Who Had the First Electrically Teched-Out House in Chicago?

What visionary homeowner in Chicago was the very first to install electric lights, the equivalent of the first house run by computers. And when was the last time the house had an upgrade?

Photo used with permission of the Chicago History Museum Interior of the John W. Doane home, 1827 Prairie Avenue, circa 1890. Since this was the first house to use electric lighting, the chandelier with bulbs hanging in the background would also be one of the earliest light fixtures in Chicago.

Watching the History Channel hit series The Men Who Built America had us thinking about early 19th-century teched-out houses. With the help of Edison's invention, J.P. Morgan's house was the first in the world powered through electricity –  using electric lighting instead of kerosene lamps. Although this was a monumental technological shift, even the well-heeled waved it off as the stuff of carnivals and snake oil. One adventurous Chicagoan saw the light. 

Isn't it fitting that the first electric house was built on Millionaires Row, in the famed Prairie Avenue district, “the sunny street of the sifted few.” The area was a hotbed of power, thick with self-made millionaires. Prior to the Gold Coast as defacto destination for the rich, the monied set flocked to Prairie Avenue and included Chicago's richest man Marshall Field, William W. Kimball (of piano fame), John J. Glessner and George Pullman.

And one John W. Doane, president of  the Merchant Loan and Trust Company, flocked there with them. 

Doane built one of the largest and grandest of the Prairie Avenue houses, outfitted with stained glass windows created by John La Farge, competitor to the one-and-only Louis Tiffany. And in a curious twist, a full decade before the Millionaires Row titans used their political pull to have Chicago host the 1893 World Columbia Exhibition, lit entirely by electric lights, Doane beat them to the electric finish line – inside his own home.

On Nov. 10, 1882, during a celebration of his 25th wedding anniversary, “guests were treated to the first use of electric lights in a residence, powered by a generator in the coach house,” according to William H. Tyre, author of Chicago's Historic Prairie Avenue. In fact, Doane, as one of the founders of Western Edison Light Company, was also its first customer.

The Doane home suffered a fire in 1927 and was razed in 1936. But you can check out some of the few remaining Prairie Avenue mansions through walking tours organized at the Glessner House Museum.


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