Part 2: Hotels, resorts and entertainment: 51st Street and Lake Park Avenue

By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS

The Hyde Park Hotel once commanded the intersection of Hyde Park Boulevard (51st Street) and Lake Avenue, an elegant landmark between two communities. To the north was fashionable Kenwood, and to the south, the increasingly commercial district of Hyde Park. The site of this hotel changed greatly over the ensuing years — during urban renewal it was replaced by a small, suburban style shopping center as the business areas of Hyde Park were modernized. Today another vision of the Hyde Park of is under construction.

A half-century after the hotel came down in the name of progress, a multifamily residential project intended to “invigorate one of Hyde Park’s most important gateways” was unveiled for community approval early in 2012. Architect Jeanne Gang commented that the new project’s most important element was its “urbanism,” as she sought to orient the project toward the public spaces surrounding them in order to encourage much needed vitality at the street level.

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Vitality is what defined the Hyde Park Hotel. It had been constructed in several stages for Cornell by Starrett & Fuller; the first section of the hotel was a pressed brick and stone building rising four stories in height. Always with an eye toward the future, Cornell had the walls built strong enough to accommodate additional stories. Theodore Starrett was not an architect by training, but a structural engineer who worked with Burnham & Root. He partnered with George Fuller for the construction of this hotel.  After Fuller founded his own enterprise, the George A. Fuller Company became a specialist in the construction of high rises and its success relied upon a unique concept. The firm hired a series of smaller contractors for their projects, pioneering a building process today known as subcontracting.

Another three floors were under construction by 1892, in anticipation of the Columbian Exposition. The impact of the fair on the neighborhood was profound, as this was but one of the luxury hotels that rose to accommodate the huge number of expected visitors. This building was a pioneer in hotel design, for here Starrett used innovations that were common to large commercial structures of the time. The hotel was the first of iron-framed construction in the city, and its electric lights, electrically operated elevators, telephone service, and steam heat were all considered revolutionary for hotels of the time.

Rounded bays at the corners of the hotel enlivened the red brick façade, while providing well-lit interior rooms. The lobby was paneled in marble, where guests trod upon lush carpets, and dined under a Tiffany glass ceiling. No one was permitted in the five-hundred-seat dining room without formal attire, enhancing the already elegant setting. When the western wing was added in 1915, the Hyde Park Hotel doubled its size, providing over three hundred guest rooms. The property remained in Cornell’s family long after his death, and was sold by his estate in 1947.

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From the time it opened until the thirties, the hotel represented fine living, high fashion, and elegance. However, by 1962 the hotel had served its purpose; its luxurious dining room had become a cafeteria; and rooms had been cut into kitchenette apartments. Deemed too costly to restore, the hotel that was for years the ultimate in luxury was slated to be demolished under the Hyde Park Urban Renewal Plan. Residents moved on, and rooms were stripped bare of their furnishings. The Hyde Park–Kenwood Community Conference wistfully collected chandeliers, terra-cotta pieces and even a staircase, memories of an era long past.

Much has changed since Cornell erected his hotel. The innovations of that earlier era — steam heat, call bells, and luxurious dining rooms — have been replaced by concerns for the environment, sustainability, and affordability. City Hyde Park, as the new project is known, is to be erected on a now vacated strip mall. The project is LEED certified; that is, according to architect Jeanne Gang, designed to blend “environmental, economic and occupant-oriented performance” into a “green building.”

Just west of the site was the house Paul Cornell built for his family when he first came to develop the community now known as Hyde Park. Fifty-first Street was a quiet residential avenue at the time construction of his hotel began. In the years that followed the community changed, as houses and apartments came to line the street. In the early months of 1920 workers demolished several three-flat buildings on the southeast corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and Blackstone Avenue. During the roaring twenties new venues opened to cater to residents with disposable income and increased leisure time, and for visitors who came to enjoy the lakeshore and elaborate entertainment palaces.

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The Rapp brothers designed the large, ornate Piccadilly Theater on Hyde Park Boulevard, joining the neighborhood’s Frolic and Kenwood movie palaces. With its 2,500 seats and elaborate interiors, the “Pic” served the whims of not only of the affluent and the middle class. Architects believed the movie house to be a great social equalizer — relatively inexpensive entertainment available to all classes. “Watch the bright lights in the eyes of the tired shop girl who hurries noiselessly over carpets and sighs with satisfaction as she walks amid furnishings that once delighted kings and queens,” commented architect George Rapp.

The Schoenstadt family opened one of the largest theaters on the South Side of Chicago, and the Piccadilly Theater quickly became the flagship of their theater chain. Residences and ground-floor shops were housed within the fourteen-story apartment building, where Herman Schoenstadt resided in a top-floor luxury suite during the 1930s and 40s.

Cinema palaces of the era typically featured several common elements, including a projecting marquee and large, elaborate main lobby. The Rapps’ design for the Piccadilly was slightly different; the marquee was flush with the front wall, with an enormous window above it trimmed in terra-cotta. To compensate for the lack of a vast lobby, the Rapps designed a double-height space with a small mezzanine above, giving the illusion of grandeur to patrons entering to the sounds of a piano and harp. The drama did not end there; the auditorium was the highlight of the building, designed in an ornate French Renaissance style. The luxurious interior was decorated with antique furniture, oil paintings, and copies of ancient sculpture the Schoenstadt family brought back from their many travels.

In the ensuing years as the neighborhood changed, attendance declined and the theater closed in 1963. The University of Chicago purchased the property and nine years later the theater was demolished. The apartment building remains, and although the theater is now a parking lot, traces of its former glory remain etched on the south wall of the structure.

PiccadillyTo the east of the Hyde Park Hotel and Piccadilly Theater is the site of the earliest of the large structures constructed in this area, once described as “sand waste.” During the summer of 1892, excavation began and the concrete foundation was laid for what was anticipated to be the finest hotel on the lakeshore, the Chicago Beach Hotel. (No doubt, Paul Cornell would have disagreed).

Backed by investors, Kenwood resident Warren F. Leland directed the design and construction of the six-story hotel, one of Chicago’s largest resorts for both permanent residents and transient guests. Leland came from a well-known family of hotel proprietors and had a long hotel career. His hotel was elegant — an interior rotunda of 148 feet-by-52 feet welcomed visitors to the resort, which was surrounded by a long veranda overlooking the lake and Cornell (Harold Washington) Park. On the north, the shoreline made a sweeping curve, and the wading beach stretched 500 feet into the lake, with a view north toward the Loop. Boardwalks and cabanas were readily available in the summer months on the beach, and Morgan’s Pier was used as a boat landing. The resort not only offered guests beautiful surroundings, but also an abundance of activities: there were walks and drives, sailing, swimming, golf, tennis, walking, tally-ho rides, dancing and live music. Leland introduced many new features to hotel life, including serving meals from 5 o’clock until late at night in the dining room, where one could look out over miles of open water while enjoying sumptuous meals.

However, controversy arose in 1912, when the South Park Board took steps to fulfill Daniel Burnham’s plan for the lakefront. Condemnation proceedings began against all lakefront property owners to compel them to release their riparian rights. The owners of properties adjacent to Lake Michigan did not own the water itself, but instead enjoyed the right to use the water and its surface as they desired. The Illinois Central controlled the land from 12th Street to East 50th Street. The stretch from 51st to 53rd had been given to the city by Paul Cornell to be used in perpetuity for a public park; 53rd Street to 54th Street was owned by Harry W. Sisson & Associates and was occupied by the apartment hotel of the same name. T. A. Collins owned 600 feet south of 54th, and Fanny Bregh owned the remaining footage to 55th Street. H. R. Shedd owned from 55th to 56th. All released their rights to the lakefront except the Chicago Beach Hotel — the property between 50th and 51st Streets remained in litigation until 1926, when the hotel company finally gave up their riparian rights in exchange for the large piece of land north of the hotel grounds.