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Shadowing the colorful past of Lake Shore Drive

From the Saturday, Feb. 4, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Shadowing the colorful past of Lake Shore Drive

The WISCH LIST

Feb. 4, 2012

This year, Groundhog Day didn’t repeat itself.

Thank goodness.

On Feb. 2, one year ago, I was bundled up like an Eskimo and hiking along a barren Lake Shore Drive as I explored Chicago after “Snowmaggedon,” the infamous blizzard that dumped more than 21 inches of the white stuff on the city over a three-day stretch.

This year, with temperatures in the 50s, I half wanted to drive LSD down to North Avenue to spend the day at the beach.

Shadows, or no shadows.

Last year’s historic snowstorm paralyzed Chicagoland for days, most notoriously putting Lake Shore Drive itself into a deep freeze as hundreds of cars were left stranded by the Arctic blast featuring 70 mph winds off Lake Michigan.

Groundhog Day 2011 was a particularly bad one for America’s Greatest Roadway, which has since become wiser with the installation of removable barriers to reroute traffic and additional cameras to monitor weather conditions.

Last weekend, however, I drove LSD on one of its better days – for January, at least – and afterward dug into, not snow, but its history …

Driving along … LED?

Lake Shore Drive has always been along Chicago’s lakeshore, of course. But it hasn’t always been Lake Shore Drive.

When the thoroughfare’s downtown stretch first opened in 1937, the roadway was actually named Leif Ericson Drive after the legendary Norse explorer who is regarded as the first European to have landed in North America (reaching Newfoundland), a good 500 hundred years before Christopher Columbus.

The road was also referred to as Field Boulevard for a time before it was officially renamed Lake Shore Drive in 1946.

Palmer’s personal driveway

Lake Shore Drive actually traces its origins to the colossal political clout of famed Windy City businessman Potter Palmer (1826-1902), who was responsible for much of the development of State Street and for whom Chicago’s iconic Palmer House Hotel is named.

In the early 1880s, Palmer strong-armed the city into building a street adjacent to his lakefront property in order to enhance its value. In 1882, he then went on to begin construction of an opulent “castle,” completing it in 1885 at a cost of more than $1 million.

At the time, the mansion – located at present-day 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive – was the largest private residence in Chicago and established city’s upscale “Gold Coast” neighborhood.

Its design was reportedly based on a German castle and featured a three-story central hall under a glass dome, along with rooms decorated in various historic styles. They included a Louis XVI salon, an Indian room, a Renaissance library and a Moorish room where the rugs were saturated with perfumes.
Palmer’s castle, which was demolished in 1951, also featured an 80-foot spiral staircase, two elevators and outside doors that had no locks or knobs. The only way to get in was to be admitted from the inside.

Or, perhaps, by drawbridge.

The inners and outers of LSD

Originally, Palmer’s personal roadway was intended for the wealthy to take leisurely rides in their carriages. But, as the age of the automobile dawned, it took on a different role.

Today, Lake Shore Drive is actually two completely separate roads. There’s the outer drive that runs express from Chicago’s South Side up to Hollywood Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood and provides sweeping views of the skyline and lakefront.

But Palmer’s original inner (or local) drive still exists, as well, extending from downtown in Streeterville to North Avenue before it ends and reappears at Diversey Parkway, continuing north to its terminus at Irving Park Road.

The road is still home to expensive homes and high-rises, but this year, (almost) no snow.