Illinois: From prairie style to city of big shoulders

By Susan Eberman – For Antique Trader


When Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Fire in 1871, little did anyone know that she was giving architects a blank slate to create distinctive masterpieces. The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers more than 65 boat, bus, bicycle and walking tours to historic neighborhoods in Chicago and surrounding suburbs.

The Windy City is also home to some of the world’s greatest museums. Founded in 1894 to house items from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Field Museum now has more than 15 million artifacts relating to natural history. Meet “Sue,” the largest T-Rex dinosaur skeleton in the world. Gain insight into the culture and environments of the Americas, Africa and Asia by observing artifacts and contemporary objects from these continents. A special exhibit, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs, runs until Jan. 1, 2007.

The Art Institute of Chicago, founded in 1879 as both a museum and school, first stood on the southwest corner of State and Monroe streets. It opened on its present site at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street in 1893. Built on rubble from the 1871 Chicago fire, the museum had a visionary purpose: to acquire and exhibit art of all kinds and to conduct programs of education. The collection now encompasses more than 5,000 years of human expression from cultures around the world, and the school’s graduate program is contsistently ranked as one of the best in the country.
Noteworthy specialized museums include the Museum of Science and Industry, Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, Dusable Museum of African Art, Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center, International Museum of Surgical Science, Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Oriental Institute Museum, Polish Museum of America, Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, Swedish American Museum Center and Ukranian National Museum.


Springfield became the Illinois state capital in 1837 with the help of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. He lived here until he became President of the United States in 1861. Opened in 2005, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a $115 million complex with state-of-the-art exhibits dedicated to the life and legacy of our nation’s 16th president. Other Lincoln sites include New Salem Village, Lincoln Home, Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, Lincoln Depot, Old State Capitol and the Lincoln Tomb where Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln and three of their four sons are buried.

The Dana-Thomas House State Historic Site showcases one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most elaborate prairie-style homes. Visitors can see 110 pieces of Wright-designed furniture plus 450 art-glass doors, windows and light fixtures.
Located near Lincoln’s Tomb, the Museum of Funeral Customs has a replica of Lincoln’s funeral train car and casket, Civil War embalming instruments and a typical Victorian era parlor funeral setting.

Oak Park

The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio showcases the career of the legendary architect who moved to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park in 1889 when he was 22 years old. It was here that he lived for two decades while he raised six children with his first wife, Catherine. His studio is where he developed his classic “prairie style.” The town boasts 25 Wright buildings, the largest concentration in the world. Public tours are available at Unity Temple, and Historic Pleasant Home, a 30-room prairie-style mansion.
Tour the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace, an 1899 Victorian home where the noted author lived during his first six years. The nearby Ernest Hemingway Museum is the place to see Hemingway’s personal memorabilia and to watch videos documenting his life and work.

Des Plaines

The McDonald’s #1 Store Museum looks exactly as it did in 1955 when Ray Kroc flipped his first burger under the golden arches. Free tours are available.


In the 1830s, Galena was the richest town in Illinois, thanks to lead mining. Today 85 percent of this picturesque town that borders Iowa is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1860, Ulysses S. Grant moved his family to Galena where he worked in his father’s store. A year later, at the start of the Civil War, he rejoined the Army after a seven-year hiatus. When he returned in 1865, Galena residents celebrated their war hero by presenting Grant with a furnished home. Now known as the Ulysses S. Grant State Historic Site, the brick home has many original furnishings. 

Galena’s oldest home, the Dowling House, is Illinois’ oldest stone structure. Built in 1826, it is furnished with primitives and Galena pottery.

The Galena/Jo Daviess County Museum has exhibits on the area’s steam-boating and Civil War heritage, plus displays of antique clothing and toys.