edgewater subdivision inspired imitation, and even before the turn of the century, similar subdivisions had sprung up around it, riding wherever possible on the prestige of the Edgewater name. These included Edgewater Heights, Edgewater Park, and the area that became known as North Edgewater. [The later was an early name given for the north part of Cochran’s subdivisions east of Broadway with the exact southern boundary not known but probably at or near Thorndale.]. By 1900 the Edgewater community had taken on a life of its own, growing rapidly in the years before and just after World War I. Although Cochran intended Edgewater to remain a community of single-family homes – and in fact wrote restrictions to that effect into land deeds – the character of the neighborhood changed as it grew. After the arrival of rapid transit in 1908, many apartment buildings and residential hotels went up in the area, particularly on Kenmore and Winthrop avenues. Cochran was powerless to stop the persistent flat builders. It is ironic that he himself had opened the door to change by helping to build the elevated line, providing people of modest means ready access to the neighborhood. The face and residential character changed again in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when a wall of towering apartment buildings rose up along Sheridan Road, replacing the turn-of-the-century lakefront mansions. In the same period, progressive waves of ethnic groups settled along the tree-lined streets where flats had proliferated in the 1920s and where the old homes that did remain had been converted to other uses.

As they did most summers, the Cochran family spent the summer of 1923 at their vacation home at Mackinac Island. But instead of returning to their home on Astor Street in the fall, the family leased an apartment in the new Lake Shore Drive Hotel (now the Mayfair Regent Hotel) at 181 East Lake Shore Drive. Cochran, reportedly despondent over a lingering illness that curtailed his activity, jumped from the seventh-floor window of that apartment on the morning of September 25. He was sixty-five years old and left an estate valued at $400,000.