In 1886 a little-known architect was hired by an undertaker’s family to design a Queen Anne-style residence at 303 W. Eugenie. Adam Boos, according to the Real Estate and Building Journal of May 15 that year, would be constructing the three-story building out of brick and stone.
The work was commissioned for the family of John H. Birren, whose father, Henry, had helped settle present-day Old Town when it was little more than sagebrush. A onetime blacksmith to Cyrus McCormick, Henry Birren moved on to building wagons, then began a third enterprise that under his sons would grow into Birren Brothers Undertakers and Livery.
“He thought this would be a better job,” recalls Chris Birren, a fifth-generation embalmer. “Usually funeral directors were furniture makers first, but one day Henry hung out a sign–there were no licenses back then.” Birren Brothers was one of Illinois’ oldest family-run businesses when Smith-Corcoran bought it out in 1985.
In 1869 Henry had also helped start Saint Michael’s Church at 447 W. Eugenie, which was nearly destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Boos became part of the church’s reconstruction crew after he finished the John H. Birren home; he’s credited in the American Institute of Architects’ Guide to Chicago as the designer of Saint Michael’s towering and resonant steeple and went on to design Saint Alphonsus, the church at Southport and Wellington.
John Birren and his wife, Elizabeth, lived at 303 W. Eugenie only briefly. In 1892 they sold the house to a music teacher. By 1910 a saloon had opened one door east and across the street was A.B. Fiedler & Sons, a block-long manufacturer of dress trimmings. The music teacher turned 303 W. Eugenie into apartments and rented them to immigrant laborers.
On the manifest of Titanic survivors, Anna Katherine Kelly of County Mayo, Ireland, listed 303 W. Eugenie as her destination. In 1912 it was home to her cousin Beatrice Kelly, who worked as a domestic servant in the Gold Coast. The Chicago Daily Tribune wrote of Anna Katherine’s ordeal in a story headlined “Horrors of Titanic Haunt Girl Ill After Her Escape.” Anna recovered, and not long after she became a nun with the Dominican Sisters.
In 1919 the music teacher sold the building to Josef Matrisotto, who’d immigrated to America on the Carpathia a few years before it rescued Anna Katherine. Matrisotto was able to secure title through a real estate loan from William F. Temple, a developer of the Trier Center neighborhood in Winnetka.
A number of different owners continued to rent out the building’s apartments over the years. In 1992 Chuck and Diane Brom, who live in Riverside, came across the property. They were looking for a place to buy with their four children, who’ve all lived there at different times between college and marriage. “We thought it would be a nice place to live, and they liked being a block away from Saint Michael’s Church,” says Chuck Brom. The Broms still own the building, though none of their children live there anymore.
Many of Boos’s original design details are still intact, and the building’s architectural highlight is probably the double bay windows featuring leaded glass leaves, flowers, and abstract shapes evocative of Gilded Age greeting cards. In 1996 the house garnered an orange rating from the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, indicating that it’s of local architectural significance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.