By Steven Hill

A century ago, Emma C. Kennett defied the norms and expectations of her era. To support her family, she chose to make her mark in an industry where women were rare and challenges many.

At the start, she had the ambition and courage to partner with J.F. Rousseau, an African American bricklayer. Together, they built a construction business from 1923 to 1932 that would be valued at $90 million today. Over her career, she built 150-plus apartment buildings, 80 in Rogers Park/West Ridge, leaving a permanent mark on our community.

Mrs. Kennett was born Emma Cecele Anderson on February 9, 1891. Her parents, John Anton Anderson and Karen Marie Andersen, immigrated separately to the United States as young adults. Her father came from Sweden and her mother from Norway. They married in 1882 and had six children: Andrew (1884), Hannah (1886), Carrie Marie (1888), Emma Cecele (1891), Mabel (1900), and Walter (1902). In 1910, the Andersons lived at 2035 N Sawyer Avenue, in Logan Square. John Anderson operated a blacksmith shop, and Emma, at 19 years old, was a bookkeeper in a real estate office. [1]

Her husband, James Covington Kennett, came from a long-established Kentucky family. James grew up on a farm in Pendleton County south of Cincinnati. His mother, Agnes Martin, had family ties back to colonial Massachusetts. She and her husband William Kennett had four children: Clara (1876), Martin Floyd (1878), James Covington (1881), and Charles (1887). By 1910, James and his brother Martin had relocated to Chicago and lived at 713 North State Street. Martin was married, James, single, and they both worked as restaurant waiters. [2]

On the evening of Saturday June 30, 1913, Emma C. Anderson and James Covington Kennett were married at an outdoor wedding on her parents’ property at 2035 North Sawyer Avenue. The maid of honor was Emma’s sister, Carrie Anderson. The best man was James’ brother Martin Kennett. Emma’s youngest sister Mabel was the flower girl.[3] After the wedding, James and Emma begin life together in Uptown at 915 Lakeside Place, which at that time was only steps from the Lake Michigan shoreline. [4]

Emma Breaks from a Traditional Female Role

Soon after marriage, Emma set her career aside to care for their young family. They had three children together: James Covington Jr. (1914), Maynard William (1915), and Joyce Cecele (1919). By 1920, they had moved to 828 West Leland Avenue. James still worked as a waiter and Emma took care of the household and children.[5] But, as the Kennett family grew, by 1922, the Kennetts found their economic situation strained. To help support them all, Emma went back to work in real estate. She took a job with D. E. Mulvey & Company, a well-established real estate and construction company in Chicago. In their classified ads, the company promoted apartment building ownership with messages like “Why not be a landlord, instead of a tenant?” [6]

Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1922. First E.C. Kennett ad,
Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1922. Last D.E. Mulvey Kennett ad,

To support her job, James may have taken evening shifts at the restaurant to care for the children while Emma worked days, or her employer may have provided support. Most D.E. Mulvey ads named salesmen representing the properties, but beginning in 1922, names of women such as Mrs. Woods or Mrs. Long began to appear. In June of that year, the first ad appeared saying “Write or call for further particulars. E. C. Kennett” but soon ads referred to Mrs. Kennett. [7] In September 1922, Emma’s father passed away at the age of 72. [8] The next month was her last appearance in D.E. Mulvey & Company ads. Perhaps her father’s death changed her financial situation or perhaps her success at D. E. Mulvey provided the necessary resources.

In any case, by the following April, Emma had a new business. Classified ads for the Kennett Construction Company began to appear.

The business apparently went well from the start. The Chicago Tribune ran an article in 1927 titled “Woman Builder Wins Fortune in Three Years.” In a patronizing tone, it reported Emma’s rapid rise from “a purse as well stocked with Uncle Sam’s delightful greenbacks as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard” to head of a multi-million-dollar construction business in just three years.

Her first projects were three two-flat structures on Arthur Avenue at the southern edge of the Edgewater Golf Club, a short chip shot from the tee box of Hole #2 at today’s Robert A. Black Golf Course in Warren Park. Two of the modest two-flats, likely built from the stock plans, still exist at 2050 and 2114 West Arthur Avenue. According to this report, “Mrs. Kennett personally supervised the work, which involved considerable difficulties, as much of the material had to be dragged across prairies.” [9]

The permits for these buildings show different owners but both list ‘J. Rousseau’ as the contractor. Some sources name Joseph F. Rousseau as a partner in Kennett Construction, while in others, he is not mentioned. [10] Rousseau was an African American bricklayer who came from Alexandria, Louisiana in 1912 after hearing that Negro bricklayers could find work in Chicago. In 1917 he became a licensed contractor. [11]

The proceeds of the first three properties enabled Emma to begin construction more on buildings. In 1923 and 1924 she and Rousseau completed at least 30 properties, and advertised to owners of vacant lots suggesting they would profit from hiring the company to build apartment buildings on their properties. [12] Regardless of whether he was a partner or a hired contractor, Joseph Rousseau participated in the construction of Kennett Construction projects until 1932. Kennett also brought her husband into the business and involved her children at an early age. She involved her extended family as well, putting some properties in the names of her sister Carrie or brother Walter as early as 1923.

In 1924, the Kennetts lived at 6644 North Artesian, one of the early properties they constructed.[13] Based on building permits, we know the firm constructed buildings in 1924 and 1925 on Artesian, Oakley and Seeley in the new developing subdivisions radiating from Devon and Western. Those permits named Rousseau as contractor.

Then, in 1926, the business strategy apparently shifted. 1926 permits showed a change in the primary contractor to John Erickson & Sons. These projects were larger and more expensive, and their location shifted north of Pratt Avenue. One development was a set of luxury apartments in the 2300 block of West Farwell. The firm also built elaborate buildings on Jarvis, Seeley, Hoyne and Damon between Rogers and Howard Street west of Potawatomi Park. All were part of a citywide building boom that spurred a rapid change in Rogers Park and West Ridge. Open farmland and large greenhouses were replaced by homes and apartment buildings for the newly affluent middle class of the Roaring Twenties.

With the shift of building in a new area of the city, it made sense for the family to live closer to job sites, so the Kennetts moved into the 2029 Jarvis property after construction in 1927.[14] The 2029 Jarvis property, completed in 1927 is the first project that drew the attention of the real estate columnist in the Chicago Tribune, prompting the article celebrating her success and highlighting her practice of designing her own buildings to cater to the whims of women tenants. Some of the building permits from this period name an architect, but apparently, Emma altered standard plans to create original designs she then had reviewed by a licensed architect. By the end of 1928, her designs looked like large homes, and she named the buildings to reflect their style, again attracting attention in the Chicago Tribune.

She began to realize her vision with five properties on the north side of Farwell between Western and Ellwood (now Oakley) Avenues. Asked about these properties, she replied, “Each of the five buildings is to be different in appearance. The architecture represented will be Old English, Spanish, and Georgian. . . . Take the English one, for instance. The interior will have a lobby of English effect, the dining rooms will be of paneled wood, and the living rooms, too, will be English. . . . In the case of the Spanish buildings, there will be light colored brick work with vividly colored tile trim. Iron balconies will help enhance the idea of Spain, though it must be confessed, the Spanish effects are Florida conceptions.” [15]

Chicago Tribune, ad promoting its classified ads,
Enlargement of Emma’s Letter

Emma must have sensed that 1928 was her year to shine. In May, she wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune to make them aware of how well classified ads have worked for her business. She refers to an ad she ran for just two weeks at a cost of $375 that led to a $278,000 sale. The Chicago Tribune included her letter in a full-page ad that was part of a campaign promoting the effectiveness of their classified pages.

Depression Years Bring Troubles, Personal and Professional

On October 28, 1929, the stock market crashed and by November, had lost almost half its value. [16] The Roaring Twenties were over. Kennett Construction Company classified ads began to taper off over the course of 1930 and 1931. The firm continued to sell apartments, lower rents, or sell entire buildings, in ads that became shorter, perhaps to save cost.

Around this time, Emma, her family and her business underwent major changes. Yielding to the financial pressures of the Depression, Emma and Joseph Rousseau dissolved their partnership and and he eventually prospered on his own on the south side of Chicago. [17] By 1932, Emma appears to have taken full control of Kennett Construction. Around the same time, the Kennetts marriage collapsed in divorce and James Kennett moved to California for his health. Emma became a single working mother of three teenage children, paying alimony to her ex-husband.

Over the course of 1932, the Kennett Construction Company still rented apartments. However, staying solvent was a struggle. In February 1932, Emma had to go to court, unable to pay back a debt of $1,600 to the closed Lake View State Bank. In court, she told the judge that she was divorced and supporting three children while sending her ex-husband $50 a month. [18]

Only five months later, her situation must have improved. She had taken out loans on six buildings on the 7400 block of North Hoyne, including her own six-flat residence, the Chateau Beauvais at 7452-54 Hoyne. The mortage bonds were administered by the Phillips State Bank in Rogers Park, and the bank failed in 1932. The bondholders, unable to claim payment from the bank, were being solicited by several “bondholder protective committees” to help recover their funds, likely taking a hefty commission in the process.

“No need,” Mrs. Kennett told the Tribune’s real estate columnist Al Chase. While she had no list of bondholders, she did have the cash to pay off the loans, and was not in default. She went on to tell the reporter, “I am taking this means of letting (bondholders) know that everything is all right and that cash is waiting for them in my office at the First National Bank Building.” The article went on to explain that she was currently collecting rents of $125 to $150 rents for the apartments, (a healthy sum in 1932) and was managing a total of 17 buildings. [19}

For three years, Emma supported James with monthly checks, and in May, 1935, on her advice, he entered a sanitarium near San Gabriel California after a “nervous breakdown.” A few weeks later, he wrote Emma from Sparks, Nevada to tell her he had left the facility and was planning to go stay with his brother Martin in Alhambra outside of Los Angeles.

On June 16, he wrote again, from a cabin at Emigrant Gap, a miner’s camp in the remote Tahoe National Forest asking for money. His last known address was Auburn, another 40 miles further southwest on the route to Los Angeles, but after June 16th, he went missing.

In August, Emma sounded the alarm when she was notified that Investigators searching for a missing 22 year old boy had found the boy’s body in a flooded gold mine along with a letter from Emma addressed to to James Kennett. [20] A few days later, more searching revealed James Kennett’s body in the abandoned gold mine as well. Investigators tracked down the killer, 21-year-old Earl Kimball, a prospector, and determined he had cashed two of Emma’s checks, forging James’s signature. [21]

News of James Kennett’s death was a national story. He was only one of 25 victims his slayer, Earl Kimball claimed to have killed. A trial ensued on charges of only two: James and an unidentified youth, leading leading to his conviction and hanging at California’s Fulsom Prison in May 1936. [22]

Sacramento Bee, August 23, 1935

About 1933, Emma and her three children moved to a now-demolished home at 6341 N Sheridan Road, [23] which they rented for $125 a month in 1940. In addition to the Kennett family, the household included four boarders and a live-in servant. [24] The mansion was previously the home of Edward S. Shepherd, [25] a resident of Chicago since 1865 and president of Crerar, Adams & Co., railway supplies. He died in the home in 1922, [26] and the house passed to his family. It was eventually acquired by Mundelein College and demolished to make way for construction of Loyola University’s Sullivan Center for Student and Career Services.

By 1935, Kennett Construction Company advertisements fade out completely, and by the end of the decade, the name was apparently changed to Kennett Realty and Construction. This name and the telephone number listed for Emma at the home on Sheridan Road often appeared in ads offering apartments for rent or homes for sale. She was apparently running her business from the family home and boarding house.

On Sheridan Road, the family experienced both happy and sadder events. Mrs. Kennett’s mother, Karen Marie Anderson Jones, who had remarried, passed away on April 17th, 1937 at the age of 75.[27] In 1939, Emma’s daughter Joyce, age 20 at the time, was injured in a serious car accident. She and five other Northwestern University students were driving back to Evanston from a dance and were about ten miles south of Waukegan when a car pulled out in front of them. The driver of the car did not survive and the accident made front-page news in the Daily Northwestern. Joyce and the other students all survived the accident, but Joyce suffered a skull fracture or concussion, and two others were also hospitalized with serious injuries. Emma was traveling to Oklahoma at the time of the accident but flew back immediately to be with her daughter. [28] Joyce’s head injury was significant enough that she was not allowed visitors, [29] and daily updates in the student newspaper described her as “semi-conscious.” [30] Happily, Joyce recovered, and graduated, although it took an extra year to recover from the accident, and on February 28, 1943, she married Ensign Harold E. Penner, an instructor in the air corps. They relocated to Corpus Christi, Texas during the war.

World War II Strikes One Last Awful Blow

In September 1939, WWII began in Europe and the United States began a young men’s peacetime draft. Maynard Kennett completed his draft registration on October 16, 1940, giving his home address as Sheridan Road, but the address for his employer, Kennett Realty and Construction as 7536 N Seeley Avenue, a commercial building at Seeley and Howard Streets. [31]

In 1940, James C. Kennett, Jr. was also employed in the family business, but by 1942 he was serving in the military as a lieutenant. Sadly, only 15 days before the end of the war in Europe, on April 23, 1945, he was killed in action in Italy. “James C Kennett, 31, commander of a mountain infantry company, was killed in action in northern Italy. Capt. Kennett, a veteran of the Kiska invasion, had been in the army three years. Before that he headed a real estate company. Capt. Kennett was a graduate of Northwestern Military Academy and Naval Academy, and Northwestern University.” Emma and his widow, Dorothy Dahl Kennett, accepted a posthumously awarded Distinguished Service Cross on his behalf in 1946 [32] but his remains were not returned from Italy until 1949. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. [33]

Photo appeared in both the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Times, July 27, 1946.

Post-War Life Settles Down and Kennett Businesses Expand

After the war, Kennett Realty and Construction continued under Maynard’s management, expanding operations to newer communities including Lake Forest. [34] Maynard and his family lived in Lake Forest in the company’s Estate Lane development. [35] and Joyce Penner and her family eventually moved there as well, where her husband died in 1964.[36] They all, including Emma, also started spending time in Santa Barbara California, beginning in 1946, where they also engaged in the real estate business.

In 1961, Maynard and Joyce partnered in a company called El Riviera Del Mar, Inc. and purchased the Belmond El Canto Hotel for $530,000. The El Canto was a local landmark, long known for its history as a favorite resort of Hollywood stars in the 1930s. Maynard served as President of the partnership and Joyce as the Secretary. [37]

During this time, Emma lived in Lake Forest near her family and her grandchildren, attending events like Ravinia concerts, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, [38] but as she grew older, Emma spent much of her time in Santa Barbara. She died in there on February 9, 1985 at the age of 94. She is buried in a family plot shared with Joyce, who died in 2004. [39]

Emma C. Kennett was passionate for her country and her freedom. As a child of immigrants, a first-generation American, she worked hard to achieve the ‘American Dream’ by starting her own business and becoming successful in a time when women were not thought capable of undertaking serious business careers. Emma overcame the challenges of being a working mother in a time where men were expected to support their families, and women to be at home caring for the home and children. Her determination and ambition changed the life of her family and carried down generations, making her a noteworthy, forward-thinking, hard-working mother to remember.

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About the author: Steve Hill

Steve Hill, who grew up in small-town Michigan, has always been fascinated with Chicago and his educational background in Urban and Regional Planning bestowed him with an interest in how communities develop, thrive and expand. 

He and his wife were drawn to the Rogers Park/West Ridge neighborhood — where they have now lived for eight and a half years — due to its proximity to the lakefront, its storied history of notable residents and its rich architecture. Hill became interested in neighborhood history when he started investigating the history of their former home, an Emma Kennett condominium building on Farwell Avenue. He has been involved with the Society since the fall of 2023.

As a senior in high school, already proficient in AutoCAD and Drafting and Design, Hill started a Civil Engineering and Survey firm which he worked with for 11 years. He began to learn computer programming and moved his career towards the software development side of the Civil Engineering industry. For the past six years Hill has worked from home running a business where he sells automation apps for AutoCAD based software and custom programming solutions. 

In his free time Hill enjoys tinkering with things in his garage and wood working. He loves drawing and building Lego creations with his daughters. Hill also plays acoustic guitar and recently started playing bass guitar with his church’s worship band. 

For the sources cited in this article click here.