Picturing life before Palm Beach can be as problematic as envisioning the possibility of life after Palm Beach. Meditating on these unimaginable concepts, I recalled at the time I wrote House of Munn (November 2006), exploring the Charles Alexander Munn family’s post-Gilded Age social conglomerate, I barely touched on their 19th-century concerns and context.
Since Instagram and Facebook have become the accredited historians for the past fifteen seconds, what better time to ponder the House of Munn’s origins. Deciphering Northwest Ireland’s churchyard tombstones, untangling Rockland County’s family Bibles, and sifting through the ashes of Chicago’s telegraphic messages before the Great Fire of 1871 have been a welcome reprieve during these days of crisis and crunch that leave me wondering if this must be what life is like at the end of the world.
John Munn Sr. died in December 1867. Northwest Ireland lost one of its most influential citizens — merchant, manufacturer, magistrate, and ship owner. Having dwelled for most of his life overlooking Londonderry’s Foyle River and the sea beyond, Munn was “highly esteemed by all classes of citizens for his many amiable and excellent qualities,” wrote the Derry Sentinel at the time of his death. The Sentinel credited Munn with “ … laying the foundations of commercial prosperity in which Derry is now making them known.” Two years later, his son John Munn Jr. died, leaving his descendants, for the most part, to seek their destiny in North America.
When Denton Gurnee and his younger brother Walter Gurnee uprooted from their Hudson River family farm and established a saddle-and-whip store in 1836 Chicago, the Great Lakes outpost had only one railroad line and had yet to incorporate as a city.
Members of Rockland County’s pioneer gentry, if not Haverstraw’s largest landowners during the early 18th century, the Gurnees were of French Huguenot ancestry. As well, the Gurnees shared kinship with the area’s Coe family, among the first Massachusetts Bay Colony’s settlers. The Gurnee brothers inherited the means and possessed the bold vision that enabled them to capitalize on Chicago’s early development.
However disparate the Gurnee and Munn family’s origins and upbringings, their late 19th-century union makes for a fascinating odyssey. In their pursuit of fortune, both families never lost their deep-seated sense of civic responsibility. John Munn Sr. served as mayor and an alderman of Londonderry. Halstead Gurnee was a Supervisor for Haverstraw. Walter Gurnee was twice elected Chicago’s mayor. Denton and Walter’s cousin from Haverstraw, former US Congressman Abram Hewitt, became mayor of New York, though he and family members remain best known for establishing NYC’s Cooper Hewitt – Smithsonian Design Museum, the subject of Polly Guérin’s book The Cooper-Hewitt Dynasty of New York.
More than a decade ago, the late Anthony Kane Baker guided me in untangling the scrambled knot of Munnology’s names and marriages from Astor to Waterbury. Today, I relied on the renowned Brian Mitchell as my authority on all things Munn in Northwest Ireland.
Known as Londonderry’s official genealogist, Brian supervised the creation of a database for more than one million records dating from 1642 to 1922, extracted from the civil and church registers of County Derry, the Inishowen peninsula, and County Donegal.
Londonderry – Liverpool
“During the early 1800s, John Munn Sr.’s companies provided regular cargo and passenger steamboat services from Londonderry to Glasgow and Liverpool,” according to Brian Mitchell, genealogist for Londonderry. From there, Munn and his sons expanded into a portfolio of businesses. By the early 1830s, Derry’s quays docked fifteen vessels that made twice-yearly voyages to Newfoundland and New York, among them, ships owned by the Munns.
By 1839, Munn family interests could be found in Northwest Ireland as well as other parts of Great Britain, including Liverpool and Manchester. With proceeds from his various ever-expanding grain brokerage and maritime holdings, Munn set-up a flax spinning factory on Derry’s Foyle Street in 1838, capitalizing on Ireland’s growing linen market. With his son John Munn Jr. joining the family business, Munn Sr. was elected mayor of Londonderry in 1845.
Having traveled along the east coast of the United States during the early 1850s, Mrs. John Munn Jr.’s brother Alexander Ector Orr, son of prominent Strabane merchant William E. Orr, resettled in New York. Following Orr’s marriage to Juliet Buckingham Dows in 1856, he became a clerk at her family’s business, then known as David Dows & Company. As the company expanded, Orr became a partner and vice-president, leading the firm’s operational aspects.
The Gurnees were not yet teenagers when they were uprooted from Haverstraw, New York, following the death of their father in 1822. Briefly, they moved to nearby Ramapo and then to Romulus, to live near their mother’s extended family, the Coes, who lived on a 500-acre farm on Lake Seneca. According to available records, the brothers set out for the Territory of Michigan in 1835, landing in Detroit. Their brother John Gurnee eventually settled between Detroit and Chicago.
After only a year in Detroit, the Gurnees moved to Chicago, decades before the Midwest Mecca became the nation’s agricultural and industrial clearinghouse. There they established their first “saddle-and-whip” store and tannery. The Gurnees’ saddlery and tack shop gained partners and led in 1843 to the Chicago Hide & Leather Company for processing hides and product manufacturing. With offices in surrounding towns and states, Chicago Hide & Leather was among the Midwest’s principal suppliers to the East Coast and Europe.
As railroads moved west, Chicago became the nation’s major passenger and freight interchange with track lines radiating in every direction. The Gurnees acquired broad swaths of land around railway stations and shipping ports lining the Great Lakes. They broadened their portfolio with interests in raw materials and wholesale provisional storage as well as stakes on bank boards and insurance companies.
Chicago’s City Directory extolled the city’s virtues, “Brawls and affrays are extremely rare in our streets … a peaceable and quiet population can nowhere be found … Affording a sublime illustration of what man under circumstances of great difficulty and embarrassment can accomplish.”
In 1855, Lucien Gurnee left Romulus and joined his brothers in Chicago. Lucien managed the family’s development of Glencoe, named for their mother’s Coe family, before becoming president of the Chicago Distilling Company. Lucien had attained notoriety in Romulus when he challenged the authority of local church leaders, the subject of the liturgical volume, The Infallibility Of The Clergy And Officers Of The Presbyterian Church And Their Authority Over Private Members As Assumed And Maintained In The Trial And Suspension Of Lucien Gurnee, 1841-1843.
Having charged the church with dishonesty and corruption, Lucien was found guilty by a church “court” of “disorderly and unchristian behavior.” Described as “an offense in the abstract,” he was suspended from the First Presbyterian Church of Romulus.” In December 1863, a boiler exploded at the Chicago distillery. Lucien died from injuries shortly after the accident.
By the mid-1800s both Gurnee brothers had acquired considerable wealth. As his Chicago, Milwaukee & Duluth railroad expanded, Walter acquired all the land surrounding stations that became Chicago’s North Shore suburban residential communities, among them, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, and Gurnee. The brothers owned land on both sides of Lake Michigan.
On the lake’s Michigan side, Denton sold his 2,400-acre township named Denton, featuring a grist mill, machine shop, sawmill, two churches, and a population of 200, located amid the dense timberland southwest of Detroit along the Michigan Central Railroad line.
Located at the corner of Monroe Street on west side of Michigan Avenue, Walter Gurnee’s “palace” with an observatory on the roof, was regarded “the greatest house in town.” Following a particularly unsporting election loss for Chicago mayor in 1860, Walter would soon reposition on New York’s Fifth Avenue where he joined the era’s gilded monopolists acquiring banks, insurance companies, and more railroad companies. Denton remained in Chicago.
Denton Gurnee residence – 199 South Michigan Avenue
In 1861, Denton and Louise Gurnee paid $23,000 for three-time mayor and hotel owner Francis Cornwall Sherman’s north corner townhouse at 199 South Michigan Avenue, known as Terrace Row or Marble Row. Terrace Row was designed by W. W. Boyington, the same architect as the Sherman House Hotel and faced with what was advertised as “Athens marble,” limestone polished to look like marble that Sherman would use to complete his hotel.
When the impressive Terrace Row of four-story townhouses was built overlooking Lake Michigan along South Michigan Avenue between Van Buren and Congress streets, the Handbook of Chicago described it as “stern, unpitying grandeur.” The building’s impressive façade, “polished to the whiteness of marble,” came from the Gurnee co-owned Illinois Stone Company’s limestone quarries located 20 miles south of Chicago.
In September 1869, Denton and Louise’s daughter Amelia married Joseph F. Armour. Having moved to Chicago four years earlier from Milwaukee, Armour headed-up the family’s rapidly expanding banking, grain, and pork-packing empire. Armour’s company first established a branch of their Milwaukee-Kansas City business as grain merchants in Chicago in 1865 before consolidating the company’s various interests as Armour & Company with Joseph Armour installed as president.
“The last building to burn was the Terrace Row. Its destruction required two to three hours … about 18 hours after the first discovery of fire on DeKoven Street, the last wall of Terrace Row fell. The magnificent Terrace Row was in flames and the air was filled with dust, flames, cinders, and smoke. The middle of this great row fell first, followed by the ends. covered in one black cloud of smoke, ashes and dust …” [Excerpts from texts by Elias Colbert and Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, 1871]
“From this imposing row of palatial residences, five lofty stories high and eclipsing Rockingham Palace in elegance, the millionaires were dragging their trunks and bundles, and yet there was no panic, only the haste the situation authorized. The bloated aristocrats all along the street … reduced to a shapeless mass of undistinguishable smoking ruins.” [Excerpts from texts by Elias Colbert and Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, 1871]
Even before Chicago began rebuilding after the 1871 fire, New York commodity brokers and elevator men had opened offices in Chicago, among them, David Dows & Company. Opened on LaSalle Street in 1855, the Dows Company’s built elevators and bureaus along major transportation linking other Midwest cities, among them, Duluth, Milwaukee, and St. Paul.
By the time Alexander Ector Orr was made a full partner of David Dows & Company in 1861, thirty years had passed since Dows first formed a freight brokerage company with his uncle John Dows. With the death of his uncle and partners, and with an estate in Irvington to maintain, Dows had amassed an enormous enterprise that he then shared with his brother Ammi Dows, Alexander Orr’s father-in-law.
Based along Brooklyn’s East River waterfront, when Orr joined the company the Dows company was already the largest Eastern receiver of flour and grain routed from Chicago to New York. Dows’ silos and warehouses held more than 3.5 million bushels of grain, making them the largest exporters of grain to European ports. Dows storage facilities near the Naval Shipyard housed much of the South’s tobacco crop.
During the 1860s with the beginning of the Civil War, the Dows company became a major purveyor to the federal government in need of provisioning Union troops. David Dows’ expansion and construction of grain elevators and warehouses in the western states had enhanced his East Coast portfolio as president of the Atlantic Storage Company and the Brooklyn Wharf & Warehouse Company. But it was the federal contracts, that facilitated his founding of four banks, three in New York and one in Chicago.
At the same time, Dows’ vice-president, Alexander Orr became director of several banks including the US Trust Company, insurance companies, and railroad boards, as well as headed the Brooklyn Board of Trade and vice-president of the New York State Chamber of Commerce. As president of the Board of Rapid Transit Commission of the City of New York, Alexander Orr was once regarded as the city’s “father of the subway.”
Before resettling in Brooklyn in 1857, Orr’s brother-in-law Alexander Munn worked with his father John Munn in Londonderry managing the family’s line of steamers. He then moved to Liverpool in 1851, operating the grain commission business and importing wholesale provisionals from the United States. In Brooklyn, Alexander Munn became a charter member of the Produce Exchange. Munn was associated with the Dows company before forming his own freight brokerage concern with James Jenkins, Munn & Jenkins, in 1871.
During the early 1870s, Charles Alexander Munn joined family members in Brooklyn, working with the David Dows Company before he and his younger brother Noel Spencer Munn moved to Chicago.
Following the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago began rebuilding a new urban center as its industrial areas, the stockyards, rail lines, wharves, and most of the grain elevators, remained intact. Wood frame structures were supplanted with brick, marble, limestone, and terra cotta construction, led by the Chicago School of architects, among them, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and John Wellborn Root.
Much of the Armour Company’s holdings were undamaged. However successful, Joseph and Amelia Armour’s marriage was short-lived. Amelia died in early October 1873. According to accessible reports, Joseph began to develop systemic disorders affecting his physiology, spending lengthy periods at Mediterranean spas to treat what was then publicly diagnosed as inflammatory rheumatism.
In May 1875, Denton and Louise Gurnee and their daughter Carrie left Chicago for Europe, simultaneous with reports that Joseph Amour was also on the continent. From Paris, the Gurnees headed to Geneva where daughter Carrie Louise married their son-in-law, Joseph Armour, according to the Chicago Tribune. While details remain vague, the Armours and the Gurnees returned to Chicago in July 1875.
That same year, Joseph’s brother Philip Danforth Armour relocated from Milwaukee to Chicago as concern grew about Joseph’s health. The following year, Carrie gave birth to a son, Gurnee Munn. Carrie’s father Denton died in May 1878 with the funeral held at the Armour house on Calumet Avenue. Months later, Joseph and Carrie’s son, Gurnee, died.
As painful as losing a child must have been that silk and velvet could not comfort the loss, for many of his last years, Armour was incapacitated by a series of progressively debilitating disorders. When not at one of Europe’s health hotels, the Armours, along with Carrie’s mother Louise, spent part of the winter at the St. James Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida.
The following winter of 1881, as Armour’s health deteriorated, he, his wife, and mother-in-law, boarded the train for Jacksonville. He became seriously ill as the train neared Cincinnati. At the station, Armour was removed to the Grand Hotel where he died soon after at 38 years-of-age, “an invalid for many years.”
Armour died at the Grand Hotel in the early morning hours on Wednesday, January 5, 1881. At first, thought to be improving, family members delayed their visit. Only to learn hours before his death, he had “been called to his last sleep.” He was brought back to Chicago in “a rich black casket.” The funeral was held at Philip Armour’s home, 2115 Prairie Avenue, and attended by Chicago’s major titans. After “a timely investigation,” the cause of death was ruled to be Bright’s disease, known today as nephritis.
Armour’s wife Carrie, his brother Philip, and business partner, John Plankinton, were his estate’s co-executors. Carrie was the sole inheritor of $3 million in cash and bonds, as well as her husband’s shares in the Armour Company. As part of his legacy, Armour set aside $100,000 for the construction of a church mission and school that became the Armour Institute, his brother Philip adding an additional $1 million for a training school in the industrial, domestic and scientific arts.
Two years after her husband’s death, the widow Armour became acquainted with and married Charles Alexander Munn, who ran Dows, Munn & Company and was also vice-president of the Union National Bank. Attended by only a few “intimate friends,” the October 1883 wedding was held at the Armour house, 2221 Calumet Avenue. Following the legalities, the couple boarded a special Pullman car for a bridal trip to New York. Returning the following month to the Calumet Avenue house, the Munns became boldfaced names among Chicago’s philanthropic Blue Book circles. Their first child, Charles Alexander “Mr. Palm Beach” Munn Jr., was born in Chicago in 1885; two years later, their second son, Gurnee, was born.
Seeking refuge from Chicago’s winters, the Munns could be found either in Europe or aboard George Pullman’s private railroad car headed to St. Augustine’s Ponce de Leon Hotel. Summers were reserved for Newport, Bar Harbor or Manchester By-The-Sea.
As Chicago grew larger and louder, apparently the Munns sought a more gilded life elsewhere. However luxe their cosmopolitan quarters and distant their social realm from the train whistles and the clang, the Munns moved to Washington, D. C.
In April 1888, they bought US Senator William Windom’s house on Scott Circle for $70,000. Twice appointed Secretary of Treasury by President Garfield and President Harrison, Reportedly, Windom lost an 1883 campaign for another senate term because of the Washington house’s grandiosity, as opponents sent Minnesota voters images of the house to influence voters.
1601 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Designed by Dearing & Johnson and built in 1881 of stone and brick by William Windom, the Munns’ impressive three-story mansion was subject to numerous additions and modifications. Architect James G. Hill was entrusted to make many of the changes requested by the Munns, beginning with a one-story port cochere addition in 1888, followed by a two-story addition, and then a three-story addition that led to several years of litigation. In the end, the Munns prevailed, and the imposing addition was built.
In early October 1903, the Munns and their children returned to Washington from Europe, announcing they were headed to Colorado for the winter. On October 17, Charles and Carrie Munn checked-in to the Hotel Adams in Phoenix, where they “ … expect to stay during the winter for enjoyment of Arizona’s far-famed climate,” according to the Arizona Republic.
In late November, The Inter-Ocean Chicago reported that Charles Alexander Munn, 50, “married to the widow of Joseph Armour,” had died in Phoenix on November 27. The Los Angeles Timesaccount disclosed that Munn, “a Chicago banker,” had gone to Phoenix “in hope of health and died of consumption.” At the time, consumption was often a polite word for tuberculosis. The funeral was held on Thursday, December 3, at lawyer Arthur Caton’s residence at 1910 Calumet Avenue with burial at Graceland Cemetery.
The son of a chief justice of the state Supreme Court who was also known as Chicago’s first lawyer, Arthur Caton had lived near the Munns in Chicago as well as quite close to Marshall Field with whom Caton’s wife Delia reportedly had a lengthy “known-to-all” affair. Months after the Munn funeral, Caton “dropped dead,” a suicide by some accounts, other reports gave peritonitis as the cause of death. Delia, Arthur Caton’s widow, married Marshall Field who died five months later. Along with Field family members waiting for Marshall Field’s “last moment” at the Field Mansion, 21-year-old Charles Alexander Munn Jr. and Robert Todd Lincoln. Classic Chicago magazine appears to have all the details at their online story titled The Other Mrs. Field. The week after Munn’s Chicago funeral, the Washington’s Evening Star reported Munn’s will was filed for probate with his wife Carrie as executor, now twice widowed with five children.
In between her children’s play dates at the White House that evolved into a carousel of debutante teas and wedding dinners, Carrie Munn engaged in the development of two significant buildings in Chicago. These were among the Chicago investment properties that Carrie owned as part of being the sole heir to Joseph Armour’s estate and her Gurnee-Coe inheritance following her sister and her mother Louise’s death in 1893.
Commissioned in 1908 and completed in 1910, the distinctive Munn Building is located on South Wabash Avenue, a few blocks south of her family’s Terrace Row house on South Michigan Avenue destroyed during the 1871 Great Fire. Prolific Chicago-based architect Christian Eckstrom designed the Munn Building’s facade in the popular Prairie School style.
Nearby, on the former Wellington Hotel site at the corner of Wabash and Jackson Boulevard, Carrie Munn financed the building on her property of Lyon & Healy’s elaborate ten-story building, regarded as “the world’s largest music house” during the summer of 1915. Lyon & Healy designed “the finest harp in the world.”
For many years, the Munns reserved summers for Bar Harbor, Newport or Europe, until they began spending more beach days on Boston’s North Shore at Manchester by-the-Sea.
House of Munn. Palm Beach, c. 1933
Noel Spencer Munn, seated center, was the last surviving son of Londonderry’s John and Patience Orr Munn. Noel died in 1946 and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach. He and his brother Charles Alexander Munn arrived in the United States during the early 1870s, settling in Chicago in 1875. Following his brother Charles’ marriage and move from Chicago to Washington, Noel continued to work in Chicago, living in suburban Evanston. In his later years, he remained close to his nephew Charles Alexander Munn Jr., pictured far right, spending every season at Palm Beach. Noel, a bachelor, is pictured above in the early 1930s at The Breakers’ Seaside Cottage, an Uncle and Great Uncle to everyone in the photograph.
For further information on Northwest Ireland family history:
Tower Museum, Union Hall Place
Derry BT48 6LU
Tel: 028 7137 2411