By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
In Hyde Park, the only subject people discuss with more enthusiasm than its notable residents is its architectural heritage. From stately mansions to sleek modern designs, they are a reflection of the diversity of the residents in the neighborhood. In her book “Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park,” Susan O’Connor Davis shares photos and stories of the people who lived in these legendary houses over a 150-year period, from the area’s earliest days to today.
Davis is an independent scholar and a founding member of the nonprofit Kenwood Improvement Association. After working in the design industry for nearly 20 years, she now serves on the board of governors at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.
Davis said it was rumors about the property that she and her husband purchased on the 4800 block of Greenwood Avenue that inspired her to begin working on the book.
“Urban legend has it that the old house on this lot was torn down in error during the Urban Renewal period,” said Davis, who added that the house on a similar lot one block over on Ellis Avenue was also torn down around the same time. “My husband and I searched for information on the old house while excavating for the new house but didn’t find anything.”
However, each spring the legend became more convincing when the soil around their home loosened up and items from the old house such as plates, hinges and bathroom tiles resurfaced, “as if to say, don’t forget I was here,” Davis said.
The search for information on her home peaked her interest to study other houses. Davis said the project initially began as a continuation of Jean Block’s “Hyde Park Houses” but resulted into an independent project. Being neither an architect or a historian, Davis sought the expertise John Vinci, principal of Vinci Hamp Architects Inc., for direction on the project. Vinci is known for his restoration work, which includes Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park and numerous projects for the Art Institute of Chicago. She also commissioned local photographer Kevin Eatinger to take current photos of the houses for use alongside archival images.
Davis recalled meetings at her dining room table with piles of pictures trying to decide which ones would be right for the book. She said she wanted the book to provide the experience of readers taking a “walk down the block as it would have been experienced at a particular point in time.”
Photographs, dates and architectural facts are included in “Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park,” but one of the most gripping features are the stories that are shared about the people who once lived in the houses, including that of the 44th president. The book begins and ends with a narrative on President Barack Obama, whose home is in the Kenwood neighborhood. In the book Davis states:
“As the forty-fourth president of the United States left home for Washington, D.C., his motorcade proceeded under a cold and clear sky typical of a Chicago winter morning … On January 20, 2009 … this unlikely candidate became the most important person on Earth. Three weeks later the First Family came home.”
Davis questioned the significance of this simple act, and sought to understand “what type of neighborhood and what kind of house have the power to draw us with their comfort. In order to fully understand Barack Obama’s chosen community we have to look to the very foundations of the place this multicultural, urbane president chose to call home.”
Narratives such as the resurfacing of household artifacts and anticipated visits by the Obama family are a highlight of the book, and the stories of those who lived in the houses displayed in the book are a sacred feature.
Davis said the Gidwitz Residence, Heller House and the Franks Residence are just a few that have compelling stories.
Williard and Adele Gidwitz, members of the family that owned the Helene Curtis Company, owned the residence at 4912 S. Woodlawn Ave. Inspired by an architectural exhibit the couple saw at the Art Institute they had the house reconstructed from a stately turn-of-the-century, rubble-stone home into an iconic modernist design in the mid-forties.
Ralph Rapson, the architect who designed the house, also conceptualized another modern residence in Kenwood one block north for John B. Johnson, founder and publisher of “Jet” and “Ebony” magazines. At the time the project was designed, African Americans were not welcomed in that section of Kenwood. The house was never constructed.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Heller House, 5132 S. Woodlawn Ave., in 1897. A love triangle led to a tragic end in this house, according to Davis.
“Urban legend has it that an Ida Heller was in love with Wright and she threw herself down an elevator shaft after learning that he ran off with the wife of another one of his clients,” Davis said. “Death records indicated that Ida Heller died on Oct. 11, 1909 from heart disease and shock resulting from what was described as an ‘accidental fall’ at her home.”
Another home that is tied to a haunting tale is the Franks residence at 932 E. 51st St., which was built in 1910. The house belonged to Jacob Franks, a Chicago real estate financier. In the spring of 1924 his 14-year-old son Bobby was kidnapped and brutally murdered by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Leaning heavily on what they considered their supreme intellect, the two University of Chicago students attempted to commit the perfect crime.
In the book Davis also reveals that Bobby Franks and Richard Loeb, son of Albert Loeb, vice president and treasurer of Sears, Roebuck and Company, were second cousins and the families knew each other well.
Davis’s book also examines how Hyde Park and Kenwood’s character changed during the period of Urban Renewal, and how it created a diverse community unlike any other in the city.
“It’s a remarkable story of how people came to terms with a diverse community because integrated neighborhoods did not exist during that time period,” Davis said.
“Unfortunately, the success story of Hyde Park’s urban renewal did not become a model for other communities, as it was reliant on many elements difficult to
Davis said if she would have used all the information and images gathered, the book would be twice the size it is now, which is about 500 pages. She plans to use the additional information to create a walking guide. The book is available locally at the 57th Street and Seminary Co-op bookstores.