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Past Times: Samuel Gross's cavalcade of homes


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Emily Clark feels personally attached to a pioneering Chicago real estate developer named Samuel E. Gross. So she bristled at the suggestion that the sign inside the Chicago Historical Society exhibit about him could call him "the Donald Trump of the 1890s."

"That would be too demeaning," Clark said. Cocurator of the Gross exhibit, she read hundreds of letters from Gorss to family members and none made more than passing reference to his business career, though it included the sale of some 20 subdivisions, 10,000 houses and 40,000 lots. Clark concluded that the business of making money was far from Gross's only concern.

The rediscovery of this forgotten Chicago business leader began in 1987, when the Historical Society paid an Evanston bookstore $700 for a collection of Gross's photographs, catalogs, pamphlets and private letters. Bookworks owner Kenan Heise had bought the collection from someone who had gotten it directly from Gross's descendants.

Among the first people to take a close look at this acquisition were two newly hired Historical Society reference librarians--Clark and Patrick Ashley. Talk of curating their first exhibit led to a proposal and eventually the Society's approval of their offer to spend their days off, as Clark puts it, being "engrossed by Gross."

They learned that the western Illinois native served in the Civil War, then came to Chicago to attend law school, graduating in 1866. A sideline in real estate became Gross's main line in the 1880s, when technological improvements like indoor plumbing and the mass production of such items as moldings and doors allowed for large enough profit margins to launch an industry in mass house building. Gtross founded the subdivision in Chicago, his stamp appearing from New City to suburban Brookfield (then called Grossdale) to Lakeview. The historic Alta Vista Terrace row houses stand as elegant testimony to his legacy.

The real estate business hasn't changed much, Ashley discovered, while reading the real estate press that came into its own after the Great Fire. Subdividing strategies and promotional appeals were exuberant even then. Gross's renowned sales techniques featured day-long tours--including picnics--for prospective buyers.

Gross also learned to exploit the press, knowing that notoriety of any kind could help boost sales. During the 1873 depression he turned to play writing, and his work The Merchant Prince of Cornville appeared on the London stage in 1896. When a similar French play--called Cyrano de Bergerac--was staged shortly thereafter, Gross's cry of plagiarism was heard round the world. He didn't want the courts to impede the production; he just wanted some recognition. As such, he asked for and was awarded one dollar in damages.

Then as now, the developer couldn't escape the vicissitudes of the market. Gross's estate was valued at $5 million in the booming 1890s. But by 1909 he had bought more land than he could sell and his net worth had shrunk to $150,000.

The Gross exhibit runs through Sept. 7 at the society, North Avenue and Clark Street. It is open daily from 9:30 to 4:30, Sunday noon to 5 PM. For more information, call 642-4600.


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