WEST LOOP — Today, staring up at the massive, four-story red brick condo building at the northeast corner of Adams and Aberdeen streets, you would never know that it was once the site of the “finest house west of New York.”
The house boasted a black walnut entryway arch hand-carved by Bavarian artists and a breathtaking Carrara marble mantle. It had its own Gothic-Moorish-style conservatory filled with tropical plants and an elegant fountain in the garden where water flowed with tranquility. Famous Austrian painters created stunning works directly on the walls.
It was a feast for the eyes and a dazzling display of wealth. And it held many secrets.
Things at the Peter Schuttler homestead, 1047 W. Adams St., weren’t always as they seemed. Despite the Schuttlers’ aristocratic status among Chicago’s elite inner circle of business and industry magnates, the family’s picturesque life — outwardly symbolized by their extravagant mansion — would become shrouded in darkness and repeated tragedy caused by what reports of the time speculated as an “ancient curse.”
Besieged by untimely deaths, mental illness and a house so haunted it caused riots in the quiet late-1800s streets, the tale of the Schuttler family and their mansion is one of Chicago’s most tragic and mysterious.
Wagon King Of Chicago
Like most, this story begins with a hopeful dream.
Peter Schuttler was an ambitious German without much money to his name when he immigrated to America in 1834. Having been trained in the art of wagonmaking from a young age in his home country, Schuttler began working in a number of small shops in New York and Ohio before he saved enough money to move his small family to the budding city of Chicago.
In the early 1840s, Schuttler established his own wagon factory at Randolph and Franklin Streets, where his team could produce full wagons in-house. The culmination of the California gold rush and use of the Oregon trail helped him earn a reputation for reliable wagons.
But it was an order from Mormon leader Brigham Young, who was leading his group west from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah, that put Schuttler on the map as a top wagonmaker. Later, he would transport supplies to the Union army during the Civil War.
Firmly established as the “wagon king of Chicago,” the industrial genius soon embarked on a journey to create yet another empire: his estate.
The Sinister Power Of Hate
Though known to be frugal, Schuttler was determined to build a house that would eclipse any other in the state.
He set his sights on the northeast corner of Adams and Aberdeen on the highly coveted West Side. Then relatively undeveloped, it was the premier location for indulgent homesteads — spacious, quiet and perfectly removed from the drama and difficulties most others were subject to as the Civil War raged on.
As the story goes: One day Schuttler sought out the land’s owner, William Prescott, with an offer to buy. Due to his modest appearance, he was rebuffed.
Believing negotiations were a waste of time because he did not believe Schuttler had enough money, Prescott declared that he would sell the property for “not a cent less than $17,000” and would not accept any checks or bank notes.
Irritated, Schuttler left. But later in the day, he sought Prescott out again and presented him with the full purchase price — in $1 bills. Later, he would cover the walls of the mansion’s rooms with singles, ultimately drawing the attention of government officials who required the currency’s removal.
Some speculate this is where it all went wrong.
A 1913 article in the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper by reporter Mary Dougherty theorized that a generations-long curse began after a “bitter feud” over the property when it was first acquired, fueled by the “sinster power of the hate of Peter Schuttler’s enemy.”
A hate so fierce, legend has it that it invoked a supernatural force of evil that would attach itself to the Schuttler name and home for decades.
Still, with the land in pocket, Schuttler’s family home began construction in 1863 and would take nearly three years to finish. But just two weeks before its completion, the home would claim its first victim: Schuttler himself.
The Most Magnificent Building
Schuttler died in the nearly finished house on Jan. 16, 1865 after being stricken with an illness for five days. It was a massive loss for the family and for the city, who regarded him as one of the great businessmen of the time. Before his death, Schuttler was one of only three Chicagoans who had to pay income tax for making over $100,000.
“Strictly attentive to his business, steady and upright, he has gradually extended his manufactures until at the time of this death, his was one of the most extensive establishments in the Northwest,” his obituary read. “The progress of his business may justly be esteemed an index of the growth of our city, with which Mr. Schuttler has been so closely identified. He had nearly completed his new residence, (the scene of his decease) the most magnificent building in Chicago.”
Shortly after Schuttler died, his dream home was born.
The house at 1047 W. Adams St. (then 301 W. Adams St.), was nothing short of an extravagant spectacle of riches.
Designed by J.M. Van Osdel, the Italianate Victorian villa was inspired in part by ex.-Gov. Joel Matteson’s mansion in Springfield. It showcased the finest in everything: expensive Philadelphia brick, hand-chiseled ornamentation, a grand staircase formed from pure white marble and a ballroom with polished cedar floors.
It was decorated with a white and gold scheme in the period style of Louis XVI and was peppered with copper statuettes and porcelain French vases.
The dining room, lit by colorful cathedral stained glass windows, was covered in mahogany paneling and carved figures that “give the room an appearance of stately grandeur such as may be seen in the ancient castles of the royalty of Europe,” Dougherty wrote.
The sweeping grounds were green and lush, with a wide yard filled with trees and fragrant flower gardens. Statues and fountains gave no hint to the economic and social turmoil of the time.
It was a haven of romance, a daydream come to life that flouted the poverty outside its black gates. Interior decorator Charles D. Lunceford remarked that it had been host to “great social functions” and that it was “in the evening a veritable house of a thousand candles.”
It also had a watchtower — oddly tall and foreboding for the fanciful fortress, always looming in the sky over the neighborhood. Like a widow’s walk without the walk, the tower contained a large room and had long concave windows imported directly from Paris.
Who could have known at the design’s conception that Mrs. Dorothy Schuttler would become a widow before the home was even complete? And it was there, in the tower, that she would be confined for the rest of her life, and maybe beyond.
Its cost, land and all, reached half a million by the project’s end — an estimated $1.2 billion today.
After his death, Schuttler’s family continued living in the home and in other properties on the estate. But, while his body would be interned at Rosehill Cemetery, the same can’t be said of his spirit.
The House Of Usher Of The West Side
Five days after Schuttler’s death, his son, Peter II, was appointed by a Cook County judge to become executor of his father’s estate. By now, he was also heading the wagon empire.
The same judge had deemed Mrs. Schuttler “insane” and “therefore an improper person” to administer the family’s endowment.
Suffering from mental illness, Mrs. Schuttler had been bound to the tower and kept under “constant surveillance” until her death. Peter II had chosen to relegate her there rather than send her to an undignified asylum.
While in the tower, rumors formed that her husband’s “unsatisfied soul” visited with her at night.
The home absorbed another life in May 1888 when Dorothy Schuttler died there. It was believed that she took her own life in the tower, though her family denied it.
After her passing, the home was abandoned by her children and “immediately vaguely weird tales began to circulate,” Dougherty wrote. It was said that rather than deal with the possible ghosts, they would leave the property altogether.
The family reportedly tried to sell the house out of the family name, but more than once “the transfer was about to be effected, when, like the grim emissary of an implacable destiny, some unforeseen circumstance would intervene.”
“So long as the property remained in the possession of the heirs of Peter Schuttler, the malevolent powers would unrelentingly exact their toll of misfortune from all who might own or occupy it,” Dougherty speculated.
Neighborhood children started coming home with tales of strange noises and seeing “ghostly forms that frowned and beckoned” as they “flitted in the twilight up and down the marble staircases or glided in the terror of hobgolin menace through the shadowy rooms of the tower.”
Purported witnesses recalled seeing two figures — a man and a woman, both old — that “seemed to resent the intrusion into their abode of mystery and silence.”
Parents went to investigate for themselves, and “seemed to corroborate” the kids’ stories, while “scores” of other people in the area reported seeing the figures, too. Also reported were “strange lights flashing from the tower windows or moving mysteriously from room to room,” although skeptics have said light reflecting off of the concave shape of the tower’s windows could be an explanation.
For over 50 years, the house sat deserted. It became the textbook definition of a haunted house: overgrown weeds, broken windows, and every surface covered in dust. Gnarled steps, porches, barns, and outhouses were beyond worn and on the verge of collapse.
“Those who visited that part of town for the first time looked in wonder at the desolate old structure which stood like a dim memory of better days — like a proud old aristocrat fallen upon evil and threadbare times,” wrote Dougherty.
The house especially “aroused the curiosity of the crowds who traveled on the street cars to the ball games on the Cubs’ grounds.” Conductors would report that everyday they would get inquiries from riders who asks about the history of the house and why it had fallen into such disrepair
“Its very appearance holds out sinister suggestions,” the paper posited. “It has been called the House of Usher of the West Side. It seems a proper stage-setting for any dark and romantic tale such as the wild imagination of a Poe might have conceived. If ever a house looks haunted, it does.”
At one time, interest in the “ghost stories was so wide that travelers were urged to include a trip to Chicago’s ‘haunted house’ on their sight-seeing itinerary,” the paper recalled.
Police even had to disperse crowds “gathered to watch the ghosts at the midnight vigil.” On New Year’s Eve of 1899, police officer John Wheeler said he received a call for a riot on Adams Street.
“I jumped out of my buggy and elbowed my way through the crowd,” Wheeler told the paper. “Sure enough, there were strange lights coming and going in the tower windows, and for the first and only time in my life I really believed in ghosts.”
As time wore on, the “old Schuttler place became more of a scarred relic than a public eyesore,” wrote Richard C. Lindberg in his book “Tales of Forgotten Chicago.” The “intriguing, other-worldly tales made it a popular tourist attraction.”
Almost Like A Murder
Eventually, the home finally had another iteration as a boarding house where rooms could be rented by the week or month.
It was then bought for a fraction of its original worth by Charles T. Luckew at $125,000. Luckew turned it into a commercial laundry and later, its final form was as a livery stable.
In 1912, the mansion was stripped of its treasures with axes, chisels and hammers.
“It’s almost like a murder,” said interior decorator Lunceford. “I knew this old house when it was a place of pomp and splendor.”
Animals were now inside and a blacksmith shop had been established in the dining room. The hand-painted murals sat as a faded backdrop to “weary old dray horses” that “now much their evening meal of oats and corn, totally oblivious of the exquisite and expensive paintings that form the ceiling of their stalls.”
The grand ballroom’s once-shiny cedar floors were covered with hay and grain.
“The famous old Schuttler home … the reputed rendezvous of ghosts and avening spirits, the tales of whose nocturnal vigils have furnished amazement and amusement to three generations of Chicagoans, has finally found a purchaser who has no fear of the curse which tradition says has brought to ruin and desolation the once magnificent residence,” Dougherty wrote.
Still, even passersby unfamiliar with the home’s luxurious beginnings “cannot fail to be impressed with the faded grandeur of the property and the incongruity of the sign that now defaces the massive oak doors, through which in days gone by thronged Chicago’s beauty and fashion,” Dougherty wrote.
In 1913, the property was purchased by Stanley Fields and A.B. Jones, who razed the homes and constructed a 4-story mercantile building at the site.
Today, they’re condos.
“The finest private resicence of the Civil War period west of New York City was no longer habitable,” Lindberg wrote. “Work horses rested comfortably on the beds of hay where Chicago socialites once dined on breast of squab … There seemed to be a general agreement among superstitious believers in the paranormal that the building had a curse attached to it. A tragic sequence of events over the next fifty years lent an element of plausibility to the whispered rumors.”
Under Ban Of Ancient Curse
Whatever misfortune had robbed Schuttler of enjoying his palatial grounds seemed to stick around long after the home was gone.
Had it been haunted by ghosts — the trapped souls of humans who had once inhabited it? If so, perhaps the bad luck would have fallen with it. Instead, the Schuttler family continued to be struck by tragedy.
In addition to Peter and Dorothy’s deaths in the house, at least three of their grandchildren died horrifically.
Peter II’s son Carl “plunged” from a sixth-story window at the Chicago Athletic Association in full view of entering patrons and attendants. Newspapers reported that his brother Walter said Carl had experienced “nervous troubles” for some time and had just returned a week earlier from the Sacred Heart Sanatorium in Wisconsin. His nurse said he was sitting on the window sill and “tumbled out” when she walked in. His brother believed he had fallen from a “dizzy spell.”
At the time, Carl was a bachelor who was vice president of the wagon company. He had made plans to return to the sanatorium.
Peter Schuttler II died of an illness while on a hunting trip in Germany.
Meanwhile, Peter II’s brother, Henry, lost both of his children: His daughter would die by suicide in their Oconomowoc, Wisconsin home in 1895, and in 1919, his son Frances tripped and fatally fell down the stairs after returning from service during World War I.
In the next generation, Peter III would also lose both of his sons to suicide.
At the age of 14, his son Richard died from a mysterious self-inflicted gunshot in the back of his head, and his other son, Peter IV, took his life in the bathroom of his mother’s Lincoln Park home, where he had been living after a divorce. According to his mother, he had suffered from serious “drinking bouts” and had thrown a tantrum earlier in the day. A cornoner’s jury concluded a verdict of “temporary insanity” at the time of his death.
Ten years later, his son, Peter V, also killed himself. A World War II veteran who had returned from the Battle of Iwo Jima with serious injuries, Peter V was known to police due to reports of domestic violence. At the age of 26, he fatally shot himself in the bedroom of his Skokie home.
Lost In The Fog Of Time
The story of the Peter Schuttler mansion and family tragedies is one so surreal and disturbing it screams “eight-part Ryan Murphy miniseries.” It’s an American horror story in real life. A beautiful dream turned nightmare.
Yet, given the context of the time, their story may not be all terror and ghouls. It’s likely that the rapidly changing city and country at-large were factors in why the Schuttlers abandoned their home. Not only had its reputation changed from magnificence to tremendously depressed, but the quiet area was about to be subject to new horse-pulled street cars that would clankily roll down Adams Street for a term of 99 years.
Residents were frightened by the prospect of poor working-class families having access to the neighborhood — the implication being that they would bring crime and poverty into the area. Industrialization of the area began to grow as well, with new factories and office buildings popping up alongside mansions from a bygone era.
Slowly, the old aristocrats began to leave the area and disperse elsewhere — leaving their mansions and secrets behind.
So why, then, did Peter Schuttlers’ descendants continue to suffer, generation to generation, decades after the home was demolished? Why were they being punished so severely by the iron fist of fate?
Perhaps the insidious spectre of hereditary mental illness is to blame. Perhaps it was a family legacy that, destroyed by the invention of the automobile, was simply too hard to live up to and fade away from.
Or maybe the pressures of world wars, failed relationships and an accumulation of everyday problems that we’re all crushed by from time to time became to much to bear. It could be all of the above.
Lindberg may have said it best:
“What is one to make of this sequence of tragic deaths?” he wrote. “At the center of this Shakespearean ghost story lies a riddle and a family curse (if one is inclined to attach superstitious belief to such improbable happenings). We may never find out. It is a Chicago mystery lost in the fog of time.”
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