The wide boulevard where the Elam Home sits in Bronzeville has had many names, and the mansion, in place since 1903, has known all of them. The ornately carved windows—these days shuttered by gray boards—have peered out at over a century of history in an ever-changing city, watching as Grand Boulevard become South Park Way in 1923 and then Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in 1968. As the neighborhood became majority Jewish and then quickly became majority black; as the surrounding area earned a new moniker, Bronzeville, and a new reputation as a thriving black cultural center.
As the Elam Home’s outsides at 47th Street and King Drive changed, so did its insides: the house was originally owned by a wealthy tailor, then became a rooming house for single black women under its namesake, Melissia Ann Elam. After Elam’s death, the mansion became property of the Center for New Horizons, until a devastating fire in the nineties left its insides empty, its windows boarded, and its future uncertain.
The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmark’s 1978 report on the property described it as “Chateauesque” style, reminiscent of sixteenth-century France under Francis I. The gray limestone exterior’s most prominent features are two symmetrical turrets, aptly known as “candle snuffer roofs.” According to the report, the interior at the time had twenty rooms, with wood paneling. Many of the ceilings were still decorated with the original stenciled canvas, “hand painted by a German craftsman.” The house featured such luxuries as abundant stained glass, a music room with four crystal chandeliers, and a second-floor bathroom “of solid marble.” The third floor had a ballroom, and near the stair hall was a “breakfast nook that looks out on the yard and at one time contained a goldfish pool.”
Simon L. Marks, the president of a wholesale clothing firm, built the house in 1903, just fourteen years after Grand Boulevard was annexed to the city of Chicago with the rest of the Village of Hyde Park. Henry L. Newhouse was the house’s architect. (Marks has no relation to the Marx Brothers, despite rumors to the contrary; Groucho and his brothers actually lived nearby at 4512 South King Drive.)
As for Elam, she was born in Missouri in 1853 and moved to Chicago in 1876. Around 1912, she moved into a home at 4555 South Champlain Avenue with her husband. After her husband’s death, she converted the residence into the Melissia Ann Elam Home for Working Women and Girls. To accommodate increased demand for housing for single black women, brought on by the Great Migration, she bought Marks’s mansion from him in 1926 and moved her rooming house there. The Elam Home is the only one of the three Bronzeville homes for working black girls that still stands today.
In the twenties and thirties, the Elam Home usually hosted about thirty-five young women and often served as the location for various receptions, concerts, and events. In January 1938, the Chicago Defender reported that “the spacious and truly beautiful triple parlors of the Elam Home” hosted an open house for the tenth anniversary of the National DuSable Memorial Society. In July of that year, Elam celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday and in reporting on the birthday celebration, the Defender wrote, “Mrs. Elam emphasizes the fact that she wants the girls to feel and believe that they are at home.”
After Elam’s death in 1941, the trusteeship was passed down to her female descendants. Demand to live in the house began to dwindle, though, and its upkeep faltered. In 1978, the time of the Commission’s report, six women lived there. The house faced threats of demolition until artist Margaret Burroughs, the co-founder of the DuSable Museum, founded the Friends of the Elam Home Foundation and succeeded in having the home recognized as a Chicago landmark in 1979 —the Chicago Metro News, a black weekly newspaper, called it “the first Chicago area landmark which is associated with the Black experience” in a 1979 article. Yet in that same article, called “Landmark Home Ripped Off by Greedy Self-Appointed Board Members,” the Metro News reported that a board of trustees had taken over without the approval of the courts and was selling items of historical value and allowing men to live there. “I feel that a lot of work and effort that I put into making it a landmark is going down the drain,” Burroughs told the Metro News.
In 1982, the International Women’s Economic Development Corp. became the trustee and began a $1.5 million renovation of the home. Centers for New Horizons, a social services organization, obtained the home soon after. But in 1992, a fire severely damaged the house, causing the roof to collapse and halting the Centers’ plans to use the home as a service site. “It makes me sick. I don’t want to see it,” Burroughs told the Tribune.
In 2001, the Centers received a $65,000 grant from the state to renovate the home and use it as a women’s health center, but it is unclear what has happened to the house since then. An employee at the Centers confirmed on the phone that that property is in trust with Centers and that they are not able to sell it or do anything with it at this time, but could not give any more information about future plans for the home.
Despite the fire, the Elam Home, protected by landmark status, still stands. The home has outlasted many famous former neighbors like the Regal and Metropolitan Theatres, the Savoy Ballroom, and Gerri’s Palm Tavern. These days, the Harold Washington Cultural Center sits across the street and Peach’s on 47th serves up fresh omelets a stone’s throw away. It’s hard to know what’s left of the interior beyond the boarded windows and the padlocked double doors, but the turrets’ roofs still point to the sky, the sleek limestone is still bright and imposing, and intricate carvings of grapevines and gargoyles still frame the windows and flank the front steps. A plaque near the front door, with writing too small to make out from beyond the gate, still announces the Elam Home’s landmark status to the world.
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