While the bill to ban Chicago’s horse drawn carriages seems mired in the murky backwaters of City Hall, another more insidious threat looms. Chicago’s runaway construction boom has forced 2 of the city’s 3 carriage companies out of their home at the old Noble Horse Theatre.
Dating back to the late 1800’s, the two-story stable at 1410 N. Orleans was one of several built for access to the riding paths of nearby Lincoln Park. Over the years, the others disappeared but the Orleans barn survived, at one point becoming an auto chop shop. An enterprising horsewoman later converted the garage into a small riding stable, which offered limited boarding and riding lessons (showjumper Kent Farrington was an early student).
After Mayor Jane Byrne reintroduced commercial horse drawn carriages to the city in 1980, Dan Sampson and his father were invited by the barn owner to move their company, Coach Horse Livery, into the facility. Sampson later purchased the entire property, renaming the stable and his company The Noble Horse. Along with the boarding and lessons, Noble operated 25 carriages in the downtown area and dominated the heyday of the Chicago industry.
The Noble Horse fell on hard times in 1991, and Clyde Engle, the owner of Coronet Insurance, purchased the bankrupt Noble Horse properties including a farm in LaSalle County Illinois, allowing Sampson to continue business as usual.
Ironically, Coronet went bankrupt in late 1996 and the property was seized and set for asset liquidation by the Illinois Department of Insurance. Sampson went to court and challenged the sale of the stable, hinging his argument on the historic value of the property. He won the right to purchase the barn with a bank loan for $1.5 million and a $275,000 investment by a group called “friends of the stable.” His goal? Expand the arena and build a 500-seat theater to host equestrian events and house a medieval dinner show.
By 2000, the plan was a success and The Noble Horse dinner Theatre became a quaint addition to the neighborhood.
Alas, Sampson failed to keep up with his loan payments, and the owner of the neighboring Marshall Fields housing project, Sheldon Baskin, picked up the bank note. Baskin hoped to turn the housing project into condominiums, earmarking 1410 N. Orleans for a parking structure. He allowed Sampson to stay on and The Noble Horse again survived.
But in 2008, the economy tanked and so did Baskin’s construction plans. He no longer needed the Orleans lot, but shrewdly sat on the property until the market recovered. The Noble Horse limped on, but slowly the requirements of maintaining the facility, the carriages, the horses, and the staff took its toll.
In 2011, Antique Coach & Carriage moved in to the stable, sharing space with the now-failing Noble Horse. By 2014, Sampson’s theatre and carriage company had run afoul of the city a few too many times, failing to secure the proper licenses necessary to legally continue public shows and carriage operations; The Noble Horse carriage company relinquished its licenses and went out of business. The theatre followed shortly thereafter.
On February 6, 2015 arsonists broke into the stable on Orleans, deliberately torching 14 carriages and vandalizing the barn. Antique Coach & Carriage owner Debbie Hay salvaged her company by replacing her 12 carriages. Despite cries of insurance fraud, the carriages were never insured for fire damage, and the business shelled out over $100,000 to stay afloat. The other 2 belonged to Great Lakes Horse and Carriage, and owner Jim Rogers struggled to replace carriages, as well. The FBI still has no suspects despite a $10,000 reward.
Adding insult to injury, Chicago’s real estate market rebounded in 2015. Fueled by a record setting property tax, the rising popularity of the stable’s Old Town neighborhood, and a red-hot development plan called the Sedgewick Corridor, investors have offered Baskin $9 million, a price far beyond the means of small business owners like Hay and Rogers. As of April 1, the last original horse stable in the city of Chicago is set for demolition.
The fate of our urban carriage horses closely mirrors the rest of the horse industry. Without society’s commitment to protecting the open spaces suitable for farms, riding trails, and equestrian parks, and earmarking real estate affordable enough for small business owners like carriage companies, riding stables, and livery outfits, those of us passionate about our horses will soon find ourselves gone the way of 1410 N. Orleans—plowed under to make room for a modern existence of overcrowded monotony.
Both Antique and Great Lakes have struggled to find appropriate housing for their businesses. The same economic storm that gobbled up the old barn makes new property almost unattainable. Hay finally managed to secure a small space but the distance from downtown is a whopping 3.8 miles, or an hour by horse. Rogers has a small space to store his carriages but must truck his horses to and from the city for work.
Article originally published by CONA