Look down practically any block in the city and you'll see at least one example of the typical Chicago three-flat. A gray stone facade, modestly embellished, fronts a solid red-brick structure with no yard to speak of, though the owners may have squeezed in some landscaping. Outside the dignified old house at 4512 S. King Drive, a chain-link fence encloses a lot so small that the house shares an outer wall with the building to the south. Like its neighbors, the building looks well-worn but reasonably well maintained. There's no hint of the five young men who once lived here--Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo.
"The Marx Brothers were from New York City, but they lived in Chicago for years," says Tim Samuelson, curator of architecture at the Chicago Historical Society. The brothers visited Chicago early in their career and decided that relocating to America's railway hub would simplify their travels on the nationwide vaudeville circuit. In 1914 they bought the house at 4512 S. Grand Boulevard (as King Drive was then named) from Elias Greenebaum, their next-door neighbor at 4510. As mortgage holder, he collected monthly payments from the family. "The story goes that when the Marx Brothers performed, they often would get rambunctious," says Samuelson. "When the brothers would horse around onstage, their mother backstage would whisper, 'Greenebaum, Greenebaum!' And they would shape up."
The Marx family kept the house until 1926, Samuelson says, but as vaudeville declined the brothers conquered Broadway and moved back to New York. The neighborhood has changed since then: at the turn of the 20th century Grand Boulevard was a fashionable address, a lovely link in the network of wide, carefully landscaped boulevards crisscrossing the city. In their book Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade report, "One of the colorful social rituals of the time was the Sunday promenade down Grand Boulevard...where thousands of expensive carriages majestically bore the wealthy to the racetrack south of Washington Park."
When the Marx family lived here, the neighborhood was heavily Jewish. A block south of their old home lies Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, whose large complex of buildings once housed a synagogue. The surrounding area, though hardly prosperous, is benefiting from the rehabilitation of Bronzeville.
According to Samuelson, rumors of a different Marx Brothers' house are persistent but wrong. "There's a house farther south, at 4726 King Drive, that people often mistake for this one," he says. "The family at that address spelled its name M-A-R-K-S." The historical marker in front of 4512 would seem to settle the matter. But as Groucho once put it, "Home is where you hang your head."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.