Sesquicentennial of a Storied Evanston Block by Frank Cicero, Jr.

One hundred fifty years ago, in 1868, platting of undeveloped land in Evanston reached the lake’s edge east of the town center and south of Northwestern University. Settlement had been occurring further west, along Ridge Avenue from Chicago into southern Evanston, near the railroad station at Davis Street, and close by the Northwestern campus. In 1860, the population of 831 included numerous prominent residents, many with interests in Chicago. Among them, for example, was Julius White, a successful insurance executive, member of the Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago harbor master, and friend of Abraham Lincoln. In the spring of 1860, on the day following Lincoln’s conclusion of the trial of the famous “Sand Bar” case, he traveled by railroad to Evanston, was escorted by White on a carriage ride around the village, was the guest of honor at a dinner at White’s home on the northwest corner of Ridge Avenue and Church Street, and the next morning before returning to Chicago addressed a throng that had gathered on the lawn. (1)

In 1868 three newcomers to Evanston acquired the three large lots that comprised the recently platted Block 34 east at the Lake. The block was part of the 379 acres of mostly vacant land, extending some two miles along the Lake Michigan shore, that Northwestern Trustees had purchased from John H. Foster in 1853. (2)

Photographer Alexander Hesler leased from Northwestern University Lot 1, the north lot extending along Lake Street from Forest Avenue east to Sheridan Road, at the lake. His father-in-law, John Dorchester, purchased from the University Lot 2, the center third of the block extending east from Forest Avenue to Sheridan. Civil War general and Illinois militia commander, Arthur Ducat, purchased Lot 3, the southern one-third of the 2 blocks along Greenwood Street from Forest Avenue to Sheridan. All three lots were large, measuring 150 feet along Forest Avenue and 360 feet to the east (1.25 acres). All three built homes that year.

Alexander Hesler was a celebrated photographer when he moved to Evanston in 1868. Born in 1823 in Quebec, he was employed as a clerk in Racine Wisconsin where he met and married Helen Dorchester in 1847. The Heslers moved to Galena, Illinois in 1851, where he opened a small photography studio. During the next two years, he traveled extensively through the upper Mississippi region taking many widely praised scenic views.

In 1854 the Hesler family relocated to Chicago. Hesler established a photo studio and gallery in the city center. His studio soon became well known and praised for his work. Among his memorable photographs are a 360-degree panorama entitled, “Views of Chicago from the New Dome of the Courthouse, 1858,” and several famous portraits of Abraham Lincoln. He continued to operate his studio in Chicago after building his Evanston home until the Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the studio.

John Dorchester was born in Paris, New York in 1804. Sailing on the Great Lakes, by age eighteen he commanded a government sailing vessel, the Lady of the Lakes, and continued maritime service for many years. In 1844, Dorchester moved with his wife, Elvira, and family to Racine, Wisconsin. There, in 1849, their daughter, Helen, married Alexander Hesler. When the Heslers moved from Galena to Chicago in 1853, John and Elvira Dorchester moved there also. Dorchester worked in the marine insurance business but also worked with Hesler in his Chicago studio.

Arthur Ducat was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1830. He immigrated to New York, arriving in October 1850. After several years, he decided that his prospects were better in Chicago and moved there in 1856. He was hired as an assistant to insurance agent Julius White – Lincoln’s close friend – selling fire insurance. With the commencement of the Civil War, he enthusiastically joined the Illinois volunteers, eventually attaining the rank of brevet Brigadier General. After the war, he formed his own firm, Ducat & Lyon, which prospered as insurance underwriters. He also played a key role for years in organizing and commanding the Illinois National Guard.

Ducat’s “Memoir,” some 110 pages grandly written in the third person and published by Rand, McNally in 1897, the year after Ducat’s death, states, “In 1868 General Ducat first began to gratify his inherited passion for ownership of lands.” He did so initially by purchasing Lot 3, the south lot in Block 34, which extended along Greenwood Avenue. He recounted that this property increased in value, that he invested in other lots in the vicinity on speculation, and in time became a large landowner along the lakeshore. He also accumulated a large estate in Downers Grove and another in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. (3)

In 1868, Ducat built a Victorian style house on Greenwood Avenue, on the eastern portion of his lot. He lived there with his wife, the former Mary Lyon (Thee statement has been made frequently that both Hesler and Ducat were married to daughters of John and Elvira Dorchester. That is not correct. Ducat was married in 1857 to Mary Lyon, daughter of William Lyon, Esq., of Bedford, Pennsylvania. She died on October 26, 1890, at the age of forty-three years. In 1892, Ducat married Alice Jane Soutar, daughter of P.J. Soutar, an eminent lawyer of Dunfirmline, Scotland. Album of Genealogy and Biography, Cook County Illinois, 3rd ed. revised and extended (Chicago: Calumet Book & Engraving Co. 1895), pp. 415- 417.), and children until vacating the house in the 1870s to move to Downers Grove. The house remained vacant until Robert Sheppard purchased it from Ducat in 1888. It was later moved to a lot at 628 Library Place in order to make room for the mansion built by Sheppard that he later sold to Charles Gates Dawes. (4)

In 1868, Dorchester and Hesler also built houses. Although they owned or held leases on two large lots that covered two-thirds of the block, they sited their homes side by side facing north on Lake Street in the northwest corner of the property. A 150 square foot lot at the corner of Lake and Forest was designated to Dorchester. The Hesler site was adjacent to the east, with 100 feet frontage on Lake Street and 150 feet deep. (5)

Dorchester and Hesler built virtually identical Italianate style houses. The main bodies of the houses were the same size. In the Italianate fashion that was in vogue at the time, they featured spacious interiors with high ceilinged rooms and tall narrow double windows. The center entrance from the porches in the front of the houses opened into a central hallway with a straight stairway to the second floor. Front parlors opened from the wide doorways on each side of the center hall. A second parlor behind each front room, furnished with a marble fireplace, served as a dining room, second sitting room, or bedroom. A rear wing housed the kitchen and other small pantries and utility rooms. On the second floor, the arrangement of the rooms on each side of the hallway floor varied. A single long, narrow, and high ceilinged bathroom accommodated the household.

Architectural details on the houses differed. The gable in the center above the main block, the elaborate brackets supporting eave boards, window treatments, and the shape and sizes of the bays on the sides of the homes also differed.

The similarities of the two houses can still be detected today, although they are obscured by an extensive remodeling in 1889 of the Dorchester house. John Dorchester died in July 1887, eight years after his wife, Elvira. In 1889, Stewart Clark, a Chicago coal dealer, and insurance executive purchased the house from Dorchester heirs and leased from Northwestern the 150 -foot lot on which the house stood. Clark engaged Evanston architect Stephen Jennings, who designed the alterations. The walls separating the two front parlors from the entry hall were removed, opening up a thirty-seven foot long, 12-foot wide gallery. The central stairway was redesigned with a landing and the six lower steps turned 90 degrees to descend to the west. The transformations most visible from the exterior were the wide porch that extends the full length of the house front and wraps around the corner on the west, and the changes in the front gallery windows from twin tall narrow windows to large single pane four by eight foot double hung windows.

The three houses were the only structures on Block 34 for almost twenty years. When the Dorchester and Hesler families moved into their homes in 1868, the block directly north of them, between Lake and Davis Streets, was unoccupied and would remain so for more than a decade. The unobstructed view north included the lumber and coal dock at Davis street and open space along the lake shore to Northwestern’s Fisk Hall and the Coast Guard station. (6)

The 1870 United States Census, taken on January 2, 1870, records the presence on that winter day of eight persons at the Dorchester house; John, age 66, and wife Elvira, 60, a 26-year-old female servant with daughter, and the family of William Johnson, age 51, “photo clerk,” wife Caroline, age 42, and two children.

The Hesler household next door included 9 persons, Alexander, age 47, wife, Helen, age 39, five children ranging in age from 2 and ó to19. and two other females described as domestic servants. In the southeast corner of the block, the Ducat household comprised Arthur, age 41, wife Mary, age 30, and two children, Arthur, age 13, and Kate, age 11.

Although residing in Evanston, Hesler continued to operate his Chicago studio until the Fire destroyed it in October 1871. In July 1872, he celebrated the opening in Evanston of the new Hesler Studio, on Davis Street. Four years later, he relocated his studio back to Chicago center, opening at 96 N. State Street.

Always a prolific photographic recorder of people and places, in 1887 Hesler published “Picturesque Evanston,” a photographic record of prominent people, structures, and street scenes in Evanston at that time. Unfortunately, the published collection does not include any pictures of the three houses on his own block, although some of the views were taken from nearby points but looking in opposite directions. If any photos of the houses were taken earlier—perhaps kept at his studio and destroyed in the Chicago Fire—they are not known to exist. (7)

In 1880, only the two homes on Lake Street were occupied. The 1880 census listed the names of eleven persons at the Dorchester house. They included John Dorchester, age 76, whose wife, Elvira, had died in April 1878; William and Caroline Johnson, and a daughter Helen, a 19-year old female described as a “niece.” Three young males, two listed as “boarders” and one as a “nephew.” Twenty-year-old Mary Graham was listed as “servant.”

Arthur Ducat and his wife, Mary, also were listed at the Dorchester household as “boarders,” Their house on the opposite corner of the block, described as remaining “empty and on the market for years” because of its high price, would not be sold until 1888. They may have returned to visit Evanston from time to time, staying with the Dorchesters when they did.

The Hesler house, listed six Heslers as residents: Alexander, Helen, three sons, ages 5, 10, 19, and a seventeen-year-old daughter. Two other unrelated males, ages 17 and 20, were listed as boarders.

The next twenty years to the end of the century brought changes to the block as the population of Evanston filled in eastward toward the Lake. In 1884 the large lot, owned and leased by Northwestern, holding the Dorchester and Hesler houses along Lake Street was redrawn to establish four lots that exist to this day. The Dorchester lot, 150 feet square, in the corner of Lake and Forest [222 Lake St.] was named Lot 1. Next to the east, the Healer house site, 100 feet on Lake Street, 150 feet deep, was designated Lot 2 [216 Lake St]. The vacant remainder of the lot 1 to the east was divided into Lots 3 and Lot 4, each 75 feet wide, running from the Hesler lot east to Sheridan Road [1434 and 1430 Sheridan Road].

Houses were soon built on the two new lots. The house in the corner of Lake and Sheridan, with the address of 1434 Sheridan, was bought in December 1888 by Virginia Sheppard and occupied for a time by the Sheppard family until completion of their mansion in 1896 at the southeast corner of the block. That house at 1434 Sheridan was demolished and a new brick house, which still stands, constructed on the site in 1916. The house built in the 1880s on the new lot 4, at 1430 Sheridan Road, still exists on the site.

In August 1888, Arthur Ducat sold to Robert Sheppard the two-thirds of Block 34 to the south. Sheppard subdivided the properties into a large new Lot 5, on the corner of Sheridan Road and Greenwood Street, on which he built the mansion later sold to Charles Gates Dawes. Later, in 1894, he subdivided the remainder of his property west of the mansion site into two new lots. The houses built on those lots [235 and 239 Greenwood] still stand today.

Following Helen Hesler’s death in 1884, Alexander continued family life and an active photographic practice until July 4, 1895. That afternoon, he was felled by a stroke while at work photographing a family reunion in an Evanston park [Patriots’ Park?] He died the next day at home and was interred with Helen in their family plot near the Dorchesters’ in Mound Cemetery, Racine, Wisconsin.

In 1899, the family of L.C. and Mary Tallmadge acquired the Hesler house and lease and moved their family into 216 Lake from their longtime home on Hinman Avenue. Future architect Thomas Tallmadge joined the family that year after his return from college at MIT. Thomas Tallmadge lived with his family at 216 Lake until 1909. Thereafter he lived at several other addresses in Evanston until his death in a train wreck in 1941.

Arthur Ducat died in January 1896, at his estate in Downers Grove. With his passing, all three couples who had pioneered the settlement of Block 34 in 1868 were gone before the end of the 19th century. Six houses constructed on the block during that century survive.

(1) Binford, Henry, “The Remaking of Evanston in the 1890s,” in At Home in Evanston: The Charles Gates Dawes House, p. 1; Currey, Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, 73-80; Perkins, Evanstoniana, 35-36.

(2)  Northwestern University, founded by John Evans in 1851, became the largest landowner along Lake Michigan north of Chicago with the Foster purchase and later purchases that added more acreage. Following Evans’ urging, the University for years had a policy of selling some properties to provide income and to stimulate the grown of Evanston, but also retaining ownership of substantial property to lease for income while the property increased in value. Many transactions implementing the policy were by Thomas Hoag, a University Trustee, who often acted as an agent taking title in his name on behalf of the University or other owners. Hoag over time held title in his name to the southern 2/3 of block 34, in part owned for a time by Dorchester, and all eventually owned and later sold by Arthur Ducat in 1888 as one large parcel extending from Forest Avenue east to the Lake shore.

(3) A. C. Ducat, Memoir, 12-122.

(4) Thompson, Jenny, The Life of a Famous House, 6-7, 10.

(5) The houses were later numbered 222 and 216 Lake Street.

(6) Binford, Henry, “The Remaking of Evanston in the 1890s,” p.9. The lumber and coal docks at Davis and Dempster streets silted up by the late 1890s.

(7)  A persistent but unconfirmed story relating to the Chicago Fire maintains that, among the many refugees fleeing the fire, friends of the Heslers camped out— even through the winter—on the broad yard on the west side of the Dorchester house.