History comes alive on West Jackson
Architecture from the 1880s
09/25/2012 7:44 PM
Everybody knows the word “rube” is a synonym for a country bumpkin. Did you know the origin of this slang term came from right here in the West Loop?
I learned that fascinating etymological tidbit during a walking tour of the West Jackson historic district presented by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The homes along the tree-canopied block of West Jackson between Laflin and Ashland date back to the late 19th century.
Actually, only those homes on the eastern half of the block are 100-plus years old. The homes closest to Ashland are far newer—built between 1970 and the present—but the design closely hews to their older neighbors.
The older homes in the historic district can run as high as a cool million dollars now, but in the late 1970s, you couldn’t give them away. They were distressed, to say the least. Most of the urban pioneers who took on the challenge of restoring the homes bought them by paying little more than back taxes.
Leslie Recht, one of the homeowners in the district, was among those pioneers. She and her husband spent a full year stripping off the lead-based gunmetal gray paint on their home.
“We’re pretty sure the paint was really left over from painting U.S. battleships,” she said. “There were many hours spent with a razor blade attached to the end of a stick, stripping off the paint on every surface.”
It was a labor of love for Recht and her neighbors to preserve a bit of history from a bygone era. The neighborhood at that time was flush with business leaders, society swells and entertainment moguls—including Flo Ziegfeld.
And getting back to the term “rube.” In the late 1800s, Ashland was called Rueben Street. It was also perceived to be the deep suburbs, way out in the boondocks. That had a negative connotation for city dwellers, so it became common to refer to someone who lived in the country as a rube. An image change was deemed necessary for that tony section of the West Loop, so Rueben Street eventually gave way to Ashland.