By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS
When speaking about Chicago, Hyde Park resident Saul Bellow noted that this city “builds itself up, knocks itself down again, scrapes away the rubble and starts over.” In contrast to European cities that were destroyed in war and painstakingly restored, this city does not restore; “it makes something wildly different.” A recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and the Pulitzer Prize, Bellow continued, “To count on stability here is madness. A Parisian can always see the Paris that was, as it has been for centuries. … But a Chicagoan as he wanders about the city feels like a man who has lost many teeth.”
The attention focused on the demolition of three greystones on Harper Avenue might have been familiar to Bellow. These were not priceless treasures designed by a famous architect, or inhabited by 19th century industrial tycoons or cattle barons. But the delicate carved stone of the slightly protruding bays dated back well over a century and had withstood the test of urban renewal. Fifty years ago this community analyzed and argued and inventoried the fabric of their neighborhood — and those structures passed muster. According to a 1977 Illinois Historic Survey the redevelopment process was carried out with “unusual sensitivity,” in order to preserve the historic character of the Hyde Park neighborhood.
Without issue, the character of the community has changed over the course of its 150-year history and that evolution is reflected a rich cultural heritage that is Hyde Park. In this city and elsewhere around the country, preservationists have attempted to stop urban renewal plans that clear-cut large inner-city areas. “What evolved instead was a view of cities that value incremental, rather than sweeping change; quirkiness rather than standardization; preservation rather than destruction,” architecture critic Blair Kamin explained. “The change occurred not just for sentimental reasons but because … mixing old buildings with new ones helps create the social and economic diversity that makes cities hum.”
Incremental change defines the 5100 block of Harper, or Jefferson Avenue as it was originally known. It is a street with foundations that stretch to the origins of the community as Paul Cornell, “the Father of Hyde Park,” chose this as the location for his homestead. Through the vagaries of zoning ordinances and the whims of individual owners, the street gradually developed its own quirky character.
Cornell was an astute lawyer and real estate developer, and he understood the importance of architecture and city planning. When he platted his tract of land in the spring of 1856, he subdivided the property according to the regular rectangular street pattern of the larger city. However, individual lots were large by city standards, laid out with only eighteen per block, a minimum 50 feet of frontage with a standard depth of 125 feet and no service alleys. He intended the development to reflect a pastoral setting, and maintained a suburban feel through a required 20-foot setback from the street for residences. The requirement of green areas fronting the street provided a sharp contrast to the more densely packed streets and houses of the larger city.
When Cornell built a summer resort, the barn-like, five-story, clapboard-covered hotel was designed by one of the city’s earliest architects, Gurdon P. Randall. On July 4, 1859, the Hyde Park House opened near the Oak (53rd) Street train depot. Cornell’s selection of a widely known architect set the precedent for his community; well-designed buildings became a hallmark of Hyde Park from the earliest days, reflecting the aspirations of the residents.
Cornell’s Italianate house was for a time the only house on the 5100 block of Harper Avenue, but as the community evolved, houses gradually rose on either side of the street. Although Cornell’s development was a success and he began selling sections of his property near his home, he remained concerned with quality and development of the block. When William and Nancy Ott purchased the lot on the northwest corner of 52nd Street and Harper Avenue in 1882, it came with a restriction. Mrs. Cornell said she and her husband would sell the property, but only if the Ott family intended to live there.
And live there they did, for over half a century. Mr. and Mrs. Ott were both raised southwest of the city and in 1863 they moved to Chicago, living first on the North and West sides of the city before moving to Hyde Park in 1879. Their first residence was the gothic style Field-Pullman-Heyworth house on 54th Street near the lake. That house later achieved the distinction of being the only house in Chicago to go for a boat ride; it was moved on a barge south to 79th Street. In 1882 the Otts built the house still standing at 5146 S. Harper Ave.
William Calvin Ott was a prominent lumberman who founded his own firm, Wiggins & Ott Lumber Company. It was a Chicago concern until 1899 when, in a twist of fate, business necessities caused Ott to relocate to Ashland, Wis. At twilight on a warm July evening and against good advice, Ott started out in a yacht on Lake Superior in advance of threatening weather. The boat had gone just a half-mile from shore when it capsized, and he perished. His widow continued to live in this house for the rest of her life.
When Nancy Seaton Ott celebrated her 90th birthday in 1930, her recollections proved a glimpse into the community of the long ago. “I’ve seen all of the houses around here built up, and many of them torn down and built up again,” Mrs. Ott remarked to the Hyde Park Herald. “I don’t think that things have been improved much — then it was a neighborhood of homes, now it is headquarters for cliff dwellers. I wish that we had the old neighborliness back again. But Hyde Park is still the best part of Chicago, even if it isn’t quite what it used to be.”
Those “cliff dwellers” Mrs. Ott referred to lived in the hotel built by Cornell; for from its inception, his suburb was to be a success built on two approaches. Cornell understood that it would take both permanent residents and transient guests to confer a sense of elegance and gracious living to what was a relatively swampy site, and that the architectural forms for each group differed. Said to be the most fashionable on the South Side, this hotel was situated on the southwest corner of Lake Avenue and 51st Street. The property fronted 216 feet on 51st Street and 187 feet on Lake Avenue, both heavier travelled streets than Harper Avenue. Theodore Starrett designed the main section of the four-story hotel of a red-hued pressed brick and limestone, so that the building succeeded in blending into the context of the neighborhood despite its size.
And clearly Cornell was not rooted in the past, but always looking to the future. The walls were built strong enough so that an additional three floors were under construction by 1892 in anticipation of the Columbian Exposition. The seven-story hotel was a pioneer in hotel design — it was the first iron-framed hotel in the city, and its electric lights, electrically operated elevators, telephone service and steam heat were all considered revolutionary at the time.
For the next half century, change was incremental and the block was a bit uneven, even eccentric, yet indicative of the social and economic diversity Blair Kamin noted as an essential element of city life. Some single-family structures were replaced by multi-family housing as the community matured and pressure for housing increased, increasing density and adding to the vitality of the streetscape.
Urban renewal had a large impact on this street, as the Hyde Park Hotel came down in 1962 and was later replaced by a strip mall. And Cornell’s house did not withstand a century of use, but the remainder of the block held firm while huge swaths of land were cleared nearby.
Respected Hyde Park Ald. Leon Despres (5th) had long argued for preservation, believing that while it is not possible to preserve every old building, it was necessary to do all one could to preserve “creatively and constructively.” Despres thought protecting historic urban areas required making some sacrifices, yet was a “sign of a society’s cultural maturity.”
That maturity was seen in the 600 homeowners that stepped up to lend their signatures to the landmarking of the Kenwood community in 1978. There have been attempts over several decades to landmark Hyde Park, including a survey of 220 historic structures outlined in 1986 for the Chicago Landmarks Commission, but none had the broad support of politicians and residents. While the neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Hyde Park is fragile — houses can be demolished for new residential and commercial structures, and sadly even parking lots. Structures can also be remodeled to an appearance unlike the builder or architect’s original intent. Landmark designation by the City of Chicago is the major tool available to broadly protect a neighborhood’s architectural heritage.
Although not stated as eloquently as Saul Bellow, the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects summed the issue up succinctly: “All we need is a sense of greatness and a willingness to elevate the common good above someone’s hopes to make a buck.” The Hyde Park we inherited from the efforts of the last generation is still the best part of Chicago, even if it isn’t quite what it used to be. We are the custodians of a great legacy and there is a question before us now — do we have the “cultural maturity” to do what is right for the next generation?