Born in 1833, John DeKoven rose to become one of Chicago’s most prominent citizens of the nineteenth century. He married Helen Hadduck, the daughter of eminent Chicago businessman Edward H. Hadduck. During the 1860s and ‘70s, he worked as a cashier in several banks, including Union-Stockyards National Bank and Merchants’ National Bank of Chicago. (At that time, a bank’s cashier was an officer position, closer to “treasurer” than to our current sense of the word.) In 1889, Byron Laflin Smith invited him to become one of the original shareholders of Northern Trust Bank, along with other Chicago luminaries such as Martin A. Ryerson and Marshall Field.
Perhaps one of DeKoven’s finest hours was his heroic service during the Great Fire of 1871. In a letter to his wife, who was out of town at the time, he describes running around amid the conflagration, waking up neighbors and urging them to flee their homes. He also risked his life by dashing into the Merchants’ National Bank, where he was then employed as the cashier, to save as much as he could from the vault. The whole block was burning, and the bank building itself caught fire moments after he left. Rushing through the hellish streets, carrying a box filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars under each arm, he made it to a colleague’s house and safely stored money and securities belonging to many investors. His own house (then on Michigan Avenue) was miraculously spared, and he allowed over 120 newly homeless people to sleep on his floors. While the city was in chaos during the fire’s aftermath, he and his guests had to eat the chickens his daughter had been raising as pets in the back yard. He told his wife that he was “nearly ruined,” yet he maintained a brave sense of optimism, reassuring her that within three years the city would become greater than it had ever been. The fire had started on the street named for him.
In 1874, DeKoven hired Edward Burling to design the mansion that now houses Biggs. After Helen’s death some years later, DeKoven lived there with his second wife, Annie, until his own death. The house eventually came into the possession of Louise DeKoven Bowen, daughter of John and Helen. Bowen sold it to the Biggs family within a month.
DeKoven was a generous philanthropist with a strong sense of civic responsibility. He served as a trustee or in a position of leadership for St. James Episcopal Church (also designed by Edward Burling), Graceland Cemetery, the Lincoln Park Commission, the Chicago Club, the Union Club, the Commercial Club, St. Luke’s Hospital Board, the Chicago Floating Hospital, and the Second May Festival of 1884. Always a man of discretion and grace, DeKoven preferred to avoid wide renown for his many contributions to the city.