Part Seventeen: The Shoe Smith

By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS

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. Additional images for this and previous articles are available on the Hyde Park Herald website; click on the Lost Hyde Park icon.

The Shoe Smith

The buff colored stone residence of Jacob Porter Smith once graced the northwest corner of University (Lexington) Avenue and 53rd Street.  Mifflin Bell was the architect of this turreted house, which like many others he designed in the neighborhood, is no longer standing.  The image appeared in Inland Architect and News Record, November 1889.
The buff colored stone residence of Jacob Porter Smith once graced the northwest corner of University (Lexington) Avenue and 53rd Street. Mifflin Bell was the architect of this turreted house, which like many others he designed in the neighborhood, is no longer standing. The image appeared in Inland Architect and News Record, November 1889.

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The built landscape of the Hyde Park community is fairly rigid, following the rectangular layout of the larger city with a general uniformity of building types block by block. One area near the western edge of the neighborhood was zoned to permit a variety of structures and types of land usage within this standard framework. Today a church, school and former hospital are interspersed with new housing developments, individual residences and rows of apartment buildings. These all occupy land that was once part of Dr. William B. Egan’s of grand mid-19th century scheme for a baronial country estate.

This meandering tale begins with the land between 52nd and 53rd from University west to Drexel, near where Egan selected a high ridge as the site for his country house and gardens. A mile long avenue, winding amid beautiful groves and rich prairie, once led to Egan’s vine-clad farmhouse. The view from here was noted to be truly enchanting.

Egan’s property was expansive and financially unsustainable. Banker George C. Smith, of Drexel & Smith, sold the estate after Egan defaulted on his loan. Smith was a creative and successful businessman during his time in Chicago – for deposits made in his bank a slip of paper was issued certifying money had been deposited, and that the amount would be paid on demand. These slips became marketable at their face value and for a number of years passed as currency, which was scarce when the city was just a frontier town. In the process of selling Egan’s land, entire blocks were “vacated” and remained open land for decades, while others were subdivided and sold for the erection of large houses.

Attorney Benjamin Franklin Ayer purchased the large tract bounded by the streets defined above, and built a house on Drexel just south of 52nd Street. After Benjamin’s death his son sold a portion of the family’s Hyde Park holdings. Three buyers purchased the city block at the eastern end of the Ayer estate: Jacob Smith, Pliny Munger and J.A Edwards. By terms of the sale, these gentlemen were permitted to build houses fronting University Avenue (then Lexington), however were not allowed to construct on the lots facing Greenwood.

On the northwest corner of University and 53rd Street architect Mifflin Emlin Bell designed a turreted stone residence for Jacob “Jake” Porter Smith. Bell was a government architect who practiced in Chicago after resigning from the post of supervising architect for the US Treasury in 1887. It was said that harsh criticism of his office and a rejection of his AIA application prompted his move to Chicago from Washington DC. Although Bell was appointed the superintendent of repairs for the federal and government buildings at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he also resigned from that position for reasons unknown. However we do know that his residential work was successful, as Bell was awarded commissions for several houses of varying scale in the Hyde Park area. For many of these he used elements of the popular “Richardsonian Romanesque” style. None of those have survived, and today only one frame house exists as an example of his work – the 1892 Rice residence at 5554 Woodlawn.

During the latter half of the 1880s, the influence of Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson was widespread. His interpretation of the Romanesque style was most often found in public buildings constructed of rough stone, with strong arches and deeply set openings. Conveying a sense of strength and power, this massive style was far too expensive for the common homebuilder, and was thus reserved for houses of the upper class. For this Lexington Avenue residence, Bell combined rustic stone and arches with elements of the Queen Anne style – thereby creating a picturesque architectural composition.

Jake Porter arrived in Chicago in 1888, already a successful thirty-seven-year old. His father Robert had founded the R.P. Smith Shoe Company in downstate Bloomington at the time of the Civil War. His son literally followed in his father’s footsteps, opening his own concern after moving to Chicago. At the time the American shoe industry was concentrated on the East Coast, where the hub remained until the early twentieth century. The shift occurred as the Chicago Stockyards continually provided an ample supply of hides for leather, while the railroads offered a broad distribution network. Smith became a player among companies like Florsheim, as the city developed into a viable shoe manufacturing center. When the J.P. Smith Shoe Company opened a new state of the art manufacturing facility in 1914 (at 915-925 W. Huron), the company was producing 4,000 pairs of shoes a day.

Most of Jake’s family also relocated from downstate Illinois to Hyde Park. His brother Robert lived at 1633 Hyde Park Boulevard, Edward and Lon shared the house at 5247 University with their sister Emma, while another sister, Mrs. A. Stamford White, resided at 5217 University. Residents in the area have commented that prominent New York architect Stanford White designed this house, however research indicates the residence that stood at 5217 was built by the Smiths for their brother-in-law, a grain dealer with a strikingly similar name.

The Inland Architect image of Jake and Ella Smith’s house shows a carefree version of life in suburban Hyde Park – a horse and buggy ride, game of lawn tennis and afternoon stroll with the dog define the atmosphere. It was a heady time for the community, yet a difficult time for Smith. Jake’s wife died in June 1890 just as an ethereal city was about to take shape along the lakefront. Chicago was selected as the site for the Columbian Exposition and before long many buildings were in the planning stages, built to support the thousands of expected visitors to the fair.

The buff colored stone residence of Jacob Porter Smith once graced the northwest corner of University (Lexington) Avenue and 53rd Street.  Mifflin Bell was the architect of this turreted house, which like many others he designed in the neighborhood, is no longer standing.  The image appeared in Inland Architect and News Record, November 1889.
The buff colored stone residence of Jacob Porter Smith once graced the northwest corner of University (Lexington) Avenue and 53rd Street. Mifflin Bell was the architect of this turreted house, which like many others he designed in the neighborhood, is no longer standing. The image appeared in Inland Architect and News Record, November 1889.

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Although the extended Smith family lived about ten blocks from the Exposition entrance, a number of buildings came to be constructed in their backyard. The area was then described as one of the most pleasant portions of Hyde Park. In an effort to provide clean, safe quarters for working women who would visit the fair, the Women’s Dormitory Association was founded in May 1892 with a goal of raising funds for the construction of housing. Five dormitories were planned for the parcel of the vacant property stretching west of Ingleside, between 52nd to 53rd. The Tribune noted the dormitory itself may have been “destitute of ornamentation,” but secure housing was provided in furnished rooms offered for 30 cents a day.
Jake Smith must have sensed supporting the fair could be quite profitable, for his family developed plans for a hotel at the eastern edge of the Hyde Park community. Although he had long left Chicago for his native England, banker George Smith returns to our story. George was apparently related to Jake’s branch of the family, and familiar with Hyde Park for he purchased a large parcel at the lakefront to the south of 51st Street.

In 1890 the selection of Chicago as the site of the fair was announced. Numerous proposals were submitted to Jake and his brother Edward, on behalf of the Smith family, for the development of a prime piece of property facing the deep blue waters of the lake. Beman & Parmentier drew initial plans for a hotel, to be six stories in height with bay windows and large circular turrets at each corner. The interior was intended to be as “striking as the exterior,” according to a November 11, 1891 Tribune article. A majestic one hundred foot long lobby was to be finished with mosaic floors and marble walls, and the main dining room was envisioned to be one of the largest in the city.

In January of the following year plans expanded. Hotel architect Clinton J. Warren (of the Hyde Park Hotel fame) prepared another set of plans for a structure to be named The Plaza, increasing the size to an eight-story brick and stone edifice that was to have 200 rooms. At the time the site overlooked 300 feet of the lakeshore – and that was to be the hotel’s main selling feature. Yet time was not on the Smiths’ side.

When plans were announced for the erection of the Chicago Beach Hotel on the site directly north, the magnificent view was spoiled, at least from the vantage point of the Smith family. Neither hotel scheme was ever realized, and it was not until nearly two decades later that a three-story apartment building designed by H. R. Wilson & Associates was constructed on the site.

Unlike H.H. Richardson he never developed a style all his own, but at several points during his career Horatio Wilson designed buildings which stood among early local precedents for a form which later gained widespread appeal. For example, in 1909, Wilson designed the apartment building at 5324-30 Hyde Park Boulevard with projecting tiers of enclosed sun porches. The concern for adequate light and ventilation in multi-family housing was paramount, and his solution was often imitated on many Hyde Park streets between 1910 and 1920.

In 1910 Wilson designed the Smith Apartments at 5100 Hyde Park Boulevard, with private porches and bay windows in the place of sun parlors. This Tudor-style building, with its half-timbering and gables, is characteristic of many of Wilson’s single-family houses in Kenwood.

Architects W. Irving Beman and Fernand Parmentier developed plans for a hotel to be located on the lakefront for the Smith family.  The site was at the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard as the avenue makes its way southward.  Chicago Tribune, November 11, 1891.
Architects W. Irving Beman and Fernand Parmentier developed plans for a hotel to be located on the lakefront for the Smith family. The site was at the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard as the avenue makes its way southward. Chicago Tribune, November 11, 1891.

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Jake Smith must have been pleased with Wilson’s work, for he was selected to design the 1914 shoe factory. There Wilson used elements of both traditional factory design and emerging trends in industrial architecture. Load bearing masonry walls were combined with steel framed construction, permitting a greater expanse between columned supports and greater light into the space.

A century later, the Huron Street building remains as a faint reminder of the city’s early 20th century manufacturing prowess, re-envisioned as a loft for today’s lifestyle. In East Hyde Park, the Smith Building stands at the curve of Hyde Park Boulevard; widower Jake moved north to Highland Park yet died in an apartment here in 1918. His and the Stamford White house, along with many others built on Egan’s estate, were demolished during the massive Urban Renewal Plan. One can still walk past Lon Smith’s shingle-covered house at 5247 University, albeit not in a pair of Smith shoes. Looking up at its presence on one of the gravel ridges that defined early Hyde Park, the house hints that the landscape of the community was not always subject to today’s rigid constraints.