Lu & Jorja Palmer House, 3656 S. King Drive

Source: Lynn Becker/ ArchitectureChicago Plus

With many thanks to Lee Bey (who posted this recently on FB)… the beauty of this house feels like a gift for the New Year. I’m sure I’ve driven by it, but didn’t know its historical and community importance. More of us should be aware of it, and be stirred to do something respectful. To quote Lee:

“This is the Lu & Jorja Palmer House at 3656 S. King Drive. The legendary Palmers have long passed away and the home has been vacant for more than a decade. Given its age (built in 1885), architecture, ownership, history and direct connection to the election of Mayor Harold Washington in 1983, this place should be restored and given a National Register listing and city landmark status. Instead it’s in sad shape. When I took these photographs in October, passing neighbors were asking me if anything is happening with the structure because they didn’t want it lost.

I knew the Palmers and wrote about this building when the Palmers still lived there, back when I was at the Sun-Times …”

Lee’s 2001 Sun-Times article about it: “The 40-room house at 3656 S. King Dr. was built in 1885 by D. Harry Hammer and his wife, Mary Amaryllis Hammer. The family lost its fortune in 1929. Lu and Jorja Palmer own the Hammer house today, but soaring heating bills and fading health have them thinking of moving on.
The mansion doesn’t sit on the corner of 37th and King Drive, it erupts. [my emphasis – I can’t wait to go see it again…]
The 115-year-old brick home is one of those urban palaces built on the margins of downtown after the Chicago Fire. Turrets, gables and fireplace chimneys each take their turn stabbing the sky.
Sometimes architecture is only half the story. A better tale is occasionally found beyond a building’s trim, layout and elevations. But sometimes we don’t see the stories for the frieze.
Ornate 3656 S. King Dr. was built in 1885 by a society couple, D. Harry Hammer and his wife, Mary Amaryllis Hammer. And a prominent pair own it today: political activist and radio talk show host Lu Palmer and his wife, Jorja. Their two stories have been joined by chance_and a city …
Judge D. Harry Hammer got rich in real estate after the Chicago Fire. The Hammers ran with the Fields and McCormicks.
“They wanted to build the largest, most elaborate home yet,” said Bill Thinnes, director of the Hammer Humphrey Memorial Park and Museum in Colorado.
The 40-room house wasn’t the biggest in Chicago. But it was a showplace for an early power couple and their children. Hammer was a Union League member and a founder of Drexel State Bank. Mary Hammer was listed on the Chicago Social Register. She founded clubs, sat on boards.
“No woman in Chicago stands higher than I,” she once said.
Jorja Palmer bought the mansion in 1977 for her son Stanford.
Stanford had been hit by a truck when he was 3. The accident left him with physical and developmental problems, Jorja said. The kids in the old neighborhood were cruel, she said. Stanford swiped fruit from home and offered it to neighborhood kids in hopes of making friends with them.
“I wasn’t looking for a house of this magnitude,” she said. “I was looking a secure place for my child to live.”
The house was expensive, but the owner met Stanford. “She said (to her lawyers), `She wants a sanctuary for her child,’ ” Jorja said. The owner cut a deal. Perhaps she had a motive for wanting some good to come out of the house.
“She and her husband wanted to turn it into a funeral home,” Jorja said. “Their problem was the city would not give them a permit. And two days after he died, they got the permit.”
The Hammers traveled. They visited Europe and toured Cuba and Egypt. During a trip to Colorado, young Hazel fell in love with a newspaper reporter. Mary did not approve. Hazel married him anyway, in 1901, but it cost her: She was cut from the family fortune, Thinnes said.
“But she wanted nothing more to do with that life,” he said.
The Hammers were involved in politics and voting rights. So were the Palmers. Palmer’s Chicago Black United Communities, located in the old coach house, drafted Harold Washington to run for mayor in 1983.
“It happened right back there,” Lu Palmer said. “I would call it the most historic moment in Chicago.”
“Harold Washington and I would sit right there on that floor,” Jorja said, pointing to a space in the mansion’s living room.
D. Harry Hammer died in 1904. The fortune passed to his wife and son but was wiped out in the stock market crash of 1929. Thinnes said they were down to $3,000, documents, letters and momentos. Hazel Hammer returned to the house when Mary Hammer died in 1934.
“She got nothing,” Thinnes said of Hazel. “She managed to run into the house and cut an oil canvas off the wall.”
The work, “Sleighing on Grand Boulevard,” shows society folk riding down Grand Boulevard on sleighs. The Hammer house is visible in the background.
The old mansion was a sanctuary for Stanford. There was room enough to roam and play. The backyard was filled with games. But the house couldn’t protect him from the seizures, physical difficulties, hospital stays and danger. A man once badly beat him up on the corner of 35th and King Drive.
Stanford struck his head in a hospital bathtub in 1982, and died.
“Drowned,” said Jorja. “At 17.”
The Palmers want to move on. Last month’s heating bill was $2,000. Jorja is undergoing chemotherapy. Lu says he is tired; his health and vision are fading. He said he might even end his nighttime radio show on WVON-AM.
“The place has become_because of our illnesses_a white elephant to us,” Lu Palmer said. “It’s become a burden.”
Hazel Lou Humphrey died in 1995 in Evergreen, Colo. She left behind a two-story Victorian log cabin home and 43 acres of land owned by her late mother, the exiled Hazel Hammer. Over the decades, some of the Hammers’ belongings found their way to the log cabin. The property is now a museum and park devoted to Humphreys and Hammers.
The women never forgot the old manse. They wrote about it in diaries and kept old writings from there. Thinnes traveled to Chicago to find the home, but couldn’t. Meanwhile, the Palmers searched in vain for the home’s history.
Until last week, that is. Thinnes found his house, and the Palmers finally learned its history. Thinnes found the home’s address last November and e-mailed the Building Department through its Web site to ask if it still stood. Building Department manager Christopher Lynch set up a meeting with the Palmers.
“The Web site was the key,” Lynch said.
Thinnes and the Palmers traded histories. Thinnes brought letters and pictures_even the baby clothes Hazel Hammer wore in the house.
“Amaryllis?” said Jorja, a former florist. “That’s a flower.”
The Palmers learned that the Hammers left the house during winter.
“I don’t blame them,” said Lu Palmer, smarting over his heating bills.
The home’s basement and first and third floors have been converted to apartments, but the foyer and the Palmers’ second-floor dwelling speak to its past glory. The Palmers’ apartment is all woodwork and arched doorways. A red stone Arts and Crafts fireplace in the building’s entrance foyer is a work of art.
Its inscription:
East or West
Home is Best”

May 2019 be filled with good things, including a responsible, loving steward for this wonderful house!

4 thoughts on “Lu & Jorja Palmer House, 3656 S. King Drive

    • Glad you’re interested. I agree about how cool the story is… house museums like Glessner are incredibly difficult to run well (YAY – Bill Tyre!!) … but the story is so complex it deserves to be told, and often. Maybe Bill would have some ideas?

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