Harry B. Owsley House
by: chicago designslinger
[Harry B. Owsley House (1892) /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The City of Chicago recently began a bike sharing program hoping to entice more people to use a more environmentally friendly energy source as a mode of transportation - their own. Chicagoans love affair with two-wheeled transport goes back to the dawn of the bike age at the close of the 19th century when bike clubs proliferated across the city. Thousands of members belonged to over 50 different clubs, and even some postal workers got in on the action riding bikes along their mail routes. By the late 1890s Chicago was dubbed, "the bike building capital of the world."
[Harry B. Owsley House, 1436 N. Astor Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Harry B. Owsley was a Chicago businessman who hoped to profit from the bike craze. Owsley was the president of the St. Nicholas Toy Company, and many of the city's toy manufacturers saw the bike business as a natural outgrowth of the toy business. The industry's manufacturing plants were already producing wheels and frames for baby carriages and doll buggies, and with a little retooling here and there, a company like St. Nicholas could add bicycles to its inventory fairly easily. Owsley's parents, John and Henrietta, had come to Chicago in the early 1860s from Kentucky and settled with their family on what was then considered the far west side of town at Ashland and Jackson Boulevard. The area came to be known for its many native Kentucky dwellers including the city's future mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. and Mr. Henry H. Honore, whose daughter Bertha would one day marry Potter Palmer. Harry and his twin brother Heaton went to work for St. Nicholas in the 1870s and eventually took over the business. The salesroom was located downtown but the factory was just around the corner from the cluster of Owsley-owned homes on Ashland Boulevard between Jackson and Van Buren.
[Harry B. Owsley House, Gold Coast National Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1880 Harry got married, moved into his parents home, and in 1883 acquired a patent for the manufacture of a new bicycle wheel - the first of many patents in Harry's future. As his fortunes and family grew, Owsley moved out of his parent's home to a place just down the street. Then in 1892 he left the west side and moved to Astor Street in the north side's new up-and-coming Gold Coast neighborhood. Ashland Boulevard was losing its socially-elevated cache, and for young up-and-comers like the Owsleys, Potter Palmer's sandy stretch of undeveloped land along the lakefront was the place to go. The Owsley's three-story, stone-fronted, 16-room house was one of the first to rise along the recently graded Astor Street, and not long after the family settled in Harry's childhood friend and Ashland Boulevard neighbor Carter Harrison, Jr. moved into a large single family townhouse at the corner of Astor and Schiller Streets. When Harrison, Jr. ran for mayor in 1897 he campaigned around town riding a bicycle which not only garnered the candidate lots of press coverage and the support of the city's "wheelmen", but also generated a lot of free publicity for the bike's makers - the Owsley brothers.
[Harry B. Owsley House, Astor Street Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1901 with his health failing, forty-five-year-old Harry Owsley decided to pull back from the daily grind of business and sold his Astor Street home to Frederick T. Vaux, a director and the treasurer of the Adams & Westlake Company. The company had been founded in Chicago in 1857 and by 1900 was one of the largest manufacturers of railroad hardware supplies in the world. Interestingly, the same year that Vaux bought the historic-revivally-detailed Astor Street mansion his business cohort Ward Willitts, the vice-president and general manager of Adams Westlake, built a house on a large lot Willitts owned in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park designed by the very non-revivalist architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Vaux moved-up to the presidency of Adams & Westlake and in 1911 moved to 1520 N. Astor, and sold his home at 1436 N. Astor Street to James B. Foley for $32,000. After over 50 years as a single family home, like many of its Gold Coast neighbors, the 6,500 square foot structure was divvied-up and turned into a rooming house. By the time the 21st century rolled around, the house that Harry built in 1892 for $20,000 sold 112 years later for $2.5 million.