By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
It is no coincidence that the revival of Hyde Park’s commercial core is centered at 53rd and Lake Park Avenue, an intersection that over the years has witnessed growth and decline, tragedy and renewal. Today on any weekend night there is a line out the door at Chipotle, valet parking is necessary if one drives to the hip new restaurant A10 and the smell of popcorn drifts out the door of a crowded Harper Theater. These welcome new enterprises can trace their roots back to the very foundation of the Hyde Park community.
Not long after a young lawyer named Paul Cornell arrived in Chicago in 1847, he made the acquaintance of the powerful Democratic senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. The advice Cornell received inspired his future, for Douglas envisioned a southward expansion of the city and encouraged slender, dark-haired young man to put all the money he could save into the land between the Chicago River and Lake Calumet.
Cornell began to familiarize himself with the area when his doctor advised that exercise and fresh air would help his health. The clean air found outside the crowded city was thought a common remedy for various ailments, and Cornell purchased a horse and often rode south out of the city. On the way he passed Douglas’ property at 31st Street and continued to what would later become 53rd Street —there was a lakeside farm owned by the widow of early settler Nathan Watson.
Before long Cornell accumulated enough money to follow Douglas’s counsel, and purchased the 60-acre farm from Electa Watson in the late summer of 1853. Through a series of subsequent purchases, Cornell eventually accumulated 300 acres along the lakeshore. In a stroke of good luck and timing, the Illinois Central Railroad was extending their line from southern Illinois north to Chicago, and they soon made a deal with Cornell. He was no doubt elated at the prospect — the railroad would greatly increase the value of his land. In return for Cornell deeding 60 of his 300 acres to the company, the Illinois Central agreed to open a station at 53rd Street and run daily passenger trains between the city and his holdings. The railroad depot ensured that this area at the heart of Cornell’s fledgling enterprise developed the most rapidly.
From the very beginning, Paul Cornell intended the development he christened Hyde Park to be a residential community. The only businesses permitted were located near the station and provided the most basic necessities for the residents. These were located just west of the intersection of the railroad tracks and 53rd, or Oak Street as it was known at the time. Cornell’s uncle Hassan Hopkins opened a small store; groceries and general merchandise were sold in this one-story structure that housed the local post office as well.
As the years passed, families who came to live in Cornell’s development gradually became less self-sufficient. Although they grew vegetables in backyard gardens and kept milk cows and other livestock, for the most part individuals became dependent on others for the necessities of life. Within 20 years of the community’s founding flats, shops and other business enterprises had opened and stretched west from the Illinois Central tracks at both 55th and 53rd Streets. The expanding support network for residents was evident as the number of food stores increased to 40 from six between 1883 and 1886, and included bakeries, fruit shops, and confectionary stores. There were cigar and tobacco shops, blacksmiths and livery stables, dressmakers and tailors. Doctors and dentists opened offices, and five real estate offices opened to serve the needs of prospective buyers. Liquor establishments proliferated; between 1877 and 1878, 49 saloon licenses were issued in the village, while just one was refused.
In the years before the turn of the century the commercial hub at 53rd Street had grown dramatically, and stood in contrast with the community’s otherwise suburban character. Surrounded by owner-occupied single-family frame houses, the center of Hyde Park offered housing in apartments constructed over street-level retail establishments, as well as various two-story business enterprises. Constructed around 1874 as Flood’s Hall, the three-story brick building on the southwest corner of 53rd and Lake streets was one of the first of the larger structures in Hyde Park and was part of a complex named for the owner Dr. James Ramsey Flood. A generous man, Flood resided just around the corner and donated his services to the Women’s Hospital free of charge for 10 years, while holding regular office hours in “Flood’s Block.”
Various clubs for social events used Flood’s Hall, while the Hyde Park Herald was located on the second floor of another building on the block. The corner structure was later transformed for the Columbian Exposition — the 75-room Hotel Helene offered European and American plans at the cost of $1.50 to $3 per day. But the building was an old one, and tragedy struck when a devastating and deadly fire broke out in the early morning hours on May 16, 1900. Flames could be seen throughout the neighborhood as the building was quickly engulfed by the ravaging blaze, and terrified guests leapt from the second and third stories to escape. The fire department concluded that they could do nothing to save the structure and were ill equipped to help those who jumped, many to their deaths. The national newspapers carried the story, often with lurid descriptions and predictions of death for the injured: “The dead: Charlotte Peterson, dining room girl, found in her room burned to a crisp … Seriously injured: Mrs. T.D. Allen, back broken and internally injured, jumped from three story window, will die…”
In spite of lessons learned from the Chicago fire 30 years earlier, there was but a single exit, and neither the police nor the fire department was equipped with safety nets or ladders. Additionally, the June 3, 1900 Chicago Tribune noted safety conditions at the hotel were in “a deplorable state of affairs,” and the verdict read at court stated that “had the laws and ordinances governing exits and fire escapes been enforced” lives would not have been lost. City codes required that buildings over two stories have fire escapes.
As the fatal fire and the Hotel Helene faded from memory, a small bank and office building was erected in its place. Several years after the Sanborn map was updated, the Hyde Park Bank commissioned architect K. M. Vitzhum & Company to design the building on the site. When the 10-story classical revival structure was completed in 1928, it was one of Chicago’s largest commercial buildings outside the Loop.
During the ‘20s it was evident that the era of Hyde Park as a suburban retreat was long over — a wide range of apartment buildings filled block after block, resulting in a dense urban landscape. In 1889 there were 4,000 dwelling units in the area; between 1900 and 1920 another 6,000 were constructed. The center of Hyde Park had evolved into a largely working-class neighborhood with row houses, apartments and flats and small cottages, and was densely populated. As a result, the nearby commercial areas on 53rd and 55th streets accelerated their growth to meet the burgeoning demand, and the development of the streets here continued to reflect a mixed-use pattern of walk-up apartments with a variety of commercial spaces.
For quite a time 53rd Street was vibrant, enhanced with restaurants and motion picture theaters that were often built in combination with apartments and retail space. The air-conditioned Hyde Park Theater opened at 5312 Lake Street in December 1933 (now the Hyde Park Bank’s drive-in facility). Promising first-rate productions at neighborhood prices, the auditorium featured luxurious carpeting and royal velour seats. The next year B/G Sandwich Shop opened on the northeast corner, offering “quality food at timely prices.” They expanded after first opening the B/G Eating Inn at the Standard Oil Service Station on 50th Street between Harper Avenue and Lake Street. Victory Radio & Record was next door and according to the Herald was “one of the most attractive places in all of the Hyde Park area.” In the ‘40s the store featured “beautiful” fluorescent lights and soundproof record booths.
But time gradually took its toll on 53rd Street. Two world wars and a depression combined with changing demographics to produce widespread blight in these aging structures. There was an influx of residents to this area and apartments were cut unto kitchenettes to meet the demand, often without the necessary improvements to these older buildings. By the ‘50s it appeared Hyde Park would follow a trend that seemed inevitable: older neighborhoods grew more blighted, and were bulldozed as part of slum clearance programs. Although the larger community escaped that future, during land clearance and the massive urban renewal plan many of the structures near this intersection were torn down.
During urban renewal, the future of the surrounding neighborhood was dependent upon the various business center’s renewal, where the different approaches to removing the blight are apparent. East 53rd Street retained a number of historic structures, while those on East 47th and 55th Streets were obliterated. Where older structures were retained, the street exhibits a completely different vibrancy. In her 1961 book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” Jane Jacobs described it best, “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”
Fifty years later it seems she had it right. The harshness of the recently erected structures is softened by the patina of the older buildings, creating a vibrant enclave that is a welcome addition to the Hyde Park community.