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
In 1969 the Chicago Housing Authority erected two midrise buildings on the east side of once aristocratic Drexel Boulevard. Each consisted of 135 units for residents of low and moderate income. It was thought at the time, given the sweeping changes on the South Side of the city, that these buildings would address the decaying conditions found on the boulevard. These CHA structures replaced single-family houses, mansions rather, which had been plagued by chronic building violations for years and were in precarious structural condition. For example, one of the structures replaced the turreted stone house of Albert Wisner at 4825 S. Drexel Blvd., which had been subdivided into nine kitchenettes and was often cited for violations by the South East Chicago Commission.
Seventy years earlier the Wisner mansion had been indicative of life on the boulevard. Like many of his neighbors, Albert Wisner was a very successful man. He had established a business in real estate and as a builder in the years before the Chicago Fire. Although his home and his office at the corner of State and Dearborn Streets were both destroyed in 1871, the calamity obviously made his business a lucrative one. For the next 50 years he made a fortune constructing moderately priced houses on hundreds of acres in the city and surrounding suburbs. Although Wisner and his wife Annie had no children, they erected a huge mansion and carriage house on the South Side’s finest avenue.
The boulevard had its genesis decades well before the Wisners erected their urban estate. Over a half-century earlier, a native of County Kerry had dreams of creating a baronial country manor at the western edge of Kenwood. Described as a “jovial Irishman,” Dr. William B. Egan arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1833, when citizens then numbered around 400. When ground was broken for the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1836, it was Dr. Egan who delivered the oration. He also purchased large tracts of land on the South and West sides of the city from the canal commissioners.
For his South Side holdings, Egan selected a high ridge as the site for his country house and gardens, and laid out the grounds in what was described by the Tribune as a “stately fashion.” Behind a rustic gate he created a mile long avenue, lined with trees and evergreens of almost every variety, winding amid beautiful groves and rich prairie. It is hard to imagine today, but the pastoral view from the good-humored doctor’s rustic, vine clad farmhouse was said to have been truly enchanting. Although a man of commanding presence, Dr. Egan did not enjoy the fruits of his labor for long. At the time of his death in 1860, he was overextended and underfinanced and the land passed to his banker, George C. Smith of Drexel & Smith.
By 1865 a movement was underway to establish a public park south of Chicago and Olmsted & Vaux, the famed designers of New York City’s Central Park, eventually drew up plans. Grove Parkway was designed as one component of the concept for the South Parks, planned to extend north from the eastern edge of Washington Park. But disagreement rose over the use of Egan’s gardens as part of the proposed park. The Drexel and Smith families resisted the use of their land, understanding the value was much greater if developed as an elite residential neighborhood. Backed by their fortunes, they were for the most part successful. After a stormy, circus-like meeting in 1867, the Parks Commission decided to leave the majority of the Drexel property outside the scope of the park. Two years later Chicago voters ratified a parks plan and Grove Parkway was renamed Drexel Boulevard, to be anchored on its southern end by the Francis Drexel Fountain, the oldest public fountain in the city.
Drexel became 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. Presence upon the boulevard was dictated by one’s wealth, which required an appropriate and often ostentatious display of architecture. The southern half of Drexel became the most exclusive of the South Side boulevards and noted architects, including Henry Ives Cobb and Burnham & Root, designed massive residences that were intended to impress. Imitation castles and châteaux rose where occupants lived in a world of exclusive clubs, private schools and reserved church pews.
Drexel was for years a showpiece of the area’s prospering society. However it was within a relatively short time that concerns about the future of this privileged way of life arose. Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge designed the stately Italian Renaissance Revival style mansion of Chauncey and Mary Blair in 1897. This 26-room home represented the family’s wealth; these blue-blooded aristocrats surrounded themselves with Renaissance paintings and sculpture, and dined with the first gold dinner service to appear in the city.
However, the Blair house would come to represent the continually changing fortunes of Drexel Boulevard. As apartment living became increasingly popular after the turn of the century, Blair fought long and hard to prevent the erection of a multi-family building next to his house. He carried the battle to his death in 1916, when architects Lebenbaum & Marx were commissioned to design the apartment building now on the corner of 49th Street and Drexel Boulevard. As the boulevard continued to fall out of favor, Blair’s house, like so many others, was converted for institutional uses. After use as the offices of the United Bakeries Corporation, the house was demolished in February 1928, and the following month construction began on the apartment building that currently occupies the site.
By the ’20s, Drexel Boulevard was clearly no longer one of Chicago’s most fashionable streets, as the wealthy fled for the city’s North Shore. Novelist Edna Ferber reflected on the city’s changing neighborhoods in her novel, “The Girls.” “Anyone who has lived in Chicago knows that you don’t live on the South side. You simply do not live on the South side.” Density increased as apartments rose to occupy the land where the stone mansions of the city’s elite once graced the street. Typically of three-and-a-half stories, these brick and terra-cotta buildings made an attempt to tie a larger structure in with the aesthetics of the boulevard.
On the southern end of the boulevard, middle-class white families occupied these apartments until the 1940s. In 1931, residents of 5019 S. Drexel Blvd. included the Skakel family. Their daughter Ethel was baptized at St. Ambrose Church on 47th Street, and later married Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The Skakel family lived on Drexel briefly, for the neighborhood was changing and nearby Cottage Grove became a tenuous boundary line between communities.
Around this time Swiss architect Le Corbusier toured Chicago and wrote of conditions on the city’s South Side. “One day, as a result of one of the violent shifts which are a part of the destiny of cities . . . Chicago was cut in two: the east-west axis . . . determined the destiny of two sections of the city. The fashionable quarter was in the south; suddenly it changed to the north. The southern part was abandoned. Who will live in these princely (and dubious) residences on Drexel Avenue? No one.”
In 1937 he saw mansions where the occupants had settled down “behind broken windows covered over by boards; a villa becomes a village; there are weeds in the rubbish-filled gardens, behind rusting iron fences. There is misery there.” Conditions on the boulevard continued to decline during the war years, moving gradually from the northern end southward. Mansions that were once home to Chicago’s elite operated as rooming houses, nursing homes or churches, while others sat abandoned and boarded up. A mere glance at the building permits issued during the late ’40s and early ’50s tells much of the story. On Drexel Boulevard six apartments were converted into 12, 12 apartments became 36.
To counteract the perceived “misery,” architects undertook creative building concepts to address the problems. The idea behind Bertrand Goldberg’s Drexel Boulevard Home and Gardens Houses project at 4800 Drexel project was to provide low-cost housing that did not punish the poor for being poor. Working in partnership with Arthur Rubloff and designed in 1954-55, this project was marketed to an integrated buying group with the concept of placing home ownership within reach of lower-income families.
Goldberg used the idea of a simple, flat-roofed house of concrete block with little adornment. Today the structures remain in a curious state — the simple geometric shapes of Goldberg’s vision have been clad with faux brick and shingles. The effect is of a patchwork rather than the simple yet elegant scheme Goldberg envisioned. Sixty-four units were built on the site of an immense and luxurious mansion constructed for but one household — the Morris family.
The Drexel Home and Gardens project was constructed on the site of last of the imposing urban estates to be built on the boulevard. The mansion Howard van Doren Shaw designed for Edward and Helen Morris was the largest of his projects in the neighborhood. Edward was the son of Nelson Morris, the pioneer meatpacker of the Union Stockyards, and a central figure there for 50 years. Edward was president and treasurer of the family company, and married Helen Swift. Their 1890 marriage was a merger of sorts — she was the daughter of Gustavus Swift, also a Kenwood resident and founder of another of Chicago’s major meatpacking companies.
Construction began in 1910, and two years later a thousand distinguished guests were invited to the opening of the home. Morris was another not to enjoy his property for long — he died unexpectedly in November 1913. Like the Blair home, this lavish estate did not last much more than 30 years; it was demolished in April 1946. Ten years later Goldberg’s housing project rose on the property. As a reminder of days long past, when the excavation for the project began, a marble fishpond was discovered on the grounds.
Despite the disappearance of these enormous estates, several mansions remain to remind us of how the boulevard once appeared when the city’s wealthy industrialists lived on the avenue. Charles Frost and Alfred Granger used smooth-faced limestone for the 12,000-square-foot residence of Moses and Isabella Born at 4801 S. Drexel Blvd. Born was a wholesale tailor and opened a retail store on State Street, making a fortune as president of what became one of the country’s largest wholesale clothing businesses. A block south at 4941 S. Drexel Blvd. is the John H. and Emily Nolan Residence, designed in 1887 by Burnham & Root. Their residence, although large, is straightforward in comparison to the many opulent mansions that once lined Drexel Boulevard. “The value of a plain surface in every building is not to be overestimated,” Root once advised. “Strive for them.”
But by far the two most luxurious and opulent properties that remain on the boulevard are the residences of Dr. Jonathan McGill and Martin Ryerson. In each, the value of a plain surface was minimal.
Ryerson’s Romanesque-style mansion at 4851 S. Drexel Blvd. was designed by Treat & Foltz, and is today occupied by a religious group. Across the street is the Chateauesque style residence designed for Dr. John A. and Caroline McGill. Undoubtedly, prominent architect Henry Ives Cobb’s most significant work in the community was the campus for the University of Chicago; however, he also received several residential commissions in the area. McGill was in the business of patent medicine, a term commonly used to describe various drug remedies sold in the 18th and 19th centuries that were often amply laced with alcohol.
A sumptuous addition to the boulevard, McGill’s magnificent residence was based on 16th-century French palaces. The style is characterized by an eclectic array of elements and was favored by America’s newly wealthy families. Massive round towers topped with battlement parapets, the steeply pitched roof and ornately carved archways signify the 20,000-square-foot residence as a very special place indeed.
Although the imposing mansion was granted landmark status by Chicago’s City Council in 2006, this residence epitomizes the villa to village concept. McGill bequeathed his grand limestone mansion and the land to the YWCA in 1928, when it became known as the Carrie McGill Memorial YMCA. A three-story limestone annex was designed by Berlin & Swern that same year. Following decades of decline and use as a nursing home, the structures were renovated to accommodate 34 apartments.
The boulevard has undergone massive changes, yet has many legacies of which to be proud. Earl B. Dickerson was one of the early African American residents of the boulevard and the first Black student to graduate from the University of Chicago Law School. He lived at 5027 S. Drexel Blvd. from 1947-1963 and was widely known for his work on cases to end discriminatory housing. Restrictive housing covenants had been used to prevent African Americans from purchasing or renting housing in white neighborhoods, and on the boulevard. Dickerson is most famously known as the force behind Hansberry v. Lee, the U.S. Supreme Court case in which Carl Hansberry (father to Lorraine Hansberry, the author of “A Raisin in the Sun”) had purchased property in an area south of Washington Park that was governed by a race restrictive covenant. This case marked the beginning of the end of restrictive covenants in Hyde Park and Kenwood.
From the ambitious dreams of an Irish immigrant, to the mansions of a gilded era, to the fight for equal housing — the avenue is seeped with history. Yet there is no suggestion of a return to a bucolic atmosphere, for the housing clearly reflects an urban setting. Blue police cameras flash at the site of a homicide, and drug dealers ply their wares on busy street corners. Many houses have undergone extensive restoration, while others remain in disrepair. Yet stroll down the wide boulevard on a hot summer day and the parkland will be filled with family barbeques, indicating a complex layering to life here and one that is richly appreciated.