April has been designated as Fair Housing Month to commemorate and celebrate the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This landmark legislation was part of the Civil Rights Act of that year and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or family status.
During this tumultuous time, Baird & Warner — the nation’s first and Illinois’ largest family-owned real estate services company — was led by John Baird, the father of our current president, Stephen Baird, the firm’s fifth-generation owner.
Studying and honoring our past helps us better understand the challenges faced by previous generations of Chicagoans and the ongoing struggle for equality, inclusion, and a just society.
Let’s explore Baird & Warner’s unique, 168-year history and the vital part our organization has played in bringing diversity and equity to the Chicagoland housing market.
Building Our Community
In 1855, the illustrious Chicago City Council decreed that the street levels should be raised to safer heights (4 to 14 feet) above Lake Michigan to alleviate the constant flooding, drainage issues, and resulting health hazards.
The country’s best engineers flocked to the area to undertake one of the most massive civil projects the nation has ever seen, using the latest hydraulic technology and dozens of men to lift buildings and reinforce the foundations.
That same year, a new real estate venture was founded by an enterprising young businessman named Lucius D. Olmsted. Five years later in 1860, he formed a partnership with Lyman Baird, another recent transplant from New Haven, Connecticut, and Olmsted’s childhood pal.
When Olmsted tragically passed away in 1862, Baird brought his friend Francis Bradley to the team, and the firm worked tirelessly to help local businesses meet the Union’s military and civilian needs as the Civil War raged.
The city boomed in the post-war era, reaching a population of almost 300,000. Baird & Bradley oversaw the land purchase for Union Station as train travel brought vast numbers of people from Europe and beyond, determined to head west and seek a better life.
On the evening of October 8, 1871, a fire broke out on DeKoven Street on the city’s southwest side, spreading quickly in the unseasonably dry weather. It destroyed more than 17,000 buildings, killed almost 300 people, and left one in three residents without a home.
Baird & Bradley’s office at 90 LaSalle Street was reduced to ashes, except for their company safe that had been built into the brick foundation, which contained almost two decades of area property records, titles, land surveys, and ledgers. These critical documents were invaluable to the city’s recovery efforts, known as the Great Rebuilding, and the organization raised millions toward the construction of some of Chicago’s most well-known architectural wonders.
Confidence in the Future
Twenty-two years later in the midst of the Gilded Age, the younger generation (including Lyman Baird’s son, Wyllys, and brother-in-law, George Warner) reorganized the brokerage and became officially known as Baird & Warner in 1893.
George and Wyllys served on the Chicago Real Estate Board and supported Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of idyllic Jackson Park as the perfect location for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.
This important event featured new buildings in the Beaux-Arts and neoclassical styles, as well as stunning technological marvels like an elevated train line, electric lights, internal combustion engines, and the “Chicago Wheel.”
But the fair also exemplified racist policies of the time, with journalist, educator, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ida B. Wells leading protests against the exclusion of African American exhibits.
As the city grew exponentially, Baird & Warner continued to support the construction of more affordable housing and expanded its services to help local residents and hopeful property buyers through WWI, opening new community branches in 1917 and 1921.
During the Great Depression, Chicagoans faced soaring unemployment, homelessness, and many banks that had invested heavily in mortgages failed. When the Federal Housing Administration was created in 1934, the real estate industry began to bounce back and Baird & Warner was there to help young families and returning GIs find the ideal home.
Taking a Stand
John Wyllys Baird came on board in 1946. Sixteen years later, he made an impassioned speech to the City Council and appeared before the state General Assembly in defense of antidiscrimination laws and his belief that all people deserve equal access to housing.
The Council passed the Fair Housing Ordinance in 1963, but the Chicago Real Estate Board filed a lawsuit opposing it, stating that property owners should have the right to dispose of their property as they saw fit. Baird resigned from the board in protest, writing that fair housing should be the law of the land “if this nation is going to survive as one of the great free nations of the world.” He received hate mail and verbal abuse for going against city leaders and powerful property owners but never wavered in his dedication to equality.
Today, Chicago’s best brokerage continues to fight for the underserved. In 2021, the John Baird Scholarship Fund was established for students at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Law who work in the school’s Fair Housing Legal Support Center & Clinic.
“Baird & Warner has always sought to be part of the solution. And given where we are right now as a city and country in the fight for fair housing, the timing felt right for this type of commitment,” said Stephen Baird, President and CEO.
The scholarship is funded in part by Good Will Works, Baird & Warner’s philanthropic arm, which has also announced a multi-year partnership with the Chicago chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
Since 2002, Good Will Works has raised nearly $3 million for Chicagoland nonprofit organizations dedicated to fair housing and racial equity. Our brokers enjoy a variety of meaningful volunteer opportunities, as well as mentorship, highly personalized support, and access to an unbeatable AI-powered real estate tech stack.
If you’re ready to find a true work/ life balance and a company culture where you can have the freedom to pursue your passions, reach out to us today!