Ask Chicagoist: Missing Presidents?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Apr 12, 2007 2:15PM

Can you please explain the order of the streets in the loop? Shouldn't Adams and Jefferson be between Washington and Madison?

-Def L.

2007_04_askprez.jpgWow, Def L., we sure hope you haven't been feeling any hysteria over this question.

More or less, the presidential streets in the loop are in chronological order — but there are some gaps. As of course you have memorized from grade school (right?), the first few presidents were George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Knox Polk and
Zachary Taylor — which mirrors the order of the streets from north to south, Washington to Taylor.

Kind of.

Adams immediately seems to be in the wrong place, but really it's more like John's missing and John Quincy is covered. And Jefferson's not really missing so much as misplaced. You'll find him running north-south rather than east-west. Which seems to cover everyone, except for Tyler, who's completely missing in action as well.

But you probably want to know why the streets are like this? Earlier this year, our work was done for us by Tom McNamee over at The Sun-Times in his weekly column "The Chicago Way." So the first question seems to be why is John Adams missing? McNamee wrote that "one explanation ... is that the local Whigs snubbed him because they loathed his Federalist Party. It would be like Hyde Park passing on a George W. Bush Street." He goes on to admit that it's "an admittedly weak explanation." But we can't come up with another one, and he's the street historian, so we'll go along. He also spends some time talking about why Adams is named after John Quincy rather than John. We won't reiterate that here, because its placement in the street chronology was proof enough for us, but his logic is worth a read if you're interested.

As for Jefferson hanging out in a different part of the city, that's because Jefferson (and Washington, Dearborn and Kinzie) were the boundaries of the first official streets of Chicago, and the presidential scheme hadn't been considered yet. James Thompson, a surveyor hired by the city, named them in 1830. In his article, McNamee quotes historian Ann Durkin Keating as saying that Madison, Monroe, Adams and Jackson weren't named until later.

The final part of all of this, although not mentioned in Def L.'s question, is the missing Tyler Street. Granted, most are probably more apt to wonder who the hell President Tyler even was, not why he doesn't have the obligatory street named after him. Fair enough, and maybe that's even kind of the point. McNamee tells us that Congress Parkway was once upon a time named Tyler Street. Which, before you jump all over us, we realize still puts it out of order.

There are a variety of theories as to why this happened listed in the article, including the idea that there actually was a yet different Tyler Street at one point. We kind of find ourselves liking the theory where people in Chicago just hated the guy so much no one wanted a street named after him. Some say he was a Whig who offended not only Democrats, but other Whigs as well (remind you of anyone?), and other people point out that he served on the Confederate Congress during the Civil War — not a really popular position up here in Chicago.

We just think it's pretty cool to avoid memorializing presidents who were so clearly offensive. We hope we keep that in mind in coming years.

Gilbert Stuart's portrait of John Adams via the National Gallery of Art.

Feeling out of order? Need some advice? Email ask(at)chicagoist(dot)com.