Ask Chicagoist: Wells Street or 5th Avenue?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Mar 28, 2007 2:15PM

The 209 S. LaSalle building has the street names engraved in the stone at the intersections. At Quincy and Wells, though, it says "Fifth Ave" instead of Wells Street. It makes sense, since Wells is 4 blocks from State, but I checked the chicagohistory.org encyclopedia and the 1830 plat of the city has the street labeled as Wells. Was the street name changed to Fifth, and then reverted back to Wells?

Jeremy

2006_03_askwells.gifDear Jeremy,

Actually, yes, you're right. What we call Wells once was called 5th Avenue, but before it was 5th Avenue it was Wells Street. What's in a name, right?

Wells Street was called 5th Avenue from 1870 to 1916. Prior to 1870 it was Wells, and after 1916 it was renamed Wells again, and hasn't changed since (yet). So it makes perfect sense that the 1830 city map said Wells. It also makes sense that the 209 S. LaSalle building (otherwise known as The Rookery Building, one of Burnham and Root's quintessential buildings) is engraved with "5th Ave.," since it was built in 1888.

The reason the name was changed in 1870 was to cleanse the reputation of the street. Apparently at the time Wells was well-known as a street of ill repute — meaning, of course, lots of good old-fashioned houses of prostitution. Chicago City Council voted to change the name so as not to "disgrace the memory of Captain William H. Wells, hero of the Fort Dearborn massacre, and for whom the street had been named." Really? Chicagoist thinks Captain Wells probably could have handled it. We think it's just great that they changed the name of the street they were ashamed of rather than address the potential problem.

With the passing of time, the street changed (maybe it was the name change that solved all the vice problems), and so again did the name. In 1916, Chicago Council voted to change the name of the street back to Wells. Presumably the name of Mr. Wells was tarnished no more, and those 46 years of 5th Avenue could be forgotten as soon as possible.

Rookery Building image via City of Chicago.

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