The Bucklen Flats, 800 S. Michigan Ave. (1888-1933)
Michigan Avenue is world famous for a beautiful and unbroken wall of high rise buildings facing Grant Park and Lake Michigan. But for more than a decade following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Michigan Avenue was occupied primarily by stately, two-story private homes south of Van Buren Avenue. All that changed in 1888 when an Indiana entrepreneur named Herbert E. Bucklen built an exotic, Moorish, six-story apartment building on the southwest corner of Michigan and 8th Street.
Born on July 19, 1848 in Winfield, N.Y., Bucklen’s family moved west to seek opportunity in Elkhart, Ind. in 1860. The young Bucklen showed an early flair for salesmanship when he convinced his father to install a soda fountain in his drug store, then married into wealth that helped fund a growing patent medicine and real estate empire. By 1883, he was easily the most prominent businessman in Elkhart, having built a subdivision and an Opera House in addition to his medicine business. But he soon relocated to Chicago to take advantage of the exponential growth and real estate opportunities in Chicago.
The Bucklen Flats were built in 1888 as the first building on Michigan Avenue taller than three stories south of Congress Parkway. Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Hotel at Congress and Michigan was completed the following year. In the days before zoning ordinances, the Bucklen building served as an apartment building and the manufacturing, office, and publishing headquarters of the many Bucklen enterprises: Dr. King's New Discovery for Consumption, Cough & Colds (a remedy for tuberculosis and respiratory ailments); Dr. Kings's New Life Pills (an energy concoction); Electric Bitters (a laxative); and many publications promoting Bucklen medicines, home remedies, and household tips.
On September 9, 1893, during the closing months of the 1893 World’s Fair, a fire erupted in the sixth floor pharmaceutical lab producing the patent medicines, causing $10,000 in damage to the building and contents. The fire apparently caused a reorganization of the offices and manufacturing part of the building, and the Bucklen Flats became one of the most desired addresses in the late 1890s. In 1899, notorious First Ward Boss Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna took the northwest corner apartment on the third floor, and continued to reside there for 34 years.
Herbert E. Bucklen built a three-story home next door to the Bucklen building at 814 S. Michigan. Bucklen passed away at age 68 on January 10, 1917, leaving a fortune estimated at over $7 million from his medicine, real estate concerns and the small Elkhart and Western Railroad. His wife continued to live there until the 1930s.
The Bucklen Flats had gone through more than 40 years of various incarnations by the time the Stevens Hotel broke ground across the street as the World’s Largest Hotel in August 1925. It had been a luxurious apartment building, a patent medicine factory, home to a publishing empire, and a bohemian art community. But heading into its fifth decade-- dwarfed on all sides by high-traffic businesses, office buildings, hotels, train stations, and activities—the building had lost almost all of its luster and ability to attract respectable tenants. Many of the smaller apartments did not have private baths.
By the early 1930s the building was losing tenants and starting to lose money. The Depression and the deflation that came with it sent the massive Stevens hotel into bankruptcy in 1932, and the management of the neighboring Bucklen Flats could not pay their property taxes. On April 23, 1933, an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune announcing the demise of the once-proud building that had changed the face of Michigan Avenue:
“Chicago’s finest apartment building of the mauve decade, the six story Bucklen building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and 8th Street, is to be wrecked because of mounting taxes and falling income. The building is to make way for an auto parking station. Tenants have been notified to move and already the dean of the old residents, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and his wife have moved to a new home after thirty-four years in the Bucklen building.”
On May 6, 1933, demolition of the building began. The site remained a parking lot and Phillips 66 gas station until the construction of the Essex Inn hotel began in the late 1950s.
Sources: Chicago Daily Tribune, April 23, 1933 "High Taxes Doom Flat, Showplace of the Nineties" Pg. A10; New York Times, January 11, 1917
Photos: Library of Congress