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
The ground level of the yellow brick house at the southwest corner of 48th and Greenwood Avenue just always seemed too high to me. Not high in the sense of the ridges that once ran diagonally across the landscape of Hyde Park, giving a sense of grandeur to the homes built upon them, but specifically and oddly elevated under just this particular house. The grade of the lot sloped downward at the western end of the property, where the driveway had cracked as the land shifted over time. Low tree limbs were intertwined with the chain link fence and the garage had weeds growing from its gutters. That all changed when excavation began for a foundation for a new garage. What came up with the backhoe was the lost history of a Kenwood family.
The large pieces of limestone dredged to the surface were the buried remnants of the house built in the early 1890s. Over a century ago, architect Mifflin Emlin Bell was awarded the commission to design a residence for industrialist Charles Hosmer Morse.
Morse’s is a tale of the rags-to-riches phenomenon of American success of the late 19th century. At the beginning of his career in Vermont in 1850, he earned but $50 dollars a year as an apprentice for a manufacturer of balance scales. These were essential at the time to many businesses, and Morse quickly moved up the ladder. After two years as a salesman in New York, he came to Chicago to establish the first branch of a highly successful enterprise that became known as Fairbanks, Morse & Company.
Although the great fire of 1871 destroyed the firm’s offices on Lake Street, the business rebounded. Several days after the calamity, using the charred books and papers rescued from the safe, the company was back in business. The company prospered in the years after the fire, growing from a small-scale business into an international corporation that manufactured industrial equipment.
Morse had several residences in the Chicago area; as he amassed a fortune the family upgraded with each move. From a simple two-story townhouse at Ann and Washington streets on the city’s Near West Side to a large Victorian frame in suburban Oak Park, Morse finally settled in aristocratic Kenwood. There the family first resided in a now-demolished frame house at 1031 E. 48th St. Morse commissioned architect Mifflin Bell to design a residence on the adjacent property.
A luxurious 20-room mansion rose on a huge wooded lot that fronted 254 feet on 48th Street by 207 feet on Greenwood Avenue. The heavy arches and stone of the exterior reflected the influence of popular East Coast architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Morse’s choice of Bell seems a curious choice. Bell was a government architect who practiced in Chicago after resigning as supervising architect of the US Treasury in 1887. Apparently, harsh criticism of his work and a rejection of his application to the American Institute of Architects made life in the position difficult. But Bell persevered and moved to Chicago that same year. He was appointed the superintendent of repairs for the federal and government buildings at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, yet this was a position from which he also resigned.
Bell was awarded the commission for several residences of varying scale in the Hyde Park area, some of which he designed using elements of the popular Richardsonian Romanesque style. However, only one house still exists as an example of his work in the neighborhood, the 1891 frame house at 5554 S. Woodlawn Ave. built for Theodore and Edith Rice in 1891.
The house Bell designed for Charles and his first wife Martha Owens Morse was completed two years after the Woodlawn house. The couple raised three children in these rosewood-paneled rooms. Each space was enticing, filled with custom-made Arts and Crafts style furniture, Tiffany glass, and paintings by various American Impressionist artists – all in the “more is better” style of the era. And as an indicator of Charles Morse’s successful career, there was a large scale in front of the coach house where the coal was weighed before being put in the cellar.
Although the Morse family spent a good deal of time at their Florida residence, their life was rooted in Chicago. After her graduation from Wellesley with a degree in art, their eldest child and only daughter Elizabeth returned to Kenwood social milieu. An amateur painter, she often acted as hostess for her father’s gatherings following her mother’s death in 1903.
One of the most special of those social events took place two years later. Elizabeth married the dashing Dr. Richard Millard Genius at the Kenwood Evangelical Church at 46th Street and Greenwood Avenue on a Thursday evening in the fall of 1905.
Genius was a graduate, with honorable mentions, of the Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago. Post-graduate studies took the young man to London, Berlin, and Vienna, but in 1894 he returned to Chicago and began his medical practice. Genius was on the medical staff of the Hahnemann Hospital and the Chicago Baptist Hospital, and was a professor of electro-therapeutics. A member of the Kenwood Club, he was also adventurous, joining the burgeoning Chicago Automobile Club.
How Genius met the young Miss Morse has been lost to history, but his love for her had a lasting impact on the Kenwood landscape.
That impact began the night of their nuptials. Their wedding took place at 8:30 in the evening, and it was an elegant affair. Elizabeth selected a white wedding gown – a style that became popular after England’s Queen Victoria was married in white in 1840 – fashioned her wavy hair in upswept tresses of the chic Gibson Girl style, and carried a bouquet of lilies of the valley. Given the hour, Richard wore a white tie.
The setting was the Kenwood Evangelical Church, just two blocks north of the Morse mansion. Built between 1887 and 1888, this church is an outstanding example of the Richardsonian-Romanesque style in an ecclesiastical building. H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church, located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood and completed 10 years earlier, encouraged many religious congregations to seek similar designs. Like the Morse residence, the church exhibits rough-textured granite walls with round-arched entrances.
The architect of this imposing edifice was William Warren Boyington, one of Chicago’s most prominent nineteenth-century architects. For a span of over 40 years, Boyington designed many of the burgeoning city’s most prominent buildings. His visually dramatic designs for many early churches, hotels, railroad stations and educational buildings incorporated a wide range of architectural styles and exemplified the eclecticism of Victorian architecture.
Nearly all of Boyington’s visual treasures were either destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871 or were subsequently lost to redevelopment. However two of the city’s most cherished buildings remain on North Michigan Avenue: the iconic Water Tower (1866) and Pumping Station (1869). And despite urban renewal, Kenwood Evangelical Church still graces the corner of 46th Street and Greenwood Avenue.
Following Elizabeth and Richards’s October 12 wedding ceremony, the 500 guests strolled to the reception at the Greenwood Avenue estate. The nuptials were the social event of the fall, attended by the who’s who of the neighborhood and beyond. Elizabeth kept a meticulous registry entitled “The Bride Elect,” documenting the more than 250 gifts the newlyweds received. Within the pages are clues to the tastes, shopping habits and lifestyles of wealthy Chicagoans. The registry noted everything from family heirlooms (her grandmother’s spoons) to textiles, books, flowers, and blown-glass vases.
For Kenwood’s elite, the gift of a Tiffany object was clearly synonymous with taste and style. A stunning aqua-blue compote, with the markings L.C. Tiffany, was given by Mr. & Mrs. F. H. Baker of 206 46th Street. Mr. and Mrs. William H. Brintnall, of 4621 Ellis Avenue, shopped at Marshall Field & Company where the banker purchased a Tiffany Studios handkerchief box of etched bronze and glass. In all, more than 50 gifts were bought from Field’s, reflecting the cachet of the exclusive department store long before it was acquired by Macy’s.
However no gift competed with that received from Elizabeth’s father. Clearly proud of his daughter and son-in-law, Charles gave the newlyweds the keys to the family’s 20-room mansion. After a honeymoon in the East, Elizabeth and Richard returned to 4804 Greenwood Avenue on December 1. There, they displayed the exquisite gifts throughout the home, and the treasures can be seen in a series of images taken of the interior of the house.
Within these rooms they raised two children, Richard and Jeanette, “in the shelter of her love.” Kenwood would remain Richard and Elizabeth’s residence until her sudden death. According to a history of the Morse Foundation, motherhood and family were paramount to Elizabeth Genius. When Jeanette contracted influenza in 1928, Elizabeth’s maternal devotion exacted a terrible price. Falling ill with pneumonia she died in March of that year, at the age of 56. Her obituary suggested that anxiety over her daughter’s critical condition was “one of the factors that prevented Mrs. Genius’ recovery.”
After his wife’s death, Dr. Genius moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and practiced there as a general physician. Three years later, in November 1931, the stone mansion was torn down. Why Genius did not sell the house is a mystery, although the changing demographics of the neighborhood and effects of the Depression may have been factors.
The demolition of the house was a point of contention among the family; some raced to save artifacts from the salvage company before they disappeared. Unfortunately, thieves broke into the storage facility that housed the heirlooms and many of the rescued items were lost.
The remaining art, Tiffany pieces, mahogany millwork, stained glass, and personal effects that were salvaged are now housed in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida. The museum was founded by Jeanette Genius McKean in 1942 and named for her grandfather.
For five years after the Morse house was demolished, the Kenwood property lay vacant. In the Depression years it was purchased and subdivided by developers, and construction of three smaller-scale houses began in 1936. The presence of these homes may serve to hide the story of love and loss, until slight shifts in the landscape reveal what stories lie buried in Kenwood’s soil.