Part Twenty-nine: All that glitters is not gold

Is that the dashing Henry with his dog on the porch of the Furber residence? Several Herald articles note the location of the house to be at 50th and Woodlawn in the 1880/90s. However, one Chicago City Directory lists the home of Henry and Elvira Furber at 4629 Woodlawn Avenue, where Henry did own a large parcel of land stretching east to Lake Avenue. Thus, the exact location of this c.1890 image remains in question. Picturesque Kenwood. University of Chicago Special Collections.

The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics that relate to the residences that currently, or in the past, have defined the urban fabric.

Susan O’Connor Davis

When the Gorham Silver Company moved its manufacturing plant to a more modern facility in 1987, a trove of long-forgotten Victorian silver was discovered. One of the country’s great silver manufacturers, Gorham had been in this Providence, Rhode Island location since 1890.

Over 50 trunks of silver, long hidden from the public’s imagination, were found in the Gorham vaults during the move. Some were treasured pieces owned by Jabez Gorham, the company’s founder, while others were reproductions of famous pieces. However, the crown jewel found tucked away was a lavish silver collection commissioned by Henry Jewett Furber Sr. and his wife Elvira. Filling seventeen trunks, the Furbers’ passion for opulence was reflected in every polished nymph and cherub of the set.

“There’s no question,” commented Jeanne Sloane, the American silver specialist at Christie’s, that the Furber collection is “one of the two most important Victorian silver services in the country.” Each of the 24 place settings of silver and gold contained at least a dozen pieces – from a soup spoon to nut pick. In addition to 132 hollowware pieces, there were various fruit and vegetable utensils, fish and ice cream slicers, cheese scoops and grape shears. Included too were whitebait tongs, whose purpose seems to be lost to time.

And all this monogrammed opulence was last used well over a century ago, at one scandalous dinner party…..right here in Kenwood.

Furber was a self-made man, an attorney and real estate developer who achieved success from early age. He attended Bowdoin College but left in his junior year to become the principal of the public schools in Green Bay Wisconsin, where he married Elvira Irwin in 1862. He was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar that same year and began to practice law. In 1865 he began work for the Metropolitan Fire Insurance Company and moved with his wife and infant son to Chicago that July.

Things moved forward quickly; by the fall Furber was elected vice-president of Metropolitan Life and the family departed for New York City. And some might say that is where the troubles began, for Furber was not an insurance man and reportedly cared little for the insurance business. But he was thought to be a wizard in his ability to make money grow.

In 1874 Furber was elected president of North American Life Insurance as the firm was merging with Universal Life Insurance Company. His charge was to lead it and yet another firm, Charter Oak Life Insurance Company, out of financial difficulties. Three years later, suits were filed against Furber and other officers, accusing them of raiding the Charter Oak’s resources as the firm failed spectacularly.

Investigators found Charter Oak Insurance nearing bankruptcy, and Furber was accused of complicated financial manipulations that profited him personally. It seems the assets of Charter Oak were over-valued and the liabilities underestimated, leading to a deficiency of over two million dollars.

In the midst of these accusations, Furber was hardly lying low. Reacting to the indictments, Furber published a letter in defense of his activities at Charter Oak that was published in the New York Times in January of 1878.

As well, between 1873 and 1879 and in the midst of the accusations, Furber made a series of major and expensive purchases of silver from the Gorham Silver Company store in New York. Encompassing over seven-hundred pieces of silver, this became the largest single commission Gorham ever received. The magnificent dinner service for twenty-four, of sterling silver and 24-karat gold, was valued at over $1 million at the time.

Furber’s silver represented the extravagance of the Victorian era, yet this Neo-classically designed centerpiece shows restraint in contrast to the more highly decorated forms made by Gorham. It was displayed at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and sold by Christie’s in 2014. The auction house estimated the value as between twenty and thirty thousand dollars.

Although indicted on conspiracy to defraud policyholders and misappropriation of assets, by the time Furber stopped buying silver in 1879, he had been found not guilty on all counts.

But by then Furber had literally packed his trunks and headed out of town, destination: Kenwood. His eighteen oak and walnut trunks, and all that silver had found a new home. And Furber joined the staid and respected law firm of Higgins, Furber & Cothran. (You may remember Van Higgins from our Fence Wars story.)

All of this may have been too much for the man. A report in the New York Times indicated that Furber suffered a break-down due to overwork, but by 1881 he had rested and recovered.

As Higgins’ partner, Furber began to amass a fortune in real estate beginning with local property development. Twenty residences just south of 43rd Street, between Lake Avenue and the Illinois Central Railroad were well underway in 1884. According to the Herald, the handsome brick and stone residences were nearly completed that winter and faced onto a paved avenue running south to 45th Street.

Larger projects were in their future. They commissioned the well-known William W. Boyington, the architect of Chicago’s beloved Water Tower, to design at building at the southeast corner of State and Washington Streets. The 14-story Columbus Building, located just south of the popular Marshall Field’s store, opened in 1893 and offered 100 office suites accessed by four elevators.

The successful developer was clearly a bon vivant; the social pages are filled with examples of Furber’s love for extravagance. On New Year’s Day 1885, 150 guests were “magnificently entertained” at the Furbers’ “large and handsome” on Woodlawn and 50th Street. Elegant refreshments were served to the most prominent members of the Kenwood community in the spacious parlors, while the orchestra delivered “unusually good dance music.”

A “smaller” crowd of eighty was invited in February, after an intensely cold and snowy week, for a warm and welcoming evening affair. Following a play presented by the Kenwood Dramatic Club, dancing began, and an elegant and substantial supper was served. These guests lingered until midnight.

For years the Herald continued to report the weekly social news of the neighborhood. On April 27, 1888, twenty-four guests invited to a dinner party at the Furbers’ home- the exact number of the silver place settings. The paper noted the sixteen courses served were “without doubt the finest layout ever attempted in this section.”

According to an article in The Bench and Bar of Chicago, Furber’s taste was “simply princely” and in addition to silver he built a collection of “art and literature of the rarest and most expensive character in the world.” And they travelled. When the Furbers were set to sail for Europe on in May 1888, twenty-two Kenwood friends went to the 22nd Street Station to see them off.

Quite the life, yet difficulties lay ahead.

An 1897 image of Lillian Russell, the beautiful actress who caught the eye of Henry Furber. The singer went through four tempestuous marriages and was equally famous for the men she didn’t marry.
For many years, Lillian Russell was one of the foremost singers of operettas in the country. The voice and stage presence of this blonde, blue-eyed buxom beauty were the subject of a great deal of fanfare in the news media. She was extremely popular with audiences, and perhaps a little too popular with Mr. Furber.

In May of 1893, as the Columbian Exposition was getting in full swing, the Lillian Russell Opera Company began its summer season here in Chicago. The reviews were glowing, “her performances bring delight to all comers,” according to her biography. Lillian’s off-stage performances received much media attention as well. She was a fan of horseracing, visiting Derby Day at the Washington Park track where she was greeted coldly by some of Chicago’s elite. Particularly by women, upset with her appearance at the clubhouse. When asked to leave she was given a private box, and the party moved along with her.

The Furber family history recalls the last occasion on which their magnificent silver collection was used. During a dinner honoring the famous actress, Furber took a fancy to the volumptuous Lillian. Her appetite was famous, and dining among the rich ornament of silver wine coolers, elaborate punch bowls and giant candelabra no doubt appealed to her.

Whatever happened between the five wines and fifteen courses, it did not sit well with the Mrs. For soon after, Elvira Irwin Furber left suddenly for Florence, Italy, where she remained until her death in 1912.

This image of Henry Jewett Furber may have been taken about the time of the Lillian Russell dinner party. The Class of 1861: Bowdoin College, Compiled by Edward Stanwood 1897.
The date of the dinner is unclear, but by 1898 Henry and his son were living in the Lakota Hotel at 13th Street and Michigan Avenue. The beautiful actress went on her merry way, marrying four times while keeping company with another gregarious businessman. This one had a penchant not for silver but for gems, and Diamond Jim Brady reportedly supported Russell’s extravagant lifestyle.

In contrast, for the 15 years after Elvira left, Furber suffered ill-health. Despondent, Henry Jewett Furber committed suicide on August 28, 1916 at St. Luke’s Hospital where he had been a patient for the previous two years. A single shot ended the career said to be one of the “most varied and picturesque,” according to his obituary.

As to the princely collection of silver, Henry and Elvira’s eldest son sold most pieces back to the Gorham Company in 1927. It can be viewed today at the Rhode Island School of Design, only two blocks from where Jabez Gorham started his company in 1831.