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East Side National Register

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The City of Joliet was founded in 1831 by settlers who were attracted to the area by abundant fertile soil and soft coal and limestone deposits. The geography of the area was marked by bluffs to the west of the Des Plaines River Valley, at the time well-timbered, and by gently rolling prairie.

An important industrial resource of earliest Joliet that has continued to the present is the vast beds of limestone that underlie the city and surrounding area. Buildings constructed during the 19th century of local limestone still stand in many areas of the city, with several excellent examples contained in the proposed district (#’s3, 10,30,37,44). Chicago’s historic Water Tower was constructed of Joliet limestone as was the Old State Capitol in Springfield.

After two unsuccessful attempts, Joliet was finally incorporated as a city in 1852. It initially prospered as a principal transportation corridor for both river and railroad traffic. With the emergence of Chicago as the dominant commercial center of the Midwest , a new network of heavily traveled routes developed. One of these was the Illinois and Michigan (I & M) Canal, which was completed in 1848. Trade through the canal (and thus through Joliet ) grew tremendously; by 1851, over $29 million a year in goods were shipped via the I & M Canal. This traffic spurred the growth of the city, which doubled in population between 1850 and 1855. Today, Joliet’s excellent rail-water-highway transportation system has brought industrial giants (such as U.S. Steel, U.S. Rubber, Caterpillar, and General Electric) to establish plants in the city. Joliet’s major industry, however, remains in its quarries, which provide not only building material, but also soil fertilizers, and essential chemicals for steel production and other manufacturing.

In 1834, James B. Campbell made the first major purchase of property -- an 80-acre tract -- within what is now the proposed East Side Historic District. Prior to settlement, the district was flat prairie which met timbered land at the border of Hickory Creek. The plat was recorded as “Juliet” in honor of Louis Joliet in 1845 by the City Council. Campbell recorded the plat in Chicago (then the county seat of the region). To expedite land sales, one and one-half blocks were set aside for the location of county buildings. By 1836, Will County was created as a governmental unit with Joliet as its seat. This eliminated the 2-day round trip to Chicago. (Prior to 1912, the tax and building records were stored in Chicago. These records were destroyed in a fire; thus it has been impossible to accurately determine the exact date of construction for many of the buildings in the district.)

Lot sales were held on the 18th and 19th of June 1834, with lots sold primarily for speculative reasons. Between 1834 and 1852, there were six buildings constructed in this subdivision, two of which were residences. Cornelius Van Horn, one of the pioneers of the region, built his home at 301 Sherman (#23) in 1852. He was elected the first mayor of Joliet in that same year. The other residence was that of Mr. McGovney at the corner of Richards Street and Third Avenue . This structure was demolished in the 1950’s.

From 1852 to 1873, approximately 32 residences were built in the district. The neighborhood prospered due to its proximity to the central business district and the railroad station depot. In 1857, Eastern Avenue was graded with gravel, becoming one of the first streets of the city to be improved. Commercial gas lighting for residences and streets became available in 1859.

By 1873, the area was becoming a very fashionable neighborhood. With the building of the Jacob A. Henry Mansion (#3) and the development of a local water distribution system, the area came into its own as the most prestigious neighborhood in the city. The water system originally had 3,300 lineal feet of pipe which was supplied by an artesian well located at Eastern and Second Avenues.

In 1873, Jacob A. Henry, a wealthy railroad magnate, built his imposing Second Empire mansion, which even today remains the most prominent and distinguished structure in the district. This 16,800 square foot home, constructed with some of the largest limestone slabs ever quarried in the region, created the impetus for further development; after 1875, many prominent and wealthy Joliet citizens built homes in the neighborhood. Although surrounded by elegant residences by the turn of the century, the Jacob A. Henry home has remained the focal point for the neighborhood. The mansion was listed on the National Register in 1978 and is currently undergoing extensive restoration.

Most of the architecturally notable residences in the district were constructed between 1870 and 1900. During this period, the neighborhood became known as the “Silk Stocking District." The growth of two of the city’s most distinguished churches -- the Central Presbyterian Church (#6), and the Richards Street Methodist Church (#44) -- paralleled residential development in the district. In the 1840’s, modest frame structures housed the congregations. Between 1885 and 1895, as the congregations prospered, imposing limestone structures were erected.

Other extant community-serving structures include the block of commercial row buildings (#1) on Washington Street . Built in the 1880’s, these buildings housed neighborhood-oriented services such as a grocery, meat market, bakery/confections, hardware store, drugstore, and barbershop. This is the only surviving, completely intact block of 19th century commercial row buildings in the city.

The district prospered through the early 1900’s until the Depression. During the 1930’s many of the residents were no longer financially able to afford the upkeep of their large residences. The Jacob A. Henry Mansion , along with Dr. Werner’s house (#16), became rooming houses and were later converted into funeral parlors. Ten years later, when housing was at a premium during World War II, residences not previously converted from single-family use were quickly divided to accommodate the financial needs of the owners. After the war, absentee landlords and deferred maintenance exacerbated the slowly deteriorating condition of the area.

In the early 1960’s, Interstate 80 was constructed south of the district with an interchange at Richards Street. As a result, traffic flow, especially truck traffic, increased, although it is for the most part confined to Washington Street, the northern boundary of the district. The city is currently having a complete study made of the area in order to minimize through-traffic flow on residential streets.

In 1975, this area was designated by the City as one of the first “target areas” eligible for financial assistance under the HUD Block Grant program. This aid provides incentives for owners/landlords to improve their structures. Extensive use of vinyl siding as a part of exterior rehabilitation has substantially altered certain structures. Efforts are currently underway to blend neighborhood revitalization with concern for historic and architectural integrity.