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History of Sheffield

Sheffield today is an attractive and vital urban community. As many new residents and businesses have been attracted to Sheffield in recent years, the area is prospering as never before.

It was not always so. There was a period of decline into the 1950s. Much of Lincoln Park including Sheffield had fallen into disrepair. In response the neighbors organized. The Lincoln Park Conservation Association was formed in the 1950s in response to Urban Renewal efforts. The Sheffield Neighborhood Association began in 1955 as an affiliate of the LPCA and was formally incorporated as an Illinois not-for-profit corporation in 1959 to “improve conditions of life, work, recreation, health and safety” in the Sheffield area. In its early years, the SNA dealt with housing code violations, gang problems, urban renewal and numerous other issues.

In the late 1960s, the neighborhood began a renewal that has continued to this day. In 1976 Sheffield was designated one of the first National Historic districts in the State of Illinois by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The SNA has grown with the neighborhood and now deals with a variety of issues including planning, public safety, schools, parks and beautification.

The Garden Walk

The Garden Walk was a vital part of the promotion of Sheffield as an attractive urban neighborhood. The first walk was organized in 1969 by Polly Kelly, Lou Matuszowich, and John O’Brien among others. Their goal was to draw attention to the beauty of the community. Coincidentally, shortly before the first walk a local youth gang staged a take over at the McCormick Seminary and other actions that attracted the press and television news to the area. In looking at the neighborhood they took note of the Garden Walk and there were several articles and a TV news story about the event. With that publicity the Garden Walk attracted a much larger crowd than anticipated to the 16 gardens on display. Two years later the event, expanded to two days and the Garden Walk began to catch on as an annual Chicago summer event.

In the 1980s the Garden Walk became a festival, adding entertainment, restaurant booths, beverages and children’s activities. Now each year the Sheffield Garden Walk and Festival attracts thousands of visitors. Over 20 subcommittee chairpersons and around 500 volunteers, Sheffield residents and their friends and relatives, work to plan and staff the event. With the same vision and dedication of those earlier residents who had the faith in Sheffield to found the Association and create the Garden Walk, the Sheffield community works as a team to keep the tradition alive.

Garden Walk Proceeds Returned to the Neighborhood

With the funds raised at the Garden Walk, the SNA is able to fund many community projects, make substantial donations to local charities and institutions, and publishes the Sheffield Neighborhood News, a bi-monthly neighborhood newspaper distributed door-to-door throughout the neighborhood. Over $100,000 went into renovation of Trebes Park and Clover Playlot with another $50,000 going to the children’s playlot in Trebes Park. Funds also supported the relocated Lincoln Park Public Library at Fullerton and Racine, the St. Josaphat Community Park at Belden and Wayne, and to the Lincoln Park Community Research Initiative, a collaborative effort to preserve and enhance the archival record of the Lincoln Park neighborhood at the DePaul University Richardson Library.

Recently, SNA has launched an exciting long-term Beautification Program. As a result, flower planters and hanging baskets have been installed and maintained along the major streets in Sheffield along with the banners proclaiming Sheffield as the Garden District of Chicago. This program continues to expand and improve each year with the cooperation of the landscaping division of A. Finkl & Sons.

Donations have gone to the Anixter Center, Infant Welfare Society, Christopher House, Lincoln Park Community Shelter, St. Vincent de Paul Center, Salvation Army, Vincentian Fathers, and Little Sisters of the Poor, as well as programs to feed the needy at St. Josaphat Church, St. James Lutheran Church, St. Vincent de Paul Church and Greater Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church.

Annually gifts are distributed to neighborhood schools: Mayer Elementary, St. Josaphat, St. James, and Lincoln Park High School.

An Historic Neighborhood

Most of Sheffield’s residential and commercial buildings were erected during a period of approximately 30 years, from 1875 to 1905. Consequently, Sheffield is an excellent example of a commercial and residential neighborhood characteristic of American cities of the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1976, largely through the efforts of some members of the SNA, Sheffield became one of the first communities in Illinois to be designated a National Historic District placed on the National Register of Historic Districts by the U.S. Department of the Interior. In addition, Sheffield boasts four Chicago landmark districts:  the McCormick Rowhouses, the Armitage-Halsted Commercial District, the west side of the 2100 block of Fremont, and the 2100 block of Bissell.

In the Beginning

Before the Indian Treaty of 1833 and the incorporation of Chicago that same year, Sheffield’s residents included Sac and Fox and Pottowatomi Indians whose villages were scattered along the Little Fort Trail, now Lincoln Avenue, from Chicago to Waukegan. One Indian village is known to have existed near the present intersection of Lincoln, Halsted and Fullerton. With the removal of the Indians and the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal the federal government began selling plots of land north of the Chicago River in 1834.

One of the earliest settlers was Archibald Clybourn who moved to Chicago in 1827 with his family from Virginia. He built Chicago’s first slaughter house along the Chicago River and supplied meat to the army during the Blackhawk War. Clybourn bought the land that is now Sheffield in 1835. Clybourn suffered financial setbacks in the Panic of 1837 and lost his land in foreclosure to Arthur Bronson, an eastern land speculator, in 1840. Clybourn was able to maintain a homestead in the area, soon recovered financially and played a prominent role in early Chicago business and politics. His twenty room Greek Revival style mansion “Old Virginia” on the west bank of the river was considered the first great house built in Chicago.

Sheffield’s Addition to Chicago

In 1845, Joseph Sheffield of Connecticut purchased the property eventually named for him from the estate of Arthur Bronson who died suddenly in 1844. Sheffield was an entrepreneur who made his first fortune in the cotton trade and later was a canal and railroad builder. Sheffield’s agent in Chicago was William B. Ogden, the first mayor of Chicago. Sheffield had his property platted as Sheffield’s Addition to Chicago and most of it was annexed to the growing city in 1853. Sheffield sold off and leased portions of his newly acquired Chicago land to truck farmers. In fact, the plat of Sheffield’s Addition designated the portion from Webster on the north to Armitage on the south and from Racine on the east to the river on the west as “Sheffield’s Nursery.” Nursery Street, the short span which ran along the railroad tracks between Clybourn and Wayne, was the nursery’s shipping access road. Sheffield’s land reportedly yielded celery, horseradishes and other vegetables and fruit.

The Sheffield neighborhood retained its agricultural roots for many decades. The Alexian Brothers raised their own produce and kept cows, as did many early Sheffield residents. For many years, Fitzgerald’s Dairy was located in a barn behind 2014 North Kenmore. One of Sheffield’s oldest surviving houses at 2029 Seminary was originally built in 1863 as a frame farmhouse. The original veranda on the south and west sides was removed and the front door moved from the south side to its present location facing Seminary.

Sheffield’s growth was also spurred by the growth of industry along the north branch of the Chicago River in the 1860s. Cottages and multi-family homes for workers sprang up all around the factories. One new industry was the William Deering Harvester Works, established in 1865 at Diversey and the river. Factories attracted German and other immigrants, many of whom settled along Southport, Greenview and Janssen.

The Sheffield neighborhood continues to be home to industry including A. Finkl & Sons at 2011 North Southport, a world leader in making specialty steel products. Sheffield also boasts many former industrial buildings that have been converted to residences.

One example is the rowhouses at 1211 West Webster created out of a turn-of-the-century factory. Two other examples, on opposite corners of Racine and Dickens, are the condominiums located in the former American Battery Company and the Cretors General Exhibitors & Displays Building.

Founding of Institutions

In 1859 the Presbyterian Seminary of the Northwest began its move from Indiana to a site at Halsted and Fullerton, on land donated by Joseph Sheffield, William B. Ogden and brewer Michael Diversey, thereby establishing the first of many educational and medical institutions in Sheffield. Mrs. Cyrus McCormick took a special interest in the seminary which was renamed after her husband.

In subsequent decades, McCormick Seminary expanded by building a library, classrooms and housing on its property. The townhouses built in the late 1880’s now are privately owned by members of the Seminary Townhouse Association and are now the McCormick Rowhouse Chicago Historic Landmark District.

In 1869, a new German Lutheran congregation built St. James Church at the corner of Dickens and Fremont. The present church building, built in 1916, was designed by architects Henry Worthman and J.G. Steinbach.

In 1875, the Vincentian Fathers established St. Vincent de Paul parish with a church, school and rectory on Webster between Sheffield and Kenmore. The church served the German Catholic and then the Irish Catholic communities which settled around it. The present St. Vincent Church opened in 1897 The Romanesque structure was designed by James Egan. The altar is of Carrara marble. A stained glass window, from the noted Chicago firm of Beidenweg and Flanagan, won a prize at the 1903 World’s Fair in St. Louis. After being placed in storage and forgotten for many years, this window was restored and placed in the entrance of the new DePaul library which opened in 1992 largely through the efforts of retired DePaul vice-president Kenneth McHugh. DePaul University, originally known as St. Vincent’s College, opened in 1898 and has grown through the years and is the largest institution in Sheffield.

A large number of nearby hospitals were built in the late 1800s.  In 1882, Mrs. Julia Porter founded what is now Children’s Memorial at the corner of Halsted and Belden. St. Augustine’s Home for the elderly was built at Sheffield and Fullerton by the Little Sisters of the Poor.  In 1897, the Alexian Brothers, an order of Catholic brothers serving industrial workers, relocated their hospital to Lakewood and Belden from Old Town where it was displaced by the new elevated line.  Alexian Brothers moved to the suburbs and the site is now St. Mary’s Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a home for the elderly.

In Sheffield’s western section, at Southport and Belden, stands St. Josaphat’s Catholic Church. Founded in 1893, for the benefit of the Kashubian Polish immigrants settling in this area, it was the fifth among early Polish parishes in Chicago. The present church, consecrated in 1902, is architecturally distinguished by its stone mullioned windows, said to be the first of their kind in the West. It was also the first Catholic Church in America built with steel skeleton construction and has undergone significant restoration in recent years.

A less apparent religious landmark is the building at the corner of Webster and Wayne. Initially built as a private residence, in 1876, it became the Assumption of the Holy Virgin parish for the Romanian Greek Orthodox community. It has returned to being a private residence to which a large addition has been added. Other institutional buildings that have been renovated and adapted to new uses include the Headley School at Magnolia and Dickens, the George H. Thomas School at Belden and Janssen built in 1889, both converted to condominiums.

Transportation and Commercial Development

In 1865 a horse car line began along Clybourn. The 1860s saw extension and expansion of public transport into the area. In addition to the line that ran up Clybourn, horse-drawn streetcars served Centre Street, now Armitage, while another line went north to Fullerton and Wright’s Grove, the present Wrightwood area. Joseph Sheffield was unsuccessful in having Clybourn Avenue extended south of Division Street to downtown. Cable cars were added along the major streets in 1891. The Northwestern Elevated Railroad, now the CTA Red & Brown lines, opened in 1899. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad built tracks between Lakewood and Wayne to carry passengers and freight traffic.

Sheffield prospered further with construction of the “el.” Business-shopping districts sprang up at every stop—Fullerton, Webster (now defunct) and Armitage. The commercial district along Armitage and Halsted has now become the Armitage-Halsted Chicago Landmark District. Sheffield continues to have a vibrant business community, with long-standing and newly established stores, restaurants and shops side-by-side.

The neighborhood also had its share of breweries and saloons, usually built in turreted buildings on corner lots.  Saloons were found on the first floor, where the brewery’s own beer was sold, while the floors above were rented to workers, a ready-made drinking clientele, enhancing the brewery’s investment in the building.  The building at Halsted and Dickens now home to Café Bernard is such an example.

Sheffield’s Residential Growth

After the Chicago Fire of October 1871, developers were attracted to the Sheffield area. The neighborhood was free of fire rubble and few woods remained, other than the one densely wooded plot at Magnolia and Lakewood, having been already cleared for farming.

The Fire Relief Association gave free lumber and built houses equipped with basic necessities, for families who had owned or leased lots before the fire. The western section of Sheffield along Lakewood and Magnolia, was built up first. Here, on relatively cheap lots, working class families resettled close to their industrial jobs along the river. Their simple frame houses came to be called “Chicago cottages.” One example is the home at 2324 North Greenview, built in 1872.

A city project to raise street levels had been abruptly halted by the fire. Uncertain of the project’s final outcome, some new residents in the area built their cottages with adaptable entrance levels. The lower street level is still evident in some houses on Janssen and Greenview. The Chicago cottage at 2324 North Greenview exhibits another alternative. It was built at the lower street level, then raised to its present level around 1905 so a new basement and foundation could be built underneath.

The architectural styles represented in the Sheffield neighborhood are those that were current in Chicago during the area’s primary growth, from 1875-1905. Masonry buildings are most often variations of Italianate, Queen Anne or Romanesque. One of the best examples of Queen Anne style is the home located at 832 West Belden.

In 1875, an important group of homes was built in the 2100 block of Fremont. Designed by architect Edward Burling in an Italianate style characterized by overhanging cornices with decorative brackets, these townhouses were built to provide post-fire housing in accord with new fire codes requiring masonry construction.  Around the same time the rowhouses on the 2100 block of Bissell were built.  Both groups now are Chicago landmark districts.  Many of these homes fell into disrepair in the 1950s and their restoration in the 1960s provided an important boost to the revitalization of the area.

While the Sheffield neighborhood historically did not attract as many wealthy residents as did other Lincoln Park areas there were a few mansions built. One good example is the house at 845 Belden, built by a nail manufacturer in 1895.

Sheffield’s Rebirth and Future

By the early 1900s the majority of structures standing today in Sheffield had been built and the community had become fully mature. Sheffield retained its desirability as a residential neighborhood until the First World War, when it began gradually to succumb to the same deteriorating forces afflicting other American cities. With improved mobility provided by the motorcar and commuter railroad, many middle-class residents moved away.

The Great Depression also took its toll on the neighborhood. Some properties began to be neglected by absentee landlords who did little, if any, upkeep and repair. However, because Sheffield had a good location, was anchored by several strong institutions continued to attract new residents and had a strong core of dedicated long-time residents, Sheffield never declined quite as much as some other parts of the city. DePaul University played a substantial role in Sheffield with its commitment to the city and a building program begun in the mid 1960s and continuing during the 1990s. When the McCormick Seminary moved to Hyde Park in 1976 DePaul acquired the academic buildings while the townhouses were sold to residents.

Beginning in the 1960’s owners became aware of the architectural merit of their own properties and the increasing interest in Sheffield architecture. Many of those owners were instilled with a new sense of pride and began restoration of their properties. At the same time, new owners were attracted to the area because of the character of the housing.

The primary focus of Sheffield restoration was to take a building that had been neglected and transform it into a handsome, livable home, reflecting its original splendor. Many dramatic results have been achieved which can be observed while touring the gardens. Recently many new residences have been added to the mix. While this has unfortunately resulted in the tear down of some fine old homes, many new homes have been built with an appreciation of the style and scale of their surroundings and blend in the historic context of the neighborhood. Unfortunately there are also a few new buildings that have not been as respectful of Sheffield’s historic character.

The Sheffield Neighborhood Association has worked to promote preservation and keep renovation and new construction consistent with the character and scale of the neighborhood. As a part of this effort, the SNA supported designation of the Armitage-Halsted Landmark District, the 2100 Fremont Landmark District and the 2100 Bissell Landmark District as Chicago Landmark Districts. These efforts have focused on balancing the new with the old, keeping Sheffield a vibrant, diverse and attractive neighborhood for residents and visitors into the next century.

The Association welcomes you to share our pride in our Sheffield neighborhood by enjoying our present day gardens, unique century-old architecture and an enduring place in history of Chicago.