Part Ten: “They were all Republicans,” Drexel Boulevard – 39th to 47th Streets

A c.1890 image of the elaborate plantings on Drexel Boulevard; this fanciful baseball player was found between the 45th and 47th Street intersections.   -University of Chicago Special Collections, Picturesque Kenwood
A c.1890 image of the elaborate plantings on Drexel Boulevard; this fanciful baseball player was found between the 45th and 47th Street intersections.

-University of Chicago Special Collections, Picturesque Kenwood

Editor’s note: The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and turned to stories of interest within the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. The articles are all of varying topics, but relate to the residences that currently or in the past have defined the urban fabric.

By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS

We last met at the DuSable Hotel, located where Drexel, Cottage Grove and Oakwood all converged. In its heyday, the DuSable was a major landmark for Chicago’s Blacks – entertainers, musicians, gamblers and baseball players stayed in the eight-story building near the convergence of the boulevards. Drexel was the most prestigious of these avenues and although many of the structures have been demolished, several remain to indicate what the street was like in its earlier years.

First conceived as Grove Parkway, this boulevard was but one component of Frederick Law Olmsted’s concept for the South Parks. Planned to extend north from the eastern edge of Washington Park, the Drexel family of Philadelphia came to own the property after the original owner defaulted on his loan. In the hope of stimulating development and therefore the value of this newly held property, they donated a wide strip of the land and Grove Parkway was then renamed Drexel Boulevard. It was anchored on its southern end by the Francis Drexel Fountain, the oldest public fountain in the city.

The northern half of Drexel Boulevard was located in a community now referred to as Oakland, an area originally developed as a subdivision in 1858 by Charles Cleaver and first known as Cleaverville. When Cleaver purchased 20 acres from Samuel Ellis seven years earlier, many thought him foolish for purchasing “so far out in the country” according to Andreas’ History of Chicago. Charles and his wife Mary built a house they called Oakwood Hall at what would now be 3938 S. Ellis Ave. The house became the nucleus of the little settlement, eventually giving its name to Oakwood Boulevard and the entire area. For a time Oakland was one of the city’s premier residential neighborhoods, characterized by row houses and single-family residences designed in the most fashionable styles of the times, and inhabited by a number of Chicago’s social elite.

Drexel was just one of many boulevards constructed in cities across the country during the second half of the 19th century. These formal avenues created park-like corridors and were among the most fashionable urban neighborhoods. Although presence upon the boulevard was dictated by one’s wealth, which often required an ostentatious display of architecture, various scales of houses were constructed.

The northern section of the boulevard displayed an increased density, evident by the clusters of row houses that remain. Edbrooke & Burnham designed the residences at 3961-3963-3965 S. Drexel Blvd. in 1887.  -Kevin Eatinger
The northern section of the boulevard displayed an increased density, evident by the clusters of row houses that remain. Edbrooke & Burnham designed the residences at 3961-3963-3965 S. Drexel Blvd. in 1887.

-Kevin Eatinger

The architect of the three row houses at 3961-3963-3965 S. Drexel Blvd. occupied the southern-most of these residences. Willoughby J. Edbrooke began to practice in Chicago in 1868, and between 1879 and 1896 he partnered with Franklin Pierce Burnham. Like other partnerships of the time, each had their own specialty; Edbrooke was the salesman while Burnham worked on the drafting board. They are most known for the 1885 Georgia State Capital Building, which became the turning point in Edbrooke’s career. Afterward, he established a reputation as the designer of large public buildings.

The boulevard remained a favored location for Chicago’s wealthier citizens, but in 1907 an extension to the elevated train line was constructed that allowed a broader range of Chicagoans to consider the area as a potential home. The inexpensive and efficient commute appealed to both blue- and white-collar workers, and before long in the conversion of older structures to rooming houses and the construction of numerous walk-up apartment buildings was underway.

When poet and lawyer Edgar Lee Masters married Helen Jenkins, the daughter of Robert and Marcia Jenkins, in their house on June 21, 1898, he recalled feeling “like a man going to the electric chair.” The newlyweds occupied the third floor, yet Masters had no love for his fellow Drexel Boulevard residents. “Not the least of my agonies was going to dinners and parties in the Drexel Boulevard neighborhood. These were church people who had grown rich on running grist mills, plumbing factories, piano factories; they were managers of drygoods stores and proprietors of elevators and wholesale candy houses,” Masters wrote in Across Spoon River. “There were no saloon-keepers, owners of breweries, no free-faring men, lovers of sport and horsemen… They were all Republicans.”

A pattern of residential hotels and apartment buildings replacing mansions became characteristic of the development that took place on the boulevard during the 1920s. A glance at the Sanborn Insurance Co. map dating from 1896, and amended in 1923, shows the Bradford Furnished Apartments were constructed on a site where a large house with a barn in back once stood. Typically of three stories, these larger scale apartment buildings were constructed in historical revival styles, typically featuring by Classical or Tudor detailing. The concept of offering furnished residences reflects a movement away from home ownership and investment in the community.

Built about 1920, the Bradford Furnished Apartments at 4400-4408 S. Drexel Blvd. were but one example of the changing demographics and patterns of land usage that took place after the extension of the elevated line.   -Kevin Eatinger
Built about 1920, the Bradford Furnished Apartments at 4400-4408 S. Drexel Blvd. were but one example of the changing demographics and patterns of land usage that took place after the extension of the elevated line.

-Kevin Eatinger

Across the boulevard several imposing houses once stood on the 4400 block, now the site of King College Prep High School, 4445 S. Drexel Blvd. Designed by McCaughey, Erickson, Kristman & Stillwaugh in 1971, where the school sits were several elegant mansions lining the east side. As we continue south of the boulevard there are several residences still in existence on the west side of the street including three houses designed by Horatio Wilson — for Herman Stern at 4512, Maximillian Morganthau at 4518, and Benjamin Bensinger at 4628 S. Drexel. The Economist noted a number of other beautiful homes nearby including that of Norman W. Harris of N.W. Harris & Co. adjoining on the south (4520 by Cobb & Frost), and Max Frank on the north (4516). Those residences have been demolished.

Across the boulevard from the Horatio Wilson houses is the mansion Burnham & Root designed for William E. Hale in 1885-86. Here John Wellborn Root was influenced by the Romanesque Revival — a style most often found in public buildings. Constructed of rough stone with strong arches and deeply set openings, these buildings convey a sense of strength and power. It was a popular style for residences along the boulevard, and as this massive style was far too expensive for the common homebuilder it was reserved for the upper class.

William Hale was supportive, to say the least, of his son George Ellery Hale and his interest in astronomy. The elder Hale commissioned Burnham & Root to design an observatory in the backyard and by 1891 George achieved important results with his new spectroheliograph at the now-demolished Kenwood Physical Observatory.
William Hale was supportive, to say the least, of his son George Ellery Hale and his interest in astronomy. The elder Hale commissioned Burnham & Root to design an observatory in the backyard and by 1891 George achieved important results with his new spectroheliograph at the now-demolished Kenwood Physical Observatory.

Architect Louis Sullivan once praised Hale as one of two men responsible for the modern office building. In 1869 Hale and his brother George patented the Hale Water Balance Elevator, and Otis Elevator manufactured the invention. Hale’s hydraulic elevator ran quickly and more smoothly than the steam elevators that were in use at the time, making new heights of the skyscraper possible.

In 1869 the Western News Company published a “Descriptive Historical and Statistical Account of the Suburban Towns and Residences of Chicago,” written by James B. Runnion. He described the early years of the boulevard and noted houses that were under construction, including on the northeast corner of Drexel at 47th Street, a “fine brick residence” built for Col. George R. Clarke.

With its ornate cupola and weathervane, the house was one of the landmarks of Kenwood until it was demolished in 1917 to make way for a large apartment hotel. Designed by Newhouse & Bernham, this apartment building reflected the ebbing affluence of Drexel Boulevard. While the architects were best known for large commercial buildings and apartments, this structure they designed opened not as a hotel but as a hospital.

In January 1918 the large new structure was taken over by the U.S. government and operated as General Hospital No. 32. The nation had mobilized to go to war, but lacked facilities to treat the injured. In 1952 the lounge of the hotel (renamed the Sutherland) became the first “whites only” jazz club to admit African Americans. For a time the music was legendary and the hotel was home to many artists, including Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

… until a Democrat moved in

Just south of King College Prep High School stood a residence designed by one of the city’s first practicing architects. The influence of Henry Hobson Richardson is apparent in the stone house William W. Boyington designed for Charles Head Smith, a grain trader who made and lost his fortune many times over. Smith and his wife Alice commissioned Boyington to design a lavish 15-room turreted mansion and stable, and the property was said to have been a magnificent showplace on the boulevard. The house was finished in time for the 1893 Exposition, but Smith kept it for only a few years, selling the property in December 1897 for far less than the reported construction price.

William W. Boyington was a very early Chicago architect responsible for the historic 1867 Water Tower and Pumping Station on North Michigan Avenue. The influence of Henry Hobson Richardson is apparent in the stone house he designed for Charles Head Smith at 4501 S. Drexel Blvd. in 1893.
William W. Boyington was a very early Chicago architect responsible for the historic 1867 Water Tower and Pumping Station on North Michigan Avenue. The influence of Henry Hobson Richardson is apparent in the stone house he designed for Charles Head Smith at 4501 S. Drexel Blvd. in 1893.

The purchaser was Michael Cassius “Big Mike” McDonald, a colorful gambler and Democratic political boss operating on the fringes of the law. His purchase on the stately boulevard brought a degree of respectability, but by the winter of 1907 things apparently caught up with the McDonalds. Big Mike’s beautiful wife stood accused of murder.

A former chorus line dancer 30 years younger than her husband, Dora Feldman McDonald grew bored with her aging husband and amused herself with a teenage lover. Just after 10 on the morning of February 21, an agitated Dora arrived at Webster Guerin’s studio on Van Buren Street — she had found out her lover was to marry. A gunshot was fired and Mrs. McDonald was found standing over Webster’s body, screaming. Scandal came to the aristocratic Boulevard.

With his health in decline, McDonald stood by his wife, and when he died that summer a large sum was left to pay for Dora’s legal defense. His money was well spent, for when Dora was brought to trial for the murder, it took the jury only five hours to acquit her.

Next month we will continue our walk down the boulevard, strolling to 51st Street.

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