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June 24, 2016

Who is Willard Jones Anyway?

So much of Chicago’s history is centered around folklore. Tales such as Ms. O’Leary’s cow causing the Great Chicago Fire, the famed Billy Goat curse being responsible for the Cubs’ decades of futility and Al Capone’s secret vaults are cited so frequently that many have come to take these as fact.Of course, no one knows what is and is not the truth, but these antidotes are certainly fun to share.

Personally, my favorite Chicago legend is that of the Cow Path located in the 100 West Monroe Building. To get the entire history of how this came to be, one must go back to the year 1833.

Still nearly four years away from officially being chartered as a city, Chicago consisted of a sparsely populated rural territory with approximately 350 inhabitants. Fresh off a stint as a carpenter involved in the construction of the Erie Canal, one of the region’s early settlers, Willard Jones, migrated from New York and decided to set down roots. For a mere $200, he purchased several plots of land in the area that today comprises the Central Loop business district of downtown Chicago. Willard proceeded to construct a farm and successfully operated it on this terrain for a number of years.

Chicago was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1837. As the population started to grow and early industry emerged, real estate began to gain in value as early developers looked for ways to utilize land in ways more profitable than agriculture. In response to this phenomena, Willard Jones began selling off parcels of his terrain in 1844 in the surrounding vicinity of what today encompasses Clark Street on the east, LaSalle Street on the west, Monroe Street on the south and Washington Street on the north. On this land, some of the original commercial properties in downtown Chicago were eventually erected and this ultimately planted the seeds for the birth of the Loop business district.

Willard Jones continued to operate a smaller version of his farm in the vicinity of the present day intersection of Clark and Monroe. Amidst the new developments, he needed to maintain a dedicated path for his cows to access a nearby pasture. Therefore, when he sold off these plots of land, he included in the sales deed an easement for cow access. No construction was permitted which would obstruct this “cow path” in any way. As downtown Chicago began to develop over the upcoming decades, the easement was held legally binding by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1925.

When the 22-story office tower known as 100 West Monroe was built on this landsite in 1927, architect Frank Chase had to create an 18-foot high tunnel at the base of the western end of the building, which would be more than adequate in size for cows and any other farm animals who might be strolling through the Loop at any given moment.

In 1937, to celebrate this unique attribute, Mayor Edward Kelly affixed a plaque on this portion of the building which read as follows: “Historic Cow Path: This areaway 10 x 177 x 18 feet is reserved forever as a cow path by the terms of the deed of Willard Jones in 1844, when he sold portions of the surrounding property. Erected by Chicago’s Charter Jubilee and Authenticated by the Chicago Historical Society, 1937.”

While the plaque is long gone and unaccounted for, this unique bit of Chicago history still exists today. However, in 1969 when the Two First National Plaza Building was erected at 20 South Clark, it blocked off the northern end of the cow path. The Chicago Historical Society and Chicago Title and Trust ruled this as being legal and no one ever challenged it in court.

I liked this tale so much that I decided to name my company after it, Willard Jones Real Estate. Given Willard’s role as one of the pioneers and founding fathers of downtown Chicago commercial real, it seemed like an appropriate tribute. Is the story really true? I will leave that for others to determine.