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The Hammer/Palmer Mansion was constructed between 1885 and 1888 for Justice D. Harry Hammer. Designed by noted architect William Wilson Clay (1849-1926) and his firm of Wheelock & Clay, in the Queen Anne style. William Clay, and his various firms of Wheelock & Clay (1876-1886), Clay & Dutton (1886-1888), Beers, Clay, & Dutton (1888-1894) and with his own firm from 1894 onward, were notable for their grand-scale houses and mansions. He primarily designed in the Romanesque Revival or Richardsonian style, as well as the Queen Anne style, the two most modern and popular styles of the late 19th century.
Clay and his firms designed many notable mansions on the Near South Side, Kenwood and Hyde Park communities, as well as along such streets as Prairie and Michigan Avenues in the neighborhood we now call Bronzeville. In addition, the firm designed historically significant tall structures, or “skyscrapers”, such as the 14-story Medinah Building of 1893 in the Loop (a precursor to Medinah Temple and the Medinah Athletic Club) and the 11-story Lakota Hotel at 3001 S. Michigan Avenue of 1892. These have both been demolished. Also, the design of the Diamond Match Company Building for the Columbian Exposition/Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Several of Clay’s mansions still stand on the Southside, Near North Side, and the Gold Coast. However, much of their work has been lost.
More recently the Hammer/Palmer Mansion was the home from 1976 to 2004 of the noted African American activist, reporter, writer, and ‘godfather of Chicago black political activism’ Lutrelle ‘Lu’ F. Palmer II (1922-2004) and his wife Jorja English Palmer. The mansion has been vacant in recent years while under the ownership of Wilcar, LLC, with real estate magnate Elzie Higginbottom and members of the English family. The structure has fallen into a state of disrepair and there is danger that it will become a victim of demolition by neglect. Instead we hope it is saved, restored and made part of a larger Chicago Landmark District to include all of the buildings and their facades fronting this stretch of King Drive and nearby adjacent streets of Bronzeville.
The Mid-South community of Chicago, now known as “Bronzeville”, was originally called the “Douglas Community”. Named for the great orator and Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861), this area was once part of Douglas’ vast 60-acre estate purchased in 1852. Working with the Illinois Central Railroad to help establish the community, Douglas did much to improve the property, establishing an early stockyard and other businesses as well as subdividing some of his property for development. Douglas also donated 10 acres of land as the site for “the original University of Chicago”, its location before moving to Hyde Park in the 1890’s. A bronze statue of Stephen Douglas stands on a stone obelisk atop his tomb at 636 E 35th Street, easily visible from south Lakeshore Drive. The monument and tomb sit within a small manicured park, on what was once part of his 60-acre estate.
Douglas is perhaps best known for is participation in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, in addition to being the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, running against another Illinois candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was sometimes referred to as “The Little Giant,” as he was short in stature and “a forceful and dominant figure” in politics. A bronze statue of Stephen Douglas stands atop a magnificent stone monument and tomb by Leonard Volk, at 636 E. 35th Street, situated within a small manicured park, on what was once his land.
Grand Boulevard, now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, was constructed as a wide tree-lined boulevard and carriage drive in the 1870s, designed by world-renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. One of Chicago’s first “suburban style” boulevards, it was intended to connect downtown’s Michigan Avenue (then residential) with the new Southside Olmsted parks now known as Washington Parks, the Midway Plaisance, and Jackson Park (A Preservation Chicago – Chicago 7 Most Endangered for 2017-2018-2019). This was a great public amenity for a booming industrial city like Chicago in the late 19th Century.
Grand Boulevard quickly became one of the most desirable addresses in the city. Many of Chicago’s wealthy industrialists, the social and political elite, built mansions along the boulevard. The Hammer/Palmer Mansion, designed by William Wilson Clay and his firm of Wheelock & Clay, was one of these. Constructed in the Queen Anne-style between 1885 and 1888 for D. Harry Hammer, a noted Chicago attorney, alderman of the Fourth Ward, Justice of the Peace and Cook County judge.
From the beginning of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South in 1916-1917 through the 1950s, Grand Boulevard became an integral part of the Black Metropolis, or Bronzeville, community. Because of strictly enforced racially segregated housing policies, much of the distinctly African American culture, in both the arts and commerce, was compressed into this neighborhood. The area thrived and became home to such notable individuals at Ida B. Wells, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bessie Coleman, Robert S. Abbott, John H. Johnson and many others. In addition, it became home to such institutions as Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, the Chicago Bee, The Chicago Defender and nearby Wendell Phillips Academy and DuSable High School, as well as the Harold Washington Cultural Center.
Grand Boulevard was later renamed South Park Way, and in 1968, it was again renamed to honor the slain civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a leader of the nationwide Freedom Movement, King had a long association with Chicago. He frequently addressed large audiences here, marched in mass demonstrations, and lived here with his family on the West Side – all to advance civil rights and to fight discriminatory housing practices. The renaming of South Park Way to King Drive, honors Dr. King’s work and legacy in both Chicago and across the nation.
In 1976 Lutrelle “Lu” and Jorja English Palmer purchased the Hammer mansion. They would reside there for 28 years, until Mr. Palmer passed away in 2004. The Palmers were noted African American community activists, and were integral to the 1983 campaign of Mayor Harold Washington. Palmer was a noted reporter and columnist for the “Chicago Defender”, the “Chicago American”, the “Chicago Daily News”, and the “Chicago Courier”. Palmer also produced and hosted the radio programs “Lu’s Notebook” (broadcast on many black radio stations) and “On Target” (WVON) featuring “pointed commentaries” on racial an political issues. He retired from journalism in 2001. An obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted,’ “He was fiery. Once he decided on something, there was no turning Lu Palmer back. He was ferocious in his beliefs,” said the Director of the Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern University’. The Palmers founded both the Chicago Black United Communities (CBUC) in 1980 and Black Independent Political Organization (BIPO) in 1984.
The Hammer House faces the threat of demolition by neglect. The house has been vacant for a number of years. It is in need of repair. Given the size of the house and the necessary investment the property requires, Preservation Chicago is concerned that the house will continue to deteriorate and accumulate building violations. This would give the owner and the City an excuse to demolish this important Bronzeville building and erase another part of Bronzeville history.
Preservation Chicago strongly advocates for the preservation and restoration of the Hammer/Palmer Mansion. This property needs immediate repairs and investment. This building should be landmarked, either as an individual landmark or as part of a broad King Drive/Grand Boulevard Chicago Landmark District, or both. The house is clearly landmark-eligible, both from an architectural standpoint, and from the standpoint of cultural history. Its original owner, D. Harry Hammer, and its longtime owners Lu & Jorja English Palmer were significant residents of this historic community. The Palmers were active and noteworthy in Chicago’s African American cultural and political community, and were integral to the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago. This house deserves to be saved, restored, and landmarked.