McCagg Conservatory

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Landmark Images:
Ezra B. McCagg Conservatory and Residence after the Fire; Photograph, 1871 (ichi-31493)

Ezra B. McCagg Conservatory and Residence after the Fire; Photograph, 1871 (ichi-31493)

McCagg’s two-story home and grounds were on the west side of Clark Street between Walton and Delaware streets, opposite Washington Square Park.  Graced with generous porches, curving walkways, extensive landscaping, and an extraordinary multi-part conservatory, the McCagg house was a center of North Division life before the fire.  As this photograph reveals, while the home was a total loss, the conservatory fared remarkably well during the great conflagration.

After he came to Chicago, McCagg joined the law practice of J. Young Scammon, president of the Marine Bank, and worked with Scammon and others in a wide range of civic activities, including the establishment of the Chicago Historical Society.  As the scale of the conservatory indicates, McCagg was deeply interested in horticulture, and he was especially active in the development of Chicago’s parks, serving on the board of Lincoln Park.  He became friends with Frederick Law Olmsted, the leading American nineteenth-century landscape architect, best known (with Calvert Vaux) for designing New York’s Central Park and who also prepared (again with Vaux) the original plan for Chicago’s Jackson and Washington parks. Near the end of his career he was one of the key planners of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. 

According to Olmsted scholar Victoria Post Ranney, McCagg likely hosted Olmsted during the latter's visits to Chicago to work on its parks.  In Constructing Chicago, Daniel Bluestone cites a letter in which Olmsted stated how impressed he was with sophisticated Chicagoans like McCagg.  Olmsted spoke of how proud they were of their city's cultural life:  “Having migrated to the West while young & lived for a while on the very frontier & in the midst of the maddest whirl of speculation ever known, you might expect [the McCaggs] to be very different from what they are. . . .   They are passionately fond of flowers & the house is always rich in them.  They are all but Mr. McCagg passionately fond of music. . . .  They are rather sensitive about the West & Chicago lest any one should think that people are not likely to be as well informed & cultivated there as any where.”