Life after old Harper Court

Staff Writer

When the old Harper Court building was demolished in 2009 to make way for the 12-story office tower, parking structure and retail space that sits there now, many neighborhood-owned businesses were displaced.

The move wasn’t bad for everyone. Some businesses relocated and flourished, but others were forced to close up shop permanently.

The original Harper Court building was a multilevel shopping structure built in the 1970s.

“I don’t think anybody who was there then could afford to be there now, which is why they’re putting in what they’re putting in, which is chains,” said Dorri Ellis, board member for Artisans 21. “I think almost everybody who was an original tenant was a neighborhood person and I think it was because that’s the kind of tenants they wanted.”

Last week Artisans 21 announced that it would be closing its doors, the second time it has been forced to do so since leaving Harper Court. This time, members say, the shutdown will be permanent.

The 45-year-old collective offered a place for artisans to sell their work next to the work of many different artists. Customers could meet the person who made each piece and know they were supporting a local artist.

Artisans 21 will close at its 5503 1/2 S. Hyde Park Blvd. location on Dec. 24. Board member Dorri Ellis said they plan to open up an online store in the future.

“It’s not a very good retail location and we sent e-mails and notices to our customer list but they’re still walking in saying, ‘I finally found you,’” Ellis said.

Artisans 21 left the old Harper Court building in 2009 when the University of Chicago bought the property and stopped renewing leases in preparation for demolition.

“[Harper Court] was great. We had a beautiful, big space and lots of artists,” Ellis said. The restaurants would work with neighboring stores to help promote each other. “There was a merchants association and we were all kind of in it together.”

The Harper Court Arts Council helped to subsidize rents for Artisans 21. Their rent was drastically below market rate, roughly one-third what they would have paid elsewhere on 53rd Street.

After leaving Harper Court they paid seven times what they had been paying when they opened up on 53rd Street. Artisans 21 can afford the rent it pays now on 55th Street, Ellis said, but there isn’t enough foot traffic to support them.

Nancy Stanek, who operates Toys Et Cetera, 1502 E. 55th St., said the move was ultimately a boon to her business.

“We get more foot traffic,” Stanek said. “It’s a better maintained shopping center … I think there’s more of a confluence from south and north Hyde Park and outside the community.”

Stanek operated out of Harper Court for 15 years before moving to the Hyde Park Shopping Center, where she is now.

To access most businesses at the old Harper Court buildings, people would need to travel a flight of stairs, which was a hindrance to parents pushing kids in strollers, she said.

Toys Et Cetera currently operates three stores, including one in Lincoln Park and one in Andersonville.

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop, which opened its first location at the old Harper Court in 1994, quickly became a neighborhood staple.

Then-Senator Barack Obama even called it one of his favorite restaurants on a 2008 episode of “Check, Please!”

“By May of 1995, Chicago Magazine chose Dixie as one of the ten best new restaurants in the metropolitan area and the restaurant took on a life of its own,” owner Carol Andresen said.

When the university offered a new space Dixie Kitchen and Calypso Café, which operated next door to Dixie Kitchen and was also owned by Andresen and her husband Paul, Andresen turned them down. The problems, she said, were that the spaces all had insufficient parking, or location, or the price wasn’t right.

Dixie Kitchen still operates two locations, one in Lansing, Ill., and another in Evanston.

“It would be wonderful to serve the Hyde Park community again with a new Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop. The concept and the recipes are still available to license. At 70, I have the enthusiasm, but maybe not the energy to do it again … but I would love to join forces with the right entrepreneur to help bring the sparkle of a Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop sign back to where it all began: Hyde Park,” Andresen said.