Friday, October 30, 2015


As a student of history, as well as a life-long Evanstonian, I have always been curious about the history of notable buildings in the area, especially in central and downtown Evanston – the oldest part of town.  Some of these properties have a family connection: my grandfather designed and installed the landscaping for the Charles Gates Dawes home and the Evanston Womens’ Club, among others.  But there are some buildings that I would guess have an interesting history that I don’t know about – for example The Carlson Building on Church Street in downtown Evanston.  Who was “Carlson” and why is his name on the building?  In the 1980s I met the then-owner of the Carlson Building, local businessman Bruce Goodman (a terrific guy to know and do business with), but his name is not Carlson.  So I decided to “dig up” what I could about the mysterious “Carlson.”

The mysterious Carlson’s full name was Victor Carlandrie Carlson, and he was a contractor and builder.  He was a native Evanstonian who wanted his buildings to help keep Evanston beautiful and convey strength and longevity – traits that he felt Evanston herself had.  But he was not just the builder of the Carlson Building – he built two of Evanston’s landmark hotels:  The Library Plaza Hotel in 1922 and the crown jewel of the downtown – The Orrington Hotel, which he built in 1927.  So before we take a look at the buildings he built in Evanston, let’s see what we can find out about Victor C. Carlson.

Note:  Many sources list Victor's middle name as "Calandrie." without the first "r."  When he registered for the draft in 1917 he listed his name as "Victor C. Carlson" but when he registered in 1942 he listed his full name as "Victor Carlandrie Carlson," with the first "r" included.

Victor Carlandrie Carlson was born February 26, 1888 in South Evanston, Illinois (a separate village until 1892) to John August Carlson (1860-1949) and Hannah Karoline, nee Eklund (1858-1896).  Victor had four sisters: Hulda Josephine (1885-1916), Caroline (1889-????), Signey (1892-????), and Anna Victoria (1896-????).  He also had one half-brother from his father’s second marriage: Harold W. (1905-1994).  John A. Carlson was a building contractor by trade.

The first time Victor pops up in the US Census is 1900 when he was twelve years old.  The family is living at 1328 Washington Street in Evanston.  John lists his occupation as “Mason.”

1328 Washington Street, Evanston

About 1905, Victor C. Carlson went out on his own, going into partnership with Oscar L. Swanstrom. They called their company "Carlson and Swanstrom."  Unfortunately things did not go too well for the new partners.  In late 1906 Carlson and Swanstrom declared bankruptcy.  When the bankruptcy was discharged on June 14, 1907 they listed Liabilities of $2,000.00, but Assets of only $329.00.

The 1910 US census is the last one where Victor would be living with his parents.  The Carlsons were living at 1542 W. Estes in Chicago.  John Carlson lists his occupation as a contractor/mason, as does twenty-two year old Victor.

1542 W. Estes, Chicago

Wedding bells rang later that year for Victor Carlson and twenty-two year old Charlotte, nee Carlson (1887-1986).  They were married June 29, 1910 at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston.

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston

Here's a photo of the happy bride and groom:

Here's a photo of young Victor Carlson from his grandparents' fifty-second wedding anniversary party in 1910:

Victor C. Carlson - 1910

Little by little Victor C. Carlson rebuilt his reputation and his credit rating. The Chicago Daily Tribune of Feb 1, 1914 reported that Victor had purchased a property on the SWC of N. Ashland & North Shore in Chicago.  The lot was 60’ x 125’ and was subject to an encumbrance (mortgage) of $1,710.00.

As Victor Carlson rebuilt his business, his family grew as well.  As was the case in those days, children started joining the family at a rapid pace: Charlotte Virginia (1911-1977), Victor John (1912-1999), Robert Francis (1914-1999), and Bernice Roberta (1916-1999), so when Victor Carlson registered for the draft in 1917 he could honestly say that he was supporting his wife and four children.  The Victor Carlsons were living at 6656 North Ashland in Chicago when Victor registered on June 5, 1917.

6656 N. Ashland, Chicago

Victor said he was a self-employed contractor and his place of business was at 6801 N. Clark Street in Chicago.  There is a furniture store in that spot today.

On May 16, 1917 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Victor C. Carlson had applied for a building permit to build a 3-story brick building with stores and flats (apartments) at 1601-11 W. Montrose in Chicago (SWC Montrose and Ashland).

1601 W. Montrose, Chicago

Carlson closed on the purchase of the lot and began construction in November of 1917.  There were forty-five apartments and six stores, and the construction cost was estimated at $100,000.00.

The 1920 US Census found the Carlson family living at 6645 N. Greenview in Chicago:

6645 N. Greenview, Chicago

Victor listed his occupation as "Builder in the Contracting Business." Charlotte was born in Sweden and came to the US in 1891 when she was just four years old.

As the boom times of the 1920s began, Victor Carlson's fortunes increased as well.  The Tribune reported in February of 1921 that Carlson had sold an 18-flat he owned at the NWC of N. Greenview Avenue and W. Greenleaf Street for $95,000.00

NWC Greenview & Greenleaf, Chicago

Later in 1921, Victor Carlson moved his family back to the city of his birth, Evanston, Illinois, by purchasing the beautiful home at 2219 Orrington Avenue:

2219 Orrington, Evanston

Carlson had truly come home again, and this time he would leave his mark on Evanston.

In May of 1921, now calling himself "The Victor C. Carlson Company," he contracted to build a 3-story and basement college building for the Chicago Engineering Works. 

Lawrence & Leavitt, Chicago

In 1922 Victor C. Carlson started the first of his projects set to transform downtown Evanston.  On January 8, 1922 the Tribune announced that construction had already begun on the Library Plaza Hotel at 1633-39 Orrington Avenue.

Called "The first skyscraper in Evanston," it was part of what Carlson called "Library Square"

The Library Plaza Hotel, Evanston

The architect for the Library Plaza was J.A. Scanlan, and Carlson had budgeted $450,000 for the construction and finishing.    According to the January 8, 1922 Chicago Daily Tribune, one of the "novelties" of the Library Plaza was that it contained elevators that went directly from the hotel to the garage underneath, allowing patrons to get into their cars without having to experience inclement weather. 

Here's an ad for the Library Plaza from November 5, 1922:

The Chicago Daily Tribune from January 21, 1923 announced the next jewel in Victor Carlson's crown: the $2,000,000, three-hundred room (each with its own bath) Orrington Hotel:

The Orrington Hotel, Evanston

The new gem of the North Shore opened for business in September of 1923 with rave reviews.  In fact, demand was so great that on April 6, 1924, Carlson announced that he would be constructing an eight story addition to the Orrington Hotel that added another ninety-eight rooms, bringing the total to 398 rooms and suites - both  furnished and unfurnished.    

Victor Carlson did not limit his building just to the Library Square.  On January 25, 1925 the Chicago Daily Tribune announced Carlson's next project: The John Evans Co-op Apartments at Hinman and Davis in Evanston:

About the time that Victor C. Carlson started building the John Evans Apartments he approached the City of Evanston about building a fifteen story building at the SE corner of Orrington Avenue and Church Street. The building, which he named "The Carlson Building" would be marketed primarily to the medical profession - doctors, dentists, etc. Carlson was so sure of the City's approval that he put in the foundations for a fifteen story building before he had the official OK from the City.  Carlson's reputation was so good that before he even broke ground 60% of the office space had been rented, and three of the six first floor shops were spoken for.

The Roaring Twenties were certainly roaring for Victor C. Carlson.

But he made a mistake taking the City of Evanston for granted.  As reported in the following article from the Chicago Daily Tribune of June 21, 1925, the Evanston City Council cut Carlson's fifteen story tower to ten stories, and the top three floors could only be used for tanks, a gymnasium, etc.  The Tribune called it "Evanston's Dehorned Skyscraper:"

Before we resume the story of Victor Carlson's real estate empire, let's take a look at the Carlson Building which still graces downtown Evanston today, 90 years after it was built:

Carlson Building, Evanston

The name at the top "CARLSON BUILDING" used to light up in neon, but not anymore:

Take a look at the architectural details Carlson built into his buildings:

Look at the elevator doors - works of art in themselves:

The lobby directory:

The lobby mailbox:

Lobby Details:

The Entrance:

An interesting side note.  The two elevators in the Carlson Building were run by two sisters well into the 1980s - long after everyone else had gone to self-starting elevators.  The two elevator operators knew all of the doctors and dentists, and greeted each by name every time they got into one of their elevators.  After the sisters retired, the then-owners decided to install self-starting elevators.  It was truly the end of an era in Evanston.

Not all of the vintage fixtures at the Carlson Building, however, are being well-maintained:

Here's a photo that includes the 1928 addition:

The downtown Evanston properties were not the only ones that Victor Carlson was building in the 1920s.  Here are a few of his other projects as reported by the local press:

1925  NEC Central & Prairie, Evanston;
          18 apartments and commercial                                                                                 $240,000

1926  Richton Park Country Club Clubhouse                                                              Undisclosed

1927  Market Square,
          Ridge & Clark, Chicago; apartments, commercial,
          indoor parking, auto sales and service                                                                 $2,000,000

1927  The Rookwood,
          712-36 Noyes, Evanston;
          52 apartments with swimming pool                                                                    $750,000

1928  Hillcrest,
          Ridge & Clark across from Market Square;
          70 apartments, garage, commercial                                                                     $2,500,000

1928  Carlson Building Addition,
          618-626 Church Street                                                                                         $800,000

1929  Elmwood Manor,
          Clark & Pratt, Chicago                                                                                         $545,000

1929  Office Building,
          610-612 Church Street                                                                                         $760,000

1929  The Sherwood,
          Sheridan & Foster, Chicago;
          52 apartments                                                                                                       $511,000

1929  Purchased the Leasehold
          under 1623 Orrington for a future project                                                           Undisclosed

In December of 1926, Victor Carlson announced that he was opening an office in downtown Chicago at 65 E. Randolph for his company, now called "Carlson Realty and Investments."


In 1927 Carlson started marketing what he called "The Carlson Plan" which would allow smaller investors to share in the tremendous profits generated by real estate in the 1920s.  Here's an ad for The Carlson Plan from February 9, 1927:

These were the boom times of the 1920s and business was booming for Victor C. Carlson.  In March of 1928 he announced that he would now have three offices in Chicagoland to serve his customers:

65 E. Randolph - covers the Loop and Near North
5927 N. Clark - covers Lakeview and Edgewater
509 Davis, Evanston - covers the North Shore suburbs 

Things were still moving along at a fast pace for Victor Carlson.  The 1920s had been very good to him, and by all indications, that prosperity would continue - or would it?

The stock market crashed on October 24, 1929.  The crash and subsequent events would usher in the Great Depression and be the end of the financial empire of Victor C. Carlson.

All of a sudden Carlson found that his cash flow dried up.  People were not staying in his hotels, or paying the rent on his apartments.  His commercial tenants went bankrupt and there were none to take their places.  He had promised his investors 6% quarterly dividends and return of their investment in seven years.  That was fine when the cash was coming in the door faster than he could count it, but those days were gone.  Carlson went around frantically trying to borrow more money but the banks had no more money to lend.  He was sure that the downturn was only temporary - that was what all the "experts" said and if he could just keep afloat a while longer, everything would work out.

Like Anders E. Anderson, who's story I recounted in an earlier blog post, Carlson's investors stepped in and went to court to get control of his assets.  The Chicago Daily Tribune told the sad tale on March 18, 1930:

Carlson found himself in the same place as so many other financiers of the time - asset rich but cash poor.  As the article above states, Carlson's properties were appraised at more than $3,000,000 against liabilities of $300,000 - far different than when he had filed bankruptcy way back in 1907.  Time passed, and his investors and lenders grew more impatient.

In the meantime, the US Census taker knocked on the door of 2219 Orrington on April 21, 1930, at the same time as Carlson's empire was crumbling.  Carlson reported to the census taker that his occupation was "Builder in Building Construction" and that the house on Orrington was worth $65.000.00.  In addition to Carlson and his wife Charlotte, their four teenaged children were living with them, and Charlotte's sixty five year old widowed mother Kersti Carlson.

As the decade of the 1930s unfolded, the country was falling deeper and deeper into depression.  One by one Carlson had to liquidate his holdings (at rock-bottom prices), or watch them be seized by the lenders.

By 1931 Victor Carlson had lost it all - including the beautiful house on Orrington.  The 1931 Evanston City Directory shows Victor Carlson living at the Georgian Hotel and by 1933 he is not listed in the Evanston City Directory at all.

As with Anders E. Anderson, Victor Carlson had mostly faded from sight during the 1930s, although by 1935 he had returned to Evanston, listing himself as a contractor and living with the family at 1834 Sheridan Road (now part of Northwestern University).  But Victor Carlson was only forty seven years old in 1935 - far too young to retire. Plus all of the real estate investments that could have provided for an early retirement were gone, so Victor Carlson went back to work. Luckily he was able to find work during the depression.  The Chicago Daily Tribune from June 12, 1938 gave an update on Carlson:

Home building must have been a success for Victor Carlson because he made the Tribune again - this time on July 30, 1939:

The 1940 US Census shows the Victor C. Carlson family in Evanston - at 1412 Washington Street - less than one block west of where Victor was living in 1900:

1412 Washington Street, Evanston

It was a long way from 2219 Orrington, but at least the Carlson family had a place to live and Victor had employment - that made them better off than a good portion of the population during the Depression.

When Victor Carlson registered for the draft on April 27, 1942 he was fifty four years old.  He and Charlotte were living at 1216 Main Street in Evanston, one of the eight houses he built in that area:

1216 Main Street, Evanston

He listed his employer as "Victor Carlson Associates, 11 S. La Salle Street, Chicago."  He told the draft board he was 5'-10 3/4" and weighed 172 lbs.  Although he was not living in as grand a style as he had been in the past, he had a nice home in a nice area of Evanston.

Various articles reported that Carlson continued to build prefab homes, first in Evanston and then in Glenview throughout the 1940s as the demand exploded for housing for returning veterans.

Ever the builder, the Tribune from October 6, 1961 reported that Victor C. Carlson "has developed what he calls 'The Carlson Process' for construction of low cost, condensation proof livable bomb shelter basements." 

History does not report how much of a success Carlson was with his "bomb-shelter basements" but it must not have been too successful because he soon came up with another idea:  Renting air rights over surface parking lots, and then constructing a building in the air rights space.  He made his pitch to the Evanston City Council as reported by the Tribune on October 7, 1963:

It was a novel idea that would ultimately be put into use, but unfortunately Carlson was ahead of his time.

Victor C. Carlson died on August 24, 1977 at the age of 89.  When he died, he and Charlotte were living at 617 Grove Street in Evanston:

617 Grove Street, Evanston

He died of complications from a stroke.  Here is his death certificate:

Here is his obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of August 26, 1977:

and here is his Death Notice:

Victor C. Carlson was buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago in Section 14.  Here are photos of his grave:

Victor C. Carlson was born in Evanston, lived most of his life in Evanston, and was living in Evanston when he died.  He was responsible for building some of the best known properties in downtown Evanston: the Library Plaza Hotel, the Orrington Hotel, the John Evans Apartments and his flagship, the Carlson Building.  He must have had mixed emotions in later years when he drove around and saw so many properties that he built but ultimately lost.  I'm sure that every time he saw the neon "CARLSON BUILDING" sign, he must have thought "that was my building."  He could certainly feel a deep sense of pride, but that would have been tempered with an acute sense of loss.  But it is my opinion that Carlson's buildings were creations of beauty and strength, whereas today downtown Evanston is filled with so many buildings that are just plain junk.  I am grateful for the many wonderful buildings that Victor Carlson left us as his legacy.  Evanston is a more beautiful place because of the vision of Victor Carlson.

Victor C. Carlson, Evanston's premiere builder - may he rest in peace.       

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

GOING AWAY TO GOD - Harriet Munroe Lathrop

Of all the things one encounters when doing genealogy research, the hardest to understand is suicide. What could possibly compel someone to end their life when we know that self-preservation is the strongest of all our instincts?  Yet when tracing a family tree it is not at all unusual to encounter at least one instance of suicide, and perhaps more.

By today’s standards, Harriet A. Munroe Lathrop of Racine, Wisconsin had it all.  She was happily married to a devoted husband, she had a beautiful home and was a member of one of the “first-families” of Racine. Money had never been an issue – Harriet came from money and married money - the Lathrops were very well-to-do.  Her husband William Henry Lathrop was a noted banker and in fact the Lathrop family had been one of the founding families of Racine.
So why then, people wondered, did she choose to end her life on the evening of December 11, 1887 by walking into the Root River from the Goodrich Dock at the foot of Lake Avenue?  Before we look further into the events surrounding the death of Harriet Lathrop, let’s see what we can find out about her life.

Harriet A. Munroe was born in Shaftsbury, Vermont on June 11, 1821 to Lyman Willoughby Munroe (1792-1875) and his wife Merriam (some sources spell it "Mariam"), nee Barton (1797-1848).  The Munroes were farmers in Vermont.  

History does not record how they met; perhaps when William Lathrop was back in Vermont settling his father’s estate, (Hubbell Lathrop had died March 19, 1842 in Vermont,) but we do know that Harriet Munroe married William H. Lathrop in Shaftsbury, Vermont on June 22, 1842.

William Henry Lathrop was born in Manchester, Vermont on July 13, 1816 to Hubbell Lathrop (1779-1842) and Laura, nee Brownson (1786-1841).  William Lathrop started his career working on his father’s farm, then he turned to merchandising for two years.  In 1840 Lathrop sold his business interests, and with his brother Austin headed west, ending up in Racine, Wisconsin.  

By all accounts, the marriage of William and Harriet Lathrop was a happy one.  After concluding their affairs in Vermont, the newlyweds traveled back to Racine on the steamer “Chesapeake.”  They arrived on a bright Sunday in July, 1844.  As the “Chesapeake” steamed into the harbor it was met with cannons booming and people shouting.  Harriet Lathrop thought that she had been brought to a wild part of the country where the Sabbath was not observed, but she found out instead that the celebration was because the “Chesapeake” was the first steamer to enter Racine Harbor.

Mr. and Mrs. W.H. Lathrop settled into a comfortable home on the corner of Park Avenue and Sixth Street in Racine (now a commercial area). During this time, William Lathrop had maintained a 240 acre farm just beyond the Racine Rapids, which he visited on a daily basis.  But after several years of farming he had had enough, so he sold the farm and branched out into banking, grain elevators and railroads, becoming richer and more successful as the years went by.

Back on the home front, the Lathrops were blessed with a daughter, Genevieve, who was born April 1, 1843, but as so often happened in those days, young Genevieve died February 3, 1845 of the croup, just short of her third birthday.  Since it was the Lathrop’s intention to remain permanently in Racine, they purchased a plot for Genevieve in the Mound Cemetery .

The Lathrops were blessed with a son, Frank, born June 10, 1847, but their happiness was short-lived when Frank died October 3, 1847 – not even one year old.  Frank is buried next to his sister Genevieve in the Mound Cemetery in Racine.

The Lathrops did not have any more children.

The 1850 U.S. Census has the Lathrop family in Racine.  The house consisted of:  Thirty-three year old William, twenty-seven year old Harriet, Harriet’s brother, twenty-six year old Horatio B. Munroe, fifteen year old Ellen Munroe and seventeen year old Sarah Hughs from Wales; probably a servant. William Lathrop listed his occupation as “Forwarding and Commission.” 

It was not all sadness for the Lathrops.  During the winter of 1856-57, Mr. and Mrs. Lathrop visited Havana, Cuba, returning home by way of Washington, to witness the inauguration of President Buchanan.

The 1860 US Census just has William and Harriet home in Racine, along with twenty year old Emma Kirsben from Germany – a servant.  William Lathrop listed his occupation this time around as “Produce Dealing.”

The 1870 US Census shows fifty-one year old William H. Lathrop at home with his forty-eight year old wife Harriet, and their servant, eighteen year old Jennie Jones, a native of Wisconsin.

It has not been recorded as to when Harriet Lathrop’s health began to deteriorate, but we do know that she and Henry spent nine months in California during 1872-1873, during which Harriet’s health became partially re-established. 

Unfortunately the improvement was only temporary, and over time Harriet Lathrop’s health continued to deteriorate, as William’s fortunes grew.  He ended up with a myriad of business dealings, prospering as a grain dealer and elevator owner, real estate and railroad speculator, as well as bank director and brick manufacturer.  

William Henry Lathrop

The 1880 US Census shows sixty-three year old William H. Lathrop with his fifty-eight year old wife Harriet (their ages seem to move up and down a sliding scale), and Harriet’s forty-five year old sister Ellen Munroe Brown.  For this census, Lathrop lists his occupation as “Gentleman”, Harriet is “Keeping House” and Ellen Brown is a “Lady.”   

In 1883 the Lathrops moved into a new house William had built for them on Main Street in Racine. By the summer of 1885 Harriet’s nervous malady had deteriorated into mental derangement.  Her constantly expressed longing had been to rest by “going away to God,” and that brings us to the fateful night of December 11, 1887.   

For what happened next, I will quote from the Portrait and Biographical Album of Racine and Kenosha Counties, Wisconsin, published in 1892, “She had retired at an early hour and taken her goodnight leave of sister and nurse in the peculiarly affectionate and engaging manner habitual to her during the two and a half years of her illness.  On going to her room about nine o’clock, her husband found her apparently in a gentle sleep. Awakening at one, he missed her from his side, and alarming the household, made an unavailing search, until going to the street door, where steps were traced in the light snow along Lake Avenue to the Goodrich dock, and there ended on the verge, with marks on the snow which her garments had brushed as she made the last step into the river." 

The Oshkosh (WI) Daily Northwestern from December 13, 1887 carried the sad news:

William Henry Lathrop immediately launched a search for the body of his deceased wife.  Here's a blurb from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern from December 20, 1887 after the search had gone on for nine days:

The search continued unabated through the cold winter months.  Even a substantial reward posted by the grieving widower made no difference.

Harriet Lathrop's body was finally discovered north of Kenosha by two boys on May 2, 1888.  Here's the story:

William H. Lathrop gladly paid the two boys $500.00 each on May 4, 1888 as reported in the Weekly Wisconsin newspaper of May 12, 1888:

Now that he had a body to bury, William Lathrop could have a funeral, which he did on the day after the body was discovered, May 3, 1888. Harriet Munroe Lathrop was laid to rest next to her children who pre-deceased her in the family plot at Mound Cemetery in Racine:

A female statue, poised in anguish above the graves of the Lathrops, speaks to the suffering upon the family:

William Henry Lathrop died January 27, 1904 in Racine.  He was eighty-seven years old.  He never remarried.

What made Harriet Lathrop decide to walk into the river on that December night so long ago?  We will never know for certain.  The approach of Christmas was just another reminder that she had lost both of her children and would spend yet another holiday childless.  It is almost 128 years since the death of Harriet Lathrop, but even now diagnosing and treating mental illness is often a guessing game.  We can only hope that Harriet Lathrop found the happiness in the next world that had eluded her in this one.

Harriet Munroe Lathrop - May she rest in peace.