Back to Chicago Streets
The Original System
The City of Chicago was composed of Three Grand Divisions, known as North, South and West Divisions. State Street was the main artery to the South Division. North Clark street was the main artery to the North Division. Madison, Randolph and Lake were the main arteries to the West Division.
Streets that cross the Chicago River had the prefix N (for North of the River), and W (for West of the River), but the prefix of S or E was seldom used. Thus, the correct names are Erie and W. Erie, Lake and W. Lake, Clark and N. Clark, etc.
In the West Division, all the streets that cross Randolph have the prefix N or S. Thus, N. Ada, North of Randolph, and S. Ada, South of Randolph. West of Union Park (where W. Randolph ends) W. Lake is the dividing line.
Problems with the Original System
From The Standard Guide To Chicago For The Year 1891:
- Street nomenclature in Chicago is likely to confuse the visitor. It is not clear even to old residents. There is an entire absence of system in the naming of streets, and where a system has been attempted it has only served to increase the confusion. For instance, the streets running east and west, south of the Chicago river, are named South Water, Lake, Randolph, Washington, Madison, Monroe, etc. Now from Washington south it was the evident intention to name the streets after the presidents, but those which are so named are not in the proper order, and Jefferson and Lincoln sts. are on the West Side, running north and south, while Johnson is a little back street in the southwestern part of the city. Streets named after trees, such as Elm, Oak, Pine, etc., are on the North Side, and Walnut is on the West Side.
There is a Lake st. and a Lake ave., the latter miles away from the former. There is a Park ave. on the West Side and a South Park ave,, miles away, on the South Side. We have a Garfield ave. on the North Side, Garfield Park on the West Side, and a Garfield blvd. on the South Side. We have a Washington St., Washington ave. and Washington blvd., each in a different district of the city. So also we have Madison st. and Madison ave. Again, we have Michigan st., Michigan ave. and Michigan blvd., Indiana St. and Indiana ave. etc., etc. There is at present a scheme before the authorities for correcting the nomenclature of streets, but it is so radical as to be unpopular. Practically there is no distinction between streets and avenues. Both run north and south, east and west, and diagonal.
In 1901, a Lyon & Healy bill collector, Edward P. Brennan, wrote a letter to the Committee on Street Nomenclature and suggested that Chicago be ordered as a large grid with a uniform street numbering system, and proposed State and Madison Streets as the city’s primary north-south and east-west axis.
Finally, the numbering system went through a major overhaul in 1908 and an explanation of the new system is given below. Chicagology refereneces to pre-1908 addresses are not converted to the new system except as noted.
1908 Street Numbering Change
By ordinance of June 22, 1908, and by amendments June 21, 1909, and June 20, 1910, Chicago’s street numbering system was revised. Effective September 1, 1909.
The system established two base lines where all numbering began: State Street running north and south and Madison Street, running east and west. 800 numbers were assigned to each mile or 100 numbers to each one-eighth of a mile, and such numbers changed to the next succeeding one hundred at the intersecting street nearest the one-eighth of a mile line. An exception was between Madison Street and 31st Street where 1,200 numbers were assigned between Madison Street and 12th Street, 1,000 numbers between 12th Street and 22nd Street, and 900 numbers between 22nd Street and 31st Street.
Whenever it was advisable, new street names were arranged in alphabetical order; commencing with the letter A in the first mile from the Indiana State Line for north and south streets and from Madison Street for east and west streets north thereof.
For example, the letter K indicates that the street lies in the eleventh mile from the east limits of the city.
Even numbers indicated a building on the north or west side of a street, while odd numbers meant a location on the south or the east side of a street. This numbering scheme is still in use.
- Avenue – Streets running North and South. There are exceptions.
Boulevard – Streets where trucks over 5 tons are not permitted.
Court – Short roadway.
Parkway – Street that ends at a park.
Place – Street running the 1/2 block between streets.
Street – Streets running East and West. There are exceptions.
EVOLUTION OF THE PROCESS
Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1901
STREET NAMES AND NUMBERS.
The Council is to be asked to take up the question of rearranging house numbers on the North and West Side streets, so that the regularity which obtains on the north and south streets in Hyde Park, Lake, and the South Division below Twelfth street may be secured. It will be a decided advantage if something of this kind can be done, but it is doubtful whether a satisfactory worked out and agreed on.
The subject is not a new one. About ten years ago it was thoroughly discussed by the Council and various schemes devised for the application to all the streets of the system of 100 numbers to the block. The great difficulty encountered was the fact that as the lake shore and the two branches of the river do not run due north and south some streets begin numbering much sooner than others do. An attempt was made to get; around this by establishing base lines from which the cross streets might be numbered east and west. After working at the job for a long time the Aldermen gave it up. They would have been more, persistent had there been any pressure on the part of their constituents for a change. There was none. Indeed, the pressure was the other way. The proposed reform would have necessitated the renumbering of tens of thousands of houses at a cost of a dollar or two apiece. This looks like ft small sum, but property-owners have often complained bitterly in the past when called on to make these trifling expenditures.
The hindrances to the renumbering scheme do not apply to the proposition to change the names of several of the streets. There are too many duplicate names which often cause confusion. The same names occur in the old city and in Hyde Park and other annexed towns. It may be found impossible to make all the changes which are desirable. The owners of the property on a Hyde Park street named after some president will be no more willing to surrender that name than the owners of property on a West Side street which bears the same name.
In spite of obstacles of this kind the Committee on Street Nomenclature will be able to accomplish a good deal if it does not try to do too much. The temptation is strong to endeavor to make a great many changes in one ordinance. More will be accomplished by suggesting alterations one by one. Then the opposition to alterations will not be concentrated. Nor should the committee suggest changes in street names without the best of reasons. The substitution of a new name for an old, familiar, and sometimes historic one is a cause of perplexity and vexation to many.
Many changes in street names have been made in the past, where a street had acquired a bad reputation. The theory has been that a new name will regenerate a thoroughfare. The theory has not proved to be true, but many still have faith in it, and changes in names will continue to be asked for to sweeten unsavory streets.
Chicago Record Herald, June 26, 1901
EVOLVES STREET NAMING PLAN
E. P. Brennan Suggests Arrangement for Altering Names and Numbers
Edward P. Brennan, who is employed by Lyon & Healy, has evolved a system which he believes will unify and harmonize the nomenclature and numbering of the city’s streets. He describes the system as that constructed on base lines, the base lines and section lines being those laid down by the old government survey. Yesterday afternoon Mr. Brennan outlined his scheme in something like this fashion:
- The base lines are State street north and south and Madison street, east and west. Their function is the center from which all distances are measured. There is no use disturbing the central downtown district, as the commercial interests would be all up in arms against a change. To leave the commercial quarter untouched, however, would not conflict with the application of the scheme to the rest of the city. Below Twelfth street and beyond the river’s arms the reform could be easily put into practice.
I would have all streets running east and west designated streets, those running north and south avenues. Diagonal streets cutting northerly, like Milwaukee avenue, I would style “roads,” and those bearing south “ways.” Bits of streets east and west should be called “courts,” and north and south “places.” Then anyone would know by the name the the direction of the street.
As numbers beginning across the rivers and at Twelfth street I would call the first lots No. 1000. The numbers then could run to 1300, which mark an old section line and indicate the=at the house and street are a mile and a half from the State and Madison corner. No. 1600 would be two miles and thus No. 20000 and so on should begin.
On the South Side there is a mistake. Twelfth street is really Tenth street, Twenty-second street Twentieth street, and they are respectively a mile and two miles from State and Madison streets.
Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1901
SCHEMES THAT ARE AS PLAIN AS THE CHINESE LANGUAGE SUGGESTED TO SIMPLIFY CHICAGO’S STREET NUMBERS.
When Alderman Charles Gary gets through examining into the schemes for street numbering which are being suggested he will have need of a mild drink to clear his head. The Alderman, who is chairman of the Council Committee on Street Nomenclature is under contract to deliver a new plan of street numbering to the committee when the Council resumes business next fall. It was found to be too big a promotion to dispose of in the hot weather, with the summer vacation coming on.
Numerous aids are to the relief of Alderman Gary. If the views of some of the experts were accepted the “oldest inhabitant” would have to consult at guide book to reach Madison ard State streets.
Alderman Gary’s first plan was to have Michigan avenue instead of the river as the base for South and Southwest Side streets. On the West and North Sides it was proposed to number houses so that they would count a hundred to the block, as on the South Side. One other proposition was to have Halsted Street on the west and Chicago avenue on the north as the starting point. That is, West Side numbers would begin at 1200 at Halsted street and North Side numbers at 1200 at Chicago avenue, as South Side numbers begin at 1200 at Twelfth street.
With this simple plan as a starter the experts have begun figuring, and propositions have been developed for submission to the which would keep a messenger boy guessing for the resL of his days to find streets.
Cbarles Morrell has submitted one of these. In the first place it is suggested, according to this plan, that streets be known by the following terms:
- Lane, Course, Street, Avenue, Road, Way, Aisle, Terrace, Bev, Obe, Inter, Div, Veer, Erv, Mid, Parter.
If you were hunting for 3901 Cottage Grove you would consult your street dictionary and discover that veer is the name of a street running southeast on the South Side. After you had become familiar with the system you would know at a glance that it was a slanting street on the South Side. If it had been a slanting street on the Northwest Side It would. have been called bev, which is Morrellesque for bevel. Milwaukee avenue would be Milwaukee bev.
It you were hunting a number in Ogden obe you would have recourse to the dictionary again and find that obe, Morrellesque for oblique. Is the name of a street in the Southwest Side of the city.
The wholesale flight have some trouble South Wintermid, but after they understood the systen, they would know that South Water mid Is the east end of the east and West base line of the street system and that it was their old friend South Water street In new clothing.
Even more trouble might be experienced with Sedgwick parter. but after some investigation, it Would be found that parter is the name of the north end of a north and south base street. Div would be the name of the south end of the same base. It Would be West Water div.
It Is a beautiful system. Mr. Morrell admits that. The only comparison is the Chinese language, and it took centuries to develop the Chinese language, and it never has been mastered, while Mr. Morrell developed this system in several days.
“By the above scheme,” said Mr. Morrell, “all large thoroughfares of the city would be more accurately and at the same time briefly located than by any other method, besides avoiding a change of names. Furthermore, the simply cardinal prefixes or affixes would be abolished. Nevertheless they Would be retained in another and preferable form, since each term would contain two meanings; as, for example, the term road indicating the east end of a thoroughfare on the North Side of the city.”
Alderman Gary still thinks that a few cool drinks will be necessary before he can reach an understanding of this system with sixteen different names for a street and each with some subtle distinction.
Of street numbering Mr. Morrell says:
- In regard to numbering the houses it is probably better to adopt the decimal system throughout, the same as on the north and south thoroughfares on the South Side. In which event the number should begin with 1200 in each part of the city at the second section line from the base line; namely, at Twelfth street, North avenue, Cottage Grove avenue, and Ashland avenue. Then if the thoroughfare numbering were eventually extended throughout the city the three thoroughfares last named would each be numbered Twelve.
If five figures were found to be too cumbersome, as written at present, the decimal point could be used or the house numbers placed higher than the block ones; thus, 115.28 or 11528, the same as in writing dollars and cents. If two or more numbers were at any time written the dash could be employed: thus. 115.28-115.34 or 11528-11534. This is a matter, however, that will, perhaps, finally correct itself.
After Alderman Gary has digested this plan he has another for consideration. This is somewhat easier, being as follows:
On the West Side begin numbering west from Haisted, starting with 808 at Hals:ed, 1200 at Center, 1000 at Ashland, 2000 at Robey, 2400 at Western, 2800 at California, 3200 at Kedzle, 3600 at Central Park, 4000 at Fortieth, and so on. On the North Side begin with 1200 at Chicago, 1600 at Division. 2000 at North, and 400 numbers higher at each half-mile section street. The latter plan could also be followed out on streets running north from Chicago avenue on the West Side and also use the South Side system on streets running south from Twelfth street.
To follow out the plan it would be to number 100 higher at each eighth of a mile.
Houses between the river and Halsted could bear the old numbers, which would also apply to houses between the river and Chicago avenue on the North Side.
“This plan,” says the inventor. “would enable one at a glance to tell how far he would have to travel to reach a certain number on the West or North Side, as it is now possible to do on the South Side.”
Chicago Daily Journal
September 1, 1909
Map Showing the New House Numbering System in the City of Chicago
Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1908
New Numbering Plan Adopted.
The system of street numbering adopted was that proposed by Supt. Riley of the map department. A subcommittee, of which Aid. Lawley was chairman, reported a recommendation to make Kinzie instead of Madison street the east and west base line and to enlarge the exempted business district to include all territory between the river and Twelfth street as far west as Haisted. Supt. Riley opposed this plan as illogical, unsystematic and cumbersome and succeeded in defeating the report.
The ordinance as approved by the committee provides that all present numbers In the district bounded by the river, the lake and Twelfth street shall remain unchanged. Outside of this territory east and west streets will be numbered east and west from State street and its imaginary projection beginning with No. 1. North and south streets will be numbered north and south from Madison street.
The numbers are to run 800 to the mile in each direction. No. 1600 on the west side in east and west streets will be at Ashland avenue. this being two miles from State. No. 1600 on the north side in north and south streets will be at North avenue, two miles from Madison. In this way the numbers indicate the locality at a glance. The prefixes west and south are abolished. A street name without a prefix will be regarded as west or south of the base line streets. East and north locations will require the prefixes.
Chicago Examiner, April 3, 1909
Renumbering of Houses in 16 Wards Completed
Water Bills to Be Distributed April 15 Will Designate New Numbers, Saving $4,500 Postage.
Householders in sixteen of the thirty-five wards in the city will soon receive their new house numbers, which have been prepared by clerks in the water and map bureaus in the department of public works. The new.and the old numbers will be in- dicated on the water bills which will be distributed April 15.
The renumbering has been completed in the first eight wards and from the Twenty-eighth to the Thirty-fifth Wards. Owners of property will have to make the changes in house numbers before September 1.
W. J. MeCourt, superintendent of the water bureau, said yesterday that 235,017 ledger changes will have to be made as a result of the renumbering. By sending out the new numbers with the water bills, a saving In postage of $4,500 is effected
Chicago Tribune, September 30, 1909
Members of the committee on street nomenclature will swoop through the dignified avenues and boulevards this morning to find out whether the possessors of impressive doors have changed the numbers thereon. If they haven’t conformed with the new street numbering ordinance their names will go into a red memorandum book possessed by Chairman Jacob Hey and later they will be haled into court.
Unless the householders in question recalled at the last minute last night that after Oct. 3 they are liable to legal proceedings for failing to number their houses properly and made the necessary changes suits will be brought against them.
Sentiment In Old Numbers.
Many of the householders along Sheridan road are said to have held the opinion that ordinary street numbering ordinances never could be expected to people whose houses were situated back from the street and in the middle of well kept lawns. .
Some of the numbers on the houses were cut into the stonework when the houses were built; They have come to have an almost sentimental value to their owners.
“If you go in an automobile you won’t be able to see whether the houses back from the street are numbered or not,” suggested a friend of Chairman Hey.
“If we can’t see a number we’ll just run up to the house and take a look at It.” he replied.
See Byron Street Row.
Residents along that part of Sheridan road that the street nomenclature committee says henceforth shall be known as Byron street do not like the name Byron street and some of them have defied the committee on the score of using it.
Another district of the city to receive attention will be that part of the south in which Groveland park is located.
Chicago Examiner, June 2, 1910
The downtown district of the city is to be renumbered if the City Council shall accept the recommendation that, will be made by the Council committee on street nomenclature. At a meeting of the committee yesterday it was decided lo make the recommendation at the Council’s next meeting.
Representatives of the Chieago Association of Commerce were at the meeting had
strongly urged the change. It is expected that there will be little opposition to the measure.
All of Chicago has heen renumbered with the exception of the territory bounded by the main branch of the Chicago River, the south branch of the river, the lake and Twelfth street.
Plan at First Opposed.
When the renumbering began a year ago there was considerable opposition by business men in the loop district to having the numbers of their places of business changed. They declared that they had been established in business at certain addresses for years and that their out of town customers knew these addresses and the old numbers were really an asset of their business establishments.
According to the plan which will be recommended in the renumbering ordinance the dividing line for the north and south numbers will be Madison street.
Starting from Madison street aud running north on State street and other parallel streets the numbers will run No. 1 North State street, No. 1 Wabash avenue, No. 1 Michigan avenue and so on.
State Street Dividing Line.
The south numbers wil! run the same way on the south side of Madison street. State street will be the dividing line for the east and west numbers.
When Alderman Hey and other members of the committee took up the renumbering discussion yesterday to E. C. Ferguson, chairman of the Civic Industrial Committee of the Association of Commerce spoke in favor of the renumbering plan. He declared that President Homer A. Stillwelll, president of the organization, had sent letters to all members of the association asking their views and that not one unfavorable reply had been received.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 1955
BY RICHARD McP. CABEEN
Chicagoans who take their simple house numbering system for granted little realize that 50 years ago residents were confused and strangers were appalled by the system then in use.
New York still clings to a similar antiquated system with numbers starting at the end of each street, but Manhattan is a single unit while Chicago was in three divisions, each with a separate system.
Nowadays it is easy to find a location such as 800 north for we know that this number is on the east-west line of Chicago.av., at the northwest corner of the intersection and that No. 801 will be directly opposite.
Bear Little Relation
Prior to 1909 the numbers on adjacent streets had littie rElation to each other and there was no uniformity in the location of odd and even numbers. The agitation for better numbering covered a long period but the only forward step taken before 1909 was in the south division below 12th st., when the streets were numbered and the house numbers were related to these.
When renumbering became certain it was decided to quarter the city with base lines from which all numbers would start, and to place the odd numbers on the east and south sides of all streets. One number was assigned to each 20 feet of street frontage and the number advanced to the next hundred at each one-eighth mile point from the base. Thus no matter where a street started the number showed its distance from the base line.
The 800 numbers per mile factor was taken from the south side system. for in no other division were the blocks that long, 12 or 16 to the mile being usual. However, all parts of the city except Bridgeport and similar early settlements with irregular layouts had streets at the quarter and half-mile lines of each land section. Numbers advanced to the next even hundred at those streets.
Only 60 numbers were required in each one eighth mile and the remaining 40 number made it possible to handle diagonal streets such as Milwaukee av.
The south division was irregular to some extent, for in the mile between Madison and 12th sts., there were, in theory, 12 blocks, and in the next mile to 22d st., 10 blocks, with nine in the third mile, to 31st st. Beyond that line the normal condition was eight blocks and 800 numbers in each mile.
This condition is a little unfortunate, for had the three miles been standard it would be possible to divide any number in the city by 800 to find the distance from the base in miles. As it is, when numbers have the prefix “s,” a correction must be made, for example, by subtracting 700 if the number is greater than 3100, before dividing.
The selection of State and Madison sts. as base lines was not influenced by early plats or the desires of property owners, but can be charged to the township survey system under which these were the only streets on section lines which crossed the business district.
Since the principal streets thruout the city were on section lines the location of base lines elsewhere hardly would have been considered. The nearest alternates were Halsted st., on the west, and Chicago av., and 12th st., on the north and south, and none of these crossed the heart of the city. Had Clark st. been locataed on such a line there is little doubt but that it would have been selected.
The section lines which became State and Madison sts. bounded the Fort Dearborn military reservation on the west and south, and the reservation embraced all of Sec. 10 lying south of the Chicago river. The village of Chicago did not include the reservation but adjoined it at the west side.
The ordinance for renumbering was passed after a struggle but when approved June 22, 1908, to become effective Sept. 1, 1909, it excluded the district bounded by the Chicago river and 12th st., on the ground that it would be Loo disturbing to business.
However the benefits in the remainder of the city soon became evident and an amendment was passed Sept. 20, 1910, to extend the new system to the area by April 1, 1911.
Area Is Increased
One may ask what could have been so bad about the old system that it was necessary to compel each citizen to put up a new house number and business house to consign its, printed stationery and forms to the waste paper dealers.
In addition to unrelated house number systems in three districts, the great annexations of 1889 to 1900 had increased the area of the city from 36 square miles to almost 190, and had brought in cities such as South Chicago, Englewood and Austin, with complete numbering systems. These duplicated each other as well as that of Chicago in innumerable cases and it was impossible to locate many addresses unless the old village or community name was added.
The 60 odd post offices which served these communities were difficult to assimilate into the Chicago post office and many were operated for years as independent within the city limits until carrier service could be extended to them.
The old numbering system used the Chicago river as an east-west base with numbers progressing northward and southward, and as the city built out farther west this base continued along Randolph st., Bryan pl., and Lake st., to the city limits. The two branches of the river formed an irregular north-south base which was the starting or stopping point for the numbers on all east and west streets in the Lhree divisions.
Map shows present base lines for numbering streets—State st. and Madison st.—in contrast to the confused four divisional system used in 1886.
In the south division bound- Ld by the Chicago river, the south branch, and Lake Mlich- igan, the numbers progressed ; from the river and from the lake with- )ut any directional prefixes. . The n u m b e rs jumped from about 600 to 1200 n crossing 12th st. and beyond vere related to the numbered Atreeis.
The old Tribune building at the southwest corner of Madison and Dearborn sts. was at B6-94 Madison st., and 134-144 Dearborn st. This location now is 31-41 West Madison st., and 1-15 South Dearborn st. The Sherman hotel was at 50-66 Clark st., and 127-141 Randolph st., marked as 150-168 North Clark st. and 100-114 West Randolph st. In a search for a site which has retained its old number, a lone example was found in the Republic building which was constructed in 1902 at 209 State st., now 209 S. State st.
Applied to Streets
In the north division lying between the Chicago river, the north branch, and Lake Michigan, the numbers progressed northward from the river and eastward from the branch, and the only directional prefix used being N. for north. With one exception this was applied only to streets which were continuous in location and name with streets south of the river, these being State, Clark, Market, and Franklin, and to Wells st. also, althoit was called 5th av. across the river. La Salle and Dearborn were avenues in this district and did not require the prefix.
In the west division the street numbers progressed westward from the branches of the river and north or south from the extended base line. East-west streets which were continuous or in line with streets in the north and south divisions and had the same name, used the prefix W. for west. In the northwest sections those which crossed the base line from the south had the prefix N. for north. Only in this part of the city were two prefixes in use.
In the southwest section the north-south streets even tho continuous with others across the base had no prefix, altho it must be recorded that some and others used an S. in their addresses altho the maps did not include it. There was a large jump in numbers on north-south streets crossing the south branch and at Halsted st., for example, the number was about 900 on the north bank and 2400 across the river.
The numbers on east and west. streets also were confused in this area since Hal-l sted st. was 290 West at 16th st., 200 Vest at 18th st., while across the branch it was at No. 600 26th st., this division being numbered from the lake shore.
Thruout the city short or dead-end streets which did not touch a base line usually started with No. 1 at the end nearest the base, but a few streets were reversed completely.
Altho this method of numbering was confusing since it placed No. 1 North av. on the east bank of the north branch, and No. 1 Lake st. at the lake shore, it followed a pattern while the location of odd and even numbers on the streets seemed to be hit or miss.
As a rule, but with a great many exceptions, the odd numbers were placed on the north or east sides of the streets. From 12th st. southward, all east and west streets were exceptions while north of that line the only exceptions were Congress. Lake and South Water sts., Charles (now Lomax) pl. Scott and Bank’ sts., and all streets from Menominee northward. Among the north and south streets, south of the river, Michigan and Wabash were nonconforming, while in the North division, there were Clark, Wells, Larrabee, and other streets east of Halsted.
In the west division the exceptions were Congress, Lake, Walnut and a few short streets and places, and all streets from Chicago av. to Division st., except Thomas, while all north of Division conformed except Bryson. North of the Randolph Lake st. base, Clinton was the only nonconforming street as far west as Ashland, but south of the base none conformed except Loomis and a few short streets or places.
Thruout the older sections of the city odd and even numbers were placed on the same side of a street which had no buildings or lots on the opposite side. Michigan av. from the river to Randolph st. had odd numbers on the west side, but from there to 12th st. odd and even numbers were placed side by side. Even the short section of Washington st. facing Dearborn park Lnow the Public Library) had odd and even numbers and the same was true for Washington place (now Delaware pl.] along the south side of Washington square, between Dearborn and Clark sts.
Reminders of the early system still may be found in numbers carved in some of the early stone buildings or etched in the transom lights above the entrances.