Part Twenty-Six: The Poor Millionaire

Judge Van H. Higgins moved to the Kenwood neighborhood in 1866, and built this Italianate Villa style house on the northwest corner of Woodlawn Avenue and Fiftieth Street. Surrounded by a stone and iron fence still present today, the frame home was noted for its central tower. The property of Higgins’ neighbor Albert Spalding can be seen in the distance on the right. Picturesque Kenwood, University of Chicago Special Collections.

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.

As you walk the streets of the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods, the dense urban fabric is evident. But every now and then one comes upon visual relief, a patch of green that provides a reminder of the bucolic suburbs these areas once were.

Paul Cornell’s lakefront park, now Harold Washington Park, was conceived as an essential element of his nascent development. Other green spaces were later planned to provide “lungs” for the congestion and filth of the growing industrialized city. Years later, land clearance during urban renewal gave opportunity to construct numerous smaller parks and playgrounds throughout Hyde Park.
Today’s tale however is one of unintended consequences; the legacy of a century old neighborhood spat.

“I wouldn’t trouble myself about the shanties,” said a Kenwood lady to Mr. Spalding in 1891. “They are not permanent.” “Well, I’m not permanent myself madam,” replied the baseball magnate.

In the late the nineteenth century, a spirited feud erupted in Kenwood pitting residents against one very resilient non-resident. Woodlawn Avenue denizen Albert G. Spaulding had a clever response to the ongoing shenanigans. The shanties to which the sportsman was referring were just one part of the various schemes of revenge John Dunham perpetrated upon the Kenwood neighborhood during his feud with Spalding’s neighbor, Van Higgins. The entire affair was locally known as the “Fence War,” and ended only with the deaths of its two main participants.

In April of 1858, the year Paul Cornell’s small settlement was taking root, the Chicago Legal News described Judge Van Hollis Higgins was one of the most respected lawyers in Chicago. Higgins came to Illinois from the rolling hills of Genesee County in upstate New York, traveling by way of the Erie Canal. The canal had opened in 1825, and its effect was both immediate and dramatic as settlers such as Higgins poured westward. “Tall, well-formed and handsome,” Higgins came to Illinois in 1837, and married the widowed Mrs. Elizabeth Alexander of the small downstate town of Jeffersonville in the spring of 1847.

Cited as the “greatest case lawyer that ever appeared at the Chicago Bar,” ambition brought Higgins to bustling city of Chicago in 1852, where he practiced in the law in the partnership of Higgins, Beckwith & Strother. Eventually Higgins became a judge of the superior court, president of the National Life Insurance Company and one of the incorporators of the Chicago Historical Society. He was “respected by all well-informed citizens,” while the “press of the city paid glowing tributes to his manhood.”

The venerable judge and his wife moved to the Kenwood neighborhood in 1866. They were devoted to and loved by the community; when Elizabeth died in the fall of 1882 five hundred came to say their final goodbyes at the corner of Woodlawn and Fiftieth Street. The Higgins’ two-and-one-half-story house was situated there on a beautiful wooded lot, 300 feet by 300 feet. Surrounded by a stone fence and approached by a curving drive, the frame home with its towering cupola was well known throughout the area. Equally notable was Higgins’ longtime feud with another of Chicago’s early citizens.

By most accounts, John Dunham was also an upstanding member of Chicago business and civic life. A contemporary of Higgins, he was born in New York in 1817 and began his career with a small hardware store. He later sold this establishment for $10,000, married, and came to Chicago with his newfound fortune. For fourteen years he operated a wholesale grocery business on South Water Street, which like his earlier enterprise, grew and prospered. Dunham was chairman of the committee to develop a water system for the city, a founder of the Illinois Republican Party and one of the first members of the Board of Trade. Dunham was recalled by a family friend as “a stern man, somewhat opinionated, but under this forbidding exterior, he was kind and generous.”

John Dunham never lived in Kenwood. His residence was located on the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Harrison Street, pictured here in 1921 adjacent to the Congress Hotel. The weathered stone home was valued at $400,000 at the time, and was said to have been one of quiet elegance and the center of the old aristocracy, a cultured society circle. Dunham delighted in entertaining his friends here, and among these were many prominent men of the city. (For an overview of the effect John Dunham’s will on South Michigan Avenue

Although Dunham did not live in Kenwood he invested heavily in local real estate, including a twenty-acre tract of land that he purchased from the Marine Bank when the bank was in receivership. Paying slightly more than $4,500 for the property in 1868, he designated it as private grounds and christened the unimproved land Madison Park. A short time later he acquired another twenty-acre tract immediately to the north, now known as Kenwood Park.

In an 1891 Chicago Tribune article entitled “Hyde Park’s Fence War,” the older inhabitants of Kenwood recalled the trouble began long before annexation to the city. Paul Cornell tried to have an ordinance passed in the City Council of Hyde Park to extend Kimbark and Hibbard (Kenwood) streets through Dunham’s tracts. Dunham did not want anything of the sort. Unhappy locals said, “it meant more taxes and more assessments, and he was only a poor millionaire with a family to support.”

Dunham fought them all—the neighbors and the village—and in the end the proposition failed before the city council. But Dunham was not satisfied with success and began to devise various schemes of revenge. To prevent any further notion of streets running through his property, he constructed a greenhouse on the north side of his property to block Kenwood Avenue. Next, he established a requirement that every house on the oval drive inside Madison Park front on the park, with its rear consequently facing the neighbors.

In 1890, a special assessment was levied on Dunham’s property to provide for sidewalks. Although special assessments were often imposed for improvements of all sorts, Dunham believed Van Higgins to be the driving force behind this particular project. Held personally responsible for the cost the sidewalks, Dunham began to retaliate in various ways; the most unusual of which was to erect a row of cheaply constructed cottages directly opposite the entrance to Higgins’s gracious home on Woodlawn Avenue.

Dunham had the first half-dozen “dreadful looking rough pine shanties” erected at a cost of $500 each and threatened to “import a colony of negroes” to live in them, according to the Tribune. He then took out permits to build twelve more of the cottages on Woodlawn and, lest anyone miss the point, took out permits for another twelve two-story dwellings to be erected on other parts of his grounds.

The episode continued into the following year when Fifty-first Street became a boulevard, forming a link to the new park system of which residents were rightly proud. During that summer, Dunham began the construction of a number of barns on the south side of Madison Park, abutting the handsome boulevard. The neighbors were quite upset with this development and began to knock out boards here and there, eventually pulling down a good portion of five of the barns. Dunham put up notices offering a $100 reward for information about anyone taking a “whack at his property.” Not surprisingly, no one came forward. Toward the end of August Dunham began constructing a nine-foot-tall fence along the boulevard.

Neighbors were again up in arms, complaining “the one absorbing object of Mr. Dunham’s life is to resist any attempt to make improvements for the benefit of the neighborhood.”

Both Dunham and Higgins died in 1893, but their story was far from over and evidence of Dunham’s peculiar view of his Kenwood property remains today. John Dunham’s will left ten acres of the Kenwood property, his commercial building at the southwest corner of Wacker Drive and State Street, and his home on Michigan Avenue to his three children. However, by the terms of the rather peculiar will, the heirs could sell none of these parcels.

Dunham’s son-in-law was able to develop Kimbark Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets, a portion that was not restricted by the will. Recalling the past feud, the Chicago Tribune in 1896 observed, “the old residents of Madison Park are considerably astonished to see preparations made to subdivide the Dunham property. During his lifetime, Judge Higgins made every effort to induce Mr. Dunham to permit the running of tracts through his property, but he resisted at every turn. Residents even once volunteered to stand all of the expense of platting, but the old man was obdurate. Now his son-in-law Kirk Hawes is doing the subdividing, but the neighbors are certainly not helping pay for it.”

The other ten acres remained as an overgrown field until Dunham’s last surviving heir, his daughter Virginia, passed away in 1928. Until that time, one could find cows grazing on land he desired kept as pasture, if only to irk the neighbors. Known within the community as Farmer’s Field, the property was never developed and eventually deeded to the city of Chicago thanks to the generosity of a subsequent owner, Albert Harris. Today this portion of Dunham’s acreage, now known as Kenwood Park, remains a welcome respite from the surrounding city.

Therein lies a great irony. Dunham, the man who thwarted development as a way of punishing the community, inadvertently ends up a neighborhood benefactor. Albert Spalding was right; while none of us are permanent, the decisions we make can have a lasting impact.