Gustavus F. Swift House
by: chicago designslinger
[Gustavus F. Swift House (1898) Flanders & Zimmerman, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
There once was a time when the name Swift meant meat and not a boat that derailed a presidential campaign. Over 100 years ago Gustavus Swift financed a venture that provided fresh-cut meat to America - and the world - via refrigerated railroad cars which in turn made the Swift name synonomous with everything from bacon to lamb chops, and pork roasts to lunchmeat.
[Gustavus F. Swift House, 4848 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Gustavus Swift was not a Chicago native, but he was one of the men who made the city famous - or infamous - as the largest meat production center on the planet. He came to the city in 1875 to check-out the cattle buying market. Swift had started his career as a butcher outside Boston in 1853 at the ripe old age of 14. He was nothing if not tenacious, and by 1875 had built-up a nice little business operation for himself purchasing cattle, pigs and sheep, and selling his dressed meat across Cape Cod. Dressing is basically the slaughtering, carving and finishing of an animal carcass for human consumption. Chicago was emerging a central distribution point for the vast number of cattle and pigs being raised across the Midwest and Swift was interested in getting closer to the source. So he moved his family out west and set-up his business.
[Gustavus F. Swift House, Hyde Park - Kenwood National Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Swift clan moved into a house at the northwest corner of 45th Street and Emerald Avenue. The home was big enough to hold a family that included Swift, his wife Ann, and their six children. By 1882 the house was bursting at the seams since by that time Gustavus and Ann had added five more children to the brood. The massive Chicago stockyards were located just a block away, so Swift had an easy commute. The short distance worked-out well for the butcher from Massachusetts, a man consumed with work who had no time for play. In 1885 when Swift & Co. became a corporation it was capitalized at $300,000 (around $8 million today) - by 1887 it would be recapitalized at $3 million. Swift & Co. not only processed millions of cattle, pigs and sheep a year, but the entrprenuerial dresser revolutionized the meat industry when he helped develop and pay for the first successful refrigerated railroad car. But although the delivery system, processed meats and their by-products like glue and brush bristles had made Swift a wealthy man, he stayed put in his house on Emerald Avenue. He certainly had the resources to join other Chicago movers and shakers in much fancier neighborhoods, and in a substantially larger house, but he liked living close to work - and his workers. At the time, the Town of Lake Directory listed twenty Swift & Co. employees - from clerks to carvers - living on Emerald Avenue within a block of the Swifts. And on the next street over, Winter (now Union), fifteen Swift employees lived just north and south of 45th Street.
[Gustavus F. Swift House - Garage, Stable & Servants Quarters, Kenwood Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Then as the year 1897 drew to a close, at age 59, Gustavus Swift made a surprise announcement to his family - he was ready to move. In 1897 male life expentency in the U.S. was 45.7 years, Swift had been working since he was 14, and he was beginning to slow down. He was also beginning to turn over the day-to-day operations of the business to his sons. He purchased one of the largest residential lots in the very chic Kenwood neighborhood, and built a house befitting his standing in the world of business and finance. The home, designed by architects Flanders & Zimmerman, was substantial. So was the garage/stable/servants quarters built at the rear of the property. But just four years after the house was completed in 1898, the Swift's overworked body gave out. He died in his home due to complications after having had gall bladder surgery. By the time Ann Swift died at home in 1922, the Swift boys had turned their father's company into a multi-billion dollar operation. The stock yards are now gone, the enormous Swift packing house complex is dust, the Emerald Avenue dwelling has been replaced by a park, Swift & Co. is owned by a Brazilian conglomerate, but the house that Swift built on Ellis Avenue still stands.