Lost Hyde Park Part Twenty-two: House Proud

The last remaining house on Lower Prairie Avenue as it appeared in April 2007 – its strong presence suggesting everything the great old mansion used to be. All of the houses surrounding this property were demolished for the erection of CHA low-income housing. And in a moment of irony, those replacement structures have been also razed yet the Wood-Maxey-Boyd house remains.

By SUSAN O’CONNOR DAVIS

The series has completed a look at the development of the major intersections along Lake Park Avenue, and then turned to stories of interest to the Hyde Park and Kenwood communities. Today’s tale takes us on an adventure a bit outside of our neighborhood, although it began to unfold in the Herald’s former office on 51st Street.

When the Hyde Park Herald was first published in 1882, photographs were not used in newspaper publications. Etchings were the common visual form; a process where an artist would whip up an initial sketch of a subject, followed by a more detailed drawing. In an overly simplified explanation, that embellished drawing would be copied in reverse onto a smooth block of wood, or plate, for the printing process.

As photography developed during the mid-19th century, it did not alter the basic form of newspaper reporting because the engraving and printing processes of the time could only render solid black or white. The intermediate shades of grey found in a photograph just could not be reproduced. A photograph simply put that initial sketch artist out of a job.

The problem of printing photographs in a newspaper was resolved by the invention of the halftone. The process converts the different tones of a photograph into dots of varying size, and the brain tricks our eyes into seeing these dots as a different hue. It was not until the 1890s that the first halftone images appeared in the nation’s newspapers, and then it would be another decade before the process became mainstream.

All of that is to say, images have come to play a powerful role in newspaper reporting.

And so it was that I had the opportunity to visit an agreeably disorganized and somewhat dusty closet of a room that housed the Herald photographic archives. There, in an array of beige filing cabinets of various heights and widths, were treasures to be sorted through. Some made their way into Chicago’s Historic Hyde Park; others merely tugged at my heart. This image of a stoic yet smiling African-American couple, placed asymmetrically beneath a sweeping arch, was one unearthed in those cabinets and it spoke to me in a way others did not.

The unidentified image could not be used in the book, but it remained etched in my mind. Last fall I reached across the years and the Internet to see if anyone recognized the couple, or the extraordinary interior they occupied. There were many suggestions, but no definitive answers. As the interior was so striking, I felt if it still existed someone must know its whereabouts. Determined research led to the digitized version of the Herald archives and finally to a series of articles published for the paper under the title of “House Proud.” And there in the April 8, 1987 issue was my answer, in a tightly cropped, halftone image of the couple responsible for saving the magnificent structure they were photographed within.

But, thirty years later, did the elements of this tableau still exist?

It is common knowledge that the houses that line the streets of our Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods were for a time in a most fragile state. During the early fifties, our police district had one of the highest crime rates in the city. In order to deal with this statistic, and the surrounding poverty and blight, a massive urban renewal plan was developed. Fortunately for Hyde Park, policy was directed away from widespread destruction and toward the preservation of a threatened neighborhood through a targeted renewal program.

At the time it was a generally accepted belief that it was easier and less costly to demolish entire neighborhoods of dilapidated buildings than to renovate existing structures. Driving north from Hyde Park, you can see the result of that belief – a massive land clearance of the area around the downtown business district that extended several miles into the south side. Land clearance was the primary mechanism available to the city to deal with urban decay; a program where specific demolition could save a larger community was conceptually a new idea. And fortunately for our neighborhood, that concept worked to preserve eighty percent of the streetscape.

Other south side neighborhoods were bulldozed to the ground.

During the late 19th century most of the city’s most prestigious enclaves were found south of downtown, and included handsome roadways such as Drexel Boulevard and Prairie Avenue. That street’s most famous concentration of mansions was the six blocks at its northern end of the avenue, between 16th and 22nd Streets, where prominent Chicagoans including George Pullman, Philip Armour and Marshall Field built impressive mansions in the years around the Great Chicago Fire.

However, a second handsome residential enclave, located along Prairie between 26th and 30th Streets, developed between the 1880s and 1890s. Popularly known as “Lower Prairie Avenue,” these four blocks were originally marshland just west of the Lake Michigan shore. When the Illinois Central Railroad built their railroad in the 1850s, the tracks stabilized the shoreline and brought commercial development to the area. A predominantly Irish, working-class neighborhood known as Carville developed around a railroad car plant, stockyard, and requisite Catholic Church at 2709 South Prairie. When the Union Stockyards opened in 1865, the smaller Carville stockyard closed. Before long the railroad factory folded and workers moved westward – the church followed.

Charles Hutchinson, a banker, businessman and Hyde Parker, bought St. James’ Prairie Avenue land. He demolished the old church, and in 1881 built homes for he and his sister. Over the course of the next decade Hutchinson spearheaded the development of what became one of the city’s most exclusive streets. He acquired other large parcels of land, razing the cottage-style houses and selling the land. Lower Prairie Avenue distinguished itself from the more established enclave to the north by taking advantage of its existing street layout to create a secluded ambience. There were no cross streets on Prairie between 26th and 29th Street, which created a picturesque streetscape with the character of a private way.

Not unlike Kenwood, the houses of Lower Prairie Avenue were designed by some of Chicago’s best architects. William Le Baron Jenney designed Hutchinson’s house at 2709, and that of his sister Mrs. E. A. Lancaster at 2703. On the street Cobb & Frost built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, while Wheelock & Clay preferred the elaborate Chateauesque style. Quite rapidly this stretch of Prairie became a wonderland of opulent mansions, with adjoining servant quarters and horse stables, all surrounded by foliage and gardens.

However by the early 1900s, the status of both ends of Prairie Avenue was being challenged by Chicago’s other elite neighborhoods such as the Gold Coast – where prominent hotelier Potter Palmer built his castle like home – and by the far North Shore suburbs. 1904 marked the end of residential construction on the street as Chicago’s continual redevelopment now brought industry nearby; Prairie Avenue faced a huge transformation. When the vice district moved nearby, the wealthy moved on. In 1923 the entire area was zoned for commercial purposes, and the fate of this once exclusive residential district was sealed.

As the grand mansions along slipped into decline, the downward spiral of Lower Prairie was especially precipitous as some of the residences were subdivided into rooming houses and others demolished. By the 1930s, this once prestigious neighborhood was deemed blighted – its residents were economically disadvantaged and crime thrived. By the 1940’s, it was considered one of the city’s worst slums.

An etching of the house that was built in the heart of “Lower Prairie Avenue,” at the time one of Chicago’s most prestigious neighborhoods. It is the only house to survive the tumult of urban renewal to remind us of the avenue’s period of residential glory. Note the drawing at the upper left, the elaborate reception hall where the Maxey-Boyd image was taken nearly a century later.

In the midst of all this turmoil stood an elegant red brick and sandstone house at 2801 South Prairie. The Queen Anne style home, built in 1885 for lumber merchant George Ellery Wood, was the work of Chicago architect John C. Cochrane. A skilled designer, Cochrane specialized in historic revival styles and was the architect of the Illinois State Capitol and All Saints Episcopal Church, a “Stick Style” Chicago landmark. For the Wood family Cochrane nestled the seven fireplaces, luminous stained glass windows and carved sunburst woodwork of the luxurious twenty-four-room residence under a steeply pitched slate roof, all completed for a reported cost of $97,760.

George’s wife Harriet did not enjoy the house for long; she she died the following year. On her 18th birthday their only daughter Anne had her coming out party in the home. Mr. Wood remarried in 1889 and brought his new wife in to join them. Anne married Frank Meadowcroft two years later and all settled into luxurious domesticity. After Wood’s death in 1905 the Meadowcrofts kept their beloved home as the surrounding mansions began to crumble – living there until Frank’s death in the summer of 1930. Although she then moved north to the Webster Hotel, Anne remained reluctant to part with the property her father left her. In fact, when she last locked the door most everything was in place – furniture, light fixtures, marble washstands and even a billiard table. The house stood in a state of suspended animation, empty for seventeen years.

Unlike all of its opulent neighbors, which ultimately met with demolition as part of the massive 1950s land clearance program, this home was saved through the dedication of Charles Boyd and Dr. Alva Maxey-Boyd, proudly pictured in the halftone image found in the Herald archives.

As early as 1943 plans called for total demolition of twenty-three square miles of blighted residential areas on the city’s south side. In 1946, private institutions including Michael Reese Hospital and the Illinois Institute of Technology formed the South Side Planning Board. Together these institutions began to expand and redevelop the areas immediately around their campuses, near lower Prairie Avenue.

Into this mix came Alva Beatrice Maxey, later described as an “energetic neighborhood and citywide leader,” and for a time head of Chicago’s Urban League. A social worker and educator, she came to the city in 1941, studying the dynamics of racial prejudice at the University of Chicago. After Maxey married up and coming black lawyer Charles Boyd in 1945, the young couple did what so many others have, and looked to find a decent home.

Curiosity got the better of me after this image was found in the Herald’s photographic archives. At the time I assumed the location of the dramatic interior would be Hyde Park or Kenwood, and easily identifiable if it were still standing. That was not quite the case. The composed couple was later identified as Dr. Alva Maxey-Boyd and her husband, lawyer Charles Boyd, and their story is a remarkable collision of race, housing, preservation and renewal. – Herald file photo

But housing options for African-Americans were limited. For a short time they rented a small apartment on 60th Street, so cramped Alva recalled a double bed would not fit in the bedroom. When the young couple tried to purchase a red brick duplex at 4313 South Berkeley, they were challenged by the restrictive covenants of this predominantly white neighborhood. It was recorded on the deed that no one with 1/8 or more of Negro blood could own the property. And so they continued their search, finally spotting a long empty mansion on Prairie Avenue. Remember, this was when the street was mostly abandoned and forlorn – where houses were mere ghosts of their former selves. However, the huge old mansion at 2801 held a special appeal to the couple for it was the best of the vacant houses.

Against the advice of their friends they wrote letter upon letter to Anne Wood Meadowcroft; after three long years she finally agreed to meet them. The sale almost never happened, for the doorman would only permit Maxey and Boyd to take the service elevator. But Meadowcroft interceded. They came up the front and realizing their love for her house, sold it to them for $6,500. In December of 1948 Maxey and Boyd moved into the old mansion, which had no heat or lights at the time, and slept on cots in the dining room as work began. Over the course of the next few years they invested their passion, labor and another $14,000 into the property, slowly returning the rotting plaster, leaky roof and missing windows to their former glory.

Meanwhile the South Side Planning Board secured funding for the redevelopment of one hundred acres of land to create ten middle-income high rises. In 1952, the Maxey-Boyd’s newly restored house was to be condemned as part of this large renewal area.

However, the owners of 2801 responded with a vigorous legal battle to keep their property. The much-loved house was saved when the Chicago Housing Commission included the property in a conservation area. In 1958 when the CHA opened the Prairie Avenue Court Apartments, a senior citizen public housing project across the street, the Maxey-Boyds continued to work on their house, comforted that the agreement meant there would be no further efforts to destroy the house. However the city’s memory was short-lived and in the early 1960s the property was once again threatened with condemnation.

And once again the Maxey-Boyds were ready to go to court, arguing that the then seventy-seven year old house should be retained as an important example of early Chicago architecture. Alva Maxey-Boyd did not believe “you can’t fight City Hall” and fight she did, gathering 1,500 signatures in support of saving the house. In July of 1962, Mayor Daley announced the city was withdrawing its condemnation suit, explaining the restoration of this remarkable structure was “the vey thing we are trying encourage.”

After her husband’s death in 1990, Maxey-Boyd continued her restoration efforts; anyone with an old house understands its an ongoing process. In October of 2003, she gave a presentation of their efforts to save the house and later that year the Wood-Maxey-Boyd house was designated a Chicago Landmark. Clearly “house proud,” Alva Maxey-Boyd continued to work on her legacy, the only structure to remain from the heyday of the avenue, until her death in 2009. A fragile yet forceful woman, she kept the tiny iron bed from their very first apartment – perhaps as a reminder that you should stand up for your ideals, and can fight successfully for what you believe.

Today a drive north on Prairie Avenue reveals a remarkable sight. The lone 19th century structure, with its carved sandstone, soaring chimneys and copper bays remains among rubble and weed covered lots. It is a reminder of Chicago’s gilded past and the city’s never ending transformation, and was sold for only the third time in its history in 2011 – to a new owner intent on appreciating its remarkable history.

And finally, if today’s photographs were not merely a collection of dots but could speak, you would hear the story in Alva Maxey-Boyd’s own voice. And that is possible, for you can continue the journey with Long Haul Production’s 2003 interview “Maxey’s Mansion” at http://talkinghistory.org/longhaul/lh-maxey-mansion.mp3.